Posts filed under ‘Financial Planning’
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (October 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
As a middle-aged man, I’ve learned the importance of getting my annual physical to improve my longevity. The same principle applies to the longevity of your retirement account. With the fourth quarter of the calendar year officially underway, there is no better time to probe your investment portfolio and prescribe some recommendations relating to your financial goals.
A physical is especially relevant given all the hypertension raising events transpiring in the financial markets during the third quarter. Although the large cap biased indexes (Dow Jones Industrials and S&P 500) were up modestly for the quarter (+1.3% and +0.6%, respectively), the small and mid-cap stock indexes underperformed significantly (-8.0% [IWM] and -4.2% [SPMIX], respectively). What’s more, all the daunting geopolitical headlines and uncertain macroeconomic data catapulted the Volatility Index (VIX – aka, “Fear Gauge”) higher by a whopping +40.0% over the same period.
- What caused all the recent heartburn? Pick your choice and/or combine the following:
- ISIS in Iraq
- Bombings in Syria
- End of Quantitative Easing (QE) – Impending Interest Rate Hikes
- Mid-Term Elections
- Hong Kong Protests
- Tax Inversions
- Security Hacks
- Rising U.S. Dollar
- PIMCO’s Bill Gross Departure
(See Hot News Bites in Newsletter for more details)
As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, there is never a shortage of issues to worry about (see Series of Unfortunate Events), and contrary to what you see on TV, not everything is destruction and despair. In fact, as I’ve discussed before, corporate profits are at record levels (see Retail Profits chart below), companies are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, the employment picture is improving (albeit slowly), and companies are finally beginning to spend (see Capital Spending chart below):
Source: Dr. Ed’s Blog
Source: Calafia Beach Pundit
Even during prosperous times, you can’t escape the dooms-dayers because too much of a good thing can also be bad (i.e., inflation). Rather than getting caught up in the day-to-day headlines, like many of us investment nerds, it is better to focus on your long-term financial goals, diversification, and objective financial metrics. Even us professionals become challenged by sifting through the never-ending avalanche of news headlines. It’s better to stick with a disciplined, systematic approach that functions as shock absorbers for all the inevitable potholes and speed bumps. Investment guru Peter Lynch said it best, “Assume the market is going nowhere and invest accordingly.” Everyone’s situation and risk tolerance is different and changing, which is why it’s important to give your financial plan a recurring physical.
Vacation or Retirement?
Keeping up with the Joneses in our instant gratification society can be a taxing endeavor, but ultimately investors must decide between 1) Spend now, save later; or 2) Save now, spend later. Most people prefer the more enjoyable option (#1), however these individuals also want to retire at a young age. Often, these competing goals are in conflict. Unless, you are Oprah or Bill Gates (or have rich relatives), chances are you must get into the practice of saving, if you want a sizeable nest egg…before age 85. The problem is Americans typically spend more time planning their vacation than they do planning for retirement. Talking about finances with an advisor, spouse, or partner can feel about as comfortable as walking into a cold doctor’s office while naked under a thin gown. Vulnerability may be an undesirable emotion, but often it is a necessity to reach a desired goal.
Ignorance is Not Bliss – Avoid Procrastination
Many people believe “ignorance is bliss” when it comes to healthcare and finance, which we all know is the worst possible strategy. Normally, individuals have multiple IRA, 401(k), 529, savings, joint, trust, checking and other accounts scattered around with no rhyme or reason. As with healthcare, reviewing finances most often takes place whenever there is a serious problem or need, which is usually at a point when it’s too late. Unfortunately, procrastination typically wins out over proactiveness. Just because you may feel good, or just because you are contributing to your employer’s 401(k), doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get an annual physical for your health and finances. I’m the perfect example. While I feel great on the outside, ignoring my high cholesterol lab results would be a bad idea.
And even for the DIY-ers (Do-It-Yourself-ers), rebalancing your portfolio is critical. In the last fifteen years, overexposure to technology, real estate, financials, and emerging markets at the wrong times had the potential of creating financial ruin. Like a boat, your investment portfolio needs to remain balanced in conjunction with your goals and risk tolerance, or your savings might tip over and sink.
