All Posts by Eric Weigel

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Eric Weigel was the Chief Investment Officer of Insight Financial Strategists from October 2017 to September 2018. He set the direction of Insight Financial Strategists' investment strategy and worked on helping clients meet their goals.

Sep 18

3 Simple Ways to Avoid Ruining Your Retirement

By Eric Weigel | Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

3 Simple Ways to Avoid Ruining Your Retirement

 

Photo by Melvin Thambi on Unsplash

 

What’s your “Probability of Ruin”?

Many people considering retirement or in the early phases of this new stage in life worry about outliving their assets.  

These individuals no longer have the luxury of a steady paycheck, and unless they are one of the lucky ones with a defined benefit plan and/or a large portfolio of liquid investments, they will have to dip into their 401k’s and savings to fund their lifestyle.

Somebody in the de-accumulation phase will naturally worry about how long their money will last and whether they can maintain their lifestyles.

People are living longer these days and it is not unheard of for a newly minted retiree to live another 30 years.  

Let’s look at the data. According to the Social Security Actuarial Life Table (2014) estimates, life expectancy for a 65 male is 17.81 years and for a female 20.36 years.  Somebody in above average health may live even longer – these are just median numbers. If you want to conduct your own calculations, you can refer to How Long Will You Live?

David Blanchett of Morningstar uses the 2012 Society of Actuaries annuity table to estimate the likelihood of living to a certain age using the methodology outlined in his 2013 FPA journal article. This cohort of individuals comes from a higher than average socio-economic group and tends to live longer than average.

Table 1 highlights the calculations from the perspective of a 65-year-old. There is a 50% chance that a male lives to age 89 with a female living to age 91.

Table 1

 Life Expectancy

Source: David Blanchett, Morningstar

The point of these projections is that most people should plan for a long period in retirement. The good news is that we are living longer today but the bad news is that we need to make our retirement savings last longer if we are to maintain a certain lifestyle.

Some people retire with very healthy nest eggs that, barring a cataclysmic event, will provide plenty of cash to fund their lifestyles.  They need not worry much as long as assets vastly outstrip expenses.  They have a high margin of safety.

For most retirees, however, the margin of safety provided by their financial assets in relation to their expenses is slimmer.  They do need to worry about how much they are spending, how their investments are performing and how long they may need their portfolio assets to last.  They may have other sources of income such as Social Security but still need to make their investment portfolios work hard to bridge the gap between lifestyle expenses and sources of income.

Most people in retirement face a balancing act

They can control their expenses to some extent (putting off non-essential expenses).  They can plan and make sure that their investment portfolios are structured in accordance with their appetite and need for risk-taking (maybe requiring the help of a financial professional). But what they can’t control are capital market returns and how long they need to tap into their retirement accounts (how long they will live).

One way to identify the various trade-offs required to ensure the sustainability of an investment portfolio is to come up with a CHRIS, a Comprehensive Holistic Retirement Investment Strategy with the help of a financial professional.  A good plan should clearly outline what actions you need to take and what type of minimum portfolio return you will need to achieve to ensure that the probability of running out of money before you or your partner/spouse die is within your comfort zone.

Another alternative is to forego a formal financial plan and utilize some sort of rule of thumb such as William Bengen’s 4% rule. According to this highly popular rule published in 1994, you can safely withdraw 4% of your capital every year in retirement.  The research contains a number of key assumptions (such as a 50/50 stock/bond allocation) often ignored in the popular press, but the Bengen rule is not only well known but popular among many retirees.

Should one just jump ahead in and rely on the Bengen 4% rule? Our view is that before you do so, you really should understand the probability of running out of money.

Milevsky and Robinson provide a simple approach in their highly touted article A Sustainable Spending Rate without Simulation to calculating what they call the “probability of ruin.”

Milevsky and Robinson identify three important factors: your rate of consumption, the risk/reward structure of your portfolio, and how long you live. Visually, these concepts can be illustrated in a Retirement Finances Triangle as depicted in Figure 1.

Without going into the mathematics of the Milevsky and Robinson approach for calculating a “probability of ruin” lets us think a bit more deeply about what makes retirement planning complicated in the first place.

 Figure 1

The first aspect that makes retirement planning difficult is the uncertainty surrounding how long you and your spouse/partner are going to live. People are living longer, on average, than in previous generations. But an average does not necessarily help you.  Your physical and mental health could be dramatically different from the “average” individual.

The other variable that is highly uncertain and makes retirement planning more difficult relates to the variability of investment outcomes on your retirement portfolio.  While history is a guide as to what to reasonably expect in terms of key asset class returns and risks over the long-term, in any given year returns could fall within a wide range.

As most people already know, stock returns exhibit more variability in outcomes than bonds.  The “probability of ruin” calculation using the Milevsky and Robinson formula incorporates the ability of individuals to evaluate the implications of various forms of asset allocation with varying levels of expected risk and return.

As you have probably figured out by now, calculating the “probability of ruin” is extremely important in planning your retirement.

The Setting:

To make the situation more realistic let’s look through the eyes of George and Mandy, both aged 65 and about to retire from their corporate jobs.  They have saved diligently over the years and now have a portfolio worth $1,000,000 that they will tap to fund their lifestyle in retirement.

The Problem:

George and Mandy estimate that they will need $90,000 a year to maintain their lifestyle.  Their Certified Financial Planner has also told them that their Social Security income will be $50,000 a year.  They face an annual gap of $40,000. They expect to tap into their retirement portfolio to fund this gap.

They are in reasonably good health and based on discussions with their financial planner they assume that they will live to age 90. To be safe, they assume a retirement horizon of 30 years.

Their starting portfolio value is $1,000,000 and they wish to withdraw $40,000 a year to fund their living expenses.

Capital Market Assumptions:

We assume that inflation will run 3% per year, on average.  Currently, inflation is running a bit lower than 3% in the US but the historical average is only slightly north of 3%.

What sort of investment risk and return assumptions should people use to calculate the probability of running out of money under this scenario?

Past returns are often a poor guide in forecasting returns and George and Mandy decide as a starting point to use the current Insight Financial Strategists long-term capital market assumed risk and return numbers as outlined in Table 2. These numbers are derived from expected long-term growth, profitability and starting valuation relationships.  They should be viewed as purely hypothetical and subject to great variation.

For illustrative purposes only, Insight Financial Strategists has aggregated all the asset class risk and return numbers into six multi-asset class strategy portfolios according to investment risk – Conservative, Moderate Conservative, Moderate, Moderate Aggressive, Aggressive and the industry convention of a 60/40 balanced strategy.

Table 2

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

Let’s start out gently – the Case of No Uncertainty:

It always helps to start off with a hypothetical scenario where all decision elements are known with certainty up front. We assume that George and Mandy own a 60/40 portfolio returning 4.9% per year and an annual inflation rate of 3%.

If they were to withdraw the equivalent of $40,000 a year in inflation-adjusted terms what would the required distribution look like over their retirement years?

Figure 1

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

The red line in Figure 1 depicts what would happen to their expenses in retirement if inflation were to rise every year by 3%.

What started off as a withdrawal of $40,000 turns into a much larger number over time. For example, after ten years they would need to withdraw $52,000 each year to fund their lifestyle (assuming that their Social Security checks are adjusted annually for inflation as is the current practice).

After 20 years they would need to withdraw $70,000 from their portfolio each year and after 30 years (their last year in their calculations) the number would increase to $94,000 annually. Inflation can sure take a bite!

In terms of George and Mandy’s portfolio, the assumption is that it will yield 4.9% per year or in inflation-adjusted terms, 1.9% per year. After withdrawals are taken out of the portfolio by George and Mandy to fund their lifestyle net of portfolio returns (the assumed 4.9% nominal return per year) the assumed value of the portfolio is depicted in Figure 2.

 Figure 2

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

At the end of the 30th year, the portfolio is expected to be worth $277K.  As long as George and Mandy only live 30 years in retirement and the assumed inflation and portfolio returns prove spot on (accurate) then things should be ok.  They will glide through retirement and even have some assets left over.

The problem occurs if either George and/or Mandy live past age 95. According to the actuarial data in Table 1, there is a 25% chance that George will live to age 99 and Mandy will live to age 101.

Now what? Their current $1,000,000 portfolio is now insufficient to fund their retirement expenses past the age of 97.  They will run out of money and not be able to rely on portfolio income anymore.

What could they do to prevent such an unpleasant outcome?

For starters, they could spend less. For example, they could cut back their annual spending to $30,000.

They could also shoot for higher portfolio returns by taking on a bit more investment risk.  George and Mandy understand that higher portfolio returns are not generated out of thin air.  Higher prospective returns are tied to higher risks.

But does the real world work like this?

Is it just a matter of pulling some levers here and there and voila you have wished for the perfect outcome?

Unfortunately, referring to the Retirement Finances Triangle depicted in Figure 1 although there are some things that George and Mandy can control such as their expenses but when it comes to how long they will live and how their portfolio will actually perform over their retirement years there are lots of unknowns.

Let’s deal with the real world – Introducing Uncertainty:

What if George and/or Mandy live longer than the assumed 30-year lifespan? This is what professionals refer to as longevity risk.  Living a high quality, long life is a very noble and common goal. Outliving your assets is a real fear.

What if portfolio returns do not measure up to our assumed returns? This is referred to as investment risk. What happens if investment returns are significantly below expectations and portfolio income proves insufficient to maintain your desired lifestyle?  Most retirees seek some margin of safety in their investments for this exact reason.

The Milevsky and Robinson formula is designed to take these uncertainties into account by modeling the likely distribution of portfolio returns and longevity.  The end output is a probability of running out of money at some point in time over the retirement horizon.  They refer to this number as the “probability of ruin”.

Let’s start by looking at the implications of the various portfolios strategies presented in Table 1. The Conservative strategy is the least risky approach but also has the lowest prospective returns. This strategy is exclusively composed of bonds.

The Aggressive strategy is exclusively composed of equities and is expected to have the highest returns as well as the highest risk of all of our strategies.

The 60/40 strategy falls along the middle in terms of prospective portfolio returns and risk.

What do the different risk and return profiles of the strategies imply in terms of the probability of ruin of George and Mandy’s portfolio?

Figure 3 depicts graphically the output from the Milevsky and Robinson formula.

Figure 3

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

What immediately jumps out from the bar charts is that the probability of ruin for the various portfolios is quite high. No longer assuming that everything is perfect creates, not surprisingly, more difficult likely outcomes.

For example, if George and Mandy were to employ the Conservative strategy yielding an assumed 2.3% annual return there is an 80% probability of them running out of money at some point in retirement.  Being conservative has its drawbacks!

What if they had the internal fortitude to employ the all-equity Aggressive strategy yielding a prospective return of 6.8% with a volatility of 17%? Their probability of ruin would drop to 37%.

Even if they employed the conventional 60/40 strategy, their probability of ruin would still exceed 45%.

What if the probability of running out of money is too high? 

Well, for starters they could reduce their rate of consumption, i.e. spend less. Maybe not what they wanted to hear but possible.

Let’s assume that instead of taking out $40,000 a year from their investment accounts they withdraw only $30,000? Let’s also assume that they invest in the traditional 60/40 portfolio. The only thing that has changed from the previous scenario is that now George and Mandy are spending only 3% of their initial portfolio to fund their lifestyle.

By spending less and thus depleting their investment assets at a slower rate, they lower their probability of running out of money at some point over their remaining lives to 30%. George and Mandy start thinking that maybe searching for a more inexpensive vacation option makes sense and allow them to worry less about outliving their assets.

 Figure 4

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

 

What else can they do to shift the odds in their favor?

Besides spending less, another option is to work a bit longer and postpone their retirement date. Let’s say they both work five years longer than originally planned.   What would happen assuming that they still intend to withdraw $40,000 in portfolio income and they invest in the 60/40 strategy?

Figure 5

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

By delaying retirement for five years George and Mandy lower the probability of running out of money to below 38%. Not bad but maybe not quite to their satisfaction.

Could George and Mandy restructure their investment portfolio to improve their odds?

Yes, that is certainly a feasible approach as we already outlined in Figure 3.  Higher return strategies carry higher risk but when held over the long-term tend to lower the probability of running out of money.

But not everybody is equally comfortable taking investment risk even if it is likely to result in higher ending portfolio values over the long-term.

Is there another approach to design a more suitable retirement portfolio?

While risk and return are inextricably intertwined, recent financial research has identified the “low volatility” anomaly where lower volatility stocks outperform their higher volatility cohorts on a risk-adjusted basis.  See this note for an introduction to the low volatility anomaly.

Let’s say that instead of assuming a 10.4% volatility for the 60/40 portfolio we are able to utilize a mixture of similar investment vehicles designed to exhibit lower levels of volatility but equivalent returns. Say the volatility of this strategy is now 8.4% and uses a range of lower volatility fixed income and equity approaches plus possibly an allocation to a guaranteed annuity.

Figure 6 illustrates the implications of using the lower volatility investment strategy.  The probability of ruin goes down marginally to below 42%.  Good but not great in the eyes of George and Mandy.

Figure 6

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

What else can George and Mandy do? 

After all, they have evaluated the impact of lowering their expenses, deferring their retirement date and structuring a more suitable investment portfolio and they still are uncomfortable with a probability of ruin in the 30% range.

The short answer as in many areas of life is to do a bunch of small things.  They could elect to just lower their spending from 4% to 3% and the probability of running out of money would drop to about 30%.

But George and Mandy realize that they could do even better by doing all three things:

  • Spending less
  • Working a bit longer
  • Structuring a more suitable investment portfolio

Figure 7 highlights the various alternative courses of action that they could take to increase the odds of not running out of money in retirement.

