Last week I discussed how some investors perceive more risk in the stock market than may actually exist. I compared them to a nervous passenger grabbing a parachute and jumping out of a sound airplane because they feared otherwise harmless turbulence. There is another side to the incorrect perception of risk and I can illustrate it with an aviation example. About 20 years ago, brothers Alan and Dale Klapmeier began producing the Cirrus line of small aircraft. These planes were groundbreaking because they contained a parachute that could float the entire plane and its passengers safely back to earth in an emergcncy.
The plane became a hot seller as it gave a great sense of peace to pilots and their passengers. The parachute changed the way people perceived the risk of flying in small planes. Surprisingly however, for the first several years the Cirrus’ fatal accident levels came in much higher than other non-parachute airplanes. It was determined that, among other things, having a full plane parachute to fall back on gave the pilot a greater perceived sense of safety. This resulted in some pilots taking more risks, mostly in poor weather conditions, than they would otherwise take. Thus, the perceived “safety” of the parachute had the potential to make the plane less safe. Cirrus eventually turned their safety record around through intensive pilot training.
Investors who perceive the stock market as having too much risk often move their assets into the bond markets. Others might just put their money in bank savings accounts and CD’s. They do this because they perceive these income products as having less, or even no risk at all. This is incorrect thinking since every possible place you could put your money has risk. To not recognize that is to become like one of those early Cirrus pilots who thought the airplane parachute could get them safely out of any bad situation.
We live in a time of very low interest rates, especially when it comes to government insured products such as CD’s, Treasuries and the like. Consider this. The largest debtor in the world is the U.S. government. If interest rates can be kept very low it will save the government billions of dollars. Since it is the savers who provide the money to fund that debt, it is those savers who are also helping to shoulder much of the cost of that debt. They do so by accepting interest payments that don’t even keep up with inflation. Thus, low interest rates actually become a stealth tax on savers and puts them at risk of not being able to fund their own retirement.
So beware of the perception of too much risk, but also be cautious of investments that you perceive to have little or no risk, because there may be more risk than you realize. It just comes in another form. Financial parachutes can be a great thing, but don’t let them lull you into thinking they will eliminate all risk.
I looked out the doorway of my hangar on a hot Saturday afternoon, watching another Regional Jet depart as I did some cleaning. I knew from years of experience that those summer thermals were creating a turbulent ride for the passengers in that plane, yet as I watched from the ground the flight looked as smooth as glass. As always, I found myself wishing I was in the air, while on that hot day I was certain many of the passengers experiencing the turbulence in that plane were wishing they were on the ground. From where I stood the flight looked smooth and controlled. For the passengers if would have felt unstable and even frightening. Perception can be so different based on your point of view.
During the first ten years of this century the investment world went through what became known as the “Lost Decade.” Lost, because many of the major market indexes ended the decade about where they started. During that time there was a money manager who ran a fund that defied all odds and turned in an annual rate of return slightly above 17%. The manager was heralded for his brilliance in the face of enormous odds, and was highlighted on talk shows, in newspapers, and national magazines. His returns would have been great even in good years, but they were miraculous during bad ones. And of course, investors nationwide wished they could have been invested in his amazing fund – or did they?
Behind the phenomenal returns lay a dark reality. In a study conducted by Morningstar®, they calculated that despite the funds 17% annual return over 10 years, the average investor in this particular fund actually lost 11% per year. The surprising conclusion was that investors in the fund were behaving like nervous passengers on a bumpy airplane. The rough economy of that decade created a turbulent ride for investors who would jump out of the fund whenever they perceived danger, and then back in when things calmed down. This led to a continual “Buy high, Sell low” cycle. As the fund headed for a record-breaking decade, the perception of danger kept most investors from enjoying it.
It’s a good thing airplanes don’t offer parachutes to passengers, otherwise they might be landing with a lot of empty seats. Many passengers perceive far more danger in turbulence than actually exists. Investors likewise constantly talk of volatile, uncertain and crazy markets as if today’s movements are unique. Unlike airplane passengers however, investors do have “investment” parachutes, and they often use them to abandon an otherwise sound financial plan(e).
There are real risks in investing, but one of the greatest is the human aspect that often perceives danger and acts on it, and in so doing might create an even greater risk. Think carefully before deciding to use that investment parachute. You may be departing a sound financial aircraft while at the same time jumping to a new uncertainty below.
