Dealing With Investor Anxiety: Think Long-Term

Stock prices reflect a mix of emotions, biases and rational calculations. The bond market reflects the economy. Historically, bond markets had done a better job in predicting recessions.

The two big bond stories last week were 1) the “inverted yield curve”- when interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than long-term bonds, and 2) yields below 2% on 30 year treasuries- indicating investors expect low inflation and a weaker economy for a long time.

We all remember the 2017 income tax cut that boosted the economy and produced stock markets returns of 20% or more in 2017. These tax cuts were supposed to lay a foundation for many years of high economic growth. Since mid-2018, however, the economic data has been confirming what many of us expected. The tax cuts provided a short sugar “high,” which is now over. Instead, we have trillion dollar deficits and lack of large promised business investments, including infrastructure, which never materialized. The economy has reverted to its pre-stimulus growth rate of near 2%.

This shouldn’t surprise us. No major economy is growing as fast as it was before 2008. In almost every country, the national discussion focuses on what must be done to revive growth and ignores the fact that the slowdown is happening everywhere. The working population is declining in 46 countries around the world, including Japan, Russia and China. Demographics are a key driver of economic growth. So, we can expect to see recessions (two quarters of negative growth) more likely in the future as working populations contract. BTW- the U.S. population is growing at less than 1% per year.

Over the next few decades, we will likely see more growth decline. Ruchir Sharma, author of “The Rise and Fall of Nations,” suggests that new benchmarks for economic success should be 5% growth for emerging countries, 3-4% growth for middle income countries like China, and 1-2% growth for developed countries like the U.S. and Germany.

Yes, there are uncertainties in the market, including US-China trade tensions, a weakening European economy, and concern about a recession. These produce a huge dilemma for U.S. business owners, trying to make plans for the future. So, there are lots of piles of cash, waiting for clarity. We may or may not soon have a recession. Yet all of this uncertainty produces increased volatility and anxiety. And studies show that a 3% down day, like last Wednesday, feels about ten times worse than a 1% down day. What’s an investor to do to reduce anxiety?

We understand it is difficult to think long-term, but we highly recommend it:

1) Recognize that equities will likely produce lower nominal returns in the future. However, with inflation also likely lower, the real returns of equities will likely outpace fixed income and alternatives. Equities will continue to provide the primary engine of growth.

2) Use all three asset classes. A diversified portfolio composed on equities, fixed income and alternatives has been shown to reduce risk and increase return.

3) Review your long-term financial plan and determine what rate of return you need to meet your financial goals. The expected return of your asset allocation must be sufficient to meet your goals or you need to revise your goals and plan.

4) Review your risk profile to determine your appropriate asset allocation. Using the assumption that equities could drop 40% and you can’t tolerate a loss of 10% or more in your portfolio, then your allocation to equities should not exceed 25%. Of course, this allocation would severely limit your upside.

5) Stay invested. Don’t try to time the market. A recent report from Morningstar shows that “low cost funds”, (like those used at DWM), “lead to higher total returns and higher investor returns.” First, for efficient markets, the active managers in the high-cost funds overall produce gross results equal to the benchmarks, but then the additional costs of 1% or more is subtracted. Second, studies show that active managers attempting to time the market have failed and this subtracts another ½% per year from performance. Even highly-paid active managers can’t time the market successfully.

Lastly, in this time of overall investor anxiety, fee-only total wealth managers, like DWM, are here to rescue you. Yes, we execute a detailed process to add value every day in the areas of investing, financial planning, income taxes, insurance and estate planning. Yet, one of our most important tasks we have is to protect our clients from hurting themselves in the capital markets. Investors overall have a very human tendency to do exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible moment.

We understand it’s hard to think long-term. Today’s world moves at a very fast pace. And, the news is often designed to instill fear. Don’t succumb to emotions. Reduce your anxiety. Allowing your portfolio to compound quietly over time can be boring, yet very successful.   If your allocation or the markets are making you anxious, let’s talk.

“The Two Most Powerful Warriors are Time and Patience”- Leo Tolstoy

 

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Good investing can be boring, yet effective! Specifically, investors with a long investing timeline should build a diversified, low-cost portfolio with an appropriate asset allocation and stick with it. Rebalance regularly to sell high and buy low. Don’t try to time the markets by getting in and out. Yes, this is boring, particularly with the volatility we are enduring, but it’s what it takes to generate solid returns over the long haul. Patience and time are powerful warriors and our friends.

