Is there a disconnect?

Blog post #451

The 3 months that just ended June 30th was terrific for nearly all asset classes, both in the US and Internationally.

The financial markets have been volatile, as one would expect, given the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. The 34% decline in the S&P 500 for the 33 days up to March 23rd was the fastest decline from an all-time high. But this rapid decline was then followed by one of the best 50 days in the history of US stock markets.

Markets are unpredictable. If the above market moves don’t teach you that, then nothing else will. This is why we emphasize the importance of staying in the market, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

Early this week was another good example of the difficulty of predicting what the markets will do.

  • Over the weekend, Covid cases were rising and states were moving toward more closings, not openings. The news was bad both medically and for the economy.
  • With no new positive medical or vaccine developments on Monday and Tuesday, and Covid cases increasing, the markets went up on Monday and Tuesday.
  • You can’t predict that. Just stay in the market for the long-term. Be disciplined and take the long view.

How can large US company stock indices be down by only single digits for the first 6 months of the year, despite the Covid outbreak, widespread shutdowns and huge unemployment?

Many people have asked this question, wondering if there is a disconnect between the stock market and the actual economy. They are right and wrong.

The stock market looks into the future and values long term future expectations for publicly held companies. Thus, these large company indices that many view as “the market” are representing the future prospects and expected future cash flows for large companies like Apple, Delta, Amazon, Costco, Facebook, Marriott and many more. These large indices, such as the Dow Jones and S&P 500 are heavily impacted by a handful of the largest companies, as these indices are market weighted. This means the largest companies by stock market valuation have the greatest impact on the indices. And remember, the DJIA consists of just 30 stocks.

The stock market does not directly reflect the many small, private companies that are hurting or have already gone out of business. The market does not directly factor in the restaurants and stores near each of us that have already closed or are struggling. They are private, so they are not traded as stocks. But these privately held businesses are, or were, most likely customers or have relationships with many larger, public companies, and their owners and employees all shop at public companies. All this information should be factored into the current value of publicly traded stocks.

Thus, “Main Street” and “Wall Street,” if I can use those terms, are different.

The question that we cannot ever answer is about the future. As we often say, we don’t have a crystal ball.

What will the eventual impact of the stress on these smaller businesses be on the larger economy?

Will unemployment continue to go down? How fast or slow?

How will Covid impact consumer spending and will it affect the purchases of Apple products? When will people begin traveling again in large numbers and restore those related businesses and workers?

Will Target, Costco and Walmart feel the brunt of high unemployment? Will consumer spending drop or increase over the next 3 or 6 months, or longer, due to all these Covid effects?

Apple, Target, Costco and Walmart stocks are each near their 5 years highs. What the market is saying about these companies right now, based on their stock prices, is that they will succeed in the future. This helps to explain why these indices are at the levels they are at.

Other public companies, which are facing the negative brunt of the Covid impact, are still crushed, even if they have rebounded from their lows. Airlines, hotels, travel and leisure, and energy companies are far off their pre-Covid levels.

How do we handle and process these issues?

From an investment standpoint, we have a choice of how to approach all these issues. As a firm, we have taken the path that says that we will hold a diversified portfolio of many stocks, mostly in the US, as well as around the world.

But we have chosen not to play an expensive and most likely, unsuccessful guessing game to try and determine the answers to all the above questions, because no one really knows any of the answers.

We are not going to try and guess which stocks will outperform others over the next 1, 5, 10 or 20 years. That would not be our primary focus to help you to reach your financial goals.

We want to focus on the key things that matter to you most. We want to make sure you have adequate funds for your needs, both in the short term and the long term.

This is why we work with you and talk to you about the importance of developing an appropriate investment allocation between stocks and bonds that you can live with, especially during market downturns.

We hope this makes sense to you. This approach should provide you with comfort and clarity.

We want to wish you and your family a happy 4th of July weekend. We hope that you stay safe, and socially distance.

As we said above, we don’t have a crystal ball. However, we do believe in science. We do believe in the benefit of wearing a mask when in public places. In our humble opinions, we believe that if more people would wear a mask, we (and the stock market) would be better off in the long run.

