Friday, February 27, 2009

Five Stupid Things Smart People Are Doing With Their Investments

Five Stupid Things Smart People Are Doing With Their Investments

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2009

The collapse of the financial markets has sparked terror for many investors. It’s hard to watch your regular 401-k contributions invested in solid mutual funds, and then vanish each month. If you are laid off, the fear of depleting your savings is gut-wrenching. If you are retired, unless you have a bond ladder, you may be thinking of going back to work. If you were planning to retire soon you may be postponing those plans. None of these options are very desirable.

People being people, our financial decisions are often based on how we feel rather than a rational process. Often these times lead people to take drastic action. They hope to reclaim all of the money they have lost in one brilliant financial move. The problem is that such approaches to investing are blatantly stupid, and I have seen the wreckage caused in the past when clients decided to ‘go for broke.’ This is the Gamblers Last Gambit: one last grasp to win all the losses back in one grand stroke. Here are five ways I’ve seen this happen with investors:

1. In 2002, a client who had lost a sizable portion of his money on the dot-com bust, sold every stock he had left and put it in cash. Vowing never to invest in the stock market again, he stayed on the sideline in 2003, when the market increased 30%, and missed the chance to have his portfolio recover.
2. Just recently a woman left her stockbroker who had her over-exposed to financial stocks which lost 80% of their value. Then she took the rest of her money and decided to buy puts and calls herself to make up her losses. In less than 6 months, she’s lost most of what she had left.
3. Another couple last year decided to sell their Treasury bonds last year, because they had appreciated so much. They planned to hold on to the cash and buy the bonds back when interest rates went back up. Meanwhile they have been earning less than 1%, and interest rates continue to drop and they can’t afford to buy their bonds back.
4. Then there’s the fellow who withdrew all his IRA savings and bought lottery tickets so he could retire early. (OK, he had brain cancer, so that’s an excuse).
5. Finally, there was a very smart financial advisor I knew in the 1990’s. He became a fan of the doom’s-day prophet of the time, and convinced his clients to sell all their assets and buy gold. He also did this with all his investments. (Not a good move in the ‘90’s!)

Now financial gurus are touting gold, or risky investment strategies, playing on investor’s fears to induce them to pay them for their secrets. Every stockbroker wants people to sell their Treasuries and let them invest the money = “Give me your money and I’ll make you rich!”.

Your situation is unique. We understand the broad context of your life situation and tailor your investments accordingly. It is futile to try to ‘hit a home run’ in this economic environment.

It takes patience. That’s why stocks are called long-term investments. For younger clients this is the best opportunity for you to guarantee your retirement. With stocks so low, continuing to dollar-cost-average now is a once in a life-time chance. For retirees with bond ladders, you have a 15-20 year investment horizon if you just wait for the economy to rebound. Taking sudden action now is folly.

The best thing to do is to stop listening to financial news on TV, reading the ‘ain’t it awful headlines’ and always looking for a guru to tell you the key to financial success. If anyone knew that, which there isn’t, they wouldn’t tell you because if everyone did it, their strategy wouldn’t work anymore. Face it: they make money selling newsletters to incite greed and fear. If you want to get rich quick, start your own newsletter!

“Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Danger: Inflation/Stagflation Ahead?

Danger: Inflation/Stagflation Ahead?
© 2009 Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D.

Now that the ‘Stimulus Bill’ is in place, how is the government going to pay for all of these new programs and tax cuts? Anticipating the need for additional funds, the Treasury has already begun to issue more Treasury securities* and has scheduled more auctions. So if the government piles on more debt, does this increase in the money supply mean we are on the brink of hyper-inflation, or a return of the ‘stagflation’ of the 1970’s?

Not necessarily: if our nation’s productivity increases in tandem with the money supply, inflation is not likely. In the ‘70’s we had declining productivity combined with entrenched inflation, and the result of high unemployment and high inflation was dubbed “stagflation.” Normally in the beginning of a recession, there is an increase in productivity since production does not drop as fast as employment. For example, in the last quarter of 2008 productivity rose 3.2% in the nonfarm business sector, as hours fell faster than output.

As new employment is stimulated, the plan is to be able to increase productivity simultaneously. There is some concern that, since the jobs initially funded will all be in the public sector, productivity will fall (since productivity only measures business, non-farm business and manufacturing output). Keynesian economics, which is the theory this strategy is based on, projects that the stimulus to the public sector and government spending will ignite private investment and job creation. There is broad disagreement as to whether this worked for FDR in the 1930’s, since the depression didn’t actually end until we entered WW II.

