Category Archives: Investing Money

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK – July 30, 2014

house and pigMy Comments: I’m involved in a philosophical conflict these days between those on one side who believe there is a universal truth that says investment skill trumps traditional permanent life insurance every time.

On the other side is someone who believes permanent life insurance trumps traditional investment methodologies. They argue vehemently that permanent life insurance will result in a better outcome for everyone. Both sides of this argument have a built in bias that is difficult for the average consumer to recognize and compensate for.

I’m loath to attribute “universal truth” status to either position. Life insurance and credible investment strategies have roles to play in almost everyone’s life. It’s only when you fully understand a client’s thought process, value system, and where they are in life are you able to help them determine whether life insurance is appropriate, what kind to buy if it is, and how much coverage is enough.

Here is a thought from a trusted colleague with a valid perspective on this question.

By Gene A. Pastula, CFP

When compared to other investment options for liquid assets for medical emergencies, the creation of a large asset from small deposits (life insurance) is a most desirable alternative.

Those who say that life insurance is a bad investment are not relating to real life.

Since everyone dies, we know exactly what the end result of a life insurance program is going to be. Because we don’t know when any individual will die, we don’t know how efficient the program will be.

* Walt purchased a $1,000,000 life insurance policy at the age of 47 and died from a brain tumor at age 53. Does anyone disagree that, no matter what Walt paid for it, he made a good “investment” buying that policy… an IRR of about 92% per year?

* Sharon purchased the same kind of policy at the age of 63 and died at the age of 93. After 30 years of paying premiums… an IRR of about 4.5% per year. Should have put her money in a mutual fund. Who knew?

When you sell life insurance for a living, you must concentrate on the “need”. That is what all the critics of insurance focus on. How expensive is it, and do you really “neeeed” it? You will sell only to those clients to whom you can effectively point out that the individuals untimely death will leave a significant deficiency in the financial condition of those he/she leaves behind. Then you must be convincing, and good at motivating them to take action to “purchase” the policy so the money will be there “in case” they die.

On the other hand, if you are a financial planner or investment advisor you can clearly see the value in your clients’ portfolio and to their family of having a portion of their assets “invested” in a life insurance policy. And the way you can tell if it is a good value is to know when the insured will die. Only then can you calculate the rate of return. In most cases the tax free rate of return is about 4.5% if one dies at age 93 and much greater (8.5%/yr.) if you are lucky enough to die at 85 and EVEN GREATER (24%/yr.) if you are EVEN LUCKIER and die at 75… well, hopefully you get my point.

Now consider the risks of Critical, and Chronic Illness that (in many cases) occur before death. Just think of the rate of return on your money if you are lucky enough to have a heart attack or kidney failure or need a lung transplant after only 10 or 15 years of owning and paying for that policy. That is assuming your advisor was wise enough to make sure the insurance you were “investing in” contained an acceleration rider to access a portion of the death benefit while you are still alive and needed some big bucks to cover the cost of that lung transplant.

An additional comment from TK: Among my resources at Florida Wealth Advisors, LLC, are people like Gene Pastula, and his company, Westland Financial Services. They believe in the value of committing a portion of their clients’ portfolio to an insurance policy that creates large assets just at the time it is needed, no matter when that may be. And yet… if it is never needed, the heirs will think of them as a hero for doing such a good job of protecting the portfolio. Life does not move in a straight line; it has ups and downs. Who knows what is going to happen next. Whatever it is, a major health issue could cause great damage to their portfolio just when it was about to make great gains in the upcoming bull market.

The Hangover

My Comments: The blogosphere and financial press is increasingly filled with questions and presumed answers about the amount of time since the last market correction. The focus of each writers attention is to suggest doom is imminent or doom is not imminent. Personally, I have no idea when the next crash will happen, just that sooner or later it will.

That being said, here are comments from one of the bright lights at one of the best well lit family of funds available to us. Draw your own conclusions, but if you agree with me that something ominous will happen before long, then talk to me about ways to limit your losses when it does happen.

by Scott Minerd July 24, 2014

The Fed’s not taking the punch bowl from the party, but investors should be wary of the hangover.

On a fall night in 1955, Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin stood before a group of New York investment bankers at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and delivered what is now considered his famous “punch bowl” speech. It earned this label because Martin closed his eloquent talk by paraphrasing a writer who described the role of the Fed as being “in the position of the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.”

