What 2016 Taught Us About Investing

Originally in ForbesInvesting is a pursuit best liberated from short-term analysis that tends to mislead more than edify. But 2016 was one of those rare years that provided a lifetime’s worth of education in a brief period.

Here are the three big investing lessons of 2016 that can be applied to good effect over the long term:

1) Discipline works.

January was greeted with panic-inspiring headlines like, “Worst Opening Week in History.” While hyperbolic, the truth in headlines such as these may have been more than enough to scare off investors frustrated by seemingly unrewarded discipline in recent years.

With threats of international instability (Brexit) and domestic volatility (historically wacky election cycle), there were ready reasons to cash in even the most well-conceived investment plan, opting for observer status over participant. But to do so would’ve been a huge mistake.

Indeed, the S&P 500 logged an impressive 11.9% for the year, with small- and value-oriented indices pointing even higher.

2) Diversification works.

How can a simple, balanced 60/40 portfolio have better outcomes than investors who try to “beat the market”? Through diversification. In 2016, a portfolio that invested 40% in watching-paint-dry short-term U.S. Treasuries — and that also diversified its equity holdings among asset classes that evidence indicates expose investors to outperformance — had a good chance of matching or even topping the S&P 500’s return for 2016.

Ordinarily, translating any single year’s performance into a lifelong investment strategy would be a regrettable mistake, but in 2016 the market mirrored the historical evidence suggesting that certain factors direct us to particular investment disciplines worthy of emulation. Or in simpler terms, stocks make more than bonds, small-cap stocks make more than large-cap stocks, and value stocks make more than growth — and it may be a good idea to reflect this in your portfolio.

3) Prognostication doesn’t work and punditry doesn’t help.

“Man plans and God laughs,” according to a Yiddish proverb. No, I’d never attribute divinity to the imperfect market, but I’m happy to attribute fallible humanity to those who attempt to divine the market’s next move.

Every year, Wall Street oracles discern what the market will do through notoriously errant forecasts. Every day, an endless stream of talking heads rationalize the meaning of past market moves and presume to postulate its future direction. More often than not, they’re just plain wrong.

Or, as my colleague Larry Swedroe bluntly advises, “You should ignore all market forecasts because no one knows anything.”

Great Britain’s exit from the European Union was supposed to unhinge the global economy, but most have already forgotten the meaning of Brexit. The market then sent clear signs that it preferred one presidential candidate over the other, followed by a rash of recessionary predictions in the case of an upset. But the markets processed the monumental election surprise before the next day’s market close — doing precisely the opposite of what the “smart money” said it would do.

I don’t mean to suggest that the market will always ignore macroeconomic events and political surprises in search of higher ground. But.

The market is going to do whatever the heck it wants, regardless of the balderdash-du-jour pundits and prognosticators say it will do. It will peak when it “should” plummet and it will sink when it “should” sail.

The market’s most predictable trait is its unpredictability. But that, of course, is why we also expect a higher long-term reward for enduring the market’s short-term risk.

Again, there is more danger in drawing too many conclusions from a single year’s worth of market history, but these lessons learned in 2016 are worthy of application every year.

What The Stock Market Wants This Election, And What You Should Do In Your Portfolio

Originally in ForbesWe’ll know soon enough who America chooses as its next president, but the market has already voted.

Who does the stock market “want” to win?

Hillary Clinton. This isn’t a partisan statement, but simply a statement of fact. election-2016There may be several indicators to which we could point, but the glaring one is this: When the FBI announced last Friday that a new slew of emails had been discovered that could impact its investigation and shed further negative light on Clinton’s handling of classified emails, the market sold off. Period.

But why? Is the market more Democrat than Republican?
No. In fact, you may recall the George Bush/Al Gore recount in 2000, when the market seemed to cheer in Bush’s favor. But what the market really doesn’t like is unpredictability, and it has asserted its opinion that Donald Trump is a more unpredictable candidate than Clinton.

