Category Archives: Informational

August 14, 2018

An Evidence-Based Approach to Sustainable Investing Part III: Sustainable Investing Today

Written by Andrew Hunt

In parts I and II of our series, “An Evidence-Based Approach to Sustainable Investing,” we introduced key building blocks for sustainable investing, and summarized current strategies for building them into your own portfolio. The ground we’ve covered so far may suffice to help you determine if and how you would like to invest more sustainably. But before we wrap, we’d like to dig a little deeper into sustainable investing today.

A Standard Challenge

First the promising news: As we touched on earlier, there already are ways to factor in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) ratings – here and now. Practitioners also continue to explore how impact investing (i.e., more direct involvement in corporate governance) may lead to improved outcomes for all concerned. On both fronts, we are optimistic that evidence-based ESG investing can grow increasingly relevant as it matures and melds into our existing best practices.

That said, we face a noteworthy challenge in this still-nascent field: Strong, time-tested company reporting standards remain a work in progress among ESG practitioners.

For example, “Why and How Investors Use ESG Information” suggests one of our biggest decision-making challenges is “the lack of comparability of reported information across firms.” The report further notes, “qualitative comments confirm that a lack of standardization and quantification are the main obstacles to ESG data integration.”

To be fair, strong company reporting standards are a challenge for any evidence-based investment approach. But it can be especially daunting when an approach is relatively new and advancing faster than the rigor of proper academic analysis requires. Let’s explore three of the “standard” growing pains sustainable investing faces: building robust benchmarks, gathering consistent data and cultivating solid research.

Building Robust Benchmarks

As we described in part II, investors, advisors, and fund managers alike have been turning to ESG ratings to “score” various organizations’ sustainable practices. Just as we have standard benchmarks/indexes for other purposes (such as tracking US large companies, global bonds, or emerging market real estate), providers have responded to the burgeoning interest in ESG ratings by offering a growing collection of ESG benchmarks for public consumption. Established providers include MSCI, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters and others. There also is a plethora of relative newcomers, each offering its own approach and perspective.

Given the assortment, a company’s ESG data may receive widely different “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” scores, depending on who is doing the rating, and to what aim. For example, this Wall Street Journal article explains: “The real complexity comes in the question of what counts as ‘good.’” The article offers an illustration: “[The] global head of ESG research at MSCI, says the aim of its ratings is to highlight financially relevant [ESG] risks; FTSE, by contrast, is more focused on helping investors change corporate behavior.”

It’s not necessarily bad or wrong for different rating companies to rank the same data in various ways. Their varied opinions contribute to efficient market pricing. But it does mean you (and your advisor) will want to understand the differences among various ratings, and what they signify, so you’re not inadvertently comparing your “apple” results with “orange” benchmarks.

This leads us to our next point …

Developing Data Standards

Rating agencies, fund managers and investors face a common challenge: Some of the data used to score a company’s ESG activities may be more or less dependable to begin with.

Some standards exist for how and what a company should report with respect to its ESG practices. For example, as reported in “Sustainable Investing: From Niche to Normal,” a CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) is aimed at encouraging companies to report their greenhouse gas emissions; the UK requires all its listed companies to do the same. And “GRESB is an investor-driven organization of 250 members who voluntarily report on the ESG performance of real estate portfolios.”

There are many other examples, and growing demand may further accelerate the movement toward more standardized reporting. But for now, ESG reporting remains mostly a voluntary endeavor. As reported in a June 27, 2018 Financial Advisor piece, “Advisors Say ESG Compliance Is Hard To Verify,” Cerulli Associates surveyed more than 400 advisors and asset managers and reported that the vast majority felt challenged by “the fact that companies provide limited or selective information about their efforts to meet environmental, social and governance standards,” and that “the information they are given is too subjective.”

Also, “ESG” is not one thing – it’s three. Not surprisingly, environmental, social and governance standards are developing at different rates, based on various demands and practicalities. As described in the aforementioned Sustainable Investing report, many environmental metrics are becoming increasingly standardized, but investors should be more cautious about social metrics, which often represent “highly qualitative issues.” The authors note, “Governance is the most well-researched factor. The data has been in company filings for decades.”

Some investors may also wish to incorporate or avoid other values-based characteristics in their investments – such as religious or political affiliations. For these, quantifiable reporting standards may take even longer to create, if they’re created at all.

Cultivating Research Standards

There’s one more avenue to explore. How do we balance an investor’s desire to invest “ethically” with our fiduciary duty to advise them according to their highest financial interests?

The goal is simple enough: We’d like to provide both. Existing studies and practical applications suggest we can.

That said, we’re still early in the process. By definition, it takes years, if not decades, to determine whether evidence-based theories test out in reality – through bull markets and bears; here and abroad; and across stocks, bonds and other asset classes. The reality is, evidence-based sustainable investing is too new to have experienced this optimal degree of due diligence.

For example, consider “sin” stocks versus ethical investments. Which have actually delivered better returns under what conditions, and with what risks? To date, we continue to see energetic debates and compelling evidence contributing to our understanding of these important issues. Given the level of investor interest, academics and practitioners alike are working to resolve the various riddles and create the necessary body of evidence to achieve this high standard of excellence.

As such, we will continue to collaborate with other evidence-based professionals and academics. Together, we hope to discover and deliver increasingly effective ways to incorporate sustainable investing into investors’ globally diversified portfolios. We’ve only just begun!

At the same time, we understand that you may not want to wait decades to invest more sustainably. In fact, you may already be unwilling to invest otherwise. You deserve solid advice on how to make the most of today’s existing sustainable investment solutions, come what may as the future unfolds. Whether you’d like to get started right away, or simply remain informed, we stand ready to assist. Call us anytime to continue the conversation.

June 4, 2018

What Is Correlation (and Why Would You Care)?

Written by Jason Hiley

Here at Hiley Hunt, we try to keep the financial jargon to a minimum. But even where we may succeed, you’re likely to encounter references elsewhere that can turn valuable information into mumbo-jumbo yet to be translated.

