Tag: Stock

The Biggest Myth About Index Investing

John Bogle has done a great job of “selling” index investing.  He started the Vanguard group with the promise that you could invest in the stock market “on the cheap.”  It’s the thing that made the Vanguard group the second biggest fund family in the country.

Selling things based on price is always popular with the public.  It’s the key to the success of Wal Mart,  Amazon, and a lot of “Big Box” stores.

But Bogle based his sales pitch not just on price, but also the promise that if you bought his funds you would do better than if you bought his competition.  He cites statistics to show that the average mutual fund has under-performed the index, so why not buy the index?

The resulting popularity of index investing has had one big, unfortunate side-effect.  It has created the myth that they are safe.

A government employee planning to retire in the near future asked this question in a forum:

“I plan to rollover my 457 deferred compensation plan into Vanguard index funds upon retirement in a few months. I currently have 50% in Vanguard Small Cap Index Funds and 50% in Vanguard Mid Cap Index Funds and think that these are somewhat aggressive, safe, and low cost.”

The problem with the Vanguard sales pitch is that it’s worked too well.   The financial press has given index investing so much good press that people believe things about them that are not true.

Small and Mid-cap stock index funds are aggressive and low cost, but they are by no means “safe.”  For some reason, there is a widespread misconception that investing in a stock index fund like the Vanguard 500 index fund or its siblings is low risk.  It’s not.

But unless you get a copy of the prospectus and read it carefully, you have to bypass the emphasis on low cost before you get to this warning:

“An investment in the Fund could lose money over short or even long periods. You should expect the Fund’s share price and total return to fluctuate within a wide range.”

The fact is that investing in the stock market is never “safe.”  Not when you buy a stock or when you buy stock via an index fund.  There is no guarantee if any specific return.  In fact, there is no guarantee that you will get your money back.  Over the long term, investors in the stock market have done well if they stayed the course.  But humans have emotions.  They make bad decisions because of misconceptions and buy and sell based on greed and fear.

My concern about the soon-to-be-retired government employee is that he is going to invest all of his retirement nest-egg in high-risk funds while believing that they are “safe.”  He may believe that the past 8 years can be projected into the future.  The stock market has done well since the recovery began in 2009.  We are eventually going to get a “Bear Market” and when that happens the unlucky retiree may find that has retirement account has declined as much as 50% (as the market did in 2008).  At some point he will bail out and not know when to get back in, all because he was unaware of the risk he was taking.

Many professional investors use index funds as part of a well-designed diversified portfolio.  But there should be no misconception that index investing is “safe.”  Don’t be fooled by this myth.

What does “diversification” mean?

To many retail investors “diversification” means owning a collection of stocks, bonds, mutual funds or Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs).  But that’s really not what diversification is all about.

What’s the big deal about diversification anyhow?

Diversification means that you are spreading the risk of loss by putting your investment assets in several different categories of investments.  Examples include stocks, bonds, money market instruments, commodities, and real estate.  Within each of these categories you can slice even finer.  For example, stocks can be classified as large cap (big companies), mid cap (medium sized companies), small cap (smaller companies), domestic (U.S. companies), and foreign (non-U.S. companies).

And within each of these categories you can look for industry diversification.  Many people lost their savings in 2000 when the “Tech Bubble” burst because they owned too many technology-oriented stocks.  Others lost big when the real estate market crashed in late 2007 because they focused too much of their portfolio in bank stocks.

The idea behind owning a variety of asset classes is that different asset classes will go in different directions independent of each other.  Theoretically, if one goes down, another may go up or hold it’s value.  There is a term for this: “correlation.”  Investment assets that have a high correlation tend to move in the same direction, those with a low correlation do not.  These assumptions do not always hold true, but they are true often enough that proper diversification is a valuable tool to control risk.

Many investors believe that if they own a number of different mutual funds they are diversified.  They are, of course, more diversified than someone who owns only a single stock.  But many funds own the same stocks.  We have to look within the fund, to the things they own, and their investment styles, to find out if your funds are merely duplicates of each other or if you are properly diversified.

You need to look at a “portfolio x-ray” which will show you how much overlap there is between two or more mutual funds.

Only by looking at your portfolio with this view of diversification can you determine if you are diversified or if you have accidentally concentrated your portfolio without realizing it.

Family Business Financial Planning

A family business is one of the ways that individuals build something of value for themselves and their family. Suffolk is a great example of a community where family owned restaurants, hardware stores, gift shops, bike shops, jewelry, sporting goods, clothing and furniture stores line the streets. Suffolk has its national chains, but its most recognizable businesses – in the pork and peanut industry – began as family businesses.

