We have met the enemy and he is us.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Investors Predictably Underperform

Investors face three primary challenges:  Behavior biases; loss of compounding from large portfolio losses; and the opportunity cost of being too conservative.  This article looks at behavioral biases.   

Boston-based DALBAR, Inc has been studying investor behavior since the late 1970’s. Each year, DALBAR’s annual Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior (QUAIB) has measured the gap between leading indicators of investment performance and what investors actually earn from mutual fund investing.  

The study measures the effects of an investor’s decision to buy, sell, and switch in and out of various mutual funds over different time frames. And the results consistently show that the average investor earns less, in many cases much less than the returns reported in the mutual fund’s performance report.

Their research proves that individual investors wait to buy until the market has gone up and then they sell after it drops. Of course, no one would want to admit that they invest like this, by the research shows time and again that investors do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they need to do to be a successful investor.

In 2018, DALBAR reported that the 20-year annualized S&P return was 7.20% while the 20-year annualized return for the average equity mutual fund investor was only 5.29%, a gap of nearly 2% per annum.

And when you look even closer, it doesn’t matter what the time frame is, individual investors still underperform.  

Another interesting piece of Data gleaned from the DALBAR data has to do with retention rates.  Even though many investors would say that they are investing for the “long term”, the average retention rate for most mutual funds is less than five years – hardly long term.   

Why is this? How could investors do so poorly even during periods of strong economic prosperity?

Human emotion.  

It’s the emotions of fear and greed with a healthy dose of herd behavior (individual investors acting collectively as a whole without central direction) that have long been seen as main drivers of investor behavior and irrational investment decisions.

Investors are constantly in search of the “story” stock or for the latest “hot fund” and are willing to jump in with both feet when it feels right.  

Worse yet, when things go south, investors start to feel awful and they end up liquidating their investments at the worst possible time.

You are your own worst enemy.

It’s nothing personal.  Truth is, I’m no exception.  When it comes to investing putting money at risk we are all our own worst enemy.

Why? Because we’re human.

And as well intended as we may be … we can all behave irrationally.

This has given rise to a new field of study called behavioral finance.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to go off on some tangent here, you just need to know that the effects of human emotion are so powerful, there are entire subsections of economic research devoted to trying to understand it.

In short, behavioral finance attempts to provide an explanation for why people make irrational financial decisions. It tries to understand that when your money is on the line, riding the market’s peaks and valleys, why do we have a natural tendency to do the opposite of what we should be doing.

The human brain is capable of incredible things, but it’s also extremely flawed at times.

Science has shown that we tend to make all sorts of mental mistakes, called “cognitive biases”, that can affect both our thinking and actions. These biases can lead to us extrapolating information from the wrong sources, seeking to confirm existing beliefs, or failing to remember events the way they actually happened!

Recently a study identified 188 cognitive biases, systematic patterns of behavior and irrational thinking that the human brain performs.

To be sure, this is all part of being human – but such cognitive biases can also have a profound effect on our endeavors, investments, and life in general.

But, once you see the proven patterns of our “behavioral tendencies”, you can remove an enormous amount of human emotion by using a systematic and formulaic process.

Systematic investing demands a level of rigor, clarity, and consistency beyond industry standards of asset management. The framework calls for a set of precise mathematical or quantitative methodologies that differ from more commonly used fundamental processes built on narratives and forecasts.

When investors have a structured, rules-based process to invest with, it leaves less room for any of these 188 biases to interfere.   

Just what rules to use and how to adopt a rules-based process will be the topic of a future post.   

 

Systems are everywhere…so why aren’t they in your portfolio.

Systems are everywhere…so why aren’t they in your portfolio.

Why systems should be part of your investment process.

Systems exist everywhere. In nature, we find almost an infinite number of hierarchical, interconnecting ecosystems that play key roles by which energy is transported and transformed. These natural systems can have a profound impact on our activities. Consider how the weather and climate systems affect our daily lives.  

Even our bodies are collections of intricate systems each performing a function critical to our survival.  

There are legal and political systems designed to create order and keep the peace.

Many systems operate in concert with our daily lives.