With all this talk about building walls, I thought I might share my own experience with walls. When I was 25 I decided to build a block wall around my yard. I wasn’t skilled in masonry, so it took a long time to lay each row. I built the wall in 20-foot sections and installed rebar every four feet so that I could pour concrete down the holes in the cinder block, which would tie the whole structure to its footings.
When I had finished the first 20-foot section I stood back and admired my work. It gave me a great sense of accomplishment. Now it was time to fill the rebar cores with concrete. As I thought about all the work involved in mixing that much concrete, and then trying to pour it down those holes, the tops of which were six feet high, my enthusiasm for the project waned. There was so much more excitement in seeing the new sections of wall go up that I decided to continue on with the next row. I figured that at some time in the future I would find a friend to help me fill the cores.
Working in the evenings over the next six months I managed to finish eight more sections of wall, giving me significant privacy around my yard. The more sections I completed, the more excited I got with my beautiful wall, and the more pride I took in my masonry skills. The hard and unappreciated task of filling the cores could wait.
Then it happened. I awoke one morning to one of those horrible Las Vegas windstorms. After one huge gust shook the house, I looked out my window to see my entire six foot high cinder block wall laying in pieces in my yard. The painful lesson of that image will never be forgotten.
A good portfolio, like a block wall, needs a core of solid holdings to anchor it in times of storm. Core investments are long term, sometimes slower moving investments, that often pay steady dividends. They are not sexy and rarely make the “pick of the day” in those monthly newsletters, but they play a critical role in long term financial planning. Plodding along in the background, the core provides consistency and stability that helps to protect you when market winds blow.
After years of market growth, investors sometimes allow their more aggressive assets to begin dominating their portfolios and forget to keep adding those less exciting, but very important, core holdings. One way to know if you are getting out of balance is how closely your account tracks the daily market movements. If your account balance is highly correlated to the stock market, you may want to consider making some changes before the next economic wind storm comes barreling through. Those who patiently hold a good core of sometimes less exciting investments are more likely to wake up the next day and find their financial walls still standing.
A kind couple was opening an investment account and when the question came up about giving them online access they responded emphatically, “No, we don’t want any of our information available online in any form.” I remember thinking of the best way to let them know that their information was already on the internet in many forms and from many sources. It is the nature of the digital world in which we live.
News of Cyber-attacks have become commonplace. Computer hackers were once the 14-year-old next door just having fun, but more often the attacks now come from highly sophisticated criminal enterprises, many sponsored by foreign governments with enormous resources. It sometimes leaves people wondering what to do.
It is unknown how many people have had their online information compromised but in 2017 the Equifax hack alone exposed roughly 150 million Americans to cyber criminals. Keep in mind that a hacker is like an old-fashioned burglar. When the door is broken down you know he was in the house, but you may not know which rooms he went in. When there is a cyber-attack, notification is sent to every “potential” victim, but that does not mean your information was actually stolen or will be used.
I have decided that the best course is to assume that your personal information has been stolen, and act accordingly. What a cybercriminal wants is largely two-fold; To get access to your existing financial accounts, or to open new credit lines in your name that you don’t know about. Protecting against the first comes from personally monitoring your bank, investment and credit card accounts for suspicious activity. If you deal with an institution that carries insurance such as FDIC or SIPC or others, then losses will largely be protected against. (check with your institution for specific guarantees)
To protect against unauthorized credit lines, I highly recommend employing a credit monitoring service of some sort. These are designed to alert you anytime a credit line is opened, allowing you time to notify the institution if it was unauthorized. Some people don’t want to pay the monthly fee. I am reminded that when I grew up I don’t think my parents even had a key to our house. It was certainly never locked. Today it would be unreasonable to not pay for good locks and even security systems to protect our homes. Today, your greatest financial assets are generally not kept in your home, such as your good name and credit rating. It would be unreasonable to not spend the money and effort to protect those assets.
Governments and institutions spend enormous money to protect your personal information, but all their efforts cannot, and never will, be a perfect solution. In this digital age it is critical that individuals make the effort to monitor their own personal situation so that when a theft occurs, they will know about it and can act to protect themselves. Cyber thieves thrive on those who don’t pay attention. Don’t be that victim.
