Category Archives: Investing

February 13, 2019

What Is Asset Allocation?

Written by Jason Hiley

Asset allocation. It’s so ingrained in how we manage our clients’ investment portfolios, we talk about it all the time. But what is it? What are assets, and what happens when you allocate them?

Asset Allocation: A Classy Subject

Big picture, an asset is anything beneficial you have or have coming to you. For our purposes, it’s anything of value in your investment portfolio. After bundling your investable assets into asset classes, we allocate, or assign, each asset class a particular role in your portfolio.

To offer an analogy, allocating your portfolio into different asset classes is similar to storing your clothes according to their roles (pants, shirts, shoes, etc.), instead of just leaving them in a big pile in your closet. You may also further sort your wardrobe by style, so you can create ideal ensembles for your various purposes. Likewise, asset allocation helps us tailor your portfolio to best suit you – efficiently tilting your investments toward or away from various levels of market risks and expected returns. Your precise allocations are guided by your particular financial goals.

That’s it, really. If you stop reading here, you’ve already got the basics of asset allocation. Of course, given how much academic brainpower you’ll find behind these basics, there is a lot more we could cover. For now, let’s take a closer look at those asset classes.

Asset Classes, Defined

At the broadest level, asset classes typically include domestic, developed international, and emerging market versions of the following:

  • Equity/stocks (an ownership stake in a business)
  • Bonds/fixed income (a loan to a business or government)
  • Hard Assets (a stake in a tangible object such as commodities or real estate)
  • Cash or cash equivalents

Just as you can further sort your wardrobe by style, each broad asset class (except for cash) can be further subdivided based on a set of factors, or expected sources of return. For example:

  • Stocks can be classified by company size (small-, mid-, or large-cap), business metrics (value or growth), and a handful of other factors more recently identified.
  • Bonds can be classified by type (government, municipal or corporate), credit quality (high or low ratings), and term (short-, intermediate-, or long-term due dates).

We can then mix and match these various factors into a rich, but manageable collection of asset classes – such as international small-cap stocks, intermediate government bonds, and so on.

Generally speaking, the riskier the asset class, the higher return you can expect to earn by investing in it over the long haul.

Asset Allocation, Implemented

To convert plans into action, we turn to select fund managers with low-costs fund families that track our targeted asset classes as accurately as possible. Sometimes a fund tracks a popular index that tracks the asset class; other times, asset classes are tracked more directly. Either way, the approach lets us turn a collection of risk/reward “building blocks” into a tightly constructed portfolio, with asset allocations optimized to reflect your investment plans.

The Origin of Asset Allocation

Who decides which asset classes to use, based on which market factors? To be honest, there is no universal consensus on THE correct answer to this complex and ever-evolving equation. As evidence-based practitioners, we turn to ongoing academic inquiry, professional collaboration, and our own analyses. Our goal is to identify allocations that seem to best explain how to achieve different outcomes with different portfolios. As such, we look for robust results that have:

  • Been replicated across global markets
  • Been repeated across multiple, peer-reviewed academic studies
  • Lasted through various market conditions
  • Actually worked, not just in theory, but as investable solutions, where real-life trading costs and other frictions apply

Asset Allocation in Action

As we learn more, sometimes we can improve on past assumptions, even as the underlying tenets of asset allocation remain our dependable guide. Bottom line, by employing sensible, evidence-based asset allocation to reflect your unique financial goals (including your timelines and risk tolerances), you should be much better positioned to achieve those goals over time.

Asset allocation also offers a disciplined approach for staying on course toward your own goals through ever-volatile markets. This is more important than most people realize. As Dimensional Fund Advisor’s David Booth has observed, “Where people get killed is getting in and out of investments. They get halfway into something, lose confidence, and then try something else. It’s important to have a philosophy.”

So, now that you’re more familiar with asset allocation, we hope you’ll agree: Properly tailored, it’s a fitting strategy for any investor seeking to earn long-term market returns. Please let us know if we can tell you more.

December 20, 2018

Six Financial Best Practices for 2019

Written by Jason Hiley

So, are you ready to get a jump on 2019? Here are six financial best practices for the year ahead. Pick a few of them or take on the entire list. Either way, you’ll be that much further ahead by the time 2020 rolls around.

