Why Beating The Market Is An Uphill Skate

It is absolutely possible to beat the market, just as I’m sure it’s possible that someone could climb Mt. Everest in a pair of roller skates.

It is so improbable, however, that it’s rendered a fruitless, if not counterproductive, pursuit.

After 16 years in the financial industry and seeing countless great investors eventually humbled by market forces they could not control, I’ve finally relinquished my skates.

Know Your Greek

First, we must define what it means to actually “beat the market.” We’re not talking about simply outperforming one of the major stock or bond market indices, like the S&P 500 or the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond.

Investors who take more risk than these benchmarks in years when taking risk is rewarded could—even should—have a higher expected rate of return. But doing so does not equate to a feat of investing brilliance. No, in order to claim dominance over the market, an investor must achieve a higher risk-adjusted rate of return—the prized, yet elusive, alpha.

Beta, in investing parlance, is the market. The market equals the number one. An investment with a beta of 1.5 is taking on more risk than the market and should enjoy a proportionately higher reward when the market has an upward trajectory, but you should also expect to lose more on the downside. An investment with a beta of less than one should respond to market stimuli with less gusto, or volatility, than the market.

Beta is all around us, but alpha is more like a shrouded ghost investors occasionally glimpse, but rarely capture. When the alpha ghost is captured, it does what those of us who regularly interact with ghosts already know—it slips through our grasp.

Depending on the year, you’ll find statistics confirming that the majority of actively managed funds—mutual funds and hedge funds, whose very existence is justified only by clinging to the hope of attaining alpha—underperform appropriate benchmarks. In any given year, 50% to 90% fail to beat the market.

An even more colossal failing is shown in active managers’ ability to beat the market over an extended period of time, or even a few years consecutively. A Vanguard study, which confirmed previous research, found that only 18% of active managers were able to outperform their benchmark over the 15-year period from 1998 through 2012.

Fully 97% of them underperformed in at least five of those years and “two-thirds of them experienced at least three consecutive years of underperformance during that span.”

Ivy League Investing

It’s always been hard to beat the market, but now it’s become “nearly impossible” according to Julie Segal at Institutional Investor magazine.

And Segal is speaking for the realm considered to be the last bastion of alpha—institutional investors, like Ivy League endowments.

Why has alpha been slipping away from even the brightest investment minds in the business? Charles Ellis, who served on Yale University’s investment committee from 1992 until 2008, tells Segal that volume on the New York Stock Exchange has increased more than 2,000 times in the past 50 years. Ellis also states that during the same time, the balance of trading in the U.S. has swung from 90 percent individuals to roughly 90 percent institutions.

In 1987, there were 15,000 people holding the coveted Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, the gold standard for money managers. Today, there are more than 110,000 CFAs worldwide.

It’s called the “paradox of skill.” As everyone’s skill increases, relative outperformance diminishes. Investors are smarter and more competitive than ever, and as a result, they’re unable to profitably exploit a dwindling number of market inefficiencies. The market has gone from being pretty darn efficient to ridiculously so.

Sadly, investors lose an awful lot of beta in their quest for alpha.

You have a choice: You can keep trying to climb Mt. Everest with a storm moving in and roller skates for footwear, or you can position probability in your favor and join the movement toward low-frequency trading and evidence-based investing.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter, @TimMaurer.

What You Can Learn From Bill Gross And PIMCO’s Troubles

“Trouble. Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble.” Reading all the news about Bill Gross and PIMCO, I keep hearing that Ray LaMontagne song in my head. (Go ahead—give it a listen while you read this, just for fun.) EGO

The king of bonds isn’t yet abdicating the throne, but it’s been a rough stretch since PIMCO came down from the mountain to translate the etchings on the “New Normal” tablets. It was, of course, hard to argue the logic in 2009, that U.S. markets would struggle under the weight of a sluggish economy hampered by high unemployment and systemic government debt. But as it often does in the face of supposed certainty, the market defied man’s expectations.

Following the new normal playbook, PIMCO bet against Treasurys in 2011, when its flagship fund, Total Return, captured only 53% of the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index return for that year. In 2013, the fund barely beat the Barclays index, but it lost money for the first time since 1999—accelerating a trend of fund outflows.

