Can investing be stress-free? (Part 3)

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Requirement 3: Coaching. 
Success in investing, just like success in many other things, requires the help of a coach. The stock market is the greatest passive wealth creation tool in existence, but it’s not a cakewalk to navigate. Successful investing requires knowledge of the market and an unwavering dedication to the right investing philosophy. When the market turns downward, which it has and will again, most people freak out and make serious mistakes with their investments. Investor stats from the 2008 crash are astoundingly bad. Billions of dollars fled the market at effectively the worst time to get out (at or near the bottom). It was the second crash the S&P 500 had suffered within the decade and people were understandably scared and pessimistic. This is where a coach helps. A coach will help you gain an understanding of the market (so you won’t have to stress about the downturns), but more importantly will help you maintain your investing discipline (so even when you do feel stressed, you won’t make a big mistake). When most investors are panicking, a coach will keep you on track.

A good coach is the most important facet of stress-free investing. They help by educating clients to an understanding of the market, they help by providing a great portfolio, and they help clients actually obtain the market returns and outcomes they’re looking for. A good coach will allow clients to focus on their purpose instead of stressing about how their money is doing in the market.

Can investing be stress-free? (Part 2)

 

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Requirement 2: An understanding of your portfolio.

The vast majority of investors have little to no understanding of what they own in their portfolio, and even fewer have an understanding about why they own what they own. When you don’t know how or why you’re invested the way you are, the result is a murky, nervous, disposition towards investing. The only thing we know how to measure is the percentage marks, and any downward movement is going to be super stressful.

So an understanding of your portfolio, how and why it’s constructed as it is, could alleviate some of the stress. Unfortunately, it could also magnify the stress if you find out the portfolio is an actively managed, non-diversified disaster.

Stress-free investing involves an understanding of your own portfolio, but also an understanding of how a portfolio should look.

  • An actively managed portfolio cannot reduce stress. When the bad years come, and they will come, you will necessarily feel stressed that either your money manager or yourself is not living up to the task. Not only will the bad years cause stress, but they’ll also be more frequent because actively managed portfolios routinely underperform the market over time.
  • A non-diversified portfolio will cause stress because of the large increase in volatility and the possibility of random outcomes (especially if you only own a few different stocks, or worse, options). I mentioned in part 1 that over long periods of time (10+ years) the market is always up, but it’s important to remember that individual sectors of the market (like the S&P 500) could have droughts even longer than that. From 2000 to 2009 the S&P 500 averaged about -1% per year, for 10 years! And individual stocks can do a lot worse.

These two components, passive management and global diversification, work wonders to reduce the stress of investing. We understand the market has its ups and downs, but we can rest assured that the passive, globally diversified portfolio will trend up and perform best over time. Don’t be afraid to look under the hood of your portfolio.

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.

How To Fix Your Finances

If you’re super stressed about your money situation, which, according to CNBC is pretty common, you’ve got two options:

Option 1: tighten your budget and stick to it at all costs. This option is not a lot of fun, but it’s still very important. The basic principle of personal finances is to live within your means. This means that if you don’t have money for something, you don’t purchase it, instead, you save some money over time until you can afford it. It’s common sense, but it’s not commonly practiced. SNL is an authority on the topic: Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford. Though this definitely isn’t the fun option, it might be the more important option. Sticking to a good budget and living within your means teaches you to think differently about money. If you’re a subscriber to the ‘I want it and my credit card isn’t maxed out yet’ line of thinking, this budget thing won’t be easy, but it will change your life.

Option 2: make more money. This is much more fun. Instead of holding back, you’re increasing. You can be creative, start a side-hustle, work towards a promotion. The options aren’t exactly endless, but they’re pretty broad. Do something that is exciting, something that you love, or something with a loved one! The only rule is that your idea has to make some money (and also stay within the bounds of federal law).

Here’s the twist, you don’t have to pick just one option. Ideally, you’ll work on both simultaneously. If you only tightened the budget, you would confine yourself to a workable, but boring financial existence. If you only earned more money, you would spend it as soon as you earn it since you would never have learned the discipline and benefits of saving. Neither option, by itself, is likely to get you where you’re hoping to go. But together, these two strategies can create a real and lasting fix to your finances.

You should know something about ETFs

First things first, if you’re unsure what an ETF (exchange-traded fund) is, let me explain broadly. An ETF is something you can invest money into, it’s an investment vehicle. Like mutual funds, ETFs provide a way for investors to own multiple companies through one fund. You might even have some money invested in ETFs through your 401k or other investment accounts.

ETFs have quickly become a very popular investment option in the US. We hear a lot about robo-advisors these days, their offerings consist almost exclusively of ETFs. In 2016, seven of the top ten traded securities in the US market were ETFs. Assets deposited and held within ETFs have grown substantially within the last 15 years:

Besides all that, ETFs are cool. They’re based on algorithms, you can buy and track them through really nice apps, they’re usually super cheap, the list goes on. They’re the perfect investment for this generation. I’ll admit, they appeal to my millennial preferences too. But, there are a few important things to understand about ETFs before making any investment decisions, and there’s a reason we don’t recommend them.