Financial markets go up and down, but your long-term financial well-being does not have to become hostage to the daily vicissitudes. With the fourth quarter now upon us, take control of your financial future and schedule your retirement physical.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in IWM, SPMIX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
With the World Cup in full swing and rabid fans rooting for their home teams, one may notice the many similarities between investing in stocks and handicapping in sports betting. For example, investors (bettors) have opposing views on whether a particular stock (team) will go up or down (win or lose), and determine if the valuation (point spread) is reflective of the proper equilibrium (supply & demand). And just like the stock market, virtually anybody off the street can place a sports bet – assuming one is of legal age and in a legal betting jurisdiction.
Soon investors will be poring over data as part of the critical, quarterly earnings ritual. With some unsteady GDP data as of late, all eyes will be focused on this earnings reporting season to reassure market observers the bull advance can maintain its momentum. However, even positive reports may lead to unexpected investor reactions.
So how and why can market prices go down on good news? There are many reasons that short-term price trends can diverge from short-run fundamentals. One major reason for the price-fundamental gap is this key factor: “expectations”. With such a large run-up in the equity markets (up approx. +195% from March 2009) come loftier expectations for both the economy and individual companies. For instance, just because corporate earnings unveiled from companies like Google (GOOG/GOOGL), J.P. Morgan (JPM), and Intel (INTC) exceed Wall Street analyst forecasts does not mean stock prices automatically go up. In many cases a stock price correction occurs due to a large group of investors who expected even stronger profit results (i.e., “good results, but not good enough”). In sports betting lingo, the sports team may have won the game this week, but they did not win by enough points (“cover the spread”).
Some other reasons stock prices move lower on good news:
- Market Direction: Regardless of the underlying trends, if the market is moving lower, in many instances the market dip can overwhelm any positive, stock- specific factors.
- Profit Taking: Many times investors holding a long position will have price targets or levels, if achieved, that will trigger selling whether positive elements are in place or not.
- Interest Rates: Certain valuation techniques (e.g. Discounted Cash Flow and Dividend Discount Model) integrate interest rates into the value calculation. Therefore, a climb in interest rates has the potential of lowering stock prices – even if the dynamics surrounding a particular security are excellent.
- Quality of Earnings: Sometimes producing winning results is not enough (see also Tricks of the Trade article). On occasion, items such as one-time gains, aggressive revenue recognition, and lower than average tax rates assist a company in getting over a profit hurdle. Investors value quality in addition to quantity.
- Outlook: Even if current period results may be strong, on some occasions a company’s outlook regarding future prospects may be worse than expected. A dark or worsening outlook can pressure security prices.
- Politics & Taxes: These factors may prove especially important to the market this year, since this is a mid-term election year. Political and tax policy changes today may have negative impacts on future profits, thereby impacting stock prices.
- Other Exogenous Items: Natural disasters and security attacks are examples of negative shocks that could damage price values, irrespective of fundamentals.
Certainly these previously mentioned issues do not cover the full gamut of explanations for temporary price-fundamental gaps. Moreover, many of these factors could be used in reverse to explain market price increases in the face of weaker than anticipated results.
If you’re traveling to Las Vegas to place a wager on the World Cup, betting on winning favorites like Germany and Argentina may not be enough. If expectations are not met and the hot team wins by less than the point spread, don’t be surprised to see a decline in the value of your bet.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, GOOG, and GOOGL, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in JPM and INTC. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but when it comes to the stock market, the only thing to fear is the “unknown.” As much as people like to say, “I saw that crisis coming,” or “I knew the bubble was going to burst,” the reality is these assertions are often embellished, overstated, and/or misplaced.
How many people saw these events coming?
- 1987 – Black Monday
- Iraqi War
- Thai Baht Currency Crisis
- Long-Term Capital Management Collapse & Bailout
- 9/11 Terrorist Attack
- Lehman Brothers Bankruptcy / Bear Stearns Bailout
- Flash Crash
- U.S. Debt Downgrade
- Arab Spring
- Sequestration Cuts
- Cyprus Financial Crisis
- Federal Reserve (QE1, QE2, QE3, Operation Twist, etc.)
Sure, there will always be a prescient few who may actually get it right and profit from their crystal balls, but to assume you are smart enough to predict these events with any consistent accuracy is likely reckless. Even for the smartest and brightest minds, uncertainty and doubt surrounding such mega-events leads to inaction or paralysis. If profiting in advance of these negative outcomes was so easy, you probably would be basking in the sun on your personal private island…and not reading this article.