Then things started to reflect daytime television, when Gross’ heir apparent, Mohamed El-Erian, departed in the midst of rumors of dissent at the top of the organization. Those rumors were confirmed when The Wall Street Journal published an article based on reports by unnamed inside sources, accusing Gross of comparing himself publicly to the unbeatable racehorse, Secretariat. Then Morningstar downgraded PIMCO’s “stewardship grade” to C from B.

Beyond the tabloid fodder, however, there is a vital investing lesson to take away from this still-evolving story:

Pride goeth before a fall.

Ego and ignorance are at the core of nearly every investment blunder. As un-shocked as most of us were to find that an investment management bigwig making $200 million a year had an ego problem, ego is at the core of the PIMCO dilemma.

(Click HERE to see me discussing concerns about Bill Gross' ego on CNBC's "Street Signs.")

Ego, then, often leads to an interesting form of ignorance. While none of us would dispute Gross’ intellectual brilliance, his presumption of preeminence might be his downfall.

When everything goes right for an extended period of time, we often mistakenly allow ourselves to believe that our success is disproportionately attributable to us and not outside forces. It’s called the fundamental attribution error. We attribute our success to our innate traits and our mistakes to external circumstances while assuming that the errors of others are due to internal shortfalls, like a lack of character or intelligence.

It’s a blind spot. Unfortunately, the financial industry seems to be full of them. Everybody thinks they’re smarter than everybody else—and the market, even though the overwhelming evidence stands in opposition.

Déjà vu all over again?

Remember the story of the fabled fund formerly known as the Legg Mason Value Trust? Bill Miller had beaten the market for so many years that he forgot it was possible for him to not beat the market. When he lost to the S&P 500 for the first time in his tenure with the fund in 2006 and 2007 — and then very badly in 2008, betting he could will the financials out of their downward spiral — everything started to become clearer: The fund had returned more than the broader market largely because it was taking on more risk than the market—then, it simply lost more than the market because it was taking on more risk than the market.

Almost two decades of apparent outperformance were undone in a single year.

Or go back even further to explore the life of Jesse Livermore in the fictional account based on his life in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator. Some Wall Street firms still offer this as a securities trading handbook, even though Livermore lost his fortune more times than he was able to make it and ended his life by his own hand, in poverty and disgrace.

The Bottom Line:

The market rewards humility over hubris, discipline over gut feelings and proactivity over reactivity. By acknowledging that you’re not omniscient, you free yourself to compose an investment strategy grounded in evidence that makes up for its lack of sex appeal with its elegant simplicity—and most important, its effectiveness. You can choose to stop chasing the market and build a portfolio designed to get everything the market has to offer.

More on that next week.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter, @TimMaurer.

 

 

Allocating Your Most Valuable Asset—You

What is your most valuable asset? Your home? Not likely, even back in 2006. Your 401(k)? Doubtful, even when it was 2007. No, if you’re not yet glimpsing your retirement years, it’s likely that your biggest asset is you—and not just metaphorically.

Let’s say you’re only 30, with a degree or two and some experience under your belt. You’re making $70,000 per year. If you only get 3% cost-of-living-adjustment raises, you will crest a million in aggregate earnings in just the next 13 years.

Over the course of the next 40 years, over which you’ll almost surely continue working, you’ll earn more than $5.2 million.

Or maybe you’ve just celebrated your 40th birthday—the new 30—and you’re hitting your stride professionally, making $150,000 per annum. With only 3% raises, you’ll make more than $2.1 million in just the next dozen years.

(How’s that 401(k) looking again?)

You are your biggest asset.  It’s called labor capital, and it’s an asset all too often underestimated by financial advisors and their clients.

Labor Capital Curve

While your financial assets start small and hopefully grow over time, compounding through disciplined saving and wise investing, your labor capital brims with potential before descending later in your career.

What would it look like if we treated labor capital with the respect it deserves throughout the financial planning process?

First, we’d invest purposefully in our labor capital. Yes, this means pursuing education, but it also means cultivating our earning potential through mentoring and coaching.

It also means pursuing a job that we enjoy so we don’t feel boxed in if it’s necessary or desired to extend the longevity of our career—and our labor capital.