  1. Do nothing. If you have a well-built investment portfolio in place, guided by a relevant investment plan, your best move in hyperactive markets is to let that plan be your guide. That often means doing nothing new with your holdings. We list investment inaction as a top priority, because “nothing” can be one of the hardest things to (not) do when the rest of the market is in perpetual motion!
  2. Double down on your planning. That said, a “do nothing” approach to turbulent markets hinges on having that relevant plan in place, guiding your appropriately structured portfolio. A fresh new year can be a great time to tend to your investment plan – or create one, if you’ve not yet done so. Have any of your personal goals changed, or will they soon? How might this impact your investment mix? Have market conditions put your portfolio ahead of or behind schedule? Are you unsure where you stand to begin with? It’s time well-spent to periodically ensure your plan remains relevant to you and your personal circumstances.
  3. Prepare for the unknown with a rainy-day fund. Time will tell whether 2019 markets are friendly, foul, or (if it’s a typical year) an unsettling mix of both. Having enough liquid, rainy-day reserves to tide you through any rough patches is a best practice no matter what lies ahead. Knowing your near-term spending needs are covered should help with both the practical and emotional challenges involved in leaving the rest of your portfolio fully invested as planned, even if the markets take a turn for the worse.
  4. Redirect your energy to contributing financial factors. While you’re busy staying the course with your investments, you can redirect your attention to any number of related financial and advanced planning activities. While you don’t necessarily need to act on everything at once, it’s worth reviewing your financial landscape approximately annually, and identifying areas in need of attention. Maybe you’ve got a debt load you’d like to reduce, or an estate plan that’s no longer relevant. Perhaps it’s been too long since you’ve reviewed your insurance line-up, or you’d like to revisit your philanthropic goals in the context of the latest tax laws. Refreshing any or all of these items is likely to contribute more to your financial success than will fussing over the stock market’s daily gyrations.
  5. Perform a cybersecurity audit. Protecting yourself against cybercriminals is another excellent use of your time. With the new year, consider revisiting a few basic, protective steps, such as: changing key passwords on your most sensitive login accounts; reviewing your credit reports (using AnnualCreditReport.com); and placing a freeze on your credit file, to block unauthorized access (now free, based on recently enacted federal law). Especially with child identity theft on the rise, these actions apply to your entire household. Unfortunately, even minor children are now at heightened risk.
  6. Have “that money talk” with your kids, your parents, or both. Speaking of your kids, when is the last time you’ve held any conversations about your family wealth? It’s never too soon to begin preparing your minor children for a financially literate adulthood. As they mature, their financial independence rarely happens by accident, with additional in-depth conversations in order. Then, as you and your parents age, you and your kids must prepare to step in and assist if dementia, disability or death take their tolls. There also can be ongoing conversations related to any legacy you’d like to leave as a family. For all these considerations and more, an annual “money talk” can be critical to successful outcomes.

So, there you have it: Six creative ways to bolster your financial well-being while the stock market does whatever it will in the year ahead. While this list is by no means exhaustive, we hope you’ll find it an approachable number to take on … with two critical caveats.

First, we’ve got a bonus “financial best practice” to add to the list:

Above all else, remember what your money is for.

Money is meant to fund your moments of meaning.

So, be it resolved for the year ahead: Next time you find your stomach tightening at the latest frightening or exciting financial news, tune it out. Walk away. Go do something you love, with those whose company you cherish. Circling back to our first call to inaction, not only will this feel better, it’s likely to be better for your financial well-being.

Second, we recognize that each of these “easy” best practices aren’t always so easy to implement. We could readily write pages and pages on how to tackle each one.

But instead of writing about them, we’d love to help you do them. At Hiley Hunt, we work with families every day and over the years to convert their dreams into plans, and their plans into achievements. We hope you’ll be in touch in the new year, so we can do the same for you.

December 5, 2018

Five Financial Adages for Thriving in Volatile Markets

Written by Andrew Hunt

Sometimes the best, most rigorously developed financial advice is so obvious, it’s become cliché. And yet, investors often end up abandoning this same advice when market turbulence is on the rise. Why the disconnect? Let’s take a look at five of the most familiar financial adages, and why they’re often much easier said than done.

  1. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
  2. No risk, no reward.
  3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  4. Buy low, sell high.
  5. Stay the course.

We’ll explore each in turn, how we implement them, and why helping people stick with these evidence-based basics remains among our most important and challenging roles.