Take a look at the average risk and returns for various asset styles over the last 20 years, which includes the 2008-09 financial crisis and 2018. The best performers, with higher returns and lower risk, are in the upper left hand corner:

 

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Bonds have relatively low risk and have produced decent returns over the period, particularly the first 15 years. Small cap and mid cap stocks have outpaced large cap stocks (e.g. Dow Jones and S&P 500) over time, with better returns and similar volatility (risk). Non-US stocks have trailed US stocks. Emerging markets stocks have produced very good returns, but with larger volatility swings. REITs have produced a 10% annual return with a risk factor about equal to U.S. stocks. The diversified composite “12 Index Portfolio” has produced a nice return of 6.8% annually (better than large cap stocks with 5.6%) with about 2/3 the risk of stocks.  Please note that during this 20 year period, the inflation rate was 3.2% per year. So, the 12 Index Portfolio produced an annual “real return” of 3.6% over the last 20 years.

Investors get in trouble when they lose faith in the markets and their allocation, react to the current market pain and go all cash or move to the “hot” asset classes for better returns. That approach generally ends badly for investors as the markets will correct themselves over time (as we have seen December 2018 losses recovered in January 2019) and hot asset classes go “cold” as the pendulum swings to the next “hot” asset style right after they jump in.

The 12 Index portfolio in this chart is composed of all the asset styles shown, equally weighted. Overall, this allocation is 50% equities, 33% fixed income and cash, and 17% alternatives; what we would term a “balanced asset allocation,’ appropriate for a “balanced risk profile.”

This balanced allocation will never be the top performer in any year. And, it won’t be the worst. It is designed to deliver middle-of-the-road, steady returns. Patience and time produce the results.

Investors need to also understand that time is their friend. “Time in the market beats timing the market.” Here’s another chart showing the growth of $1 since 1990, all invested in the S&P 500:

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The black line represents an investor who stayed in the market every day and turned her $1 into $14. The red line represents the investor who missed the 25 best days (roughly one a year) and turned her $1 into $4. The gray line represents the return an investor could have received by simply investing in five-year treasury notes, turning $1 into $4.

Getting out of the market is easy; getting back in at the right time is very difficult. In the last couple of months, for example, the equity markets (using the MSCI AC World Index) are about level from December 1, 2018 until last Friday, February 8th. However, if an investor got cold feet and got out in mid-December and waited to get back in until mid-January, they would have lost 3.5% on their equity returns. Timing the market is not a good idea- unless you own a crystal ball, can implement perfect end of day execution on buys and sells, have no transaction costs, and don’t mind paying taxes on realized gains.

Patience and Time are two powerful warriors-they are your friends. Let them do the heavy lifting.  Invest for the long-term. Yes, slow and steady wins the race. It may not make for great cocktail conversation, but boring investing can be very effective.

A True Halloween Scare: Volatility Returns to the Marketplace

Recently, we here at DWM posted a blog discussing the phenomenon that “Bull Market Runs Come in All Lengths”. Within this article, we mentioned the idea that before our current bull run ends, we may see many more pullbacks and/or corrections.

Within the current month, we have seen these types of market downturns as investor fears of upcoming mid-term elections, tariffs, rising rates,  and international economic slow-down issues have spiked levels of consumer fear (measured by the volatility index, VIX), by nearly 50% .

While this data can’t tell us whether the current bull market run is coming to an end, it opens up the opportunity to better understand just what is happening in the economy, and how we should handle times like these.

To understand the severity of market moves, there are three unique distinctions: a pullback, a correction, and a bear market, which signify downward market moves of 5%, 10%, and 20% respectively.

Over the past month, securities within all asset classes – equities, fixed income, and alternatives – have experienced one of these. On October 23rd, in fact, over 40% of the stocks in the S&P 500 were considered to be in bear market territory. Since then, markets have continued their run of ups and downs.

What can this market data tell us about the future? Unfortunately, not much. While markets tend to be cyclical in nature over the long-term, the short-term is usually marred by emotions (herd mentality, greed, and fear) rather than by solid fundamental and economic modeling. Furthermore, the risk of attempting to predict these short-term outcomes can have a serious long-term effect on the performance of an investor. Studies have shown that by missing out on only a few days strong returns in a market cycle can drastically impact the portfolio’s overall return.

Thus, in order to stay on track with long-term financial goals, one of the most successful and least anxiety-inducing ways to manage investments is to generate a financial plan, assess and re-assess risk tolerance regularly, and continually stay disciplined to these values in order to avoid making emotional and poor decisions. In conjunction with these actions, an investment portfolio needs both an appropriate asset allocation based on a client’s financial plan and has to be made up of a well-diversified portfolio that can help provide exposure to market areas, such as fixed income and alternatives, that are arenas that may still produce returns even with stocks stuck in a slowdown. The combination of these strategies can work as shields to protect both an investor’s assets, and his/her mental health during times of volatility such as today’s challenging marketplace.