Second, we’d adjust the rest of our financial plan—especially our investment plan—to accommodate for our labor capital. Moshe Milevsky asks the important but rarely asked question, “Are you a stock or a bond?” in his book of the same name.

If your work offers a high reward but also high risk—let’s say you’re self-employed or you work in a cyclical boom/bust business—you’re a stock. If you enjoy the stability of your position as a tenured professor, but gripe with your colleagues about your unremarkable pay raises, you’re a bond.  "An investor’s ability to take risk is impacted by the stability of their earned income," says Larry Swedroe in The Only Guide You'll Ever Need for the Right Financial Plan, co-authored with Kevin Grogan and Tiya Lim.

If your labor capital acts like a stock, even if you have the intestinal fortitude to endure risk, you should likely be skewing your financial assets more conservatively. Whereas, if your income is more representative of the tortoise than the hare, you may consider infusing your portfolio with a little Usain Bolt.  "[E]ffective diversification of the client’s entire household balance sheet may entail using financial capital to counterbalance against the risks of human capital," says planning guru, Michael Kitces.

Lastly, we’d ensure that our moneymaker is adequately insured. If you work for a well-established company, it likely pays for a base level of disability income (DI). But for most, this isn’t enough, for at least two reasons:

If your company pays the premiums on your group DI policy, the benefits to you will be taxable. Most group policies cover 60% of your salary compensation (although typically not your bonus or incentive comp). If you didn’t have to worry about paying taxes, that wouldn’t be so bad, but after taxes, you’d be lucky to walk away with 40% of your gross pay—while enduring higher medical expenses on the home front.

Additionally, most group DI policies only cover your “own occupation” for two years, at which time you must be medically incapable of performing the material duties of any occupation. (Intending no offense to the gracious folks at the entrance of a Wal-Mart, this means that if you can’t pin a smiley face sticker on the front of someone’s shirt, you ain’t gettin’ your disability checks.)

To make up for either or both of these shortfalls, it makes sense for many—if not most—of us to explore the acquisition of a supplemental long-term disability income insurance policy to stack on top of your insufficient group policy. And if you’re self-employed or otherwise uncovered by a group policy, you’re entirely exposed to the risk of losing your most valuable asset. Private policies aren’t cheap and have too many moving pieces, so you’ll want to educate yourself further. But ignore this very real risk at your own peril.

BOTTOM LINE: Discussions of labor capital can be a great encouragement to those just starting their occupational journey—or those who’ve fallen behind on the accumulation of financial assets—but integrating our labor capital into our financial plan only helps if we allocate our income well.  This means spending money on the most important things in life, saving money for a time when our labor capital is exhausted, and ultimately giving money to the people and causes dearest to us.

If you enjoyed this post, let me know on Twitter @TimMaurer.

Time Is More Precious Than Money

As the Fed has taught us through the money-printing machine cloaked as quantitative easing, the potential supply of U.S. dollars is limitless. Even for most of us individually, we are capable, to varying degrees, of generating and regenerating money through work, investment and happenstance.

Time, however, is a different story.

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

It brings to mind these lyrics: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life,” croons Marcus Mumford in the song “Awake My Soul” on Mumford & Sons’ debut album, “Sigh No More.”

Sure, musicians are notorious for writing lyrics because they sound self-important, or maybe simply because they rhyme, but Mumford has earned a reputation for lyrical brilliance and offers us something deep and meaningful here to apply in our lives and finances.

No matter how much we strive, delegate and engineer for efficiency, there are only 24 hours in each day. We are unable to manufacture more time, and once a moment has passed, it is beyond retrieval.

Of these 24 hours each day, if we assume that we will sleep, work and commute for approximately 17 of them, that leaves us with a measly seven hours to apply ourselves to loftier pursuits. After an hour at the gym, an hour to eat and another hour to decompress with a book or TV show, we’re down to four hours to personally affect those for whom we are presumably working and staying healthy—the people we love.

Our human capacity to love also has its limits.

While not measurable, we can all acknowledge that our capacity to love, in the four hours each day that we have to invest it, is affected by how we’ve invested the other 20 hours. By the “end” of many days, we are just beginning our four hours, and we are already spent. Even if we wanted to, we have nothing left to give—no love left to invest.