“How much money do I need to retire?” is a very common question I am asked. When I turn it back on the client I get varied responses but my favorite is, “I want just enough so that my last check bounces, and hopefully it’s made out to the IRS.” Sadly, some retirees spend money as if this is really their goal.
How much you need to retire is very personal and has a lot to do with how you live before retirement. Some do just fine on a few thousand a month. Others live extravagant lives they would have difficulty giving up. So looking at today’s expenses is a great place to start.
A rule of thumb says you need 70% of your “working years” living expenses, but that is often a poor guideline. This rule assumes you won’t have kids or a house payment. The problem is that just because your kids become adults doesn’t mean they stop costing you money. Some of you readers know exactly what I mean.
Though many retirees don’t have a house payment, they often replace it with higher travel costs, medical needs, eating out, and grandkids. The truth is, retirees often spend as much, or even more than they spent when they were raising a family. So, the best rule of thumb is to ask what you want your retirement to look like and create an honest budget for it. When you come up with an annual amount, subtract your planned fixed income such as social security and pensions, and what’s left over is what you will have to save for.
If you can assemble a nest egg about 25 times bigger than the amount you need annually, you will be well on your way to a successful retirement. So, if your shortfall is $24,000 a year, then I would suggest $600,000 as a starting figure. The biggest unknown in retirement is how long you will live, otherwise bouncing your last check would be much easier.
Retirement is like planning a flight to a distant city. Planes are weight-limited, so you rarely fill up the tank like you do with a car. You only carry as much fuel as you need. My rule of thumb is to figure the amount to get to my destination, include a safety margin for winds and ATC diversions, and then add enough extra to stay in the air for at least another hour, just in case. Launa has never complained at seeing 30 gallons in the tank upon landing. Unfortunately, countless pilots have died from running out of fuel, with many of those accidents happening within sight of the runway.
The “bounced check” planning model is terrible in aviation and just as dangerous in retirement. When you plan your life’s financial journey, make sure you build in a generous safety margin for the unexpected, and if you get to your destination with some fuel left in the tanks, I promise your heirs will not complain.
Most people are defensive by nature. They are primarily interested in protecting against risk. An example of this was my daughter’s recent visit to the rim of the Grand Canyon. Her two small boys, who are still too young to properly understand danger, were anxious to run over to the unprotected edge to see the exciting view below. Despite the unparalleled beauty of the canyon, our daughter struggled to enjoy it as she focused all her attention on keeping the boys safe. Rather than linger and enjoy the moment I think she was relieved to be safely back in the car with the boys comfortably in their seat belts.
Her experience is very similar to the way many view the investing world. They stand at the edge of endless opportunity, but have a difficult time enjoying it as their minds worry so much about falling.
At a recent business conference, we discussed the state of the economy and, as usual, considered the risks we face going forward. Few times in my career do I remember a more positive outlook. It is difficult right now to find any area of real concern in our economy or the investment markets. And yet there is a major risk to investors that we discussed and, ironically, it has nothing to do with the economy. This risk, which could pose serious problems for our economy, is political.
Politics have always played an important role for investors, but never before can I remember a time when the long-term risk has been so great. For most of my life, both political parties argued and debated openly but then sat down behind closed doors and worked out compromises to keep the country moving forward. Unfortunately, in our current environment, it appears that compromise is no longer possible. If you take time to examine the votes coming from both sides of the aisle over the past 10 years, you see a growing gap between the two parties that shows no sign of narrowing.
One of the biggest current issues is the national budget and debt ceilings. These matters must be addressed and under the current hostile environment it is very possible that no agreements will be reached. If that happens we could be looking at a government shutdown that could dwarf the ones of the past. Now some may joke that we should just let it shutdown, and certainly some areas of government are more critical than others, but if it lasts for an extended period it could do long term damage to parts of our economy. I don’t sound many alarms in my practice, but I am sounding one now. I remain fully invested and optimistic but if our government freezes again due to the stubborn attitudes in Washington, there are some specific areas of the investing markets that I will be moving my clients out of. Politicians, in pursuing their own interests, keep selfishly pushing us closer to the edge, which could change a beautiful view into a terrible fall.
On our current trip to Monaco we had the opportunity to drive a 1946 MG through the hillsides of France. The car had no doors, windows or even seatbelts. When the kind Frenchman gave me instructions on driving it and Launa asked about seatbelts he just laughed and said, “Ah, you don’t need seatbelts.” This car didn’t’ even have a radio, but boy it was fun to drive.
