Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Please, Don't Do That!

Rich Duprey of the Motley Fool is concerned that you might lose all your money in the stock market. That is possible, but unlikely unless you make a series of really bad mistakes. I thought it might be worthwhile to reflect upon and expand on the scope of his article.

He starts with day trading, a really bad idea. Anything that provides its victim with a random periodic reward is a surefire setup to waste time and/or money until it is all gone. Casino slot machines are programmed using data from psychological experiments to keep you sitting there for hours until you are broke. You give me a dollar. I give you 90 cents; repeat process until all your dollars are gone. Facebook wastes your time using the same principle. You post something, then you check back 100 times over the next seven or eight hours hoping that someone likes or even loves your post. Facebook has only one product, you. Their goal is to keep your eyes on the page long enough that you will be tempted to click on an advertisement or a page from one of their real customers who are paying them money to study you and then to trap you.

There is a way to become a trader. It isn’t for me, but there are people who do a very good job making a living using the statistical science called technical analysis. If you have ice water flowing through your veins, the mind of a computer, and a heart of stone, this might be your game. Think about poker. It is a game of skill. Even a master can’t win without the cards, but I’m sure you have noticed the same faces have a habit of reappearing around the final table come championship time. One of my young former coworkers is a very skilled poker player. He understands statistics and probability. He has studied the game and maintained a journal detailing every game he plays. He records what he did, why he did it, and the results. Trading stocks or betting on cards based on your intuition or emotions of the moment is a very bad idea.

Next Duprey mentions penny stocks, one of those schemes that are so idiotic I forget that they even exist. Penny stocks are shares in worthless little companies. Think about it. If the market values shares in a company’s stock at 5 cents, more than likely there is a reason. These shares go up and down very quickly. After all, a 5 cent move could double your money—or leave you broke. Most of these wild little stories return to their true value—zero. Even established stocks with a wild story, like a Canadian gold mining stock I purchased before the price of gold went on a rampage, have a habit of falling back to earth with a thud. After a wild ride, I lost money, but it was a real company so I didn’t lose all that much money.

While I don’t believe in the efficient market hypothesis as proposed by Modern Portfolio Theory is correct at any and every moment in time, it is certainly true over time. Consider, the market had a pretty high opinion of Enron, until the facts came out. Then the market changed its mind. However, once the market gets the facts, it will become pretty efficient, pretty quickly, pricing those facts into the selling price of the stock. Do you think you are in possession of some secret insider information that people like Carl Icon or Warren Buffett can’t ferret out using an army of research assistants with Harvard MBA degrees? Good luck with that.

Finally, the author denounces margin. Yes, borrowing money to bet on the stock market can make a lot of money in a short time, but if the trade goes wrong, the margin call can clean out your account, leaving you with nothing. At least using margin is better than gambling with Tony Soprano’s money. You won’t need to worry about his leg breakers visiting you in the night.

Here are some more thoughts on ways to lose a substantial amount of money in the market that I believe are more common occurrences than the three horribles reviewed by Rich Duprey.

In my experience, everyone is hoping that they can find that one hot tip that will buy them a beachside condo in Maui where they can live happily ever after, soaking in a hot tub in paradise whilst sipping a Mai Tai. If someone you know is privy to that kind of information, why is he living in a mortgaged home and driving a car that carries a note, just like you. If you happen to be a waitress at a high end restaurant on Wall Street, keep your ears open, but don’t expect anyone to share that kind of information with a waitress. If your unemployed bother in law is convinced he has the inside track on the next big thing, thank him for sharing the opportunity, but don’t give any of your money.

A story that I hear way too often concerns the enthusiastic employee who loves his company. Often rapidly growing young companies contribute shares in the company rather than dollars to their employee 401(k) accounts. Over time, these shares can grow until they constitute a very large percentage of the employee’s total net worth. If the unthinkable happens, one bad day can wipe out 15 years of savings. When this happens, layoffs are sure to follow. An employee can lose most of their money and their job in a matter of months. Diversify. Even 10% of your net worth in a single company can prove dangerous.

