All Things Financial Planning Blog


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Young Investors Key to Beating the Market


Invest Outside the BoxWant to know how to beat the market? “Sure,” you may say, “it’s possible. If I spent my every waking hour researching undervalued companies.”

But, what if I told you I had a fool proof way for those with time to spare to win against the market, without searching rummage shops for discarded crystal balls, or trusting in your uncle’s stock advice? And on top of that, even the most novice investor can use this strategy and win?

Impossible? Read on.

The way to beat the market isn’t by finding the next hot mutual fund manager or dedicating yourself to becoming the next Warren Buffett, it’s simply how you manage your tilt.

Your “tilt” is how your portfolio is invested in the market. You hopefully are diversified over the universe of stocks, but your tilt tells your holdings of large or mega companies versus small or medium sized firms. It also tells if you tend to invest in companies trading at premiums or discounts to the overall market.

More often than not, most retirement investors I meet are “top heavy,” investing in a mix that doesn’t stray too far from the market represented to a higher degree by largest companies, or a mix that resembles the S&P 500 (most people refer to this as the market). This is often the case if you’re investing in a Target Retirement Date fund, or any other fund or funds, or have a managed account.

However, is this the best mix when you’re young and have time to take risks?

By shifting the weights of your portfolio towards areas of the market that tend to have higher degrees of return (and volatility), you may supercharge your retirement accounts when starting out, specifically by using a greater share than the market of smaller companies with more room to grow, and stocks that are trading at a discount to the market (value stocks).

How much better can you do than the S&P 500 by including more small and value in your mix?
The S&P 500 averaged 9.5% per year since 1928. One can not invest in an index, but if you could and had invested $1 in the S&P 500 way back then, you would have had $3,530 at the end of 2012.

Using a similar strategy of owning the stock market, but by shifting the tilt to include more small, and more value, a portfolio that tracks Dimensional Fund Advisors US Adjusted Market Value Index would have averaged 11.7% during the same period. An investment of $1 would have grown to $11,998.

A strategy of tilting more towards small and value stocks will be more volatile than the market, so don’t think this approach will only lead to gains; you still have to master the skill of not watching your accounts rise and fall in the short run. However, while you’re accumulating and have a long time horizon, volatility can be your friend.

robertSchmanskyRobert Schmansky, CFP®
Financial Advisor
Clear Financial Advisors, LLC
Royal Oak, MI


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Are You an Investor or Speculator?


A Worthwhile Financial Market DiagnosisHow can you tell if you are you an investor or a speculator? Many casual investors buy stocks and assume they are investing, but in reality, they are actually speculating. True investing entails conducting a thorough analysis of a company, determining whether the current price is justified, deciding whether the stock would be a good addition to your portfolio, and repeating the process periodically; speculation is simply buying a stock because you think it’s a good company or you heard a good tip, but you really don’t know how the company makes money, who its competitors are, or in some cases, even what it does. Most people would say they are an investor, but unless you are employing the fundamental analysis discussed below, you may actually be a speculator.

Top-Down

Suppose you believe that the new Affordable Care Act will benefit pharmaceutical companies and you want to capitalize on that potential gain. In a top-down approach, you would first generate a list of all the publicly traded pharmaceutical companies. Then you would compare them among each other using that industry’s metric. If any of the companies are non-US companies, then you need to translate the company’s currency to the US dollar for an equal comparison. Some common comparison metrics include: profit margins, sales, market capitalization, market penetration, debt/equity, etc. In addition, each industry has its own unique metric. For example, airlines use (revenues per passenger miles) and hotels use (average daily rate). Once you have identified the best stock within your filtered list, then you can determine whether the stock price is cheap or expensive versus its competitors.

Bottom-Up

Suppose you are an avid Facebook user and want to invest in the stock. In a bottom-up approach, you would first obtain financial information for Facebook to understand how it makes money. What are its income sources: advertising, selling products, partnerships? How much of their income comes from each source? Who are its competitors and what do their numbers look like? Keep in mind, just because a company makes a ton of money, it still doesn’t make it a good investment. Facebook made $5 billion in 2012 while Microsoft made $74 billion in 2012, yet Facebook stock trades at almost 143 times the value of Microsoft.

