Investing in the unloved

The highest returning investments are also the most unloved.

This may sound counter-intuitive at first, but it makes sense when you stand back and think about it.

Great companies, like Google and Apple, that are firing on all cylinders, almost always have share prices that reflects that fact. The very obviousness that such companies are doing well causes investors to flock to those stocks, and hence bid up their shares to very high prices relative to underlying fundamentals. As Warren Buffett puts it, you pay a high price for a cheery consensus. Once everyone loves a stock and has bought it, who is left to buy more?

The companies that are seemingly on the ropes, like Microsoft and Dell (full disclosure: my clients and I both own shares of Microsoft and Dell), on the other hand, have share prices that reflect their tough competitive landscape. Everyone knows that Google is going to crush Microsoft and that Apple is going to crush Dell, so Microsoft and Dell have low share prices relative to their fundamentals. Once everyone who hates a stock has sold it, who is left to sell more?

But, what if what everyone knows to be true isn’t true? What if Microsoft and Dell aren’t completely doomed? What if they do even slightly better than everyone thinks? Then their share prices may perform better than consensus. Actually, once everyone who is going to sell Microsoft and Dell to buy Google and Apple have done so, then there is only one direction share prices can go, and its the opposite of what most people expect.

In my experience, the more hated the company, the more potential for great upside. This isn’t always the case (think: Worldcom, Enron, AIG, Citigroup), but it happens much more frequently than most think.

In fact, I tend to get excited when the consensus comes to such a conclusion. When I tell people I own Comcast (full disclosure: my clients and I own Comcast) and their reaction is, “they are toast, everyone will be watching TV and movies for free over the Internet!”, I just smile and nod. I know that Comcast’s share price reflects this consensus opinion, and that it’s price probably has a lot of upside.

Investing in what is hated is tough. No one will pat you on the back at cocktail parties. But, what would you rather have? Pats on the back, or long run market out-performance? Not everyone agrees with me on this, but it’s an easy choice for me (and I think my clients are happy that I take on that burden for them).

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Don’t invest with your heart, invest with your head

Emotions make us lousy investors. People, as humans, tend to act in emotional ways during tough or exciting times. When people give in to emotions–investing with their hearts instead of their heads–they get lousy results.

If you’ve refused to sell a losing investment, bought because everyone else was, sold because a stock’s price went down, picked investments because they seemed safe, or sold because the economy looked dreadful, then you’ve invested with your emotions. Don’t feel bad, everyone fights and succumbs to this at some point.

The field of behavioral finance has clearly shown that we humans suffer from several biases that lead us to make unwise investment decisions.

For example, there’s anchoring bias. If you hold an investment waiting for it to get back to the price you paid, you’re suffering from anchoring bias. If you wait to buy an investment until it declines back to the price you could have bought it at (and regret not having done so), that’s anchoring bias again.

Another bias is called recency bias. This is the tendency to think that recent events are more likely than they are (and that distant events are less likely). Someone who buys hurricane insurance because a bunch of hurricanes seem to have hit recently is suffering from recency bias. Someone who drops earthquake coverage because an earthquake hasn’t happened in a while has been hit with recency bias.

Loss aversion is one of the most common biases. It happens when people refuse to sell an investment because they don’t want to “book the loss.” People feel losses more keenly than gains, and they usually need twice the gain to make up for a given loss. This can lead people to make bad investment decisions by holding on to something they should sell.

Then, there’s the endowment or halo effect. This happens when one particular good attribute overwhelms all other attributes. Many people still see GM as a great company because it was in the past, even though there’s a lot of evidence it isn’t anymore. It can also happen the other way around, when one particular bad attribute overwhelms all good attributes. Many assume a company whose stock has gone down a lot must be bad, even though it may have many excellent characteristics. The price drop seems to overwhelm everything else.

Finally, there’s overconfidence. When asked, we all claim to be above average drivers, kissers, and investors, but this isn’t Lake Wobegon and everyone can’t be above average. It’s hard for us view ourselves objectively, and so we make unwise investments when we feel more confident than the facts suggest.

The way to fight these biases is simple, but not easy: discipline. If you use strict criteria to buy and sell investments and act on that criteria, you can fight these emotional biases and win. This will greatly improve your results. Even better, If you’d prefer to let someone else be disciplined for you (I’m not unbiased on this suggestion), then unemotionally select an advisor that can act with discipline on your behalf.

Invest with your head instead of your heart, and you’ll get dramatically better investment results over the long term.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Can investors trust their money managers?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Taking Control,” by Jennifer Levitz highlights how investors feel they can no longer trust money managers. Multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes by the likes of Bernie Madoff, prominent financial companies being accused of cheating clients, and terrible recent performance have all conspired to make investors feel shell-shocked.

This is quiet understandable. After being re-assured that regulators were looking out for their interests and by money managers who have conflicts of interest, no wonder people feel scared.

The article goes on to spell out some of the things investors can do to take back control, so they don’t feel as scared.

1) Do your homework when picking a financial advisor. Every investment advisor must provide a Form ADV Part II to prospective clients. This form spells out an adviser’s structure, methodology, criminal record, compensation, etc. If you advisor won’t disclose this basic information, then don’t consider them. I gladly provide this form to all my prospective clients.