Coming to grips with the existence of a never-ending series of future negative financial shocks is the price of doing business in the stock market, if you want to become a successful long-term investor. The fact of the matter is with 7 billion people living on a planet orbiting the sun at 67,000 mph, the law of large numbers tells us there will be many unpredictable events caused either by pure chance or poor human decisions. As the great financial crisis of 2008-2009 proved, there will always be populations of stupid or ignorant people who will purposely or inadvertently cause significant damage to economies around the world.
Fortunately, the power of democracy (see Spreading the Seeds of Democracy) and the benefits of capitalism have dramatically increased the standards of living for hundreds of millions of people. Despite horrific outcomes and unthinkable atrocities perpetrated throughout history, global GDP and living standards continue to positively march forward and upward. For example, consider in my limited lifespan, I have seen the introduction of VCRs, microwave ovens, mobile phones, and the internet, while experiencing amazing milestones like the eradication of smallpox, the sequencing of the human genome, and landing space exploration vehicles on Mars, among many other unimaginable achievements.
Despite amazing advancements, many investors are paralyzed into inaction out of fear of a harmful outcome. If I received a penny for every negative prediction I read or heard about over my 20+ years of investing, I would be happily retired. The stock market is never immune from adverse events, but chances are a geopolitical war in Ukraine/Iraq; accelerated Federal Reserve rate tightening; China real estate bubble; Argentinian debt default; or other current, worrisome headline is unlikely to be the cause of the next -20%+ bear market. History shows us that fear of the unknown is more rational than the fear of the known. If you can’t come to grips with fear itself, I fear your long-term results will lead to a scary retirement.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (June 2, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
Winning at any sport is lot easier if you can compete without an opponent. Imagine an NBA basketball MVP LeBron James driving to the basket against no defender, or versus a weakling opponent like a 44-year-old investment manager. Under these circumstances, it would be pretty easy for James and his team, the Miami Heat, to victoriously dominate without even a trace of sweat.
Effectively, stocks have enjoyed similar domination in recent years, while steamrolling over the bond competition. To put the stock market’s winning streak into perspective, the S&P 500 index set a new all-time record high in May, with the S&P 500 advancing +2.1% to 1924 for the month, bringing the 2013-2014 total return to about +38%. Not too shabby results over 17 months, if you consider bank deposits and CDs are paying a paltry 0.0-1.0% annually, and investors are gobbling up bonds yielding a measly 2.5% (see chart below).
The point, once again, is that even if you are a skeptic or bear on the outlook for stocks, the stock market still offers the most attractive opportunities relative to other asset classes and investment options, including bonds. It’s true, the low hanging fruit in stocks has been picked, and portfolios can become too equity-heavy, but even retirees should have some exposure to equities.
As I wrote last month in Buy in May and Dance Away, why would investors voluntarily lock in inadequate yields at generational lows when the earnings yield on stocks are so much more appealing. The approximate P/E (Price-Earnings) ratio for the S&P 500 currently averages approximately +6.2% with a rising dividend yield of about +1.8% – not much lower than many bonds. Over the last five years, those investors willing to part ways with yield-less cash have voted aggressively with their wallets. Those with confidence in the equity markets have benefited massively from the approximate +200% gains garnered from the March 2009 S&P 500 index lows.
For the many who have painfully missed the mother of all stock rallies, the fallback response has been, “Well, sure the market has tripled, but it’s only because of unprecedented printing of money at the QE (Quantitative Easing) printing presses!” This argument has become increasingly difficult to defend ever since the Federal Reserve announced the initiation of the reduction in bond buying (a.k.a., “tapering”) six months ago (December 18th). Over that time period, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased over 800 points and the S&P 500 index has risen a healthy 8.0%.
As much as everyone would like to blame (give credit to) the Fed for the bull market, the fact is the Federal Reserve doesn’t control the world’s interest rates. Sure, the Fed has an influence on global interest rates, but countries like Japan may have something to do with their own 0.57% 10-year government bond yield. For example, the economic/political policies and demographics in play might be impacting Japan’s stock market (Nikkei), which has plummeted about -62% over the last 25 years (about 39,000 to 15,000). Almost as shocking as the lowly rates in Japan and the U.S. and Japan, are the astonishingly low interest rates in Europe. As the chart below shows, France and Germany have sub-2% 10-year government bond yields (1.76% and 1.36%, respectively) and even economic basket case countries like Italy and Spain have seen their yields pierce below the 3% level.
Suffice it to say, yield is not only difficult to find on our shores, but it is also challenging to find winning bond returns globally.