I am a chief offender of misallocating my love.

I often allow the four hours I have to give to my wife, Andrea, and two boys, Kieran (10) and Connor (8), to shrink to three, two or even one. In whatever time is allocated, I often serve leftover love, having over-invested myself throughout the day. Then I steal from their time, interrupting it with “important” emails and calls.

I must acknowledge that these are choices I make.

We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.

It’s entirely appropriate to love our work and the people we serve through it. It’s entirely appropriate to love ourselves and to do what is necessary to be physically, fiscally, psychologically and spiritually healthy. It’s entirely appropriate to love our areas of service and civic duty, and to serve well. Therefore, almost paradoxically, it’s entirely appropriate to spend 83 percent of our daily allotment of time in pursuits other than the direct edification of those we love the most.

But what would our lives look like if we engineered our days to make the very most of the other four hours?

Would we have a different job? Would we live in a different house or part of the country? Would we drive a different car? Would we say “no” to some people more and to other people less? Would we invest our time and money differently?

Would you invest your love differently?

I’m excited to be part of a contingent of financial advisors asking these questions of our clients (and ourselves).  We don’t believe that the only way to benefit our clients is through their portfolios, and we believe that asset allocation involves more than mere securities.

This isn’t a particularly new concept.  Indeed, the second phase of the six-step financial planning process, as articulated in the Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) practice standards, is to “determine a client’s personal and financial goals, needs and priorities.”  But thought leaders like Rick Kahler, Ted Klontz, Carol Anderson, George Kinder, Carl Richards and Larry Swedroe are persistently nudging the notoriously left-brained financial realm to reconcile with its creative and intuitive side for the benefit of our clients.

With statistics suggesting that as many as 80% of financial planning recommendations are not implemented by clients, it’s officially time to recognize that personal finance is more personal than it is finance.

If you enjoyed this post, I'd love to hear from you on Twitter via @TimMaurer.

Study Reveals Investing Is Hazardous To Your Health

Investing Hazard-01I don’t need to inform you that investing is dangerous business.  You already know in your gut what Joseph Engelberg and Christopher Parsons at U.C. San Diego found in their new study, that there is a noticeable correlation between market gyrations and our mental and physical health.

But when do you think the financial industry will get the point?

Shortly after I became a financial advisor, I was given a book to commit to memory.  It told me what my role in life would be: To make a very good living helping approximately 250 families stay in the stock market.

The text insisted that regardless of my client’s age or risk temperament, it would be in their best interest to be—and stay—in stocks, exclusively and forevermore.  I was the doctor; they were the patients.  I was the ark-builder; they were the—you get the point.

The book might even be right.

But…

The Behavior Gap

My friend and New York Times contributor, Carl Richards, has been drawing a particular picture for years.  He’s struck by the research acknowledging the noticeable difference between investment rates of return and what investors actually make in the markets.  (Investors make materially less.)

Investors, it appears, allow emotions to drive their investing decisions.  A desire to make more money causes them to choose aggressive portfolios when times are good, but a gripping fear leads them to abandon the cause in down markets, missing the next upward cycle.

Investors buy high and sell low.

Well-meaning advisors, then, including the author of the book I referenced, have claimed their collective calling to be the buffer between their clients’ money and their emotions.  Unfortunately, it’s not working.

Maybe it’s because the intangible elements of life are so tightly woven into the tangible that we can’t optimally segregate them.

Maybe it’s because we’re not actually supposed to forcibly detach our emotions from our rational thought.

Maybe it’s because financial advisors and investing gurus should focus less on blowing the doors off the benchmark du jour and more on generating solid long-term gains from portfolios designed to be lived with.

Livable portfolios.

Portfolios designed to help clients stay in the game.

Portfolios designed to help clients (and advisors) avoid falling prey to the behavior gap.

Portfolios calibrated with a higher emphasis on capital preservation.

How much less money do you make, anyway, when you dial up a portfolio’s conservatism?

The Same Return With Less Risk

In his book, How to Think, Act, and Invest Like Warren Buffett, index-investing aficionado, Larry Swedroe, writes, “Instead of trying to increase returns without proportionally increasing risk, we can try to achieve the same return while lowering the risk of the portfolio.”