Figure 7

Source: Insight Financial Strategists

There are no guarantees in life, but spending less, delaying retirement and designing a more suitable portfolio lowers the probability of running out of money to about 20%.

While we all strive for control, George and Mandy are comfortable with this approach and the sacrifices required. To them leading a fulfilling life in retirement is more than just about money and sacrificing a bit in order to gain peace of mind is a worthwhile trade-off.

_________________________________________________________________________

What does calculating the probability of running out of money in retirement teach us?

Is the trade-off that George and Mandy are making appropriate for you? Maybe, but maybe not. At the very least, understanding your own circumstances and your own probability of running out of money may lead to vastly different choices.

Your retirement could extend for 30+ years. Having enough resources to fund your retirement is important to maintain your lifestyle and achieve peace of mind.

While much of life is beyond our control, everybody can still exert some influence over their retirement planning.  In this article we highlighted three general strategies:

  • Adjusting your spending
  • Delaying when you tap your retirement resources
  • Designing an investment portfolio that suitably balances risk and reward

As people enter retirement, they can’t eliminate either longevity or investment risk. What they can do is manage the risks and remain open to adapting their plan should things change.

At Insight Financial Strategists we don’t believe in shortcuts. A CHRIS, a Comprehensive Holistic Retirement Income Strategy, gives you the best chance of full understanding your circumstances and what needs to happen to fund your lifestyle in retirement.

Barring a full financial plan, at a minimum people should evaluate the likelihood of running out of money. Applying the Milevsky and Robinson formula represents a starting point for an in-depth conversation about your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and capacity to absorb losses.

Interested in having the professionals at Insight Financial Strategists guide you? Please request a complimentary strategy session here.

______________________________________________________________________________

Disclaimer:

Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to another parties’ informational accuracy or completeness. All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant or legal counsel prior to implementation.

This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including the risk of loss.

 

Aug 13

Is Your Caution Today Hurting Your Tomorrow?

By Eric Weigel | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning , Sustainable Investing

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

A Hypothetical Case of Fear vs Greed Tradeoffs

How our brain works:

We all think that we are fully rational all the time but in reality the way our brains operate that is not always the case.

One of the key functions of the brain is self-defense. When the brain perceives danger it makes automatic adjustments to protect itself.  When it perceives discomfort it seeks to engage in an action that removes the stress.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman explains how we all have a two way system of thinking that we use to make decisions.  He labels the two components as System 1 (Thinking Fast) and System 2 (Thinking Slow).

System 1 is automatic, fast responding and emotional. System 2 is slower, reflective and analytical.

Think of your System 1 as your gut reaction and your System 2 as your conscious, logical thought.

While we all like to think that our key life decisions are governed by our logical thought (System 2) research has shown that even major decisions are often driven by our gut feel.

Which System do we use to make a decision? That depends on the problem. If we have seen the problem many times before such as what to do when see a red light we default to our automatic System 1 thinking.

When we face a challenge or issue that we have not seen before or maybe infrequently we tend to use System 2, our more reflective and analytical capabilities.

Kahneman’s research shows that we spend most of our time in System 1. While most people think of themselves as being rational and deliberate in their decision making, the reality is that we often employ “short-cuts” or heuristics to make decisions.

Most of the time, these “short-cuts” work just fine but occasionally for more difficult or complex problems the impressions arrived from System 1 thinking can lead us astray.

Why? Above all else, System 1 thinking seeks to create quick and coherent stories based on first impressions.  These impressions are a function of what our brain is sensing at that moment in time.

According to Kahneman, conclusions are easily reached despite often contradictory information as System 1 has little knowledge of logic and statistics. He calls this phenomenon – WYSIATIfor “what you see is all there is”.

The main implication from WYSIATI is that people often over-emphasize evidence that they are familiar with and ignore evidence that may be much more relevant to the problem at hand but that they are not fully aware of.

System 1 conclusions therefore may be biased and lead to decision “short-cuts” or heuristics that seriously impair the quality of a decision.

What makes making “money” decisions so hard?

When it comes to investing people often rely too much on System 1 or automatic thinking. The research shows that we are not infallible and we in fact often make behavioral mistakes. Sometimes we over-rely on our gut feel without properly evaluating the consequences of our actions.

Often our brain perceives of the dangers first and sends us a warning signal to be careful.  Losing money puts us on red alert.

Behavioral finance research (for example in the book Nudge) has shown that losing money makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same amount makes you happy. People are loss averse.

Loss aversion makes people overvalue what they have due to a reluctance to incur any losses should they make a change. What they give up, sometimes unknowingly, is potential upside.

Loss aversion creates inertia. Inertia often works against investors that overvalue the attractiveness of their current holdings.

There are different degrees of loss aversion.  According to Prospect Theory, all investors value gains less than losses but some exhibit an extreme dislike for potential losses that significantly hinders their long-term wealth creation potential.

Nobody likes to lose money, but taking on risk in order to compound your hard earned savings is an integral feature of how capital markets work.  You don’t get a higher reward unless you take additional risk.

Most investors know that stocks do better than bonds over the long-term but that the price of these higher returns is more risk.  Investors also understand that bonds do better most of the time than simply purchasing a CD at the local bank or investing in a money market mutual fund.

But knowledge stored in your logical and analytical System 2 thinking does not always make it through in the face of stress or uncertainty.

People can become too risk averse for a couple of reasons:

  • Case A: They let their fears and emotions guide their investment decision making and give disproportionate importance to avoiding any losses
  • Case B: They fail to calibrate their expectations to the likely frequency of outcomes.

In Case A, investors seek the perceived safety of bonds often not realizing that as interest rates go up bonds can lose money.  Or they simply pile into CD’s not realizing that their returns most often fail to keep up with inflation. Stocks are frowned upon because you can lose money.

Investors in Case A let their decisions be driven by emotion and fear and will over-value the importance of safety and under-value the importance of future portfolio growth.  Their account balances will not go down much when capital markets experience distress, but neither will they go up much during equity bull markets.

In Case B investors mis-calibrate their expectations for various investment outcomes and the consequences can be as dire as in the first situation.  Behavioral finance research has shown that investors frequently over-estimate the likelihood and magnitude of extreme events such as stock market corrections.

Investors often become fixated on what could happen should an equity market correction occur, but they fail to properly evaluate the likelihood and magnitude of such a correction in relation to historical precedents.  They also importantly fail to properly calibrate the probability of observing a recovery after going through such a correction.

What are the implications for investors playing it too safe?

Let’s consider the case of investors currently working and saving a portion of their income to fund a long-term goal such as retirement. These individuals are in the accumulation phase of their financial lives.

Somebody in the accumulation phase will naturally worry more about how fast they can grow their portfolio over time and whether they will reach their “number”.  People in the accumulation phase care primarily about their balances going up year after year. They are in “growth” mode.

The Hypothetical Setting:

To better illustrate this situation let’s look through the eyes of a recent college grad called Pablo earning $40,000 a year. Pablo is aware of the need to save part of his salary and invest for the long-term.  He just turned 22 and expects to work for 40 years.

Pablo will also be receiving annual 2.5% merit salary increases which will allow him to save a greater amount each year in the future.

The Problem:

Pablo faces two key decisions – what percentage of his salary to save each year and the aggressiveness of his portfolio which in turn will determine its most likely return.

He is conflicted. He has never made this much money before and worries about losing money. He also understands that he alone is responsible for his long-term financial success.

Pablo knows that there is a trade off between risk and return but he wants to make a smart decision. His System 1 thinking is saying play it safe and don’t expose yourself to potential loses.

At the same time his rational and informed System 2 thinking is influenced by a couple of finance and economics classes he recently took while in college.

Pablo can succumb to automatic System 1 thinking and invest in a very conservative portfolio. Or he can rely on his System 2 thinking and invest in a higher risk and commensurately higher return portfolio.

 

One Alternative – Save 10% of his Income and play it safe investing

For simplicity sake assume that Pablo decides to put 10% of his salary into an investment fund. The fund consists primarily of high grade bonds such as those contained in the AGG exchange traded fund.

From the knowledge gained in his econ and finance classes Pablo estimates that this portfolio should return about 4% per year – a bit below the historical norm for bonds but consistent with market interest rates as of August 2018.

Pablo also understands that such a portfolio will have a bit of variability from year to year. He estimates that the volatility of this portfolio is likely to be about 6% per year. Again, this estimate is in line with current bond market behavior as of August of 2018.

He knows that this is a low risk, low return portfolio but the chances of this portfolio suffering a catastrophic loss are negligible. He is petrified of losing money so this portfolio might fit the bill.

How large could his portfolio be expected grow to over 40 years of saving and investing in this conservative manner?  We built a spreadsheet to figure this out. We assumed a 4% portfolio return on principal, 2.5% annual salary increases and a half year of investment returns on annual contributions also at 4%.  Remember that this is a hypothetical example with no guarantee of returns.

At the end of 40 years Pablo’s salary is assumed to have grown to $107,403 and his portfolio, invested in this conservative manner, would have a balance of $575,540.  The growth of this portfolio (identified as 10_4) is shown in Figure 1. The naming convention for the portfolios corresponds to the savings rate followed by the assumed hypothetical rate of return on the strategy.

Figure 1

Source: Insight Financial Strategists, Hypothetical Example

Pablo knows that his portfolio will not exactly return 4% every year. Some years will be better, other years much worse but over the next 40 years the returns are likely to average close to 4%.

But Pablo does not feel comfortable just dealing in averages.  If things go bad, how bad could it be?

Given the volatility of this conservative portfolio there is a 10% chance of losing 3.6% in any given year. These numbers are calculated by Insight Financial Strategists based on an approximation of a log-normal simulation and are available upon request. Not catastrophic but nobody likes losing money.

Figure 2 shows the 90th and 10th probability bands for this conservative portfolio. These bands are estimated based on the expected average return of the portfolio and its volatility.

The actual portfolio return would be expected to lie about 2/3 of the time within these bands. In the short-term, say 1 to 2 years out, the portfolio returns are more unpredictable.  Over longer horizons, the average return to this conservative portfolio should fall within much tighter bands given the assumed risk and return numbers in the log-normal simulation.

Based on the calculations, the average returns over ten years should range between 6.3% and 1.4% per annum. Clearly, even this conservative portfolio has some risk especially in the short-term, but over longer holding periods returns should smooth out.

Figure 2

Source: Insight Financial Strategists, log-normal simulation using 4% assumed return and 6% volatility

Another Alternative – Save 20% of his Income and continue investing in a conservative portfolio

Assuming the same 2.5% annual salary increases, the final salary would have been the same but his nest egg would have grown to $1,151,080. Pablo keeps looking at Figure 1 (the 20_4 line representing a 20% savings rate invested at an assumed 4%) and starts thinking that maybe a bit of extra saving would be a very good thing.

He still has a 10% probability of being down 3.6% in any given year, but if his budget allows, he feels that he can forego some frills until later.

Now, Pablo is starting to get excited and wonders what would happen if he invested more aggressively, say in a variety of equity funds?

Yet Another Alternative – Keep saving the same amount but invest more aggressively

The likely returns would go up but so would his risk. He estimates that based on current market conditions and the history of stock market returns (obtained from Professor Damodaran of NYU) that this more aggressive portfolio should have about an 8% annual rate of return with a volatility of around 14% per year. These estimates are both a bit lower than the 1926-2017 average reflecting higher current (as of August 2018) valuations and lower levels of overall market volatility.

He is thinking that maybe by taking more risk in his portfolio during his working years he will be able to build a nest egg that may even allow him for some luxuries down the road.

He also knows that things do not always work out every year as expected. Pablo is pretty confident that 8% is a reasonable expectation averaged over many years, but how bad could it be in any given year?

A log-normal simulation was conducted using the assumed risk and return numbers – same approach as before.

Figure 3 shows the 90th and 10th percentile bands for this portfolio.

Figure 3

Source: Insight Financial Strategists, log-normal simulation using an assumed 8% return and 14% volatility

Given the volatility of this equity-oriented portfolio, there is a 10% chance of losing 9.2% in any given year (based on the simulations). Ouch, the reality of equity investing is starting to sink in for Pablo.

But Pablo is also encouraged to see that his returns in any given year are equally likely to be about 26% or higher. That would be nice!

Especially when it comes to equities there is a wide range of potential returns but over time these year by year fluctuations should average out to a much narrower range of outcomes. While our best estimate is that this portfolio will return on average 8% per year over a ten-year window the range of expected outcomes should be between a high of 12.9% and a low of 1.6%.

Pablo decides to research the history of stock, bond, and cash returns by reading our April Blog on Understanding Asset Class Risk and Return and looking at a chart of long-term returns from Morningstar (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Source: Morningstar

He is surprised to find that over the long-term equities do not seem as risky as he previously thought. He is also quite surprised by the wide gap in wealth created by stocks versus bonds and cash.

The research makes Pablo re-calibrate his expectations and he starts wondering whether the short-term discomfort of owning equities is worth it in the long run.

____________________________________________________________________

The “Aha!” Moment:

Pablo’s System 1 thinking is on high alert and his first thought after seeing how much he could lose investing in equities is to run back to the safety of the bond portfolio.

But something tells him to slow down a bit and think harder. This is a big decision for him and his System 2 thinking is kicking in. Before he throws the towel in on the equity-oriented portfolio he glances again at Figure 1 to see what might happen if he invests more aggressively.

What he sees astounds him. It is one thing to see compounding in capital market charts and yet another to see it in action on your behalf. Small differences over the short term amount to very large numbers over long periods of time.

If Pablo were to invest in the more aggressive portfolio there would be more hiccups over the years but his ending account balance should be $1,440,075 if he consistently put aside 10% of his salary every year.