  1. If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail.

Almost everyone would agree: It makes sense to plan how and why you want to invest before you actually do it. And yet, few investors come to us with robust plans already in place. That’s why deep, extensive and multilayered planning is one of the first things we do when welcoming a new client, including:

  • A Discovery Meeting – To understand everything about you, including your goals and interests, your personal and professional relationships, your values and beliefs, how you’d prefer to work with us … and anything else that may be on your mind.
  • “Traditional” Financial Planning – To organize your existing assets and liabilities, define your near-, mid-, and long-range goals, and ensure your financial means align as effectively as possible with your most meaningful aspirations.
  • Integrated Wealth Management – To chart a course for aligning your range of wealth interests with your financial logistics: insurance, estate planning, tax planning, business succession, philanthropic intent and more.

As we’ll explore further, even solid planning doesn’t guarantee success. But we believe the only way we can accurately assess how you’re doing is if we’ve first identified what you’re trying to achieve, and how we expect to accomplish it.

  1. No Risk, No Reward.

In many respects, the relationship between risk and reward serves as the wellspring from which a steady stream of financial economic theory has flowed ever since. Simply put, exposing your portfolio to market risk is expected to generate higher returns over time. Reduce your exposure to market risk, and you also lower expected returns.

We typically build a measure of stock market exposure into our clients’ portfolios accordingly, with specific allocations guided by individual goals and risk tolerances. But here’s the thing: Once you have accepted the evidence describing how market risks and expected returns are related, it’s critical that you remain invested as planned.

There’s ample evidence that periodic market downturns ranging from “ripples” to “rapids” are part of the ride. As a February 2018 Vanguard report described, from 1980–2017, the MSCI World Index recorded 11 market corrections of 10% or more, and 8 bear markets with at least 20% declines lasting at least 2 months. Such risks ultimately shape the stream that is expected to carry you to your desired destination. Consider them part of your journey.

  1. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.

At the same time, “risk” is not a mythical unicorn. It’s real. If it rears up, it can trample your dreams. So, just because you might need to include riskier sources of expected returns in your portfolio, it does not mean you must give them free rein.

This is where diversification comes in. Diversification is nothing new. In 1990, Harry Markowitz was co-recipient of a Nobel prize for his work on what became known as Modern Portfolio Theory. Markowitz analyzed (emphasis ours) “how wealth can be optimally invested in assets which differ in regard to their expected return and risk, and thereby also how risks can be reduced.” In other words, according to Markowitz’s work, first published in 1952, investors should employ diversification to manage portfolio risks.

This leads to an intriguing, evidence-based understanding. By combining widely diverse sources of risk, it’s possible to build more efficient portfolios. You can:

  • EITHER lower a portfolio’s overall risk exposure while maintaining similar expected returns
  • OR maintain similar levels of portfolio risk exposure while improving overall expected returns

Rarely, evolving evidence helps us identify additional or shifting sources of expected return worth blending into your existing plans. When this occurs, and only after extensive due diligence, we may advise you to do so, if practical (and cost-effective) solutions exist.

The details of how these risk/return “levers” work is beyond the scope of this paper. But come what may, the desire and necessity to DIVERSIFY your portfolio remains as important as ever – not only between stocks and bonds, but across multiple, global sources of expected returns.

  1. Buy Low, Sell High.

Of course, every investor hopes to sell their investments for more than they paid for them. Here are two best practices to help you succeed where so many fall short: time and rebalancing.

Time

By building a low-cost, broadly diversified portfolio, and letting it ride the waves of time, all evidence suggests you can expect to earn long-term returns that roughly reflect your built-in risk exposure. But “success” often takes a great deal more time than most investors allow for.

In a recent article, financial author Larry Swedroe looked at performance persistence among six different sources of expected return as well as three model portfolios built from them. He found, “In each case, the longer the horizon, the lower the odds of underperformance.” However, he also observed, “one of the greatest problems preventing investors from achieving their financial goals is that, when it comes to judging the performance of an investment strategy, they believe that three years is a long time, five years is a very long time and 10 years is an eternity.”

In the market, 10 years is not long. You must be prepared to remain true to your carefully structured portfolio for years if not decades, so we typically ensure that an appropriate portion is sheltered from market risks and is relatively accessible (liquid). The riskier portion can then be left to ebb, flow and expectedly grow over expanses of time, without the need to tap into it in the near-term. In short, time is only expected to be your friend if you give it room to run.