Our firm will be closed on Friday, July 3rd, in observance of the 4th of July holiday.

Blog post 450: A Milestone Interview

Starting in mid-June, 2014, I committed to writing these posts weekly, which we have done for the past 6 years. Since 2009, this is the 450th blog post we have written.

We hope these blog posts are helpful to you, as we strive to provide you with guidance, timely information and clarity, as you deal with a constantly changing financial world.

What have you learned from the last few months, from the pandemic and the financial markets?

The most important lesson confirmed what we already knew, that financial markets cannot be timed and predicted. One of our firm’s guiding principles and beliefs is that you can’t successfully time the markets….that you can’t successfully try to time when to get out of the stock market and then accurately figure out when to get back in. It is too hard to be right both times, getting out and getting back in.

No one could have predicted the strong stock market recovery since March 23, 2020. The stock and bond markets move on news that is unexpected. In other words, new information that is not already known. The Federal Reserve’s strong and sweeping actions could not have been predicted or timed in advance. They have done much more, and acted much faster, than they did during the Financial Crisis of 2008-09. That has had a major positive impact on the bond market, and thus, the stock market.

When unexpected progress is announced on vaccines or treatments, it is likely the markets may increase. However, there remains great uncertainty about future cases, the ability to control Covid, how the economy will react and future governmental and Federal Reserve responses.

Nearly all of our clients have adhered to their long-term plans. They have remained in the stock market. We plan and determine each client’s asset allocation to be appropriate for their risk tolerance, time frame and their need and ability to take risk…. your need for stock market exposure. We want each client to have an appropriate stock market exposure so you can emotionally handle the downturns.

What are some of your earliest investing memories and lessons?

I didn’t make any real investments until I was in my late 20s or early 30s. My first financially related memory was working at my local public library during high school, when an older gentleman advised me to read the Wall Street Journal every day. I have been a Wall Street Journal subscriber and reader since my first year of college, for almost 40 years now.

The summer after my first year in college I worked as a busboy at a resort in Wisconsin, putting myself through college. Chrysler was near bankruptcy at the time. I wanted to buy $500 or $1,000 of Chrysler stock and called my mom to discuss it. She had no investing experience, as my parents were divorced and we lived paycheck to paycheck. She said I needed to save the money to pay my college tuition and not to risk it on Chrysler stock. I would have made a lot of money if I had bought that stock, but she was clearly right. I had no business even thinking about buying Chrysler stock, as that was critical money that I needed for the coming year of college.

The lesson is that money needs to be considered in various buckets, based on your time frame. I needed the money for tuition and housing for the next year. Money invested in the stock market requires a long time frame, at least 3-5 years or much longer.

You need to think about your investments based on your time horizon. If you are saving for a retirement that may last decades, what happens today is not as critical. We are planning and focusing on providing you with enough capital for an income stream that will last you for decades.

What are some of the important decisions that you have made and why?

The decision to adopt the investment philosophies that we did in 2003, and still believe in and adhere to today. These guiding principles enable us to have a set of beliefs that give us confidence and a foundation for investment policy and the decisions that we make. We believe this gives our clients confidence and comfort, despite financial uncertainty.

My decision to ask Keith to be my partner in 2008 was critical. I will forever be thankful for his trust in me and leaving our prior firm, a week after his 4th child was born. While we have very different styles and personalities, we analyze things well together and complement each other. We feel that one plus one equals three, which is the basis for a strong business relationship.

The decision to be fee-only financial planners and not to accept any commissions is vital. We act as fiduciaries and put our clients’ interest first, always. If our clients do well, so do we. If they lose money, our income declines as well.

We have made several major investment policy decisions that we feel are proper in the long run. We believe in global asset allocation and broad diversification. While certain asset classes have performed below US Large stock indices for a number of years, we know these periods of underperformance often turn around. Over the long-term, meaning decades, a globally diversified portfolio has outperformed a US-only portfolio. We expect that to be true going forward.

We got out of commodities after 2010. We did this because we did not think commodities provided an effective hedge against inflation, which was the original purpose of buying commodity funds. This had been a good decision, as commodities have done very poorly since then.

