Investing at Market Highs

Blog post #482

At the end of April, 2021, most US stock market indices are near their all-time highs.

What does that mean for your current, and future, investments?

As Exhibit 1 below indicates, when the S & P 500 has reached highs in the past (for data from 1926-2018), the S & P 500 went on to provide positive average annualized returns over the one, three, and five years following new market highs. And those returns were significant, averaging over 14% during the subsequent one year and around 10% over the subsequent three and five year time periods.

Please see Exhibit Disclosures below.*

What does that mean for you today? It means there is justification, based on historical financial data of almost 100 years, that new market highs today are NOT a sign of negative returns to come over the next 1-5 years, on average. While none of us can predict what will occur in the next few weeks, months or years, this type of rational optimism is the basis for remaining invested for the future.

We believe in broadly diversified portfolios, investing in much more than just the S & P 500, which represents only large, US based companies. However, we feel this data should give you confidence to remain invested for the long-term, with a stock allocation that is appropriate for your personal circumstances and time frame.

While some asset classes are at high levels, other asset classes may not be at highs or have valuations which are significantly below the valuations of US large stocks. This is where our discipline and planning can benefit you.

When you begin as a client with us, we develop a target asset allocation plan, based on your personal goals and time horizon, say 65% stocks and 35% fixed income. As stocks have increased, your stock allocation may have grown from 65% to near 70%. As this occurs, we are disciplined. We would review your account and consider selling some asset classes of stocks to bring your stock allocation back to 65%.

This is called rebalancing. It is the discipline to sell when stocks increase and buy when they decline. We review this on an overall basis, on a US and International level, as well as at each asset class level. We balance the tax ramifications of selling versus the increased risk of allowing your stock allocation to grow way higher than the risk target level we planned with you.

As stocks have recovered since March 2020 and are now significantly higher, in general, we are actively reviewing client accounts that need to be rebalanced. This is the discipline and one of the values we provide to you. We will take profits and keep your stock allocation in line with your asset allocation target.

In addition to our rebalancing discipline, we want to remind you about expected volatility that is normal with investing in stocks.

You should expect that in most year’s there will be a decline of around 10% in stock values, from a peak. This does not mean that the full year will be negative, it just means that at some time during most years there are declines of around 10% and then recoveries. This is the normal volatility we must endure to reap the longer-terms rewards of investing in stocks.

In other periods, usually every 3-5 years, there are major stock market declines of more than 30%. These may be fast or take a few years to go down and many years to recover. These are normal and should also be expected.

A few mornings ago, the CNBC screen read something like: Analyst: brace for 10-20% decline. I thought to myself, investors in stocks should always be prepared for that type of decline. It is normal. We just don’t know when it will occur. Remember, declines are temporary on the long-term upward trend of stocks. 

If you can handle the volatility, the positive news is that you don’t need to be able to time markets to have a good investment experience. Over time, capital markets have rewarded investors who have taken a long-term perspective and remain disciplined in the face of short-term noise.

By focusing on the things you can control (like having an appropriate asset allocation, being diversified and managing expenses, turnover and taxes), you can be better positioned to make the most of what global stock markets have to offer.

Talk to us.  We want to listen.  We want to assist you, your family members and friends.  

*Exhibit 1 Notes:

In US dollars.  Past performance is no guarantee of future results.  New market highs are defined as months ending with the market above all previous levels for the sample period.  Annualized compound returns are computed for the relevant time periods subsequent to new market highs and averaged across all new market high observations.  There were 1,115 observation months in the sample.  January 1990–Present: S&P 500 Total Returns Index. S&P data © 2019 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. January 1926–December 1989; S&P 500 Total Return Index, Stocks, Bonds, Bills and Inflation Yearbook™, Ibbotson Associates, Chicago. For illustrative purposes only.  Index is not available for direct investment; therefore, its performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the managment of an actual portfolio.  There is always a risk that an investor may lose money.

Source:
“Timing Isn’t Everything”, Dimensional Funds, July 1, 2019

If it’s too good to be true….

Blog post #481

Bernie Madoff, who ran one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever, died this week in jail at age 82. He defrauded investors of almost $65 billion in paper losses, which came to light in 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis.

There are lessons to be learned from the Madoff incident, as well as how the regulatory system which governs investment advisory firms like ours changed for the better.

Madoff bilked many wealthy families, in NY and Florida particularly, as well as charities, institutions and endowment funds in the US and globally. They were lured by his years of positive returns and reputation as a leader on Wall Street.

The key lesson is that Madoff “reported” years and years of only positive returns to his clients. They became more confident of his firm and referred others. Madoff never reported down periods once his Ponzi scheme got going in the 1990s. That is not realistic.

We often talk about when you invest in stocks there will be frequent time periods that your investments will go down. We all know that, but these very wealthy individuals and institutions kept believing that Madoff was so good that he never lost money.

Our advice to you is that if returns are too good, or seem consistently too good, you should look at that investment concept/manager/advisor very carefully and with lots of skepticism.  No one can invest in the stock market and always generate positive returns.  No investment only goes up and never goes down (that we know of).  This is advice that you should always remember and discuss with your family, especially your kids or grandchildren, as they learn about investing.