Well if low interest rates and the Federal Reserve aren’t the only reasons for a skyrocketing stock market, then how come this juggernaut performance has such long legs? The largest reason in my mind boils down to two words…record profits. Readers of mine know I follow the basic tenet that stock prices follow earnings over the long-term. Interest rates and Fed Policy will provide headwinds and tailwinds over different timeframes, but ultimately the almighty direction of profits determines long-run stock performance. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to appreciate this correlation. Scott Grannis (Calafia Beach Pundit) has beautifully documented this relationship in the chart below.
Supporting this concept, profits help support numerous value-enhancing shareholder activities we have seen on the rise over the last five years, which include rising dividends, share buybacks, and M&A (Mergers & Acquisitions) activity. Eventually the business cycle will run its course, and during the next recession, profits and stock prices will be expected to decline. A final contributing factor to the duration of this bull market is the abysmally slow pace of this economic recovery, which if measured in job creation terms has been the slowest since World War II. Said differently, the slower a recovery develops, the longer the recovery will last. Bill McBride at Calculated Risk captured this theme in the following chart:
Despite the massive gains and new records set, skeptics abound as evidenced by the nearly -$10 billion of withdrawn money out of U.S. stock funds over the last month (most recent data).
I’ve been labeled a perma-bull by some, but over my 20+ years of investing experience I understand the importance of defensive positioning along with the benefits of shorting expensive, leveraged stocks during bear markets, like the ones in 2000-2001 and 2008-2009. When will I reverse my views and become bearish (negative) on stocks? Here are a few factors I’m tracking:
- Inverted Yield Curve: This was a good precursor to the 2008-2009 crash, but there are no signs of this occurring yet.
- Overheated Fund Inflows: When everyone piles into stocks, I get nervous. In the last four weeks of domestic ICI fund flow data, we have seen the opposite…about -$9.5 billion outflows from stock funds.
- Peak Employment: When things can’t get much better is the time to become more worried. There is still plenty of room for improvement, especially if you consider the stunningly low employment participation rate.
- Fed Tightening / Rising Bond Yields: The Fed has made it clear, it will be a while before this will occur.
- When Housing Approaches Record Levels: Although Case-Shiller data has shown housing prices bouncing from the bottom, it’s clear that new home sales have stalled and have plenty of head room to go higher.
- Financial Crisis: Chances of experiencing another financial crisis of a generation is slim, but many people have fresh nightmares from the 2008-2009 financial crisis. It’s not every day that a 158 year-old institution (Lehman Brothers) or 85 year-old investment bank (Bear Stearns) disappear, but if the dominoes start falling again, then I guess it’s OK to become anxious again.
- Better Opportunities: The beauty about my practice at Sidoxia is that we can invest anywhere. So if we find more attractive opportunities in emerging market debt, convertible bonds, floating rate notes, private equity, or other asset classes, we have no allegiances and will sell stocks.
Every recession and bear market is different, and although the skies may be blue in the stock market now, clouds and gray skies are never too far away. Even with record prices, many fears remain, including the following:
- Ukraine: There is always geopolitical instability somewhere on the globe. In the past investors were worried about Egypt, Iran, and Syria, but for now, some uncertainty has been created around Ukraine.
- Weak GDP: Gross Domestic Product was revised lower to -1% during the first quarter, in large part due to an abnormally cold winter in many parts of the country. However, many economists are already talking about the possibility of a 3%+ rebound in the second quarter as weather improves.
- Low Volatility: The so-called “Fear Gauge” is near record low levels (VIX index), implying a reckless complacency among investors. While this is a measure I track, it is more confined to speculative traders compared to retail investors. In other words, my grandma isn’t buying put option insurance on the Nasdaq 100 index to protect her portfolio against the ramifications of the Thailand government military coup.
- Inflation/Deflation: Regardless of whether stocks are near a record top or bottom, financial media outlets in need of a topic can always fall back on the fear of inflation or deflation. Currently inflation remains in check. The Fed’s primary measure of inflation, the Core PCE, recently inched up +0.2% month-to-month, in line with forecasts.
- Fed Policy: When are investors not worried about the Federal Reserve’s next step? Like inflation, we’ll be hearing about this concern until we permanently enter our grave.
