5 of the best books I read in 2019

 

1. Range – David Epstein.

Range is my 2019 winner. It was the best book I read last year, and one of my favorite books related to personal development ever. By range, Epstein refers to a set of broad experiences, inputs, interests, experiments, etc. In a world that values specialization and highlights the ‘10,000-hour rule’ (which says you must dedicate 10,000 hours to something to achieve mastery), Epstein argues that hyper-focus is actually not the path to success, far more often those who have range win. Epstein encourages us to pursue hobbies and interests, to be unafraid of making a change, to never feel behind, and not because life is more fun that way, it’s actually a more effective way to live. I can’t recommend it highly enough, read Range.

2. Atomic Habits – James Clear.

There are few personal development/self-improvement books that I consider must-read, but Atomic Habits is one of them. James Clear notes that winners and losers have the same goals, what sets them apart is their systems (habits). Humans operate by default and we relentlessly fail at improving ourselves because we fail to address our default behaviors. Goals are fine, they help give direction, but only our systems can take us where we want to go. Clear guides us through how habits operate and how to make meaningful and lasting changes by changing our defaults. It’s a fascinating and fun read, and one that has had a profound impact on how I think about behavior and pursue change.

3. Factfulness – Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to reinform commonly help misconceptions about our world. He penned Factfulness as he battled the cancer which would eventually take his life. Through ten chapters he addresses ten fascinating topics that we routinely misunderstand (world population, poverty, bias, etc.). He emphasizes the fact that the world can sometimes be bad, while still being significantly better than it was before. By offering clarity, thoughtfulness, and objective facts, Rosling helps us to see things they way they are. It’s occasionally mind-bending, which is a good thing, and always enjoyable.

4. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah.

Born a Crime is an autobiography. Trevor Noah takes us through his wild, funny, and unlikely childhood in one of the more engaging books I’ve ever read. It’s at times hilarious (I literally laughed out loud more than once), sentimental (his relationship with his mother is remarkable), thoughtful (interacting with apartheid in South Africa), and ultimately a completely rewarding read.

5. Billion Dollar Whale – Tom Wright.

Billion Dollar Whale consistently made my jaw drop as I read it. The story is absurd, unbelievable, scandalous, incredible, and completely true! It’s about a young Malaysian fancier/businessman (Jho Low) who cons billions of dollars from the Malaysian government in a stream of devious business deals and spends it on some of the most extravagant partying the world has ever seen. The story involves Hollywood actors and actresses, world-leading finance companies, even the president of the United States. Another interesting part of this story (as if it wasn’t interesting enough) is that it hasn’t concluded yet. Jho Low is currently a wanted man hiding out, most believe, in China, but is certainly still active. In fact, his team of lawyers aggressively campaigned to ban Billion Dollar Whale from being sold, and succeeded to keep the book off British bookshelves for a year! Truly, a remarkable read.

Why Do New Year Resolutions Never Work?

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It’s January, the time of year when we aspire to be or accomplish something new. You don’t have to wait for January to decide to improve yourself, but it’s as good a time as any, and definitely the most popular time. We’re two weeks in now, the gyms are packed, we’re paying closer attention to our budgets, our pantries are full of healthier foods, you know how it goes. These are all good things, but unfortunately, studies show that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February. Maybe your resolution is already floundering.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says people don’t rise to the level of their goals, they fall to the level of their systems. I think he’s exactly right. We’re good at setting goals and making resolutions, but we’re bad at making lasting changes. And it’s not because we don’t want it enough or because we make disingenuous resolutions, it’s because humans operate by default and we fail to address our default habits. Goals don’t change behavior regardless of how SMART they are or whether or not they qualify as BHAG. We need new systems, new defaults, and new habits, maybe not another resolution.