Consider us your interpreter. Today, we’ll explore correlation, and why it matters to investing.

A Quick Take: Correlation Helps People Invest More Efficiently

Expressed as a number between –1.0 and +1.0, correlation quantifies whether, and by how much two holdings have behaved differently or alike in various markets. If we can identify holdings with weak or no expected correlation among one another, we can combine these diverse “pieces” (individual investments) into a greater “whole” (an investment portfolio), to help investors better weather the market’s many moods.

Correlation, Defined

As suggested above, correlation is more than just a quality; it’s also a quantity – a measurement – offering two important insights along a spectrum of possibilities between –1.0 and +1.0:

  1. Correlation can be positive or negative, which tells us whether two correlated subjects are behaving similar to or opposite of one another.
  2. Correlation can be strong or weak (or high/low), which tells us how powerful the similar or opposite behavior has been.

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Correlation, Applied

If you’ve been around the investment block, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of diversification, or owning many, as well as many different kinds of holdings. A well-diversified portfolio helps you invest more efficiently and effectively over time. Diversification also offers a smoother ride, which helps you better stay on course toward your personal financial goals.

But in a world of nearly infinite possibilities, how do we:

  • Compare existing funds – If one fund is expected to perform a certain way according to its averages, and another fund is supposed to perform differently according to its own averages, how do you know if they’re really performing differently as expected?
  • Compare new factors – What about when a researcher claims they’ve found a new factor, or source of expected returns? As this University of Chicago paper explains, “factors are being discovered almost as quickly as they can be packaged and sold to the waiting public.” How do we determine which are actually worth considering out of the hundreds proposed?
  • Compare one portfolio to another – Even perfectly good factors don’t always fit well together. You want factors that are not only strong on their own, but that are expected to create the strongest possible total portfolio once they’re combined.

Correlation is the answer to these and other portfolio analysis challenges. By quantifying and comparing the behaviors and relationships found among various funds, factors and portfolios, we can better determine which combinations are expected to produce optimal outcomes over time.

Correlation, Calculated

Fortunately, as an investor, you don’t necessarily need to know how to precisely calculate correlations. But it’s useful to know what correlation measurements mean when you see them.

  • Strong (high), positive correlation tells us that two investments seem to be playing a highly similar role; when that’s the case, you may not need to hold both of them.
  • Strong (high), negative correlation offers the most diversification, but it’s hard to find. Prone as they are to herd mentality, most holdings follow general trends at least a little.
  • Weak (low) or no (zero) correlation is thus the preferred relationship we typically seek between and among the funds we use to build a diversified portfolio.

Here’s a simplified example of appealing correlation among three holdings. Each holding exhibits a satisfying level of weak or no correlation with the other two. (A holding will always have perfect positive correlation with itself, thus the +1.0 measurements.)

 

Appealing Correlation

Holding 1 Holding 2 Holding 3
Holding 1 +1.0 +0.3 –0.2
Holding 2 +0.3 +1.0 0.0
Holding 3 –0.2 0.0 +1.0

What if your correlations look more like the trio below? Because all correlations here are strongly positive, you might reconsider whether these holdings are sufficiently diversified to make the most of varied market conditions and sources of expected returns.

 

Too Much Correlation

Holding 1 Holding 2 Holding 3
Holding 1 +1.0 +0.8 +0.9
Holding 2 +0.8 +1.0 +0.7
Holding 3 +0.9 +0.7 +1.0

Correlation, Clarified

It’s worth adding a couple more clarifying points before we wrap:

Comparing Investments – First, the correlation between two holdings is not calculated by directly comparing the returns of each holding. Instead, we compare how each holding’s returns move up and down relative to its own average returns. In “Reducing the Risk of Black Swans,” co-authors Larry Swedroe and Kevin Grogan illustrate how this works:

“A positive correlation exists between two assets when one asset produces above-average returns (relative to its average) and the other asset tends to also produce above-average returns (relative to its average). The stronger the tendency, the closer the correlation will be to +1.”

In other words, two investments may seem quite different at a glance. But if you compare them to their own usual performance, and they both tend to sink or soar in reaction to the same market conditions, they are unlikely to offer strong diversification benefits if you pair them together.

Going the Distance – Also, correlation is not a “set it and forget it” number. For example, two funds may usually exhibit weak correlation, but this can shift if a bear or bull market roars in and wreaks havoc on business as usual. In short, solid analysis calls for studying correlation data across multiple markets and over time, to better understand what to expect during various market conditions. This is another reason to take care when adding new factors to your portfolio. Even if a new opportunity seems promising, you may want to wait and see how it performs over time and around the globe before you buy into the latest popular find.

Correlation, Concluded

Heeding correlation data is a lot like having a full line-up on your favorite sports team. If each player on the roster adds a distinct, useful and well-played talent to the mix, odds are, your team will go far. Similarly, your investment portfolio is best built from a global “team” of distinct factors, or sources of returns. A winning approach combines quality components that exhibit weak or no correlation among or between them across varied, long-term market conditions.

Let us know if we can help you use correlation to enhance your own investment experience.

April 4, 2018

2018 1st Quarter Update

Written by Andrew Hunt

If you were a member of the popular press, you’d probably be happy with 2018’s first quarter performance. At last – some volatility-fueling news in early February, with plenty of enticing “largest,” “fastest,” and “worst” market superlatives to savor after a long, languid lull.

As usual, there are plenty of potential culprits to point to among current events: global trade wars heating up, the arrival of quantitative tightening (rising interest rates), troubles in tech-land over data privacy concerns, ongoing Brexit talks, and some interesting events over in the Koreas. At quarter-end, one hopeful journalist asked, “Is the Bear Market Here Yet?” Another observed: “[T]he number of [Dow Jones Industrial Average] sessions with a 1% move so far in 2018 are more than double 2017’s tally, and it isn’t even April.”

