Is a recession coming?

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Last week Wednesday (the 14th) was a bad day, at least it was a bad day for the markets. I actually had a pretty nice day, maybe you did too. The market took a hit though, the DOW was down 800 points (about 3%), its worst day of this year, and other indexes didn’t fare much better. The chatter is heating up, the next recession is on the horizon! But is it?
Well, the Wall Street Journal certainly seems to think so. In an article title Stocks losses deepen as a key recession warning surfaces published last week, the WSJ espouses the fearful sentiment pervading the industry last week. A few quotes:

Whether the events presage an economic calamity or just an alarming spasm are unclear. But unlike during the Great Recession, global leaders are not working in unison to confront mounting problems and arrest the slowdown. Instead, they are increasingly at one another’s throats.

This sounds especially bad. At least in 2008 people were trying to fix the problem!

“The stars are aligned across the curve that the economy is headed for a big fall,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank. “The yield curves are all crying timber that a recession is almost a reality, and investors are tripping over themselves to get out of the way.”

Yikes, sounds like someone is about to get trampled.

The U.S. economy has shown signs of weakening in recent months, but high levels of consumer spending in the United States have helped enormously. Still, the escalating trade war between Trump and Chinese leaders has stopped many businesses from investing. And there are signs that the large tariffs he has placed on many Chinese imports is costing U.S. businesses and consumers billions of dollars.

If this isn’t a rollercoaster of emotion I don’t what is. Signs of weakening? Oh no! High levels of consumer spending? Okay, so not too bad. Tariffs are costing U.S. business and consumer billions? Run from the market!

I kid, but this is actually serious stuff. The WSJ is only one among many news outlets forecasting the next crash. The problem is, no one knows when the next crash will be, regardless of ‘key recession warning’ claims, because the market moves on new news and information, things that no one knows. Unless of course, you know the future.

Just today, exactly one week later, we’ve got a new narrative in the news: Stocks are on a comeback. Dow rises 250 points. The rollercoaster is exhausting.

Instead of tuning into the cycle, remember that great returns don’t come from any ability to time the next crashThe market recesses sometimes, and it could be contracting now, or next year, or in five years. We don’t know when, we just know that’s how the market works. The disciplined investor who has a plan for whenever the next crash comes and a coach to get them through it will always win.

The commission trap

So you’re an investor, and you’ve got seemingly unlimited options for your money. Some seem awesome, some look a little suspect, and for the most part, you’re not really sure what’s going to work and what to stay away from. Typically, you’d talk to some type of financial advisor. Or you’d succumb to your own hubris and decide to get online and do this whole investing thing yourself until it becomes clear that you’ve made a huge mistake, then you’d talk to some sort of financial advisor. But now instead of trying to figure out how and where to invest money, you’re trying to figure out how to pick a trustworthy advisor who can help you with the investing part. Well, I’ve got one piece of advice: watch out for the commission trap.

There are several different ways that financial professionals are paid, the two most common are through fees and through commissions. Some advisors only charge one way or the other, some do both.

A fee-based advisor means that if you’ve got money invested, the advisor collects a fee (usually a small percentage) from your investments every year. It’s a pretty simple, pretty common model, and it makes sense because the advisor is invested in your success. It definitely doesn’t mean that the advisor is trustworthy, but you can at least take comfort in the fact that it’s a sensical payment model.
On the other side is the commission trap. There are a few bad things about commissions:

  • It means you’re buying a financial product. Advisors who collect commissions only get paid when a client buys something. Financial products, while veiled as beneficial to the customer, are generally not the best option. They prey on people’s desire for security and charge a hefty premium for it (annuity). What a financial product offers can almost always be had for a fraction of the cost with a much higher ceiling for growth by simply investing in the market. Not every product is always bad, but you definitely shouldn’t be buying lots of financial products.
  • It means the advisor is collecting a large commission. These products, specifically annuities, will pay out massive sums to advisors who can peddle them. Commissions between 5% and 10%, and sometimes even more, are common. That means if you take your $500,000 investment account and buy an annuity, the advisor could be collecting between $25,000 and $50,000. That’s a lot, suspiciously a lot. Brokers will pay advisors these kinds of fees is because the product is extremely lucrative for brokers, which means it’s probably not super beneficial for customers. 
  • It means there’s a conflict of interest for the advisor. They’re stuck with the tough decision (or maybe not so tough) of educating and caring for their client and promoting their best interests or putting food on their own table for their own kids, or taking a super nice vacation, or whatever else you could get excited about buying for $50,000. Unfortunately, the advisor’s interest will likely lean toward the $50k. Better not to put yourself, or the advisor, in a conflicting situation like that. 
  • It means that you’re probably not getting coached. Advisors who sell products aren’t evil (mostly), but they have to function more like salespeople than advisors or coaches in order to survive. Best case, the salespeople are catering to clients, giving them what they want without trying to rip them off. Worst case, the salespeople are manipulating or aggressively pushing bad products to people. Either way, coaching doesn’t enter the equation. There is no correlation between a customer’s desire for or the suitability of a product and the long term success of a client. So instead of coaching and educating clients, financial salespeople end up helping clients orchestrate their own financial purgatory, never making progress towards their goals. 

So keep an eye out for the commission trap when you’re evaluating an advisor.

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.

