Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

Another week, another all time in the stock market. North Korea’s saber rattling and the devastation wrought by the hurricanes don’t seem to have put a dent in the market’s relentless ascent. Furthermore, with this being the “most hated” bull market in history (or so they all say), things don’t seem primed for a major collapse. A mild pullback on the order of 5-10%? Sure, perhaps it will happen within the next year, but a major recession doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

What’s the best mentality for an average investor to have? The same as always – don’t change your long-term strategy due to short-term circumstances. Ignore the noise going on around you and robotically invest what you won’t touch in the next 5-10 years. The mantra that my mentor in medicine told me, which brings “do no harm” into the modern world, is encapsulated by the title of the post. Sometimes it’s simply better to do nothing than to react like a jumpy cat to every slight movement.

Take this advice of this article for instance:

“If you don’t want to invest in equities because you fear a market crash, then you should never be in equities, because equities always crash,” Ritholtz said, speaking at Morningstar’s annual ETF conference.

He noted that there was a bear market in equities—defined as a 20% drop from a peak—every five years, on average, although the recent market environment has been bereft of even much smaller declines. Current valuations have led to concerns that such a crash could be imminent, but “If you’re under [the age of] 50, you should be rooting for a market crash, because it would be nice to have a 20% discount and then 20 years to compound that discount.”

He added, “there’s no escaping this: markets go up and down, that’s what they do. But if you’re still worried, you should significantly lower your expectations for future returns” by buying safer—but lower growth—alternatives. He noted that over the past century, U.S. stocks have returned about 10 times what Treasurys have, although they also experienced numerous massive selloffs over that time, something the government bonds hadn’t.

“The risk you assume when you buy equities is that there will be a significant drawdown in the 20 to 30 years you own them. But you get rewarded for that risk. Treasurys don’t have the same kind of drawdowns, but don’t deliver the same kind of returns.”

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To Buy or Not to Buy at Market Highs

There is always a bit of fear when evaluating buying in at all time highs. The sentiment is understandable. Everyone is afraid of buying in at a market peak and eating the recession that follows. After all, after almost a decade of uninterrupted growth, aren’t we due for a downturn?

However, the data analysis (done by someone else!) and existing scholars such as Tobias Moskowitz supports momentum investing. In other words, when the market or an individual stock is rising, it’s more likely than not to keep rising than to suddenly reverse.

Applied to current market highs, I would still encourage ordinary people to invest their new capital in accordance with prior allocation ratios, to achieve a healthy rebalance despite stock market highs. More likely than not, the market will be even higher (even after adjusting for inflation) in the next decade. If prior trends hold, we may be on the cusp of a 1-2 decade run of sustained all time highs.

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Secrets to Successful Investing

It feels like we’re always hammering the same points on investing over and over again. Don’t watch your portfolio. Stop tracking the market’s daily gyrations. Focus on the long term. Stay diversified. Don’t try to stock pick or market time. Stick with the asset allocation determined earlier and rebalance. Stick to these tried and true principles based on solid research and you’ll be fine.

Sometimes, we feel that we can be exceptional or lucky and we try for the moon. Humans are poor learners from others’ failures, and rather learn best from a strongly emotional personal experience (like a major loss in the market due to a self-inflicted error). I believe everyone should learn that by starting out playing single stocks with small amounts of play money, ideally earlier in life rather than later, so we can quickly return to the right path having learned our lesson in a way that sicks.

In other words, use the “the martyr system” to your advantage, letting the hippocampus impart the long-term financial scars from personal failures that will leave lasting memories of what not to do.

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No Regrets

My last post touched briefly on the nature of regret in missing out (selling too soon, buying in too late). However, this is not a healthy mindset to have. As Marketwatch pointed out today, very few people have the intestinal fortitude to ride out the market’s gyrations and hold for the 10+ years needed for wealth to compound exponentially. How many of us would have sold out during one of the times when bitcoin or Netflix crashed >50%?

This Morningstar article serves as a reminder that we are our own worst enemies:

Well, it’s really about the target-date funds because they are sort of the confluence of good behavior. In other words, they are boring funds. You’ve got tremendous diversification. They don’t cause fear or greed. They are just boring. But then the other part of it is, in 401(k)s where you see nearly all the target-date money, people are investing every paycheck very steadily. So, they are also kind of shielded from the ups and downs of the market. So, if you go back to ’08, ’09, 2010, people just kept steadily investing, people generally did not panic in their 401(k)s, and so that meant you are really buying low and then staying with it to see those benefits. So, if you think about it, target-date is kind of the intersection of good funds and good investor behavior and it kind of suggests where we might want to go as an investing group as a whole because this is where things really work well.

The best returns actually came from disciplined boring investing. As Monevator likes to say, keep investing as boring as watching paint dry, so you won’t be tempted to buy and sell all the time. As another former mentor once told me, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” That is really the approach to take when investing.