If he saved 20% the ending portfolio balance would double in size.

Decision Time – Picking among the alternatives

Pablo is now faced with a tough decision.  Does he play it safe and go with the conservative portfolio? Or, does he go for more risk hoping to end up with a much larger nest egg but knowing that the ride may be rough at times?

Beyond the numbers, he realizes that he needs to look within to make the best possible decision.  His System 1 thinking is telling him to flee, but his System 2 thinking is asking him to think more logically about his choices.  He also needs to deal with how much he is planning to save from his salary.

Fear versus Greed:

He needs to come to terms with how much risk he is willing to take and whether he can stomach the dips in account balance when investing in riskier assets.  As Mike Tyson used to say, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the face”.

In structuring his investment portfolio Pablo needs to balance fear with greed.  Paying attention to risk is absolutely necessary but always in moderation and in the context of historical precedents.  If Pablo lets his fears run amuck he may have to accept much lower returns.

With the benefit of hindsight, he may come to regret his caution. On the other hand, the blind pursuit of greed and a disregard for risk may also in hindsight come back to bite him.  Pablo needs to find that happy medium but only he can decide what is right for him. Risk questionnaires can help in this regard. Try ours if you like!

Consumption Today versus Tomorrow:

Pablo also needs to come to grips with how much current consumption he is willing to forego in order to save and invest.  We live in an impulse oriented society. Spending is easy, saving is hard.

Saving is hard especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand, over time the saving habit becomes an ingrained behavior.  The saving habit goes a long way toward ensuring financial health and the sooner people start the better.

Will Pablo be able to save 10% of his salary? Or, even better will he be able to squeeze out some additional expenditures and raise his saving to 20%?

If possible Pablo should consider putting as much money in tax-deferred investment vehicles such as a 401(k). He should also have these contributions and any other savings automatically deducted from his paycheck. That way he won’t get used to spending that money. Pablo may come to see these deductions from his paycheck as a “bonus” funding future consumption.

 

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to continually be afraid you will make one”

— ELBERT HUBBARD

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Lessons Learned:

This has been an eye-opening experience for our hypothetical friend Pablo.  He was not expecting such a difference in potential performance.  He now realizes the importance of maximizing saving for tomorrow as well as not succumbing to fear when investing for the long-term.

He has learned several invaluable lessons that also apply to individuals in the accumulation phase of their financial lives

Lesson 1: The Importance of Saving

  • Delaying consumption today allows you fund your lifestyle in the future
  • Saving even small amounts makes a big difference over the long-term

Lesson 2: The value of patience and a long-term perspective

  • In the early years you may not notice much of a difference in portfolio values
  • Keep saving and investing – disregard short-term market noise and stick to a plan

Lesson 3: Small differences in returns can amount to huge differences in portfolio values

  • Seemingly tiny differences in returns can result in large differences in portfolio values
  • Compounding is magic – take advantage of it when you can

Lesson 4: The importance of dealing with your fear of losing money

  • Letting your first instinct to avoid risky investments dictate what you own will work against you
  • Investing involves risk – best to manage rather than avoid risk
  • The pain and agony of losing money in any given year is alleviated over the long term by the higher returns typically accruing to higher risk investments

Lesson 5: Investing in your financial education pays off

  • Gaining a proper understanding of capital market relationships is an invaluable skill to possess
  • Leaning on financial experts to expedite your learning is no different than when athletes hire a coach

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Now what should you do?

Avoid all risks, save a lot and watch your investment account grow slowly but smoothly? Or, take some risk and grow your portfolio more rapidly but with some hiccups?

Are a couple of restless night’s worth the higher potential returns in your portfolio? On

Also, are you willing to delay some current consumption in order to invest for the future?

The answer depends on you – your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and your capacity to absorb losses.

Interested in having the professionals at IFS identify your risk tolerance, time horizon, and financial needs? Please schedule a complimentary consultation here.

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Disclaimer:

Much of the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017. Information presented herein is for discussion and illustrative purposes only and is not a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. Views expressed are as of the date indicated, based on the information available at that time, and may change based on market and other conditions. References to specific investment themes are for illustrative purposes only and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Investment decisions should be based on an individual’s own goals, time horizon, and tolerance for risk.

This piece may contain assumptions that are “forward-looking statements,” which are based on certain assumptions of future events. Actual events are difficult to predict and may differ from those assumed. There can be no assurance that forward-looking statements will materialize or that actual returns or results will not be materially different from those described here.

Stock and bond markets are volatile and can decline significantly in response to adverse issuer, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

 

Jul 19

Don’t Ignore the Chatter – a Trade War represents a Major Risk

By Eric Weigel | Capital Markets , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Quarterly Capital Market Perspectives

There’s been a lot of sideways action in this year’s capital markets. We have had a couple of mini-corrections already but equity markets have done a remarkable job of ignoring some clouds on the horizon.

The big elephant in the room that investors have chosen for the most part to ignore is the possibility of an all-out global trade war.

What started back in February as aluminum and steel tariffs has delved into a war of words and escalation of tariffs between the world’s three largest economies of the US, China and Europe.

There is almost a sense of disbelief that this could be happening after decades of globalization.  We are so used to the free flow of goods and services across borders that we hardly ever stop and think about where things are made.

Is a Toyota Camry Japanese or a “Made in the USA” car from a company that so happens to be domiciled in Japan? Is your iPhone an American product or a product made in Asia for a US-based company?

Global companies such as Apple or Toyota operate in highly inter-linked global supply chain and sales channels. A trade war will be highly disruptive to global trade and manufacturing.

Ultimately, an all-out trade war creates massive uncertainty and significantly lowers global economic growth going forward. According to Oxford Economics a trade war could cost the global economy $800 Billion.

To read more about our views on key risk factors facing investors for the rest of 2018 and our intermediate-term outlook for major asset classes please read our Quarterly Capital Market Perspectives.

Jul 19

Post-Divorce Investments – What do I need to plan for now?

By Eric Weigel | Divorce Planning , Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Making Your Post-Divorce Portfolio Reflect the New You

Divorce is the final step of a long process. Whether the marriage was long or short, the end of marriage brings about the conclusion of an important phase of your life.

Divorce is an emotional event sometimes anticipated years in advance and at other times coming totally out the blue.

In all cases whether anticipated or not, divorce is a stressful event. According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory Scale divorce ranks as the second most stressful event that a person can experience in a lifetime.

Typically when you divorce you end up with an investment portfolio that is ½ of your old couple’s portfolios. Invariably, your new portfolio will not be suitable anymore.  If you haven’t been the “financial” person in your marriage you may not even know what you own.

Most likely you will need to make changes to your portfolio to suit your new situation. You are now also solely responsible for your financial health.

Your post-divorce portfolio should reflect your updated needs, objectives and comfort level with investment risk.  This may not be what you bargained for or you may feel ill-prepared to handle this on your own.  You may feel that your life is out of your sync, but aligning your financial assets to your new situation is entirely under your control.

Why do you need a new portfolio once you divorce?

For one, the dollar amounts are less than before and your current investment strategy reflects your goals as a couple rather than your own objectives going forward.

Moreover, most likely your confidence is a bit shot and your desire to take much investment risk is lower than before.

Ok, are you with me? You can control this aspect of your new life. What steps should you take to get the ball rolling?

We suggest an approach rooted in our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E methodology.

The first step involves thoroughly examining your new situation from a non-financial standpoint.  Where do you want to live? What type of lifestyle are you looking for? If you have children what type of issues do you need to account for?

The second step is to re-evaluate your comfort with taking investment risk.  Now that you are solely in charge of your financial life how do you feel about taking on risk? Are you comfortable with the inevitable stock market swoons that occur periodically? Are you able to think as a long-term investor given your recent divorce?

The next step is really important. Your post-divorce portfolio needs to work for you. Establishing a hierarchy of financial objectives will drive the type of strategy that is most appropriate for you.

Is your primary objective to save for retirement? Do you have any major objectives besides retirement? Maybe you need to fund college tuition for your two kids.  Maybe you plan on buying a new home in 2 years once your life has settled down?

Next you need to deal with the nitty gritty of figuring out exactly what you own and cash flow budgeting.  What you own should not be difficult to figure out as you have just gone through the divorce process.

The second part of cash flow budgeting is often highly sensitive for people not used to budgeting during their marriage.  If you have never had a budget or stuck to one this step seems like a major imposition. But unless money is so plentiful you have no choice.

At least for a period of time you will have to keep track of your expenses and gain an understanding of where the money is going. The reason this is important is that you may need to tap into portfolio gains to fund your living expenses. If that is the case, your portfolio should be structured to write you a monthly check with a minimal amount of risk and tax consequences.

The next step in the P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E process is to evaluate your tax situation. If you are in a high tax bracket you might want to favor tax-advantaged investments such as municipal bonds. If your income is going to be taking a hit post-divorce you probably will end up in a lower tax bracket increasing the attractiveness of a Roth conversion to your traditional individual retirement account.

The last three steps all involve figuring out how best to construct your investment portfolio.  Going from your pre-divorce portfolio to something that fits your needs and goals will usually require some major re-adjustments in your strategy.

Going through our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E process or a similar approach is probably the last thing you want to do on your own.  Most likely you will need the help of an advisor to work through this.

Keep in mind that the reason you are doing this is to regain control over your financial life. You sought the help of a lawyer during your divorce. Now is the time to move forward and seek the help of financial professionals with an understanding of your situation and new set of needs.

What is the best way to implement a portfolio strategy for newly divorced people?

The most important aspect of post-divorce portfolio is that it fits you and your new circumstances and desires.  Using our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E methodology as a framework for evaluating your needs and desires we suggest implementing a portfolio structure that encompasses three “buckets”.

A “bucket” is simply a separate portfolio and strategy that has a very specific risk and return objective. Each bucket in our approach is designed to give you comfort and clarity about its role in your overall portfolio.

What is the role of these “buckets”?

Each “bucket” has a very specific role in the overall portfolio as well as very explicit risk and reward limits.

We label our three “buckets” as the Safe, the Purchasing Power and the Growth portfolios.

The role of the Safe Bucket is to provide liquidity and cash flow to you to meet your short-term lifestyle needs. How much you have invested in your Safe portfolio is a function of how much money you need to fund your lifestyle over the next few years.

The second bucket – the Purchasing Power portfolio – is designed to allow you to enhance your lifestyle in terms of real purchasing power.  What this means is that every year your portfolio should have a return exceeding inflation.

Finally, the third bucket – the Growth portfolio – is designed to grow your portfolio in real terms. This portfolio is designed to maximize your returns from capital markets and will be almost exclusively invested in higher risk/higher reward equity securities.

Conclusion:

Going through divorce is one of the most stressful situations anyone can face. Transitioning to a new beginning may take a short term for some but for most people the period of adjustment is fraught with uncertainty and doubt.

People often worry about their finances and whether they can maintain their lifestyle.  A life event such as divorce also tends to shorten people’s horizon as their outlook in life often lacks clarity.

The implications from an investment standpoint are primarily a temporarily diminished desire to take on portfolio risk and a shortening of time horizons.  In English this translates to searching for greater certainty and not looking too far out.

As wealth managers our first goal is to first understand the client’s circumstances and needs once the divorce is finalized. Our P.R.O.AC.T.I.V.E process serves as the framework for initiating and exploring client concerns and issues.

Our P.R.O.A.C.T.I.V.E approach is designed to make your money work for what you deem important.  Divorce is difficult and transitioning to a new beginning takes time.  As you adjust to your post-divorce life your financial assets will also need to be managed consistent with the new you.

At Insight Financial we are experts at guiding you through this difficult adjustment period and transition into a new beginning. To read our full report on our approach for managing your post-divorce investments please click here.

Our wealth management team at Insight Financial Strategists is ready to help you in your transition.  To set up an initial consultation please book an appointment here.

 

Other posts you may find interesting

Pension Division in Divorce

4 Risks of Pension Plans in Divorce

Post-Divorce Investments 

 

 

Jun 14

3 Mistakes DIY Investors Are Prone to Making in a Crisis

By Eric Weigel | Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Investors have been cropping up everywhere since the end of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

DIY investors tend to be well-educated professionals of reasonable means that prefer to build their own portfolios without the help of an investment professional.

They educate themselves about investing by reading a number of investment books (here is a popular one for Bogleheads) and subscription-based services espousing the benefits of the DIY approach.

 

A lot of DIY investors identify strongly with Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard for his dedicated approach to index investing.

One thing that distinguishes today’s crop of DIY investors from the original crop back in the 90’s is that today’s investors are much more focused on exchange-traded funds (ETF) as compared to individual stocks.  A large number of inexpensive and liquid ETF’s have made this possible.

The primary appeal of DIY investing revolves around gaining control over your portfolio.

You are in charge and make all decisions. From selecting a specific ETF to all buy and sell decisions.  A secondary appeal of DIY investing is cost – if you are the manager of your own portfolio you save yourself the fee that would have gone to your investment advisor. Typically this fee amounts to about 1% of the value of your portfolio.

DIY investors tend to do well when capital markets exhibit low volatility and the trend in price is well established.  Everybody loves up-trending markets that don’t fluctuate much.  But as Humphrey Neill, a famous contrarian investor used to say “Don’t confuse brains with a bull market”.

The analogy I like to use is that of a pilot. When everything is calm even a novice will look good. But when the friendly skies become turbulent, a novice pilot will likely tense up and the odds of making a mistake will increase significantly.

DIY investors face the same situation. During periods of calm, portfolio decisions will come easily. The cost of a poor decision is not likely to have major consequences in such a benign environment.

But when the capital markets get dicey, the implications of one’s actions increase dramatically.  A poor decision could decimate the value of your portfolio and seriously harm your overall financial health.

