Thursday, August 27, 2015

Understanding Investing Risks

The last several years has instilled into investors thinking a couple of major fallacies. One is that when the markets start to go down, it is going to go way, way down. The second is that another 2008 is right around the corner, even though it is a once in 43 year occurrence. Both of these assumptions are wrong. You have to understand that we now live in an instantaneous world. News travels exceedingly fast and reacting to it just as fast, is totally foolish. I do not mean to insult anyone, but it is important to say the truth.

Being invested in hedge funds, alternatives, stocks, bonds, commodities, real estate, annuities, CD's and cash has its risks and rewards. Let's look at these choices since they each have pluses and minuses.

Hedge funds - What is a hedge fund anyway? There are about a dozen different mainstream hedging strategies used today. They all have one thing in common. They strive to reduce the risk in a portfolio. Let's drill down further. Suppose you have a portfolio of 30 stocks. Unhedged, you would be subject to the performance of those 30 stocks for as long as you held them. A hedge fund may hold the same 30 stocks, but put a "hedge" on to protect against a sudden downdraft in the stock market. However, by doing so, it's upside performance is sacrificed. For example, if the hedging was done by buying Put Options, then there is a cost to buy those 30 Put Options. If any of those stocks do not go down as hedged against, then the performance of a 30 stock portfolio with Put Options would significantly under perform. A 30 stock portfolio without the hedge would be better in that situation, than a 30 stock portfolio with Put Options as a hedge. Don't you see? So, what we learn is the risk to a hedge fund is when the market goes up.

Alternatives - Alternatives is kind of a broad term these days, but it can include promissory notes, structured products, limited partnerships, Regulation D offerings, private equity, non-publicly traded investments like REIT's and Business Development Corporations (BDC's), currency funds, physical gold, silver, platinum and other investments. The risk to these can range from a lack of liquidity, inaccurate valuations and or pricing, Ponzi scheme potential, lack of dividends, not to mention significantly more risk. These investments are not appropriate for people with less than $1,000,000 net worth or $200,000 per year in Adjusted Gross Income, in my opinion.

Stocks - Stocks on the other hand benefit when the market goes up, but have the risk of a market sell off. This would include stock mutual funds and ETF's, too. Historically, long term investors have always been rewarded for holding onto stocks for five, ten and certainly twenty years or more. The longer the holding period, the less risk there is to stocks.

Bonds - Bonds are touted as a safe investment by many. However, they are subject to interest rate risk. When interest rates go down, bonds benefit. However, when interest rates go up, they can lose money. It depends on the maturity, the issuer, the rating and other factors, but in most cases bonds will always be affected when interest rates rise.

Commodities - Commodities typically benefit from a booming economy. Commodities need inflation to benefit. It is more sensitive to supply and demand issues. Oil is a perfect example right now. When there is less demand, the price falls. Oil was priced around 100 a barrel not very long ago, but now is down around 60% from that. So, if you bought Oil at 100 a barrel, then you could be down 60% roughly. So, your risk with Commodities is lack of demand and over-supply.

Real Estate - Real Estate Agents always like to tout real estate as one of the best places to put your money. It can be a good place to put your money if you use other people's money to do it. There is no doubt that it can be extraordinarily foolish to pay off your house. Read my book, "Meet Wally Street. The ReasonYou're Stupid" for more on this.

Real estate is subject to supply and demand, also. For example, in the 2008 crisis, there was way too much demand coupled with people who bought homes at the top of the market (over-priced.) When things are over-priced, they eventually correct back to a median or more normal supply price. This was very painful for a lot of people in America and some still have not recovered from it. Real estate is also subject to interest rate risk. If you are invested in real estate via a mutual fund or other investment and rates go up, then you are going to be negatively impacted.

Annuities - Annuities are fully guaranteed by the insurance company who issues them. I am talking about Fixed and Indexed Annuities in particular. Variable Annuities have the same risks as Stocks, so I am not discussing them here. I am only discussing Fixed and Indexed Annuities. Fixed Annuities pay a fixed rate of interest. I received an interest rate update from an insurance company today. A 5 year fixed annuity is paying 2.75%. How does that sound to you? Yes it is guaranteed, but will you be satisfied with a 2.75% growth rate for the next five years?

Indexed Annuities pay interest based on several factors, but in a nutshell they are tied to some kind of index and they return a percentage of that index to policyholders each year. So, if the S&P 500 goes up, then you get a percentage of that upside credited to your annuity policy. If the S&P 500 goes down, then you more than likely make a 1% or 0% return. That may not sound all that great, but it is certainly better than losing 10% in the stock market, is it not? The risk to these is that you will have years of 0% or 1% in some years when the stock market is down.

CD's - CD's are fully insured by the FDIC, but today's CD rates are paltry to say the least. A 3 month CD may pay about 0.25% annualized. Not a lot to write home to momma about. The risk to CD's is little or no income and lack of principal growth.

