Good advice is simple – but not easy!

Here in North Carolina, we cope with hurricanes from time to time, and like the storms, financial markets can bring bumpy weather to our investment portfolios.

However, unlike with hurricanes, which are typically in the forecast for several days at least,  no one can truly see over the horizon to know when bad times – a big drop in asset values – may affect our investments.  When that happens, it is more important than ever to have, and to follow, a solid financial plan.

Sometimes the best, most rigorously developed financial advice is so obvious, it’s become cliché. And yet, investors often end up abandoning this same advice when market turbulence is on the rise. Why the disconnect? Let’s take a look at five of the most familiar financial adages, and why they’re often much easier said than done.

  1. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
  2. No risk, no reward.
  3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  4. Buy low, sell high.
  5. Stay the course.

We’ll explore each in turn, how we implement them, and why helping people stick with these evidence-based basics remains among our most important and challenging roles.

  1. If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail.

Almost everyone would agree: It makes sense to plan how and why you want to invest before you actually do it. And yet, few investors come to us with robust plans already in place. That’s why deep, extensive and multilayered planning is one of the first things we do when welcoming a new client, including:

  • A Discovery Meeting – To understand everything about you, including your goals and interests, your personal and professional relationships, your values and beliefs, how you’d prefer to work with us … and anything else that may be on your mind.
  • “Traditional” Financial Planning – To organize your existing assets and liabilities, define your near-, mid-, and long-range goals, and ensure your financial means align as effectively as possible with your most meaningful aspirations.
  • An Investment Policy Statement (IPS) – To bring order to your investment universe. Your IPS is both your plan and your pledge to yourself on how your investments will be structured to best align with your greater goals. It describes your preferred asset allocations (such as your percentage of stocks vs. bonds), and is further shaped by your willingness, ability, and need to tolerate market risks in pursuit of desired returns.
  • Integrated Wealth Management – To chart a course for aligning your range of wealth interests with your financial logistics: insurance, estate planning, tax planning, business succession, philanthropic intent and more.

As we’ll explore further, even solid planning doesn’t guarantee success. But we believe the only way we can accurately assess how you’re doing is if we’ve first identified what you’re trying to achieve, and how we expect to accomplish it.

  1. No Risk, No Reward.

In many respects, the relationship between risk and reward serves as the wellspring from which a steady stream of financial economic theory has flowed ever since. Simply put, exposing your portfolio to market risk is expected to generate higher returns over time. Reduce your exposure to market risk, and you also lower expected returns.

We typically build a measure of stock market exposure into our clients’ portfolios accordingly, with specific allocations guided by individual goals and risk tolerances. But here’s the thing: Once you have accepted the evidence describing how market risks and expected returns are related, it’s critical that you remain invested as planned.

There’s ample evidence that periodic market downturns ranging from “ripples” to “rapids” are part of the ride. As a February 2018 Vanguard report described, from 1980–2017, the MSCI World Index recorded 11 market corrections of 10% or more, and 8 bear markets with at least 20% declines lasting at least 2 months. Such risks ultimately shape the stream that is expected to carry you to your desired destination. Consider them part of your journey.

  1. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.

At the same time, “risk” is not a mythical unicorn. It’s real. If it rears up, it can trample your dreams. So, just because you might need to include riskier sources of expected returns in your portfolio, it does not mean you must give them free rein.

This is where diversification comes in. Diversification is nothing new. In 1990, Harry Markowitz was co-recipient of a Nobel prize for his work on what became known as Modern Portfolio Theory. Markowitz analyzed (emphasis ours) “how wealth can be optimally invested in assets which differ in regard to their expected return and risk, and thereby also how risks can be reduced.” In other words, according to Markowitz’s work, first published in 1952, investors should employ diversification to manage portfolio risks.