In the sport of stocks and investing, winning is never easy. However, with the global trend of declining interest rates and the scarcity of yields from bonds and other safe investments (cash/money market/CDs), it should come as no surprise to anyone that the winning streak in stocks is tied to the lack of competing investment alternatives. Based on the current dynamics in the market, if LeBron James is a stock, and I’m forced to guard him as a 10-year Treasury bond, I think I’ll just throw in the towel and go to Wall Street. At least that way my long-term portfolio has a chance of winning by placing a portion of my bets on stocks over bonds.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
With the stock market reaching all-time record highs (S&P 500: 1900), you would think there would be a lot of cheers, high-fiving, and back slapping. Instead, investors are ignoring the sunny, blue skies and taking off their rose-colored glasses. Rather than securely sleeping like a baby (or relaxing during a three-day weekend) with their investment accounts, people are biting their fingernails with clenched teeth, while searching for a market boogeyman in their closets or under their beds.
If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is pick up the paper, turn on the TV, or walk over to the office water cooler. An avalanche of scary headlines that are spooking investors include geopolitical concerns in Ukraine & Thailand, slowing housing statistics, bearish hedge fund managers (i.e., Tepper Einhorn, Cooperman), declining interest rates, and collapsing internet stocks. In other words, investors are looking for things to worry about, despite record corporate profits and stock prices. Peter Lynch, the manager of the Magellan Fund that posted +2,700% in gains from 1977-1990, put short-term stock price volatility into perspective:
“You shouldn’t worry about it. You should worry what are stocks going to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now.”
Rather than focusing on immediate stock market volatility and other factors out of your control, why not prioritize your time on things you can control. What investors can control is their asset allocation and spending levels (budget), subject to their personal time horizons and risk tolerances. Circumstances always change, but if people spent half the time on investing that they devoted to planning holiday vacations, purchasing a car, or choosing a school for their child, then retirement would be a lot less stressful. After realizing 99% of all the short-term news is nonsensical noise, the next important realization is stocks are volatile securities, which frequently go down -10 to -20%. As much as amateurs and professionals say or think they can profitably predict these corrections, they very rarely can. If your stomach can’t handle the roller-coaster swings, then you shouldn’t be investing in the stock market.
Bear-markets generally coincide with recessions, and since World War II, Americans experience about two economic contractions every decade. And as I pointed out earlier in A Series of Unfortunate Events, even during the current massive bull market, a recession has not been required to suffer significant short-term losses (e.g., Flash Crash, Greece, Arab Spring, Obamacare, Cyprus, etc.). Seasoned veterans understand these volatile periods provide incredible investment opportunities. As Warren Buffett states, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” Fear and panic may be behind us, but skepticism is still firmly in place. Buying during current skepticism is still not a bad thing, as long as greed hasn’t permeated the masses, which remains the case today.
Overly emotional people that make investment decisions with their gut do more damage to their savings accounts than conservative, emotional investors who understand their emotional shortcomings. On the other hand, the problem with investing too conservatively, for those that have longer-term time horizons (10+ years), is multi-pronged. For starters, overly conservative investments made while interest rate levels hover near historical lows lead to inflationary pressures gobbling up savings accounts. Secondly, the low total returns associated with excessively conservative investments will result in a later retirement (e.g., part-time Wal-Mart greeter in your 80s), or lower quality standard of living (e.g., macaroni & cheese dinners vs. filet mignon).
Most people say they understand the trade-offs of risk and return. Over the long-run, low-risk investments result in lower returns than high risk investments (i.e., bonds vs. stocks). If you look at the following chart and ask anyone what their preferred path would be over the long-run, almost everyone would select the steep, upward-sloping equity return line.
Yet, stock ownership and attitudes towards stocks remain at relatively low and skeptical levels (see Gallup survey in Markets Soar and Investors Snore). It’s true that attitudes are changing at a glacial pace and bond outflows accelerated in 2013, but more recently stock inflows remain sporadic and scared money is returning to bonds. Even though it has been over five years, the emotional scars from 2008-2009 apparently still need some time to heal.
Investing in stocks can be very scary and hazardous to your health. For those millions of investors who realize they do not hold the emotional fortitude to withstand the ups and downs, leave the worrying responsibilities to the experienced advisors and investment managers like me. That way you can focus on your job and retirement, while the pros can remain responsible for hunting and slaying the boogeyman.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
Robots and computers are taking over our lives. We see it in areas of our daily living, including the use of digitally driven cars, cell phones, automated vacuums, and electronic self-serve kiosks at the grocery store. And now robots have come into our investing and financial lives in the form of robo-advisors. With a few clicks of a computer mouse or taps on a smartphone, investors are hoping to find their way to financial nirvana.
