AS THE SOUND OF SUMMER CRICKETS gives way to the din of investors wailing, I've had two relevant articles appear. I helped Bottom Line/Personal put together a piece on "7 lies investors tell themselves." The article was wrapped up weeks ago, but it seems timely in the wake of the recent market turmoil.
Meanwhile, I am now writing occasionally for Financial Planning, a publication geared to financial advisors. Check out the article posted this morning on five strategies for staying calm in the face of market mayhem.
WHAT SHOULD INVESTORS make of the stock market’s decline? Start with three ideas. First, the S&P 500 has fallen a mere 7.5% from its all-time high, set in May, so the “global market rout” looks more like a mild case of market indigestion.
Second, while the S&P 500 declined 5.8% last week, we can be confident that the underlying, fundamental value of these 500 corporations didn’t deteriorate 5.8%. As usual, investors are trying to figure out the future, and it’s a crude guessing game driven by twitchy investors with short time horizons.
Third, while nobody knows what the stock market’s fundamental value is, it would be hard to argue that U.S. stocks are cheap. U.S. shares might be reasonably valued relative to U.S. bonds, but all that’s telling us is that both will likely generate modest long-run returns from current levels. By contrast, foreign stocks, and especially emerging markets, look like a decent buy if you’re a long-term investor.
So what should investors do? At this juncture, I wouldn’t do much. If you’re regularly contributing to a 401(k) plan or spooning money into an IRA, I would keep it up. If you have less than 30% to 40% of your stock portfolio allocated to foreign stocks, consider directing more of your regular purchases to international markets, and particularly emerging markets.
We aren’t, however, anywhere close to the moment when you should back up the truck and start buying U.S. stocks like crazy. To do that, I would want to see U.S. shares down 25% from their high. Sure, there’s a chance that markets will rally from here. But even if there’s an impressive short-term bounce, today’s buyers of U.S. stocks won’t be looking at great long-run returns, because they’re purchasing at rich valuations.
THE PUBLISHERS of my 2003 and 2009 books wanted the manuscripts quickly, so I wrote both books in roughly four months. My strategy: Bang out 1,000 words a day for the first 30 days or so, without paying much attention to the quality of the writing. I then spent the next three months checking facts and polishing the manuscript. In both cases, I was working a fulltime job while writing the books, so by the end of the four months I was pretty much wrecked.
Today, I started on another round of binge writing, though this one will be less onerous. The rest of the year looks jammed: I need to update the Jonathan Clements Money Guide for 2016, while teaching a college course on personal finance for the first time, putting out a few newsletters and delivering various freelance articles. I figure I won’t have much time for my other book project, How to Think About Money, which is currently half written. My goal: Get the other half drafted by the end of August. I reckon 1,000 words a day for 14 days should do the trick. I then plan to put the manuscript aside and return to it early in 2016.
The words I spew out over the next 14 days won’t be pretty and a lot rewriting will be required. Still, it’s a strategy I would recommend to other writers. By setting a goal of 1,000 words a day, you overcome the tendency to tinker and procrastinate. You quickly get a chance to view the whole book and see whether it truly hangs together. An added bonus: At the end of the binge writing, you know you have enough material for at least a half-decent book, which gets you past that initial anxiety.
THE GREAT RECESSION may have been a financial wakeup call for American families. But many have since drifted back to sleep.
The official savings rate averaged 10.6% in the 1950s, 11.1% in the 1960s and 11.8% in the 1970s. From there, it started to slide, averaging 9.3% in the 1980s, 6.7% in the 1990s and just 4.3% in the 2000s. Panicked by the Great Recession, many Americans made a fleeting return to frugality: During the first five calendar years of the current decade, the annual savings rate averaged 5.8%.
But even that hint of hope is fading fast. After hitting a two-decade high of 7.6% in 2012, the savings rate subsided to just 4.8% in both 2013 and 2014, and 2015 is running at a similar pace. Moreover, the official savings rate measures savings as a percentage of after-tax income, while experts typically couch their recommendations in terms of pretax income. The upshot: Most Americans are saving far less than the 10% to 12% of pretax income that’s often recommended.
All this is profoundly frustrating. Many Americans seem to have forgotten the recent financial crisis and appear unperturbed by the prospect of a penniless retirement. Congress has offered a slew of tax incentives to encourage saving and investing, and yet many folks show no interest. Some have suggested that our low savings rate reflects America’s income inequality, with many failing to save because they simply can’t afford to. Others have pinned the blame on the instincts we inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who were hardwired to consume whenever they could.
