How to Invest in Uncertain Times (part 1)


The market has been rocked. In the last two weeks (March 3-16, 2020), the S&P 500 has lost over 22% of its value. It’s the fastest 20% descent we’ve ever seen, and no one knows exactly where the bottom will be (or if we’ve already hit it). The market has moved in percentage multiples, both up and down, every day last week, an incredible level of volatility. The leading cause, which still feels surreal, is the propagating Covid-19 virus which has led to mass closings and increasing restrictions. Suffice it to say, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

In many ways, we’re in uncharted territory, which means we’ve got questions, like how are we supposed to respond to all of this? What’s the right thing to do when we’re confused about what’s happening? To add some clarity, I’ll offer up a few investing principles throughout this week.


Market timing doesn’t work.

  • No one knows what the market will do tomorrow. Many make predictions, but no one really knows. Don’t try to guess where the bottom is, or when we’ll hit it, or when to pull money out of the market, or when to put the money back in. The market is efficient.
  • Let’s say you really want to get out of the market because you don’t believe we’ve hit the bottom yet and you’re not interested in sticking around to find out. In order to successfully time the market you have to get two bets right: you have to get out of the market before it hits the bottom, and you have to get back in at or very near the bottom. The odds are not favorable.
  • A market study conducted at the University of Michigan measured returns from 1963 through 2004 (a period of 42 years). They found that 96% of the positive returns over that period came from 0.85% of trading days (90 out of 10,573 total trading days).
  • Another study done by A. Stotz Investment Research observed a 10 year period, from November 2005 through October 2015. After running the data through several simulations, they concluded that if you missed the 10 best market days over the specified 10 year period, you would stand to lose, on average, 66% of the gains you would have captured by staying in the market.
  • When the market moves up, it moves up quickly. Whenever your money is on the sidelines, you risk missing some of the best days the market has to offer. So stay invested, don’t panic, and anticipate the rebound.

It’s a Rough Day in the Market

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As I write this on March 9, 2020, market indexes across the board are down, some by as much as 9%. Coronavirus has made the market skittish enough over the last few weeks, to compound things Saudi Arabia announced massive cuts to the price of oil this morning, which actually seems kind of great (lower gas prices!), but markets have not reacted kindly. The response feels like panic. It’s certainly a bad day in the market, but I want to provide a little bit of context for all of this.


Here’s what you should know:

  • Unless you know the future or have inside information (unlikely, and illegal to trade on), you should be a long term investor. Short term market moves are pure gambles, and most often end up hurting investors. Don’t move money based on fear, which is all we hear in the news, especially on days like today.
  • Despite what pundits may be saying, no one knows what the market will do tomorrow. No one knows where the bottom of a downturn is, no one knows how long it will last or how quickly the market will come back. Don’t panic with your money, especially when the market is down.
  • Bad market days have happened before. On Black Monday (October 19, 1987) the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 22.61%, in one day! In order to crack the top 20 bad market days the Dow would have to lose 7%, but even if that does happen, we’ve seen the market bounce back from far worse.
  • The market bounces back quickly. When the S&P 500 loses 10% or more it recoups all losses within an average of about 4 months. The worst thing you can do is move money when the market is down and miss the bounce-back.
  • A limited number of great days in the market account for most of the great returns. A 20 year period between 1998 and 2018 included 5,040 trading days. If you missed the 30 best market days out of the total 5,040, you would have ended up with a slightly negative return over the 20 year period, $10,000 would have turned into less than $9,000. We don’t know when those great days will come (though we know they often follow bad days) but we definitely don’t want to miss them by being out of the market.
  • Markets move, but the general trajectory is up. If you’re invested for the long haul and you understand your risk tolerance, bad market days are no problem. They don’t even have to be stressful.