What sites am I talking about? Here is a brief, albeit rapidly growing, list of popular robo-advisor sites:
Not all of these robo-sites invest individuals’ money, but nevertheless, there are several factors contributing to the upsurge in in these financial advice websites. For starters, there is a whole new, younger demographic pool of savers who have grown up with their iPhone and shop exclusively online for their goods and services. Many of these financial sites are trying to fill a void for this tech-savvy group looking for a new app to bring wealth and riches.
Another factor contributing to the rise of the robo-advisors is a function of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the explosive growth of the multi-trillion dollar exchange traded fund (ETF) industry. Many baby boomers who were planning to retire were hit brutally hard by the financial crisis and subsequently asked themselves why they were paying such high fees to their advisors for losing money. With the stock market now increasing for five consecutive years, some investors are gaining confidence in pursuing other lower-cost solutions to their investments outside of the traditional human advisor channel.
Too Good to Be True? The Shortcomings
On the surface, the proposition of clicking a few buttons to create financial prosperity seems quite appealing, but if you look a little more closely under the hood, what you quickly realize is that most of these robo-advisor sites are glorifying the practice of doing-it-yourself (DIY). After conducting some due diligence on the various investment bells-and-whistles of these robo-sites, one quickly realizes individuals can replicate most of the kindergartener-esque ETF portfolios by merely calling 1-800-VANGUARD – without having to pay robo-advisor fees ranging from 0.15% – 0.95%. More specifically, Wealthfront and Betterment use 6-12 ETF security portfolios, integrating many Vanguard funds and other ETFs that can be purchased with a click of a mouse or phone call (without having to pay the robo-advisor middleman). A cynic may also point out these robo-investment sites are nothing more than expensive life-cycle funds that could be replicated at a fraction of the cost.
Despite the sites’ transparency preaching, filtering through robo fee and performance disclosure can be frustratingly tedious too – good luck to the novices. For example, Betterment claims to have created a superior performance track record, despite a hidden disclosure stating the results are manufactured from a computer back-test. The transparency pitch seems a little disingenuous, and I wonder how many of the new robo-site users are also aware of the extra underlying ETF fees? But when marketing a new high-cost start-up, I guess you need to fabricate a fancy chart and track record when you don’t have one. Underlying the robo investment sites is a disparate, hodge-podge of studies anointing Modern Portfolio Theory as the holy grail, but readers of this blog know there are many failings to pure quantitative strategies implemented by academics (see LTCM in Black Swans & Butter in Bangladesh).
The concept of DIY is nothing new. One can look no further than the impact Home Depot (HD) has had on the home improvement industry. In addition, there are plenty of individuals who choose to do their own income taxes with the help of software technology (i.e., Intuit), or those who forego hiring an estate planning attorney by using off-the-shelf legal documents (i.e., Legal Zoom). Many industries in our economy inherently have penny pinching DIY-ers, but despite current and future inroads made by the robo-advisors, there will always be individuals who do not have the capacity, patience, or interest to search out a DIY investment solution.
After watching the stock market rise for five consecutive years, taming investment portfolios may seem like a simple problem for internet software to solve, but experienced investors (not academics) understand successful long-term investing is never easy…with or without technology. The reality of the situation is that when volatility eventually spikes and we hit an inevitable bear market, these robo-sites will fail miserably in supplying the necessary human element to facilitate more prudent investment decisions.
While the rising robo-advisors may have many investment advisory shortcomings, I will acknowledge some appealing aggregating features that provide a helpful holistic view of an individual’s finances (see Mint). Also, these sites are forcing investors to ask their advisors the important and appropriate tough questions regarding fees, compensation, and conflicts of interest. However, in spite of the short-term, blossoming success of the robo-sites, investing has never been more difficult. Investors continue to get overwhelmed with the 24-7, 365 news cycles that proliferates an endless avalanche of global crises via TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.