Has the coverage left you wondering about your investments? Most markets have been steaming ahead so well for so long, even a modest misstep may have you questioning whether you should “do something,” in case the ride gets rougher still.

If we’ve done our job of preparing you and your portfolio for market jitters, you might be able to cite back to us why you’ve already done all you can do to manage the volatility, and why it’s ultimately expected to be good news for evidence-based investors anyway. Remember, if there were never any real market risk, you couldn’t expect extra returns for your risk tolerance.

That said, you may have forgotten – or never experienced – how awful the last round of extreme volatility felt during the Great Recession. Insights from behavioral finance tell us that our brain’s ingrained biases cause us to gloss over those painful times, and panic all over again when they recur, long before our rational resolve has time to kick in.

A constructive way to think about recent market performance is as a telling preview of what the next, worse market downturn might feel like. How are you doing so far, and how can we help?

If you noticed the news, but you’re okay with where you’re at, that’s great. If the volatility is bothering you, let’s talk; we may be able to ease your angst. If you continue to struggle with whether you made the right decisions during quieter markets, let’s plan a rational shift to better reflect your real risk tolerances and cash-flow requirements. Not only is your peace of mind at least as important as the dollars in your account, you could end up worse off if you’ve taken on more risk than you can bear in pursuit of higher expected returns.

As Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig said during the February dip: “A happy few investors … may have long-term thinking built into them by nature. The rest of us have to cultivate it by nurture.” We couldn’t agree more, and we consider it our duty and privilege to advise you accordingly and to help nurture that long-term thinking.

March 26, 2018

10 Things to Do Right Now While Markets Are (Not Really) Tanking

Written by Jason Hiley

“This is a test; this is only a test. Had this been an actual emergency …”

The truth is, the markets are not tanking as we write this piece. In fact, overall market temperatures have been so mild for so long, many newer investors have yet to weather a perfect market storm. Even if you have, you may have forgotten how panic-inducing those times can be.

This worries us. Experience and evidence alike show us how severely bear markets test investor resolve, sabotage otherwise solid plans, and just plain hurt. We’ve also seen how damaging it can be to act on rash fear rather than rational resolve during market downturns.

So let’s pretend, shall we? Just as we prepare for other emergencies by practicing how to avoid deadly blunders in the heat of the moment, here are 10 timely actions you can take when financial markets are tanking … and, frankly, even when they’re not.

  1. Don’t panic (or pretend not to). It’s easy to believe you’re immune from panic when the financial sun is shining, but it’s hard to avoid indulging in it during a crisis. If you’re entertaining seemingly logical excuses to bail out during a steep or sustained market downturn, remember: It’s highly likely your behavioral biases are doing the talking. Even if you only pretend to be calm, that’s fine, as long as it prevents you from acting on your fears.

“Every time someone says, ‘There is a lot of cash on the sidelines,’ a tiny part of my soul dies. There are no sidelines.” – Cliff Asness, AQR Capital Management

 

  1. Redirect your energy. No matter how logical it may be to sit on your hands during market downturns, your “fight or flight” instincts can trick you into acting anyway. Fortunately, there are productive moves you can make instead – such as all 10 actions here – to satisfy the itch to act without overhauling your investments at potentially the worst possible time.

“My advice to a prospective active do-it-yourself investor is to learn to golf. You’ll get a little exercise, some fresh air and time with your friends. Sure, green fees can be steep, but not as steep as the hit your portfolio will take if you become an active do-it-yourself investor.” – Terrance Odean, behavioral finance professor

 

  1. Remember the evidence. One way to ignore your self-doubts during market crises is to heed what decades of practical and academic evidence have taught us about investing: Capital markets’ long-term trajectories have been upward. Thus, if you sell when markets are down, you’re far more likely to lock in permanent losses than come out ahead.

“Do the math. Expect catastrophes. Whatever happens, stay the course.” – William Bernstein, MD, PhD, financial theorist and neurologist

 

  1. Manage your exposure to breaking news. There’s a difference between following current events versus fixating on them. In today’s multitasking, multimedia world, it’s easier than ever to be inundated by late-breaking news. When you become mired in the minutiae, it’s hard to retain your long-term perspective.

“Choosing what to ignore – turning off constant market updates, tuning out pundits purveying the latest Armageddon – is critical to maintaining a long-term focus.” – Jason Zweig, The Wall Street Journal

 

  1. Revisit your carefully crafted investment plans (or make some). Even if you yearn to go by gut feel during a financial crisis, remember: You promised yourself you wouldn’t do that. When did you promise? When you planned your personalized investment portfolio, carefully allocated to various sources of expected returns, globally diversified to dampen the risks involved, and sensibly executed with low-cost funds managed in an evidence-based manner. What if you’ve not yet made these sorts of plans or established this kind of portfolio? Then these are actions we encourage you to take at your earliest convenience.

“The key to successful investing is to get the plan right and then stick to it. This means acting just like the lowly postage stamp that does one thing but does it well. It sticks to its letter until it reaches its destination. The investors’ job is to stick to their well thought out plan (if they have one) until they reach their destination. And if they don’t have a plan, write one immediately.” – Larry Swedroe, financial author

 

  1. Reconsider your risk tolerance (but don’t act on it just yet). When you craft a personalized investment portfolio, you also commit to accepting a measure of market risk in exchange for those expected market returns. Unfortunately, during quiet times, it’s easy to overestimate how much risk you can stomach. If you discover you’re miserable to the point of breaking during even modest market declines, you may need to re-think your investment plans. Start planning for prudent portfolio adjustments, preferably working with an objective advisor to help you implement them judiciously over time.