Research Reports

Some investors prefer to rely on research reports prepared by prominent analysts at investment banks. One of the many lessons the recent financial crisis taught us is that investment banks have countless conflicts of interest. There is no shortage of headlines where an investment bank issued research reports where they also did investment banking for the company in question. Unless the research is truly independent and neither the analyst nor their firms have a vested interest in the companies they cover, their assessment of a company is tainted by their firm’s relationship with the company being reviewed.

As you can see, researching individual stocks is very labor intensive whether you use the top-down or bottom-up approach. The analysis doesn’t stop when you buy the stock, you must continue to monitor the company (not just the stock price) to ensure it still meets your criteria. It’s ok to invest in stocks, but investors must recognize that unless they conduct ongoing and thorough analysis, they are merely gambling.

Ara OghoorianAra Oghoorian, CFP®, CFA
Founder and President
ACap Asset Management
Los Angeles, CA


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How Accurate is Your Retirement Model?


Insider’s Guide to Finding a Financial PlannerI recently had the opportunity to revisit retirement modeling software. As one of my jobs, I teach a economics course, and one of the things I tell my students and financial advising clients is that models can provide us with ideas of how things may work, but with all of the independent variables that exist in the world, they aren’t likely to play out like we hope.

I was revisiting modeling software in part due to a recent critic of those that do not use “advanced” software to project hypothetical outcomes for clients. I used to. I’ve since given it up for many reasons. Mostly because I’ve seen life-changing decisions being made based on a model. “Mr. & Mrs. Client, you can take $50,000 out of your portfolio to buy that RV, and still feel secure in your retirement.”

That was 2007’s annual review of the model. After the market drop, the model was quite different, but the investor at least had a 2nd mobile home now.

Retirement models, like economic models or model trains, can show us a lot about the thing we’re modeling, but it is no substitute for ongoing advice and planning. And, modeling a few worst cases along with the normal case is the least you should do when making decisions based on models.

Of utmost importance however is that you understand the assumptions and factors being used. I can not begin to describe the number of retirement models I’ve seen that were so flawed with incorrect data and bogged down by assumptions. There are often static assumptions (I save $6,000 to my IRA every year), and variable assumptions (rate of investment return).

In my opinion the mixing of so many assumptions in one software package most often leads to incorrect projections. For example, most individuals savings can be variable. You may make a Roth IRA deposit this year, you may not. But, how you project for it makes a difference in the outcome. Are you taking Roth IRA contributions from one account and putting it into another, depleting your savings in order to do so? Does your modeling software know the difference? If you know enough to tell it to.

Do you own a business? How is that being treated? Investments? What assumptions are being used for rates of return, interest, inflation…?

A recent tread is to model various social security strategies that couples may be able to benefit from. One variable that many who do this on their own may forget is the life expectancy. If you just ran the model without thinking beyond the various scenarios, would it give you the right answer, or is this just a case of garbage in, garbage out?

For that reason I strongly recommend a second opinion on any retirement strategy. Retirement models do not take into account the complexities that exist with the individual choices that feed into your personal financial plan. FPA’s PlannerSearch tool can help you find local financial advisors to give feedback on your financial plans, and advice on the strengths, or weaknesses, of your retirement projections and plan.

robertSchmanskyRobert Schmansky, CFP®
Financial Advisor
Clear Financial Advisors, LLC
Royal Oak, MI


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Defining Diversification


In the top few responses most people give when you ask what they know about investing, “it’s important to be diversified” is right up there with “buy low, sell high”. Both statements are true and very important components of investing. My concern is that we hear and say these things so often, we lose sight of what they actually mean.

Investopedia.com defines Diversification as “a risk management technique that mixes a wide variety of investments within a portfolio.” True, but what the heck does that mean? Can it be any mix of investments? What does it really hope to accomplish? Is my portfolio diverse?