In society, we find that systems can provide for organization and guidance for human interactions. Take for instance how we drive. We follow a precise system.  

Here in the U.S., we drive on the right. We stop on red. We accelerate on a green.  And by everyone following this system, we are able to transport ourselves safely from one destination to another.

Or think about how when we arrive home at night and turn on the lights, we take for granted the electrical system that allows for energy to be converted to light.  These systems are so common we never once question their existence.

We have formed legal systems so as to provide a systematic, orderly and predictable system by which we can resolve conflict and provide for our general safety.

We have formed political systems so as to organize around various ideologies and to allow an orderly process to govern.

Without systems, we would live in a state of anarchy.

And systems are designed to provide a certain degree of predictability.

Yes, systems exist everywhere we look — except in most investors’ approach to investing.  

Why not have systems for investing?

When we examine the typical approach of many investors, we often find that it is completely random. Tips, newsletters, sound bites from financial media, advisor recommendations, friends and family, and the Internet all are the typical sources of investor “information.”

Pure entropy.

Without systems, there can be no order.

Without systems, there can be no degree of predictability.

Imagine if every time we flipped on the light switch we had to hope that it worked — that the outcome was completely random. How frustrating would that be?

Yet, that is exactly how most investors invest.  

The future is unknown.  That is one certainty about life in general, investing is no exception.

But imagine if we invest using rules and systems that are designed to be more predictable in their application. And imagine that the rules never deviate. Now, no matter what the markets provide investors, we are suddenly in control because of the structure provided by a systematic approach.

Systems provide a more predictable process to unpredictable information.

So what kinds of systems might an investor want to consider and how does an investor go about implementing a systematic approach?

These are the topics of much deeper explorations in future posts, but for now, consider the following:

What if we had a systematic way to determine the best asset-classes that deserve the attention of our funds based on current information and just as importantly, we knew where not to be placing our hard earned money?

In a similar fashion, we can use systems to determine the best industry and sectors and equally important to avoid those sectors and industries performing poorly.  

Through the use of systematic screening and ranking processes that are 100% definable and data-driven, we can quickly sift and sort through thousands of stocks to find the very best ones that meet our criteria.   

Systems can also be used to gauge the general health of the financial markets. Just as we use instruments to define weather conditions, we too can use the systematic application of measuring tools to define the general health of the market.  

Know your expected outcome before you trade.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of applying systems to money management is the idea of expectancy — how an investor can practically know the expected outcome of a trade.   

That is the power of using systems and why every investor should consider using them.

But before we get to that, we need to understand perhaps the most important reason to use systems and that is this: Most investors are hard-wired to fail.  

Systems help us overcome this by providing a means for investors to minimize the involvement of their emotions.  We’ll dive into this deeper into how this works in future posts, but for now, we’re simply highlighting what you already intuitively know: Systems are everywhere, and without them, we’re left with chaos.

Taking a lesson from poker. Some thoughts on 2018 performance.

Taking a lesson from poker. Some thoughts on 2018 performance.

Why disappointing results doesn’t necessarily mean your approach is broken.

For many investors, 2018 was a challenging year. Diversification failed to help investors as most asset-classes finished with losses, more so than any other time in history.

In listening to both investors and their advisors, I have noticed an attitude that professional money management has failed them. Despite the sea of red returns, investors expected more and anything less was unacceptable. After all, it had only been a year ago that the S&P 500 had finished 22%, with international stocks doing even better.

When you go fishing in a lake with no fish, your probability of catching one is zero. And last year, there were very few places to fish for returns and expect a positive number as the following table demonstrates.

Be willing to acknowledge the role of luck.

In the book, Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke, a former professional poker player, talks about luck. She explains that people do not like the idea that luck can play a big role in our lives. While we know luck exists, we often resist the idea that even though we work hard and put forth our best efforts, things don’t always turn out the way we want or plan them to.

To survive, our brains are wired to quickly create order out of that chaos. I have written and spoken extensively on the importance of understanding sequence of return risk.  By understanding sequence risk, an investor learns how the year in which they are born will play a significant role in their future investing success or failure. Buy and hold worked for an investor who retired in the early 1980’s but the approach was a total failure for the first decade of the 2000s. That is just “luck” as it played out against a specific investment style within a window of time that the investor had no control over.