This leads to an intriguing, evidence-based understanding. By combining widely diverse sources of risk, it’s possible to build more efficient portfolios. You can:

  • EITHER lower a portfolio’s overall risk exposure while maintaining similar expected returns
  • OR maintain similar levels of portfolio risk exposure while improving overall expected returns

Rarely, evolving evidence helps us identify additional or shifting sources of expected return worth blending into your existing plans. When this occurs, and only after extensive due diligence, we may advise you to do so, if practical (and cost-effective) solutions exist.

The details of how these risk/return “levers” work is beyond the scope of this article. But come what may, the desire and necessity to DIVERSIFY your portfolio remains as important as ever – not only between stocks and bonds, but across multiple, global sources of expected returns.

  1. Buy Low, Sell High.

Of course, every investor hopes to sell their investments for more than they paid for them. Here are two best practices to help you succeed where so many fall short: time and rebalancing.

Time

By building a low-cost, broadly diversified portfolio, and letting it ride the waves of time, all evidence suggests you can expect to earn long-term returns that roughly reflect your built-in risk exposure. But “success” often takes a great deal more time than most investors allow for.

In a recent article, financial author Larry Swedroe looked at performance persistence among six different sources of expected return as well as three model portfolios built from them. He found, “In each case, the longer the horizon, the lower the odds of underperformance.” However, he also observed, “one of the greatest problems preventing investors from achieving their financial goals is that, when it comes to judging the performance of an investment strategy, they believe that three years is a long time, five years is a very long time and 10 years is an eternity.”

In the market, 10 years is not long. You must be prepared to remain true to your carefully structured portfolio for years if not decades, so we typically ensure that an appropriate portion is sheltered from market risks and is relatively accessible (liquid). The riskier portion can then be left to ebb, flow and expectedly grow over expanses of time, without the need to tap into it in the near-term. In short, time is only expected to be your friend if you give it room to run.

Portfolio Rebalancing

Another way to buy low and sell high is through disciplined portfolio rebalancing. As we create a new portfolio, we prescribe how much weight to allocate to each holding. Over time, these holdings tend to stray from their original allocations, until the portfolio is no longer invested according to plan. By periodically selling some of the holdings that have overshot their ideal allocation, and buying more of the ones that have become underrepresented, we can accomplish two goals: Returning the portfolio closer to its intended allocations, AND naturally buying low (recent underperformers) and selling high (recent outperformers).

  1. Stay the Course.

So, yes, planning and maintaining an evidence-based investment portfolio is important. But even the best-laid plans will fail you, if you fail to follow them. Here, we get to the heart of why even “obvious” advice is often easier said than done. Our rational self may know better – but our instincts, emotions and behavioral biases get in the way.

Three particularly important biases to be aware of in volatile markets include tracking-error regret, recency bias, and outcome bias.

Tracking-Error Regret

When we build your portfolio, we typically structure it to reflect your goals and risk tolerances, by diversifying across different sources of expected risks and returns. Each part is expected to contribute to the portfolio’s unique whole by performing differently from its counterparts during different market conditions. Each portfolio may perform very differently from popular “norms” or benchmarks like the S&P 500 … for better or worse.

When “worse” occurs, and especially if it lingers, you are likely to feel tracking-error regret – a gnawing doubt that comes from comparing your own portfolio’s returns to popular benchmarks, and wishing yours were more like theirs.

Remember this: By design, your factor-based, globally diversified portfolio is highly likely to march out of tune with typical headline returns. It can be deeply damaging to your plans if you compare your own performance to benchmarks such as the general market, the latest popular trends, or your neighbor’s seemingly greener financial grass.

Recency

Recency causes us to pay more attention to our latest experiences, and to downplay the significance of long-term conditions. When an expected source of return fails to deliver, especially if the disappointment lasts for a while, you may start to second-guess the long-term evidence. This can trigger what Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman describes as “what you see is all there is” mistakes.

Again, buying high and selling low is exactly the opposite of your goals. And yet, recency causes droves of investors to chase hot, high-priced holdings and sell low during declines. Irrational choices based on recency may still turn out okay if you happen to get lucky. But they detour you from the most rational, evidence-based course toward your goals.