Today my goal is not to sell you on a particular investment strategy or convince you that there is any one way to properly diversify. My hope is to provide some key educational points to enhance your understanding of this important rule of thumb.

As the last several years have shown, investing in the stock market can be a volatile experience. If you invest in stock in one or even a small handful of companies, the value of your portfolio can shift wildly, often it seems for no logical reason. The primary purpose to diversify your investments is to decrease these and other risks.

How does one increase a portfolio’s diversity? Let’s look at a portfolio strictly invested in stocks. The simple answer is to buy a higher number of stocks. The better answer is to buy a higher number of different kinds of stocks. Suppose you own General Motors. Buying Ford might technically make you more diverse, but only slightly so. You still own just two companies, both large, US automakers. Instead, you should look at a vast array of companies differing in size, location and type.

This means expanding your portfolio to large and small companies of all types (often called sectors) all across the globe, avoiding the urge to own more companies in the U.S. than in other parts of the world. U.S. companies make up just 40-50% of global market share. By focusing solely on the U.S., you cut off the opportunity to better diversify and participate in the opportunity for growth in more than 50% of the world’s companies.

I want to stress that none of this is a blueprint for any type of investment strategy. It is simply an effort to help you understand what diversification means. How much diversification, in what areas, and the blend or allocation of different types of assets is a decision that should be made with careful thought and, in most cases, professional advice based on your goals and ability to tolerate risk.

As you approach your personal financial planning and goals, it’s important to obtain at least a basic grasp on the essentials in order to make the most educated decisions possible. There are lots of trusted professionals there to help, but knowledge is always a worthwhile investment.

Chip Workman, CFP®, MBA
Lead Advisor
The Asset Advisory Group
Cincinnati, OH


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How to Buy Commodities


You have probably heard that commodities are a great way to protect your portfolio from inflation and offer variety from traditional stocks and bonds; but what are commodities, and how does someone actually invest in them?

Commodities are raw items that are used in the production of goods and are broken up into two segments: hard and soft. Hard commodities are mined (gold, silver, platinum) while soft commodities are consumed (wheat, corn, coffee beans, etc.). There are three ways to own commodities: own the physical commodity itself, buy futures contracts, or buy through a mutual fund or ETF. Owning gold coins is an example of a physical holding, while trading a futures contract is the more advanced investment strategy. However, for most investors, the best way to get exposure to commodities is through a mutual fund or ETF.

Physical Commodities
Buying the tangible commodity is the most cumbersome because you have to figure out where to store it, spoilage (for soft commodities), insurance, and liquidity (ability to sell something quickly). Assume you bought 2,000 bushels of corn to protect against rising food prices and to diversify your portfolio; unless you had a barn (which most of us city-folk do not), you would have to figure out where to store it to protect it from spoiling, and you may even want to buy insurance in case your barn or corn-storage facility burned down. If you decided to sell your corn, you would have to find a buyer that wanted exactly 2,000 bushels of corn and was willing to pay market prices; pretty difficult to do if you are not a farmer. This hassle-full scenario is just for one commodity! Imagine if you wanted to diversify among several commodities, which is the financial sound strategy. All these factors make owning physical commodities too cost and time prohibitive.

Futures Contracts
Futures contracts make it easier to invest in a very specific commodity with minimal cost and without the limitations of owning the physical asset. A futures contract is a standardized agreement between two parties to exchange an asset for a set price and quantity, and on a given day. Futures contracts are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) and are all standardized. For example, 1 corn futures contract equals 5,000 bushels of corn; 1 coffee contract controls 37,500 pounds of coffee, and 1 gold contract equals 100 troy ounces of gold. Continuing with the corn example from above, you would buy 1 corn futures contract on the CME to protect against rising food prices. If corn prices do rise, your futures contract increases in value; but if corn prices decline, your futures contract decreases in value. At the end of the contract term, you either have to take possession of underlying commodity (rarely occurs) or take an offsetting position in your futures contract. Trading futures is a very advanced investing strategy not suitable for most investors.

