Bold claim, I know, but hear me out. Markets (defined here as companies that people can invest in) have existed for several hundred years. The Dutch East India Company was the first company to ever be listed on an official stock exchange back in the 17th century. If you allow your mind to drift back to middle school history class, perhaps you can recall a few formative world events occurring between then and now, some good, some bad, some apocalyptically terrible. Here are a few: American Revolution, French Revolution, American Civil War, invention of the telephone, WWI, Great Depression, WW2, Cold War, etc. World power shifted between nations, wars ended countries and began new ones, and the only thing more predictable than another war was another famine (interestingly, there was a permanent global food shortage from the dawn of time until WW2). However, one thing you may not have heard in your middle school history class is that through all of the raging of nations, markets continued to provide a return, decade after decade. Market data, as primitive as it may have been in the 17th and 18th centuries confirms what we’ve seen from more comprehensive data in the 20th century, that markets consistently offer a significant return over time from company dividends (which were more popular back in previous centuries) and from company growth. As we well know, the market doesn’t go up every day or every year, we see the hills as well as the valleys, but history has demonstrated without exception that down markets are temporary and market growth is inevitable. It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that this time really is different, and it’s true that there are different things happening today than there were in the 1700s, but a prediction that the market won’t perform in the future is a bet against history.
The Savings Quandry
We live in a fiat currency world. ‘Fiat’ simply means government-backed. The paper that dollars are written on is pretty close to worthless, but the U.S. government guarantees its value and other countries do the same for their own fiat currencies. The U.S. dollar is worth something, more than most other fiat currencies, because it’s backed by the most powerful government in the world. There are a few implications of this:
- In the past, humanity has utilized a multitude of different items or elements or commodities as money, ranging from cattle to gold, beads to shells, and anything in between. Very few of history’s currency still exist as anything resembling money for one main reason, they could be produced. The most important characteristic of money, or of anything valuable, is its rarity, the difficulty (or preferably the impossibility) of creating more of it. In order for money to hold value, it can’t be producible, there must be a limited supply. If it’s producible, there’s a massive incentive for people to produce it, and when people produce more of something, that thing loses value. This has happened countless times throughout history. Some Native American tribes used Wampum beads (gleaned from shells and clams) as money and used them to trade with European settlers. European settlers, with superior technology, were able to mass-produce the beads causing a massive devaluation. Wampum beads were inflated (or devalued, they mean the same thing) to the point that they became worthless, leaving the Native American tribes using them destitute. A similar issue is presented when we try to use commodities as money (silver, coffee, copper, etc.). Commodities are valuable (many us would be lost without our morning coffee and we’d have a hard time building skyscrapers without steel), but when demand for a commodity increases, so does the production of that commodity, so its value decreases. Money doesn’t need to have intrinsic value, it doesn’t have to be useful for anything else, it simply needs to be able to reasonably hold value through scarcity.
- Since we use fiat currency, the government controls the dollar and consequently has the ability to produce more of it. When they do, inflation happens. The government likes inflation. Since the U.S. officially and fully entered the fiat currency game in 1971, the U.S. dollar has been inflated (devalued) by around 3.86% per year, on average. The government introduces more money into the economy through various convoluted debt instruments and stimulus packages, decreasing the value of existing dollars. The belief is that a certain amount of inflation is good for an economy because it promotes spending and borrowing, the opposites of saving. It’s definitely not helpful for saving. If you left $100k in your savings account in an average year, at 3.86% inflation you would lose almost $4k. If the money is in a savings account, maybe the bank would offer you a tiny bit of interest to offset some of the loss. If you’re lucky you might get 1%, but you would still lose $3k. In one year! Leave your money alone in a bank account or under your mattress for any amount of time and you’re out a significant portion of your savings.
So the question remains, how do we save money?
Thankfully, there’s an answer. The solution to the devaluation of our dollars is investing. Specifically, investing in companies through the stock market. All that talk about long-term investing, diversification, portfolios, the stock market, etc., that stuff all has merit. The best way to overcome inflation in our day and age is to invest money in companies, and let it grow. The stock market is the great hedge against inflation. Market returns, over time, always outpace inflation. It doesn’t happen every year, when the market is down it can definitely be worse than inflation, but if you give it time, the market will always win, and by a large margin.
Unfortunately, as things are presently constituted, saving money is not incentivized. Fiat money and inflation encourage borrowing and spending. But, saving is more important now than ever (who’s in line for a pension when they retire?), and the stock market offers an incredible store of value, one that increases exponentially over time. Don’t skimp on your investments.