My contention is that when the rubber hits the road, many DIY investors are ill-equipped to deal with extreme capital market uncertainty. 

Stock market corrections are not fun for anybody, but experienced investment managers have the real benefit of having seen a movie of the same genre before.

I have lived through the 1987, 2000-2002 and 2008 stock market meltdowns.  None of these were fun but I learned valuable lessons in each of these crises.  Mainly I learned not to panic but also ways to course correct once it became clear that action was required. A key insight is that changing fundamentals require changing portfolio compositions.

Many DIY investors have not seen a real crisis in their investment lifetimes.  While everybody can read about stock market crashes unless you live through such a period it is hard to truly assimilate their impact both on your pocketbook but more importantly on your psyche.

A crisis such as 2008 is extremely disorienting even for professional investors, but the advantage that experience and knowledge of capital market behavior afford you is a game plan honed by the school of hard knocks.

Without the benefit of having lived through previous periods of real capital market stress and the knowledge of how markets typically behave, DIY investors are at a significant disadvantage.

The potential for errors during a crisis goes up exponentially.  Three common reactions or mistakes that we have seen from DIY investors involve:

1. Selling Everything in a Panic

No questions asked, just get rid of everything that is taking a hit before it gets even worse.  Taking action by selling everything may give the DIY investor a sense of relief.  But making decisions in a highly charged emotional state is asking for trouble.

If the decision to sell is based on solid research and is well thought out, fine.  But if it is based on impulse and an immediate need to get rid of the stress then it is most likely that the portfolio was not appropriate for the individual in the first place.  Investing comes with volatility, there is no way around this!

Oftentimes when an investor sells in a panic the most troubling decision is when to buy in again. Even worse if the decision to sell turns out to be wrong, the investor will endlessly question themselves and lose confidence in their ability to navigate on their own.

DIY investors tend to focus on the initial portfolio composition or asset allocation but often fail to plan ahead should market conditions change.  And if there is one thing that holds true is that change is inevitable and an ongoing part of financial markets. Planning ahead for changing market conditions is an integral component of a well-designed investment plan.

Fortunately, most DIY investors know that impulsively selling everything in a panic is not a good wealth creation strategy. But don’t kid yourself – in a market meltdown you will want to sell everything and more!

You will have to control your emotions and have the stomach to weather the inevitable periods of market turbulence.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

 

2. Becoming extremely risk-averse and freezing up even if action is clearly needed

Most market corrections are short-lived and while painful in the short-term they barely register on the long-term map. For example, in 2018 we have already had a couple of equity market corrections but in each case, the market recovered its losses fairly quickly.

No harm, no foul! Doing nothing or standing pat works just fine when markets recover.

The bigger problem for investors is when corrections take on a bigger life and become outright market crashes.  For example, the S&P 500 was down three straight years from 2000 to 2002.  What do you do when the roof seems to be caving in?

Many DIY investors close their eyes and pretend that this is not happening to them. They get frozen and choose to ignore reality.  This is not an abnormal reaction at all for us humans, but we also know that small problems many times lead to big problems if we do not address the underlying issue.

Wishing the problem away does not work.  From the field of behavioral finance, we know that investors tend to hang on to their losing investments way too long.  The flipside is that research has also shown investors to sell their winners way too soon. This effect is known as the disposition effect.

The price of financial assets such as stocks is a function of fundamentals (growth and profitability), the fair price of those fundamentals (investment multiples) and the sentiment of buyers and sellers.

During a period of crisis, the tendency of DIY investors is to focus almost exclusively on sentiment. When sellers want out now and buyers are scarce the price will automatically come down.

You observe falling prices and you get more and more uncomfortable.  But is there any real economic information in investor sentiment?

Experienced investors while not immune to the same feelings of fear will look at the underlying fundamentals and the value of those fundamentals. Experienced investors know that investor sentiment is fickle and lacks much predictive ability.

Has something changed recently to warrant this drop in market values? Are growth rates and profitability permanently impaired, or is the market overreacting? Are investors reacting to the perception of market over-valuation? These are all questions that require some real expertise and most importantly an understanding of context.

There is no cookie cutter way to analyze market action making the experience in similar conditions coupled with knowledge of historical market behavior all that much more valuable.

DIY investors often lack an understanding of context and an assessment of prospective fundamentals in the face of wildly fluctuating capital market conditions. The tendency by many is to stand pat, but what if changing market fundamentals require a change in portfolio positioning?  Intentional investing often requires action.

3. Failing to assess the changing risk levels of their portfolios

A frequent mistake made by DIY investors is to focus almost exclusively on returns and ignore the risk and correlation structure of their portfolios.

Much of the thought behind DIY investing hinges on ideas derived from Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) but somehow you hardly ever hear DIY investors justify changing allocations based on the volatility structure and composition of their portfolios.

A related mistake is to often assume diversification benefits that often are not there when you need them most.  A good read on “fake diversification” can be found here.

Ignoring changing asset volatility and correlation is a serious mistake made by many non-professional investors.  In fact, one could say that by ignoring the volatility structure of portfolios DIY investors are ignoring some of the lowest hanging fruit available.

As Nobel Prize Winner Harry Markowitz once said: “diversification is the only free lunch provided by capital markets”.

As capital markets change over time so will the risk characteristics of a portfolio even if rebalanced periodically to static weights. 

In a study done a couple of years ago on portfolio rebalancing, I showed just how much stock and bond volatility and correlations can change over time.

Figure 1

Source: Global Focus Capital LLC

Stock volatility, in particular, can move quite a bit around. Bond volatility while still variable shows much lower variability.  And, correlations between stocks and bonds can move between positive and negative values implying large changes in diversification potential for a portfolio.

Say, a DIY investor has a portfolio composed of 60% US stocks and 40% US Bonds. The DIY investor diligently rebalances this portfolio every month so that the weights stay in sync. What would this 60/40 portfolio look like in terms of volatility?

Using the above study over the 2000 to 2016 period, the average volatility of this 60/40 portfolio would average 8%.  Assuming that the average volatility would not change much would be a mistake. The range of volatility goes from 4% to 15% as shown in Figure 2.

Even the old standby 60/40 portfolio exhibits wildly fluctuating levels of portfolio risk.  A 4% volatility level implies a much lower level of potential downside risk compared to a portfolio with a volatility of 15%.  Experienced investment professionals inherently understand this and often seek to target a narrower pre-defined range of portfolio volatility.

Figure 2

Source: Global Focus Capital LLC

DIY investors do not often construct portfolios targeting an explicit range of risk. Instead, the often hidden assumption is that over the long-term asset returns, volatilities and correlations will gravitate toward their “normal” levels. These assumptions are not supported by the empirical evidence.

For DIY investors, changing levels of volatility and correlations can cause significant changes to the risk/returns characteristics of their portfolios. For example, volatility tends to spike up during periods of capital market stress and remain low when markets are trending up.

Also, correlations among investments within the same asset class (broadly speaking equities, bonds and alternatives) tend to also jump up during periods of crisis leading many to question the benefits of asset diversification.  What investors should be questioning instead is why they did not re-adjust their portfolios to reflect the changing conditions.

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Conclusion:

DIY investing is here to stay. Many non-investment professionals have educated themselves as to the virtues of retaining control over their portfolios. After all, DIY investors are saving themselves the fee that they would normally pay their advisor for managing their portfolio.

When markets trend up and volatility is low, DIY investors will typically fully participate in the gains.

But there is another “cost” that DIY may be incurring on their own that often rears its ugly head especially during periods of capital market turbulence.

We are all human and we suffer from the same biases and fears. The difference is that experienced professional investors have the advantage of having seen similar periods of capital market stress before and possess a more nuanced perspective of normal capital market behavior.

DIY investors tend to make three types of mistakes during a crisis – they chuck it all in a panic, they freeze up and do nothing, and, lastly, they ignore changing levels of portfolio volatility.

Professional investors while prone to the same fears as the DIY crowd are better positioned to focus their attention on the fundamentals of investment performance -growth, profitability & valuation – that ultimately drive portfolio values.

Experience and knowledge gained over many market cycles are at a premium when your portfolio most needs it.  At Insight Financial Strategists we are experts in integrating your financial planning needs with your investments.

You do not have to go at it alone and compete against the pros.  Our investment approach is rooted in the latest academic research and implemented using low-cost investment vehicles.

Interested in talking? Please schedule a complimentary consultation here.

 

May 15

5 Symptoms of “Fake” Portfolio Diversification

By Eric Weigel | Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

5 Symptoms of “Fake” Portfolio Diversification

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

What You Need To Do Immediately Diversification is one of the core concepts of investment management yet it is also one of the least understood .

In many ways diversification is like apple pie and motherhood – good for you and always taken at face value without any real introspection.

Investors throw out lots of platitudes about their portfolios being diversified.  Financial literature often contains allusions to diversification but do Main Street people really understand this important concept?

Understanding the portfolio diversification concept is not an academic nicety. Proper diversification is crucial for growing your wealth and managing through the inevitable ups and downs of financial markets .

Think of portfolio diversification benefits in the same way you think about insurance on your house. When nothing bad happens you go on and maybe for a second you think about whether you really need this form of protection.

But when something bad happens like a stock market crash or a tree falls on your garage, you do not even think for a nano second as to what you paid for the protection.  Whatever the price was, it was well worth it!

The portfolio diversification concept is, however, different from typical insurance in some important ways.  When you buy insurance on your house you have a contract regarding the conditions under which the insurer will pay, how much, and importantly a maximum out of pocket deductible.

With portfolio diversification there is no such contract and especially there is no set deductible capping your losses.  When somebody says “my portfolio is diversified” it can mean a million things .  But does it mean what you think it does?

The devil is always in the details, right?  You may think that your portfolio is diversified because nothing bad has happened yet. Or, you may think that your portfolio is diversified because your advisor said so. Who knows?

Or maybe you read a mutual fund advertisement stating that the fund you own has investments in a large number of industries.  Sometimes people think sprinkling their money across a large number of funds with different names means that they are diversified .

Why the confusion? Without getting too technical, diversification can mean a whole lot of different things depending on the context.

Properly understanding the context and what diversification means is difficult for non-financial people to wrap their hands around.  And that is a big problem and why investors often fail to capitalize on what Nobel Prize winner Harry Markowitz once called the only free lunch in financial markets .

When typical investors hear the word diversification they think protection against portfolio losses. If you are diversified, your losses will be less than if you are not diversified, right? During a stock market meltdown such as 2008 your diversified portfolio should do ok, right?

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Should you just assume that you are diversified?

Probably not. Remember the old saying – assume makes an a** out of you and me!  Better be safe than sorry when it comes to your financial health.

Let’s start with some basics. Very simply put, diversification means that you are not exposed to any one investment type determining the bulk of your portfolio returns.  One investment will neither kill nor make your whole portfolio.

A diversified portfolio contains investments that behave differently. While some investments zig, others zag.  When one investment is up big, you might have another one that is down.  Your portfolio ends up in the middle somewhere.  Never as high as your best performing investment and never as low as your worst nightmare investment.

Asset classes such as bonds and stocks have very different behavior patterns. Sometimes these differences get lost in jargon such as risk and return or the efficient frontier concept.

You don’t need a PhD from MIT or Chicago to understand the concept of diversification but pay attention as the details are important.

Why do you own stocks in your portfolio? Why do you own bonds and, say, real estate? Why do you have some money stashed away in an emergency fund at the local bank?

I know these questions may  seem a bit sophomoric but knowing the “why” for each of your investments is important to understanding how well prepared you are to withstand periods of financial market stress.

Most people already know that when economic times are good, stocks will typically go up more than bonds but when there is a crisis the reverse will often occur.

The whole point of owning stocks, bonds and potentially other major asset classes as a mix is to protect your portfolio from bad things happening.

Sure we would all love to get the upside of stocks without any downside but in reality nobody has the foresight to tell us in advance (please avoid subscribing to that doom and gloom publication that just popped up in Facebook) when stocks will collapse and when they will thrive.  Anybody up to buying some snake oil?

Diversification is not necessary if you have a direct line to the capital market gods. If you are a mere mortal proper diversification is absolutely necessary to ensuring you remain financially healthy.

Spreading your bets around, mixing a variety of asset classes, hedging your bets, not putting all your eggs in one basket – whatever your favorite phrase is you also need to live it. Diversification is one of those good habits that you should practice consistently!

With that warning in mind, what are 5 telltale signs that your portfolio may let you down when you need it the most?

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Symptom 1: Your portfolio is nothing more than a collection of funds you have accumulated over time  

Accumulating investments over time is a very common practice.  People sometimes get enamored with a certain investment type such as tech in the late 90’s and when things don’t pan out they are reluctant to sell the investment.

Not dissimilar to hanging on to that old dusty treadmill in the basement or that collection of Bennie Babies in the attic.  Many individual investors are hoarders without admitting it.

Sometimes it is as simple as when people change jobs leaving behind a 401(K).

Solution: Research each one of your funds. For example if you own the Alger Large Cap Growth fund (ACAAX) use a free tool such as Morningstar to do some basic research.

But let me warn you – looking only at past returns will tell you much about the past but virtually nothing about the future.  Ruthlessly eliminate funds that you don’t understand, have high fees or simply do not fit the style that you’re looking for. Don’t eliminate funds based solely on past performance.

Symptom 2: The more funds and strategies the more diversified my portfolio  

Some people think that if you own a lot of different funds or investments you are automatically diversified. A bit of this and a bit of that. Some growth, some value, a sprinkling of emerging markets and a Lifestyle fund thrown in the mix.  There is no rhyme or reason for any of this, but many people use this approach, right?