Using indexing data from 1975 to 2011, Swedroe begins with a standard 60/40 model—60% S&P 500 Index and 40% Five-Year Treasury Notes.  It has an annualized rate of return of 10.6% over that stretch and a standard deviation (a measurement of volatility—portfolio ups and downs.) of 10.8%.

Next, Swedroe begins stealing from the S&P 500 slice of the pie to diversify the portfolio with a bias toward small cap, value and international exposure (with a pinch of commodities).  The annualized return is boosted to 12.1% while the standard deviation rises proportionately less, to 11.2%.  (Remember, this is still a 60/40 portfolio with 40% in five-year treasuries.)

But here’s where Swedroe pulls the rabbit out of the hat:  He re-engineers the portfolio, flipping to a 40/60 portfolio, proportionately reducing all of his equity allocations and boosting his T-notes to 60% of the portfolio.  The net result is a portfolio with a 10.9% annualized rate of return—slightly higher than the original 60/40 portfolio—with a drastically lower standard deviation of 7.9%

Same return.  Less Risk.

This, of course, is all hypothetical.  This happened in the past, and for many reasons, it may not happen again.  These illustrations are not a recommended course of action for you or your advisor, but instead a demonstration that it is possible—and worth the effort—to work to this end.

Because we can’t keep hiding from the following logical thread:

1)   Volatile markets increase investor stress (even to the point of physical illness).

2)   Heightened investor stress leads to bad decisions—by both investors and advisors—that reduce investor returns.

3)   Market analysis suggests that portfolios can be engineered to maintain healthy long-term gains, while at the same time dramatically reducing the intensity of market gyrations.

How could we not, then, conclude that more investors would suffer less stress, thereby reducing (hopefully eliminating) their behavior gap, thereby allowing investors to hold on to more of their returns?

Isn’t that the point?

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly Forbes installment via email, click HERE.

Don’t Bet Your Portfolio On The Twitter IPO

Twitter Announces Plan To Float On Stock MarketConsider keeping your social media activity on your computer, phone or tablet—and out of your portfolio.

People seem to either love or hate Facebook and Twitter, with emotions ranging high, like rooting for our favorite sports teams.  Personally, I’m unlikely to win any football or basketball office pools because I’m so biased toward my favorite teams.

We can also suffer from some of these polarizing bias issues with individual stock selections—and especially social media stocks bearing the names of the most recognizable thumbnail icons of our time.

There will be winners and losers with Twitter, as with any stock, but I’m content to be an observer.  This is for a couple specific reasons:

1)     I am biased.  Unlike Facebook, which I dumped as a personal social media outlet (for seven reasons that were important to me), I really like Twitter.  I hope Twitter continues to do well so that those of us who are fans will continue to benefit from its many uses well into the future.  In other words, I’m biased.  I’m vested, and that detracts from my ability to be the best investor.

2)     Another reason that I’m tentative about this whole Twitter IPO business is that, well, the company has never made a profit.  One of the reasons for its cult following is that you don’t get slapped in the face by endless ads hunting for the content you seek (unlike some other social media platforms).  You don’t have to be a stock picker to know that Twitter will have to access “as-yet-untouched monetization levers,” according to Jeff Bercovici at Forbes, in order to reach the upper end of its anticipated price range.  That means they’ll have to find new ways to sell us, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably hoping to be an untouchable monetization lever.

This is not investment advice—it’s gambling advice, because at this stage of the game, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Twitter is going to successfully remake its loyal followers into a money-printing machine, 140 characters at a time.

TWEETABLE: Consider keeping your social media activity on your computer, phone or tablet--and out of your portfolio. #TwitterIPO

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly Forbes installment via email, click HERE.

The Only Lesson You Need To Learn From The Debt Ceiling Debacle

Executive Summary-01Few of us would argue that the government shutdown and this year’s debt ceiling debacle are issues of importance, but over the course of your lifetime, which do you think has a bigger impact—the decisions the government makes or your own personal decisions?

We tend to spend more time bemoaning the action and inaction of those with less of a direct influence in our lives—especially legislators and Presidents—than those who most directly impact our lives: US.