“Our aversion to leverage has dampened our returns over the years. But Charlie [Munger] and I sleep well. Both of us believe it is insane to risk what you have and need in order to obtain what you don’t need.” – Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway

 

  1. Double down on your risk exposure – if you’re able. If, on the other hand, you discover you’ve got nerves of steel, market downturns can be opportunities to buy more of the depressed (low-price) holdings that fit into your long-range investment plan. You can do this with new money, or by rebalancing what you’ve got (selling appreciated assets to buy the underdogs). This is not for the timid! You’re buying holdings other investors are fleeing in droves. But if you’re able to do this and hold tight, you’re especially well-positioned to make the most of the expected recovery.

“Pick your risk exposure, and then diversify the hell out of it.” – Eugene Fama, Nobel  laureate economist

 

  1. Tax-loss harvest. Depending on market conditions as well as your own circumstances, you may be able to use tax-loss harvesting to turn financial lemons into lemonade during market downturns. A successful tax-loss harvest lowers your tax bill without substantially altering or impacting your long-term investment outcomes. This action is not without its tricks and traps, however, so it’s best done in alliance with a financial professional who is well-versed in navigating the challenges involved.

“In investing, you get what you don’t pay for.” – John  C. Bogle, Vanguard founder

 

  1. Revisit this article. There is no better time to re-read this article than when today’s “safety drill” is no longer an exercise but a real event. Maybe it will take your mind off the barrage of breaking news.

“We’d never buy a shirt for full price then be O.K. returning it in exchange for the sale price. ‘Scary’ markets convince people this unequal exchange makes sense.” – Carl Richards, Behavior Gap

 

  1. Talk to us. We don’t know when. We don’t know how severe it will be, or how long it will last. But sooner or later, we expect the markets will tank again for a while, just as we also expect they’ll eventually recover and continue upward. We hope today’s drill will help you be better prepared for “next time.” We also hope you’ll be in touch if we can help. After all, there’s never a bad time to receive good advice.

“In the old legend the wise men finally boiled down the history of mortal affairs into the single phrase, ‘This too will pass.’ Confronted with a like challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, MARGIN OF SAFETY.”
Benjamin Graham, economist, “father of value investing”

March 21, 2018

You, Your Financial Well-Being, and the Federal Reserve

Written by Andrew Hunt

After nearly a decade of leaving the federal funds rate at zero percent, the time finally came on December 16, 2015: The U.S. Federal Reserve (the Fed) raised the federal funds rate by 0.25 percent. Because it was the first rate increase since June 2006, it was reported as “a historic moment.” Since then, the Fed has made several modest increases. You can find the most recent rate changes reported here.

But what do these rate changes mean to your financial well-being? Is there anything you should “do” to your investment portfolio when they occur? As is nearly always the case for economic events over which we have no control, we typically recommend that you remain informed – but that you act only on factors you can expect to manage within your personal investing.

In that context, let’s take a moment to share some insights about the Federal Reserve funds rate.

What Is the Federal Reserve?

As described on its consumer education site, the Federal Reserve is the central bank of the U.S. It was created by Congress as an independent government agency in 1913 “to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible, and more stable monetary and financial system.” Jerome Powell is its current board of governors’ chair. Before Powell, the chairs were Janet Yellen, Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan.

Powell and his board of governors are based in Washington, DC. They also oversee 12 regional reserve branches across the country and are tasked with three main roles:

  1. Monetary Policy – Promoting “maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates”
  2. Supervision and Regulation – Overseeing U.S. banks and gathering information to understand financial industry trends
  3. Financial Services – Serving as a bank for U.S. banks as well as for the country’s monetary operations – issuing currency, managing the government’s bank accounts, borrowing money in the form of U.S. Savings bonds and more

What Is Going On?

While you wouldn’t want to run a country without all three of these roles in place, monetary policy is where much of the headline-grabbing action is often found. The Fed continuously grapples with when, by how much, and how often it should raise the federal funds rate.

The Federal Reserve sets monetary policy through its Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which includes the Fed’s board members and a rotating representation of Reserve Bank presidents.

The FOMC holds eight regularly scheduled annual meetings to consider what actions to take (if any). In the days before those meetings, the financial press often reports on expected outcomes as if they were a done deal, and markets often respond accordingly. In reality, until those meetings have taken place, nobody knows what their outcome will be.

Still, while the FOMC has a number of ways to seek balance among the competing demands of the economy, raising or lowering the federal funds rate has long been one of its more powerful management tools. So, it’s no wonder the question becomes the media’s central focus whenever the FOMC is set to meet. It’s also no wonder that investors are bombarded with the usual volume of conflicting coverage on what is and is not at stake, and what may or may not come to pass. Depending on who you heed, higher federal funds rates could be anything from a panacea, to a global scourge, to a non-event in the markets.

What Does All This Mean to You and Your Money?

First, it helps to understand that there is an intricate interplay between developed nations’ monetary policies, global interest rates and the markets in general. Anyone who claims to know exactly what will happen in one arena when we pull a lever in another had best be able to present a functioning crystal ball if he or she is to be believed.

To cite one example, consider this March 2018 column by Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig, in which he chastises various brokers for their still-anemic sweep account yields despite rising interest rates: “The Federal Reserve has driven short-term interest rates up a full percentage point since late 2016; one-month Treasury bills were yielding 1.6% this week. But you’d never know any of that from looking at the returns on the cash in your brokerage account.”

This illustration also demonstrates that the only interest rate the Fed has direct control over is the U.S. federal funds rate, which is the rate at which depository institutions (mostly banks), lend and borrow overnight funds with one another.

The resulting cash flow is the grease that turns the wheels of the country’s federal banking system, so it’s an important factor. But as Zweig illustrates, that doesn’t mean that there is a consistent cause-and-effect relationship between federal funds rate movements and other yields-based financial instruments such as U.S. or international fixed income funds, interest-earning accounts, mortgages, credit cards and so on.

A separate Wall Street Journal article substantiates: “Think all rates would tick a little higher as the Fed tightens? That isn’t how it works. … The impacts will be uneven. Some borrowing costs are likely to rise closely in sync with short-term rates, but others won’t.”

