Archive | Behavioral finance

The Biggest DIY Investing Challenges

At the recent Canadian Personal Finance Conference in Toronto, I participated in a panel discussion that touched on a wide range of investing topics. My co-panelists were Michael James and financial planner Jason Heath, and we were moderated by the esteemed Big Cajun Man. The first question we were asked to address is whether it makes sense to use an advisor or to invest on your own.

That was a tough question to tackle in a room full of committed do-it-yourselfers. It’s also one I’ve struggled to answer honestly in the last couple of years. I’ve been an advocate of DIY investing for some time, and I still believe many investors with uncomplicated situations are capable of managing a simple index fund portfolio on their own. Indeed, I think anyone with less than $100,000 or so should seriously consider doing so, because it’s awfully difficult to find an unbiased, fee-based advisor unless your portfolio is larger. And unfortunately, it’s all too easy to find a commission-based mutual fund salesperson who will turn your wealth into his own.

But over the years, as I’ve corresponded with readers—and more recently started working with clients—I’ve learned that DIY investing is much harder than it sounds.

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Why Your Problem Is Not Your Funds

In Monday’s post I looked at “smart beta,” which promises to outperform cap-weighted indexing strategies. I’m frequently asked if I think Couch Potato investors should dump their traditional index funds in favour of these tempting alternatives. Here’s why my answer is no.

I could rhyme off technical reasons for being skeptical about the outperformance of alternative indexes: the research ignores costs and taxes, the strategies may not work in the future, and so on. But I won’t go down that road, because the most important reason is not technical, but behavioral.

Everything beats the market—except investors

To recap, two recent papers from Cass Business School in London looked at US stocks from 1968 through 2011, a period when a cap-weighted portfolio would have returned 9.4% annually. (Canadian stocks had an almost identical return over those 43 years.) The researchers examined 13 alternative strategies—which favoured value stocks, small-cap stocks or low-volatility stocks—and found all of them outperformed, with returns between 9.8% and 11.5%.

For many people, the takeaway from these findings is, “I should use alternative indexes, because I can beat the market by a point or two.” My reaction is different: I want to know how many investors earned even 9.4%.

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Does Dollar-Cost Averaging Work?

Many readers were surprised when I answered a recent Ask the Spud question by suggesting you’re usually better off investing a lump sum rather than using dollar-cost averaging (DCA).

DCA is popular technique that crops up all the time in personal finance books—David Chilton’s The Wealthy Barber was one of the first to popularize it back in the late 1980s. If you need a refresher, DCA is a strategy for investing a large sum gradually. For example, if you have $100,000 you might invest $25,000 today and the same amount in each of the next three quarters, or perhaps $5,000 at a time over 20 months.

The idea sounds appealing: if the markets plummet after you invest a lump sum, you’ll suffer a major loss and be filled with regret. However, by investing a little at a time you avoid putting all your money at risk immediately, and if markets decline you’ll benefit by making some of your purchases when prices are low.

Roy, the eponymous hero of The Wealthy Barber, made DCA seem like magic: “Dollar cost averaging is as close to infallible investing as you can get.

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Are Investors Really This Clueless?

Franklin Templeton recently released its 2013 Global Investor Sentiment Survey, which polled 9,518 people from 19 countries. The survey found that 81% of Canadian investors “expressed optimism about reaching their financial goals.” However, many of the other results suggest this optimism may be misplaced.

I want to stress this wasn’t a random survey conducted on street corners, where you would expect some respondents to be oblivious teenagers or people without money to invest. All of them were at least 25 years old and owned a significant amount of stocks, bonds or mutual funds, ensuring they had “a knowledge base from which to answer the survey questions.”

Here’s the first head-slapper: 52% of Canadians in the survey believed the stock market declined or was flat in 2012. In fact, the S&P/TSX Composite was up 7.2% last year. That’s a remarkable lack of awareness that shows how many investors still refuse to believe we’ve been enjoying a bull market for more than four years. Even more amazing, almost a third of US investors also said the market was flat or down in 2012, despite a rip-roaring 16% return for the S&P 500.

Given these misperceptions,

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The Power of Simple Portfolios

Carl Richards, author of The Behavior Gap, wrote an insightful article in February called Why We Fear Simple Money Solutions. “People say they want things to be simpler—investing, life insurance, retirement planning, etc.,” he observed. “But when a simpler (and effective) option is proposed, they reject it as too simple.”