You are an entity.  You and your spouse (if you’re married) and your children (if you’re a parent) are certainly beholden in part to other entities, like companies, cities, states and countries, but you also enjoy a great deal of sovereignty.  You decide where to live, what to eat, whom to befriend and marry, how to derive an income and how to spend it.

Please allow me to disabuse you of a few “It’s their fault!” self-deception anthems especially common in the realm of personal finance:

  • The arc of your career is not your boss or company’s responsibility. Good bosses and companies create environments in which good employees can flourish.  Bad bosses and companies inspire good employees to join better companies or create new businesses.  Bad employees play lots of video games.  At work.
  • Regardless of your levels of income or net worth, your financial success or failure will be predicated primarily on the effectiveness of your cash-flow management system.  This is most commonly and disdainfully referred to as a budget.  I recommend YNAB to college students and millionaires alike.  You can never be too rich or poor to budget.
  • Your long-term success in investing is not the responsibility of your financial advisor or investment manager (although they can help or hurt).  There are innumerable (good and bad) variations on the portfolio creation and management theme, but if all you ever did was establish a reasonably diversified, indexed, balanced portfolio (call it the “minimum effective dose”), you’ll likely outpace most of your peers and many professional investment managers.
  • Your ability to retire comfortably will be impacted by many factors—especially the three you just read—but none more so than your willingness to make regular contributions equal or greater to 10% of your annual income.

Although politicians and pundits may attempt to convince us otherwise, the long-term trajectory of our lives are more a consequence of impulsion than compulsion—UNLESS we give someone or something else that control. If you rely more on outside influences than those within your control, you have ceded too much.

If we worry more about that which we can’t control (governmental bumbling, short-term volatility, the outcome of the World Series) than acting on that which we can, we do so only to our detriment.  And maybe—just maybe—the reason we gripe so much about that which is holding us back is that we fear the consequences of being held accountable for our own decisions, our own lives.

Control what you can, and worry far less about that which you can’t.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly Forbes installment via email, click HERE.

Face-Off: Comparing The Impact Of The Shutdown vs. The Debt Ceiling Crisis

1_photoThe government shutdown is to the debt ceiling threat as political squabbling is to political suicide.  I mean no disrespect to the many individuals who are negatively impacted by the shutdown—you are being unjustly abused like the single shovel in a sandbox argument—but I can only muster so much sympathy for the campers holed-up outside of the Grand Canyon waiting to begin their rafting trip.  All of us, however, and the full faith and credit of the world’s currency reserve nation, are being held hostage in a high stakes game of political chicken regarding the newly dubbed Debt Ceiling Debacle of 2013.

Okay, now I’ll drop the SAT logic, metaphors and hyperbole to explain the fundamental differences between the government shutdown and the debt ceiling threat, the two dominant news headlines of the day:

Government Shutdown

The government shutdown occurred because of disagreements in Congress over the proposed budget for the coming (now current) fiscal year, beginning on October 1, 2013.  It’s as if you and your spouse can’t agree on how your household income should be spent.  We haven’t actually had a budget passed by Congress for years, but continuing resolutions were passed each time the moment of truth arrived [read can kicking] to maintain the levels of preceding budgets.  This time, they didn’t agree on a continuing resolution.

The resulting government shutdown has a very meaningful and noticeable impact for those working directly for the government, doing contract work for the government or availing themselves of government resources.  Non-essential government employees are furloughed, but have been promised back pay.  Many government contractors are also idle and are not expected to receive pay for time off.  As for the many government services—from federally subsidized mortgages to national parks—USA Today did a good job answering 66 questions about the shutdown on October 1, and followed up with another 27 a day later.  If you’d prefer a more visual and humorous description of what precipitated the shutdown, check out The Atlantic’s explanation—in Legos.

In short, the government shutdown may not show DC’s best side and is an annoyance to those of us not receiving the government services that come out of our paychecks, but it’s likely to be forgotten a couple days after it’s over.  The same can’t be said regarding the debt ceiling issue.

Debt Ceiling

The debt ceiling issue is not a direct consequence of the government shutdown, although it certainly is tangentially related to our inability to pass balanced budgets that actually take in the amount of income required to pay all of the government’s bills.  Since we spend more than we make as a country, we must go further into debt to meet our expenses.  The debt ceiling, then, is our credit limit set by Congress, which currently stands at $17.3 trillion (with a “t”).  It’s the equivalent of you maxing out your credit cards and going back to the credit card company asking for an increase of your limit.