Outcome Bias

Sometimes, even the most rational plans don’t turn out as hoped for. If you let outcome bias creep in, you end up blaming the plan itself, even if it was simply bad luck. This, in turn, causes you to abandon your plan. Unfortunately, it’s rarely replaced with a better plan, which brings us back to our first adage about those who fail to plan.

To illustrate, let’s say, several years ago, we created a solid investment plan and IPS for you. At the time, you felt confident about them. Since then, we’ve periodically refreshed your plan, based on your evolving personal goals, perhaps a few new academic insights, and any new resources now available for further optimizing your portfolio.

Now, let’s say the markets disappoint us over the next few years. Ugly red numbers take over your reports, seemingly forever. Before you conclude your underlying strategy is wrong, remember: It’s far more likely you’re experiencing outcome bias (with a recency-bias chaser).

Investing will always contain an element of random luck. From that perspective, in largely efficient markets, your best course remains – you guessed it – to stay the course with your existing, carefully crafted plans. While even evidence-based investing doesn’t guarantee success, it continues to offer your best odds moving forward. Don’t lose faith in it.

 Simple, But Not Easy

Let’s wrap with a telling anecdote. Merton Miller was another co-recipient of the aforementioned 1990 Nobel prize. Miller’s portion was in recognition of his “fundamental contributions to the theory of corporate finance.” While his findings were deep and far-reaching, he once summarized them as follows:

[I]f you take money out of your left pocket and put it in your right pocket, you’re no richer. Reporters would say, ‘you mean they gave you guys a Nobel Prize for something as obvious as that?’ … And I’d add, ‘Yes, but remember, we proved it rigorously.’”

Like Miller’s light take on his heavy-duty findings, some of what we feel is our best advice seems so simple. And yet, in our experience, it’s very hard to adhere to this same, “obvious” advice in the face of market turbulence.

Blame your behavioral biases. They make simple advice deceptively difficult to follow. We all have them, including blind spot bias. That is, we can easily tell when someone else is succumbing to a behavioral bias, but we routinely fail to recognize when it’s happening to us.

This is one reason it’s essential to have an objective, professional advisor (along with your network of informal advisors) who is willing and able to let you know when you’re falling victim to a bias you cannot see in the mirror. At PLC Wealth, that is exactly what we are here for! Let us know if we can help you reflect on these or any other challenges that stand between you and your greatest financial goals.

Global Diversification is Your Investment Antacid

Let’s be clear: We did not wish for, nor in any way cause a tumble in the markets, especially among tech stocks. That said, we could not have come up with a more telling illustration to underscore the perennial value of building – and maintaining – a globally diversified investment portfolio for achieving your greatest financial goals.

Global diversification is such a powerful antacid for when (not if!) we experience market turbulence, it’s why we’ve long recommended spreading your market risks:

  • According to your personal goals and risk tolerances
  • Between stock and bond markets
  • Among evidence-based sources of expected long-term returns
  • Around the world

In short, broad, global diversification never goes out of style.

Breaking news shows us why.

Just a few short days ago, third quarter market performance numbers were rolling in, and we were fielding questions about the wisdom of continuing to participate in worldwide stock and bond markets. Some globally diversified investors were beginning to question their resolve after comparing their year-to-date returns to the U.S. stock market’s seemingly interminable ability to whistle past the graveyards of disappointing, portfolio-dampening performance found elsewhere.

Some were asking: “Should we dump diversification, and head for the ‘obviously’ greener pastures watered by U.S. stocks?”

We aren’t the only ones advising investors against reacting to hot runs by turning a cold shoulder to their well-structured portfolio. In his timely September 28 column, Wall Street Journal personal finance columnist Jason Zweig commented: “Looking back in time from today, U.S. stocks seem to have dominated over the long run only because they have done so extraordinarily well over the past few years.”

