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.

Top 5 Books To Put The ‘Personal’ Into Your Finances This New Year

Originally in ForbesBecause personal finance is more personal than it is finance, just about every step we take in our personal development aids us in financial planning, and vice versa.

top-5It is in better understanding ourselves that even the most confounding financial decisions are made simple. Therefore, it’s entirely possible for a seemingly non-financial book to have a meaningful impact on your financial life, while the reverse is also true.

Consider, then, this list of my choices for the top five (mostly) recent books that can improve your life, work and financial serenity in 2017:

5) The Whole 30: The Official 30-Day Guide To Total Health And Food Freedom is not your typical diet book. I don’t do those. But I am fascinated by various “life hacks,” small behavioral changes we can make in our diet, exercise and sleep patterns that make life more livable.

American Pension Crisis: How We Got Here

Originally in ForbesMy adopted home of Charleston might have been ranked the “Best City in the World,” but the state of South Carolina is earning a less distinguished label as a harbinger of the country’s worst pension crises. And yes, that’s crises—plural—because U.S. state and local government pensions have “unfunded liabilities” estimated at more than $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39%.

What does that mean, exactly?

When a company or government pledges to pay its long-term employees a portion of their salary in retirement—a pension—the entity estimates how much it (and its employees) will need to set aside in order to make those payments in the future. An underfunded pension is one that simply doesn’t have sufficient funds to make its promised future payments.

Corporate pensions in the United States are in trouble, with the top 25 underfunded plans in the S&P 500 alone accounting for more than $225 billion in underfunding at the end of 2015. But states and municipalities are in even worse shape. This week, the Charleston-based Post and Courier estimated that South Carolina’s shortfall alone was at $24.1 billion, more than triple the state’s annual budget!

How did we get here?

There are two glaring reasons: poor investment decisions and greedy assumptions.

Why I’m Hoping The Trump Administration Doesn’t Kill The DOL Fiduciary Rule

Originally in ForbesAdvisors to President-elect Donald Trump have been vocal about rescinding the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, introduced earlier this year to protect retirement savers from advice that isn’t fully in their best interests. The rule has already been under fire from the securities industry, and lack of presidential support could spell its ultimate demise.

As someone who has worked on both the fiduciary and non-fiduciary sides of the industry, I think revoking the rule is a bad, even dangerous, move. My rationale for such a position starts with my experience, early in my career, at one of the nation’s largest insurance companies.

“Look, you can set up your business any way you see fit after you’re successful. But right now? With a young family? You need to put yourself and your family first, and that means selling A-share mutual funds,” said my sales manager.

In other words, you must put your interests ahead of your clients’.

Fiduciaries are required to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

Fiduciaries are required to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

As a brand new financial advisor, I was having a heart-to-heart with my supervisor after laying out my plan for creating a fee-based business within the agency, which would have meant recurring revenue for the firm but apparently in much smaller increments than were preferable.

“A-share mutual funds” are a variety with some of the largest up-front commissions—for both the salesperson and the company they represent. Variable annuities were even better, generating more of a “front-end load.” Whole life insurance was the pinnacle of up-front commissions.

In the newbie bullpen, we were encouraged to sell in various and sundry ways. The general agent in charge of the Baltimore metro area—the self-proclaimed “big dog”—was, indeed, a large man. A former starting lineman for a recognizable college football team, I’m quite sure that he routinely watched the classic Alec Baldwin “motivational speech” from Glengarry Glen Ross (turn the speakers down if you’re at work or children are nearby).


I recently discussed this topic on the Nightly Business Report (at the 9:05 mark)


My favorite anecdote from that time, though, was my general agent’s big fish story: “When you get a big fish on the hook, I want you to set a noon lunch meeting at the Oregon Grille.” (The Oregon Grille is an excellent restaurant north of Baltimore in pastoral horse country, where most of us had never dined.) “Go to the restaurant 30 minutes early and introduce yourself to the maître d’. Let him know that you’ll be returning shortly to the restaurant with a guest, and that you’d like to be referred to by name.”

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.

Is Your Attitude Toward Work Killing Your Retirement Dreams?

Originally in ForbesDo you have a generally positive or negative impression of the word “retirement”?

I ask because it dovetails nicely with a series of questions (inspired by Rick Kahler) that I use to begin most speaking engagements. These questions are designed to incite self-awareness, offering us clues about how our life experiences have shaped the (often unarticulated but powerful) beliefs that unavoidably influence the decisions we make with and for money.

Work or retire as a concept of a difficult decision time for working or retirement as a cross roads and road sign with arrows showing a fork in the road representing the concept of direction when facing a challenging life choice.

Regardless of an audience’s homogeneity, their responses are consistently inconsistent. I have, however, seen some generational persistency on the topic of retirement. For example, on average, baby boomers have a generally positive view of retirement—no doubt shaped in part by the incessant financial services commercials that promise a utopian post-career existence with beaches, sailboats, golf and an unlimited supply of vintage Pinot Noir.

On the other hand, the finance and accounting students that I had the privilege of teaching at Towson University—almost all members of the Millennial generation—had a generally negative view of the notion of retirement. This is for two prominent reasons:

  1. They pictured hot, humid, early buffet dinners in rural Florida.
  2. They don’t think that the American dream of retirement is available to them.

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!

The Real Reason I Moved to the ‘Best City In The World’

Charleston, South Carolina

Originally in ForbesAccording to Travel + Leisure magazine, “Charleston is a remarkably dynamic place, so it’s no surprise that it has achieved its highest ranking ever in our survey as [2016’s] best city in the world.”

It’s the first time a U.S. city has received the top honor, but Charleston ranked No. 2 last year and has been ranked the No. 1 city in the U.S. and Canada for four years running. As scored by Travel + Leisure readers, Charleston received its top-ranked status based on six categories: sights/landmarks, culture/arts, restaurants/food, people/friendliness, shopping and value.

But please allow me to give you the top three reasons why my family moved to Charleston two years ago, and the reason we’ll stay (and invite you to join us).

Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick

The practical present application of ancient wisdom

Originally in Forbes“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” So reads a Solomonic proverb penned in the 10th century B.C. Consider with me, however, a contemporary application of this ancient wisdom, especially in the realm of personal finance.

HOPE DEFERRED

“We’ve got to apologize, Tim,” said a financial planning client with whom I had a great relationship.

“Whatever for?” I asked.

“You know that new Lexus? The one that backs itself into a parallel parking spot?”

“Yes, I’ve seen the commercials.”

“We bought one,” the client said, with his head bowed in apparent shame.

I’d never communicated that these folks—or anyone, for that matter, who has sufficient means—shouldn’t use said means to purchase a vehicle of their choosing. But the general impression the public has toward financial advisors and educators seems to be that we all think the best use of money is in storing it up and avoiding its deployment. Defer, defer, defer.