This is a very common mistake of investors.  A lot of funds of the similar ilk does not make a diversified portfolio. It makes for keeping track of many more things, but not necessarily things that matter to your financial health.

Owning a large number of investments does not mean that you are diversified.  It probably means that you or your advisor are confused about how to construct a portfolio. You can actually be much more diversified with a small number of uncorrelated investments – the number of investments is immaterial.

Solution: Less is often better when it comes to your investments. Too many funds means extra confusion.  Simplify to a small number of funds that will serve as your core portfolio holdings.  Think of these funds as the pillars holding up your financial house.

Choose low cost funds that you will be comfortable holding for decades.  Hint – focus on a small number of broad based index funds covering stocks and bonds.

Photo by Natalie Rhea Riggs on Unsplash

Symptom 3: Your portfolio contains lots of investments with the same “theme”

Sounds like you have a fun portfolio when things go well but a nightmare when they don’t.  People fall in love with investment themes all the time.  They ride the theme hard not properly understanding that market sentiment is often fickle and can change on a dime.

In the late 90’s it was all about the internet.  Many people loaded up on the sector and lost their shirt soon after.

We have had more biotech booms and busts than probably for any other sector over the last 30 years .  Many of the biotech stars of old unfortunately were sold for cents on the dollar despite promising early findings.

Starting in mid-2017 the buzz was all about cryptocurrencies.  Many investors especially those too young to have experienced a stock market meltdown went head first into the craze and now probably are licking their wounds.

Solution: Theme investing is risky. Identifying the next emerging technology or the next Amazon or Google has a very low probability of success. Even the most seasoned venture capital firms thread lightly when it comes to the “new, new” thing.  You should too!

If you really understand a theme think about how long it will take for the mainstream to adopt it in mass.   Invest only a small percentage of your portfolio. For the rest of us, best to keep our greed in check and just say, no!

Symptom 4: All your investments are in the same asset class

This is a variation of the previous issue.  Sometimes you hear people say, “I am just a bond guy”. Or, maybe they say “I am a stock jockey”. People come to identify with their investments as a badge of honor without realizing the consequences to their financial health.  As my mother would say, “do things in moderation”. I still think that this is great advice whether it is about eating or investing.

The problem with just owning investments in one asset class is that you do not get the main course of the free lunch. You get the appetizer, but then you are shooed out of the room.

Diversification within an asset class such as stocks or bonds is not nearly as powerful as diversification across divergent asset classes

What do you mean?

Let’s take the case of stocks. In any given day, most stocks tend to move up or down together.  When the overall equity market (say the S&P 500) is up big for the day, you only find a very small percentage of stocks down for the day.  Similarly, when the broad equity market experiences a meltdown you will unfortunately only find a handful of stocks that went up for the day.

Same applies to bonds but the herding effect is even stronger.  Take the case of US bonds of a similar maturity, say 10 years.  This cohort of bonds moves in a pack all taking their lead from the 10 Year US Treasury.  If the 10 Year Treasury moves up, the vast majority of bonds move up in lockstep.  Same on the downside. Just like sheep.

Sure, some stocks or bonds will do better than others. Overall, securities within an asset class tend to move up or down together.  Call it a sister or brotherhood, while major asset classes relate to each other more as distant cousins.

Solution: For most people it makes sense to hold investments in all the key asset classes.  The three main asset classes that you should own are stocks, bonds and real estate.

Don’t get too cute. If you own a home you probably already have enough real estate exposure.

Why should you own stocks? For growing your nest egg over the long-term.  Sure stocks can be incredibly volatile, but if you plan to hold your stock investments for say longer than 10 years, history tells us that you can potentially maximize the growth of your portfolio. For a good review of the long-term power of stock investing read our recent blog.

Why own bonds? Historically, people held bonds for the yield and stability.  In the current low interest rate environment, focus on stability but keep an eye out for a more normal interest rate environment.  In the US we are already moving in that direction as the Federal Reserve hikes rates and Europe is not that far behind.

But, why is the stability of bonds useful? Mainly as an anchor to your stock investments. Bonds tend to do well during period of stock market stress so they tend to offset some of your losses.

Because bonds tend to be less than 1/3 as volatile as stocks holding a combination of bonds and stocks in your portfolio will dampen valuation changes in your accounts.  The value of your holdings will still be heavily influenced by movements in your stock holdings.  Your account values will, however, not fluctuate as much.  Is this worth it to you?

For many people holding bonds allows them to sleep better at night especially when equity markets go through the inevitable corrections.  A good night’s sleep is a prerequisite for a happy life.

A diversified mix of stocks, bonds and real estate is usually a great starting point for building your long-term financial wealth while allowing you to sleep well at night. Don’t overthink it.

Photo by Jonas Kaiser on Unsplash

Symptom 5: Your portfolio has never gone through a tough market environment

Given the low level of capital market volatility that we have had in the last few years, I would not be at all surprised to see people who dismiss the need for diversification.  After all if you just pick your investments wisely why should you worry?

Somebody that has been riding the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) stocks for a number of years probably does not see any need for bonds in their portfolio. Maybe they got a hint that they should diversify a bit during the February 2018 mini-correction but all seems to be forgotten three months later.

Go back to the late 90’s. Investors were riding AOL, Cisco, Dell, and Microsoft.  Very few individual investors saw the implosion that was about to hit and obliterate equity portfolios.

For example, investors in the Technology SPDR ETF (XLK) were riding high on the hog until March 1, 2000 when the XLK hit $60.56.  By July 1, 2002 the price had dropped to $14.32 – a horrific 76% decline from the peak.  It took until late 2017 for the XLK to hit its March 1, 2000 peak. That is a long time to wait to breakeven!

You don’t need diversification when things are going well. You only need it when the bottom is falling out from one of your investments.  Every single investor in the world has gone through a rough performance patch and nobody is immune to the pain and agony of market crashes such as 1987, 2000-2002 and 2008-2009.

Solution: Stress test your portfolio or at a minimum ask yourself what would happen if certain events of the past repeated themselves.

For most people it is far wiser to leave a bit of money on the table by diversifying across asset classes than go head first into a market crash.

Could you withstand a sudden 20% daily loss in the stock market? How about a couple of years of major losses such as over the 2000-2002 period? Would you have the stomach to weather these storms?

Many times the tension is between your rational side and your emotions.  Behavioral research shows that most times the emotional side wins out.  Most investors panic during corrections because they are not properly diversified.

Investing is fun when capital markets are going up and everybody is making money.  Equity market corrections and, heaven forbid, crashes are extremely stressful for the vast majority of investors.

Having a little bit of a cushion can mean the difference between emotionally and financially staying with your investing plan and chucking it all at what may turn out the most painful time.

Recovering from painful events is especially difficult when your state of mind is poor and your pocket book is much lighter than before.

Making decisions under stress is never optimal.  Self-improvement experts always talk about making decisions while in peak states, not when you are emotionally down.

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

 

________________________________________________________

Conclusion:

Nobel Prize winner Harry Markowitz called portfolio diversification in finance its only free lunch.  Most people agree with his statement and attempt to build diversification into their investment strategies.

But the devil is in the details.  Many people remain confused by the term and its impact on their financial health.

But understanding portfolio diversification is not an academic nicety – it materially affects your financial health

For most investors the relevant context for diversification involves the key broad asset classes of stocks, bonds and real estate.

If you like smoother rather than bumpier rides, portfolio diversification is for you. You will sleep better at night especially when equity markets go haywire.

Investors can easily fall in the trap of thinking that their portfolios are diversified or that they do not need any diversification.

Making too many assumptions is not a good investment practice. Better to know in advance whether you have the mental fortitude and financial resources to weather the inevitable storms.

For technically oriented investors Portfolio Visualizer is a great free tool that allows you to estimate correlations among your list of funds.

For a more in-depth analysis of your portfolio’s true diversification consult a professional consultant experienced in portfolio construction issues.  You will get a lot more than simple correlations among your funds. You will get a full picture of the risk profile of your investments but keep in mind that ultimately the portfolio you own must work for you.

Your ideal portfolio must be designed in relation to your goals and needs while allowing you to sleep at night.  Only a comprehensive wealth management assessment can give you the level of detail required.

We are expert portfolio construction professionals and would glad help you assess the quality of your portfolio.  Don’t assume that you are diversified.  Contact the team at Insight Financial Strategists  for a free initial consultation.

At Insight Financial Strategists we are your fiduciaries. Our advice is focused solely on our view of your best interests. As fee only practitioners, our interests are aligned with yours.

May 14

4 Counter-Intuitive Steps to Take Now to Make Your 401(k) Rock

By Eric Weigel | Financial Planning , Investment Planning , Retirement Planning

4 Counter-Intuitive Steps to Take Now to Make Your 401(k) Rock

With the demise of traditional defined benefit plans, 401(k)’s provide the most popular way for individuals to save for their retirement.

401(k)’s are also the second largest source of US household wealth right behind home equity.

According to the Investment Company Institute there were over 55 million active participants in 401(k) plans plus millions of former employees and retirees as of the end of last year. The amount of money is staggering at $5.3 trillion as of the end of 2017.

Given the importance of 401(k)’s to US household financial health you would think that plan participants would watch their balances like a hawk and actively manage their holdings.

Some people do, but the vast majority of people do not truly understand what they own or why.  Most people know that the more they contribute to their 401(k) the higher their ending balances are going to be, but beyond that there is a lot of confusion.

Many people do not make 401(k) choices naturally. Many participants do not even know where to begin when it comes to:

  • What funds to select

  • How much to allocate to each fund

  • Deciding on the proper amount of risk to take

  • Understanding how their 401(k) fits in with the rest of their financial picture

When given a choice, people usually start with the issue or problem that they perceive as the easiest to figure out, not necessarily the one of greatest importance.

Many  people approach the problem of how to invest their 401(k) in a simplistic manner.

Many  401(k) participants start off by selecting funds. For most participants this is not an easy choice, but in comparison to the other issues this one appears manageable.

But sadly, 401(k) participants are getting it backwards by picking funds first. They are not framing the problem correctly.

Picking funds before figuring out your goals and objectives is like picking furniture before you know the size and shape of your dining room.  It might work out but it would involve a lot of luck.  Do you want to count on luck when it comes to your financial future?

A different way of addressing the challenge  is to start the other way around. Start with the end goal in mind.

Re-frame the problem to first figure out what you are trying to do.  You want your 401(k) to work for you and your family, right? Sound like a better starting point?

Without knowing what you are trying to do and what really matters to you putting money into your 401(k) loses meaning.

 

What funds to select

First figure out for yourself why you are taking money out of your paycheck to put into your 401(K).  What is your “why”?

The answer may be obvious to you, but when money gets tight due to some unforeseen life event you will be glad that you have a tangible picture for its ultimate use.

Visualize what you are going to do with that money. Is it for a retirement full of adventure? Is it for buying that dream sailboat that you’ll take around the world? Or, is it simply to preserve your lifestyle once you retire? Money has no intrinsic value if you don’t spend it on things that matter to you and your family.

 

 “Money cannot buy peace of mind.

It cannot heal ruptured relationships, or build meaning into a life that has none.”

Richard M. DeVos, Billionaire Co-founder of Amway, Owner of Orlando Magic

 

So, if starting with the end in mind makes sense to you, let’s take a look at the four counter-intuitive steps that you can take now to make your 401(k) work for you. Figure 1 lays it all out.

Figure 1

Step 1: Define what matters to you and inventory your resources

Visualize your goals and objectives for the type of life you and your family want to lead.  Don’t just think about your retirement – think as broadly as possible.

Close your eyes, visualize, pour a nice glass of cabernet for you and your partner before you have the “talk”, write it down in your journal – whatever approach gets you out of your everyday busy persona and makes you focus on what you really want out of life.

How do you want to use your money to accomplish this lifestyle?

Maybe you and your spouse want to engage in missionary work  in 10 years. Maybe you also need to fund college expenses for your children? Maybe you see a lakefront house in the near future?  There is no cookie cutter approach when it comes to people’s dreams! It’s up to you to make them up.

Your 401(k) assets are just one component of your household wealth .  Think about your other assets and financial obligations.  And don’t forget to include your partner’s or spouse’s.

Your house, your emergency fund, investments in mutual funds, possibly a little inheritance, company stock. Almost forgot, your spouse’s 401(k)  and that condo that he/she bought before you met.  Take a comprehensive inventory of your assets.

How much debt do you have? That is part of your financial picture as well. Do you anticipate paying your mortgage off in the next few years?

Wealth managers talk about a concept called the household balance sheet. It’s the same idea that financial analysts use when evaluating a company.  In the corporate world you have assets, liabilities and the difference is net worth.  In your own world you have assets, obligations and unfunded goals, and net worth is the difference.

Sounds a bit harsh when it involves you, right? Don’t take it personally. The key idea is taking an inventory of what you own, what you owe and then matching that up to your goals and aspirations.

 

Step 2. How aggressive do you need to be while being able to sleep at night

The whole idea of saving and investing is about making your goals and aspirations a reality.  If you already have enough assets to fund your desired lifestyle into perpetuity then you don’t really have to worry too much about investing.  Just preserve what you got!

If you are like most people, you need to make your investments work for you. You need a return on your assets.

It’s a good idea to be realistic about goals and objectives.  Are your goals reachable? Is there only a tiny probability of reaching them?

Are your goals a stretch, reachable with some effort, or a slam dunk?

Your answer will dictate how aggressive you will need to be in your investment strategy.