You Won’t Get Fooled Again: Understanding the Availability Heuristic in Investing

Originally in ForbesYou’re no fool. But let’s imagine for a second that a major public figure said something—something false—over and over (and over) again. Regardless of its questionable veracity, is there a chance you’d be more likely to believe the proclamation simply because you’ve heard it often and recently?

Like it or not, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

You and I are more likely to believe something is true when it’s readily available—that is, when we’ve heard it frequently and, especially, when we’ve heard it lately. This phenomenon is dubbed the “availability heuristic,” and even though it was discovered and named (by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) more than 40 years ago, it likely hasn’t caught on in the broader public awareness because its title includes the word “heuristic.”
Nonetheless, the availability heuristic’s power to persuade is not lost on marketers, salespeople, lobbyists and politicians. They use it on us all the time. But let’s explore the errant biases in investing, in particular, that while readily available often lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

Active vs. Passive

The debate rages (and no doubt will continue to do so) over whether active stock pickers are able to beat their respective benchmark indices. The implications seem simple: If fee-charging money managers aren’t persistently outperforming their benchmarks, we likely should not be paying them for underperformance, right?

How Fantasy Ruins Football (and Investing)

Originally in ForbesIt’s that time of year again, where the heat of summer recedes, sweatshirts make a comeback and businesses lose billions in flagging productivity due to fantasy football. But it’s not just businesses losing out—fans and players come up short as well.

How, after all, can I truly dedicate myself to rooting fully for my beloved Baltimore Ravens if I took Le’Veon Bell—who, for those not acquainted with the best rivalry in football, plays running back for the Steelers—second in the fantasy draft? It can’t be done. It’s just wrong.

I’m kidding, right?

Partly. But there are more serious personal and financial implications to embracing fantasy (sports or otherwise). The danger in fantasy is its distance from reality. It’s “betting on a future that is not likely to happen,” according to Psychology Today.

Our fantasies tend to sensationalize what we’d prefer to imagine while ignoring what we’d prefer to not. Then, when our actual spouse, child, parent, friend or co-worker falls short of the impossibly high bar we’ve set for them, we—and often, they—are crushed.

“Emotional suffering is created in the moment we don’t accept what is,” says Eckhart Tolle, who, perhaps unintentionally, delivers a potent dose of truth that especially informs us in our personal dealings with money.

Here are a handful of financial fantasies, followed by their unvarnished truths:

Don’t Let Wall Street Fool You Into Taking Too Much Risk

Originally in ForbesCompetition for your dollars creates an inertia that always seems to lead Wall Street down the path of unhelpfully increasing the risk in your portfolio. The recent Wall Street Journal headline, “Bond Funds Turn Up Risk,” illustrates an especially alarming trend. Specifically, of increasing the risk in the part of your portfolio that should be reducing overall risk—bonds.

Bonds are supposed to be boring. The primary role they serve in our portfolios is not necessarily to make money, but to dampen the volatility that is an inevitable byproduct of the real moneymakers—stocks.

Thank God Life (and Investing) Isn’t Like the Olympics

Originally in ForbesImagine that your entire life revolves around a single performance lasting less than 14 seconds. You’ve sacrificed your youth, close friendships and any semblance of a career in pursuit of validating your Herculean effort on the world’s largest stage. The hopes of your country on your shoulders. Tens of millions of gawkers eager to praise perfection — and condemn anything less.

And then.

You dork it.

Jeffrey Julmis

That’s precisely what happened to Haitian hurdler Jeffrey Julmis in the Olympic 110-meter semifinal heat when he crashed into the very first hurdle, tumbling violently into the second.

Wow. I love the Olympics, the pinnacle of athletic competition. I even see past all the corporate corruption and commercial sensationalism, drinking in every vignette, simply in awe of all that the human body, mind and spirit can accomplish in peak performance. But thank God life isn’t like the Olympics (even for Olympians).

We aren’t subject to the imperial thumbs up or down based on a single momentary contest (or even a handful of them). But we’re certainly capable of treating life that way, often to our detriment. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you said (or thought):

“This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

“It’s all leading up to this.”

We’re trained to think this way because that narrative is more likely to keep you from switching the channel, more likely to motivate you to buy that car (or house or hair product), all of it promising to be that singular moment or lead you to it.