2) Ask tough questions to identify potential conflicts of interest. Some advisers are salespeople in disguise. They are compensated by commissions and they only have to judge a potential investment as “suitable” for clients. A tougher standard, which all registered investment advisers must meet, is a “fiduciary” standard. A fiduciary must put the client’s interests first. A commission-based broker only has to ensure an investment is “suitable,” which has a lot of wiggle room. Make sure your advisor holds themselves out to the fiduciary standard. I do.

3) Find out how an advisor is compensated. If they are compensated by commission, then your interests and theirs are not aligned. Their commissioned-based structure may not be obvious to you, so ask a lot of questions. If an advisor gives you a financial plan for $500, and they recommend you put $100,000 with a mutual fund they get a 5% commission ($5,000) for recommending, they have 10 times the reason to get you to buy their fund than to provide you with an objective financial plan. If they work for a flat fee and don’t receive kick-backs for recommending investments, then their interests and yours are aligned. If they work for a fee based on assets under management, then their interests are aligned with yours except when you ask them how much of your money they should manage. Find out how your advisor is compensated and you’ll find out if their interests are aligned with yours. I’m compensated by a fee based on assets under management, so my interests are aligned with clients, and I disclose my conflict of interest when they ask me how much money they should stick with me.

4) Ask tough questions about risk factors. Most advisers try to paper over risk factors. They stick clients with a hundred page prospectus (feeling certain no one except accountants and engineers will read it), or they try to understate risk considerations. Make sure your advisor can clearly articulate the risk factors of their particular approach. I have a brutally honest web page that explains the risk factors of equity investing (which is what I do), and I tend to over-emphasize risk to my clients. My first client letter, in the summer of 2005, said the market was over-valued and that clients should lower their return expectations. Fortune favors the prepared mind.

5) Don’t expect a free lunch. When someone gives you a free steak dinner, you have to question their motivation and objectivity. When someone says something is “cash-like,” doubt their statement. Cash is cash-like; structured products, bonds, even CDs all carry risks that are distinctly not cash-like. I invest in equities, and they are not cash-like. Don’t be fooled by someone trying to pitch a product that anything other than cash is truly cash-like.

6) Does a manger invest his own money the same way he’s recommending you invest your money? Does he or she eat their own cooking? If your advisor doesn’t or won’t invest where he is recommending you invest, be very worried. If they earn $100,000 a year selling variable annuities and have $20,000 of their own money in a variable annuities, be very worried (they make so much more from selling annuities that they’ll never care about the mere $20,000 they might lose). If an advisor believes in what they do, then they’ll have all, or almost all, of their money invested there. I have over 90% of my money invested in the same securities I recommend for clients. My other 10% is in a bank account in case an emergency happens.

7) Does your adviser’s firm have interests aligned with yours? Firms make more money when they advise more people. But, the more people they advise, the less time they have for you. Such is the conflict of interest of money management. Added to this, large firms cannot move as quickly as small firms to exploit market opportunities, nor can they deploy their money in smaller situations like small firms can. The benefit of large firms is the possibility of lower costs. With Vanguard, that’s the case. Most firms that are 100x my size still charge more than I do, when all costs are considered. Many large firms charge their clients to help them market to new clients, that’s what 12b-1 fees are at mutual funds. What a rip-off. My firm is small and nimble, allowing me to provide excellent, personalized customer service to a limited number of unique clients.

Yes, Virginia, some money managers can be trusted, but you have to do your homework to find that out. Get full disclosure, ask about advisor conflicts of interest, find out how they’re compensated, get clear information about risk, don’t expect a free lunch, ask lots of questions and expect understandable answers. It’s hard work, but very much worth the effort.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Higher saving rates are a GOOD thing!

The U.S. saving rate recently hit 5.7%, and all types of commentators have been saying this is bad for the economy. I think this is a load of hooey!

One of the most famous economists of the last century, John Maynard Keynes, made this fallacy main stream with his “Paradox of Thrift.”

I’ll spare you the details, but the gist is that savings aren’t spent in the economy, and therefore prevent growth, employment, all good things.

This fallacy has all kinds of people, including economists and commentators with IQs that are much higher than mine, saying that more savings will crush the economy.

But, I think they are full of baloney. Saving stuffed under a mattress, as they were during Keynes time, aren’t spent in the economy. But who puts their savings under a mattress nowadays?

No, most people put their saving into the bank, bonds or stocks.

If savings go to the bank, they are lent out again and used for consumption or investment in productive capacity. I call that spending.

If the money goes into bonds, then whoever sold the bond will either spend the money, which is consumption, or invest the money elsewhere, which will turn into an investment in productive capacity.

If the money goes into stocks, you get the same thing as with bonds.

If people save their money (and don’t stick it under the mattress), it gets invested. Investment is where higher productivity, new jobs, and growth come from.

We shouldn’t be encouraging people to spend, we should be encouraging them to save and invest. Consumption, especially consumption paid for with debt, is what got us into this economic mess to begin with!

What we need is more, not less savings. That will create new jobs, higher productivity and higher growth. This will not prevent growth, but is the necessary precursor to growth.

Okay, I’ll get off my soap-box now…

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.