Cash - Cash or money market funds have some risk to them, but it depends on where you have your money market fund. If it is a FDIC insured bank account, then you are safer than with a mutual fund money market. Rates on money markets are about 0.02% right now. The Federal Reserve has basically stolen from average investors in order to allow the major banks to recapitalize after the 2008 Great Recession. Is this fair? Of course not, but what can we do about it? Not a whole lot, unfortunately.

Where do you invest knowing these risks?

There you have it. Those are your major choices. Which of those is the best place to invest? Should you put all your money into one of these? That might be rather foolish.

Instead, perhaps you may want to be in most or all of those areas, because you never know which one is the right place to be from year to year. This is called being diversified.

This is what we do. We don't react to every piece of frightening news on television, nor to the endless stream of pundits and hucksters who preach doom and gloom. If you are smart, then you will quit watching television and let your diversified portfolio go to work for you. Sure, there will be times when markets pull back, but over the long haul you will be rewarded.

  1. Have we been rewarded because I made the decision in January of this year to eliminate Emerging Markets from our portfolios? Yes we have, but it might have gone unnoticed.
  2. Have we been rewarded for removing High Yield from our portfolios? Yes we have, but again it has probably gone unnoticed.
  3. Have we been rewarded for have about 0.52% of our portfolio in China? Yes we have but again it has most likely gone unnoticed.
  4. Have we been rewarded for getting out of Gold at $250 an ounce higher than where it is trading today? Yes, but this fact too has probably gone unnoticed.

When you wonder why we haven't done anything in the last week perhaps you might consider my four points above. The fifth point is that we are on top of things even if you do not believe that we are. We will make adjustments when we feel they are warranted. As of today, doing nothing in the last week looks to be a pretty good decision in my book.

Stay focused, stay diversified and stay away from emotional decisions based on the television news. Remember this key point. It never feels good to be invested. Something is always going on to affect one or more of the above investments. Always! You must understand that it never feels good to be invested in any market.

The goal is to have a plan, a process and a professional. I call this the three P's. That is what you have if you are a client of ours and you take our advice! I have trademarked a phrase that is apropos. Keep Your Assets. Take My Advice®. Interpreted to mean if you want to keep your assets, then take my advice.

Thank you for being a client and if you are not a client, then perhaps you might want to be.

Friday, August 14, 2015

When Investors Make Mistakes

This is one of those times to be very careful. By this I mean don't let your emotions con you into making a bad decision. We have pretty much gone sideways to slightly down this year. As a result, investors get impatient and think they have to do something. Here is the thing. If the overall market is going sideways, then there isn't a new adviser that is going to do any better. If you think there is, then you are being lied to by that advisor. If the overall market is in the doldrums, then a new financial advisor is not going to change the market's performance. Think about it. If your portfolio is properly diversified, then changing to another "better" diversified portfolio is not going to do anything for your portfolio's performance. It is most likely going to perform similarly. I have analyzed portfolios over and over trying to make them better, but there is not a smidgeon of differences in most cases by tweaking large cap or mid cap or emerging markets. If you are properly diversified, then this means you are more than likely not going to have a large position in any one asset class. If this is true, then going from 10% to 5% or vice versa is not going to make much of a difference in your portfolio's performance. The point is to stay invested. Stay properly diversified and remember that a new financial advisor is not the answer.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Department of Labor Proposed Fiduciary Rule Interpretation

These days, everyone has an opinion and I have one on the recent release of the Department of Labor's (DOL) proposed rule that affects just about anyone with a retirement account or IRA. The document that they released is 120 pages long and I went through it page by page. In order to understand it, I prepared a slide show or presentation on it. This presentation is primarily aimed at anyone who offers investment advice, but if you are an investor, then you will see how it looks from this side of the fence. Rather than reading the 120 pages, I think you will find this presentation of mine a lot easier to understand.

Click the link to view as a .pdf file. DOL Conflict Rule

My opinion is that it is primarily a good rule, but I question some of the exemptions in it. All of the lead up to this proposed rule revolved around the differences between the labels or titles of financial advisors. However, the DOL threw financial advisors a curve ball and ignored the labels altogether. Instead they focused on the activity of the financial advisor. In other words, if you are giving advice to a plan, a plan participant, a plan fiduciary, a plan beneficiary, or an IRA, then you are a fiduciary. If you are a fiduciary, then you are held to their new DOL 2510.3-21 definition. (See page 8 & 9 of the .pdf file.)