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Take More Risk in Tax Advantage Accounts

The Bond King Bill Gross likes to philosophize about profound emotions such as joy and melancholy in his investment rants, and this post is driven in part by the emotion of regret seeing Bitcoin hit all time highs, and even surpassing the price of gold.

Such is the case for many in my field. When I was finishing my last year at Berkeley, I came upon news reports of the fancy new cryptocurrency idea called Bitcoin. Independently at the same time, so did my fiancee’s brother, childhood friend, and cousin-in law (all techies). We didn’t think much of it, and as risk averse as I was, I didn’t even bother putting $50 or so of play money into there. If I did, it would be worth almost a million! Similarly, my fiancee’s aunt regrets not buying Apple stock when it was down in the dumpster right before Jobs took over (seriously, most smart money was on the company going bankrupt, not staging a phoenix-like revival).

While we can all regret not doing the most “optimal” thing (life doesn’t have a save/reload button) in hindsight, we can also never with certainty predict what the future will hold. What we can do, and it will sound boring, is to make sure we have the right types of investments in the right places, and to stay allocated to assets in a way that allows us to sleep well at night. If we do dedicate a small (e.g. 5%) portion of our portfolio to lottery ticket bets on small cap stocks, that’s fine. Just make sure to do it in the tax advantaged section of the portfolio.

Standard portfolio theory suggests that we should make sure that our money is invested in the way that takes advantage of legal tax shelters to our benefit, as much as possible. Just to recap, there are in general three big categories of holdings: taxable, pre-tax 401k/IRA, and Roth 401k/IRA. Here’s what we should put in each:

  • Taxable: The goal here is to hold for as long as possible and to minimize the number of transactions and income generated, since each sale can generate a huge tax bill for capital gains. The best choice is a low fee total stock market index fund (Vanguard, iShares, and Schwab are all good choices) that is held and not sold until death. Then we can take advantage of the tax free basis step up when we bequeath to heirs. The small amount of dividends generated is taxable, yes, but at a much lower rate than the marginal rate. Bond holdings should be in tax-free municipal bonds as much as possible, doubly so if you’re in a high tax bracket.
  • Pre-Tax: We have to pay tax on the whole thing anyway but not until we cash the money out from the account. That quirk makes pre-tax accounts ideal for traders, stock pickers, and market timers who move in and out of positions with regularity. It’s also a good place to stash taxable bond funds and high dividend funds that throw out a lot of periodic income.
  • Roth: This is where you should make your highest risk “lottery” type bets. Let’s say you could (and want to) invest in bitcoin, startups in their infancy, micro cap stocks, penny/value stocks, turnaround stories, Greek bonds on the verge of default, and foreclosed homes. You would do so here. The bigger the potential gains, the better it will be. Whether you stumble upon a 10-bagger or 100-bagger doesn’t matter. You won’t pay any tax on it at the end.

So in summary, you want to use the right tool for the job. A balanced portfolio should consist of stock funds, bond funds, and maybe a dash of play money. Instead of making each tax category holding the same, we should concentrate our investments in the type of account that is best-suited from a tax perspective. Big gainers should be in the Roth, slow steady accumulator broad market funds should be in taxable, and income spewing investments in the pre-tax account.

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Passive Clearly Beating Active

These past few years have not been good to actively managed funds, or their managers. As this Morningstar article shows, funds are continuing to lose investor money and as a result, they have to lay off their fund directors. Shed no tears for them though, as they’ve had several years of high six figure+ income without providing a corresponding return to their investors.

Let Uncle Warren and Jack Bogle light the way. It’s no secret why the biggest indexer, Vanguard, is growing more than everyone else combined!

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The Few Proud Stock Winners

Remember my exhortation against stock picking, due to the few winners driving gains and the majority of stocks being meh or losers? This Morningstar article posted an insightful finding based on a recent study:

Half of U.S. stock-market wealth creation has come from 0.33% of listed companies.

Please note, that figure is not 33%. It is one third of 1%—one security out of 300.
Of the 26,000 stocks that appear in CRSP’s database, 86 provided half the aggregate wealth creation, 282 are required to reach the 75% figure, and 983 account for the full 100%. That is, after the 983 highest wealth creators, the remaining 25,000-plus securities are net neutral. Some made money for their investors, and some lost, but overall they were a wash.
Let’s re-emphasize. 86 stocks drove half of the gains of the market as a whole. If you were to randomly pick a stock to place your bets on, you would only have a 0.33% chance of picking a major winner. What’s the lesson, Morningstar?
In other words, do as your columnist prescribes, not as he does: Diversify. Widely and broadly.
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Startup Philosophy – Cater to the Whims of the Rich

Warren Buffett has always published insightful yearly shareholder letters. This year’s is no different. The key passage that stood out to me was his critique of the hedge fund industry. With the exorbitant fee model, and given the fact that even their own managers don’t invest in their own product (what’s the opposite of dogfood?), why do they still survive?