This script is especially common in the world of financial products. If you surveyed the marketing collateral for a host of investment products, you’d think the product being sold was a sailboat, new golf clubs, a winery or beach house — a life without care. But success in investing is actually achieved through the tedium of saving and the application of a simple, long-term investment plan — not the sexy new investment product or strategy that pledges to deliver your hopes and dreams.

Thankfully, this is also true in life (and athletics). “Success” is cultivated in the millions of unseen moments, the application of simple disciplines employed in pursuit of goals that don’t expire the minute we’re out of the spotlight. And even at the moment of our most abominable failures, the humbled Haitian hurdler provided us with the only example we need:

He got up and finished the race.

The Relative Irrelevance of Market Highs

Originally in ForbesThis week we’ve heard a lot about the U.S. stock market achieving new highs. So what? Should this record transcendence inspire confidence or fear, action or inaction?

Market High Wire

You’ll find sufficient supporters for both the pessimistic and the optimistic view, with a far greater number of pleas to act on these views. But I invite you to consider the relative irrelevance of market highs for the following simple reason:

Any investment with a positive expected rate of return should regularly revisit and recreate its all-time high as a matter of course. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have a positive expected rate of return!

Why The Stock Market Is Volatile, Why Volatility Hurts, And What To Do About It

Originally in ForbesUnless you made a resolution not to read, listen to or watch the news in 2016, you’ve likely noticed that “the market” is off to a stumbling start. Indeed, one glance at the headlines, at least the ones that don’t involve the presidential election, quickly reveals that the market is having one of its worst starts to any new year. This is a dubious distinction, to be sure.

The factors involved appear similar to those credited for causing the extreme volatility we saw in the fall of 2015—slower growth in China, falling oil prices, geopolitical instability and the threat of bankruptcies in junk bonds. But the optimist’s case seems equally compelling—high-quality bonds (the only kind I recommend) are performing very well, falling oil prices are good for consumers, the Fed’s interest rate rise signals a strengthening U.S. economy and the most recent jobs report was positive.

An objective view of the market reminds us that on every trading day in history, there have been compelling cases to be made for both optimism and pessimism—for purchases or sales. (Remember that every single security transaction involves a buyer and a seller, each of whom believes he or she is getting the better end of the deal.)

Ultimately, there is only one sufficient answer to the question, “Why is the market so volatile?” The market exhibits volatility because that is its nature.

If You Don’t Like The Market Today, Just Wait Until Tomorrow

Originally in ForbesIn my hometown of Baltimore, there’s an oft-heard saying that seems especially applicable when, like now, the seasons are changing: “If you don’t like the weather today, just wait until tomorrow.” For whatever meteorological reason, it’s not uncommon for an absolutely miserable Monday to turn into a gorgeous Tuesday. Temperatures have been known to swing as much as 20 degrees inside of an afternoon.

A scientific view of stock market history, unfortunately, shows us an even greater propensity for unpredictability and volatility.

Even the years that we refer to as the “good” ones, in retrospect, test our mettle. For example, between 1950 and 2014, a span of 65 years, the S&P 500 ended the year with a gain 51 times (or in almost 80% of them). Not bad. But in how many of those up years do you think investors would’ve found themselves in a “losing” position at some point in the year?

Every. Single. One. 

The Market Volatility Survival Tool: True Grit

Originally in ForbesIs recent stock market volatility bugging you?

True Grit

Do you wince with every headline announcing Greece’s demise, China’s bubble(s), the Federal Reserve’s indecision or the Dow’s down day?

Do you sneak a peak at your portfolio’s performance more than quarterly (or perhaps even annually)?

Does market volatility tempt you to question your investment strategy, even if it’s well thought out and carefully implemented?

Does it weaken your resolve to resist the sky-is-falling siren song heard so frequently in the financial media, or the sales pitch du jour?

Having the right investment strategy is important—really important—and surely contributes to long-term success in building wealth. But no matter how superlative your strategy, it’s your willingness to stick with it that ultimately will help you meet your financial goals.