Here’s what you should do (or not do):

  • Don’t panic. This is not the first time we’ve had a bad day in the market and it won’t be the last. The worst thing you can do is move your money out of the market. In fact, bad days in the market are a great time to invest more.
  • Make sure you understand how and why you’re invested the way you are. The market will sustain losses, but an un-diversified portfolio stands to lose a lot more. On the flip side, a well-diversified portfolio can put your mind at ease.
  • Make sure your diversified portfolio has a systematic way of rebalancing. When the market is moving, a system for rebalancing will ensure that parts of the portfolio that are doing well are sold, and the parts that are down are bought. It’s an automatic ‘buy-high-sell-low’ feature.
  • Work with an investor coach. When things look bad, all the news and information surrounding you will only confirm your worst fears. An investor coach will keep you disciplined, make sure the accounts are rebalanced, and will ultimately guide you through turbulent markets to a successful outcome.

Why don’t we use the gold standard anymore?


Today we no longer use a gold-backed currency. Even when the dollar was backed by gold, the U.S. government would adjust the gold-to-dollar ratio with regularity, essentially muting any effect of the currency’s gold backing. So while officially abandoned in 1971, we’ve been off the gold standard for quite a while, since about 1914.

Beginning in and around the 19th century, developed nations almost universally adopted the gold standard. Uncoincidentally, the 2nd half of the 19th century is heralded as one of history’s great economic eras. But, in 1914, at the outset of WW1, developed nations involved in the fighting began moving away from the gold standard. They were faced with two options to finance war operations: 1) increase taxes, 2) leave the gold standard and print money. Option one would have been supremely unpopular, option two would accomplish the same thing as option one just without the national outrage. Taxes are one thing, people understand what’s happening, they’re giving up their money for a government to provide services that the collective majority generally agrees upon. Fiat money is different. Instead of imposing additional taxes, fiat money allows the government power to print money, devaluing the currency and causing citizens to end up with less money via inflation. Imposing taxes and printing money grant the same outcome for governments, they end up with more money, and it also creates the same outcome for citizens, they end up with less money. The issue is that citizens have a measure of control over taxation by voting, complaining, revolting, etc. They have very little control over printing money.

It’s impossible to prove, but nevertheless an interesting thought experiment: what if governments hadn’t abandoned the gold standard in 1914? In all likelihood the war would have endured for a fraction of the time it did in reality. Taxes would have been imposed (the only way for governments to fund the war), they would have been incredibly unpopular (because ordinary people didn’t care about petty monarchical conflicts between nations), governments would have run out of money to fund their war efforts, and the war would have ground to a halt, almost certainly sooner than four years, and more probably within one year. Again, it’s impossible to prove, but certainly possible.

Since 1914 little has changed, fiat (government-issued) money is the currency of the age. Taxation has steadily decreased over the last one hundred years while government spending has steadily increased by borrowing and printing notes. A return to the gold standard at this point is all but impossible. The fact is that gold, while a great purveyor of value, is impractical for day to day use. It’s heavy, it’s hard to divide into smaller bits, and it’s costly to keep secure. These are the reasons why gold was concentrated into central banks and traded via government promissory notes in the first place.

Unfortunately, every example in history involving the utilization of soft money (money that’s easily producible) has eventually resulted in large-scale economic collapse. That’s not to say it’s impossible for fiat money to succeed, the U.S. government, while far from perfect, has not inflated the currency to disastrous levels, and may not for a long time. But no human or human institution has been able to stave off the temptation to over-print currency indefinitely.

So that’s depressing, is there a solution? We know that hard money (money that’s scarce and/or hard to produce) is foundational to thriving economies. Gold is the best example we have of hard money, but it has inherent flaws that make it difficult to use in our modern world. An interesting development in the last decade is the inception and rise of crypto-currencies. I won’t pronounce Bitcoin the ultimate salve of modern economics, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. Crypto-currencies offer many of the beneficial characteristics of gold (difficult or impossible to produce, widely accepted), and avoids many of gold’s pitfalls (it’s not heavy, not hard to divide, and inherently secure). The market will ultimately decide if some type of crypto-currency is any type of answer, for now, it’s a fascinating concept. 

There are only two ways to invest (part 2)


carolina-pimenta-J8oncaYH6ag-unsplashSo we’ve identified the two basic ways you can invest. That’s great, but how do you know which one to choose? Let’s talk about the active option.

