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Nowhere to Hide for Investors

Written by Lester Detterbeck.

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Most years, financial markets are a mixed bag; some asset classes are up and some are down. Some years, like 2017, everything is up. And then there are years, like 2018, when everything is down. It’s been decades since stocks, bonds, commodities and gold all have reported negative results. Even though the American economy remains strong, with low unemployment and steady growth, expectations for the future have diminished. Rising trade tensions, a sharp slowdown in Chinese spending, rising interest rates and no additional tax reform have reduced the outlook for economic growth and corporate profits worldwide.

So, what’s an investor to do? We suggest you go back to the basics and review your financial and investment strategy for the future:

1)Determine how much risk you need to take on to meet your financial goals. What is the annual real rate of return you need to have enough money for your lifetime(s) and the legacy you wish to leave? When we say real return, we mean the nominal return less inflation. You, perhaps with help from your financial adviser, need to determine your expected investment portfolio at your time of “financial independence,” the annual amount you expect to withdraw from the portfolio to cover your needed and wanted expenses (any annual amount over 4% of the portfolio could be a problem), estimated inflation and estimated longevity. The calculation will produce a rate of return needed to meet your financial goals.

2)Next, determine how much risk you want to take on. Your “risk profile” is based on your risk capacity (your financial assets), your risk tolerance (your attitudes about risk), and your risk perception (your current feelings about risk). We’re all hard-wired with certain attitudes about risk. Some of us are aggressive and some of us are conservative or even defensive. Some of us are victims of the “recency bias,” which means that we think that whatever direction the markets have moved recently will continue (forever). At a minimum, we need to take on the risk we earlier determined necessary to meet our goals. If that seems too aggressive then we need to revise our financial goals downwards. If we want to take on more risk than is needed to reach our goals, that’s a personal choice.

3)Your risk profile should be based on the long-term, but may need to be adjusted. Once you, perhaps with help from your financial adviser, have determined you long-term risk profile as defensive, conservative, balanced, growth or aggressive, you should maintain that profile for the long-term and not move up or down due to short-term market conditions. Don’t try to time the markets’ ups and down. Staying invested for the long-term in an appropriate risk profile is your best strategy. However, life events can result in major changes in a person’s life. Death of a family member or loved one, marriage, relationship issues, changes in employment, illness and injury are all examples. At these times, your risk profile should be reviewed and, if appropriate, adjusted.

4)Determine an asset allocation based on your risk profile. There are three major asset classes; stocks (equity), bonds (fixed income), and alternatives (gold, real estate, etc.). Your risk profile will determine how much of your portfolio would be in each of these categories. A defensive investor would likely have little or no equity, substantial fixed income, and some alternatives. An aggressive investor could have most or all in equity, some or no fixed income and some or no alternatives. A balanced investor might have 50% equity, 25% fixed income and 25% alternatives.

5)Compare the real return you need to the asset allocation. Let’s use a balanced investor, for example. If equities have an expected net long-term return of 8-10%, fixed income 2-4%, and alternatives 2-4%, a balanced investor would have a hypothetical long-term net return of 6%. (9%x.5 + 3%x.25 +3%x.25). A 6% nominal return during times of 3% inflation produces a 3% real return. Compare this real return to your return needed in exercise one. A defensive investor who has no equities will be fortunate to have a hypothetical return equal to inflation. Someone who sits in cash will not even keep up with inflation. An aggressive investor, with all or mostly equities, will, over time, have the greatest return and will experience the greatest volatility. Aggressive is not for the faint of heart, aggressive investors generally lost 30-45% of their portfolio value in 2008.

6)Diversify your portfolio. After selecting your asset allocation, you need to look at your “investment styles” within each asset class. You should consider a global allocation for diversification. In 2018, while all equities are down, the S&P 500, led by Facebook, Apple, Netflix and Google, has been down the least. But, it doesn’t always work that way. The S&P 500 index was down 9.1% cumulatively from 2000-2009, while international stocks were up 17% cumulatively including emerging markets, which were up 154%. In the 11 decades starting in 1900 and ending in 2010, the US market outperformed the world market in 5 decades and underperformed in the other six. Consider perhaps having 20-30% of your equities in international holdings and make sure you have exposure to mid cap and small stocks domestically.

Conclusion: 2018 has been a tough year, particularly after 2017 was so good. We sometimes forget that even with the 10% and more corrections in the markets since October 1, equities have been up 7-10% per year, fixed income and alternatives up about 2% per year over the last three years ending this Monday, December 17th. If you need/want a real return above zero, you will likely need to invest in equities in some proportion. Determine how much risk you need/want and stick with it for the long-term, subject to life events changing it. Stay diversified and stay invested. Focus on what you can control, including enjoying the holiday season. Happy Holidays.