Janet Yellen’s recent congressional testimony suggested that she does not subscribe to her predecessor’s temperance. While citing that valuations in certain sectors, such as high-yield or technology stocks, appeared “substantially stretched”, Yellen’s overall sentiment was clear: the Fed does not view the party as really warming up to the point that the punch bowl need be removed.

The excessive risk taking among investors lulled into complacency by an overly loose Fed is a powerful cocktail indeed; one that could produce a hangover in the form of volatility. Having said that, the Fed’s party can still go on for a long time. As I’ve said before, bull markets don’t die of old age, but because of an exogenous event or a policy mistake.

In his famous speech, Martin preceded his punchbowl comment by saying, on behalf of the Fed, “…precautionary action to prevent inflationary excesses is bound to have some onerous effects…” The flipside – a lack of precautionary action by the Fed – will have its own set of consequences in time. It is very difficult to say when exactly these will happen, but near-term indicators suggest the hangover won’t hit while you’re relaxing at the beach this summer.

Chart of the Week
Equity Markets: The Bigger they Come the Harder they Fall
The S&P500 has now gone nearly 800 days since a correction of more than 10 percent – the “meaningful” level for many analysts. The more extended the market becomes, the larger the eventual decline may be. Over the last 50 years, the longer the time between market corrections, the steeper the drop once the correction does occur.

EX-RECESSION S&P500 CORRECTIONS (>10% DECLINE) SINCE 1962

These 3 Charts Show The Amazing Power Of Compound Interest

retirement_roadMy Comments: Math was not and remains not one of my strengths. But I understand this part. If you are younger than I am and have an opportunity to put some money to work, you need to push the envelope and make it happen.

Whether you do or not, the price you pay for stuff with your money will also increase via the same compounding mechanism, so it behooves you to make sure your savings are growing at least as fast and preferably, much faster. Remember, money is only useful if you can use it to buy the things you need and the things you want.

By Libby Kane July 12, 2014

One of the biggest financial advantages out there is something anyone can access by opening a simple retirement account: compound interest.

Retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and Roth IRAs aren’t just savings accounts — they’re actively invested, and therefore have the potential to make the most of this benefit.

As Business Insider‘s Sam Ro explains, “Compound interest occurs when the interest that accrues to an amount of money in turn accrues interest itself.”

So why is that so important?

The charts below will show you the incredible impact compound interest has on your savings and why starting to save in your 20s is one of the best things you can do.

1. Compound interest is incredibly powerful.

The chart below from JP Morgan shows how one saver (Susan) who invests for only 10 years early in her career, ends up with more wealth than another saver (Bill), who saves for 30 years later in life.

By starting early, Susan was able to better take advantage of compound interest.

Chris, the third saver profiled, is the ideal: He contributed steadily for his entire career.

chart-jp-morgan-retirement-1

2. When you start saving outweighs how much you save.

This chart by Business Insider’s Andy Kiersz also emphasizes the impact of compound interest, and the importance of starting early. Saver Emily, represented by the blue line, starts saving the exact same amount as Dave (the red line), but begins 10 years earlier. Ultimately, she contributes around 33% more than Dave over the course of her career, but ends up with almost twice as much wealth as he does.

saving-at-25-vs-saving-at-35-continued-saving-prettier-1

3. It can even make you a millionaire.
Compound interest can get you pretty far. In fact, Business Insider calculated — based on your current age and a 6% return rate — how much you need to be saving per month in order to reach $1 million by age 65. You can also see the calculations based on different rates of return.

monthly-savings-chart-new-1

 

Short Selling Drops to Lowest Level Since Lehman

roulette wheelMy Comments: Last Tuesday, I referenced an article with a compelling reason to think the current stock market move upward would soon go the other way. The author asserted the collapse was already under way. Here is an equally compelling article that suggests it’s not going to collapse, instead is going to continue going up.  (at least for a while!)

All this is to tell you no one has a clue. After the fact, everyone on the right side of history can claim they were right. But that’s like a broken watch which is right twice every 24 hours.