Year-end investor review
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.
There are only two ways to invest (part 3)
So there are two basic strategies to invest, and your first decision as an investor is to decide which road to take. In part 2 we talked about the active option, in part 3 we’ll cover the alternative option: passive investing.
Whereas active investing feels right, passive investing is a little counter-intuitive. You actually don’t have to do anything to be a successful passive investor. You should probably have an understanding of how the market works and have a conviction about why you’re investing the way you are, but as far as activity goes you’re taking it real easy.
One of my favorite analogies for passive investing is salmon fishing. Salmon fishing is not sport fishing, it’s almost like harvesting, like work. The importance is not in casting and reeling (a staple of sport fishing), the importance is in how well you’re set up. You need to have varying types of bait at varying depth of water, you might try variations in boat speed, variations in direction, variations in water depth, etc. The important thing is to be equipped to catch a fish at any moment by diversifying your offering as much as possible. Once you’re all rigged up, you sit back and let the market do its work.
The basic question here is about whether or not you’re confident in the fact that the market is efficient. If you believe the market is efficient (which data supports) any attempt to outperform the market by actively picking stocks or timing the market is vain. Instead of spending time on all different types of analysis and market trends, the focus can be on how to design the most efficient portfolio possible, how to diversify in the best possible way. Instead of trying to bet and predict the market, you simply need to own the market as efficiently as possible. It’s an entirely different game.
Passive investing is a wonderful thing, it reduces a great deal of stress. A poor year of returns is simply a result of the market, it’s not the result of some poor guesses by you or anyone else. A recession is no longer terrifying because you’re well-diversified and you understand that the market always bounces back, that the average market downturn lasts less than a year. Your retirement is no longer a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’ A passive investor is free from analyzing endless piles of company data, the uneasiness about the market sectors they’re invested in. Passive investors don’t have to worry about how the riots in Hong Kong, or Bolivia, or Lebanon, or Iraq will affect their portfolio. It’s an entirely different way of being.
So the first decision you’ve got to make as an investor is whether you’ll be active or passive. That’s certainly not the last question you’ll have to answer, but it’s a very important one and one that set the direction of your investing journey and your financial future.
Index issues (part 2)
Alright, so we know passive investing trumps active investing, and we know that index investing, while passive, has some serious deficiencies. So what’s left?
We want to own the market passively, but that doesn’t mean we’re restricted to index funds. There is a much more responsible way to allocate money to different companies and sectors – structured funds. Structured funds deal with each of the index funds issues:
1. Instead of an arbitrary grouping of companies, a structured fund can make it’s own set of rules to decide which companies are in an asset class or fund and which are not. The S&P 500 is 500 of the largest companies in the U.S., but what if that’s not the best way to own the U.S. Large growth asset class? The same question can be asked of any index. Instead of abiding by the arbitrary index rules, a structured fund makes its own rules based on a century of market data. Just like the S&P 500 has rules to decide which companies are in and which are out (largely based on that 500 number), a structured fund has a set of rules that a company has to meet (size, profitability, book to value ratio, etc.) in order to be included in that fund. It’s still passive (in fact, often more passive than index funds), the rules are what determine which companies are in and out not an advisor’s gut feelings, but it’s a different type of investing. And it’s based on actual market research instead of arbitrary measurements.
2. We know that small companies outperform large companies over time, but indexes, by necessity (because of cap-weighting), own the least amount of the small companies. Even small company indexes like the Russell 2000 (which owns the smallest 2,000 companies in the U.S.) have much more money invested in the larger several companies than in the smaller hundreds of companies. If you’re in a target dated fund (the ones with a year at the end) in a 401k or a total U.S. market index fund, you’re missing out on the best returns the market has to offer because of cap-weighting.
3. Structured funds are not as cheap to own, and they’re much more scarce than index funds. You’ll probably have to work with an advisor to gain access to them. They rarely let investors put their finger on the trigger. Over time, these funds outperform traditional index funds because they’re designed to maximize return. An index fund would have to pay you to achieve similar returns, even after the additional costs of structured funds are considered. And because investors can only access them through an advisor, the likely-hood that investors consistently realize the returns (instead of hopping in or out or all around at the wrong time) increases significantly.
Often times index funds are the only decent option available (this is true in many 401k accounts), but when the options are open, a good advisor offering good structured funds is the best option.