Ideally, as investors, we want to use robust systems that work well the majority of the time and that minimize the element of “luck”.  I favor rules-based (read emotionless, data-driven) strategies with built in downside risk protection supported by real-world evidence.

Professional poker players have a demanding job. They must make up to 20 decisions within two minutes and win or lose a sum of money that would buy most of us a new home. There is always an element of luck that can dictate the outcome of a hand. How does a professional poker player know the difference between skill and luck?

Don’t be guilty of “resulting”.

Ms. Duke first has us imagine the best and worst decisions we made last year. We generally consider decisions that worked out well as “good” and the decisions that didn’t work well as “bad.” We naturally link the outcome of a decision with its quality. Professional poker players call this “resulting” and they rigorously strive to avoid it.

To improve, great players strive to evaluate their decision-making processes irrespective of the outcome. One could make a great decision given all of what was known and bad luck could enter into a situation to produce a bad outcome. With good luck, a poor decision-making process can still produce a winning hand. Even the best poker player can make all the “right” decisions —based upon years of training and playing —and still lose because of bad luck. In a similar vein,

I think it is important for investors to separate results from their investing process. In the financial markets, uncertainty is the rule and all that we have are probabilities. Past is prologue and the best we can do to increase our probability of future success is to find robust investment frameworks in past data and constantly apply them to current markets.

What this means is that any rule or investing approach will at times be subject to luck. No outcome is ever certain.  In reviewing last year, I discovered that many investors focused almost exclusively on the S&P 500 as it was the only asset class positive for much of last year. (the result) Call this a selective bias, made more evident in hindsight, that made some investors question diversification (the process) itself. But just a poker player must evaluate the decision-making process, so should an investor. What investor, striving for long-term success, would purposely pick only one asset class going forward?

Every poker player has had bad luck, but the great ones continually ask: “What could have been improved in how I played that hand? Where did my decision-making process fall apart?” Sorting out the difference is the key to becoming a great poker player.

Successful investing is about seeking known processes that provide an “edge”.

Likewise, finding the right investing process in the face of randomness in the markets may seem challenging. The many factors that influence public companies and their stock prices are not predictable; they impact our investment outcomes in the short term. Factors rotate. Nothing is ever constant.

But over the long term, investors who understand how to use probabilities to their advantage are more likely to succeed. Robust, dynamic systems supported by data over a variety of economic regimes will likely continue to perform better than strategies geared to specific market conditions.

In reviewing our own models last year I can say that while I didn’t necessarily like the outcome in every case, the results were not necessarily due to a flaw in our process. Lady luck was not kind.

That said, it’s important that investors understand that there are no free lunches. A buy and hold approach assumes market risk. A tactical strategy, rules-based or otherwise, assumes process risk. But like successful poker players, investors who understand these concepts, do make money in the markets. They understand that good process does not always mean a winning hand with each deal of the cards but the consistent application of a proven process that tilts the “edge” in their favor will reap long term rewards.

Process Trumps Product

Process Trumps Product

If you have been in the investment industry longer than 5 minutes you have come to realize that investors, i.e. your clients are not rational beings.  When times are good, they want it all and then some.  When times are bad, they forget what they told you during the good times, and suddenly expect you to have read their mind and taken a different approach.

What I have come to realize in my nearly three decades of working in the investment industry is that clients only want one thing:  They want to know and believe that they are on the path to get them where they want to be financially.

Notice I said to believe.  Along the way, there will be things that shake their belief.  The greatest skill you can learn and the greatest value you can deliver as a financial professional is keeping your clients on their path and from sabotaging their success with harmful human behavior.

Focus on using a predictable process to manage an unpredictable future.

We cannot predict what the financial markets will do. The future is uncertain.  We do however have control over the processes and systems we use to manage our client portfolios.

Consider the traditional approach that 99% of financial advisors take. “Mr. & Mrs. Jones, I want you to buy XYZ Product because…blah…blah blah”.  This conversation is product-focused.  Discussed are past returns and product features.