These family shops often provide a comfortable living as well as job opportunities for family members of the founders. Whether they stay small and local or grow into large businesses, there are challenges that everyone running a business has to face.

The first is competition. For every business there is a better financed competitor. The supermarket doomed the family-run grocery store. Wal Mart is a feared competitor for anyone selling groceries, clothing, furniture, electronics, toys, eyeglasses; and now it’s even getting into banking.

The second challenge is a bad economy. Many communities have seen their downtowns shuttered when local industry left. The businesses depending on housing have still not fully recovered from the crash of 2008.

Finally, most small businesses are very dependent on one or a few key people. If the children don’t want to get into the business when the parents are ready to retire, the business often closes. There is no guarantee that a business can be sold when they owner is ready to retire. Unless the owner has prepared for this, the financial results can be devastating.

For all these reasons, the family business owner has to make sure that they have prepared themselves financially for life after the business. Succession planning is critically important and should be part of the business plan from the moment the business is started. If a business is a partnership, buy-sell agreements should be in place to avoid complications from the death of a partner. If a business is going to be passed along to children, the owners should be clear about the division of assets. Otherwise there is likely to be wrangling – or even lawsuits – over who is entitled to what.

Most people in business choose to convert from individual proprietorships to limited liability companies. This protects the business owners’ personal assets in case of a lawsuit against the business. Some convert to “Chapter C” corporations for tax purposes. If a company wants to grow even larger, it may want to raise cash by “going public” and selling shares to the general public.

One of the most common mistakes that business owners make is to invest too much of their money in the business. It’s a fact that a family business is a high-risk enterprise. Competition, the economy – even a change in traffic patterns – can bring a business to its knees. Building an investment portfolio should go hand-in-hand with building a business. When most of your money is tied up in your business you are making the same mistake as the investor who owns only one stock. Diversification reduces risk and provides a safety net. Factors that are out of your control could end up severely damaging your business value, thereby crippling your total savings and your future goals and ambitions.

In addition to the traditional savings and investment accounts, the tax code provides many ways for business owners to put money aside in a variety of tax-deferred accounts such as SEP-IRAs, 401(k) plans, and SIMPLE-IRA plans. As a business owner you can even set up a “Defined Benefit Plan” which works much like a traditional pension.

There are a great many things that running a business entails beyond offering customers a great product or service. People who start a business are usually focused on this aspect of the business. But to insure that the business – and the family – survives and thrives, business owners should seek the assistance and guidance of a team consisting of an attorney, an accountant and a financial planner. They may be in the background, but they are critical for the financial success of the family business.

Investment Mistakes Millionaires Make

Think millionaires don’t make investing mistakes?  Think again. The deVere Group asked some of its wealthy clients to tell them about the biggest investing mistakes they made before getting professional guidance. It demonstrates that the rich are not that much different. Keep in mind that many people get rich by starting a successful business or inheriting money. That does not make them smart investors.

Here’s a list of five common investment mistakes, and how to avoid them:

5. Focusing Too Much On Historical Returns

Too often investors look at stocks, bonds and mutual funds in the rear view mirror, expecting the future to be a repeat of the past. This is rarely the case. It’s why mutual fund prospectuses always state “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” Too many investors buy into last year’s top investment ideas, only to find that they bought an over-priced lemon. Investment decisions need to be made with an eye to the future, not the past.

That’s why we build portfolios based on what we think the markets (& investments) will do in the next 6-36 months. Of course we also look at track records, but in a more sophisticated way than buying last year’s winners.  And when investing in mutual funds, it’s vitally important to examine who is responsible for the fund’s performance and if that person’s still managing the fund.

4. Not Reviewing the Portfolio Regularly

Things change and your portfolio will change with it, whether you watch it or not. If you don’t watch it you could own GM, Enron or one of the banks that closed during the crisis in 2008. Every investment decision needs to be reviewed. The question you always need to ask about the investments in your portfolio is “if I did not own this security would we buy it today?” If the answer is “no,” it may be time to make changes.

We review your portfolios regularly, to make sure you’re on track with your stated goals.  We also offer regular reviews with our clients and prepare reports for them to show how they are doing.

3. Making Emotional Decisions

The two emotions that dominate investment decisions are greed and fear. It’s the reason that the general public usually buys when the market is at the top and sells at the bottom.

We help take the emotion out of investing.  We have a system in place that helps keep emotion out of the equation.