While a younger, less-affluent DIY demographic may flock to some of these robo-advisors, the millions of aging and retiring baby boomers ensures there will be plenty of demand for traditional advisors. Experienced independent RIA advisors and financial planners, like Sidoxia, who integrate low-cost ETFs into their investment management practices stand to benefit handsomely. Those advisors/sites offering simplistic, commoditized ETF offerings with no wealth planning services will be challenged. While I may not lose sleep over the rise of the robo-advisors, I will continue to dream of a robot that will lower my taxes and win me the lottery.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds (including Vanguard ETFs), AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HD, TWTR, FB, Legal Zoom, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (May 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
The proverbial Wall Street adage that urges investors to “Sell in May, and go away” in order to avoid a seasonally volatile period from May to October has driven speculative trading strategies for generations. The basic premise behind the plan revolves around the idea that people have better things to do during the spring and summer months, so they sell stocks. Once the weather cools off, the thought process reverses as investors renew their interest in stocks during November. If investing was as easy as selling stocks on May 1 st and then buying them back on November 1st, then we could all caravan in yachts to our private islands while drinking from umbrella-filled coconut drinks. Regrettably, successful investing is not that simple and following naïve strategies like these generally don’t work over the long-run.
Even if you believe in market timing and seasonal investing (see Getting Off the Market Timing Treadmill ), the prohibitive transaction costs and tax implications often strip away any potential statistical advantage.
Unfortunately for the bears, who often react to this type of voodoo investing, betting against the stock market from May – October during the last two years has been a money-losing strategy. Rather than going away, investors have been better served to “Buy in May, and tap dance away.” More specifically, the S&P 500 index has increased in each of the last two years, including a +10% surge during the May-October period last year.
Nervous? Why Invest Now?
With the weak recent economic GDP figures and stock prices off by less than 1% from their all-time record highs, why in the world would investors consider investing now? Well, for starters, one must ask themselves, “What options do I have for my savings…cash?” Cash has been and will continue to be a poor place to hoard funds, especially when interest rates are near historic lows and inflation is eating away the value of your nest-egg like a hungry sumo wrestler. Anyone who has completed their income taxes last month knows how pathetic bank rates have been, and if you have pumped gas recently, you can appreciate the gnawing impact of escalating gasoline prices.
While there are selective opportunities to garner attractive yields in the bond market, as exploited in Sidoxia Fusion strategies, strategist and economist Dr. Ed Yardeni points out that equities have approximately +50% higher yields than corporate bonds. As you can see from the chart below, stocks (blue line) are yielding profits of about +6.6% vs +4.2% for corporate bonds (red line). In other words, for every $100 invested in stocks, companies are earning $6.60 in profits on average, which are then either paid out to investors as growing dividends and/or reinvested back into their companies for future growth.
Hefty profit streams have resulted in healthy corporate balance sheets, which have served as ammunition for the improving jobs picture. At best, the economic recovery has moved from a snail’s pace to a tortoise’s pace, but nevertheless, the unemployment rate has returned to a more respectable 6.7% rate. The mended economy has virtually recovered all of the approximately 9 million private jobs lost during the financial crisis (see chart below) and expectations for Friday’s jobs report is for another +220,000 jobs added during the month of April.
Wondrous Wing Woman
Investing can be scary for some individuals, but having an accommodative Fed Chair like Janet Yellen on your side makes the challenge more manageable. As I’ve pointed out in the past (with the help of Scott Grannis), the Fed’s stimulative ‘Quantitative Easing’ program counter intuitively raised interest rates during its implementation. What’s more, Yellen’s spearheading of the unprecedented $40 billion bond buying reduction program (a.k.a., ‘Taper’) has unexpectedly led to declining interest rates in recent months. If all goes well, Yellen will have completed the $85 billion monthly tapering by the end of this year, assuming the economy continues to expand.
In the meantime, investors and the broader financial markets have begun to digest the unwinding of the largest, most unprecedented monetary intervention in financial history. How can we tell this is the case? CEO confidence has improved to the point that $1 trillion of deals have been announced this year, including offers by Pfizer Inc. – PFE ($100 billion), Facebook Inc. – FB ($19 billion), and Comcast Corp. – CMCSA ($45 billion).
Banks are feeling more confident too, and this is evident by the acceleration seen in bank loans. After the financial crisis, gun-shy bank CEOs fortified their balance sheets, but with five years of economic expansion under their belts, the banks are beginning to loosen their loan purse strings further (see chart below).
The coast is never completely clear. As always, there are plenty of things to worry about. If it’s not Ukraine, it can be slowing growth in China, mid-term elections in the fall, and/or rising tensions in the Middle East. However, for the vast majority of investors, relying on calendar adages (i.e., selling in May) is a complete waste of time. You will be much better off investing in attractively priced, long-term opportunities, and then tap dance your way to financial prosperity.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in PFE, CMCSA, and certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in FB or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.