This car was significantly different from the one I rented at the John Wayne airport on a recent trip. That car was a mobile communication center. As I left the airport and was trying to negotiate through busy traffic to make a turn onto the freeway, a big red warning sign flashed across the computer screen. I struggled to read and drive at the same time so I asked Launa to read it to me.
She then read the following: “WARNING. Distracted driving can be very dangerous. Do not let this system distract you.” I was dumbfounded. So the system distracted my driving to warn me not to let the system distract my driving. I just knew there had to be an article in there somewhere.
In the 80’s we started hearing about the coming age of information and we were excited for all the benefits it would bring. Now, well into the 21st century, we have automobiles, cell phones, and talking boxes in our kitchens controlling our lives and sometimes making things worse. We even wonder perhaps, if maybe we weren’t a little better off back before we were being constantly bombarded by all this endless information.
It may not actually be the information that is the problem, but how we respond to it. The warning message on my rental car would not be a problem if I could learn to ignore it until a more convenient and safer time. The problem with information is that it has a way of making us feel like we need to stop what we are doing and act upon it. I wish I could get modern information-overloaded investors to understand this principle that just because you get a piece of information doesn’t mean you need to act on it, and in most cases you shouldn’t.
Let’s take the trade war as a current example. It has driven stocks for months and people keep asking what they should do about it. Here is how I see this tariff “distraction.” President Trump believes the trade war is hurting China more than the U.S.. Our current strong economic numbers seem to support that belief. Trump believes our economic strength puts him in a position to negotiate for a better deal. Long term investors should see that as a positive. So why all the fuss?
In my opinion, the trade war, as big as it seems, is another distraction that needs to be kept in perspective. It blares its warnings while our economy powers on. Resist the temptation to feel you need to act on this distraction.
Launa and I have a company conference in Monaco this month and decided to come a bit early and enjoy some time in our beloved Italy. I lived in Italy for two years when I was younger and love returning whenever possible. Our version of tourism is a bit different than most. Rather than racing from one big “gotta see it” tourist attraction to the next, Launa and I prefer to take our time and enjoy the local culture in a way most hurried tourists miss. This form of travel can be deeply rewarding. As we do so we focus on the little things that make a country and its people special. Launa is our family photo expert and she has taught me that rather than shoot a bunch or wide-angle shots, she focuses on the little things that stand out as being special and unique.
When we recently visited a world-famous cathedral, I watched as she closed in and took a picture of a very small, inconspicuous stature of an old man holding a small baptismal font on his back. In the midst of the imposing art that filled this building, Launa was interested in who this little man might be. We learned that this little statue represented the thousands of unknown workers who spent years doing the difficult manual labor on this magnificent structure. The great names of the day were proudly displayed throughout the building, but it’s very structure rested on the backs of these unknown laborers.
As I pondered the message of this little statue I remembered an industry I follow for investment purposes. Like many others today, this industry is beginning to struggle to attract and retain good talent. On its face, it is strong and powerful with a huge public presence, but underneath, the human resource shortage is threatening its future.
There are many others in our economy beginning to suffer a similar shortage of qualified workers. Some businesses focus extensive advertising resources on maintaining a strong public image, while overlooking the critical need of developing and retaining a strong employee pool; those countless unnamed individuals upon whose backs the future of the business rests.
I suggest that people who are considering their investments keep a careful eye on the pipeline an industry or a company has for future laborers. The same applies to entire nations who are facing severe labor shortages in the coming years. Having a great product is not enough if you have no qualified workers to produce it.
Capitalism works, but wise capitalists know how very important their employees are and upon whose backs their future rests. If you are invested in a company that does not dedicate significant resources to developing and retaining a qualified and satisfied employee pool, the coming years might put that investment in jeopardy. I will now add Launa’s new photo to my office wall as a reminder that analyzing how a company attracts, retains and cares for its employees, is critical to its future success.
Coming home from a Salt Lake visit we flew the whole way under Instrument Flight Rules, or IFR, which means we were in the clouds. An IFR rating is very valuable, evidenced by a couple of younger pilots sitting in the airport lobby watching me take off, while they waited for the skies to clear. An IFR rating also adds a higher level of safety since sometimes non-IFR pilots find themselves unexpectedly in deteriorating weather conditions.