So how do we change our systems? James Clear talks about becoming 1% better each day by doing something small. It could be one pushup per day if you want to build a workout habit. It could be one call per day if you want to build a networking habit. You mold your identity by consistently doing the things the type of person you aspire to be does. Each time you do something, no matter how small, your new identity is reinforced. If I’m an athletic person, I workout. Weight loss and muscle gains simply follow. If I’m a successful salesperson, I network. Income is simply a result. My default habits would never change by simply thinking about my weight loss goal or even by putting down my income goals on paper (I, like most of us, have tried). Change requires action, no matter how small. A helpful quote I’ve come across (attributed to several different authors including Millar Fuller and Jerry Sternin) summarizes this idea nicely: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Alan Deutschman, in his book Change or Die, says, “It’s obvious that what we believe and what we feel influences how we act. That’s common sense. But the equation works in the other direction as well: How we act influences what we believe and what we feel. That’s one of the most counterintuitive yet powerful principles of modern psychology (p78).” He adds, “You have to do things a new way before you can think in a new way (p79).”

It’s interesting to think about the purpose of all of this. We set goals at the beginning of each year because we want to accomplish things, for sure. But I think the more significant reason we spend all of this time on goals is that we aspire to be better persons. The most basic thing we’re after is a change in our identity. I won’t stray into the mire of philosophical implications here, but I think that’s a clarifying thought. The accomplishment we’re after is a change in identity, not another New Year’s resolution. Our identity changes when our default behaviors and habits change. Act different in order to think different. Start small, start simple, do something laughably easy, and then don’t ever stop.

Year-end investor review

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We made it, another year is in the books and everyone has an opinion on where the market is going. My line of work involves me adamantly advising people not to try to predict markets, but even I have an opinion about what might happen in the future. Thankfully, there’s a difference between having an opinion and making a poor investing decision.

So where are we now? We’re coming off of a historically great period of market returns, especially in the category of U.S. large growth companies (the S&P 500, which happens to be the category we almost exclusively hear about in the news). Since U.S. large growth companies have faired well, so have investors, because the vast majority of investors have the majority of their investments in large U.S. growth companies. That’s great news right now. But it’s also a problem.

Large growth companies are historically one of the poorest performing asset categories in the free market. This holds in performance data going back one hundred years, but it also makes sense a priori. Large growth companies are inherently less risky than small and value companies, they stay in business longer, they seldom go bankrupt (it happens, just not as often), and their prices don’t fluctuate as significantly. Small companies are often younger, less established, and more susceptible to tough markets. Value companies are often distressed and sometimes never recover. These small and value companies default more often and their prices are more volatile, they’re riskier.

You’ve heard the principle, risk equals return. That applies here. It makes sense that as entire asset classes, small companies and value companies outperform large growth companies by a significant margin over time because their additional risk brings additional return. The fact that large growth companies have performed so well over these last ten years is great, but it also means that at some point we’ll see these returns balance out. Now, I would never pretend to know which asset classes will perform better or worse next year, that’s a fool’s errand which we refer to as ‘market timing.’ But I do know that most years will favor a diversified portfolio that leans toward small and value asset classes instead of a heavy weighting towards large growth companies. Next year the most likely circumstance is that you’ll be happy to have left your large growth company portfolio to get into a more diversified situation, which, incidentally, is true at the end of every year.

So the obvious question is how to diversify with a lean towards small and value companies. I’ve covered this before, but total market index funds won’t help you here, because of cap weighting total market funds are invested almost entirely in large growth companies. Index funds have become very popular over the last 20 years and, while they’re certainly an improvement over active funds, they’re inherently flawed. To get into an ideal portfolio takes an advisor committed to the academics of investing utilizing structured funds (a solution to the index fund problem).

Take the opportunity to review your portfolio as we head into the new year. The returns may look great, but that doesn’t mean you’re in a great portfolio.

Your 401k account is probably loaded up in the wrong asset class

 

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401k accounts good and bad. They’re mostly good because they provide an avenue for people to save and invest money for their future, but there are some things to watch out for.

Good stuff:

  • The main benefit of a 401k is that it allows you to invest qualified money. You could just invest money on your own, but investing in your 401k accounts means that you get some significant tax advantages (no capital gains on the growth of your investments and an income tax break). The same advantages apply to IRA accounts, but 401ks include two other significant advantages.
  • Many employers offer a matching contribution. For example, if you contribute a certain small percentage of your income (say 5%), the employer may kick in an additional small percentage into your 401k account (say 4%). That’s free money, and you should definitely take it.
  • 401k contributions are capped at $19,000 per year by the employee, employer contributions can exceed that. IRA contributions are capped at $6,000 per year. Not all of us are maxing out our qualified retirement accounts, but the larger cap offered by 401k accounts is certainly an advantage.