Mutual Fund or ETF
Mutual funds and ETFs are the best way for the average investor to gain exposure to a broad basket of commodities, without incurring the risks described with owning the physical asset or buying a futures contract. Mutual funds and ETFs can be easily bought or sold and can also be held in your regular investment accounts (IRAs, some 401ks, or brokerage accounts). Most commodity mutual funds and ETFs are structured as partnerships, which means they require additional tax reporting if held in a taxable account; therefore, investors should carefully review the structure of the commodity mutual fund or ETFs before investing to decide which account it should be invested in to minimize tax consequences.

Ara OghoorianAra Oghoorian, CFP®, CFA
Founder and President
ACap Asset Management
Los Angeles, CA


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How Sharpe is Your Portfolio?


Whenever I meet with prospective clients, I usually hear the following comment “I want my portfolio to outperform the overall market, but I don’t want to take any risk.” It’s understandable; individuals want their investments to do well when the market is up, but they also don’t want to lose any money when the market is down. Unfortunately, risk and return have a positive relationship: the higher the expected return, the greater the risk. The optimal portfolio earns the maximum return with the least amount of risk, but how does someone create that optimal portfolio? One method used by professional money managers is the eponymous Sharpe Ratio. Created by Nobel Laureate William Sharpe, the Sharpe ratio is a measure of risk-adjusted returns or how good is your investment return given the amount of risk taken. The higher the Sharpe ratio for an investment, the better the risk-adjusted return.

What is Risk
The Sharpe Ratio is simple to compute and is comprised of only three variables: expected return, risk-free rate, and standard deviation. Standard deviation is the most widely used measure for risk in portfolios because it shows the variation of returns from the average return. The greater the standard deviation, the greater the risk. The risk-free rate is a theoretical investment with no-risk and typical proxy is a short-term government bond yield. The Sharpe Ratio is calculated using the formula below.

(Expected Return of Portfolio – Risk Free Rate) / Portfolio Standard Deviation of Portfolio

Apples and Oranges
Assume your portfolio had a 15 percent rate of return last year while the overall market earned only 10 percent. Your initial thought would be that your portfolio is better than the overall market because of your added return. However, even though your return was greater than the overall market, if you take into consideration the risk of your portfolio, calculated using the Sharpe Ratio, you may have assumed much more risk than you thought. Hence, your portfolio was not optimal. Let’s assume that your portfolio had a standard deviation of 13 percent versus 6 percent for the overall market, and the risk-free rate was 2 percent.

Sharpe Ratio for your portfolio: (15 – 2) / 13 = 1.00
Sharpe Ratio for the overall market: (10 – 2) / 6 = 1.33

In this example, we see that while your portfolio earned more than the market, your Sharpe Ratio was significantly less. The market portfolio with a higher Sharpe Ratio was a more optimal portfolio even though the return was less. Therefore, you assumed excess risk without additional compensation. Conversely, the overall market, with the higher Sharpe Ratio, had a higher risk-adjusted return.

Not Everyone Is Normal
One of the biggest advantages of the Sharpe Ratio is also its biggest weakness. The Sharpe Ratio relies on the standard deviation as a measure of risk, however, the standard deviation assumes a normal (bell shaped) distribution whereby the mean, mode, and median are all equal. Recent history has shown us that market returns are not normally distributed in the short-term and that they are actually skewed. In a skewed distribution, the standard deviation becomes meaningless because the mean can be either greater than or less than other measures of central tendency. In addition, when short-term volatility spikes as it has in the last 3 years with large swings in both directions, the standard deviation rises and causes the Sharpe Ratio to be lower.

Why Diversification Matters
Constructing a diversified portfolio actually improves expected returns without increasing risk. The standard deviation of an individual asset is based on that asset’s variability from the mean. Standard deviation of a portfolio (multiple assets combined) is calculated using each asset’s standard deviation, the asset’s weight in the portfolio, and the correlation coefficient among the assets. When two assets have low correlations and they are combined to form a portfolio, the portfolio standard deviation is lower than the sum of the two standard deviations. As a result, the Sharpe Ratio tends to be higher because the denominator of the ratio is lower.