We have avoided alternative investments and hedge funds. We believe in using very low costs investments, which we can understand and provide daily liquidity. Most alternative and hedge funds don’t meet these criteria. We invest only in high quality fixed income investments. We review different investments regularly, and have modified portfolios and investments over time, but new investments must meet our foundational criteria.

How does writing this blog fit into the firm? Why do you do this every week?

As founder of WWM and author of nearly all of these 450 blog posts, writing these weekly blog posts represents our commitment and discipline to effectively and timely communicate with you, our clients.

We want you to know that we care. We want you to know that we are always thinking about our constantly changing world and how it impacts you. We want to be unique as a firm. By writing each week, we can inform you and provide our thoughts to you in real time.

Writing a blog post every week means we are constantly looking for relevant topics to write and communicate about. Finding topics in the past months has NOT been a challenge. We feel this process makes us better Advisors for you. We listen to your questions and issues, as those frequently become future blog posts topics.

I want to thank the other members of our firm, and Michelle Graham in particular, who works with me each week to produce the blog and deals with my many editing changes. We must research and meet various compliance regulations, which takes time. We spend hours per week on each blog. It is a firm-wide effort.

There are very few independent financial advisors that make this type of commitment to their clients to produce their own, original content on a weekly basis. We hope you find this valuable and helps you to be a better and more successful investor.

What do you see for the future of the firm and its clients?

In the near-term, we will be working with clients on a virtual basis and we are well prepared for that.

WWM has grown at a steady, moderate rate over the past decade, and we hope that continues. We want to add clients, but only at a pace that will enable us to provide excellent service to all of our clients, new and continuing.

We are particularly pleased that we are working with multiple generations of client families. We have many clients where we work with grandparents, their children and even grandchildren. We work with parents and they are now introducing us to their children. We have helped many clients deal with life transitions, such as those who have had a spouse die or have gotten divorced. These can be difficult times for people and having a firm with this expertise that can assist you through those times can be critical to your well-being.

We are looking forward to engaging clients in a Wealth Analysis and planning processover the next year, and beyond. We are using a top of the line, comprehensive financial planning software that will enable us to interact and plan with you in a new way. Brad Newsome, an Associate Wealth Advisor who we hired last summer, is very experienced with this software program. He will be leading this implementation and the related client discussions. This process will address long-term financial planning and projections, goal setting, Social Security decisions and projections, college funding and many other areas. If you are interested in starting this process, please let us know.

We are committed in providing you with excellent financial advice, a dedication to client service and to be lifelong learners in many areas of financial and investment matters. We are committed to listening to your questions and concerns, and to invest in people and technology to provide the level of service, advice and long-term financial results that you deserve.

We plan to remain disciplined and stick with our commitment to communicate with our clients regularly via this blog, as well as through phone and Zoom calls. Hopefully in the not too distant future……meetings with you, wherever in the country you live.

Thank you for reading.

And thank you for being a loyal client!

Dealing Thoughtfully with Uncertainty

Blog post #447

For this week’s blog post, we encourage you to watch this short video.

David Booth, Founder and Executive Chairman of DFA (Dimensional Fund Advisors) shares his thoughts on the importance of having an investment plan that you can stick with, uncertainty and how to think about the future.

I didn’t know what the word “clairvoyant” means. It means to have the ability to predict the future.

As Booth states at the beginning of the video, we don’t have the ability to predict the future; humans are not clairvoyant.

We hope you find this few minute video worthwhile.

David Booth on Dealing Thoughtfully on Uncertainty

We help you plan. We help you with a strategy to reach your goals. We consider your goals and risk tolerance.  We help you make good decisions.

Just as we strive for your relationship with our firm to be beneficial for you, we hope this video is helpful.

Uncertainty can create opportunity. Please feel free to forward this blog post and video to others you know who could benefit from our firm’s approach to financial planning and investing.

Adapting and Investing – Part I

Blog post #446

To be successful at almost anything, you need to be able to adapt. This applies to individuals, families, companies and countries.

In the past months, we have all been forced to adapt and change. Going forward, we will all need to continue to adapt, innovate and change.