Robinhood is dangerous

robinhood-for-webFirst of all, I don’t mean Robinhood the vigilante, the hero. Sure, was a criminal, but at least he was fighting against the bad guys. In an unjust agrarian society, his actions could be seen as defensible, but I digress.
I mean Robinhood the investment app. A few notes on its danger:

  • The Robinhood app is gorgeous. It’s so pretty it’s hard not to look at it. The graphs and charts are perfect, the animations and gestures are seamless, the design is minimal, it’s about as well designed as apps come. The old mantra ‘beauty is only skin deep’ applies here. The beauty draws you in but also masks some sordid parts.
    The beauty of Robinhood masks the fact that it’s essentially a place to gamble. Sure, you could call it sophisticated gambling, at least you’re not sitting in the smoky haze with eyes glazed over at a shiny slot machine, but it’s still gambling. The little news tidbits aren’t going to help you beat the market, nor will the pretty charts. The truth is that even professionals don’t beat the market. The beauty and ease just make it more tempting.
    Robinhood will you trade options, which is an even riskier way to invest, and even more likely to lose you more money. An option is just a leveraged bet on the market, like putting your money on 13 at the roulette table. It’s a terrible idea.
  • Robinhood offers free trades, perhaps its most alluring selling point. Purchasing stocks always involves fees, brokerage fees, trade commissions, transaction fees, etc. Brokers who conduct trades charge fees, usually per transaction. Robinhood is one of the few places where consumers can purchase shares without transaction fees. So it’s beautiful and free? Who says no to that?
    It’s not entirely free. There are regulatory fees on every trade which Robinhood does pass on to customers. These fees are typically fractions of pennies, and Robinhood rounds them up to the nearest penny, pocketing the round-up of course.
    Robinhood also generates substantial income from a practice called ‘payment for order flow,’ a controversial industry practice interestingly invented by Bernie Madoff. It basically means Robinhood sells the right to execute customer trades to third-party market makers who pay a small fee. Those small fees add up, and Robinhood relies on their high-frequency traders to make it work. Regulators don’t love it, in fact, other brokers and market makers have faced lawsuits over the issue. Robinhood’s dependence on this income could spell its downfall in the coming years.
  • Robinhood only allows you to buy entire shares, which are often pricey. At the time of this writeup Apple is trading at around $200/share, SPY (a very popular ETF that tracks with the S&P 500 index) is trading at about $300/share, Tesla is at $220, you get the idea. Not all shares are that expensive, but it’s tough to deposit a small amount and get trading, you need more money to buy full shares.
    It’s not like Robinhood couldn’t offer partial shares, other platforms do it. Robinhood doesn’t because this is another one of the ways they make money. Offering full shares exclusively means that you will usually have some leftover change in your account, and Robinhood earns interest on those leftover funds. It also encourages you to invest larger chunks of money, which means you’re likely to lose more money.

I’m not saying you’ll die young or retire destitute if you invest some money in Robinhood. But just be aware of what you’re doing. You’re gambling. For the most part, it’s best to stay away.

The Investor Behavior Question

So we looked at the problems with stock picking, market timing and track-record investing. The evidence strongly suggests we should avoid these investing pitfalls. So why do people still engage with them? Many people aren’t familiar with the research, which is an indictment on the investing industry, but the problem goes deeper than that. Even people who understand the research, even people who understand and assent to the research, still don’t consistently comply. Why is this? The industry calls it investor behavior, and it’s big business. I hear a lot about bad investor behavior, but I don’t hear much about why investor behavior is bad, or how to think helpfully about it. Here are a few reasons why I think it’s tough to be a good investor today:

1) The practice of buying low and selling high is ingrained in us. We’re deal shoppers. We see a good deal, something that’s worth more than its sale price, and we can feel great about the purchase. We’ve got TV shows that show us how to buy cheap houses and storage units in order to flip them for a profit. The booming fantasy football business teaches us to perform hours of research before drafting players (no? only me?) in order to find the underpriced guys who will overperform. We’ve got side hustles flipping cars, furniture, clothes, electronics, you name it. We’ve got sale adds spilling out of our mailboxes. That’s just how our world works, we shop for deals, things that are underpriced. Another way to say it, we’re always on the lookout for inefficiencies. But the stock market in not inefficient (see Are you stock picking?). It’s the one place we shop where there are no sales or discounts. It makes sense that we would apply our standard buying principles to investing, but unfortunately, our instincts aren’t helpful here.

2) Active investing feels right. Trading in a portfolio is exciting, especially if you think you’re good at it. A big win in the stock market makes for a really nice adrenaline hit. It’s similar to gambling. You can do it from your favorite chair in your living room, or a bustling coffee shop; it feels meaningful; it provides a perfect excuse to be constantly checking the news; you get to use your favorite tech gadgets (that’s what gets me). And even if you’re not the one making the trades, it just seems responsible to watch the news and track your returns every day. It seems right to talk predictively about the market, to decide on an investing strategy for the upcoming year. We’re not lazy people, we do our due diligence; unfortunately, with investing, we diligently do the wrong things.

3) We’re inundated with encouragement to engage in active investing. Financial news networks and websites were not created to educate their viewership, they exist to drive traffic. Since patience, diversification, minimal trading, (aka the staples of a good investment strategy) are really boring, news outlets lean heavily towards the predictive and active trading slant. Specific stock recommendations and bold market predictions fuel our instinct to do something with our investments. Again, it feels right to try to figure out where the market is going and how to profit from it. The news only tickles that itch.

Investing is counterintuitive and human behavior is often the trickiest part in investing. Sometimes we simply lack the knowledge required to be a good investor, but more often it feels like we should be doing more. When something needs fixing, we put our heads down and figure out how to fix it. Before we decide to buy something we do our research. But the way we make buying decisions in our every-day lives doesn’t work in the stock market. While we constantly look for inefficiencies, sales, discounts, deals, etc., the stock market is efficiently moving along on its unpredictable upwards trend. Instead of working to beat it, let’s ride it.