Portfolio Rebalancing

Another way to buy low and sell high is through disciplined portfolio rebalancing. As we create a new portfolio, we prescribe how much weight to allocate to each holding. Over time, these holdings tend to stray from their original allocations, until the portfolio is no longer invested according to plan. By periodically selling some of the holdings that have overshot their ideal allocation, and buying more of the ones that have become underrepresented, we can accomplish two goals: Returning the portfolio closer to its intended allocations, AND naturally buying low (recent underperformers) and selling high (recent outperformers).

  1. Stay the Course.

So, yes, planning and maintaining an evidence-based investment portfolio is important. But even the best-laid plans will fail you, if you fail to follow them. Here, we get to the heart of why even “obvious” advice is often easier said than done. Our rational self may know better – but our instincts, emotions and behavioral biases get in the way.

Three particularly important biases to be aware of in volatile markets include tracking-error regret, recency bias, and outcome bias.

Tracking-Error Regret

When we build your portfolio, we typically structure it to reflect your goals and risk tolerances, by diversifying across different sources of expected risks and returns. Each part is expected to contribute to the portfolio’s unique whole by performing differently from its counterparts during different market conditions. Each portfolio may perform very differently from popular “norms” or benchmarks like the S&P 500 … for better or worse.

When “worse” occurs, and especially if it lingers, you are likely to feel tracking-error regret – a gnawing doubt that comes from comparing your own portfolio’s returns to popular benchmarks, and wishing yours were more like theirs.

Remember this: By design, your factor-based, globally diversified portfolio is highly likely to march out of tune with typical headline returns. It can be deeply damaging to your plans if you compare your own performance to benchmarks such as the general market, the latest popular trends, or your neighbor’s seemingly greener financial grass.

Recency

Recency causes us to pay more attention to our latest experiences, and to downplay the significance of long-term conditions. When an expected source of return fails to deliver, especially if the disappointment lasts for a while, you may start to second-guess the long-term evidence. This can trigger what Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman describes as “what you see is all there is” mistakes.

Again, buying high and selling low is exactly the opposite of your goals. And yet, recency causes droves of investors to chase hot, high-priced holdings and sell low during declines. Irrational choices based on recency may still turn out okay if you happen to get lucky. But they detour you from the most rational, evidence-based course toward your goals.

Outcome Bias

Sometimes, even the most rational plans don’t turn out as hoped for. If you let outcome bias creep in, you end up blaming the plan itself, even if it was simply bad luck. This, in turn, causes you to abandon your plan. Unfortunately, it’s rarely replaced with a better plan, which brings us back to our first adage about those who fail to plan.

To illustrate, let’s say, several years ago, we created a solid investment plan and IPS for you. At the time, you felt confident about them. Since then, we’ve periodically refreshed your plan, based on your evolving personal goals, perhaps a few new academic insights, and any new resources now available for further optimizing your portfolio.

Now, let’s say the markets disappoint us over the next few years. Ugly red numbers take over your reports, seemingly forever. Before you conclude your underlying strategy is wrong, remember: It’s far more likely you’re experiencing outcome bias (with a recency-bias chaser).

Investing will always contain an element of random luck. From that perspective, in largely efficient markets, your best course remains – you guessed it – to stay the course with your existing, carefully crafted plans. While even evidence-based investing doesn’t guarantee success, it continues to offer your best odds moving forward. Don’t lose faith in it.

Simple, But Not Easy

Let’s wrap with a telling anecdote. Merton Miller was another co-recipient of the aforementioned 1990 Nobel prize. Miller’s portion was in recognition of his “fundamental contributions to the theory of corporate finance.” While his findings were deep and far-reaching, he once summarized them as follows:

[I]f you take money out of your left pocket and put it in your right pocket, you’re no richer. Reporters would say, ‘you mean they gave you guys a Nobel Prize for something as obvious as that?’ … And I’d add, ‘Yes, but remember, we proved it rigorously.’”

Like Miller’s light take on his heavy-duty findings, some of what we feel is our best advice seems so simple. And yet, in our experience, it’s very hard to adhere to this same, “obvious” advice in the face of market turbulence.

Blame your behavioral biases. They make simple advice deceptively difficult to follow. We all have them, including blind spot bias. That is, we can easily tell when someone else is succumbing to a behavioral bias, but we routinely fail to recognize when it’s happening to us.