Though there has been tremendous loss of life, if you step back with a broader view, individuals and societies around the world have adapted incredibly quickly, in various ways and with differing levels of success, to the Covid pandemic.

If I had told you on February 1st that most of us would be working from home (and staying home!) during March, April, May and even into the summer, you would have not thought that would be possible or could work. Now, many companies are realizing that a certain percentage of their employees can successfully work remotely, and they are innovating to meet the challenges of the Covid era.

Our firm adapting

We hope working remotely is not a permanent requirement, but a choice that people and companies can make. For many years, we have had a team member, Michelle Graham, who has worked for us remotely very successfully, after she started with us an in-office employee.

As a firm, we had steps in place, which had been tested for many years so we would be prepared to work remotely, if needed. Fortunately, we have been able to handle this difficult situation very well, from an operational standpoint. We have received phone calls, done Zoom and phone meetings, placed stock and bond trades and managed your portfolios all from remote locations. With no problems or glitches.

Our firm: core principles

We continue to believe in many of the core investment principles we adopted nearly two decades ago, but we have also adapted and made changes throughout the years, as well as in response to this crisis.

In terms of fixed income investments, we have adapted and reacted quickly to change.

  • Our role is to purchase the optimal type of fixed income investments that we feel would be safe (you should be repaid the principal upon maturity), pay the best interest rate for a given maturity and we monitor the security while it is in your portfolio.

Covid and Fixed Income Impact

When the Covid crisis severely affected the credit markets in mid-March, we had a conference call with fixed income executives of our primary mutual fund company. As a result of that call, subsequent analysis and decisions, we sold many individual corporate bonds of companies that were previously considered safe, but in this new world, appeared much riskier. We did not need to act in a panic. We did not need to sell due to a need for cash or because we, or our clients, had used margin or leverage. We waited until prices improved. Over a period of weeks, we sold bonds that were held which the Covid crisis has impacted the most, mostly in the retail, hotel and energy sectors.

While we still believe in buying and holding individual investment grade corporate bonds, we reacted with thoughtfulness and conservatism. We decided to sell the bonds of companies whose financial situation appeared to be the most impacted by this crisis, especially where there was no real visibility of how or when these companies would recover. We hope these companies do recover. But given the changed circumstances, we thought our clients should be holding better quality fixed income securities. We adapted quickly and decisively, for you, our clients.

Municipal bonds and bond funds – other changes

Usually, municipal bonds are only purchased for those in the highest tax brackets (incomes above $520,000 or $625,000, single or married), and only for their taxable accounts. Municipal bonds are debt issuances of state and local municipalities, as well as colleges, hospitals, water and sewer systems, and other projects. The interest is not taxable by the US Government, which enables the issuers to generally pay lower interest rates than corporate bonds or bank certificates of deposits (CDs).

It is our responsibility to monitor and adapt to what the financial markets provide. Recently, in a major change, some high-grade municipal bonds are paying higher interest rates than CDs and investment grade corporate bonds.

  • If this anomaly continues, it is possible that we will be purchasing municipal bonds for clients in all tax brackets, not just for those in top tax bracket, which is something that we have rarely done in the past.
  • This is a decision that we will make based on what the financial markets are offering at a given date, which constantly changes. It is our role as your financial advisor to adapt to the financial markets and do what is in your best financial interest.

While we have generally used mostly individual bonds and CDs for larger clients in the past, another way that we are adapting to the new, Covid world is likely to be a greater use of bond mutual funds within your fixed income portfolio. We have always been strong believers in diversification in both fixed income and stocks….and we continue to believe this. Due to the greater credit risk that now exists in the economy, we feel that adding bond mutual funds, in addition to other types of fixed income investments, will provide clients with greater security and more diversification.

  • If you add to your portfolio or have other fixed income investments that mature, if we invest those funds into an existing bond fund, that may provide a greater return than if we buy a new individual fixed income security.

These are just a few of the ways that we are adapting and evolving, as we always have, to changes in the world and changes in the financial markets.

We know that the world has changed dramatically.  We are committed to adapting, which means continually evaluating our business, principles, investments and practices.  When needed or when it makes sense, we will adapt and change, if we feel that would be in your best financial interest.