In my opinion, as a fincial advisor, the solution is to employ the skills of talented money managers, people with a laser like focus on one particular component of the overall market. Then make sure they have the ability to be in the market positively or negatively, or in cash. That way you really don’t care what happens, since your chances of increasing the size of your account are higher regardless of the history.

By Miles Johnson, Hedge Fund Correspondent / July 8, 2014
Hedge funds still unwilling to bet against the rally

Hedge funds have sharply scaled back their bearish bets that the value of stocks is about to fall, with the proportion of shares earmarked for short selling at its lowest level since before the financial crisis despite warnings of renewed market exuberance.

The percentage of stocks that have been borrowed by short sellers – who try to profit from a company’s share price falling – has dropped to the lowest level in the US, UK and the rest of Europe since the years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, according to data compiled for the Financial Times by Markit.

The fall in short selling comes as Wall Street and markets in Europe trade at near record and multiyear highs, indicating that while some high profile hedge fund managers have warned of excessive market euphoria the industry is still unwilling to bet against the rally.

The amount of so-called short interest in the benchmark US S&P 500 index is hovering around 2 per cent of total shares in the index, close to the lowest level since Markit began collecting the data in 2006. In the European Stoxx 600 index, the level is similar at just over 2 per cent, while short interest in the UK FTSE All-Share index stands at less than 1 per cent.

This compares with sharply elevated levels in the years preceding the credit crisis, with the data showing short interest in the US in 2007 hitting a high of 5.5 per cent. The Markit data does not take into account all changes in stock indices over the period.

Buoyed in part by injections of cheap money from central banks, including the Federal Reserve’s asset-purchase programme, leading stock markets have continued to rise this year after enjoying strong gains in 2013, forcing some hedge funds to cut their short bets to avoid being squeezed.

As the FTSE All-World and S&P 500 have set records, volatility has faded away, with one measure, the Vix index or “Wall Street fear gauge” dropping to a near seven-year low.

“Historically, periods of low volatility usually lead to further periods of volatility, they are not precursors to a crisis.” – Antonin Jullier, global head of equity trading strategy, Citi

This has prompted a string of recent warnings from a number of leading hedge fund managers such as Baupost’s Seth Klarman, CQS’s Michael Hintze and David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital about the distortions being caused by ultra-low interest rates and bubbles in some asset classes.

Closely-followed short sellers such as Mr Einhorn have argued that US technology shares have reached “bubble” valuations, but have bemoaned the difficulty of making bets against them given the level of hype surrounding the sector.

“It is dangerous to short stocks that have disconnected from traditional valuation methods,” Mr Einhorn told his clients earlier this year. “After all, twice a silly price is not twice as silly; it’s still just silly”.

However, despite a jittery period for some technology stocks in the first half, investors have been undeterred by the warnings, with some analysts arguing that shares are still cheap compared with other assets.

“Historically, periods of low volatility usually lead to further periods of volatility, they are not precursors to a crisis,” said Antonin Jullier, global head of equity trading strategy at Citi.

Mr Jullier said that some hedge funds had become discouraged from short selling as a result of being repeatedly wrongfooted by rising markets.

“Hedge funds have underperformed in the first half and this means their appetite for risk has fallen over the year,” he said.

Rising stock markets have coincided with sharp price increases for other asset classes, ranging from Jeff Koons’s sculptures to junk bonds and London house prices, prompting concerns among some investors that markets have lapsed back into complacency.

Buckle Up! The New Bear Market Has Begun!

1-5-2000-to-6_30-2014My Comments: The writer has a powerful message to send. He was right about this back in 2008 but that doesn’t mean he’s right this time. I have clients and prospective clients asking when the next downturn is going to begin. And yet there are many articles that suggest it’s still a long way off.

This week I received my copy of Investment Advisor. In it five famous advisors share their preferred asset allocation of the month. The most conservative of them has 30% in stocks, 50% in bonds with 20% in cash. The previous month he had 30% in stocks, 40% in bonds and 30% in cash. Clearly, he doesn’t think interest rates are going up soon. The other four had about 65% of their holdings in the stock market.

Another example is an investment manager whose results in 2013 were a plus 17.51%. Rather than moving away from the stocks, he is now fully invested in the stock market to the tune of 120%. (To understand how that works, you need to call or email me.)

PS – I’ve left out the charts since they do not add much to the message other than the one at the top.