I love the energy sector and I have made money investing in that kind of company. I have also lost money in that sector when I had too much in gas, oil, coal, regulated utilities and pipelines when the market for commodities went south. Overall I have done well even in bad times, but I need to pay attention to my portfolio. When the price of oil drops, so did the value of shares I hold in an oil exploration company, one of my unhappy stories. The entire nation if not the entire world suffered from an overexposure to technology stocks during the dotcom crash of 2000-2002. I remember one of my coworkers, a successful investor, who helped me when I was first learning about the market, telling me, “This time it is different.” He had way too much invested in NASDAQ companies. If he had 10% or even 20% of his net worth in dotcom companies, he would have been hurt, but his life wouldn’t have been affected all that much. Instead he took a bad beat down. I don’t know if he ever recovered. Don’t put too much money in one sector. Buying shares in Exxon, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell does not constitute a diversified portfolio.

P.S. Later I learned that, “This time it is different,” are the five most dangerous words an investor can hear. The next time, and there will be a next time, someone speaks those words, run away.

I don’t personally know anyone who got in trouble putting too much money into the market at one time, but systemic risk is real. If you happen to get an inheritance or win the lottery someday, don’t invest it all at one time. It might be October 1929. Most normal people are de facto dollar cost averaging investors, putting a fixed amount or percentage of their income into their 401(k) every month or small regular investments into their taxable accounts over decades. This is safer. It is hard to predict when the business cycle will turn, but be assured bust will follow boom as surely as boom will follow bust.

The most serious and frequent mistake I have seen, is getting out at the bottom. In 2008 I saw way too many highly intelligent successful men sell out at the bottom, locking in their losses—forever. If they had a balanced portfolio containing stocks, bonds, and cash, they could have bought more shares at the bottom in early 2009, a time when a blind monkey with a handful of darts could make money by throwing them at names of companies listed on a dartboard. There is a flipside to this mistake, getting in at the top. That happened in 1999 when the dotcoms and the technology stocks went wild.

I believe that all these mistakes have something in common. They all involve some combination of greed, fear, and delusion. Any time you find yourself riding one of those horses, stop before making a decision. Take a deep breath. Clear your mind. Try to become a dispassionate objective observer of your own life. If you were watching a movie or a TV show how would a wise man or woman proceed?

Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) is frequently good advice. If you are a doctor earning $315,000 a year, you are in the 1%. Congratulations, you are most likely the smartest woman in the room, but that doesn’t mean you know anything about investments. If you believe you can find a magic shortcut to riches that has never occurred to the rest of the market, you are delusional. Start with target date funds, an age appropriate mix of low cost index funds. If you have spent some time studying the classics and some trustworthy web sites, don’t be afraid to buy small amounts of reasonably safe stocks that have a long track record of paying dividends. From time to time, when the price is right, Warren Buffett buys shares in Coca Cola. He never sells Coke.

KISS is also good advice for the rich and the famous who believe they are bulletproof. Tony Dorsett, Heisman Trophy winner, rookie of the year, frequent all pro and, a hall of fame running back, decided he could play the game of oil futures with the likes of J.R. Ewing. This nefarious TV wheeler dealer was actually a composite of real Texas oilmen. Tony almost went bankrupt.

Greed and fear are sneaky emotions. I have discovered that the poor can become greedier than the rich and that the rich man can become more fearful than the poor man. Don’t believe for a minute that your judgment can’t be clouded by these emotions. They are always there, inside all of us, waiting. I have seen fear cause the rich to live as though they were poor, becoming servants to their money rather than the master of their money. Too often greed fueled by envy lead the poor into actions that will end in prison or death. Look at the list of mistakes enumerated in this article. How many of them involve either fear or greed?

Hear some all purpose advice from King Solomon, the wisest man in the Scriptures.

Proverbs 28:20-22
A faithful man shall abound with blessings: but he that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent.

Proverbs 14:31
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Proverbs 6:6-8
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler,yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.

Proverbs 30:8-9
Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 23:4-5
Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Rest of My Life

The realization came to me in a two step process. One morning last week, I was listening to a pretty good compilation of bits and pieces from various motivational speeches as I drank my morning coffee. One of the speakers was berating his audience for wasting time, your most precious resource. Warren Buffet may have $74 billion more than me, but we both have exactly the same number of hours in a day.