Ara OghoorianAra Oghoorian, CFP®, CFA
Founder and President
ACap Asset Management
Los Angeles, CA


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Don’t Put All Your Apples in One Basket


Despite its recent declines, Apple stock is still up 543 percent since the market low of March 9, 2009. Even if you bought Apple last year, you still made a hefty 40 percent return. There is no denying that Apple has been a fantastic investment. Maybe you didn’t purchase any Apple stock, so you think you missed out on a great opportunity. But whether you bought the stock or not, unbeknownst to you, you may actually own much more of that famous fruit than you think. Be careful, too many bites of Apple could make your financial stomach (portfolio) hurt if the stock continues to slide.

Watch Your Weight

Most investors use mutual funds to diversify and gain exposure to well known indexes such as the S&P 500 or NASDAQ. Nearly all large cap funds boast having Apple as one of their top 10 holdings. It is true that these indexes offer the opportunity for diversification because of their broad based holdings, but because these indexes are market-cap weighted, their exposure (and your risk) to Apple grows every time Apple stock rises. Indexes are created in one of three ways: price weighted, market-cap weighted, or equal weighted. A price weighted index (i.e. Dow Jones Industrial Average) is heavily influenced by the highest priced stock in the index; a market-cap weighted index is heavily influenced by the largest company in that index; and an equal weighted index is adjusted periodically so that each component has an equal weight.

Many mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) that track the S&P 500 or NASDAQ have seen their exposure to Apple grow over time because most are market-cap weighted. For example, the Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX) has seen its exposure to Apple grow from 6.9 percent in 2011 to 9.4 percent in 2012; the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) went from having 2.7 percent of its assets in Apple to 4.4 percent in 2012; and PowerShares NASDAQ (QQQ) has nearly 18 percent of its assets in Apple, up from 15 percent in 2011. If you think you have sufficiently diversified by owning these large cap funds and have a few shares of Apple on the side, you may have too many Apples in your proverbial basket.

Don’t Follow the Herd

Investors and actively managed mutual fund managers alike are known to follow the herd. Fund managers that do not have Apple stock in their top 10 holdings saw their judgment questioned by the fund’s shareholders, similar to when Warren Buffett was questioned by shareholders as to why he would not buy dot.com stocks in the 1990s; Buffett was later vindicated for having avoided the dot.com bubble. During the dot-com era, it seemed everyone was investing in internet stocks. It wasn’t uncommon to hear everyday investors at cocktail parties brag about their investments in Cisco, Lucent, AOL, and other venerable companies that subsequently lost tremendous value when the market collapsed. The people who lost the most in their retirement and investment accounts were those who became overly concentrated in a single sector or stock and failed to diversify out of those positions. They only realized after the fact that they were overexposed to technology stocks. Fast forward a few years, and these same individuals migrated to the next hottest investment – real estate. Many wrongly assumed that real estate would never lose value. After that came the gold craze, and most recently the Apple sensation. What’s next? Facebook?

Use the 5% Rule

While it’s a great feeling to see one of your stock picks skyrocket like Apple has, the reality is that not all of your stocks will be future winners. I always recommend that clients keep no more than 5 percent of their total portfolio in individual stocks because, while individual stocks can have tremendous growth potential, one bad stock can ruin your entire portfolio, especially if that one stock is a large part of your portfolio. No one expected such giant companies like Enron, Fannie Mae, General Motors, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Circuit City, Global Crossing, WorldCom, UAL Corp (parent of United Airlines), AOL, Lucent, etc. to either go bankrupt or completely wipe out their shareholders, but they did, and many people lost their entire life savings. Do not let yourself become overly exposed to one stock or sector of the market.

I am not attempting to predict the future price of Apple or advising against owning individual stocks altogether. I am simply reminding investors of the clear, but sometimes not-so-easy decision to review your portfolio periodically. Make sure you are not overly exposed to any segment of the market, and that you’re not taking on more risk than you can handle.

Ara OghoorianAra Oghoorian, CFP®, CFA
Founder and President
ACap Asset Management
Los Angeles, CA