Craig Brockle / May. 8, 2014

• This article reveals the convincing evidence that a new bear market has already started.
• Those who failed to sell near all-time highs in 2000 and 2007 have a chance to do it here in 2014.
• Learn the two proven, reliable assets that go up when everything else is going down.

Did you or a loved one lose money in the 2008 Financial Crisis? How about the real estate bubble bursting two years earlier? And if we go back to the turn of the millennium, there was the Dot-com Crash. Remember that one?

This article is intended to help as many people as possible avoid another devastating loss. I will explain where we appear to be in the current economic cycle, what appears to be coming next and how you can protect and grow your money like the top 1% of successful investors.

I’ve done my best to make this article understandable by everyone who reads it, whether you have previous investment knowledge or not. Investment terms, when first introduced have a link to their definition to help aid comprehension. If you see something you don’t understand, a Google search of the word + definition can help.

Before we go any further, observe what the above-mentioned financial events look like on a graph. First, we’ll look at the 2006 real estate bubble. Shown below is the past 20 years of home price data based on 10 US cities.

Up until 2006, the consensus was that real estate only goes up in value and that one’s home was a great investment. By 2009, this belief was proven to be utterly false as foreclosures and short sales became widespread.

There is a great deal of evidence that suggests the real estate market is again poised for a significant drop, but explaining that would be an article of its own. Perhaps after reading this article, you’ll agree that the next financial bear market has indeed begun. If so, you will likely conclude that owning real estate through this period will be hazardous.

Now let’s look at the overall US stock market over the past 20 years as represented by the S&P 500 index in the chart below. This shows the S&P 500 from 1994-2014. (at the top is the S&P from 2000-2014)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I believe the above chart could be worth 30-60% of your current investment portfolio. That is if you fail to recognize the pattern that’s developed and act accordingly, you could stand to lose that much money.

It’s been over five years since the last bear market bottomed and many investors have forgotten what it was like. The following short clip from CBS 60-Minutes titled “The 401k Fallout” will remind you what average investors were experiencing at the time. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Now, let me give at least one reason why you might want to listen to me. After all, there are so many conflicting opinions and obviously not everyone can be right. I’m the first to admit that the market has a mind of its own, which no one, including myself can accurately predict at all times. That said, I went on the record in late 2007 with this YouTube video warning viewers to prepare for the upcoming market crash. That video was released the exact month the S&P 500 index peaked, after which it dropped 57%.

After the real estate bubble collapsed in 2006, it became obvious to my contrarian colleagues and me that it would have a spillover effect into the rest of the financial world. There were other telltale warning signs at that time that I’ll explain below as these signs are giving the same message today.

By October 2007, the S&P 500 index (500 largest US companies) was the focus of attention as it set a new all-time high that month. Meanwhile, the Russell 2000 index (2,000 of the smallest publicly-traded US companies) had already been in a bear market for three months, after peaking in July of that year. This is a sign of stock market exhaustion where only a smaller group of stocks continue to push higher while the overall pack falls off. You could picture this as a huge pack of companies climbing a wall. By the end of it, the overwhelming majority were already in their descent while only the biggest companies inched higher.

Today we’re seeing the exact same thing as the Russell 2000 has again been showing obvious signs of weakness, even though the S&P 500 has been revisiting its all-time highs. The Russell 2000 Index Peaked at 1,213 on March 4, 2014.

Another warning sign that a new bear market has begun is courtesy of the volatility index (VIX). In finance, volatility is a measure of the variation of stock prices over time.

Volatility, investor emotions and stock prices are all very closely related. In periods when volatility is low and investors are feeling complacent or even euphoric, we experience high stock prices. Conversely, when stock prices collapse and fear becomes widespread, we see volatility spike much higher.

Volatility measures can be a very early warning signal. For instance, in the last financial crisis, volatility began to rise seven months before the bear market in the Russell 2000 began and 10 months before the S&P 500 started its decline.

Taking a look at volatility in the current cycle, we see that it reached its lowest point on March 14, 2013. Since then volatility has been in an uptrend, setting a consistent pattern of higher lows. This time around, it has taken the Russell 2000 almost 12 months to peak, hitting its high on March 4th of this year. I suspect the S&P 500 will make at least one last push higher, at least above 1900. This would also help fool more people into believing that there’s nothing to worry about when they should actually be most concerned.