Uncle Warren explains the answer:

I believe, however, that none of the mega-rich individuals, institutions or pension funds has followed that same advice when I’ve given it to them. Instead, these investors politely thank me for my thoughts and depart to listen to the siren song of a high-fee manager or, in the case of many institutions, to seek out another breed of hyper-helper called a consultant.

That professional, however, faces a problem. Can you imagine an investment consultant telling clients, year after year, to keep adding to an index fund replicating the S&P 500? That would be career suicide. Large fees flow to these hyper-helpers, however, if they recommend small managerial shifts every year or so. That advice is often delivered in esoteric gibberish that explains why fashionable investment “styles” or current economic trends make the shift appropriate.

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars. This reluctance of the rich normally prevails even though the product at issue is –on an expectancy basis – clearly the best choice. My calculation, admittedly very rough, is that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade. Figure it out: Even a 1% fee on a few trillion dollars adds up. Of course, not every investor who put money in hedge funds ten years ago lagged S&P returns. But I believe my calculation of the aggregate shortfall is conservative.

Emphasis mine. That there is the key to understanding that there is money to be made in catering to the whims of the rich. I’ve always thought but never said out loud that the keys to a successful startup are one (or more) of the following:

  1. Get paid
  2. Get laid
  3. Feel special

This sets apart the *great* startup ideas from the merely good ones. Take for example Airbnb, Uber, and Coffee Meets Bagel. For the end user they offer convenience, but they also offer other incentives – matchmaking or earning money – to the participants. Contrast that to any sort of home food delivery service (which were hot startups not that long ago). Sure, they were nice incremental convenient improvements on the status quo, but they weren’t life changing. I could just as easily call up the restaurant myself for not that much difference in value.

The special sauce comes with #3. Basically the user must think there’s something mystical or unique about the service’s secret sauce that’s an improvement over everything else. Airbnb and Uber are great ways to monetize (for a decent amount of money) assets that you already have. Nothing else out there is comparable. CMB gives you the right amount of control over matches and simplifies the overwhelming dating world.

The last category can be a stand alone business idea all by itself. Just think to all the hostess cafes in Tokyo where a cute young woman caters to your every whim (except sex). That’s a huge boost to a shy nerd’s self esteem. Great niche to be in, as these guys tend to be high earning engineers! A hedge fund can basically be thought of as a hostess cafe for the wealthy. Here come all these experts to fawn over you and make you feel special. I bet that at some level the rich know that they’re going to lose money compared to an index fund, but nothing beats the thrill of having access to Ivy League educated experts at the tip of their finger. That fulfillment, and not any actual investing expertise, is essentially the business model of a hedge fund.

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The Superstar Effect

From this:

the entire gain in the U.S. stock market since 1926 is attributable to the best-performing four percent of listed stocks.

It’s stating nothing more than what we know. If only a few “superstar” stocks drive the majority of earning (and some like ADP and Altria spin off many other successful companies), it’s all the more reason to diversify. If we just pick a few stocks, what are the chances we’ll have a proportional amount of those mega winner 4% stocks? Not good, despite how great a stock picker you think you are. Just look at my thought experiment for details. After all, if Harvard’s endowment could hire the best and brightest and still underperform the market, despite their pedigree and venture into “alternative investments”, how well can you as an individual do?

In other news, there is a similar superstar effect in the labour market.

The recent fall of labor’s share of GDP in numerous countries is well-documented, but its causes are poorly understood. We sketch a “superstar firm” model where industries are increasingly characterized by “winner take most” competition, leading a small number of highly profitable (and low labor share) firms to command growing market share.

The winners are disruptive because they are more efficient, able to do more with fewer workers. This is not much solace to those displaced as a result of old firms going under.

To survive in this world, we need to learn the skills of superstars. Stay in the few remaining jobs that remain, save and invest like crazy, and start our own businesses. That’s the key to success. My book is your guide to this.

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Another One Bites The Dust

Another hedge fund, that is. Despite the market being up more than 200% since the depths of the financial crisis, some hedge fund managers have somehow managed their billions of investments into the ground.

Richard Perry will shutter his hedge-fund firm after billions of dollars in investment losses and client defections.

The longtime hedge-fund manager told clients in a letter Monday “the industry and market headwinds against us have been strong, and the timing for success in our positions too unpredictable.”

Perry’s eponymous firm has lost more than 60% of its assets under management since November 2014, when it managed $10.4 billion. Its main fund lost more than 12% last year, much of it from a bad bet on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and was down 1.3% this year through August, said a person familiar with the matter.

Perry won’t give back all of the remaining money immediately. He committed in the letter only to returning “a substantial amount of the fund’s capital” starting next month. Some of the remainder won’t be cashed out for more than a year, the letter said. Bloomberg News earlier reported Perry’s shutdown plans.

Ahem, notice how he excuses his own poor actions by claiming that headwinds arrayed against him were too strong, even though the overall market was up. Also note that he doesn’t have plans to return all the investors’ money. Why would anyone pay these guys in the first place, given this kind of performance?

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