After the Madoff scandal, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which governs our industry, encouraged Registered Investment Advisers (RIAs) to place their clients’ assets in the custody of an independent firm (like Fidelity or Schwab), unlike Madoff did. This is what is referred to as the custody rule. WWM does not have custody of your assets. When you open an account with our firm or make a future deposit, you write a check payable to the custodian (or wire funds directly to the custodian). You will never write a check to WWM. The funds are paid directly to the custodian, such as Fidelity Investments or Schwab. Madoff did not use an independent custodian like Fidelity, which is how he was able to pull off the Ponzi scheme.

When you want a disbursement of your assets, the custodian will never write a check to WWM.  The funds are only disbursed to the account holders, their bank account or if you want a check sent to another party, multiple forms are required for security purposes.  When you open an account, want to link your bank account to your custodian or get check writing privileges, there is always lots of paperwork.  All these steps, documents and requirements are to prevent a Madoff-like scenario from occurring again.

For nearly all of our client relationships, WWM is considered to not have custody over these assets. The assets are held at an independent custodian (Fidelity or Schwab) and WWM has no control or withdrawal privileges over these accounts.

There are situations where RIAs such as WWM can have “custody” rights for certain clients, at the client’s request. For example, WWM (or the firm principals) have been named as Trustee for several client accounts, at their request or in their estate planning documents. In these situations, we still use an independent custodian, but we are considered to have custody, or control of client assets. Because of the SEC custody rules, we must annually disclose these accounts to the SEC. WWM is then subject to an annual surprise exam by an independent CPA firm, to protect the investors’ assets and verify that those assets actually exist. This surprise examination provides another set of eyes on the clients’ assets, thereby offering additional protection against the theft or misuse of funds.

We take our responsibility to invest and safeguard your assets very seriously. We want you to know that we are diligent about adhering to our regulatory obligations. We know that Fidelity and Schwab work hard to maintain their custodial relationships with you very carefully.

We hope that a Madoff-like scandal never occurs again, but we know there will be other fraudulent incidents in the future. There are constant cyber-security threats ongoing all the time. We must all be careful and diligent.

We work hard to build our trust with you. And we plan to keep that trust.

Talk to us. We want to listen. We want to assist you, your family members and friends.

 

 

What a quarter and what a year!

Blog post #480

As we all know, the last 12 months have been unlike any that we have liked though before.

With further vaccine production and distribution, hopefully the US and world will gradually return to more normalcy in the coming months and years.

Financially, the past 12 months and the past quarter have provided excellent returns for investors of diversified portfolios.

We each have stories of how we have adapted to the Covid environment or how we have changed things in our lives. For me, purchasing a Peloton bike after Thanksgiving 2019 proved to be fortuitous. I have been more disciplined to ride consistently, as well as adding stretching and strength training, than I ever have in my life.

I have developed a discipline and routine that I want to continue for years to come. Exercising must be a lifetime commitment. This should be a habit that I continue for weeks, months, years and decades to come, similar to the best practices for long-term savings and investing.

Just as in investing and striving to reach financial goals, my exercise practice has been based on:

  • developing a plan,
  • being disciplined about exercising,
  • diversifying my exercises and types of rides,
  • and make adjustments as needed, over time.

During March 2020, as Covid cases worsened throughout the US and world, global financial markets dropped significantly…and then started an incredible rebound on March 23, 2020 (way before the economic recovery began!!).

As we have written about before, we recommended to our clients to remain disciplined throughout the Covid crisis.  Stick with your asset allocation plan.  Buy low.  Rebalance by selling fixed income and gradually purchasing stocks.

One year later, as we reflect on the past 12 months, being disciplined and sticking to your plan has been financially rewarding. Just as we benefit by doing different types of exercises (cardio and strength, not just cardio!), having a diversified portfolio has been rewarding.

Since the market bottom, but particularly since the beginning of November, 2020, the factors (or asset classes) that our firm emphasizes have far outperformed the broad US market indices, such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average. While large US growth stocks have done well for many years, late 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 have been outstanding for US small company stocks, US large value and US small value stocks. So far in 2021, International value, small and small value company funds have far outperformed US large growth stocks.

A financial academic would believe that the benefits of owning stocks, called the equity premium, should exist every day. That would mean that they expect that stocks should be positive every day. But we know that over the short term, or sometimes for years, this does not occur. Stocks can be very volatile in the shorter term. However, over long periods of time, the equity premium does exist, as the benefit of owning stocks for the long term far exceeds other investment classes, such as cash or fixed income (bonds).

We recommend globally diversified portfolios, which means that we recommend stock investments in nearly all broad sectors, such as large and small, growth and value, US and Internationally. But we recommend a tilt, or more exposure, to small and value companies, as well as investing internationally. We recommend this because these asset classes provide greater expected returns (premiums) and diversification benefits, than just owning US large company stocks.

By being patient, and rebalancing to maintain exposure to these varying asset classes, we are now seeing the benefits of remaining disciplined and owning small company stocks and value stocks, as these factors are providing significant rewards in their performance.

All these are factors that help you towards your financial goals.

I need to do different types of exercises to remain fit and healthy over the long-term. In our opinion, your portfolio needs to be well diversified for long term success.

I need to be disciplined to exercise many times per week. You need to be disciplined to be a successful investor.

I need to change my workouts as I get stronger or want to focus on different parts of my body. We need to rebalance and make adjustments to your portfolio, based on changes in your life and changing market conditions.

We wish you good financial and physical health in the future! We are confident that we can assist you with your financial needs, but we are not yet prepared to expand into exercise training (though Michelle Graham may be able to help you)

Talk to us. We want to listen. We want to assist you, your family members and friends.