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A $200,000 Mistake

In early 2016, the stock market experienced a 10% market correction in a matter of a few weeks.  It resulted in a few phone calls from clients wondering if they should move to cash.  One conversation with a recent retiree really stood out for me and I wanted to share an abbreviated version of it with my readers:

Client:  At the start of the year, I had $1 million invested in the market.  But now it’s February and I’ve lost $100k. We’ve got to stop these losses.  Please sell me out of everything and put me into cash.

Me: Would you consider staying the course a while longer?  As quickly as the market can decline, it can increase just as fast.

Client: Thank you, but I still want to move to cash.

Me: How about we sell 10% of the total value of the account?  That will cover your distributions for the next two to three years.

Client:  No thank you.  I want to be in cash now.

Me: Just one last idea – how about we move 50% of the account into cash?  That will cover your distributions for 10 years.  And in ten years, you can tap into your investments for your future distributions.

Client:  Look, I rode out the 2008 and 2009 recession and I don’t want to have to do it again.  I’d rather keep it in the bank and not have to worry about the stock market.

Me:  Ok, I’ll sell everything today.


There is a lot to process in this conversation.  First, the client called up believing they lost money.  Between the start of the year and the day the client called, the account had declined about 10%.  The sketch below shows how he visualized the loss.

From a behavioral finance perspective, the client anchored his thinking to the high point in their portfolio.  It became his frame of reference, his point of comparison. But if we looked backward and used a different reference point the story changes.  We would see that his account balance is right where it was 12 months earlier:

The idea of anchoring to a high point is a common issue that behavioral economists study.  We, as humans, sometimes make irrational decisions.  We make decisions that we believe to be based on objective facts, but are in reality detriments in how we try to solve problems.  I tried to reframe this particular client’s thinking a few different times but was unsuccessful.

Recently, I went back and reviewed this client’s portfolio to see how he would have done if he stayed the course.  As we know, the market ended up recovering and ended the year up about 10%!

The day the client called wanting to sell out of the market ended up being the very bottom of the market “correction”. For the rest of the year, the stock market recovered from its lows in February and then began to reach new highs by the end of the year.  Unfortunately, that client stayed in cash for the rest of the year.  It has resulted in a $200,000 mistake!

That red circle in the sketch above represents a behavior gap.  This is a well documented phenomenon in which investor decisions and behaviors are dragging down their portfolio performance (Morningstar). In this case, it could have been completely avoided or at least significantly minimized.  The quick reaction to move to cash will have a lasting impact on this client, but he probably won’t notice it until his cash balance is drawn down substantially.

This serves as an example for investors to stick to their plan and avoid making sudden and drastic changes to their investment strategy… and to listen to alternative suggestions from their advisor.

Annual Returns and Intra-year Declines of the S&P500

Here is an interesting chart I came across that shows just how volatile the stock market can be during the year.  In a year where we have seen relatively little downside volatility in the market, it’s important to remember that there can be some big and sometimes scary corrections in the market.

This chart shows the calendar year returns in grey bars for the S&P 500.  But the interesting take away are the red dots that show the intro-year decline of the index.  Look at 2016, which ended the year up 10%, but was down as much as 11%.

Those “shocking” market corrections and big declines that lead investors to make bad decisions are not unusual.  They are just really scary when we are in the midst of a correction.

What Should You Do When Markets Are At All Time Highs

When markets reach heights like this, it’s a great time to evaluate your portfolio to see if you are invested correctly.  Too often, investors wait for the market to decline before doing that analysis.  That’s the worst time to reevaluate how you’re invested.

Instead, follow the old adage: Buy Low, Sell High. Perhaps, you aren’t as willing to accept a 10%-15% decline as you were 5-10 years ago.  If that’s the case we should think about taking profits of the table and moving into a more conservative lineup.

If you’re curious about how your portfolio stacks up to your risk tolerance, please complete this questionnaire.  This is an extremely valuable exercise that can compare your personal risk tolerance to your actual investments to quantify how much risk you’re willing to take and how much risk is in your portfolio.  Basically, you’re asked a series questions that will result in a risk score.  I then analyze your holdings that you maintain with us and investments held elsewhere to arrive at a portfolio risk score.  Hopefully, they match but if not we can take steps to tweak your holdings.

Fake News and Your Investments

For readers of this blog, you know how I feel about financial journalism these days. The talking heads and the supposed experts we see on TV and read about in the news are doing a great job making people nervous and afraid to invest. It’s clearly having a negative impact on decisions most investors make. Investors tend to be nervous when the markets become volatile but when the media reconfirms their fears or exaggerate their concerns, the investor is more likely to follow the heard.

Lately, the whole concept of Fake News has come into focus as people call out poor reporting. While most of the backlash is focused on political journalism, I believe that financial journalism is even more prone to reporting of half-truths and spreading of misinformation. Journalists know how to stoke fear and anxiety for an investor with clever headlines and drawing comparisons or conclusions in ways that are factually and logically incorrect.

I hope the pressure continues and that the media can reform itself and realize they can help people stay the course in reaching their financial goals. Right now, the majority of the content from CNBC (and most media) is good for entertainment purposes but rarely would I consider it reliable or educational in nature.

Critiquing a Financial Plan

The following article examines five young people and their financial plan (more like their lack of planning).  They are then offered some preliminary advice about how to improve their situation.  Unfortunately, in every case I found the advice to be overly simplified.  Here’s the article

And here are some overarching strategies that apply to all the case studies:

1)      Emergency fund.  Start here first and make it a priority to build an emergency fund that can cover non-discretionary expenses for 3-6 months.

2)      Save more.  If you can’t save more now, earmark any future raise toward saving.  When asked about a rule of thumb for how much to save, I’ll often respond with “Save as much as you can”.  Young people and millennials are unlikely to have pensions and with the questionable future of Social Security, the burden to save is placed on their shoulders much more than previous generations.

3)      Automate.  Make sure any savings are set to occur automatically.  The mental anguish of writing a check every month or year to a retirement account can be surprisingly difficult.  Many times it is our own biases that create obstacles to reaching our own goal and simple processes like automating our savings can have a huge impact.

4)      Disability.  Life insurance is commonly discussed when a couple has children.  But disability insurance is rarely brought up.  What’s odd is that people are more likely to file a claim for disability insurance than life insurance.  And it doesn’t apply just to physical injuries, either.  We’ve had several clients and prospects tell us about their long term disability that affects their ability to do a desk job as a result of a bad car crash.


How To Save, When You Can’t Save Today

“ I want to save for retirement, but I can’t afford to do so right now.”

This is a common complaint we hear, especially with our younger clients. They are dealing with debts, saving for their children’s education, and even helping to take care of their aging parents. These younger clients want to save for retirement but just don’t know what to do.

So, what should they do?

Over the last few months I have written about this concept extensively:
Is a Creative Saving Strategy Right For Me?
The Most overlooked Saving Strategy: The Serial Payment
The Three Flaws With The Most Popular Saving Strategy

The strategy that I outline is to come up with a plan to consistently save more and more every year. Perhaps you save an extra 1% of your paycheck each year, or every year allocate a portion of your raise to retirement. This concept is also referred to as Saving For Tomorrow, Tomorrow and there is a great Ted Talk about it here.

If you’re on board with this concept, visit this New York Times calculator to see how this could work for you: One Percent More Calculator

Einstein is claimed to have said that “Compounding interest is the eighth wonder of the world”. And by combining the benefits of compounding interest and compounding savings into a retirement plan, it would make for a much, much more powerful strategy.