Sometimes the best, most rigorously developed financial advice is so obvious that it has become cliché. And yet, investors often end up abandoning this same advice when market turbulence is on the rise. Why the disconnect? Let’s take a look at five of the most common financial adages and review why they are often much easier said than done.
1. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
2. No risk, no reward.
3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
4. Buy low, sell high.
5. Stay the course.
We will explore each in turn, how we implement them, and why helping people stick with these evidence-based basics remains among our most important and challenging roles.
Almost everyone would agree: It makes sense to plan how and why you want to invest before you actually do it. And yet, few investors come to us with robust plans already in place. That is why deep, extensive and multilayered planning is one of the first things we do when welcoming a new client, including:
A Discovery Meeting – To understand everything about you, including your goals and interests, your personal and professional relationships, your values and beliefs, how you would prefer to work with us, and anything else that may be on your mind.
“Traditional” Financial Planning – To organize your existing assets and liabilities, define your near, mid and long-range goals, and ensure your financial means align as effectively as possible with your most meaningful aspirations.
An Investment Policy Statement (IPS) – To bring order to your investment universe. Your IPS is both your plan and your pledge to yourself on how your investments will be structured to best align with your greater goals. It describes your preferred asset allocations (such as your percentage of stocks vs. bonds), and is further shaped by your willingness, ability and need to tolerate market risks in pursuit of desired returns.
Integrated Wealth Management – To chart a course for aligning your range of wealth interests with your financial logistics such as insurance, estate planning, tax planning, business succession, philanthropic intent and more.
As we will explore further, even solid planning does not guarantee success. But we believe the only way we can accurately assess how you are doing is if we have first identified what you are trying to achieve, and how we expect to accomplish it.
In many respects, the relationship between risk and reward serves as the wellspring from which a steady stream of financial economic theory has flowed ever since. Simply put, exposing your portfolio to market risk is expected to generate higher returns over time. Reduce your exposure to market risk, and you also lower expected returns.
We typically build a measure of stock market exposure into our clients’ portfolios accordingly, with specific allocations guided by individual goals and risk tolerances. But here is the thing. Once you have accepted the evidence describing how market risks and expected returns are related, it is critical that you remain invested as planned.
At the same time, “risk” is not a mythical unicorn. It is real. If it rears up, it can trample your dreams. So, just because you might need to include riskier sources of expected returns in your portfolio, it does not mean you must give them free rein.
This is where diversification comes in. Diversification is nothing new. In 1990, Harry Markowitz was co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for his work on what became known as Modern Portfolio Theory. Markowitz analyzed “how wealth can be optimally invested in assets which differ in regard to their expected return and risk, and thereby also how risks can be reduced.” In other words, investors should employ diversification to manage portfolio risks.
This leads to an intriguing, evidence-based understanding. By combining widely diverse sources of risk, it is possible to build more efficient portfolios.
EITHER lower a portfolio’s overall risk exposure while maintaining similar expected returns,
OR maintain similar levels of portfolio risk exposure while improving overall expected returns.
Rarely, evolving evidence helps us identify additional or shifting sources of expected return worth blending into your existing plans. When this occurs, and only after extensive due diligence, we may advise you to do so, if practical (and cost-effective) solutions exist.
The details of how these risk/return “levers” work is beyond the scope of this paper. But come what may, the desire and necessity to DIVERSIFY your portfolio remains as important as ever, not only between stocks and bonds, but across multiple, global sources of expected returns.
Of course, every investor hopes to sell their investments for more than they paid for them. Two best practices to help you succeed where so many fall short are time and rebalancing.
By building a low-cost, broadly diversified portfolio, and letting it ride the waves of time, all evidence suggests you can expect to earn long-term returns that roughly reflect your built-in risk exposure. But “success” often takes a great deal more time than most investors allow for.
Financial author Larry Swedroe reviewed performance persistence among six different sources of expected return as well as three model portfolios built from them. He found, “In each case, the longer the horizon, the lower the odds of underperformance.” However, he also observed, “one of the greatest problems preventing investors from achieving their financial goals is that, when it comes to judging the performance of an investment strategy, they believe that three years is a long time, five years is a very long time and 10 years is an eternity.”
In the market, 10 years is not long. You must be prepared to remain true to your carefully structured portfolio for years if not decades, so we typically ensure that an appropriate portion is sheltered from market risks and is relatively accessible (liquid). The riskier portion can then be left to ebb, flow and expectedly grow over expanses of time, without the need to tap into it in the near-term. In short, time is only expected to be your friend if you give it room to run.
Another way to buy low and sell high is through disciplined portfolio rebalancing. As we create a new portfolio, we prescribe how much weight to allocate to each holding. Over time, these holdings tend to stray from their original allocations, until the portfolio is no longer invested according to plan. By periodically selling some of the holdings that have overshot their ideal allocation, and buying more of the ones that have become underrepresented, we can accomplish two goals: Returning the portfolio closer to its intended allocations, AND naturally buying low (recent underperformers) and selling high (recent outperformers).