Under this new definition in DOL 2510.3-21, there are three things I find interesting in this proposed rule. One impact will undoubtedly change compensation methods drastically going forward. For example, if you give a "verbal recommendation to buy, sell or take a distribution from a plan or IRA", then you are a fiduciary. So, if your insurance agent tells you verbally that you ought to take your old 401(k) and roll it over to his/her variable annuity that pays him 8% commission, then he/she is going to have an awful hard time explaining how earning that 8% commission was in your best interests. Personally, I do not sell commission based variable annuities, so this will not affect me in the least. However, it will force insurance companies, (who can now be sued in a class action) to reduce or cap their commissions. It will also do the same to mutual fund companies who charge 5.75% up front commissions, too. There are exemptions in this rule to allow commissions, but I doubt that any insurance company or mutual fund company is going to jump out there on a ledge and be the one who keeps their 8% or 5.75% commissions in tact after this rule goes into effect.

Another part of the rule that I thought was interesting was that you are a legal fiduciary when you give advice to a beneficiary, too. What is interesting about this is that there is no agreement that has been signed between a financial advisor and a beneficiary. (It will not matter if there is an agreement or not. See next paragraph.) Nonetheless, as result of this rule, a financial advisor, even if giving advice verbally, will have to accept the fact that they are a fiduciary like it or not when they give advice to beneficiaries. This is great protection for beneficiaries going forward.

Finally, probably the best part of this proposed rule is the elimination of the two hats situation with Wall Street brokers. The two hats situation is where stockbrokers say, "I was acting as a broker, not a fiduciary." Up until now, they could sell pretty much anything to you not in your best interests, then disclaim it all away in their long and tedious legal documents. Thus, the two hats syndrome. Well, the DOL has put an end to this by saying that you can no longer skirt the fiduciary liability by disclaiming it away in legalese. This is a great thing in my opinion. Remember, the DOL looks at what activity is taking place. It doesn't matter if you work for a bank, an insurance company or a Wall Street firm. Neither does it matter what you have in your legal documents with clients. If you are doing the activity of investment advice as defined in DOL 2510-3-21, then you are a fiduciary, plain and simple. This is great for investors.

You may wonder what a plan is and what an IRA is, so rest assured it is all in the presentation file link above. I added a few comments throughout to help people understand the impact of the proposed DOL rule. If you have any questions, then feel free to contact me 904-547-2913.

Monday, April 6, 2015

ETF Portfolio Review

The S&P 500 was pretty flat for the first quarter of 2015. Personally, I do not like comparisons against the S&P 500 and our ETF Portfolios, because they do not account for risk adjusted returns, dividends and equity allocation percentages. The S&P 500 is an index of the nation's top 500 U.S. companies. It is 100% allocated to equities or stocks. For the first quarter of this year, it ended up at 2,067.89. It started the year at 2,058.20. This represents a growth in points of 9.69 and a very meager return of 0.47%.

If you happened to be considering investing in an S&P 500 index fund right now and you found out that the first quarter of 2015 only returned 0.47%, then would you still invest in it? Not with all of your money, but a portion? This is the mistake that most investors make in regard to investing. They will look at the performance of a particular fund which represents a recent time period, then decide based on that limited information whether to invest in it or not. Then, they repeat this process for several positions. In the end, they may have a dozen different positions that they have chosen based on "good" past performance. The problem with this is that they have not analyzed the overall 12 positions to see how they will react together.

Anytime that you put a portfolio of positions together and make a "good" portfolio out of them, then there are several other things that need to go into your analysis. First of all, what level of risk are you taking? What is the standard deviation? What was it in 2008 the year of the big crash? What is it today? What is the Beta today? What was it in 2008? What is the Alpha today? What was it in 2008? Did you know that these figures can changed drastically from year to year?

Just like performance changes from year to year, so does the statistics of Standard Deviation, Beta, Alpha, R-squared, Sharpe Ratio and others. Don't forget other important items like Credit Quality of the Fixed Income portion of the portfolio, assuming you have a Fixed Income portion. How many are AAA rated? AA rated? A rated? Junk rated? What about the duration of your Fixed Income portion? What is the Maturity of the Fixed Income portion?

Of course, don't forget about valuation multiples of the stocks like Price/Earnings, Price/Book, Price/Sales and Price/Cash Flow. Then, there is profitability of the stocks in the portfolio. What is the Net Profit Margin? Return on Equity? Return on Assets? How much is their Debt to Capital Ratio? What about Potential Capital Gains Tax exposure? What about the overall expense ratio?

I can tell you all of the above in regard to our portfolios, but I doubt any self-directed investor could do the same. Most people who invest on their own do very poorly. Hiring a professional advisor who not only knows how to invest, but also is a financial planner, real estate agent and insurance agent just might make more sense than trying to invest on your own.

When you look at becoming a client with our firm, we educate you on all the items described above. You will know how your current portfolio looks and what you can expect from it if you did nothing. Then, we will show you how to improve it with our professional expertise. It is simple really. You can continue to kid yourself into thinking that you are just as competent as a professional like me, or you can realize that hiring a professional like me is a very smart decision. The choice is all yours.

Please visit one or both of my web sites. Marian Financial Services, Inc. or for First Coast Planning, LLC.