  • If your goals are a stretch you need high return/high risk investments – be ready for a volatile ride and many highs and lows
  • If your goals are within reach using conservative asset class return assumptions you need a moderate return/moderate risk portfolio – you will still experience fluctuations in your portfolio that will leave you feeling anxious at times, but the periods of recovery will more than make up for the periods of stress
  • If your goals are a slam dunk, you are lucky and you will only need low return/safe investment strategies – your portfolio values will not fluctuate much in the short-term but your portfolio will also not grow much in size

To some extent this is the easy part.  There is a link between risk and return in the capital markets. Higher risk usually translates over long periods of time into higher returns. Equities do better on average than bonds and bonds in turn do better than money market investments. So far so good.

Figuring out the required rate of return to fund your goals and objectives given your resources involves math but little emotional contribution.

But what about your emotions?

This is the tricky part.  Many people are able to conceptualize risk in their heads, but are entirely unable to deal with their emotions when they start losing money.

They think of themselves as risk takers but can’t stand losing money.  They panic every time the stock market takes a dip. It does not matter why the market is tanking – they do not like it and run for the exits.

But an honest assessment of both your need to take risk as well as your comfort level with investment fluctuations is necessary in managing your long-term financial health. You will see massive cracks if these two dimensions of risk are not aligned.

Let’s examine a simple situation where we classify your need and comfort level with investment risk in three states: low, medium and high.

Figure 2 lays out all the possibilities.  Ideally, your two dimensions of risk will match up directly.  For example, if your need for risk is low and your comfort level with taking risk is low you are all set. Same if you need a high risk/high return strategy to meet your goals and objectives and you are comfortable experiencing significant fluctuations in your portfolio.

Figure 2

The real problem for you is, however, when the two dimensions of risk are not aligned. You’ll need to resolve these differences as soon as possible to regain any hope of financial health.

Let’s say you are really risk averse. You fear losing money. Your worst case scenarios (bag lady, eating cat food) keep popping up in your nightmares.  If your goals and objectives are ambitious in relation to your resources (high need for risk) those nightmares will not go away and you will live in fear.

You can do one of two things – learn to live with fear or, scale back your goals and objectives.  There is no right or wrong answer – it’s up to you but you must choose.

What if you are comfortable taking on lots of investment risk? Would you like a low risk/low return portfolio? Probably not. In fact, such a portfolio would probably drive you crazy even if you did not need any higher returns.

People comfortable with investment risk frequently suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO). They think that they should be doing better. They want to push the envelope whether they need to or not.

FOMO is as damaging of an emotion as living in fear.  Both states spell trouble. You will need to align both dimensions of risk to truly get that balance in your financial life.

 

Step 3. Determine the asset allocation consistent with your goals and risk preferences

Sounds like a mouthful, right? Let’s put it in plain English.  First of all, the term asset allocation simply refers to how much of your investment portfolio you are putting into the main asset classes of stocks, bonds and cash/bills.

Sure, we can get more complicated than that.  In our own research we use ten asset classes, but in reality breaking up the global equity and bond markets into finer breakouts is important but not critical for the average individual investor.

Figuring out the right range of stocks, bonds and cash is much more important than figuring out whether growth will outperform value or whether to include an allocation to real estate trusts. Do the micro fine tuning later once you have figured out your big picture asset allocation.

All right, since we are keeping things simple let’s look at some possible stock/bond/cash allocations. We are going to use information from our IFS article on risk and return. As a reminder the data used in these illustrations comes courtesy of Professor Aswath Domodaran from NYU and covers US annual asset returns from 1928 to 2017.

Table 1

The top half of the table shows the performance and volatility of stocks, bonds and cash/bills by themselves. From year to year there is tremendous variability in returns but for the sake of simplicity you can use historical risk and returns statistics as a rough guide.

Here is what you should note:

  • If you need high risk/high portfolio returns and you can take the volatility go with a stock portfolio with average historical returns of 12%. On a cumulative basis nothing comes close to stocks in terms of wealth creation but you should expect a bumpy ride
  • If you only need low risk/low returns and you are extremely risk averse go with cash/bill type of portfolios returning, on average, 3%. This portfolio is probably just going to keep up with inflation
  • If you have a medium tolerance for risk and medium need for taking risk then you will likely gravitate toward a combination of stocks, bonds and cash
  • There is an infinite number of combinations of asset class weights – the three asset allocations in the bottom panel of Table 1 may very well apply to you depending on your risk tolerance, need for return and time horizon

What about the stock/bond/cash mixes?

  • The 60% stock/40% bond allocation has over this 1928-2017 period yielded a 9% return with a 12% volatility. Historically, you lost money in 21% of years but if you are a long-term investor the growth of this portfolio will vastly outstrip inflation
  • The 40% stock/60% bond portfolio is a bit less risky and also has lower average yields. When a loss occurs, the average percentage loss is 5%. This portfolio may appeal to a conservative investor that does not like roller coaster rides in his/her investment accounts and does not need the highest returns.
  • The 25% stock/50% bond/25% cash portfolio is the lowest risk/return asset class mix among our choices. Historically this portfolio yields an average return of 6% with a volatility also of 6%. This portfolio may appeal to you if you are naturally risk averse and have a low tolerance for portfolio losses, but you might want to also check whether these returns are sufficient to fund your desired goals and objectives

 

Step 4. It’s finally time to pick your funds

Yes, this is typically where people start. Many times people pick a bunch of funds based on a friend’s recommendation or simply based on the brand of the investment manager.  Rarely do people dig deep and evaluate the track record of funds.

A lot of people pick their funds and declare victory.  They are making a huge mistake. They are not framing the problem correctly.

The problem is all about how to make your 401(k) work for you in the context of your goals and objectives, your resources and your comfort with investment fluctuations.

Picking funds is the least important part.  You still have to do it but first figure out what matters to you, your need and comfort with risk and your target stock, bond, cash mix.

Once you have your target asset allocation go to work and research your fund options.  Easier said than done, right?

Here are some fund features that you should focus on:

  • Passive or Active Management – a passive fund holds securities in the same proportions as well-known indices such as the S&P 500 or Russell 2000. An active fund is deliberately structured to be different from an index in the hope of achieving typically higher returns
  • Fund Style – usual distinctions for equity funds are market capitalization, value, volatility, momentum and geographic focus (US, international, emerging markets). For bond funds the biggest style distinctions are maturity, credit and geographic focus
  • Risk Profile – loosely defined as how closely the fund tracks its primary asset class. Funds with high relative levels of risk will behave differently from their primary asset class. Accessing a free resource such as Morningstar to study the basic profile of your funds is a great starting point. For a sample of such a report click here
  • Fund expenses – these are the all in costs of your fund choices. Lower costs can translate into significant savings especially over long periods of time.  In general, index funds tend to be lower cost than actively managed funds

Understanding what makes a good fund choice versus a sub-optimal one is beyond the financial literacy and attention span of most plan participants.

For most people a good rule of thumb to use is to allocate to at least two funds in each target asset class.

Let’s make this more concrete. Say your target asset allocation is 60% stocks and 40% bonds.  Most 401(k) plans have a number of stock and bond funds available.

What should you do? A minimalist approach might entail choosing an S&P 500 index fund and an actively managed emerging market equity fund placing 30% in each. This maybe appear a bit risky to some so maybe you only put 10% in the emerging market fund and 20% in a US small capitalization fund.

Same on the bond side where you might allocate 20% to an active index fund tracking the Bloomberg US Aggregate index and 20% in a high yield actively managed option.

Let your fund research dictate your choice of funds.  You should keep things simple.

Know what funds you own and why.  Keep your fund holdings in line with your asset allocation.  Spreading your money into a large number of fund options does not buy you much beyond unneeded complexity.

Most of your 401(k) performance will be driven by your target asset allocation anyway. 

Picking funds that closely match the risk and return characteristics of your asset classes (say stocks and bonds) is good enough.

Trying to micro-manage the selection of funds will not likely lead to a huge difference in overall portfolio returns.

______________________

Conclusion:

The task facing you in managing your 401(k) may seem daunting at times.  You may feel out of your own depth.

You are not alone but if you reverse the usual way in which most participants manage their 401(k)’s you should gain greater control over your long-term financial health.

Start with the end in mind. What is this money for? Think about your life goals and objectives.  Depending on your resources, you will need to figure what type of risk/return portfolio combination you will need as well as how comfortable you are dealing with the inevitable investment fluctuations.

Lastly, keep it simple when choosing your funds.  You have figured out the important stuff already.   Pick at least a couple of funds in each of your target asset classes by performing some high level research from sites such as Morningstar and MarketWatch.

Keep in mind that more funds do not translate into higher levels of diversification if they are all alike. Know what you own and why.

If this is all just too much for you, consider hiring Insight Financial Strategists to review your 401(k) investment allocations.  We will perform a comprehensive analysis of your asset allocation and fund choices in relation to your stated goals and objectives while also keeping your expressed risk preferences in mind.

The analysis will set your mind at ease and make your 401(k) work for you in the most effective manner. We are a fee based fiduciary advisor, which means we are obligated to act solely in your best interest when making investment recommendations.

 

 

 

Apr 13

Capital Market Perspectives – April 2018

By Eric Weigel | Capital Markets , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Capital Market Perspectives - April 2018

 

Photo by Dawn Armfield on Unsplash

The last couple of months have tested investors.  In a sense, we all got lulled by the wonderful returns of last year and any hiccup was bound to create some stress.

The talk at the end of 2017 was all about tax cuts and the short-term boost that lower tax rates would provide to consumer spending and the bottom-line of US corporations.

For the first month of the year, things couldn’t have been going better for equity investors. Bond investors while not exactly sitting in the catbird’s seat were slowly adapting to the inevitable rise in yields.

Emerging market equities, in particular, jumped ahead and the mood among global investors was one of optimism.  Market commentators were even talking about a stock market melt-up!

Two months later the mood has changed drastically. Investors are nervous and we have already witnessed two small corrections in the equity markets.

Figure 1

Source: FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data), Insight Financial Strategists, April 2018

The first mini-correction attributed to rising inflationary expectations took the S&P 500 from a peak of 2873 on January 26 to a low of 2581 on February 8. The 11% drop while not unprecedented was keenly felt by investors accustomed to the record low levels of volatility seen in the last year. It felt like going from a newly paved highway to a dirt road without any warning signs!
 

Were rising inflationary expectations to blame for the early February stock market fall?  Our research did not support this story.  We had been seeing a slow rise in inflationary expectations for about a year but US Inflation Protected Note prices containing the market’s consensus forecast of inflation over the next 5 and 10 years did not exhibit any significant upward pressure.

Inflation in the US seems to be fairly range bound with the latest year over year reading of 2.3% (February). Inflationary expectations as of April 6 for the next 5 years stand at 2.0% and for 10 years out at 2.1%.

The market implied forecast may turn out to be too benign, but for now, our own view of economic conditions in the US is closely aligned with these market-based expectations.

A number of events could have caused the early February correction, but in the context of long-term capital market history, we think that this episode will appear as a mere blip on price charts. Rising inflationary expectations do not seem a likely culprit for this episode of equity market stress.

Figure 2

Source: Quandl, FRED, Insight Financial Strategists, April 2018

What about the most recent late March equity market drawdown? US equity market markets staged a strong recovery from the February lows with the S&P 500 having recovered all but 3% of the losses from the January 26 peak. Since early March the global markets have, however, been on a roller coaster ride.  Up one day, down big the next. As of April 6, the S&P 500 has lost over 6% since March 9.

The second mini-correction of the year has re-tested the resolve of equity investors. Volatility levels have jumped up and have risen significantly from the lows of 2017. The intraday movement of markets (the difference between the high and low of the day) has been about 2X that of normal periods and 4X that experienced last year.

Figure 3

Source: Quandl, FRED, Insight Financial Strategists, April 2018

Market volatility has been historically low over the last few years but the large intraday swings we have been seeing this year are distressing to even seasoned investors.  John Bogle in a recent interview for Marketwatch commented that he had not seen such a volatile market in his lifetime. He was referring specifically to the huge intra-day moves seen over the last two weeks.

 What has caused this recent bout of stock market volatility? As always there are many possible reasons, but this time around we see a more direct link to the uncertainty surrounding a possible global trade war.

Markets do not react well to uncertainty especially to events that are both hard to quantify in terms of the probability of occurrence and the magnitude of consequences.

Trade wars are not everyday events.  The last time wholesale tariffs were imposed in the US happened in 1930 when the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed.  While economists will debate whether the Act exacerbated the Great Depression, in general, it is acknowledged that tariffs limit economic growth.

Free-trade has been a goal of most nations for the last 50 years. Gains from free trade provide a win-win outcome enabling producers to focus on goods and services where they enjoy a comparative advantage and consumers to reap the benefits through lower costs is one of the strongest held beliefs of modern economics.

Global trade of goods and services currently accounts for 27% of worldwide output (according to the OECD). Disrupting global trade by imposing tariffs on a large number of items seems reckless.  It is especially reckless when considering that we picked a fight with the world’s largest economy – China.  China also owns 19% of the outstanding supply of US Treasuries.

No doubt Chinese trade practices are unfair to US companies. Forcing US companies to transfer technical know-how to Chinese firms seems especially egregious given the state of China’s economic development.  China is the largest global economy and many of its technology companies are already global powerhouses.

Another bone of contention for some is the under-valuation of the yuan.  An undervalued currency is a huge weapon for increasing the attractiveness of a country’s exports.  However, it is not clear that the yuan is under-valued. According to an IMF report in July of 2017, the fair value of the yuan was roughly in line with market prices and fundamentals.

At first, the tariffs proposed by the Trump administration seemed fairly innocuous – washing machines and solar panels. Then on March 1, the US proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum.  Not good especially since many traditional allies of the US (mainly Canada and South Korea) would be the primary targets. Gary Cohn, the administration’s top economic advisor, resigned in protest sending shockwaves through the financial community. The S&P 500 reacted with a 1.34% loss for the day

However what really got the capital markets in a tissy was the announcement on March 22 of tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports.  The fight was on and it did not take very long for Chinese authorities to retaliate with in-kind tariffs on US goods.