At times, corrections, pullbacks, and even bear markets can actually be good things! If certain areas of the market are being overvalued, or company valuations are getting ahead of their fundamentals, pullbacks and corrections can serve as a check and balance system, to get these more in line. This makes companies, sectors, and markets more stable as they can refresh a bull market that is verging on inflating itself beyond its means.

Furthermore, a pullback, correction, or bear market move down for a certain security can provide other opportunities. For example, this month, DWM will be creating value for clients by taking advantage of tax-loss harvesting options. Tax-loss harvesting is the process of selling out of a security that has lost value since an investor first bought it, and using that loss to offset any gains that an investor realized during a tax year. This upside can serve as a nice treat to offset the “trick”-y investment arena of October.

One other somewhat notable factoid is that in the mid-term election year of October 2014, the stock market took a noticeably similar look. That of the Dow Jones down nearly 3%, rebounding, and selling off throughout, ultimately dropping into correction territory. This was quickly followed by a November post-election market boom hitting record highs for the Dow and S&P 500. Once again, while interesting to see, take these numbers with a grain of salt moving forward and looking at future returns.

All in all, keeping in mind that while volatility and uncertainty in the marketplace can be scary, maintaining a balanced, disciplined portfolio and financial plan, and staying dedicated to that plan throughout all market cycles is the key to being financially sound and minimizing the number of sleepless nights. At DWM, we proactively discuss these matters with clients, and strive to keep our clients informed, motivated, and on-target to their financial plans to help them reach their long-term financial goals. Happy Halloween!

“The Markets are going to Fluctuate”

Last Thursday, August 17, the equity markets took a hit of 1-1.5%.  In overall terms, it wasn’t a pullback (5% drop) or a correction (10%) yet some were concerned this might be the “start of the end” of the long-term bull market.  Yes, stock valuations have been high for some time, but many people wondered “Why now?” Various reasons were given to “explain” the causes of Thursday’s decline.  Let’s take a look at some of these:

“Terrorism.”  The first reports of the attack in Barcelona were posted in New York around noon last Thursday.  The markets were already in a decline and gold and bonds were moving higher.  Though the attack was dreadful and disgusting, it likely didn’t move the markets.

“Corporate America abandons the White House.”  Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, resigned Monday, August 14.  Others followed and the major business councils disbanded on Wednesday, August 16.  However, participation on President Trump’s councils is voluntary and the first priority of each of the CEOs is their “day job,” which involves working with their customers, employees, suppliers and investors.  Their departure shouldn’t have been a surprise.

“All Donald Trump all the time has worn out people’s patience.”   Certainly, many may be exhausted by the almost singular focus of the news being the White House for the last seven months.  However, impatience is unlikely to cause the markets to move lower.  It was only two weeks ago that we all were worried about the possibility of a nuclear war starting in the Korean peninsula. And, that scare didn’t move the markets.  Therefore, it’s hard to believe the daily White House news would be a source of concern for the markets.

“The White House Economic Team is Leaving.”  Early last Thursday, a rumor floated through Wall Street that Gary Cohn, the Director of the National Economic Council, was resigning.  Mr. Cohn, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are leading the all-important tax reform and infrastructure initiatives.  The S&P 500 began a sharp move down around 10 am last Thursday exactly the time the false tweet came out.  Fortunately, the rumor was squelched almost immediately but the markets, nevertheless, continued to fall.   Hence, the rumor seems not to have been the catalyst for the sale, though the loss of either Mr. Cohn or Mr. Mnuchin would, in fact, be a major concern.

In short, these “explanations” given after last Thursday’s market drop really don’t identify why it happened.  Even so, story lines will continue.  We humans want them.  We are wired to try to understand why and how things happen and use that information to guide our future.

Legend has it that about a century ago, an alert young man found himself in the presence of John Pierpont Morgan, one of the most successful investors of all time.  Hoping to improve his fortune, the young man asked Mr. Morgan’s opinion as to the future course of the stock market.  The alleged reply has become a classic:  “Young man, I believe the market is going to fluctuate.”

Yes, there are many things we cannot control and, fortunately, some we can.  At DWM, we focus on helping you to create and maintain an investment portfolio that is designed to participate in good times and protect in bad times by:

  • Identifying and implementing a customized asset allocation based on your goals and risk tolerance
  • Diversifying the holdings by asset class and asset style
  • Using the lowest cost investments wherever possible
  • Striving to make the portfolio tax efficient
  • Rebalancing regularly
  • Staying fully invested
  • Providing discipline to keep you on track and, for example, making sure you are not trying to time the markets or chase performance

Yes, the markets are going to fluctuate.  We can’t control that.  But, at DWM we can help you control those key metrics that, over the long run, can produce higher expected returns with lower risk.