As current conditions starkly show, there’s a reason for the expression, “Things can turn on a dime.” Whether it’s U.S. stocks, international bonds, emerging markets or any other sources of expected return, the evidence is clear: Trends rise and fall among them all. This we know. But precisely when, where, how much, and why is anybody’s guess. As Zweig suggests in his piece, “Markets tend to lose their dominance right around the time it seems most irresistible.”

What’s next?

We’re drafting this message to you Wednesday evening, October 10, in advance of what may be a wild ride for the next little while. By the time you’re reading this, prices may still be tumbling, or they may already have recovered their footing. We can’t say.

Come what may, we hope we can be particularly helpful to you at this time.

Have current conditions left you troubled, unsure of where you stand?

Let’s talk. We’ll explore whether you’re able to sit tight with your existing strategy, or whether we can help you think through any next steps you may be considering. Most of all, know you are not alone! We are here as your sounding board and fiduciary advisor. Your best interests remain our top priority.

Are you reflecting calmly on current events, recognizing that market volatility happens?

Allow us to applaud you for your stamina, and remind you: Current conditions likely represent a time for continued quietude, along with ongoing attention to managing your tailored portfolio.

Regardless of your temperament, we’d like to share a sentiment from Behavior Gap author Carl Richards’ 2015 New York Times column.  His point remains as relevant as ever:

“On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being abject misery, I’m willing to bet your unhappiness with a diversified portfolio comes in at about a 5, maybe a 6. But your unhappiness if you guess wrong on your one and only investment for the year? That goes to 11.”

Let’s be in touch if we can answer any questions or scale down any angst you may be experiencing.

Regards,

Your PLC Wealth Team

Reflections on 2018 and the stock markets renewed volatility…

If you were a member of the popular press, you’d probably be happy with 2018’s first quarter performance. At last – some volatility fueling news1 in early February, with plenty of enticing “largest,” “fastest,” and “worst” market superlatives to savor after a long, languid lull.

As usual, there are plenty of potential culprits to point to among current events: global trade wars heating up, the arrival of quantitative tightening (rising interest rates), troubles in tech-land over data privacy concerns, ongoing Brexit talks, and some interesting events over in the Koreas. At quarter-end, one hopeful journalist asked, “Is the Bear Market Here Yet?2 Another observed: “[T]he number of [Dow Jones Industrial Average] sessions with a 1% move so far in 2018 are more than double 2017’s tally, and it isn’t even April.”3

Has the coverage left you wondering about your investments? Most markets have been steaming ahead so well for so long, even a modest misstep may have you questioning whether you should “do something,” in case the ride gets rougher still.

If we’ve done our job of preparing clients and their portfolio for market jitters, clients may might be able to cite back to us why they’ve already done all they can do to manage the volatility, and why it’s ultimately expected to be good news for evidence-based investors anyway. Remember, if there were never any real market risk, you couldn’t expect extra returns for your risk tolerance.

That said, you may have forgotten – or never experienced – how awful the last round of extreme volatility felt during the Great Recession. Insights from behavioral finance tell us that our brain’s ingrained biases cause us to gloss over those painful times, and panic all over again when they recur, long before our rational resolve has time to kick in.

If you noticed the news, but you’re okay with where you’re at, that’s great. If the volatility is bothering you, talk to a CFP® professional or other qualified financial professional; it may help ease your angst. If you continue to struggle with whether you made the right decisions during quieter markets, plan a rational shift to better reflect your real risk tolerances and cash-flow requirements. Not only is your peace of mind at least as important as the dollars in your account, you could end up worse off if you’ve taken on more risk than you can bear in pursuit of higher expected returns.

As Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig said during the February dip: “A happy few investors … may have long-term thinking built into them by nature. The rest of us have to cultivate it by nurture.”  We couldn’t agree more, and we consider it our duty and privilege to advise you accordingly, through every market hiccup.

The market isn’t misbehaving, people are…

If we’ve been doing our job as your fiduciary advisor, you might already be able to guess what our take is on current market news: Unless your personal goals have changed, stay the course according to your personal plan. Have you checked your plan progress in the last couple of days?  If not, you should.