I recently came face to face with this idea when working with a client of PWL Capital’s DIY Investor Service. Barbara had a portfolio of dozens of stocks and ETFs that followed no rhyme or reason. She admitted she enjoyed making trades and was inclined to buy simply buy stocks she had read about in the media. There were some blue-chip dividend payers, a couple of precious metal ETFs, plus a few random penny stocks thrown in for good measure. In other words, the portfolio was a complicated mess.

To Barbara’s credit, she realized this sort of seat-of-the-pants strategy wasn’t working: with about half a million in her RRSP and retirement approaching quickly, she knew she needed a more disciplined plan. That’s why she came to us.

After we reviewed Barbara’s spending patterns, pension income and other factors,

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Scary When They’re Down, Scary When They’re Up

It’s been barely a month since Alexander Green remarked that we’re currently enjoying “the most disrespected bull market in history.” Green described how investors who were shell-shocked by 2008 were still pulling money out of equities and taking shelter in fixed income and cash. And until very recently, the financial media were fanning the flames of pessimism: a Wall Street Journal reporter called 2012 “another very difficult year for investors” even though the MSCI World Index was up over 16%.

I’m ready to declare this trend is reversing. I have no hard data, but in the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in the tone of reader emails. For almost three years, the common refrain was “I’m nervous about getting into stocks because the markets have been terrible lately.” But since the New Year, that’s changed to, “I’m nervous about getting into stocks because the markets have been so good lately.”

In case you missed the irony, let me hit you over the head with it: instead of being afraid because stocks fell sharply in 2008, investors are now afraid because they’ve risen sharply since 2009.

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Does a 60/40 Portfolio Still Make Sense?

For as long as I can remember, the traditional balanced portfolio has been 60% equities and 40% bonds. Indeed, all of my own model portfolios use that overall asset mix as a starting point. But a lot of industry folks are arguing that a 60/40 blend no longer makes sense.

In a recent article from the Associated Press, one fund manager put it this way: “One reason I’m skeptical about 60/40 is that it’s probably not aggressive enough, at least for a 40-year-old investor. You need to invest more in assets that are riskier than bonds if you want to meet your investment goals without having to save an extremely large percentage of your income.”

Historically, there’s no question this allocation served investors well. According to Vanguard, a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds would have returned 8.6% annualized from 1926 through 2011. Even if you subtract a full percentage point for costs, that rate of return would have been adequate to meet any reasonable retirement goal.

But that figure is based on an 86-year period where bond returns averaged 5.6%. In Canada, a diversified bond portfolio returned over 9% annually during the last 30 years as interest rates trended steadily downward,

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What Investors Can Learn From Weather Forecasts

I’ve never made a secret of my opinion that acting on market forecasts is destructive to investors. Nate Silver’s fascinating new book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t includes some telling examples from the world of finance, but he drives home this idea even more forcefully with his insights about the weather.

Silver explains that meteorological forecasts are quite accurate if they’re made just a few days in advance, but the further out you go, the less helpful they become. Forecasts made eight days in advance are useless, and beyond that they’re actually harmful: “They are worse than what you or I could do sitting around at home and looking up the table of long-term weather averages,” Silver writes. Yet despite being aware of this evidence, The Weather Channel and AccuWeather make forecasts for 10 days and 15 days into the future, respectively.

The book also describes how for-profit weather services are more concerned with the perception of accuracy than with accuracy itself. This gives them an incentive to be bolder than they should be. If their models forecast a 50% likelihood of rain,

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A Market Forecaster’s Report Card

As 2011 came to a close, the usual army of market gurus began making predictions for 2012. I’ve often criticized market forecasters for their embarrassing track records, so this year I made a point of saving a few articles so I could see how accurate their crystal balls would turn out to be.

The first one I bookmarked was called 10 market predictions for 2012—and how to profit from them, in The Globe and Mail. The guru is a portfolio manager for the GMG Defensive Beta Fund, based in New York. Let’s see how accurate his calls turned out to be, and whether you should have acted on them.

1. The S&P 500 will rise by at least 10%.

This probably seemed wildly optimistic a year ago, but it was correct. In fact, the S&P 500 is up about 16% so far in 2012. Unfortunately, the tactical advice was less helpful: “If you have a lot of conviction this prediction will come true, you might consider buying the Russell 1000 High Beta ETF. If you think the election will work its magic,

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