This approach puts you at an immediate disadvantage because (a) you have no control over the markets, (b) you have no control over how a given product will perform, and (c) the whole process leaves a great deal to chance.

Financial plans should not be left to chance.  Chance equates to gambling.

By being product focused, you sound like every other financial advisor.  You become lost in the noise.  A product is simply a means to an end rather than the end itself.

Understand the key emotions that drive most investors.

There are two emotional needs of all clients.  First, clients do not like losses.  Large losses are damaging both psychologically as well as mathematically to the success of a financial plan.  Large losses (>20%) should be avoided.  Many clients may jump ship after taking large losses and there will be no amount of convincing you can do to get them to ride the same ship again.

The second emotion of clients is the fear of missing out (FOMO).  Clients want to know they are on target.  They need to believe the path they are on is taking them there.   They don’t want to miss out.

Focusing on a product alone misses these emotional needs.  It does not connect to the emotional side of the brain.  Remember that with any type of purchase an emotional decision is made first.  Logic (the side that product/feature presentations are geared to) only comes into play after the emotional decision to buy has been made.

What if instead of focusing on product, you focus on the process you use to connect to their two emotional needs?

What if you show a process about how investments are selected?  How no matter what the market throws at us, your portfolio will automatically adapt?  What if you discuss how during wealth accumulation periods, the process automatically selected the top performing investments and avoided the worst?   What if you discuss a process designed to limit losses and become defensive during unfavorable market periods?

None of that discussion has anything to do with a product.  But it does communicate a process to address the two key investor emotions you need to be focusing on.

By focusing on the process, it allows you to fill in the blank with the product, as long as that product follows the process you outlined.

Maybe it’s a separately managed account, an ETF, or another investment structure. But the structure, i.e. the product, is secondary.  The focus should always be on the process…because that is THE ONLY thing you can control.

And that is why process trumps product and how successful financial professionals differentiate themselves.

What is Diversification?

What is Diversification?

The only free lunch?

Diversification has become an accepted, foundational principle for constructing investment portfolios. In many cases, the discussion around diversification centers on incorporating multiple asset classes into a portfolio to enhance the overall risk/return profile. This is the classic approach widely adopted by most financial planners.

In our view, strategy diversification is an additional, important investment tool for constructing portfolios. It is not just what securities are owned but also how and why. In using a rules-based system, these questions are answered very precisely.

Passive diversification derives return by accepting market risk.  A traditional diversified portfolio includes stocks and bonds, often at 60% and 40% allocation.  These investments are meant to be held during all market cycles with the understanding that when one asset class is down, the other is usually up.  But the risk of passive diversification is that there have been times when this theory wasn’t true.  A passive investor must be willing to hold an investment through sustained periods of losses and portfolio drawdowns.

Tactical portfolios derive return by accepting strategy or active risk.  It is often thought of as a risk management tool with the potential to reduce volatility and protect capital. It may also offer the potential to act as a portfolio growth engine by capturing unique investment returns, such as in sector and country rotation strategies.  Tactical management offers the potential to protect against downside market risk and capture upside market returns, but it is important to recognize it will not eliminate risk. Instead, risk has simply changed form, from market risk to strategy risk.

Benchmarking tactical strategies are often difficult.

One of the most common failings of the investment industry is the prevalence of poorly specified benchmarks.

By design, tactical management looks and behaves differently than strategic, passive investment allocations. These differences are sometimes misunderstood, and the ability to effectively extract returns through tactical management requires sustained commitment. Because tactical strategies behave differently than popular investment benchmarks, it is important to determine how long and by how much an investor will allow a tactical strategy to underperform against an appropriate benchmark. A significant risk for investors that utilize tactical strategies is not that the tactical strategy does not work, but rather that the tactical strategy is inappropriately benchmarked, leading to false comparisons or expectations.

Tactical strategies that reduce exposure to underperforming asset classes offer the potential to reduce volatility and protect against significant portfolio downside.  Downside protection is essential for investors with finite horizons, as the sequence of returns becomes particularly meaningful.  It may be impossible or difficult to avoid some drawdown or losses in investment portfolios, but the potential for tactical management to cushion drawdowns may make the difference as investors attempt to weather inevitable pullbacks and market volatility.