Why is this so? It’s partly the result of those multiple global factors at play, with the Fed’s actions representing only one among many others. A post by “The Grumpy Economist” John Cochrane even suggests that the Fed’s actions may be one of the less-significant factors involved: “Lots of deposits (saving) and a dearth of demand for investment (borrowing) drives (real) interest rates down, and there is not a whole lot the Fed can do about that. Except to see the parade going by, grab a flag, jump in front and pretend to be in charge.”

What Should You Do?  

Whenever you’re wondering how best to respond to a shifting landscape such as that wrought by rising (or falling) interest rates and any related repercussions, begin by asking yourself: What can I do about it?

Unless you are Fed chair Jerome Powell, there is probably nothing you can do to personally influence what the Feds are going to decide about ongoing interest rates, or how the global markets are going to respond to the news. But there is plenty you can do to help or harm your own wealth interests.

First, if you already have a solid financial plan in place, we do not recommend abandoning it in rash reaction to unfolding news. If, on the other hand, you do not yet have a well-built plan and portfolio to guide the way, what are you waiting for? Personalized financial planning is a good idea in all environments.

Next, recognize that rising or falling interest rates can impact many facets of your wealth: saving, investing, spending and debt. A conversation with a wealth manager is one way you can position yourself to make the most of multi-factored influences in unfolding economic news.

Together and through varied interest rate climates, we can help put these and many other worldwide events into the context they deserve, so you can make informed judgments about what they mean to your own interests. The goal is to establish practical ways to manage your debt; wise ways to save and invest; and sensible ways to spend, before and in retirement.

These are the factors that matter the most in your life, and over which you can exercise the most control – for better or for worse. Give us a call today if we can help make things better for you.

March 1, 2018

Charitable Giving Under New Tax Laws Understanding the Donor-Advised Fund (DAF)

Written by Jason Hiley

No matter how the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) may alter your tax planning, we’d like to believe one thing will remain the same: With or without a tax write-off, many Americans will still want to give generously to the charities of their choice. After all, financial incentives aren’t usually your main motivation for giving. We give to support the causes we cherish. We give because we’re grateful for the good fortune we’ve enjoyed. We give because it elevates us too. Good giving feels great – for donor and recipient alike.

That said, a tax break can feel good too, and it may help you give more than you otherwise could. Enter the donor-advised fund (DAF) as a potential tool for continuing to give meaningfully and tax-efficiently under the new tax law.

What’s Changed About Charitable Giving?

To be clear, the TCJA has not eliminated the charitable deduction. You can still take it when you itemize your deductions. But the law has limited or eliminated several other itemized deductions, and it’s roughly doubled the standard deduction (now $12,000 for single and $24,000 for joint filers). With these changes, there will be far fewer times it will make sense to itemize your deductions instead of just taking the now-higher standard allowance.

This introduces a new incentive to consider batching up your deductible expenses, so they can periodically “count” toward reducing your taxes due – at least in the years you’ve got enough itemized deductions to exceed your standard deduction.

For example, if you usually donate $2,500 annually to charity, you could instead donate $25,000 once each decade. Combined with other deductibles, you might then be able to take a nice tax write-off that year, which may generate (or be generated by) other tax-planning possibilities.

What Can a DAF Do for You?

DAFs are not new; they’ve been around since the 1930s. But they’ve been garnering more attention as a potentially appropriate tax-planning tool under the TCJA. Here’s how they work:

  1. Make a sizeable donation to a DAF. Donating to a DAF, which acts like a “charitable bank,” is one way to batch up your deductions for tax-wise giving. But remember: DAF contributions are irrevocable. You cannot change your mind and later reclaim the funds.
  2. Deduct the full amount in the year you fund the DAF. DAFs are established by nonprofit sponsoring organizations, so your entire contribution is available for the maximum allowable deduction in the year you make it. Plus, once you’ve funded a DAF, the sponsor typically invests the assets, and any returns they earn are tax-free. This can give your initial donation more giving-power over time.
  3. Participate in granting DAF assets to your charities of choice. Over time, and as the name “donor-advised fund” suggests, you get to advise the DAF’s sponsoring organization on when to grant assets, and where those grants will go.

Thus, donating through a DAF may be preferred if you want to make a relatively sizable donation for tax-planning or other purposes; you’d like to retain a say over what happens next to those assets; and you’re not yet ready to allocate all the money to your favorite causes.

Another common reason people turn to a DAF is to donate appreciated stocks in kind (without selling them first), when your intended recipients can only accept cash/liquid donations. The American Endowment Foundation offers this 2015 “Donor Advised Fund Summary for Donors,” with additional reasons a DAF may appeal – with or without its newest potential tax benefits.

Beyond DAFs

A DAF isn’t for everyone. Along the spectrum of charitable giving choices, they’re relatively easy and affordable to establish, while still offering some of the benefits of a planned giving vehicle. As such, they fall somewhere between simply writing a check, versus taking on the time, costs and complexities of a charitable remainder trust, charitable lead trust, or private foundation.

That said, planned giving vehicles offer several important features that go beyond what a DAF can do for a family who is interested in establishing a lasting legacy. They also go beyond the scope of this paper, but we are happy to discuss them with you directly at any time.

How Do You Differentiate DAFs?

If you decide a DAF would be useful to your cause, the next step is to select an organization to sponsor your contribution. Sponsors typically fall into three types:

  1. Public charities established by financial providers, like Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard
  2. Independent national organizations, like the American Endowment Foundation and National Philanthropic Trust
  3. “Single issue” entities, like religious, educational or emergency aid organizations

Within and among these categories, DAFs are not entirely interchangeable. Whether you’re being guided by a professional advisor or you’re managing the selection process on your own, it’s worth doing some due diligence before you fund a DAF. Here are some key considerations:

Minimums – Different DAFs have different minimums for opening an account. For example, one sponsor may require $5,000 to get started, while another may have a higher threshold.