What do I choose to do with my 24 hours? What does Warren Buffet do with his 24 hours?

After my morning exercise routine, I frequently engage in a little channel surfing while lounging on the sofa for 30 minutes or more, before fixing something for lunch. On that fateful day, I found the movie, Van Helsing, on an obscure cable channel. As I watched the hero take down a monstrous Mr. Hyde whilst simultaneously trashing the Notre Dame Cathedral, I heard the words of the speaker, “Are you lying there watching the same bad movie for the fourth time?”

“Well, yes and no, sort of,” I confessed to the universe that, while I never watched the entire movie, I have certainly seen parts of it four times or more. Shortly after this epiphany, it occurred to me that I currently have a rare opportunity, a chance to decide what to do with the rest of my life. As we become adults, the answer to the question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” begins to answer itself as we choose a college, a career, a job, and a spouse.

Responsible or irresponsible, adults live with the consequences of their decisions.

Once in a while we are given an ultimatum by the universe, “Change directions. Now!” The last such chance presented itself after I lost my job in the recession of 1982. I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on a factory floor, so I went back to school and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. Of course, once we make one of those momentous life decisions, we have the option of veering this way or that along our chosen path, as opportunities present themselves or disappear in a puff of disappointment.

As planned, I made it to retirement. I moved to a new location where it is warmer, less expensive, and more relaxed than Washington D.C. I made it through the family emergency—and now—I get to answer the question, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”

It seems that health and fitness have already become an important part of my post-retirement life. I am still writing, although not every day. I need to do better. Now that I no longer have a full time job, I guess I am an investor, for real. We are planning our next big vacation. I could go on, but….

Although I don’t feel called to a delayed vocation as a vampire hunter, there is more.

For me, for you, there is more, there is so much more.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Breakfast at the Ritz

There are different kinds of property. First of all, there are things you own that don’t generate any income. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that you don’t owe any money on the pots and pans in your kitchen. When you aren’t using them, they just sit there. It doesn’t cost you anything to own them and they aren’t producing any income. Cars and cell phones are another kind of possession. Again, assuming you paid cash (Ha!) you own them, but they are taking money out of your pocket on a regular basis. Unless they are an unavoidable business expense, they don’t contribute to your wealth. On the other hand, you can buy something that pays you to own it. For most Americans, this would be stocks and bonds or rental properties.

Banks make money by loaning out more money than they have on deposit at higher interest rates than they pay their depositors. They want you to borrow money to buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t know. Corporations that produce cell phones, televisions, cars, or houses want to separate you from your money. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG wants your money more than it wants that 540i sitting on the showroom floor at your local dealership. If the BMW dealer can get you to borrow money to buy the 540i, or better yet, convince you to take out a lease that generates a constant income stream and ultimately leaves him with a low mileage late model car to sell to someone else, he has discovered the goose that lays golden eggs. All corporate media outlets, marketing organizations, and advertising agencies become wealthy by stealing your time from productive endeavors, lulling you into a pleasant stupor of inactivity sponsored by financial institutions and corporations who want your money. Politicians want to keep you in a state of constant agitation and continued ignorance, so they can control your behavior, limit your freedom, and take your money.

The World System, The Big Green Machine, doesn’t exist to protect you or promote your interests. Every time you make a financial decision, you are heading in one of two directions. You are either on you way to becoming an owner, someone who owns things that generate an income or increase in value, or you are becoming—someone’s property. You are either on the road to freedom or to slavery. Think about it. If you don’t own your own labor, you are not free. If a creditor has a prior claim on the fruits of your labor, you don’t own your own labor.

The Bible says, “The rich rule over the poor and debtor is slave to the lender.”

You have a choice to make. The power is in your hands.

As I thought about writing this post, I remembered back to the first time I ever bought shares in an individual corporation, Exxon. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but at the time we didn’t own a house or have any debts. We may have had something like $4,000 in the bank and another $500 in a crappy mutual fund. At the time I didn’t know that $4,000 was our emergency fund. I plucked down maybe $1,000 or a bit more to get into the game. I remember the feeling I had every time a quarterly dividend check arrived in the mail. It was enough to make me fantasize about reading the Wall Street Journal while smoking a big cigar and drinking a fine cup of coffee after enjoying breakfast at the Ritz.