The S&P 500 dropped 2.55% on March 22 and 2.12% on the next day.  Likewise, Chinese equity markets reacted quite negatively to the possibility of an all-out trade war with the US with the iShares China Large-Cap ETF (FXI) dropping 3.8% and 2.4% respectively on those days.

 

Where is this all going to end up? In an all-out trade war like after the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Act? Or, in serious bilateral negotiations between the US and China?

Our guess is that there are enough rational agents in both the US and Chinese administrations to avert an all-out trade war, but getting the negotiations going will not be easy and will take time.  China has already requested negotiations through the WTO Dispute Settlement Mechanism. Luckily there is at least a 60 day comment period separating talk and action.

The US is not likely to be a winner in a global trade war.  Nobody is really.  The most likely outcome is lower overall global growth and increased uncertainty – not a good recipe for capital markets especially in light of current above-average valuation levels.

 

The main problem for the US is that as a nation we are not saving enough.  The current net savings rate as a function of GDP currently stands at 1.3%. This number has been steadily trending down – the average since 1947 when numbers were first compiled is 6.6%.

The US balance of payments and trade deficits are a function of the imbalance between domestic savings and our thirst to grow and consume.  In 2017, the US had merchandise trade deficits with 102 countries. China is not our only problem!

Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail and that the disruption to global trade proves minimal.  Some of the damage has already been done as uncertainty has engulfed global capital markets.

The real economic damage of a global trade war is likely to be substantial.  Both equity and bond markets would come under significant stress.  Equities would likely take the most immediate hit as earnings growth, especially for multi-nationals, would drop significantly.

Bonds are also likely to take a hit as a likely reaction by the Chinese authorities would be to decrease their investments in the US Treasury market. Interest rates in the US would likely jump up causing pain to fixed income investors as well as worsening the federal budget deficit.

 

What do we expect in the intermediate-term from capital markets? While all this talk about trade wars and inflation scares may fill our daily news capture, it is worthwhile to remember that fundamentals drive long-term asset class performance.

In the short-term, capital markets can be heavily influenced by changing investor sentiment, but over the horizons that truly matter to most investors most periods of capital market stress tend to wash out.

Our current capital market perspectives assume that a trade war will not materialize.  Our views are informed by a number of proprietary asset class models updated as of the end of March.

Our current intermediate-term views reflect:

  • A preference for stocks over bonds despite their higher levels of risk
  • A desire for international over US equity based on valuation differentials and a depreciating US dollar – we especially like emerging market stocks
  • Within the fixed income market, we favor corporate bonds as we believe that economic conditions will remain robust and default risk will be contained
  • Small allocations to commodities as this asset class gradually recovers from the bear market it’s been in since the 2008 Financial Crisis
  • A reduction in our exposure to real estate as the asset class is being heavily penalized in the markets for its interest rate sensitivity
  • Minimal allocations to cash – the opportunity cost of holding large sums of low yielding cash is high especially for investors with a multi-year horizon
  • A return of risk on/off equity market volatility– this will surely stress investors without a solid plan for navigating market turbulence

 

 What should individual investors do while politicians flex their muscles? For starters evaluate your goals, risk attitude, spending patterns and investment strategy.  Make sure that the shoe still fits.  Capital markets are not static and neither are personal situations.

A long-term orientation and tactical flexibility will be a necessity for investors as they navigate what we think will be difficult market conditions over the next decade.

Such an approach will be especially important for individuals near or already in retirement. The sequence-of-returns-risk is especially important to manage in the years surrounding retirement when the individual will start drawing down savings.

Our approach at Insight Financial Strategists explicitly deals with this type of sequence-of-returns-risk by building the individual’s portfolio around the concept of goal-oriented buckets. Each bucket has a distinct goal and risk profile.

The short-term bucket, for example, while customized for each individual, has the overriding goal of providing a steady stream of cash flow to the individual.  This is the safe money designed to exhibit minimal volatility.

The goal of the intermediate-term bucket is different – this part of the portfolio is designed to grow the purchasing power of the individual in a risk-controlled manner. A sometimes bumpier ride is the price of growth for this bucket but the rewards should be more than commensurate with the additional risk taken.

Finally, the long-term bucket is designed to maximize the long-term appreciation of this portion of the portfolio.  This bucket will be the most volatile over the short term and is suitable for individuals with time horizons exceeding ten years and able and willing to withstand the inevitable periods of capital market stress.

Apr 13

Understanding Asset Class Risk and Return – Your Pocketbook and Psyche Will Thank You

By Eric Weigel | Capital Markets , Portfolio Construction , Risk Management

Investment risk is an inevitable part of capital markets.

 

Markets do not just go up as much as we wish for that to be always the case.

Sometimes capital markets experience stress and the draw-downs can be extremely uncomfortable to investors.

How investors react to periods of capital market stress is incredibly important.

Become too aggressive and you could end up with major short-term losses and your financial survival may be at stake.

On the other hand, become too cautious and you may end up excluded from any future capital market appreciation.

 

So, if risk is inevitable, what can you do about it? Being either extremely aggressive or extremely risk-averse are probably the least desirable options especially if you wait to act until there is a market meltdown.

In the first case, you may not be able to stay invested as short-term losses cripple your psyche and your pocketbook.  Even though you believe in your investments, your emotions will be tugging at you and second-guessing you.  This is the curse of being too early.

In the case where people become too risk-averse, being too cautious prevents you from making up the losses experienced during periods of capital market stress by participating in the good times. Most likely you second guess yourself and by the time you take the plunge back in you have probably already missed out on some large gains.  This is the curse of being too late.

 Investing is not easy especially when things go against you in the short-term. It is best to understand what you are getting yourself in and have a plan for when things go awry. As Mike Tyson once said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the nose”.

Getting punched in the nose is not an uncommon experience for stock market investors.  For bond market investors the experience is not as common but it still happens.

Understanding that investing can at times be brutally taxing on your pocketbook and psyche is an essential element of reaping the benefits of any investment plan. A great game plan is useless unless you have the ability to withstand the dark periods.

Investors are frequently confused by capital market behavior.  Over the short-term asset classes can go almost anywhere as investment sentiment is usually a strong driver of returns.  Market pundits attempt to provide some rationale for why things are moving in a certain direction, but in reality, most of what goes on from day to day in capital markets is usually nothing more than noise.

Markets are prone to bouts of over-confidence where all the bad news gets ignored and investors appear overly upbeat.  Other times, markets will be laser-focused on negative short-term events of little economic significance and investors will become overly pessimistic.  Even seasoned investment professionals feel sometimes that there is no rhyme or reason for what is happening to financial asset prices.

Over longer-term horizons, asset class fundamentals start being reflected in prices as investment sentiment becomes secondary.  Profits, valuations, profitability, growth potential become the drivers of prices.  Periods of stress are frequently forgotten and appear as mere blips on historical price charts.

One of the key tenets of long-term investing is that risk and return are inextricably tied together.   Without any risk, you should not expect any incremental returns. Investing is inherently risky as outcomes – short or long-term – cannot be predicted with total certainty.

Most investors understand that, on average, stocks do better than bonds but that the price of these higher returns is a lot more risk.  Investors also understand that longer-maturity bonds will do better most of the time than simply purchasing a CD at the local bank or investing in a money market mutual fund.

But beyond this high-level understanding of capital market behavior, there is lots of confusion. Gaining a better understanding of key asset class risk and return relationships will help you become a better-informed consumer of investment strategies.

Understanding what you are getting yourself in when evaluating different investment strategies could significantly alter your wealth profile for the better and allow you to take advantage of market panics rather than simply react to crowd psychology like most people.

To become an informed consumer of investment strategies the first step is understanding key asset class risk and return tradeoffs.  We use a dataset kindly provided online by Professor Aswath Damadoran at NYU to look at calendar year returns on US stock, bond and bill returns.  Bond returns proxy for a 10-year constant maturity US Treasury Note and bills correspond to a 3 month US t-bill.  US stocks are large capitalization stocks equivalent to the S&P 500. Figure 1 depicts the annual asset class returns since 1937.

The first thing that jumps out from the chart is the much higher level of return variability of stocks.

The second thing that jumps out is the incredible year over year smoothness of T-bill returns.  Bonds are clearly somewhere in between with volatility characteristics much more similar to bills.

The third thing that jumps out are the rare but eye-popping large equity market meltdowns such as during 1937, 1974, 2002 and 2008.  Lastly, of notice are the very large positive spikes in equity returns during years such as 1954, 1958, 1975, 1995 and 2013.

 Figure 1

What is not entirely clear from looking at the yearly return chart is the huge cumulative out-performance of stocks relative to both bonds and bills. Table 1 provides summary statistics on calendar year returns for each asset class.

Table 1


Key highlights:

  • Over the 1928-2017 period, stocks have returned on average 12% per year with an annual standard deviation of 20% year. Bonds are next in line with an average return of 5% and a volatility of 8%. Bills have had the lowest rate of return at 3% with a volatility of 3%. These numbers correspond to the usual risk/reward relationships that investors know all about.
  • In 27% of the years between 1928 and 2017, stocks have had a negative return. The average return when the market has gone down is -14%. Nobody likes losses but even bond investors saw negative returns in 18% of the years and when they happened the average loss was -4%. The only way never to lose money in any given year is to invest in bills.
  • If one had invested $100 in December 1927 and held that investment the ending portfolio value would be $399,886 – a huge rate of growth despite the infrequent yet terrifying equity market meltdowns. Bonds don’t come even close with an ending portfolio balance of $7,310. Playing it safe with bills would have yielded a portfolio value of $2,016.
  • From a cumulative wealth perspective, stocks are clearly the superior asset class but only if the investor is able to stomach the rare but large equity drawdowns and seeing losses in over a quarter of the years.
  • If the investor is seeking stability with no chance of principal loss, T-bills are the preferred asset class. The rewards compared to stocks will be meager, but the ride will be smooth and predictable.

 

What happens when you extend the holding period out to, say 10 years? Does the spikiness of stock market returns disappear? What about the frequency of down years?

Using the same data set as before and forming rolling 10-year holding returns starting in 1927 we observe in Figure 2 that some of the volatility of stocks and bonds has dissipated. Instead of spikes we now have mountains and slopes.

Figure 2

 

The chart on rolling 10-year returns exposes the massive cumulative out-performance of stocks during most ten-year holding periods.  There are instances of negative 10-year stock returns (6% as shown in Table 2) but they are swamped by the mountain of positive returns especially when viewed in relation to bond and bill returns.

We see only three periods when equity investors would have loved to play it safe and be either in bonds or bills – the early years post the Great Depression (1937-39), the Financial Crisis (2008-9), and economic stagnation and inflationary years starting in the mid-70s through the beginning of the equity bull market of 1982.  In the first two instances, equity holders lost money.  In the latter instance, equity investors enjoyed positive returns but below those of either bonds or bills.

Table 2

Some observations are in order:

  • As one extends the holding period from 1 to 10 years some of the spikiness of one-year returns is smoothed out – not every year is fantastic and not every year is terrible, periods of stress are usually followed by periods of recovery and so on
  • Over a ten year holding period stocks do not look as scary – only in 6% of our observations do we see a negative return. When those losses occur the average loss is 10% on a cumulative basis.
  • Rolling 10-year maturity bonds every year over a decade yields no periods in our sample where the strategy exhibits a loss. The same holds true for bills.
  • Investors able to extend holding periods from short to longer maturities such as ten years significantly lower their odds of seeing negative returns as confirmed in the empirical data

 

What happens when we mix and match asset classes? Does that help lower our probability of loss? We look at some typical multi-asset class mixes over one-year holding periods:

  • The 60/0/40 portfolio composed of 60% stocks and 40% bonds – a traditional industry benchmark
  • The 40/0/60 portfolio composed of 40% stocks and 60% bonds – a moderately conservative mix
  • The 25/50/25 portfolio composed of 25% stocks, 50% bills and 25% bonds – a conservative mix for a very risk-averse investor

Mixing asset classes is usually referred to as multi-asset class investing.  The premise for such an approach is based on the diversification benefits afforded by allocating in varying proportions to asset classes with their own unique risk and return characteristics.

It turns out that over the 1928-2017 period stocks were essentially uncorrelated to both bonds and bills.  The correlation between bonds and bills was 0.3.  Building portfolios with lowly correlated asset classes is hugely beneficial in terms of lowering the volatility of the multi-asset class mix.

Table 3

 

What are the main conclusions that we can reach when mixing asset classes with widely different risk and return characteristics?

  • When combining stocks, bonds, and bills in varying proportions we arrive at portfolio results that fall between those of equities and bonds
  • The traditional 60/0/40 portfolio had a lower frequency of negative returns compared to an all-equity portfolio, significantly lower volatility and a cumulative ending portfolio value only about a 1/3 as large. What you gain in terms of lower risk, you lose in terms of compound returns.
  • The 40/0/60 portfolio which represents a lower risk alternative to the investor lowers volatility (to 9%) but at the expense of also lowering average returns (to 8%) and especially cumulative wealth (ending value of $58,090)
  • The lowest risk multi-asset class strategy that we looked at – the 25/50/25 portfolio – had the lowest average returns (6%), lowest volatility (6%) and lowest long-term growth.
  • A key implication of multi-asset investing is by combining asset classes with disparate risk and return characteristics you can build more attractive portfolios compared to single asset class portfolios
  • Comparing two traditionally low-risk portfolios – 100% bonds and the 25/50/25 portfolio – demonstrates the benefits of multi-asset class investing. The multi-asset class portfolio not only has higher average returns but lower risk. The frequency of calendar year loss is smaller (11% compared to 18%) and the long-term portfolio growth is over 2X that of the all-bond portfolio.