Still it never hurts to repeat this steadfast advice during periodic market downturns. We understand that thinking about scary markets isn’t the same as experiencing them.  No matter what happens next, context is always helpful to better understand what is happening around you.  This article today by Neil Irwin in the New York Times does a great job of giving context.

Good news is bad news?

So, what’s going on? Why did U.S. stock prices suddenly drop after such a long, lazy lull, with no obvious calamity to have set off the alarms?  As Financial Planning guest columnist Kimberly Foss, CFP® described: “To understand the anxiety that led to many investors rushing to sell last week, you need to follow some tortuous logic. … If American workers are getting paid more, then companies will start charging more for whatever they produce or do, which might boost inflation. Might’ is the operative word.”

“Good news, it seems, is bad news again,” this Wall Street Journal columnist added.

Context and Action

While these sentiments may suggest the catalyst for the current drop, they do not inform us of what will happen next. Sometimes, market setbacks are over and forgotten in days. Other times, they more sorely test our resolve with their length and severity. As Jason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal pointed out yesterday, ‘The stock market didn’t get tested – You did.’  You must understand that the four most expensive words in finance are, ‘This time it’s different.’  We can’t yet know how current events will play out, but we do know this:

1) The (US) stock market goes up more than it goes down. Do you see now why we emphasize the wisdom of long-term?2) Capital markets have exhibited an upward trajectory over the long-term, yielding positive, inflation-beating returns to those who have stayed put for the ride.

3) If you instead try to time your optimal market exit and entry points, you’ll have to be correct twice to expect to come out ahead; you must get out and back in at the right times.

4) Every trade, whether it works or not, costs real money.

5) Volatility creates opportunity for the long-term investor.

For a longer explanation of #5, see my post from just last week on Strategic Rebalancing.  In short, the stock market roller coaster is too unsettling for some investors, who sell when they experience a market lurch.  Don’t be ‘that guy.’  However, this does give long-term investors a valuable—and frequent—opportunity to buy stocks on sale.  That, in turn, lowers the average cost of the stocks in your portfolio, which can be a boost to your long-term returns.

Ignore the Hype

Please, please, please be smarter than the marketers.  Be wary of hyperbolic headlines bearing superlatives such as “the biggest plunge since …” While the numbers may be technically accurate, they are framed to frighten rather than enlighten you, grabbing your attention at the expense of the more boring news on how to simply remain a successful, long-term investor.  And they have absolutely nothing to do with whether your personal financial plan is still on track.  (Not sure if your plan is on track or not?  Send me an email here and I would be happy to talk to you about the tools we use to help answer this question on a daily basis.)

Instead of fretting over meaningless milestones or trying to second-guess what U.S. economics might do to stocks, bonds and inflation, we believe the more important point is this: Market corrections are normal – and essential to generating expected long-term returns.  In short, before you consider changing course if the markets continue to decline, of course we hope you’ll be in touch with us first.  Oh, and turn off the TV.

The Vital Role of Strategic Rebalancing

If there is a universal investment ideal, it is this: Every investor wants to buy low and sell high. What if we told you there is a disciplined process for doing just that, and staying on track toward your personal goals while you’re at it? Guess what? There is. It’s called strategic rebalancing.

Strategic Rebalancing: How It Works

Imagine it’s the first day of your investment experience. As you create your new portfolio, it’s best if you do so according to a personalized plan that prescribes how much weight you want to give to each asset class. So much to stocks, so much to bonds … and so on. Assigning these weights is called asset allocation.

Then time passes. As the markets shift around, your investments stray from their original allocations. That means you’re no longer invested according to plan, even if you’ve done nothing at all; you’re now taking on higher or lower market risks and expected rewards than you originally intended. Unless your plans have changed, your portfolio needs some attention.