This is one reason it’s essential to have an objective advisor (and/or a spouse or solid friend) who is willing and able to let you know when you’re falling victim to a bias you cannot see in the mirror. That’s exactly what we’re here for! Let us know if we can help you reflect on these or any other challenges that stand between you and your greatest financial goals.

September 25, 2018

What Is the Yield Curve?

Written by Jason Hiley

The yield curve is flattening (or growing steeper)! … Yield curve spreads are widening (or narrowing)! … The yield curve has inverted (or normalized)!

Headline-grabbing yield curve commentary somehow sounds important, doesn’t it? But what is a yield curve to begin with, and what does it have to do with you and your investments?

A Tour Around the Curve

Yield curves typically depict the various yields across the range of maturities for a particular bond class. For example, Figure 1 would inform us that a U.S. Treasury bond with a 5-year maturity was yielding 2.4% annually, while a 30-year Treasury bond was yielding 3.4%.

Image 1

For illustration only; actual numbers may vary.

 

Bond class – A bond class or type is typically defined by its credit quality. Backed by the full faith of the U.S. government, U.S. Treasury yield curves are among the most frequently referenced, and often the high-quality benchmark against which other bond types are compared – such as municipal bonds, corporate bonds, or other government instruments.

Term/Maturity – The data points along the bottom X axis of a yield curve represent various terms available for a bond class. The term is the length of time you’d need to hold a bond before your loan matures and you should receive your initial investment back.

Yield – The data points along the vertical Y axis represent the interest rate, or yield to maturity currently being offered – such as 2% per year, 3% per year, and so on. The yield curve for any given bond class changes every time its yields change … which can be frequently.

Spread – The spread is the difference between the annual yields on two bond maturities. So, in Figure 1, there’s a 1% spread between 5-year (2.4%) and 30-year (3.4%) Treasury bond yields.

Define “Normal”

Next, let’s look at the curve itself – i.e., the line that connects the data points just discussed.

 The shape of the yield curve helps us see the relationship between various term/yield combinations available for any given bond class at any given point in time.

Just as our body temperature is optimal around 98.6°F (37°C), there’s a preferred equilibrium between bond market terms and yields. “Normal” occurs when short-term bonds are yielding less than their longer-term counterparts. Under normal economic conditions, investors expect to be compensated with a term premium for taking the incremental risk of owning longer maturities. They’re accepting more uncertainty about how current prices will compare to future possibilities. Conversely, they’ll accept lower rates for shorter-term instruments, offering greater certainty.

At the same time, evidence suggests there’s often a law of diminishing returns at play. Typically, the further out you go on the yield curve, the less extra yield is available. Thus, Figure 1 depicts a relatively normal yield curve, with a bigger jump to higher returns early in the curve (a steeper spread) and a more gradual ascent (narrower spread) as you move outward in time.

Variations on the Curve

If Figure 1 depicts a normal yield curve, what happens when things aren’t so normal, which is so often the case in our fast-moving markets?

 The shape of the yield curve essentially reflects evolving investor sentiments
about unfolding economic conditions
.

In short, expectations theory suggests that the yield curve reflects investor expectations of future interest rates at any given point in time. Thus, if investors in aggregate expect rates to rise (fall), the yield curve will slope upward (downward). If they expect rates to remain unchanged, it will be flat. Figure 2 depicts three different curve shapes that can result.

Image 2

For illustration only; actual curve shapes may vary.

 

You, the Yield Curve and Your Investments

It’s rare for the yield curve to invert, with long-term yields dropping lower than short-term. But it happens. This typically is the result of the Federal Reserve (or another country’s central bank) tightening monetary policy, i.e., driving up short-term rates to fight inflation. An inverted yield curve is often followed by a recession – although not always, and not always universally.

Does this mean you should head for the hills if the yield curve inverts or takes on other “abnormal” shapes? Probably not. At least not in reaction to this single economic indicator.

As with any other data source, bond yield curves are best employed to inform and sustain your durable, evidence-based investment plans, rather than to tempt you into abandoning those plans every time bond rates make a move. Big picture, this typically means investing in bonds that offer the highest yield for the least amount of term, credit and call risk. (Call risk is realized if the bond issuer “calls” or pays off their bond before it matures, which usually forces the bond’s investors to accept lower rates if they want to remain invested in the bond market.)