Active investing feels right. We’re active people after all. We shop around for deals, we love sales and Facebook Marketplace. We check weather forecasts on the regular, we set future plans on our calendars. We do research before we buy things (some of us perhaps to a fault), we read reviews, we ask our friends. All of these things are active. So then active investing just seems like the normal way to do things, look for underpriced companies, do some stock research, make a prediction about the future, nothing too out of the ordinary, right?

There’s just one small problem, investing isn’t like normal life. We’ve got really smart people positing that the stock market is efficient, which means there aren’t actually and sales or deals on underpriced companies. Sure, stock prices will generally move upwards, but not because a company is underpriced. New news and information comes into the market and affects stock prices, new things happen that we can’t know for sure beforehand are going to happen. Research into specific stocks is great, professionals are doing it all of the time, but no one person can possibly have a complete understanding of a company, let alone how unknown events in the future will affect the company. There’s just too much data to make picking stocks a long-term viable strategy. Predictions in the stock market are not like weather predictions, we don’t have a radar watching a storm-front move in. And if people believe there is a storm front coming, it’s already priced into the stock prices because again, the market is efficient.

It’s really tough to be a good active investor. Even professionals fail to outperform the market at an extraordinary rate (over the last 15 years, 92% of active funds trading in the S&P 500 have underperformed the S&P 500), and even those who seem to be good at it tend not to repeat their performance. So maybe you’ve guessed by now, I don’t advocate active investing. If you really believe that the market is not efficient and that you or someone you know has a special ability to buy and sell the right stocks at the right time then active investing is the way to test your belief. Unfortunately, the odds are not in your favor.

In part 3, we’ll talk about the alternative option.

Index bubble


This passive investing/index bubble idea from a Michael Burry interview continues to circulate. The idea has appeal, not the idea that another recession is imminent, but the idea that we could accurately predict one coming, and that the cause could actually make sense to us. The argument is fairly simple. A larger percentage of people are buying index funds, especially the S&P 500, than ever before. Index fund investors tend not to analyze each company in the S&P 500, they simply buy the index which owns all of them. So Burry worries that since fewer and fewer people are conducting analysis on company fundamentals, the prices of these companies are going to be inflated by virtue of the simple fact that they’re included in an index, not because they’re good companies that people believe in. That makes sense. The question then, is how much analysis and trading do we need in order to maintain a decent level of price discovery in the market? If index funds stifle price discovery, how do we avoid a bubble? Here are a few responses:

  • Even a small amount of price discovery (studying fundamentals, making trades, supply and demand) makes a huge difference for prices to reflect value. We don’t need large swaths of the market conducting analysis.
  • If 100% of invested assets were in index funds the price discovery argument might hold some weight. You would have to assume that there would be almost no company fundamental analysis happening, not an unreasonable jump but still an assumption. However, the truth is that only about 45% of invested assets are in index funds, and there’s still a host of investors and dollars outside of passive index funds working to set prices.
  • Index investing actually adds data to the market, it contributes to price discovery. Instead of contributing data on specific stocks, it contributes to larger market sector data as people commit dollars to different indexes across the world, which is helpful market data.
  • Despite the growth of index fund investing, global stock trading volume has actually remained about the same over the last ten years. People use passive vehicles to actively trade. Many index fund dollars are in ETFs among the most traded funds on the market. Just because money is in index funds does not mean that it’s passive. The activity all contributes to price discovery.
  • Some passive investors (like us!) actually do use some fundamental analysis in constructing portfolios (structured funds). And even our passive investors occasionally make trades; in order to rebalance, when they make contributions or withdrawals, etc. Even the most passive investors contribute to price discovery.
  • If the market was losing efficiency and price discovery as a result of growing index fund investors, we would expect to see an uptick in active money manager performance. Active managers would find the mispriced companies in the index and reap corresponding rewards. But the data shows no improvement, active managers have performed slightly worse over the last three years than before.

Despite the uptick in index and passive investing, price discovery is as strong as it ever has been in the stock market. Michael Burry’s comments on the index bubble are interesting and even sound plausible, but upon close inspection look misguided. Passive investing is still the way to go, though you do have permission to dump those index funds.