Ultimately Exxon helped put me through engineering school. That money is long gone. I have never subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. I don’t smoke cigars, but once we got a real good deal on a Hawaiian vacation package that included breakfast at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua Bay. By the way, that five star resort serves an excellent breakfast.

If your employer offers a 401(k) you can start out on the road to becoming an owner before you have a spare $1,000 to open your first brokerage account. The sooner you convince yourself that it is better to buy assets that grow and pay you to own them than it is to own depreciating assets that drain money from your pockets, the sooner you will find financial freedom.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

It's Your Nest Egg

Something is happening out there. When I see an unusual editorial position in the financial press twice in two days from two different sources, I have to ask, “Why?” I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do want to bring it to your attention.

For those of you who are new to the blog, let me tell you about the 4% rule, an almost universally accepted method of spending down your nest egg in retirement.

Here is how it works. Add up all your savings and investments. Multiply that number by 4% for the first year of retirement. Then adjust it for inflation every year thereafter. If your nest egg consists of 50% bonds and 50% stocks, there is a 98% chance you will not outlive your money, assuming that you live for 30 years after the date of your retirement.

Example: You have a total of $1,000,000 in your 401(k), Roth IRA, bank accounts, and taxable brokerage account.

In the first year of retirement, you can withdraw and spend $1,000,000 X 0.04 which equals $40,000.

Let’s say inflation for that year was 3%. That means in year two you can withdraw $40,000 X 1.03 which equals $41,200.

This calculation, backed by numerous peer reviewed studies, approaches an article of religious faith in the personal finance community.

Yet yesterday, Bloomberg reports that “Rich Retirees are Hoarding Cash out of Fear.”

Well, since I no longer have a job to replace any savings I spend on an E Class Mercedes or lose in a market crash, I would think I need to be a bit cautious. If the market continues to go up as I grow older, obviously I will have more money to spend in less time, but what if the market goes down as fast as the cost of living increases? Then what? This is exactly what happened in the 1970s.

The author, Ben Steveman, tries to make the case that the money the Baby Boom saved for retirement is somehow preventing younger Americans from saving any money.


He goes on to encourage me to buy a second home and an expensive car. I do plan on buying a reasonably expensive car when it is time to retire my 2010 Acura TSX, but given the way I buy a car, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. He believes that after a lifetime of thrift, someone needs to train me how to spend more on luxuries. He would be happy to learn that my wife and I are planning a Mediterranean cruise, but how that is going to put more money in the retirement accounts of the thirty somethings is beyond my comprehension.

For today’s entertainment Charles Schwab offers an article entitled “Beyond the 4% Rule: How Much Can You Safely Spend in Retirement” by Cooper Howard and Rob Williams. The authors go through all the assumptions that underlie the 4% rule that have been reported ad nauseam in this blog and innumerable other publications, assuring us they are just assumptions. What if your life doesn’t end up fitting the assumptions? Then what? You could have taken more risk with your money.

Then your next car might be an S Class Mercedes instead of some trifling $60,000 midsized sedan.

The authors offer a tool to help you guess the date of your appointment with our Lord, in the hope that you can convince yourself to spend more money and take greater risks with your investments.

Check it out!

Actuaries Longevity Illustrator

The authors believe that a 98% confidence level is too high. They think a 75% to 90% confidence level is more appropriate. They conclude that, “75% provides a reasonable confidence level between overspending and underspending.”

If I come up snake eyes at age 85, will the authors support me at my then current spending level for the rest of my life, or will I become totally dependent on the taxes of those young people mentioned earlier in Bloomberg article?

Personally, I would prefer to underspend and leave the balance to my heirs and favorite charities rather than becoming a burden on society.

The questions remain, “Why would the financial press suddenly change direction after hectoring us Baby Boomers to save more money over the last two decades or more? What’s in it for them?”

If you are unfamiliar with the 4% Rule, the Schwab article does provide a pretty good introduction to the assumptions contained in this method of estimating a safe spending rate in retirement. While I think a 75% confidence level is way too low, their suggested allocations and withdrawal rate chart is really not all that out of line with my opinions.

Beyond the 4% Rule