The yield curve is an important tool for determining how to efficiently execute this greater goal. It helps explain why we typically recommend holding only high-quality bonds, minimizing call risk, and usually striking a balanced middle ground between short-term versus long-term bonds. Similar principles apply, whether investing directly in individual bonds or via bond funds.

In short, it’s fine to consider the yield curve, but it’s best to look past it to the distant horizon as you invest toward your steadfast financial goals. We hope you’ll be in touch if we can tell you more about how fixed income/bond investing best fits into that greater context.

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.

July 11, 2018

Second Quarter 2018 Update

Written by Jason Hiley

Second quarter has come and gone, along with the usual mixed bag of “what next?” news. There were the typical ugly players such as potential trade wars and rising interest rates. There were also the usual market darlings, such as this quarter’s big, bold tech stocks. Each in their own way can tempt you to cringe or veer off-course.

We hope you’ll avoid reacting to recent news. At the same time, we understand how hard that can sometimes be. No matter how often we’re faced with uncertainty or how well we think we’ve prepared for it, new threats and opportunities have real ramifications in our lives; it’s natural to wonder whether “this time” they should also influence our investment decisions.

The decades and volumes of robust evidence advising our approach still suggests otherwise. To best pursue your personal goals, we must continue to consider the latest news within the greater context of how global capital markets have delivered their eventual returns.

Our rational selves understand this. But, as Georgetown University finance professor James Angel observed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “One of the open secrets of the financial-services world is that we’re also in the entertainment and gaming industry.”

Building and maintaining a globally diversified portfolio is usually neither fun nor entertaining. It’s mostly just boring to stick to a well-crafted investment portfolio, year in, year out.

Here’s a fun stat to remember next time you’re tempted to bet against the proverbial house by guessing where the market is headed next (emphasis ours): “Since 1928, the [U.S.] stock market has risen on 54% of days, 58% of months and 73% of years.

This comes from the same WSJ article, along with this important observation: “The distinction between an investment and a gamble lies in the odds of success.”

Our goal is to keep those investment odds in your favor. It may not be as entertaining, nor is success guaranteed, but all evidence suggests you’re best off investing in the house and its expected favorable outcomes, rather than placing concentrated bets on every hand played.

As always, please be in touch any time we can help you explore current market returns as they relate to your financial goals – or with anything else that may be on your mind. One sure bet you can make: We’re always happy to hear from you!

June 27, 2018

An Evidence-Based Approach to Sustainable Investing Part II: Degrees of “Doing Good”

Written by Andrew Hunt

As we touched on in our last piece, “Setting the Sustainable Stage,” degrees and kinds of “doing good” are often in the eye of the beholder. How do we measure something that is sometimes so subjective? As described in “Why and How Investors Use ESG Information” (a University of Oxford/Harvard University paper to be published in the Financial Analysts Journal), academics and practitioners alike typically turn to an organization’s Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) ratings to try to quantify levels of sustainability.

Again, precise labels may vary in the various literature, but following are some of the ways the industry applies ESG ratings into sustainable investment strategies.

  • Active ownership – Employing “shareholder power” to try to actively improve a company’s ESG performance (engaging senior management, submitting proposals, proxy voting, etc.)
  • Negative screening – Explicitly excluding firms with low ESG ratings (“This company is too ‘wicked’ to belong in my portfolio.”)
  • Positive screening – Explicitly including firms with high ESG ratings (“This company is at least ‘good enough’ to belong in my portfolio.”)
  • Inclusion strategies – Integrating ESG data into existing evidence-based analyses, melding the information into a systematic, total portfolio management strategy

Investors currently have access to a range of investment solutions that incorporate these and other strategies to varying degrees.

ESG Investing – ESG investors are more likely to emphasize inclusion strategies, which complement a general evidence-based investment approach. In other words, evidence-based ESG funds should help investors continue to incorporate sound portfolio construction principles (such as asset allocation, global diversification and cost-control), and minimize less-efficient tactics (such as picking or avoiding specific stocks or sectors based on forecasts or popular appeal). ESG fund managers also may engage in active ownership on behalf of their shareholders.

Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) Investing – SRI funds are more likely to use screening strategies that involve making security- or sector-specific judgments or forecasts.

Impact Investing – Impact investors are on a mission to not just invest in a venture, but to become an altruistic partner in it. Say, for example, you donate to a GoFundMe® campaign seeking to create an eco-friendly alternative to plastic water bottles. You’ve just become an impact investor. On a grander scale, high-net-worth investors may take on private equity or debt structures with an eye toward making an impact with their funding.