As always, we are here for you, and family members or friends who could use our guidance and assistance during the crisis.

Thinking about risk

Blog post #445

I never know where the ideas for these blog posts will come from. That can be a little risky, as I need to develop an idea every week.

Early Wednesday morning I was on a phone call with Delta, to cancel a flight for a trip we were supposed to be taking for a family event that was to occur this weekend.

I was fortunate that my call was answered quickly and a very nice Delta employee was able to process the cancellation, which we had been unable to do online or via their app. As she was processing the cancellation, the woman asked how me, and my business, were doing. I told her how bad I felt for her, Delta and the other Delta employees, as they didn’t do anything wrong to cause the crisis they are now facing.

Then I realized that many Delta employees at all levels (executives, pilots, phone representatives, etc.) are likely facing a huge double whammy problem right now that could have been avoided.

  • Many of them likely didn’t manage their risk properly. Many of them likely took on way too much single stock risk, by owning lots of Delta stock.
  • This could have been avoided with proper advice and planning. At the same time when many of them could lose their income due to Covid-related job losses (or have their incomes reduced, if they are able to keep their job), they have incurred huge losses in their Delta stock ownings, which has been crushed. Double whammy of loss!! Ouch!

This got me thinking about risk. 

Some risk can be avoided. Some risk can’t be prevented.

Some risk can be minimized. But risk is always there.

Your risk needs to be managed properly.

Dealing with risk is vital. Helping you to deal with financial and emotional risk is one of our main roles and can be of great value to you.

We often talk about diversification and its importance. The examples below are real world and should be evidence of why you should not own a huge amount of any one stock, and especially if it is your employer. We have seen unexpected issues arise in the past that severely impacted one company, or an industry, or now with Covid, are impacting many different industries.

Delta: Is now down 63% from its 2020 high and was down 72% at its 2020 low.

Marriott: Is now down 40% from its 2020 high and was down 69% at its 2020 low.

JP Morgan Chase: Is now down 40% from its 2020 high and was down 69% at its 2020 low.

These are Covid related losses, and likely would not have occurred if not for this crisis. But there are many examples of companies and industries that have suffered great losses for all kinds of reasons, due to technological changes, bad decisions, product failures (think of the Boeing Max), or lack of keeping up with societal trends. Think of GE, Boeing and many large retailers. Some have succeeded, others have not.

The energy sector has been hurt over many years, which worsened due to the Covid pandemic this year. There are many far worse examples than this, but Exxon Mobil is down 53% from where it was trading in 2016, dropping from $95 to around $45 now.

What are the lessons from this?