Whatever the cause of today’s modest savings rate, this is one time you don’t want to side with the majority. Your neighbors may be headed for a financially strapped retirement. You should strive mightily to avoid it. Saving diligently will never be considered clever or sophisticated. But it’s the one sure path to greater wealth.
YOU CAN THINK OF INVESTING as a battle between two often-competing pieces of information: What you think an investment is worth—and what the market thinks. If the gap between the two gets too far out of whack, there’s a danger that investors will behave foolishly.
While it’s easy to figure out what, say, a certificate of deposit or a Treasury note is worth, it’s much harder to put a value on stocks, gold, high-yield junk bonds and other riskier investments. Even most money managers, who devote their professional lives to scouring the markets, aren’t skilled enough at spotting undervalued investments to overcome the investment costs they incur and the management fees they charge, and thereby deliver market-beating returns.
That’s why I start by assuming that the current price for stocks, bonds and other securities is probably pretty close to the fundamental value for these investments. I don’t subscribe to the extreme version of the efficient market hypothesis, which says securities are always correctly priced. But I do believe that the market is sufficiently efficient that it’s extraordinarily hard for investors to earn market-beating returns over the long run, and thus most of us should steer clear of picking individual stocks and buying actively managed funds.
This conflating of price and value, however, has its dangers. It’s a scenario you see often: Folks buy an investment that they think is good value, but then they’re thrown into doubt by falling prices and some end up selling at the worst possible time.
This danger looms especially large during major market declines. Cast your mind back to March 2009, when the S&P 500 was 57% below its October 2007 high. If you had bought a collection of stocks for $1,000, and now honestly believed that their true value was just $430, dumping your holdings wouldn’t be an unreasonable response. After all, given that extraordinary loss of value in just 18 months, who knows what your shares might be worth if you stuck with them for another few months?
But selling in March 2009 would, of course, have been a terrible mistake—which is why we need a sense of stocks’ value that is distinct from their price. That brings us back to the distinction between the market’s investment return and its speculative return, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. With any luck, if you have a handle on the long-run investment return you’re likely to enjoy, thanks to dividend payments and earnings growth, maybe you’ll get less rattled when the market’s short-run speculative return goes against you—and you might even view it as a buying opportunity.
INFLATION ROSE JUST 0.1% over the 12 months through June, as measured by CPI-U, the most popular inflation measure. But that tiny increase is a bad guide to the future, because it’s held down by the 15% plunge in energy prices over the past year.
So what should we expect? A better guide is CPI-U with food and energy excluded, which rose 1.8% over the past 12 months. Better still, take your cues from the Treasury market.
If you take the yield on the 10-year Treasury note and subtract the yield on 10-year inflation-indexed Treasurys, you have investors’ collective guess for inflation over the next 10 years. The reason: Like investors in conventional Treasury bonds, holders of inflation-indexed Treasurys receive regular interest. But on top of that, the principal value of their bonds is stepped up along with the inflation rate.
Assuming a rational market, both conventional and inflation-indexed Treasurys should be priced to deliver the same return. Thus, with conventional 10-year Treasurys yielding 2.3% and inflation-indexed Treasurys at 0.6%, you have your forecast for inflation over the next decade: 1.7% a year.
While we’re on the topic of inflation, here’s an early warning on one of this fall’s stupidest headlines. In late October, the Social Security Administration will announce how much Social Security retirement benefits will increase for 2016, based on inflation over the 12 months through September. In all likelihood, the increase will be extremely small, and there may be no increase at all, which is entirely justified given the past year's low inflation rate. The media’s predictable reaction? “Social Security Says No Raise for Retirees in 2016,” or some similar headline that suggests seniors are getting ripped off by the federal government.
IF YOU’RE IN NEW YORK on Sept. 26, consider attending the 13th annual Financial Fitness Workshop at New York University. In addition to signing and selling books, I’ll be giving the opening keynote address.
My talk will be devoted to “How to Think About Money,” which is also the title of the new book I’m working on and which is slated for publication in mid-2016. I can’t promise you will agree with everything I say—but I suspect you’ll be amused.
WANT TO FORECAST the stock market’s 10-year return? You might start by estimating the economy’s growth rate, consider what that would mean for corporate earnings, and then ponder what value investors will put on those earnings. Problem is, with this approach, you begin by making reasonable estimates—and end up engaging in wild speculation.
