Financial Advisors aren’t evil (mostly)​

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I met a stranger this morning (the beauty of Facebook marketplace). He had looked me up in advance, not to be creepy (he assured me), just to make sure he wasn’t meeting a crazy person. He saw that I’m a financial advisor and wondered if I had ever met his financial advisor, whom he trusts very much. In fact, he trusts his financial advisor so much he recently handed over full discretion, meaning the advisor no longer needs his permission to make trades and move money. It was becoming cumbersome to give the okay every time the advisor wanted to make a trade. I informed him that I had not met his financial advisor, and he assured me that his advisor is a great guy.
Here’s the thing, I’m sure he is a great guy, I’m sure his intentions are (mostly) pure. Many financial advisors are really great, and they really care. But that little discretionary bit he shared with me is alarming. When it becomes cumbersome to approve every trade your advisor wants to make, that’s a problem. According to the data, financial advisors who actively trade routinely underperform the market, even advisors who are really great guys. Don’t work with an advisor only because he or she is a great person. Find an advisor who is a great person, but who also understands how the market works, how to most efficiently capture returns, how to avoid stock picking and market time and trying to beat the market, and most importantly, how to coach you. Your future depends on more than the integrity of your advisor. He may not be evil, but he may also be submarining your retirement.

5 ways your investing app is ruining your retirement

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In the last five years, we’ve seen the explosion of alternative investment avenues, especially through apps. While technological advances (computers, algorithms, the internet, you get it) certainly make investing a better and easier experience than it’s ever been, they’ve also promoted some troubling trends in popular consumer investing apps.

Here are a few ways your investing app is ruining your retirement:

  1. Investing apps are built for active trading which loses money compared to the market. In order for investing apps to be interesting, they promote active trading. No one wants or needs an app to help them buy and hold and never make trades. Unfortunately, active trading is a recipe for disaster. Even professionals lose to the market when they actively trade stocks, not because of any inherent flaws in themselves, but because it’s literally impossible to consistently beat the market.
  2. No great offerings. Because they’re designed to encourage active investing, investing apps don’t offer many great investing options. Even if you could ignore all the crap, the best funds aren’t in there. Sure, you can find some cheap ETF and index funds, which aren’t the worst options in the world, but they’re definitely not the best. And investing apps know you might try them out, but ultimately you’re going to be moving money around.
  3. Your earliest years are the most important years and you’re wasting them. Investing apps appeal unilaterally to younger people. The great thing about investing when you’re young is that money invested early will compound far more significantly over time than money invested later. Unfortunately, many young people fall prey to these investment apps which do the opposite of maximizing investment dollars.
  4. Mis-education, worthless news. In order to make active investing seem legitimate, investing apps often share news and information regarding the market. Unfortunately, the news is not helpful for investing. Instead of learning about how the market works and how to prudently invest money over time, these excerpts simply validate terrible investing strategies.
  5. Encourage bad behavior. This is the biggest problem. Instead of educating investors, investing apps take advantage of them. Active investing feels right, it seems legitimate, and investing apps only encourage that feeling. Unfortunately, the feelings of investors have no correlation with successful investing, if anything they’re negatively correlated.

So dump the investment app. Learn about important investing concepts like Efficient Market Hypothesis, Modern Portfolio Theory, the Three-Factor Model. Get a good advisor who will get you into the best funds and help you remain disciplined through scary markets. Take your purpose seriously, it’s probably something worth more than speculating and gambling with your investments.

Human capital

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What’s human capital?
To start, we need a definition. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Human capital is the stock of habits, knowledge, social and personality attributes (including creativity) embodied in the ability to perform labour so as to produce economic value.” A little tricky, but basically human capital is the economic value of a person based on their skills and ability in the workplace.

So who gets paid for human capital?
In a free-market economy, everyone gets paid based on their own human capital. We each own our own skills and abilities and we collect income based on our ability and value when we work. Regardless of whether we work for a company or ourselves, we’re compensated for the value we’re able to provide.