So, yes, planning and maintaining an evidence-based investment portfolio is important. But even the best-laid plans will fail you, if you fail to follow them. Here, we get to the heart of why even “obvious” advice is often easier said than done. Our rational self may know better, but our instincts, emotions and behavioral biases get in the way.
Three particularly important biases to be aware of in volatile markets include tracking-error regret, recency bias and outcome bias.
When we build your portfolio, we typically structure it to reflect your goals and risk tolerances, by diversifying across different sources of expected risks and returns. Each part is expected to contribute to the portfolio’s unique whole by performing differently from its counterparts during different market conditions. Each portfolio may perform very differently from popular “norms” or benchmarks like the S&P 500, for better or worse.
When “worse” occurs, and especially if it lingers, you are likely to feel tracking-error regret, which is a gnawing doubt that comes from comparing your own portfolio’s returns to popular benchmarks and wishing yours were more like theirs.
Remember this. By design, your factor-based, globally diversified portfolio is highly likely to march out of tune with typical headline returns. It can be deeply damaging to your plans if you compare your own performance to benchmarks such as the general market, the latest popular trends or your neighbor’s seemingly greener financial grass.
Recency causes us to pay more attention to our latest experiences and to downplay the significance of long-term conditions. When an expected source of return fails to deliver, especially if the disappointment lasts for a while, you may start to second-guess the long-term evidence. This can trigger what Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman describes refers to as “what you see is all there is” mistakes.
Again, buying high and selling low is exactly the opposite of your goals. And yet, recency causes droves of investors to chase hot, high-priced holdings and sell low during declines. Irrational choices based on recency may still turn out okay if you happen to get lucky. But they detour you from the most rational, evidence-based course toward your goals.
Sometimes, even the most rational plans do not turn out as hoped for. If you let outcome bias creep in, you end up blaming the plan itself, even if it was simply bad luck. This, in turn, causes you to abandon your plan. Unfortunately, it is rarely replaced with a better plan, which brings us back to our first adage about those who fail to plan.
To illustrate, let’s say that several years ago, we created a solid investment plan and IPS for you. At the time, you felt confident about them. Since then, we have periodically refreshed your plan, based on your evolving personal goals, perhaps a few new academic insights and any new resources now available for further optimizing your portfolio.
Now, let’s say the markets disappoint us over the next few years. Ugly red numbers take over your reports, seemingly forever. Before you conclude your underlying strategy is wrong, remember it is far more likely you are experiencing outcome bias (with a recency-bias chaser).
Investing will always contain an element of random luck. From that perspective, in largely efficient markets, your best course remains (you guessed it) to stay the course with your existing, carefully crafted plans. While even evidence-based investing does not guarantee success, it continues to offer your best odds moving forward. Do not lose faith in it.
Let’s wrap this up with a telling anecdote. Merton Miller was another co-recipient of the aforementioned 1990 Nobel Prize. Miller’s portion was in recognition of his “fundamental contributions to the theory of corporate finance.” While his findings were deep and far-reaching, he once summarized them as follows:
“[I]f you take money out of your left pocket and put it in your right pocket, you’re no richer. Reporters would say, ‘you mean they gave you guys a Nobel Prize for something as obvious as that?’ … And I’d add, ‘Yes, but remember, we proved it rigorously.’”
Like Miller’s light take on his heavy-duty findings, some of what we feel is our best advice seems so simple. And yet, in our experience, it is very hard to adhere to this same, “obvious” advice in the face of market turbulence.
Blame your behavioral biases. They make simple advice deceptively difficult to follow. We all have them, including blind spot bias. That is, we can easily tell when someone else is succumbing to a behavioral bias, but we routinely fail to recognize when it is happening to us.
This is one reason why it is essential to have an objective advisor who is willing and able to let you know when you are falling victim to a bias you cannot see in the mirror. That is exactly what we are here for. Let us know if we can help you reflect on these or any other challenges that stand between you and your greatest financial goals.
This post was written and first distributed by Wendy J. Cook.
This material is intended for general public use. By providing this material, we are not undertaking to provide investment advice for any specific individual or situation, or to otherwise act in a fiduciary capacity. Please contact one of our financial professionals for guidance and information specific to your individual situation. This is not an offer to buy or sell a security.
Shore Point Advisors is an investment adviser located in Brielle, New Jersey. Shore Point Advisors is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Registration of an investment adviser does not imply any specific level of skill or training and does not constitute an endorsement of the firm by the Commission. Shore Point Advisors only transacts business in states in which it is properly registered or is excluded or exempted from registration. Insurance products and services are offered through JCL Financial, LLC (“JCL”). Shore Point Advisors and JCL are affiliated entities.