  • Be diversified. Do not own too much of one stock and definitely not too much of your employer’s stock. Our globally diversified portfolios eliminate the risk of a concentrated portfolio, by providing lots of diversification. Our clients are very well diversified, both in stock and fixed income holdings, in numerous, structured ways.
  • People don’t think single stock risk or the lack of diversification will actually impact them. But it happens. Remember Enron? Lehman Brothers? Some “unexpected event” could cause a huge financial crisis at almost company.
  • Reaching for yield is a significant risk. If a stock or bond is paying a dividend or interest rate that is far above market yields, then there is much greater risk involved.
    • We have seen people buy stocks for the “great” dividend yield and then something happens to the company….and the dividend is cut or even eliminated…and usually the stock price has dropped as well.
    • This is why we focus on your goals and your overall portfolio, not on dividend paying stocks or the yield of your stock portfolio.
  • Overconfidence and not expecting risk to show up. You always need to be prepared for unexpected events and risk to show up, as we have experienced with the Covid pandemic.
    • You need to be prepared emotionally for stock market declines of 10%-20% within every year.
    • You need to be prepared for occasional major declines in stocks of 30-50%, which could take several years to recover.
    • This is why we focus so much on your overall asset allocation, on the mix of stock and fixed income, based on your specific needs, risk tolerance and time frame…so you will be able to handle these types of declines.
  • With the current Covid crisis….there is still a significant amount of risk (and unknowns) that remain. 
    • While segments of the stock market have made major recoveries from the March lows, there are still many unknowns related to the pandemic.
    • Will there be future waves of Covid-19 that return in the fall or winter, or later? How will localized outbreaks impact manufacturing, food production and other aspects of our lives?
    • What will unemployment look like going forward? How quickly or slowly will those now unemployed return to jobs, and at what income levels?
    • When will an effective vaccine be released that is proven to be effective on a mass basis, in the US and globally?
    • What new programs will the US and other governments introduce to provide income and help people, companies, and state and local municipalities to help bridge the financial gap? What further actions will the Federal Reserve take, to continue to provide the financial markets and companies with support?
    • How quickly will people return to restaurants, stores, large events? How fast or slow will that be? Months? Years?
    • When will people return to traveling and tourism, both in the US and globally?
    • As these unknowns gradually get answered or resolved, risk and market volatility will likely remain high. No one can provide answers to these questions. The markets will react suddenly to good news, as well as to disappointments. You need to be prepared for both. 
  • Even the smartest make mistakes and even repeat them.
    • Warren Buffett has just repeated one of his biggest mistakes. He wrote in the 2007 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders letter about buying US Airways preferred stock in 1989. It quickly stopped paying the high dividend he was expecting. He eventually sold the stock at a gain in 1998, but he said that owning airlines was like a “bottomless pit.”
      • He wrote in the 2007 letter: “Now let’s move to the gruesome. The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers.”
      • After swearing off airline stocks forever, he and his team started to load up on airline stocks in the fall of 2016, and by December 31, 2019, Berkshire Hathaway had invested more than $6 billion, owning close to 10% each of the top 4 US airlines. After the Covid crisis crushed the airlines stocks in March 2020, Buffett announced that they sold their airlines holdings during April 2020, at significant losses. He no longer thought the risk of owning the airlines was worthwhile. He never anticipated a pandemic type risk when he considered buying these stocks in 2016.

Risk of loss will show up again. What seems like unexpected risks, like 9/11 or the Covid pandemic, are always there, but we do not focus on them until they become known events. Other seemingly “unexpected” events will certainly happen again in the future. We just don’t know what the source of the major event, or risk, will be….and what its impact will be in the future. As none of us has a crystal ball or can predict the future, we as your advisors have a key role in helping you to manage your risk. And we take that responsibility very seriously.

We want to help you manage your risk, so that you and your family can reach your financial goals, whatever they may be, knowing that there are known and unknown risks that will impact you in the future.

If we are able to help you reach and maintain your financial goals and help you to effectively deal with all the risks that will show up along that journey, then we will consider our relationship a success.

We hope that you and your family are healthy, and enjoy this Memorial Day weekend with appreciation for your health, and the sacrifices of many who have come before us, so that we are able to live and enjoy the benefits of our country. Even during this pandemic, we have much to be thankful for.

As always, we are here for you, and family members or friends who could use our guidance and assistance during this crisis.

If you know of someone who may benefit from this blog regarding single or company stock risk, please forward this blog to them and let them know we are open to speaking with them.

 

 

Thoughts on Where We are Now and Headed

Blog post #441

As we near the end of April 2020, we thought it would make sense to step back and consider the past few months, as well as approaches for the future.