Other warning signals are currently blaring today as they did in 2007. These include stocks being extremely overpriced, selling by the most experienced investors and heavy buying by the least informed, the general public. Let’s look at each of these factors briefly.

Adam Hamilton, a contrarian colleague of mine, recently published an excellent article. In it he points out that as of this year, stocks are more overpriced than they were prior the 2008 financial crisis. In case you’re unfamiliar, the value of a stock is determined by comparing a company’s current stock price to how much profit it earns. This is referred to as a price to earnings ratio. For instance if a stock is currently priced at $10 and has earned a profit of $1 over the past year, the stock would be said to have a price to earnings ratio of 10.

Over the past 125 years, the average price to earnings ratio has been 14 for the largest 500 companies in the United States. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, these same stocks reached peak price to earnings ratios of 23.1. As of the end of March of this year, the average price to earnings ratio for these same 500 stocks was 25.7. This indicates that even if corporate profits were to remain constant, that stock prices would need to drop 45% just to reach their historical average of 14.

Furthermore, we’ve recently seen a significant increase in insider selling of stocks combined with heaving buying by the general public. Insiders include directors and senior officers of publicly traded companies, as well as anyone that owns more than 10% of a company’s voting shares. Insiders are among the most knowledgeable and successful investors as they have such strong understanding of what’s really going on in their company and industry. When insiders are selling, it’s usually wise to take notice. Insiders are among the top 1% of successful investors and act more on logic rather than emotion.

Lastly, we have the average investor. We could refer to them as the other 99%, based on their sheer numbers. These are the least informed investors and have the worst track record. This group tends to react emotionally rather than rationally at major turning points in the market. This is evidenced by the fact that the heaviest selling of stocks by the general public occurred in the first few weeks of 2009. This was right before the last bear market transitioned into one of the strongest bull markets in history.

Recently there hasn’t just been strong buying by the general public, but they have been borrowing more money to buy stocks than they ever have. As always, knowledgeable insiders, commercial traders and contrarian investors are unloading their positions near the current all-time highs to an unsuspecting public that really should know better by now-especially after what happened in 2000 and 2007. Here we are in 2014, another seven years later and it is again time to prepare for another bear market.

While no one, including me, likes to live through difficult economic times, at least we all have a choice as to how we are affected. There are truckloads of lemons coming our way, so I think we’d best get started making lemonade. And while we’re at it, help as many other people as possible do the same.

In crisis, we find both danger and opportunity. Reportedly, there were more millionaires created during the Great Depression than any other time in American history. And that’s back when a million dollars was worth many times what it is today. A million dollars in the Great Depression would be worth over $35 million today.

So, what is one to do? How can you avoid becoming road kill and instead conquer the crash? Fortunately there are proven, reliable ways to protect and grow your money in a bear market. Below are the two best assets I know for doing so.

The first chart shows the US Treasury fund (TLT) rise as the US stock market fell. The period shown is the 2008 financial crisis. When investors panic, they sell everything they can and put their money in something they consider reliable. This is called a “flight to safety” and US Treasury bonds are considered one of the safest assets during times of trouble.

Based on the information in this article, I hope you too realize that a new bear market has begun. Volatility bottoming last year was the first warning signal. More recently we’ve seen the Russell 2000 run out of steam, corporate insiders selling and the general public buying in droves. On top of this, stocks are more overvalued today than they were at the peak in 2007.

My goal in writing this article is to help you and as many other people as possible avoid another devastating financial loss. My 2007 YouTube warning reached over one hundred thousand viewers. This time I’m hoping that millions of people are able to get this message in time. I appreciate you following me here on Seeking Alpha, leaving your comments and sharing this article with others.

Bear markets are not to be feared. In fact, they can be very profitable for those who are well prepared. Buckle up. This is going to be one heck of a ride!

Source: http://seekingalpha.com/article/2202043-buckle-up-the-new-bear-market-has-begun?ifp=0

US Cable Barons And Their Power Over Us

Internet 1My Comments: Professionally, I live in the world of finance and investments. Regulation is pervasive, most likely increasing, since there is a pervasive threat of abuse by the big players. I think it would help all of us to have a level playing field, including individuals, corporate America, and society as a whole.