Fees – As with any investment account, expect administration fees. Just make sure they’re fair and transparent, so they don’t eat up all the benefits of having a DAF to begin with.

Acceptable Assets – Most DAFs will let you donate cash as well as stocks. Some may also accept other types of assets, such as real estate, private equity or insurance.

Grant-Giving Policies – Some grant-giving policies are more flexible than others. For example, single-entity organizations may require that a percentage of your grants go to their cause, or only to local or certain kinds of causes. Some may be more specific than others on the minimum size and/or maximum frequency of your grant requests. Some have simplified the grant-making process through online automation; others have not.

Investment Policies – As touched on above, your DAF assets are typically invested in the market, so they can grow tax-free over time. But some investments are far more advisable than others for building long-term giving power! How much say will you have on investment selections? If you’re already working with a wealth advisor, it can make good sense to choose a DAF that lets your advisor manage these account assets in a prudent, fiduciary manner, according to an evidence-based investment strategy. (Note: Higher minimums may apply.)

Transfer and Liquidation Policies – What happens to your DAF account when you die? Some sponsors allow you to name successors if you’d like to continue the account in perpetuity. Some allow you to name charitable organizations as beneficiaries. Some have a formula for distributing assets to past grant recipients. Some will roll the assets into their own endowment. (Most will at least do this as a last resort if there are no successors or past grant recipients.) Also, what if you decide you’d like to transfer your DAF to a different sponsoring organization during your lifetime? Find out if the organization you have in mind permits it.

Deciding on Your Definitive DAF

Selecting an ideal DAF sponsor for your tax planning and charitable intent usually involves a process of elimination. To narrow the field, decide which DAF features matter the most to you, and which ones may be deal breakers.

If you’re working with a wealth advisor such as Hiley Hunt Wealth Management, we hope you’ll lean on us to help you make a final selection, and meld it into your greater personal and financial goals. As Wharton Professor and “Give and Take” author Adam Grant has observed, “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help others succeed.” That’s one reason we’re here: to help you successfully incorporate the things that last into your lasting, charitably minded lifestyle.

January 31, 2018

The Vital Role of Rebalancing

Written by Andrew Hunt

If there is a universal investment ideal, it is this: Every investor wants to buy low and sell high. What if we told you there is a disciplined process for doing just that, and staying on track toward your personal goals while you’re at it? Guess what? There is. It’s called rebalancing.

Rebalancing: How It Works

Imagine it’s the first day of your investment experience. As you create your new portfolio, it’s best if you do so according to a personalized plan that prescribes how much weight you want to give to each asset class. So much to stocks, so much to bonds … and so on. Assigning these weights is called asset allocation.

Then time passes. As the markets shift around, your investments stray from their original allocations. That means you’re no longer invested according to plan, even if you’ve done nothing at all; you’re now taking on higher or lower market risks and expected rewards than you originally intended. Unless your plans have changed, your portfolio needs some attention.

This is what rebalancing is for: to shift your assets back to their intended, long-term allocations.

A Rebalancing Illustration

To illustrate, imagine you (or your advisor) has planned for your portfolio to be exposed to the stock and bond markets in a 50/50 mix. If stocks outperform bonds, you end up with too many stocks relative to bonds, until you’re no longer at your intended, balanced blend. To rebalance your portfolio, you can sell some of the now-overweight stocks, and use the proceeds to buy bonds that have become underrepresented, until you’re back at or near your desired mix. Another strategy is to use any new money you are adding to your portfolio anyway, to buy more of whatever is underweight at the time.

Either way, did you catch what just happened? Not only are you keeping your portfolio on track toward your goals, but you’re buying low (underweight holdings) and selling high (overweight holdings). Better yet, the trades are not a matter of random guesswork or emotional reactions. The feat is accomplished according to your carefully crafted, customized plan.

Portfolio Balancing: A Closer Look

In reality, rebalancing is more complicated, because asset allocation is completed on several levels. First, we suggest balancing your stocks versus bonds, reflecting your need to take on market risk in exchange for expected returns. Then we typically divide these assets among stock and bond subcategories, again according to your unique financial goals. For example, you can assign percentages of your stocks to small- vs. large-company and value vs. growth firms, and further divide these among international, U.S., and/or emerging markets.

One reason for these relatively precise allocations is to maximize your exposure to the right amount of expected market premiums for your personal goals, while minimizing the market risks involved by diversifying those risks around the globe and across sources of returns that don’t always move in tandem with one another. We are guided by these tenets of evidence-based investing.

Striking a Rebalancing Balance

Rebalancing using evidence-based investment strategies is integral to helping you succeed as an investor. But like any power tool, it should be used with care and understanding.

It’s scary to do in real time. Everyone understands the logic of buying low and selling high. But when it’s time to rebalance, your emotions make it easier said than done. To illustrate, consider these real-life scenarios.

  • When markets are down: Bad times in the market can represent good times for rebalancing. But that means you must sell some of your assets that have been doing okay and buy the unpopular ones. The Great Recession of 2007–2009 is a good example. To rebalance then, you had to sell some of your safe-harbor holdings and buy stocks, even as popular opinion was screaming that stocks were dead. Of course history has shown otherwise; those who did rebalance were best positioned to capture available returns during the subsequent recovery. But at the time, it represented a huge leap of faith in the academic evidence indicating that our capital markets would probably prevail.
  • When markets are up. An exuberant market can be another rebalancing opportunity – and another challenge – as you must sell some of your high flyers (selling high) and rebalance into the lonesome losers (buying low). At the time, this can feel counterintuitive. But disciplined rebalancing offers a rational approach to securing some of your past gains, managing your future risk exposure, and remaining invested as planned, for capturing future expected gains over the long-run.

Costs must be considered. Besides combatting your emotions, there are practical concerns. If trading were free, you could rebalance your portfolio daily with precision. In reality, trading incurs fees and potential tax liabilities. To achieve a reasonable middle ground, it’s best to have guidelines for when and how to cost-effectively rebalance. If you’d like to know more, we’re happy to discuss the guidelines we employ for our own rebalancing strategies.