If it doesn’t work, we may well go into a prolonged recession, like the ‘lost decade’ discussed in my last blog. If it does well, the business sector will hopefully recover in a couple of years and start creating new jobs and we will again enjoy prosperity. But government does not create new jobs. If the jobs which are funded are to continue, the government has to keep funding them.

So the danger of inflation will depend on whether we end up becoming dependent on deficit spending. If our economy is worse in 2-3 years, there will be many who will argue that we didn’t spend enough, and insist on increasing government subsidies. This would be aggravated if businesses can’t get back on their feet and unemployment increases. This could produce very painful stagflation.

We don’t know if we face inflation/stagnation, or recession and a dead decade, or reignited prosperity. We don’t do market timing; we seek balance. Our clients are protected by long-term Treasuries if deflation continues. We keep our clients’ positions in equities so when the economy does recover, they will participate in prosperity. So now we are reviewing our client’s portfolios to make sure they will withstand inflation.

Gold and unhedged international mutual funds in the past were bulwarks against inflation. Now gold can be easily traded through ETF’s and so it has become very speculative, which would not be dependable in inflation. Being diversified with international holdings may not be effective since inflation would likely be worldwide.

Having a fixed rate mortgage on your residence is a very effective offset to inflation. Interest rates parallel inflation, so even if you parked the mortgage proceeds in a money market fund, high inflation would raise money market rates. Plus there is an advantage in paying off your mortgage with cheaper dollars.

In recent years, the US Treasury has started issuing ‘TIPS’ (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities). The interest rate on these varies based on the inflation rate. These are not a good replacement for your bond ladder, since they don’t offer protection against deflation. A strong strategy to protect against inflation, if you don’t have a mortgage on your house, is to take out a $300,000 mortgage and use the proceeds to buy TIPS.

Finally we recommend that clients keep an extra cash cushion in this volatile economy. While short term interest rates are low now, cash does provide insurance against higher inflation since interest rates would increase in lock-step. Clients with uncertain job prospects or high expenses looming should maintain additional liquidity. Cash also enables clients to be nimble in these uncertain times and handle unforeseen emergencies without decimating their portfolios.

If you would like to discuss these issues more to see how your portfolio would be affected, feel free to call your Cambridge Advisor for an appointment.

*Treasury Securities include:
Treasury Bills = 1 month – 2 years
Treasury Notes =2 years – 10 years
Treasury Bonds = 10 years – 30 years
This is the only distinction between Treasury bills, notes, and bonds.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Past Performance is No Guarantee

Past Performance Is No Guarantee…
by Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2009

In the past 75 years (1934-2008) the S&P stock index has suffered total return losses of more than 20% in four different calendar years, the most recent was last year’s 37.0% decline. In the year after the three previous 20%+ declines, the index gained an average of 32%.

The danger of liquidating stocks now is when the market does turn around it will likely be very sudden. Investors who seek an all-cash haven will miss out on the growth

Most clients have bond ladders with US Stripped Treasuries that have appreciated significantly. It is tempting to sell the treasuries to reap the capital gain now, and plan on buying them back when interest rates go back up.

We don’t recommend selling as the bond ladder gives you certainty. If this recession comes to an end soon, increases in stock values will allow your portfolio to correct itself. If the recession persists, however, you will not be able to replace your ladder for the amount you sell it for now.

There is a 20-30% chance that we may be facing a ‘Dead Decade.’ This financial phenomenon is rare, but it does occur. Japan went through a ‘Dead Decade’ in the 1990’s. The Nikkei stock market dropped from 37,000 to 10,000 and never closed above 15000 for 10 years. At the same time, interest rates dropped in Japan to 1.0-2.0% even for long term government bonds.

We don’t try to time the market, and are not predicting that a ‘Dead Decade’ is in store for the US. However, we do plan for a prolonged economic squeeze, which may well suppress interest rates even below current levels. This is the most dangerous possibility we may face.

While the changes we are experiencing are exogenous, many clients are feeling the effects endogenously. We are stressing to keep high liquidity during this post-election turmoil, and not selling long-term investment assets. Each individual’s situation is different, so your investment portfolio must take into account the risks which you may face.

It is easy to believe that the past will be repeated, but when it comes to the market, history is not a reliable predictor of future performance.