We’ve had a debt ceiling in place since 1917, but Congress has continually raised it.  “Since 1960,” writes Mark Koba at CNBC, “Congress has acted 78 times to permanently raise, temporarily extend or revise the definition of the debt limit—49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democrats.”

The biggest threat if we sail through October 17th without an agreement, when it is estimated that the U.S. Treasury will run out of necessary funding and lack the power to borrow anything more, is that our worldwide creditworthiness would come seriously into question, which could precipitate a demotion from our long-standing as the world’s currency reserve.

What does that mean?  Currently, international business is conducted in U.S. dollars.  When foreign countries buy oil, soy beans or steel, their currencies are exchanged into dollars to complete the transaction.  This has given the U.S. dollar more strength than it likely deserves, as foreign countries stockpile our cash to spend as needed.

Not raising the debt ceiling at this time could even mean not paying interest to those who hold our U.S. debt obligations the world over—for the first time.  Ever.  The corresponding lack of confidence in our political process and uncertainty of our financial capabilities could very well pull us back into the recession that many feel like we haven’t left yet, and the longer-term implications are even worse.

Worst of all?  We—you and I—can’t do anything about it.  Unless, that is, any of our elected representatives are checking their Twitter accounts as they sit with arms folded, legs crossed and brows furrowed.  In that case, consider tweeting this post—they might just receive an education.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter @TimMaurer, and if you’d like to receive my weekly Forbes installment via email, click HERE.

Confessions Of A Self-Righteous Fee-Only Financial Planning Evangelist

250px-Saint_Francis_of_Assisi_by_Jusepe_de_RiberaEvangelical Christians have a PR problem, wouldn’t you agree?  If you want to evoke the scent of condescension, judgmentalism, self-righteousness or hypocrisy, all you need to do is tack on the adjective “evangelical” to the person, place or thing you’re describing, and voila—your work is complete.  The original evangelists—the Disciples, the Apostle Paul, Saint Augustine, even Christ Himself—don’t seem to engender so much animosity (today), but modern-day zealots who invoke these ancient names in pursuit of conforming others to their worldviews have become an easy target for cynicism, in many (while certainly not all) cases deservedly.  Self-righteous fee-only financial planning evangelists—of which I am one—are beginning to face a similar dilemma and may require an act of God to remake their reputation, especially within the industry.

My confession should not be seen as sins for which every fee-only advisor is guilty, but several others have shared similar thoughts with me—some making even bolder statements and passing firm-wide edicts outlawing comparisons designed to disparage the “unholy.”  While there are many individual acts to be brought to light, all of these indiscretions fall under a single umbrella transgression:

Instead of highlighting what we are FOR, we have magnified what we are AGAINST.  Instead of making our case to new and existing clients based on who we ARE, we have taken the more expedient route of peddling who we are NOT.  For example:

  • We are NOT salespeople.  We delude ourselves.  Everyone is selling, from the Pope, the priest and the pastor…to the doctor, the professor and the journalist…to the accountant, the attorney and the advisor…to the agent, the broker and the banker…all the way down to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.  Whether it’s a product, a process or a personality, we all have something to sell.
  • We are NOT biased.  Yes, the bias of commissions is the most evident, but less evident biases can also be dangerous, and sometimes even more so when papered over with apparent altruism.  Hourly billing has an inherent economic bias to stretch an engagement.  Flat fees incentivize the service provider to clip their work, moving on to the next fee.  And those compensated by a percentage of assets under management have a clear conflict to prefer managing more, even if those assets would be better applied to debt repayment, real estate acquisition or investment in a small business.  All of us are biased, and to dispute otherwise is self-deception.
  • WE are NOT non-fiduciaries.  The spirit of fiduciary is vitally important, and the evolution of the industry depends on its application, but the word (fiduciary) itself is relatively meaningless and occasionally misleading.  Unfortunately, we have allowed the word fiduciary to become just another mousetrap to be sold, trampling the spirit of the word in our haste.  A true fiduciary is too busy acting like one to spend time yelling at those who they believe are not.
  • We are NOT, God forbid, Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley.  While the trend was already underway prior to 2008, the move away from proprietary wire houses to independent advisory firms turned into a tidal wave after the financial collapse.  It was primarily the investment banking and trading arms of behemoth brokerage firms that earned the public outrage, but while those complicit started raking in record bonuses the year after the crisis, tens of thousands of financial advisors were left with a heavy anchor on their business cards.  Needless to say, we didn’t exactly throw them a life vest.