  • As we have stated many times in the past, one of the basic concepts that we have told our clients is that we do not have a crystal ball and we cannot predict the future. No one can accurately predict the future, repeatedly and successfully.
  • This is why we work with you as a fundamental building block to develop a personalized asset allocation strategy developed for your personal circumstances and needs.
    • Throughout this crisis, and many others that have preceded it, having an Investment Policy Statement (IPS), or asset allocation plan, has enabled clients to remain invested and in the long term, be able to continue and reach their financial goals.
    • We can’t control or predict the financial markets. But we can control your plan and how you are invested, to meet your short-term withdrawal needs and your long-term financial goals and objectives.
      • Thus, we recommend continuing to adhere to the strategy of maintaining your personal Investment Policy Statement (IPS), or asset allocation, especially in this very unpredictable period.
  • Despite a decline in your account value, which you could view as temporary, a key question to ask is: has this decline directly impacted your ability to have the financial resources that you need today, or within the next year?
    • While none of us are happy that account values have declined, the answer for all of our clients should be that they have the financial resources that they need for the short to intermediate term, for the next number of years. This positive answer is due to proper planning.
  • The stock market is not the economy.
    • Remember, the stock market tends to look into the future and may not reflect what the economy is doing right now. The stock market can be driven by many factors, such as cash flow and profit/loss projections, predictions and emotions.
  • Fed Chair Powell has done a terrific job so far.
    • The Federal Reserve has been strong, responsive and acted swiftly when needed, especially in March and early April. This is one of the key reasons that the stock market has recovered significantly from its March lows.
    • The Fed’s actions have helped to solidify the fixed income markets and has enabled many public companies to sell bonds during this crisis, to help them to have the liquidity to get through the shutdown period. The Fed’s decisions to purchase bonds of companies that were credit worthy prior to this crisis, and then expanded to less than investment grade debt, has also helped to stabilize the credit markets.
  • Diversification works, for both stocks and fixed income
    • We are strong believers in diversification at all levels, as are the mutual funds that we use to invest in.
      • The past few months has not changed our minds about this. If anything, during a crisis, diversification again has proven to be very important. 
    • While our client accounts have been volatile, there has not been the huge destruction of your investments compared to if we held a portfolio that had been concentrated in certain sectors, say for example…..lodging and travel, aerospace, airlines, retail, entertainment and energy. We have not had overall 40%-50%-60% declines, though these sectors are held as part of a diversified portfolios.
    • We don’t place bets on individual stocks or focus on sectors. The asset class funds that we use strongly believe in diversification and have guidelines across industries and companies, as well as geographic regions, for International and Emerging Market funds.
    • While we still believe in our core investment beliefs, that does not mean that we don’t make changes. We have modified our portfolios over past months, prior to and during this crisis, to reduce some exposure to small value holdings in both the US and internationally. We did this for the long term, as we wanted to increase exposure to small cap asset classes that were not strictly small value.
      • In the short term, this has been a positive move. Again, this was made to increase diversification further and should benefit clients over the long term, as we cannot predict which asset class will outperform, or when.
    • In fixed income, we have always been well diversified, and we are taking steps to strengthen your holdings, and add even greater diversification.
      • Due to the economic impact of the Covid crisis and the plunge in oil prices, certain companies that previously were investment grade or not at risk of near-term bankruptcy, are now potentially more at risk.
      • We have been proactive in selling bonds of companies that were previously much stronger financially. We would rather sell these bonds now, prior to their maturities, and not put your investment principal at further risk with these types of companies.
      • We are reviewing clients’ fixed income holdings very carefully, as we always have, for exposures to sector and financial risk.
      • We are using large and well-established bond funds with excellent track records, processes and methodologies, more than we did in the past, so your fixed income holdings will be even more diversified.
      • We will be more carefully monitoring the impact of this crisis on municipal bonds, as state and local revenues have been impacted. We already know that some of the strict purchasing guidelines we have in place, and have had since we started our firm, are still valid today, and have helped us avoid municipal bonds which are related to single sector issuances, like airport or certain single source building projects.
      • We want the fixed income “Foundation” of your portfolio to be as financially sound as it can be, even during this period of greater financial uncertainty.
  • Expect the unexpected
    • This certainly has been the case over the past few months. However, even with all this uncertainly, and there could be more in the future, we want you to have a sense of financial comfort.
  • We will continue to act and make rational decisions, not emotional ones. We are not going to place bets on when a vaccine will be discovered or how fast the economy will recover…..as no one knows those answers. We do know that sticking to a philosophy works, over the long-term. We will continue to do the following:
    • Regularly review and rebalance your accounts.
    • Place tax loss trades as appropriate, which will save you tax dollars.
    • Adhere to your financial asset allocation plan and modify that if your circumstances have changed.
    • Having a strong fixed income foundation and ample cash and liquid assets for those regularly withdrawing money.
  • We have again been reminded why we avoid certain types of investments.
    • We don’t invest in investment funds or products that are considered illiquid or restrict your right to redeem your money to a certain percentage a quarter or annually.
      • Many of these types of investments are not permitting withdrawals or severely restricting investors’ access to their money. We don’t want your money to be restricted, so we don’t use these types of products.
    • We don’t invest in high yield or junk bonds, as they have the greatest risk of default, and many of them declined significantly in value during past months. The higher interest rate that they offer are not worth it, if you don’t get your principal back.
    • We don’t invest in stocks primarily due to high dividend yield, as those companies tend to be the riskiest, like junk bonds. This does not apply to all companies, but those paying a very high dividend yield is often a sign of some type of underlying risk in the company. And usually the risk is not worth it, especially if the dividend is later cut or eliminated, or the price of the stock eventually declines significantly. This is what has occurred to many energy stocks. While the funds we utilize hold energy stocks, the exposure is quite small.
      • Bottom line….don’t reach for yield…..if the interest or dividend yield is far above the market average, there is usually a good reason…it is much more risky.