I cannot run my business today without the internet. My predecessors couldn’t run their businesses without newspapers and telephones. Over the years, no one had a problem keeping those industries from being dominated by a few companies who just might become monopolies.

So why is Congress apparently willing to let Comcast become a virtual monopoly without restriction?

By Edward Luce | April 13, 2014 | The Financial Times

No one in Washington seems to have the will to stop industry moguls from tightening their grip on the internet.

Imagine if one company controlled 40 per cent of America’s roads and raised tolls far in excess of inflation. Suppose the roads were potholed. Imagine too that its former chief lobbyist headed the highway sector’s federal regulator. American drivers would not be happy. US internet users ought to be feeling equally worried.

Some time in the next year, Comcast’s proposed $45.2bn takeover of Time Warner Cable is likely to be waved through by antitrust regulators. The chances are it will also get a green light from the Federal Communications Commission (headed by Tom Wheeler, Comcast’s former chief lobbyist).

The deal will give Comcast TWC control of 40 per cent of US broadband and almost a third of its cable television market.

Such concentration ought to trigger concern among the vast majority of Americans who use the internet at home and in their work lives. Yet the backlash is largely confined to a few maverick senators and policy wonks in Washington. When the national highway system was built in the 1950s, it provided the arteries of the US economy. The internet is America’s neural system – as well as its eyes and ears. Yet it is monopolised by an ever-shrinking handful of private interests.

Where does it go from here? The probability is that Comcast and the rest of the industry will further consolidate its grip on the US internet because there is no one in Washington with the will to stop it. The FCC is dominated by senior former cable industry officials. And there is barely a US elected official – from President Barack Obama down – who has not benefited from Comcast’s extensive campaign financing. As with the railway barons of the late 19th century, he who pays the piper picks the tune.

The company is brilliantly effective. Last week, David Cohen, Comcast’s genial but razor-sharp executive vice-president, batted off a US Senate hearing with the ease of a longstanding Washington insider. A half smile played over his face throughout the three-hour session. One or two senators, notably Al Franken, the Democrat from Minnesota, offered skeptical cross-examination about the proposed merger. But, for the most part, Mr. Cohen received softballs. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, complained that his satellite TV service was unreliable when the weather was bad. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Graham either had little idea of what was at stake, or did not care. With interrogations like this, who needs pillow talk?

Comcast is aided by the complexity of the US cable industry. Confusion is its ally. The real game is to control the internet. But a lot of the focus has been on the merger’s impact on cable TV competition, which is largely a red herring. The TV market is in long-term decline – online video streaming is the viewing of the future.

Yet Comcast has won plaudits for saying it would divest 3m television subscribers to head off antitrust concerns. Whether that will be enough to stop it from charging monopoly prices for its TV programmes is of secondary importance. The internet is the prize.

The public’s indifference to the rise of the internet barons is also assisted by lack of knowledge. Americans are rightly proud of the fact that the US invented the internet. Few know that it was developed largely with public money by the Pentagon – or that Google’s algorithmic search engine began with a grant from the National Science Foundation. It is a classic case of the public sector taking the risk while private operators reap the gains. Few Americans have experienced the fast internet services in places such as Stockholm and Seoul, where prices are a fraction of those in the US. When South Koreans visit the US, they joke about taking an “internet holiday”.

US average speeds are as little as a tenth as fast as those in Tokyo and Singapore. Among developed economies, only Mexico and Chile are slower. Even Greeks get faster downloads.

So can anything stop the cable guy? Possibly. US history is full of optimistic examples. Among the dominant platforms of their time, only railways compare to today’s internet. The Vanderbilts and the Stanfords had the regulators in their pockets. Yet their outsize influence generated a backlash that eventually loosened their grip.

For the most part, electricity, roads and the telephone were treated as utilities and either publicly owned, or regulated in the public interest. The internet should be no exception. Much like the progressive movement that tamed the railroad barons, opposition to the US internet monopolists is starting to percolate up from the states and the cities. It is mayors, not presidents, who react to potholed roads.

Last week, Ed Murray, the mayor of Seattle, declared war on Comcast even though it donated to his election campaign last year. Drawing on the outrage among Seattle’s consumers, Mr. Murray seems happy to bite the hand that fed him. “If we find that building our own municipal broadband is the best way forward for our citizens then I will lead the way,” he said.