So far so good. Now let’s tie this into investing. Without some understanding of the market, people tend to believe that they can beat the market by picking the right stocks. Consistent success (beating the market) in stock picking is actually impossible, but let’s pretend for a moment that’s not. If the market was beatable, there would naturally be people who were especially endowed with the skills and/or training to beat it. Those people would often become money managers and they would be highly sought after by the general public looking for great returns in their portfolios. But who would collect the premiums for additional returns achieved above-market returns? Stock picking would be a human capitalist skill! The brilliantly skilled money manager would collect some serious fees for his valuable ability, fees almost exactly in line with the amount of return he was able to achieve above the market. The additional return of the portfolio wouldn’t end up in the pockets of investors, it would go to the brilliant manager with the impressive human capital skills.

So here’s the point: the stock market is efficient and so it’s not consistently beatable, but even if it was, investors would not be the beneficiaries. The super-skilled money managers would rightly collect large fees, highly correlated to the additional value they were able to provide based on their human capital skills.

Can investing be stress-free? (Part 1)

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Yes! But there are some requirements:

Requirement 1: an understanding of the market.

Stress-free investing involves an understanding of the market. Not an understanding of what the market will do in the next 10 minutes, or next 10 days, or next 10 months, that would require psychic abilities which is unfortunately unrealistic, but a real understanding of how the market works and what you can and should expect from the market.

Two main points here:

  • The market is unpredictable. Prices already reflect all of the knowable information, the market moves based on future information. Since no one knows the future no one knows how the market will move in the future, despite what some financial professionals may have you believe. The misnomer that you or the professional you’re working with must have some insight into the future movements of the market is the cause of a lot of stress by itself. Thankfully, stress-free investing doesn’t require clairvoyance.
  • The market is volatile but it trends upward. The volatility makes the market feel dangerous. People generally believe that they could lose most or all of their money in a market downturn (talk about stressful!). But the truth is that markets trend upwards, and over long periods of time (10+ years) the market is always up, despite whatever crashes it may have endured (including the Great Depression and the 2008 housing crash). If you’re invested well (which we’ll get to in part 2), you don’t have to worry about the market destroying your savings! You just have to ride out the dips and enjoy the long-term, upward trend. The market is only dangerous if you try to bet and predict it, it becomes your friend when you focus on owning it.

The prediction problem

Investing is hard. If you’ve visited this blog in the past you’ve probably noticed a lean against active types of investing (buying and selling stocks all the time). Trying to predict the market, pick winning and losing stocks, find the best times to be in or out of different market sectors is really hard. Actually, the data suggests that it’s impossible, or at least no one has ever consistently been able to do it (Efficient Market Hypothesis). So prudent investing doesn’t leave space for active investing, the two don’t mesh. For many people, that’s not a satisfactory conclusion. We like to think we actually can pick winners, maybe not every time, but at least most of the times. We like to think we actually can see trends and understand market movements. We like to think we can make predictions. Well, call me a downer, but those instincts aren’t very helpful.
I’ve been reading through Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, a scintillating read. Rosling makes the helpful point that predictions about anything are never certain (he even specifically references the market), and advises readers to be especially wary of future predictions that don’t acknowledge that fact. So here’s my question: why is the future so tough to predict? Here’s my stab at it, with some helpful input from Rosling: the future tough to predict is because the world is far more complicated than we like to think. Rosling notes that the complexity of the systems involved make accurate future predictions essentially impossible. It’s impossible to predict the market because there are billions of factors to consider, all moving and changing every second. Even if we were able to consider each of the billions of factors, we would still have trouble guessing which direction they’ll each move because none of us knows the future. It just doesn’t make a ton of sense to actively trade stocks based on our limited understanding of market factors, not even for professionals. But there’s still happy news here. Even though we don’t know how the market will move today or next year, we do know that the long term general stint of the market is up. So we can actually stop worrying about predictions and news and market trends, those things ought to be the least of our concern, all we have to do is own the whole market as efficiently as we can and stay on for the ride. Owning the market efficiently is a separate discussion, that’s something professionals can actually help with, but the first step is to admit the prediction problem.