2. Investing Without a Plan

Most portfolios we examine lack a plan. In many cases they are a collection of things that seemed like a good idea at the time. This is often the result of stockbrokers selling their clients investments without first finding out what they really need.

We always invest with a plan.  You tell us your goals, timeline, etc and then we use that as an investment guide.  We don’t care about beating arbitrary indexes; we care about helping you achieve your plans with the least amount of investment risk possible.

1. Not Diversifying Adequately

One of the biggest risks people make is lack of diversification. It’s called putting all your eggs in one basket.   This often happens when people work for a company that offers stock to employees via their 401(k) or other plan. Employees of Enron, who invested heavily in their own company via their retirement plan, were devastated when their company went broke.   Sometimes investors own several mutual funds, believing that they are properly diversified only to find that their funds all do the same thing.

Nobody has ever accused us of being under-diversified.  We champion broad diversification in every one of the MMF (Managed Mutual Fund) portfolios we create. We choose funds that invest in different segments of the investment market. We own many assets classes (bonds, stocks, etc.). We diversify geographically, including some overseas funds. And we have style diversity: growth vs. value, large cap. vs. small cap. With rare exceptions, there is always something in our portfolios that’s making you money.

What's a "Bubble?"

The word “bubble” has been thrown around a great deal with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) at 16,000, the S&P 500 at 1800, and the Nasdaq Comp above 4000.  The term “bubble” is a scare word that makes people think of a repeat of the Tech Crash of 2000 or the real estate bubble that led to the financial crisis of 2008.

Cluifford Asness, whose firm manages $80 billion has a pet peeve and one of them is the loose use of the term “bubble.”

“The word “bubble,” even if you are not an efficient market fan (if you are, it should never be uttered outside the tub), is very overused. I stake out a middle ground between pure efficient markets, where the word is verboten, and the common overuse of the word that is my peeve. Whether a particular instance is a bubble will never be objective; we will always have disagreement ex ante and even ex post. But to have content, the term bubble should indicate a price that no reasonable future outcome can justify. I believe that tech stocks in early 2000 fit this description. I don’t think there were assumptions — short of them owning the GDP of the Earth — that justified their valuations. However, in the wake of 1999-2000 and 2007-20008, and with the prevalence of the use of the word “bubble” to describe these two instances, we have dumbed the word down and now use it too much. An asset or a security is often declared to be in a bubble when it is more accurate to describe it as “expensive” or possessing a “lower than normal expected return.” The descriptions “lower than normal expected return” and “bubble” are not the same thing.

Bloomberg columnist Barry Ritholtz comments:

“It would only take a small marginal improvement in the economy, or a small uptick in hiring, or heaven help us, even a modest increase in wages to increase revenues and drive profits significantly higher,”he current market valuations do not, in my opinion, have the characteristics of a “bubble.” “

Whether stocks, bonds or commodities are fairly valued, undervalued or overvalued will become apparent over time.   In the meantime, unless you are being paid to opine, it’s best to realize that fortune-telling is not the way to manage your portfolio.  Creating an all-weather portfolio with the asset allocation that will allow you to face any reasonable future is the best strategy.

 

Income Investing: Investors No Longer Taking a 'Fixed' Approach

While interest rates on bonds have risen slightly from the absolute bottoms, investors looking for income are still not satisfied with the rates that they can get today.  Adding to their concerns is the expectation that when the federal reserve slows “quantitive easing” interest rates will rise to significantly higher levels.  And that means that the bond they buy today will probably go down in value.

As a result, income investors are actually looking at dividend paying stocks to provide the cash flow that they need.  One other advantage of this strategy is that many companies have been raising their dividends regularly, something that bonds don’t do.

What is Liquidity?

As part of our educational series we want to acquaint our readers with terms that are in common use in investing but may not be completely understood by the public.  One of those terms is “liquidity.”  The Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms says liquidity “is the ability to buy or sell an asset quickly and in large volume without substantially affecting the asset’s price.”  Stocks in large blue-chip stocks like General Electric, Microsoft or Apple are liquid because they are actively traded in large volumes and therefore the price of the stocks will not be affected by a few buy or sell orders.

However, shares in small companies with relatively few shares are not considered liquid because a few large orders can move the price of the stock up or down sharply.

A house is another example of an illiquid asset because it can’t be sold quickly, its price can fluctuate widely because it’s not traded regularly on an exchange and the price is set by bidding between one or a few buyers and a single seller.

Liquidity also refers to the ability to convert to cash quickly.  Examples are money market mutual funds, checking accounts, bank deposits or treasury bills.

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