The Rebalancing Take-Home

Rebalancing using evidence-based investment strategies makes a great deal of sense once you understand the basics. It offers objective guidelines and a clear process to help you remain on course toward your personal goals in rocky markets. It ensures you are buying low and selling high along the way. What’s not to like about that?

At the same time, rebalancing your globally diversified portfolio requires informed management, to ensure it’s being integrated consistently and cost effectively. An objective advisor also can help prevent your emotions from interfering with your reason as you implement a rebalancing plan. Helping clients periodically employ efficient portfolio rebalancing is another way we seek to add value to the investment experience.

January 24, 2018

Dimensional’s Advisor 2017 Market Review

Written by Jason Hiley

Happy New Year! With 2017 in the rearview mirror, we’re pleased to reflect on – and share with you – a newly released Dimensional Fund Advisors 2017 Market Review.

Overall, the view is quite pleasant for most global and domestic returns alike, even though few financial forecasters were predicting this sort of slam dunk at the outset of the year. If you think back to last January, there were plenty of reasons to wonder about the next 12 months – what with Brexit uncertainties, U.S. election upsets, continued terrorist threats hitting all too close to home, and the usual litany of other unknowns.

Digging deeper into the heady, mostly double-digit 2017 stock market returns, there’s another important theme found in this year’s data: While the profitability premium was positive across most markets, small-cap and value premia often underperformed their large-cap and growth counterparts.

These data points are relevant, because a typical evidence-based investment strategy calls for steadfast diversification across these expected sources of market premiums (as always, according to your unique financial goals and risk tolerance).

It’s especially pertinent to those who may be tilting their portfolio mix toward the very premia that happened to relatively underperform this year. If that’s you, and you’re in pursuit of these factors’ higher expected long-term returns, you may be wondering: “Should I alter my plans?

Unless your own goals or circumstances have changed, our short, evidence-based answer is, no, probably not. As described in Dimensional’s Year in Review, “Premiums can be difficult if not impossible to predict and relative performance can change quickly, reinforcing the need for discipline in pursuing these sources of higher expected returns.”

To use an analogy, think of your investment experience as a cross-continental trek. You get to define your desired destination – although, as in real life, you aren’t guaranteed to reach it. In pursuit of your journey’s end, you also get to choose between a low, slow, temperate trail (lower risk and lower expected returns), or a potentially swifter route with more peaks, valleys and weather extremes (higher risk and higher expected returns).

Whichever route you’ve chosen for your financial journey, don’t be too surprised when you encounter what you’ve signed up for. And remember, the most likely way to achieve your goals is almost always in the form of a steadfast, forward march.

Which brings us to our fundamental advice, this and every year. If you’ve not yet put your investment plans in place, consider that among your most important New Year’s resolutions. Balance your risk and expected return exposures according to what you want and need out of the markets. After that, enjoy the balmy returns where they exist and as they last. Be prepared to soldier through the storms when they periodically arise as well.

Last but never least, let us know how we can help.

 

January 2, 2018

2017 4th Quarter Update

Written by Andrew Hunt

As the 2017 market analyses have begun rolling in, so too have the reports of long and strong positive performance from almost every corner of the market. One Wall Street Journal (WSJ) year-end report summarized: “Sure, U.S. stocks had solid gains. But investors who bought copper, Argentine stocks, and lumber futures would have also ended the year with hefty profits.”

In particular, the S&P 500 Index has been on a record-busting tear, experiencing positive total returns every single month last year. This is “the first time in records going back to 1970 that’s happened,” reported the WSJ, along with the observation that these returns were delivered in an exceptionally smooth ride, with the fewest up-or-down return swings of 1% or more since 1965.

What are we to make of all this? As always, we turn to evidence-based investing, disciplined rebalancing, and your personal Investment Policy Statement (IPS) to guide the way – whether it’s to enlighten us during dark and scary markets, or to offer a clear lens through which to view the recent rose-colored returns.

Has the smooth ascent lulled you into forgetting what it feels like to be afraid? (Remember 2008?) 2017 market growth has been gratifying indeed. But if your highest-flying holdings have significantly outpaced your planned allocations to them, your IPS tells us when it’s time to get back on target, replacing blind ambition with thoughtful, “buy low, sell high” rebalancing.

Has the unprecedent run left you a little nervous? When it comes to market returns, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that nothing this good lasts forever. But is there a right way to respond to this rational concern? Again, your IPS informs us on how and when to rebalance back to target in high-rising markets by shifting a portion of past gains away from market risk, without diminishing your desired exposure to future expected growth.

In short, whether current markets leave you enthused and excited, fearful and fretting, or a little bit of both, we remain committed to: (1) applying evidence-based investment theory to your portfolio management, (2) adhering to your IPS as our ongoing road map, and (3) incorporating rules-based rebalancing to help maximize your expected returns while minimizing the market risks involved. No strategy is guaranteed to succeed, but we continue to believe ours is the most practical approach to achieving your financial goals, come what may in 2018.

On that note, we wish you and yours a healthy, prosperous and peaceful year ahead. Please let us know how we can help.

November 27, 2017

The ABCs of Behavioral Biases: Conclusion

Written by Jason Hiley

We’ll wrap our series, the ABCs of Behavioral Biases, by repeating our initial premise: Your own behavioral biases are often the greatest threat to your financial well-being.

We hope we’ve demonstrated the many ways this single statement can play out, and how often our survival-mode brains trick us into making financial calls that foil our own best interests.

Evidence-Based Behavioral Finance

But don’t take our word for it. Just as we turn to robust academic evidence to guide our disciplined investment strategy, so too do we turn to the work of behavioral finance scholars, to understand and employ effective defenses against your most aggressive behavioral biases.

