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The Art & Science of Investing: Bonds

In our previous post, we explored the high-level art versus science debate that is occurring in the finance community and how it impacts equity valuations.  This post delves into some of the issues as they relate to bonds and fixed income.  And once again, here are some very insightful comments from Clif Jarvis.

Although the bond markets are multiple times larger than the stock markets, they receive far less attention. These markets are usually set by free market forces. However, today it is no secret that Central Banks are manipulating interest rates in an effort to artificially stimulate demand for loans in an effort to provoke greater economic activity. Consequently, interest rates are at 100-year lows. These Central Banks need to hold interest rates down to avoid paying higher rate payments on the ever-increasing mountain of government debt. Currently, this debt is currently over 100% of the entire nation’s GDP (If interest rates were to rise, interest payments on the debt alone could consume the entire amount of taxes that are paid).

The plan of the Central Banks around the world is to create new money, buy bonds, and keep interest rates low until the economy revives (Quantitative Easing). Inflation will then pick up along with higher wages. Deficits will subside due to higher taxes from a growing economy. Total debt will shrink relative to a larger economy and interest rates could slowly rise to free-market levels. Again, politics influences economics and politics cannot be reduced to computer models.

For the average investor, duration and must be considered. Duration is a very important concept for bondholders. It measures the degree of risk of principal loss should interest rates rise from our current historic very low levels. For example, if interest rates rose by 1%, an investment-grade bond with an SEC yield of about 2.4% and duration of about 6 years could lose about 6% of its market value.  Given the meager 2.4% SEC yield that is not much reward for that much risk. Currently, government policies are holding interest rates at depressed levels. Should interest rates rise, many investors would be left with unexpected losses.

Given the potential explosion of future events, a human element is needed. It has become increasingly obvious that some things are not reducible to mathematical equations. Investment planning is an art that requires a human touch not just mathematical science.

The Art of Investing: Stocks

In our previous post, we explored the high-level art versus science debate that is occurring in the finance community.  This post delves into some of the issues as they relate to equities.  What follows are some very insightful comments from Cliff Jarvis.

The Science Argument: Valuation. There is a camp of investment managers who believe that the value of a stock is simply the present value of future earnings. After all, it is no more than partial ownership of a business. Viewed as an investment, the long-term stream of future cash flow must justify the initial cost of the investment. Therefore, stocks have a fair value based on past, current, and estimated future earnings. Historically, there has been a fair value for the major stock indexes which is in the area of 15x’s earnings. Higher than 15x’s earning, the stock market is expensive; lower than that, the market is cheap. Currently, the major indexes are over 20x’s earnings.

The law of fair valuation states that, while actual prices will fluctuate, fair value will inevitably win over the long-term. But in the short term which can last many years, perhaps even a decade, this law is at best obscure. This brings into play the second, and often the more important rule.

The Art Argument: The Trend is your friend.  As mentioned, in the short term, value may not be the best indicator. Instead, we in believe momentum and mass psychology rules. It is currently ruling up. Once a direction is established, either up or down, it takes on a life of its own. Numerous factors have combined to yield 10 years of low volatility. Stock market sell-offs have been minor despite subpar economic growth and high valuations. Many argue that an important factor is that central banks around the world have been openly buying assets (bonds & stocks) to boost prices and to induce economic growth. This intervention induces another factor of stock buy-backs on the part of our major corporations to boost earnings per share; this has created enormous upside momentum. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that the Federal Reserve will support asset prices when necessary (the Bernanke Put).

As a result of these influencing factors risk awareness has been dulled and, in the short term may be rightfully so. The stocks markets continue to smoothly chart higher and higher. But is the concept of fair value still lurking out there?   When, if ever, will it return?  But in the meantime, there may be a great deal of money to be made. And, after all, many, many good things are happening that could rightfully drive the markets by increasing earnings and thus fair value.

Further complicating proper investment decisions is ever-changing government policy. For example, our government is now in a heated debate over tax policy. If they lower corporate tax rates, what will that do to boost earnings? If the abundance of cash reserves held overseas by corporations are induced to come home, what will that do to stock buy-back programs and economic expansion? Politics influences economics and politics cannot be reduced to computer models.

So can investment planning be reduced to math inside of a computer model? We would argue that a human element is needed. It has become increasingly obvious to us that some things are simply incomprehensible and that investment planning is just as much art, as it is science. This is especially true in today’s world where headlines are manipulated and central banks of governments are overriding free market forces.

The Art of Investing: Introduction

This post kicks off a series that delves into an important debate unfolding in the finance community – is there an art to investing or is there a science to investing?  Often times, this leads to a lot of other debates such as the active versus passive investment debate.  It should come as no surprise, that we believe in both.  There is a role for art in investing and that it works in tandem with the science of investing.

What makes this series especially interesting for me is that I am joined by my colleague, Cliff Jarvis.  He has been a financial advisor with Ohanesian / Lecours for over twenty years and brings a wealth of strategic insights and perspectives that round out our investment committee.   So let’s delve into it with Cliff providing an overview of the art versus science debate:

Many years ago economists developed mathematical models to optimize investing. Sounds simple. But is it really in a world of changing rules, unexpected events, and evolving individual needs? The following series explores why investing is more than math and why a constantly changing macro-environment and evolving personal circumstances demand a human touch that is set apart from mechanical empiricism. Our belief is that investing is an art not just a mathematical science. The following series starts with the world as it currently is and, hopefully before the series ends, will enhance the investor’s ability to successfully cope with investing.