Others, such as the town of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is distributing high-speed internet via electricity lines, are also doing it for themselves. Forget Washington. This is where change comes from. “We need to find a path forward as quickly as possible before we [the US] fall even further behind – our economy depends on it,” said Mr. Murray. As indeed does America’s democracy.

The Rise of Tactical Asset Allocation

retirement_roadMy Comments: Yesterday I talked about investment risk, and how we, both clients and advisors alike, should understand it. Today, I’m reposting an article that describes, for me, a way to help clients achieve their perceived objectives, and keep the risk element under control.

As before, risk is not to be avoided, but to be managed. It’s only with risk can we hope to realize our financial goals, which for most people is a bigger pile of money than you started with, one that will translate to peace of mind and a greater ability to enjoy life.

It’s somewhat technical, so if that turns you off, then either struggle with it or call me for an explanation. Or both.

Posted by Michael Kitces on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The foundation of investment education for Certified Financial Planner (CFP) certificants is modern portfolio theory, which gives us tools to craft portfolios that effectively balance risk and return and reach the efficient frontier. Yet in his original paper, Markowitz himself acknowledged that the modern portfolio theory tool was simply designed to determine how to allocate a portfolio, given the expected returns, volatilities, and correlations of the available investments.

Determining what those inputs should be, however, was left up to the person using the model. As a result, the risk of using modern portfolio theory – like any model – is that if poor inputs go into the model, poor results come out. Yet what happens when the inputs to modern portfolio theory are determined more proactively in response to an ever-changing investment environment? The asset allocation of the portfolio tactically shifts in response to varying inputs!

The evolution of the industry for much of the past 60 years since Markowitz’ seminal paper has been to assume that markets are at least “relatively” efficient and will follow their long-term trends, and as a result have used historical averages of return (mean), volatility (standard deviation), and correlation as inputs to determination an appropriate asset allocation. Yet the striking reality is that this methodology was never intended by the designer of the system itself; indeed, even in his original paper, Markowitz provided his own suggestions about how to apply his model, as follows:

“To use [modern portfolio theory] in the selection of securities we must have procedures for finding reasonable [estimates of expected return and volatility]. These procedures, I believe, should combined statistical techniques and the judgment of practical men. My feeling is that the statistical computations should be used to arrive at a tentative set of [mean and volatility]. Judgment should then be used in increasing or decreasing some of these [mean and volatility inputs] on the basis of factors or nuances not taken into account by the formal computations…
…One suggestion as to tentative [mean and volatility] is to use the observed [mean and volatility] for some period of the past. I believe that better methods, which take into account more information, can be found.”
– Harry Markowitz, “Portfolio Selection”, The Journal of Finance, March 1952.

Thus, for most of the past 6 decades, we have ignored Markowitz’ own advice about how to apply his model to portfolio design and the selection of investments; while Markowitz recommended against using observed means and volatility of the past as inputs, planners have persisted nonetheless in using long-term historical averages as inputs and assumptions for portfolio design. Through the rise of financial planning in the 1980s and 1990s, though, it didn’t much matter; the extended 18-year period with virtually no material adverse risk event – except for the “blip” of the crash of 1987 that recovered within a year – suggested that long-term returns worked just fine, as they led to a stocks-for-the-long-run portfolio that succeeded unimpeded for almost two decades. Until it didn’t.

As discussed in the 2006 Journal of Financial Planning paper “Understanding Secular Bear Markets: Concerns and Strategies for Financial Planners” by Solow and Kitces, the year 2000 marked the onset of a so-called Secular Bear Market – a one or two decade time period where equities deliver significantly below average (and often, also more volatile) returns. The article predicted that the sustained environment of low returns would lead planners and their clients to question the traditional approach of designing portfolios based on a single, static long-term historical average input (which leads to a buy-and-hold portfolio), and instead would turn to different strategies, including more concentrated stock picking, sector rotation, alternative investments, and tactical asset allocation. In other words, stated more simply: planners would find that relying solely on long-term historical averages without applying any further judgment regarding the outlook for investments, as Markowitz himself warned 60 years ago, would become increasingly problematic.