Saint Francis wasn’t born with a halo around his head and animals flocking to his crib.  Early in life, he apparently lived it up as a wealthy merchant’s son and even tried his hand at being a warrior for his home town of Assisi prior to receiving the revelations that redirected his path.  The movements for which he became known, however, were enacted less through fiery rhetoric and more through penitence.  While the exact source is disputed, no one doubts that this quote attributed to Francis exemplified his life and work: “Preach the gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.”  We as fee-only financial advisors would do well to seriously consider this admonishment.

Is it possible that the next phase of the financial industry’s inevitable transition (as well as the Church’s) will be led not by rigid demands for legalistic purity, but instead by a humbler, quieter, simpler, more effective practice grounded in affirmation?

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Life Is Not An All-Star Game And Investing Is Not A Home Run Derby

MLB: All Star Game-Home Run Derby162.  That’s how many games are played in the regular season of Major League Baseball.  There’s only one All-Star Game—in the middle of the season, played last night—and it’s rightly referred to as a break for the sport that requires more endurance than any other.

Life has come to look too much like an all-star game, with our greatest hits trotted out on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more.  And while social media has made it easier to craft perception, we’re often putting the face on just the same at networking events, church (especially church) and family parties.

Façade creation is expensive.  It’s inherently limited to the external, the material, and almost always comes with a price tag.  It also tends to degrade, both in appearance and value.  How much time, effort and money do you expend on your perception engine?

No, life is not an all-star game.  It’s grinded out over long and arduous seasons, filled with many highs and lows and sleepless nights spent picking fiberglass-laden tobacco out of our teeth contemplating an oh-for-five game, imagining how we can do better next time.

The highlight for many of the All-Star break, however, is the Home Run Derby, where the game’s biggest sluggers do their worst to cream-puffs tossed by coaches.  It’s like batting practice on steroids (pun intended), complete with no fewer than 47 “Back, back, back…and it’s gone!” calls from the Swami himself, Chris Berman.  Quite the spectacle.

Too many investors, however, emulate home run derby strategies in their process, swinging for the fences on every pitch.  This is problematic for at least two reasons: First, the market’s not pitching balls at half-speed right down the middle.  There simply aren’t any no-brainers (Apple) or sure things (real estate).  The second reason concentrating your investing on the long-ball is a bad idea is that, well, you’re probably not an all-star.  I mean no offense—neither am I.  But I’ve been around the business long enough to see (brilliant) grown men brought to tears, exasperated by the apparent futility of their efforts.  I know enough to know that I don’t know enough to be a big-league stock picker, and I’m ok with that.

Unfortunately, many on Wall Street have a tendency to overestimate both the power of their swing and their knowledge of the game, and I’m not just talking about the overwhelming majority of mutual funds that underperform their benchmark.  Bill Miller, manager of the once-vaunted Legg Mason Value Trust (LMVTX) struck out at the plate so many times in 2008 (most notably in his all-in bet on Bear Sterns) that he inflicted systemic damage to the fund and the very firm he helped put on the map. As investing success persists, it seems, hubris inflates, making these minted sluggers ever more likely to end up walking back to the dugout with their heads hung low.

I’m not just talking about stocks, bonds and mutual funds as investments, either.  It’s even easier to deceive ourselves into thinking that an expensive degree or a home priced out of our reach are worthy of a home run swing.  Let’s, instead, make a practice of getting on base repeatedly, and allowing someone else’s luck or error to drive us home.

Chris Davis leads the major leagues in home runs with 37 only half-way into the season, but he admitted that it wasn’t actually Oriole Magic (or steroids for you haters).  “It was more about consistently putting the bat on the ball, not swinging at balls 14 feet out of the strike zone.”  That’s good advice, for baseball and investing.

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