This is what rebalancing is for: to shift your assets back to their intended, long-term allocations.  In fact, this is part of the best practices suggested in my recent blog post for the New Year.

A Rebalancing Illustration

To illustrate, imagine you (or your advisor) has planned for your portfolio to be exposed to the stock and bond markets in a 50/50 mix. If stocks outperform bonds, you end up with too many stocks relative to bonds, until you’re no longer at your intended, balanced blend. To rebalance your portfolio, you can sell some of the now-overweight stocks, and use the proceeds to buy bonds that have become underrepresented, until you’re back at or near your desired mix. Another strategy is to use any new money you are adding to your portfolio anyway, to buy more of whatever is underweight at the time.

Either way, did you catch what just happened? Not only are you keeping your portfolio on track toward your goals, but you’re buying low (underweight holdings) and selling high (overweight holdings). Better yet, the trades are not a matter of random guesswork or emotional reactions. The feat is accomplished according to your carefully crafted, customized plan.

Portfolio Balancing: A Closer Look

We’ve now shared a simple rebalancing illustration. In reality, rebalancing is more complicated, because asset allocation is completed on several levels. First, we suggest balancing your stocks versus bonds, reflecting your need to take on market risk in exchange for expected returns. Then we typically divide these assets among stock and bond subcategories, again according to your unique financial goals. For example, you can assign percentages of your stocks to small- vs. large-company and value vs. growth firms, and further divide these among international, U.S., and/or emerging markets.

One reason for these relatively precise allocations is to maximize your exposure to the right amount of expected market premiums for your personal goals, while minimizing the market risks involved by diversifying those risks around the globe and across sources of returns that don’t always move in tandem with one another. We, and the fund managers we typically turn to for building our portfolios are guided by these tenets of evidence-based investing.

Striking a Rebalancing Balance

Rebalancing using evidence-based investment strategies is integral to helping you succeed as an investor. But like any power tool, it should be used with care and understanding.

It’s scary to do in real time. Everyone understands the logic of buying low and selling high. But when it’s time to rebalance, your emotions make it easier said than done. To illustrate, consider these real-life scenarios.

  • When markets are down: Bad times in the market can represent good times for rebalancing. But that means you must sell some of your assets that have been doing okay and buy the unpopular ones. The Great Recession of 2007–2009 is a good example. To rebalance then, you had to sell some of your safe-harbor holdings and buy stocks, even as popular opinion was screaming that stocks were dead. Of course, history has shown otherwise; those who did rebalance were best positioned to capture available returns during the subsequent recovery. But at the time, it represented a huge leap of faith in the academic evidence indicating that our capital markets would probably prevail.
  • When markets are up. An exuberant market can be another rebalancing opportunity – and another challenge – as you must sell some of your high flyers (selling high) and rebalance into the lonesome losers (buying low). At the time, this can feel counter-intuitive. But disciplined rebalancing offers a rational approach to securing some of your past gains, managing your future risk exposure, and remaining invested as planned, for capturing future expected gains over the long-run.

Costs must be considered. Besides combatting your emotions, there are practical concerns. If trading were free, you could rebalance your portfolio daily with precision. In reality, trading incurs fees and potential tax liabilities. To achieve a reasonable middle ground, it’s best to have guidelines for when and how to cost-effectively rebalance. If you’d like to know more, we’re happy to discuss the guidelines we employ for our own rebalancing strategies.

The Rebalancing Take-Home

Strategic rebalancing using evidence-based investment strategies makes a great deal of sense once you understand the basics. It offers objective guidelines and a clear process to help you remain on course toward your personal goals in rocky markets. It ensures you are buying low and selling high along the way. What’s not to like about that?

At the same time, rebalancing your globally diversified portfolio requires informed management, to ensure it’s being integrated consistently and cost effectively. An objective advisor also can help prevent your emotions from interfering with your reason as you implement a rebalancing plan. Helping clients periodically employ efficient portfolio rebalancing is another way that PLC Wealth Management seeks to add value to the investment experience.