 

As always, we are here for you, and family members or friends who could use our guidance and assistance during this crisis.

The Current Reality and How to Deal with It

Blog post #439

The US and International stock markets have rallied strongly over the past few weeks, since the low around March 23rd.

We are facing one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes, in both medical and economic terms. And while the growth rate of Covid-19 spread is clearly dropping due to physical distancing, we don’t think that the medical issues are anywhere near being resolved enough to enable the economy to fully recover anytime soon.

From the 2020 high, the S&P 500 (an index of 500 US-based large companies) dropped 35% to its low point around March 23. A major decline like that is logical, given the almost total economic shutdown in the US and in many other parts around the world. Indices of other stock market asset classes have declined as well, some by much more, both domestically and Internationally.

It does make sense that other sectors have gotten crushed even more than the overall 35% decline, such as airlines, hotels, retail and energy sectors.

But since March 23, the S&P 500 and other asset classes have recovered sharply. As I write this mid-day on Thursday April 9th, the S&P 500 has gained 28% from its bottom and is now a 20% move back to its earlier 2020 all-time high point.

The current reality is that the stock market, as it always does, is quickly reacting to news and future expectations. The stock market reacts quickly and unexpectedly, but not always logically. 

The above sketch by Carl Richards makes so much sense and is very logical. We are in the midst of a current reality that is unknown and unpredictable (the future is always unpredictable, but even more so now).

Stock markets are responding up and down, sometime widely, based on medical news, forecasts, predictions and hopes for an economic resumption. They are also responding to major Federal Reserve actions and other recovery program announcements and legislation.

So how do we manage your accounts, to help you reach your short and long-term goals, given this volatility and all the unknowns? We stick to the long-term plans that we have developed for you. We follow our long-term philosophy and discipline that we know has worked well for many years. It is really the only rational approach.

We certainly do not follow the chart below. We do the exact opposite.

When things were really scary and the market was declining in early to mid-March, we were tax loss selling. That means we were not getting you out of the market, but we sold investments to recognize taxable losses and replaced them at the same time with similar, but different investments.

In the past few weeks, we have gradually been re-balancing accounts, which is what the above sketch DOES NOT describe. We were buying low, not selling. When others were scared and selling, we were taking a very long-term view and have been buying more stocks. In late 2019 or early 2020, when others thought things were safe (and buying), we were gradually selling some stocks, if your portfolio allocation to stocks was too high, in excess of your personal investment plan stock target.

This logical and disciplined approach is really the only way to successfully navigate the stock market over the long term, in a calm and reasonable manner. We may not time the bottom, but we are not trying to.

We don’t know if there will be another bottom….weeks or months from now, if the medical news changes or an economic recovery takes longer than many other investors appear to be anticipating. This is why we are buying, but gradually.

For most of our clients, we are comfortable with a gradual re-balancing approach right now. For our younger clients who have a very long-term time frame, we are re-balancing more aggressively. We are handling your accounts on a very individual basis, as you each have different time perspectives, circumstances and goals.

We hope our investment approach and disciplined philosophy makes sense to you, and provides you with a form of comfort, during this time of great uncertainty.

We hope you and your families are healthy and safe, and can connect virtually or by phone, during this holiday weekend.