The Growing Trend of Tactical
Although not widely discussed across the profession, the FPA’s latest Trends in Investing study reveals that the rise of tactical asset allocation has quietly but steadily been underway, and in fact now constitutes the majority investing style. Although not all financial planners necessarily characterize themselves in this manner, the study revealed that a shocking 61% of planners stated that they “did recently (within the past 3 months) or are currently re-evaluating the asset allocation strategy [they] typically recommend/implement” which is essentially what it takes to be deemed “tactical” in some manner.

When further asked what factors are being re-evaluated to alter the asset allocation strategy, a whopping 84% of respondents indicated they are continually re-evaluating a variety of factors: 69% indicated following changes in the economic in general, 58% indicated they watch for changes in inflation, and another 58% monitor for changes in specific investments in the portfolio. Notably, only 14% indicated that they expected to make changes based on what historically would have been the most popular reasons to change an investment, such as changes in cost, lead manager, or other administrative aspects of the investment.

Although not directly surveyed in the FPA study, another rising factor being used to alter investment allocations appears to be market valuation, on the backs of recent studies showing the value and effectiveness of the approach, such as “Improving Risk-Adjusted Returns Using Market-Valuation-Based Tactical Asset Allocation Strategies” by Solow, Kitces, and Locatelli in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning, and more recently “Withdrawal Rates, Savings ratings, and Valuation-Based Asset Allocation” by Pfau in the April 2012 issue, along with “Dynamic Asset Allocation and Safe Withdrawal Rates” published in The Kitces Report in April of 2009.

Notwithstanding the magnitude of this emerging trend towards more active management, it doesn’t necessarily mean financial planners are becoming market-timing day traders. The average number of tactical asset allocation changes that planners made over the past 12 months was fewer than 2 adjustments, and approximately 95% of all tactical asset allocators made no more than 6-7 allocation changes over the span of an entire year, many of which may have been fairly modest trades relative to the size of the portfolio. In other words, planners appear to be recognizing that the outlook for investments doesn’t change dramatically overnight; however, it does change over time, and can merit a series of ongoing changes and adjustments to recognize that.

Tactical Asset Allocation: An Extension of MPT

At a more basic level, though, the trend towards tactical asset allocation is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that it feels somewhat “odd” to craft portfolios using long-term historical averages that are clearly not reflective of the current environment, whether it’s using a long-term bond return of 5% when investors today are lucky to get 2% on a 10-year government bond, or using a long-term historical equity risk premium of 7% despite the ongoing stream of research for the past decade suggesting that the equity risk premium of the future may be lower.

Consistent with the idea that financial planners are recognizing tactical asset allocation as an extension of modern portfolio theory and not an alternative to it, a mere 26% of financial planners answered in the Trends in Investing survey that they believe modern portfolio theory failed in 2008. For the rest, the answer was “no”, modern portfolio theory is still intact, or at least “I don’t know” – perhaps an acknowledgement that while MPT may still work, many of us lack the training in new and better ways to apply it. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped the majority of planners adopting a process of making ongoing changes to their asset allocation based on the economic outlook and other similar factors.

Unfortunately, though, perhaps the greatest challenge for planners implementing tactical asset allocation is that we simply aren’t trained to do so in our standard educational process. Some financial planning practices are responding to the challenge by investing in training, staff, and/or research to support a more tactical process. Others are responding by outsourcing to firms that can help; the Trends in Investing survey showed nearly 38% of advisors intend to outsource more investment management over the next 12 months, and 42% are already outsourcing more now than they were 3 years ago.

Regardless of how it is implemented, though, the trend towards tactical itself appears to have grown from a broad dissatisfaction amongst planners and their clients that the “lost decade” of equity returns has left many clients lagging their retirement goals. Even if diversified portfolios have eked out a positive return, it is still far behind the projections put forth when clients made their plans in the 1990s, forcing them to adjust by saving more, spending less, or working longer, to make up for the historical returns that never manifested. And as long as the secular bear market continues, the strategy will continue to be appealing. Ultimately, though, the sustainability of the tactical asset allocation trend will depend on it delivering effective results for clients.

So what do you think? Would you characterize yourself as a tactical trader? Is tactical asset allocation a short-term phenomenon, or here to stay? Is tactical asset allocation simply modern portfolio theory done right, or does it represent an entirely new investing approach?