When I was studying for my IFR certification my instructor spent a lot of time reminding me that when you are flying in the clouds, or on a dark night without a horizon, it is very easy for the body’s senses to be fooled. The clouds flying past your windshield have a way of distorting those senses. This is why an instrument pilot is taught to focus on the instruments and trust them, regardless of what the physical senses are saying.
This point was made clear on one training event when my instructor took me into the clouds and told me to hold the plane straight and level without looking at the instruments. It was a challenging experience. At one point I sensed the plane pitching up so I gently lowered the nose to keep it in a proper level flight. My instructor asked how I felt and I told him I was pretty confident in my orientation. He then directed my attention at the instruments which showed I was actually rolling pretty hard to the right and headed downward. I was stunned and remember feeling very strongly that the instruments were wrong.
He then taught me a great lesson. He told me that if I am in darkness and I dwell on the darkness, then the darkness will disorient me and my life will be in danger. He pointed to my brightly lit array of computer instruments and said, “When you are flying in darkness, this is your light – stay focused on the light.” It was an impactful lesson.
Investors spend significant effort worrying about the endless negative news and considering all the things that could possibly go wrong. Dwelling on the “darkness” they become financially disoriented and fail to see the wonderful world of possibilities ahead of them.
As I have continued my study of our nation’s greatest investors I am continually impressed that none I have found so far made their fortunes being pessimistic. In fact, the only really successful pessimists I am aware of made their fortunes selling negativity, not investing in it.
It is good to be aware of the risks we face, but American history teaches that optimism has always won out, sometimes against some very high odds. I advise investors to not be ignorant of the darkness, but in seeking good investing ideas, they should do as the greatest investors before them and always look for the light.
As the saying goes, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” The sad reality is that most of the people I have dealt with who have lost money in fraudulent investment schemes have not been fools at all. They have been intelligent investors who are honorable in their business dealings. In most cases their downfall has been that, as good people themselves, they are naturally trusting of others. It is that wonderful quality of trust that is taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals. In investing, it is wise to follow Ronald Reagans sage advice to “Trust, but verify.”
An investment scam that never seems to die is the foreign currency scam. To give an example of how this works let’s take the Iraqi Dinar scam. After the fall of Sadam Hussein, the Iraqi Dinar, which previously had been trading for three U.S. dollars (a price set by Saddam) fell to an almost worthless level. At this point scammers stepped in and started touting the Dinar in blogs and radio shows, explaining quite convincingly that when the government of Iraq stabilized, the Dinar would regain its former glory and investors could become overnight millionaires. These bloggers would then direct their trusting followers to companies that sold dinars (often secretly affiliated with the scammer themselves) where they could purchase huge quantities at fractions of a penny each. The scam resulted in massive amounts of Iraqi dinars printed to satisfy demand.
The scam played on greed since a person might be able to buy 10 million dinar for a “mere” $10,000. The scammer claimed that even if the dinar regained a fraction of its former value, the investor would become rich. Rather than go into a long explanation of why this can’t happen, let me boil it down to simple math. It is estimated that there are currently 40 Trillion Iraqi dinars in circulation. That’s Trillion with a “T.” For comparison, the total U.S. currency in circulation is only 1.5 Trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.
Currency scams usually focus on obscure currencies whose true value Americans would not commonly know. They tout currencies like the Vietnamese Dong which trade at a fraction of a U.S. dollar, making them seem cheap. They promote the “how can I lose at this price?” mentality. Some of these currency sites charge many times what you would pay for the same currency at your local bank.
Though not illegal, it is dishonest to sell foreign currencies at grossly inflated prices. If you want to invest in currencies, which is generally a high risk proposition, find a legitimate firm to trade with and do an internet search or call your banker to make sure the price you are paying is the current market rate. Or better yet, don’t invest in things you know nothing about. The willingness to do so, coupled with a generally trusting attitude, places a huge target on your life savings.
Hi, I'm Dan. I'm a CFP® Professional.
Securities and advisory services offered through Commonwealth Financial Network®.
Member www.finra.org / www.sipc.org , a Registered Investment Advisor. Wyson Financial, 375 E Riverside Dr, St. George, UT 84790
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