Finding a Sustainable Fit

None of these possibilities are inherently right or wrong. Which (if any) are right for you? As proposed in this innovative paper, “Sustainable Investing: From Niche to Normal,” it depends whether you are more value– or values-driven. The paper explains that value-driven investors “put financial return first, BEFORE any other issues are addressed,” while values-driven investors will “consider financial return AFTER the investors’ values have been satisfied.”

In this context:

  • ESG investing focuses more heavily on value – i.e., financial outcomes – factoring in ESG ratings when the evidence suggests they might improve on expected returns (or at least not detract from them).
  • Impact investing seeks to fund a cause with less regard for how the “investment” works out. Hint: If you’re mostly in it for the money, you might not be in the right place.
  • SRI investing falls somewhere in between. You don’t want to lose your shirt, but you may not mind giving up some expected return if you expect it to do a lot of good.

Sustainable investment strategies aren’t mutually exclusive either. For example, you could incorporate ESG investing into the core of your evidence-based portfolio, while participating in impact investing with some of your discretionary income.

Next Up: The Lay of the Sustainable Land

Before sustainable investing existed, investors who were philanthropically inclined had little choice but to seek their financial returns through traditional investing, while separately expressing their personal values by donating to their charities of choice.

Today, solutions are coming into focus for those who would like to begin combining these two, formerly disparate interests. That said, while evidence-based ESG investing holds much promise, it remains a relatively new field of study. Challenges and opportunities abound as we seek to create robust data and enhanced analyses to guide the way – in theory and in practice.

In our next piece, we’ll take you on a fascinating tour of the evolving landscape.

June 20, 2018

An Evidence-Based Approach to Sustainable Investing Part I: Setting the Sustainable Stage

Written by Jason Hiley

If there’s one trait most of us share, it’s a desire to make the world a better place. No wonder there’s so much interest in sustainable investing. Who wouldn’t want to try to earn decent if not stellar returns, while contributing – or at least causing less harm – to the greater good?

But what is the greater good? What is a decent return? How do we make it all happen? Financial history leaves us optimistic that, over time, best practices are likely to emerge out of the bubbling brew that is our capital markets. For those who would rather not wait, it can be hard to identify a clear path forward. As a relatively new and fast-growing field, sustainable investing is crowded with opportunities and challenges, perspectives and priorities, strategies and terminology.

Let’s bring today’s sustainable investing into tighter focus.

Sensible Sustainability

As we grapple with integrating subjective values into objective financial planning, we are inspired by “Doing Good Better” author William MacAskill: “I believe that by combining the heart and the head – by applying data and reason to altruistic acts – we can turn our good intentions into astonishingly good outcomes.”

Let’s be clear: We are NOT here to direct your personal moral compass. Rather, we’d like to offer objective insights, rooted in our evidence-based investment approach. An evidence-based outlook helps confirm when a theory appears to be robust in reality. It also suggests when a promising plan may not pencil out as hoped for – no matter how well-intended it may be.

Equipped with solid evidence in an often emotionally charged arena, you will be better positioned to make the rational choices and informed decisions that best fit you, your heartfelt values, and your financial goals.

A Tangle of Terminology

First things first. While you’re likely to find various terms sharing similar definitions in this crowded field, we’ll refer to the broad subject as “sustainable investing.

Call it what you will, recent research has found that different investors embrace sustainable investing for different reasons. Your own priorities govern the type of sustainable investing that should best align with your personal goals:

  • Financial Priorities – Some investors may not be as interested in investing “morally,” but may do so anyway if they expect to earn higher returns from stronger-performing companies.
  • Impact Priorities – Other investors may not care whether sustainable investing brings higher expected returns, as long as they can shun “bad” companies and/or invest in “good” ones.
  • Blended Priorities – Most investors fall somewhere in between: They want to earn solid returns (or at least not lose money) while investing in principled ways.

Next Up: Degrees of “Doing Good”

Today’s piece sets the sustainable stage. We introduced a few key terms and summarized how sustainable investment priorities may vary depending on individual goals. In our next piece, we’ll explore how to quantify something as potentially subjective as “doing good.” We’ll also share some ideas on how to invest in ways that best balance your financial goals with your personal values.

Until then … be good.

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.

screen-shot-2018-06-04-at-8-58

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.