If there weren’t so much damage done, behavioral finance might be of merely academic interest. But given how often – and in how many ways – your fight-or-flight instincts collide with your rational investment plans, it’s worth being aware of the tell-tale signs, so you can detect when a behavioral bias may be running roughshod over your higher reasoning. To help with that, here’s a summary of the biases we’ve covered throughout this series:

The Bias Its Symptoms The Damage Done
Anchoring

 

Going down with the proverbial ship by fixing on rules of thumb or references that don’t serve your best interests.

 

“I paid $11/share for this stock and now it’s only worth $9. I won’t sell it until I’ve broken even.”

 

Blind Spot

 

The mirror might lie after all. We can assess others’ behavioral biases, but we often remain  blind to our own.

 

“We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.” (Daniel Kahneman)

 

Confirmation

 

This “I thought so” bias causes you to seek news that supports your beliefs and ignore conflicting evidence.

 

After forming initial reactions, we’ll ignore new facts and find false affirmations to justify our chosen course … even if it would be in our best financial interest to consider a change.

 

Familiarity

 

Familiarity breeds complacency. We forget that “familiar” doesn’t always means “safer” or “better.”

 

By overconcentrating in familiar assets (domestic vs. foreign, or a company stock) you decrease global diversification and increase your exposure to unnecessary market risks.

 

Fear

 

Financial fear is that “Get me  out, NOW” panic we feel whenever the markets turn brutal.

 

“We’d never buy a shirt for full price then be O.K. returning it in exchange for the sale price. ‘Scary’ markets convince people this unequal exchange makes sense.” (Carl Richards)

 

Framing

 

Six of one or half a dozen of another? Different ways of considering the same  information can lead to different conclusions.

 

Narrow framing can trick you into chasing or fleeing individual holdings, instead of managing everything you hold within the greater framework of your total portfolio.

 

Greed

 

Excitement is an investor’s enemy (to paraphrase Warren Buffett.)

 

You can get burned in high-flying markets if you forget what really counts: managing risks, controlling costs, and sticking to plan.

 

Herd Mentality

 

“If everyone jumped off a   bridge …” Your mother was  right. Even if “everyone is doing it,” that doesn’t mean you  should.

 

Herd mentality intensifies our greedy or fearful financial reactions to the random events that generated the excitement to begin with.

 

Hindsight

 

“I knew it all along” (even if you didn’t). When your hindsight   isn’t 20/20, your brain may subtly shift it until it is.

 

If you trust your “gut” instead of a disciplined investment strategy, you may be hitching your financial future to a skewed view of the past.

 

Loss Aversion

 

No pain is even better than a gain. We humans are hardwired to abhor losing even more than we crave winning.

 

Loss aversion causes investors to try to dodge bear markets, despite overwhelming evidence that market timing is more likely to increase costs and decrease expected returns.

 

Mental  Accounting

 

Not all money is created equal. Mental accounting assigns different values to different dollars – such as inherited  assets vs. lottery wins.

 

Reluctant to sell an inherited holding? Want to blow a windfall as “fun money”? Mental accounting can play against you if you let it overrule your best financial interests.

 

Outcome

 

Luck or skill? Even when an outcome is just random luck, your biased brain still may attribute it to special skills.

 

If you misattribute good or bad investment outcomes to a foresight you couldn’t possibly have had, it imperils your ability to remain an objective investor for the long haul.

 

Overconfidence

 

A “Lake Wobegon effect,” overconfidence creates a statistical impossibility:   Everyone thinks they’re above average.

 

Overconfidence puffs up your belief that you’ve got the rare luck or skill required to consistently “beat” the market, instead of patiently participating in its long-term returns.

 

Pattern Recognition

 

Looks can deceive. Our survival instincts strongly bias us toward finding predictive patterns, even in a random series.

 

By being predisposed to mistake random market runs as reliable patterns, investors are often left chasing expensive mirages.

 

Recency

 

Out of sight, out of mind. We tend to let recent events most heavily influence us, even for  our long-range planning.

 

If you chase or flee the market’s most recent returns, you’ll end up piling into high-priced hot holdings and selling low during the downturns.

 

Sunk Cost Fallacy

 

Throwing good money after   bad. It’s harder to lose something if you’ve already invested time, energy or money into it.

 

Sunk cost fallacy can stop you from selling a holding at a loss, even when it is otherwise the right thing to do for your total portfolio.

 

Tracking Error Regret

 

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Tracking error regret happens when you compare yourself to external standards and wish you were more like them.

 

It can be deeply damaging to your investment returns if you compare your own performance against apples-to-oranges measures, and then trade in reaction to the mismatched numbers.

 

Next Steps: Think Slow

Even once you’re familiar with the behavioral biases that stand between you and clear-heading thinking, you’ll probably still be routinely tempted to react to the fear, greed, doubt, recklessness and similar hot emotions they generate.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman helps us understand why in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” where he describes how we engage in System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow) thinking: “In the picture that emerges from recent research, the intuitive System 1 is more influential than your experience tells you, and it is the secret author of many of the choices and judgments you make.”

In other words, we can’t help ourselves. When we think fast, our instincts tend to run the show; for better or worse, they’re the first thoughts that come to mind.

This is one reason an objective advisor can be such a critical ally, helping you move past your System 1 thinking into more deliberate decision-making for your long-term goals. (On the flip side, financial providers who are themselves fixated on picking hot stocks or timing the market on your behalf are more likely to exacerbate than alleviate your most dangerous biases.)

Investors of “Ordinary Intelligence”

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett is a businessman, not a behavioral economist. But he does have a way with words. We’ll wrap with a bit of his timeless wisdom:

“Success in investing doesn’t correlate with I.Q. once you’re above the level of 25. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

If you can remember this cool-headed thinking the next time you’re tempted to act on your investment instincts, Mr. Buffett’s got nothing on you (except perhaps a few billion dollars). But if you could use somes help managing the behavioral biases that are likely lurking in your blind spot, give us a call. In combatting that which you cannot see, two views are better than one.