Now let’s define ETF a little more specifically. The easiest way to explain them is by a comparison with mutual funds. Mutual funds have been around for much longer, they’re a little simpler, and probably a little more familiar. We’ll look at two distinguishing characteristics between mutual funds and ETFs:

1) Ownership.

A mutual fund owns shares of different companies. So if you buy one share of a mutual fund, you’re actually investing in each of the different companies that the mutual fund owns. Different mutual funds make different decisions on which companies they own. Some are actively managed, meaning there’s a manager buying and selling different shares within the mutual fund; some are passively managed, meaning they own a group of companies that are chosen based on a set of rules and the companies don’t change too much; some are index funds (which is a type of passive fund), which means they own the same companies that an index tracks (like the S&P 500); there’s no shortage to the type of mutual fund you can own, there are lots of them, and they’ve been a very popular investment vehicle for a long time. The thing to remember is that the value of a mutual fund is the value of the stocks it owns. Mutual funds actually own stock shares.

ETFs also invests in different companies, and different ETFs have different criteria for the companies or sectors they invest in (the most popular ETFs track with the S&P 500). However, ETFs don’t actually own stock shares in those companies. Instead, they own pledged assets, which are contracts to provide shares. Essentially, ETFs own rights to shares. This brings benefits like low expense ratios within ETFs (no fees for buying and selling stocks since the only things that trade within an ETF are contracts) and occasional tax savings (if you have a taxable account).

2) Fund type.

Mutual funds are their own separate type of investment, they’re not like stocks. Mutual funds are only valued once per day, after the close of market. Then all the stocks and investments within the fund are added up and the value of the mutual fund is determined anew. Because of this, you can only buy and sell mutual funds once per day, when the value has been calculated. Mutual funds are a longer type of investment by design. That doesn’t mean the holdings within the mutual fund are long term, a mutual fund manager could be making trades inside the mutual fund at any time, but the mutual fund itself can’t be day-traded or hedged or anything you might do with stock holdings.

ETFs however, are traded on an exchange, which means they act like a stock. You can make inter-day trades, the value is moving whenever the market is open, you can hedge and short and order stops, and engage in all sorts of risky stock market things. It also means there’s a fee for each trade, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but you wouldn’t want to be executing lots of ETF trades. This extra trad-ability makes mutual funds appealing for many. The trade costs are a bit of a deterrent, but you can actually day-trade with ETFs.

So that’s what ETFs are. The rise of ETFs in one of the most significant changes in the world of investing over the last 20 years and many people are excited about the opportunity. Here are a few reasons why I’m less excited, and why we don’t recommend ETFs for our investors.

Regulation surrounding ETFs has proven insufficient. I’m usually not a big proponent for the increase of regulation, but when it comes to ETFs, the lack of regulation is a real problem. There currently isn’t even an official legal definition for ETFs so they’re regulated individually, fund by fund, under mutual fund rules. As you’ve seen above, ETFs differ from mutual funds in significant ways, and mutual fund regulations simply can’t account for the discrepancies.

Since ETFs own contracts for shares instead of actual shares, the value of an ETF is tied to the viability of its contracts to perform, its arbitrage mechanism. Theoretically, the value of an ETF should be the value of the promised shares (like mutual funds are valued based on the shares they own), and usually, it is, but not always. When the price diverges, the arbitrage mechanism has to kick in to bring it back. So there’s a whole new type of risk involved, the reliability of the arbitrage mechanism, which can also dramatically affect the price. The fact is, when the market is stressed, the arbitrage mechanism can fail, causing massive swings in the pricing of ETFs, unrelated to the underlying stock assignments. That’s not just a hypothetical, it has happened, and continues to happen. August 24, 2015, is one specifically egregious example. It’s not entirely clear how or why these things happen from a market perspective, and the differing regulations (even between funds with the same pledged assets) only cause more uncertainty. The whole system is shrouded. What we know is that the inconsistent regulation, the cloudy definitions, and the unreliable arbitrage mechanisms have created more risk for ETFs. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to quantify the additional risk in any meaningful way because there are still too many unknowns. Investopedia even admits in reference to ETFs, ‘the perceived increase in volatility needs further research.’ In its current state of affairs, the ETF market is simply not reliable enough to recommend as a vehicle for a person’s life savings. There seems to be increasing support for research and regulation surrounding ETFs so the issue is certainly not over-with, perhaps we could even end up recommending ETFs to all of our investors in the future, but for now, stick with some good old mutual funds.

 

Sources:

Financial Times: The $5tn ETF market balances precariously on outdated rules

Financial Times: Market turbulence revives fears over ETF structural issues

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