The first step doesn’t seem so tough: estimating the U.S. economy’s growth rate. If you look back over the past half century, the real (after-inflation) GDP growth rate has been 3% a year. The worst year was a 2.8% contraction in 2009 and the best was a 7.3% spurt in 1984. Still, 36 of the 50 years were above 0% but below 5%. That’s moderately reassuring: It tells you that, most of the time, GDP growth hasn’t been that far from the 3% long-run average. Moreover, 11 of the 14 outliers occurred in the first 20 years—and just three in the 30 years since.
The not-so-good news: GDP growth has been slowing over the past 50 years. Since 2000, it’s averaged just 1.8% a year. Partly, that reflects the Great Recession. But it also reflects slower growth in the labor force—a trend that will continue as the U.S. population ages. Taking that into account, we might assume the economy expands 2% a year faster than inflation over the next 10 years. If inflation is also 2%, that would put nominal GDP growth at 4%.
Will corporate earnings also grow at 4%? That question triggers three others. First, will earnings per share grow slower than overall corporate earnings, as companies sell shares to finance growth and issue stock options to employees? Historically, earnings per share have lagged behind overall corporate earnings by two percentage points a year. But over the past 10 years, shareholders haven’t suffered any dilution, as companies use spare cash to buy back stock.
Second, will profit margins contract from today’s historically high levels? We can only guess at the answer. Third, will earnings of U.S. multinationals get a boost either because they snag a larger share of foreign markets or because foreign economies grow faster than the U.S.? Both are possibilities, but—once again—we can only guess at the answer.
The upshot: We might assume that corporate earnings do indeed grow at 4%, but accept that it could easily be somewhat faster or slower over the next decade. Tack on today’s 2% dividend yield, and you would be looking at an estimated 6% annual total return, or four percentage points a year faster than inflation.
But this assumes that stock prices climb along with earnings per share. Will they? Share prices today are richly valued relative to corporate earnings, which is worrisome. But they’ve been richly valued for much of the past quarter century, so maybe investors shouldn’t be concerned.
Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle likes to distinguish between the market’s investment return—corporate earnings growth plus dividends—and its speculative return, which is changes in the value put on earnings, as reflected in the market’s price-earnings ratio. The dilemma: To come up with a prediction for 10-year returns, we need to speculate on how speculative other investors will be.
But don’t despair: As we lengthen our time horizon, changes in P/E ratios become less important and instead the market’s return is increasingly driven by the combination of earnings growth and dividend yield. In other words, if you have a truly long time horizon, you have a reasonable shot at notching something close to 6% a year, and that 6% should be comfortably ahead of what you could have earned with bonds.
IF YOU STILL BELIEVE PAST PERFORMANCE is a good guide to future results, check out the latest S&P Persistence Scorecard from S&P Dow Jones Indices. The study tracks top-performing mutual funds from one 12-month stretch to the next, to see whether they were able to hold their position among the better-performing funds.
No large-cap, mid-cap or small-cap stock fund managed to remain among the top 25% of performers over the five consecutive 12-month periods ending March 2015. In other words, if you take the top 25% of funds over the 12 months through March 2011, none held that position in all of the four 12-month stretches that followed—those though March 2012, March 2013, March 2014 and March 2015.
If, instead, you look at funds that managed to remain consistently in the top 50%, the numbers are better—but not much. Only 4.82% of large-cap funds, 3.45% of mid-cap funds and 7.77% of small-cap funds were always among the top 50% of performers over the five consecutive 12-month stretches that ended March 2015.
Such consistency is a sign that a manager may be skillful rather than lucky—and yet, based on S&P’s study, it appears such skill is in short supply. The study also highlights a crucial problem for investors hoping to beat the market with mutual funds. Yes, there are funds that beat the market. But can you identify them ahead of time? The usual starting point is past performance. But it seems that strong returns—at least over 12 months—are no guarantee of future results.
THE FEDERAL TAX SYSTEM punishes the middle class, who have earned income and fund retirement accounts. Meanwhile, it favors the wealthy, who are more likely to have substantial sums in taxable accounts and then bequeath those assets.
Okay, now I need to explain myself.
First, there’s the question of earned versus unearned income. Tax rates on wages are higher than those on long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, plus workers also have to pay Social Security payroll taxes. The latter is especially rough on the self-employed, who have to pay the full 15.3% payroll tax, because they don’t have an employer to pay the other half.
Defenders of the current system will say that we need lower tax rates on investments to encourage folks to save and invest for the long haul, and that those who pay Social Security taxes are eventually rewarded with retirement benefits. But along the way, aren’t we discouraging people from working, a bad idea in an economy where the ratio of workers to retirees is shrinking? On $100,000 in income, a single self-employed individual might lose more than 30% of his or her income to federal income and payroll taxes, or quadruple the 8% paid by someone who lives off qualified dividends and long-term capital gains.