 

Three very significant lessons emerge from our study of asset class behavior that can vastly improve your financial health.  The first relates to the holding period.  Specifically, by having a longer holding period many of the daily and weekly blips that so scare equity investors tend to wash away.

Equity investments do not look as volatile or risky when judged over longer holding periods of say 10 years.

The second lesson relates to the power of compounding. Small differences in average returns can yield huge differences in long-term cumulative wealth.  In terms of the multi-asset class portfolios – the 60/0/40 versus the 40/0/60 – yields only a 1% average return difference but a 2X difference over the 1928-2017 period.

Seemingly small differences in average calendar year returns can result in massive wealth differences over long holding periods.

The third lesson relates to diversification. By mixing together asset classes with varying risk and return characteristics we can significantly improve the overall attractiveness of a portfolio. Lower portfolio risk is achievable with proper diversification without a proportional sacrifice in terms of returns.   Properly constructing multi-asset class portfolios can yield vastly superior outcomes for investors.

 

Every investor needs to come to terms with the risk to reward relationships of major asset classes such as stocks, bonds, and bills.  Understanding the risk and return tradeoffs you are making is probably the most important investment decision affecting the long-term outcome of your portfolio.

Some investors can stomach the sometimes wild ride offered by stocks and choose to overwhelmingly use equity strategies in their portfolios. They don’t worry much about the daily vicissitudes of the stock market.  They accept risk in return for higher expected returns.

Not everybody, however, can stomach the wild ride that sometimes comes from owning stocks despite understanding that over the long-term stocks tend to better than bonds and bills.

Some investors are willing to leave a bit of money (but not too much, please) on the table in return for a smoother ride. They may elect to hedge some of the risks.  Or they may mix in varying proportions of risky and less risky asset classes and strategies.

Yet other investors are so petrified of losses and market volatility that they will forego any incremental return for the comfort and steadiness of a safe money market account. They choose to avoid risk at all costs.

 

Which is the better approach for you? Avoid all risks, save a lot and watch your investment account grow slowly but smoothly?

Or, take some risk, sweat like a nervous high schooler when capital markets go bust and grow your portfolio more rapidly but with some hiccups?

The answer depends on you – your needs, goals and especially your attitude toward risk and your capacity to absorb losses to your wealth.  If you already have a financial plan in place great. If you need help getting started or refining your plan, the team at Insight Financial is ready to share our expertise and bring peace of mind to your financial life. Book an appointment here.

Understanding that investing can at times be brutally taxing on your pocketbook and psyche is an essential element of reaping the benefits of any investment plan.  In subsequent articles, we will be exploring different ways of managing risk and structuring portfolios.

 

 

Feb 14

Key Insights Into Understanding Equity Market Corrections

By Eric Weigel | Capital Markets , Investment Planning , Portfolio Construction , Retirement Planning , Risk Management

correctionsCorrections, Recoveries and All That Jazz

Stock Market Corrections are tough on equity investors.  Over the last couple of weeks, there has been nowhere to hide – normally defensive strategies provided little relief.

After a long period of minimal equity market hiccups investors were reminded that the opposite side of the return coin involves risk.

Equities do better than bonds, on average, precisely because investors require compensation for the additional risk of their investments.

If risk and return are tied together why do investors get so nervous when suddenly equity markets go haywire?  Memories of 2008 come flooding back and investors get hyper fixated on relatively small market movements.

As of Friday, February 9, the S&P 500 had dropped 8.8% from its high of January 26.  Granted the drop has been swift and intraday market action (the difference between the high and low of the day ) has been off the charts, but you would have thought that we were on the verge of another Financial Crisis.

Figure 1 depicts the rolling 12 month returns on the S&P 500 as of the end of 2017. There are more periods of positive rather than negative returns as expected. We can also see that the downdrafts in recent years have been painful for investors – the implosion of the Technology Bubble (2000-2002) and the 2008 Financial Crisis still very much linger in investor minds today.

Figure 1

The key insight that investors need to come away with from looking at the history of stock market returns is that to get the good (those returns averaging 10% a year) you must be prepared financially and most importantly emotionally to endure the bad (those nasty corrections).

Investors need to remember that risk and return are the opposite side of the same coin.  They also need to understand the context in which market corrections take place.  While history always rhymes every equity market correction possesses unique elements that shape its ultimate effect on investors.

Understanding the market and economic context is incredibly important for everyday investing.  It is, however, absolutely critical for understanding the implications of equity market corrections and most appropriate course of action.

The point is that not all equity market corrections are made of the same cloth.  Some are deep and lasting. Some are deep and over before the eye blinks. Others last for a year or two and progress at a slower rate. And, finally other corrections turn into cataclysmic events that leave investors bruised for a long time.

Given the events of the last couple of weeks we understand the skittishness of equity investors. Last year was fantastic for investors.  We hardly had a hiccup in the last year. Investors started adapting to the environment – high returns and low volatility.

All the fireworks have come from Washington rather than Wall Street.  Yet, the lingering suspicion is that this party like all others before it must end at some time. Maybe it is just time, right?

We are professional wealth managers, not magicians or fortune readers. Nobody knows when the next big stock market crash will happen and least of all nobody knows the severity of the downturn.

At best, we can analyze the current equity market downturn and attempt to better understand the context in which current equity market prices started heading south.

While all equity market downturns are unique, for simplicity sake we categorize periods of extreme equity market distress into three distinct types of corrections – technical, economic and structural.  Each type of correction has its own distinct patterns and associated implications for investors. Not every moving animal in the woods is a Russian Bear!

stock market

Technical Correction:

This type of correction typically comes out of nowhere and takes market participants by surprise. One bad day for the stock market turns into 2 or 3 in a row and soon enough there is an avalanche of pundits predicting the next global crisis.

Maybe a bit surprising to some, pundits use perfectly logical arguments to justify their bearishness – inflation is about to spike up, the economy is tanking, earnings are coming down, there are no buyers left, and so forth.

All perfectly valid reasons for an equity market correction but the key characteristic of such prognostications is that they are mostly based on speculation and not rooted in contemporaneous economic trends. The arguments are more based on what we fear as opposed to what the current reality is.

Technical Corrections tend to occur on a regular basis especially for higher risk asset classes such as equities.  Long-term equity investors have seen these before and do not seem fazed by the market action.

Newer generations of investors, however, experience great fear and regret.  The immediate response is to sell down usually their most liquid holdings and wait for the market to calm down.  Maybe they will get in again after the panic is over.

Technical Corrections tend to last only about a week or two.  In the context of long-term capital market history they barely register to the naked eye. Boom they are gone, and people quickly forget what they just went through.  Technical corrections are learning opportunities but are most often quickly forgotten until the next blip.

Economic Corrections:

These types of capital market corrections are caused by the economic business cycle, i.e., periods of economic expansion followed by recession and eventual recovery.  Typically, the clues as to whether the economy is heading into a recession are present ahead of time.

Usually a large number of economic indicators will point in the same direction.  For example, the yield curve may become inverted (long rates lower than short-term rates), business confidence surveys start showing some downward trends, companies start hoarding cash instead of investing in plant and equipment and layoffs start accelerating in cyclically sensitive sectors.

In the last half century, business cycle recessions have been mostly shallow and short-lived. Economic recessions are, no doubt, painful but the implications to investors are fairly straightforward.

In the early stages of a recession, equity investments suffer the most while bond market strategies tend to provide the upside.  As the economy starts recovering, equity investments outperform marginally but with significant volatility.

Being early is never comfortable but it beats being late.  Some of the best equity returns happen during the late early stages of a recovery when the average investor is still too snake bitten to put any money at risk.

And finally, as the economy moves into full expansion mode equity investors typically enjoy a nice margin of outperformance relative to safer assets such as bonds.  As the uncertainty regarding the economic recovery fades in the rear view, capital markets tend to become less volatile as well.

Structural Corrections:

These are the most severe type and involve periods of real economic and financial stress.  Something has gone off the rails and public capital markets are the first to feel the brunt of the economic imbalances.

Structural Corrections are not merely stronger business cycle events. The integrity of the entire economic and financial system is at stake.  Without decisive fiscal and monetary policies there is a risk of total economic collapse.  Under these circumstances, equity investors are often completely wiped out and bond holders don’t fare much better.

Structural Corrections happen during periods of total economic unravelling.  The most usual signs of eminent economic collapse are massive unemployment, huge drops in productive output, and the unavailability of credit at any cost.  The financial system is usually at the root cause of the crisis and liquidity in the system suddenly disappears.  Faith in the system dries up overnight – the first stop are banks, next are capital markets.

The Great Depression of 1929-39 and the Financial Crisis of 2007-09 are prime examples of Structural Corrections that were felt across the globe.  History is, however, littered with other instances of more localized cases such as the 1997 Asian Crisis, the 1998 Russian Default and the Argentinian collapse of 1999-2002.

What should investors do during a correction?

The answer depends on the context surrounding the capital markets at that moment.  For example, the implications of a Technical Correction are very different from those of a Structural Correction.

Misdiagnosing what type of correction you are in can have severe consequences for your financial health.  Becoming too risk averse and selling everything can be as harmful as not being risk-aware enough and always expecting the markets to recover irrespective of business and capital market conditions.

Finding the right balance is key. In reality, after many years of watching markets one is never really 100% sure of anything.  In fact, if anybody says that they have perfect certainty all it means is that they either have not done all their homework or that they fail to understand the statistical concept of probability.

Our preferred approach is based on a solid understanding of capital market behavior coupled with hands-on experience under a variety of capital market situations.  Understanding capital market history is the prerequisite but experience is the key extra ingredient to gain confidence in properly evaluating the context in which markets are experiencing distress.

Table 1 provides a checklist as to the type of issues that we consider when evaluating the type of correction we might be in.

Table 1

corrections

Where are we today?

As of February 12 we have already seen signs of recovery, but the S&P 500 is still down 7.5% from its January 26 peak. Investors remain nervous. The CBOE Volatility Index stands at close to 27% which is significantly higher than where it was before the equity market started convulsing.

A 7.5% drawdown on the S&P 500 is not that uncommon. Investors should be wary but also keep their eye on their long game of growing risk-adjusted portfolio returns.

We believe that the current equity market downdraft falls under the category of a Technical Correction. Why? The numbers back up our assertion.  Our view is that equity markets remain healthy and will out-perform lower risk alternatives such as bonds.

equity downturn

Let’s start with a rundown of the negatives about equity markets.  The biggest knock on equity markets is that they are over-valued relative to historical norms such as price-to-earnings ratios. Agreed, the current Shiller P/E stands at 33.6 relative to a historical average of 17.  For access to the latest Shiller data click here.

On an absolute basis the S&P 500 is over-valued.  When considered relative to interest rates the picture changes.  Estimates by Professor Domadoran at NYU, for example, yield fair valuations on the S&P 500.

What else? Interest rates are too low. Agreed again, but low yields are the problem of the bond investor. A low cost of money is actually good for equity investors.

What about rising interest rates? The 10 Year US Treasury Note hit a low of 2.05% in early September and has been rising since. It currently stands at 2.84%.  Higher, for sure.  A real danger to equity markets? Not quite, especially in light of low rates of inflation.

Inflation-adjusted yields (sometimes called real yields) are still significantly below historical norms.

Higher real rates imply lower equity values.  We agree, but we see the current upward progression of interest rates in the US as fairly well telegraphed by the Federal Reserve.

We also still believe that US monetary policy is accommodative.  For example, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimates generated by the well-known Taylor rule show current Fed Funds rates about 2% too low (read here for a review).

What about the positives regarding equity markets? For one, we have a strong global economy.  Every major economy in the world is in growth mode.  The IMF recently raised their estimate of global GDP growth to 3.9% for both 2018 and 2019.

Inflation seems under control as well. The IMF estimates that global inflation will run 3.2% in 2018, unchanged from last year. Inflation in the US ran at 2.1% in 2017.

Monetary policy remains accommodative.  In the US the Fed reserve is slowly weening investors off artificially low interest rates, while in most other parts of the world (Europe and Japan in particular) central banks have yet to embark on the process of normalization.

The recently enacted lowering of the US corporate tax rate is also a positive for US domiciled companies.  Lower corporate tax rates translate immediately into higher cash flows.  Higher cash flows translate into higher corporate valuations. The main beneficiaries of lower corporate taxes are ultimately shareholders. 

What should investors do today?

Our analysis of the data leads us to the conclusion that the current equity market correction is driven by technical considerations and not fundamental issues.

We do not know how long the equity downdraft may last, but we expect this blip to barely register in the long-run.

Our advice may be rather boring but plain-vanilla seems the best response to the current state of investor panic.

  • If you were comfortable with your financial plan at year-end, do nothing. Don’t obsess over every single market gyration. There is not enough evidence to merit an increase in fear or a significant re-positioning of your portfolio towards safer asset classes such as bonds
  • If you did not have a plan in place, don’t go out and sell your equity holding before figuring out the status of your financial health in relation to your goals. Consult a certified financial planner if you need help.
  • If you have some cash on the sidelines, deploy some of it in the equity markets. Given that all major equity markets have taken a beating spread your money around a bit. We still rate International Developed Markets and Emerging Markets as attractive.  Consider whether it makes sense for you to put some money in the US and some abroad.

Whatever you do don’t panic. Focus on your asset allocation in relation to your needs, goals and appetite for risk. Don’t let that Russian Bear get to you!

Taking risk and suffering the inevitable equity market drawdowns is part of investing. Be cautious but be smart. Talk to your Advisor if you need help. Make your money work for you!