How to Plan When You Don’t Know Your Goals

Defining one’s goals isn’t easy for some people. Trying to envision what your life will look like at some point in the future can be difficult.  There are so many emotional and financial variables and so many unknowns in life that it can leave you feeling stuck or in a holding pattern until you find clarity.  We know that because it is a relatively common issue that we run into with our clients and an issue we try to help resolve for them. Retirements, illness, or the death of a family member can be very disruptive.

We help clients find clarity by trying to quantify the financial impacts of their situation and model other scenarios they are considering.

To illustrate what we do, let’s consider a typical client situation.  A couple with two college-age children have come to us looking for guidance in planning for their future.  They have very good incomes and a vacation property, but there expenses are high and they have not saved as much as they should have in the past.

Here is our process to help get this client out of their holding pattern:

  1.  We model their current financial situation and extrapolate those results out through their retirement.  Every conceivable financial variable is used to model the current situation: income expenses, accounts, assets, social security, etc.  The result is some perspective on the likelihood of maintaining the current lifestyle assuming nothing changes.  The model is summarized in a simple graphic, an example of which is below.
  2. The graphic above is presented to the client. The big circled number at the top provides a probability of success for the client to reach their financial goals.  The calculation uses Monte Carlo Simulations to imagine sequence of returns risk.  Basically, the model runs 1000 simulations to imagine how rates of returns affect a client reaching his goals.  What happens if there is a big recession early in retirement?  What happens if there is a big recession later in retirement?  What happens if the markets are flat for several years?  These are all scenarios that are modeled and considered and shows that of the 1000 simulations, 77%  result in their goals being met:
  3. In the first example above, it shows that their annual savings of $27,500 is used to successfully fund college education for two children as evident by the two green bars.  But it comes at an expense -their retirement is not fully funded as seen by the yellow bar.  This is where the conversation begins.
  4. We can begin to model changes on the fly to see how certain changes will affect their future in retirement.  In this example, the client has been wondering if they should sell their vacation property and use the savings for retirement.  We can quickly quantify the long term impact of that decision:
  5. Then we can see how that change will affect the probability of success.  We can see below that by making this one change, we have increased the probability of success from 77% to 93%.
  6. Sometimes, this gives the client enough clarity to make a decision and move on.  But that’s not always the case.  After the client has thought about making a major decision (such as selling a vacation home), they may come back saying they can not actually sell their vacation property and need to consider other options.  Below is a comparison of their current situation compared to a scenario in which they delay retirement for two more years.  The result is almost the same as if they sold the vacation property.

After this exercise, the client has two viable options to consider to get them on track for retirement.  By seeing certain scenarios modeled, it can make possible decision more real to them and hopefully more achievable.  The illustration we provide help them make better decisions.

There are lots of emotional decisions that revolve around major life decisions, like retiring, changing jobs/careers, and moving.  We believe that by addressing the financial impacts of these decisions, we can affect the emotional considerations that may be holding our clients back.  Our goal is to provide that nudge to get them moving in the right direction and to keep them from making mistakes.

If you feel like you are stuck or need help laying a clear path forward, please reach out to us:


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.

The Problem With Target Date Funds

In the last 10 years, the rise of target funds have become common options found in 401(k) plans.  While many love the simplicity of the fund options, investors are giving up a lot of control.  And in some cases, they do not even know what they own.  That is setting many investors up for a potentially big surprise later in life.

The premise is simple: investors select from several different target date options based on the approximate date they expect to retire. For example, anyone who plans to retire in 25 years may select the 2040 target date fund or the 2045 target date fund as those are the closest options to his retirement date.  As the years role by, the fund slowly migrates from an aggressive stock dominated plan to a mostly conservative bond portfolio by the time he retires.  Some target date funds will continue to move to more conservative investments even after the target date has been reached.

This can be a good default option for investors but investors shouldn’t rely on default options all the time.  These funds don’t reflect an investors individual risk tolerance nor are they designed to fit into an investors overall financial plan.  Let’s expand on our example from before: let’s say that 40 year old investor is averse to risk.  He may want a really conservative portfolio, but if he selects the 2040 target date fund, he will take on more risk than he may want if the portfolio was built just for him.  Conversely, we see some clients that come to us the other way around.  They have several other investment accounts in addition to the target date fund.  When they eventually retire, the funds from their target date fund may not be used until much later in their retirement years.  In that case, the fund will become too conservative too early which means the client might be missing out on market appreciation.

Not all target date funds are created equal.  We routinely see target date funds with some flaws in how they’re constructed.  Their asset allocations, risk profile and glide path differ dramatically and as such the results and investor experience differ as well.  I’ve seen allocation to equites in  2025 target date funds range from 50% all the way up to 77%! That’s a huge difference.  In some rare cases, we advise clients not to use the target date funds because the asset allocation is so bad or because the underlying investments are inappropriate.

Target date funds are a default option – a starting point.  That should not be confused with tailored investment strategy, custom planning or optimizing one’s financial situation.