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.

Parenting by explanation

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I ran into a super interesting study the other day in an almost as interesting book called Originals by Adam Grant. That’s not a subtle dig, the book is really good, but the study is incredibly interesting. It was published in 1992 as The Altruistic Personality by Samuel and Pearl Oliner.

The Oliners wanted to find out what drove non-Jews to risk their lives to aid and hide Jews during the Nazi rein in Europe. What was the difference between those who stuck out their necks and those who sat passively by? These people shared similar careers, lived in the same neighborhoods, attended the same schools, etc. They shared much in common, but one of the most significant differences the Oliners found involved how they were raised. The rescuers often used the word ‘explained’ to characterize their parent’s method of parenting. When they were disciplined or reprimanded, their parents tended to explain why what they did was wrong and how their actions affected other people. The explanations were good for a few things: 1) The explanations fostered values. An explanation can tie behavior to identity, a good person can’t steal toys and make other kids feel bad. Instead of a focus on rote compliance, the focus is on forming identities. 2) Explanations treat children as rational people with the ability to make choices and changes. Instead of demanding obedience, explanations help children see their need and ability to take responsibility for their own actions.

For those who risked their lives to save others during the Nazzi occupation, explanations from their parents had shifted their risk calculation from one of cost versus benefits to one of weighing values. If the cost versus benefit equation was utmost, there’s no question it would have made more sense to stay on the sidelines during the Nazi occupation. The risk was literally death. But if the calculation was one of personal values and identity, it becomes nearly impossible to sit idly by while fellow humans suffer injustice.

So next time your child makes a mistake or acts out or generally struggles with disobedience, talk to them when you discipline them. Help them see how their actions affect other people. Use language that addresses their identity (who they want to be) instead of purely focusing on the act (what they did). Turns out parenting is pretty important, and an explanation from a parent can go a long way.

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.

Index bubble

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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.