Bad stuff:

  • 401k accounts offer a limited number of investing options, and they’re almost never great. 401k Plan sponsors (employers) are typically concerned with one thing when choosing a plan: cost. If the plan seems expensive it will be harder to explain to the board, regardless of the value or benefits of the portfolio and the advisor.
  • Your money is locked up for as long as you work at the company. You’re stuck with the options available and you can’t move the money elsewhere unless you leave or retire.
  • Investors have little to no help deciding which funds or options to use within the 401k so they end up in default options, which are usually target dated funds. You may have seen these funds that end with a future year, like 2045, which you’d be in if you were expected to retire sometime around 2045. A target dated fund is not the worst investment you could be in (which isn’t saying much) but it’s far from ideal. A target dated fund will load you up in U.S. large growth companies (essentially the S&P 500), sprinkle in some international large growth companies, and decide what percentage of your money should be in bonds based on the target year. Unfortunately, in the history of the market, large growth company asset classes are among the lowest-performing of any asset classes over time. A target dated fund is usually made up of index funds (along with their inherent problems) so at least it’s not active, but it will sacrifice large amounts of return over time because of its poor diversification.

Don’t be afraid to use your 401k account, especially if your employer offers a matching contribution (again, free money). But if you’ve obtained the maximum matching contribution, think about investing additional money into a better portfolio through an IRA. Unfortunately, your 401k is probably loaded up in the wrong asset class.

This is the problem with debt consolidation

 

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It’s not a math problem. The numbers on debt consolidation actually sometimes make sense. Credit cards (for instance) offer high interest rates because they’re unsecured, personal lines of credit. The most popular consolidation loans are home equity loans which offer much lower interest rates because they’re secured against your home. If you stop paying a credit card, the debt goes to collections and the credit card company receives pennies on the dollars that you owe them, their risk is high and you pay for it. If you stop paying a home equity loan, the bank has a stake in your house and they can sell it to get their money back (foreclosure), their risk is much lower and you pay less for it. So that all makes sense, isn’t it an obviously beneficial move to slide the debt from unsecured credit cards with high interest rates into a secured home equity line with a low interest rate?

Like I said, the math may sometimes make sense on paper (may, although there are some serious issues with home equity loans which offset the juicy interest rates), but the math was never the issue. We need to consider the root of the problem. If the root of the problem is that you’ve got high interest rates on credit card debt then a consolidation loan solves the problem; done, easy. Unfortunately, that’s not the root problem. The root of the problem is that you’ve got a broken relationship with money and things. You buy things because you want them and you worry about where the money will come from later. You use credit cards because, points (obviously), and they make you feel like lots of little purchases are no big deal. Your financial life lacks intention, there’s a disconnect between your purpose/values, and your money/spending. A consolidation loan is appealing for the momentary relief it could provide, your monthly debt payments might be cut in half, but it’s only a bandaid. Without a more fundamental change to your relationship with money and your spending habits, the consolidation loan will actually only end up causing more debt and more pain in the future.

Home equity loans (again, the most common type of consolidation loan) are usually interest-only loans, which means if you make the minimum (interest-only) payment each month, the debt could continue on into eternity. The lower interest rate is not helpful if the debt isn’t going down. People often end up paying far more interest on a low-rate equity loan than they would have by aggressively paying off a credit card.

A debt consolidation loan will wipe out your credit card balances leaving lots more room to spend. Without a change in the deeper issue (your relationship to money), you’ll just end up with the old credit card debt in the consolidation loan and new credit card debt on the credit cards. It’s a wicked spiral.

So don’t play the debt games. Credit cards aren’t necessarily the enemy, but using them without having the cash to back your purchases, that’s a problem, a problem that the best consolidation program in the world can’t solve.