Second, there’s the issue of what gets taxed after your death. Today, if you die with less than $5.43 million ($10.86 million if a couple) in a taxable account, you’ll owe no federal taxes. But if you died with a comparable sum in a traditional retirement account, your heirs would owe a massive amount of income taxes. There’s even talk of forcing heirs to empty retirement accounts within five years of the original owner’s death, which would make the tax bill especially massive.
Again, defenders of the current system would argue that the traditional retirement-account dollars have never been taxed, so the federal government should still get its money. But arguably, that’s also true of the embedded capital gains in a taxable account, and yet those capital-gains tax bills disappear upon death, thanks to the step-up in cost basis that occurs.
As you can tell, I’m well aware of the rationale behind the current system. And while perhaps the current system shouldn’t be scrapped, it seems like we need to tweak the incentives somewhat—so that people have a greater incentive not only to work and to launch their own businesses, but also to save in retirement accounts both for their own benefit and with their heirs in mind.
FINANCIAL FREEDOM is the ability to spend our days doing what we love—and, with any luck, it will come with age. As we amass more wealth, we should become less motivated by fear of layoffs and hopes of a bigger paycheck. Instead, our motivation should come from within, because we’re increasingly free to focus on the things we’re passionate about.
In the psychology literature, there’s much discussion of so-called extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Being self-motivated is celebrated as crucial to mental well-being and fulfilling our full potential. This seems reasonable: Wouldn’t you rather spend your days doing what you want, rather than what others want you to do?
To be sure, some folks love their job. That gives them the best of both worlds, because they can devote their time to something they’re passionate about, while also getting paid for it. But for those who aren’t so crazy about their work, amassing wealth should allow them to focus less on the extrinsic motivation of the workplace—and eventually, with retirement, to leave behind the world of pay raises and layoffs. Instead, they can focus their energies on the things they love doing.
But here’s the surprise: While it seems like older workers ought to become more intrinsically motivated—and certainly it seems desirable—it doesn’t appear to happen. Studies suggest many older workers are just as extrinsically motivated as younger workers. Why are older workers still worrying about keeping their jobs and earning more money? I suspect bad financial habits have a lot to do with it. Many folks put off saving for retirement, so they desperately need to stay in the workforce to amass a decent-size nest egg. That creates financial stress that could have been avoided if they’d started saving at a much younger age.
MEIR STATMAN, a finance professor at California’s Santa Clara University, argues that financial decisions—like everyday consumer purchases—have three benefits: utilitarian (what it does for me), expressive (what it says about me) and emotional (how it makes me feel).
As we manage our finances, we insist our goal is strictly utilitarian, and that all we want to do is make money. But in truth, we often make decisions for expressive or emotional reasons—and these other motivations can hurt our stated goal of greater wealth, as Prof. Statman explained in a recent Wall Street Journal article (subscription required).
For instance, we’re proud to own a hedge fund or hire a private money manager, despite the high fees that make it unlikely we’ll earn market-beating returns. We get a thrill out of trading and we enjoy spending money, though high trading typically leads to lower returns and spending means we save less for retirement. We’re proud to sell our investment winners, even though it can mean paying capital gains taxes. Meanwhile, we regret our losers—and we don’t want to make the regret worse by selling and abandoning all chance of recouping the loss.
This, alas, is one area where knowledge is unlikely to set you free. You may know intellectually that you ought to spend less, dump your losing stocks and get rid of your high-cost actively managed funds. But you don’t change your financial ways, because emotions often trump rationality. My advice: Try talking to your spouse or a friend about your finances. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being logical when it’s just thoughts rattling around in your head. It’s much harder when you have to articulate those thoughts to others.
MEB FABER’S “GLOBAL ASSET ALLOCATION,” available free this week through Amazon.com if you buy the e-book, offers a look at the historical performance of a fistful of portfolios, such as those recommended by Rob Arnott, Harry Browne and Ray Dalio. It’s a quick read, with just 129 pages, much of it consumed by charts.
The book’s biggest surprise? How unsurprising the results are. “As long as you have some of the main ingredients—stocks, bonds, and real assets—the exact amount really doesn’t matter all that much,” Faber writes.
Over the 40 years analyzed, the difference between the after-inflation results of the best- and worst-performing portfolio was just 1.84 percent points a year (though, compounded over four decades, that modest annual gap would mean a huge cumulative difference).
Which brings us to what Faber says “is the main point we are trying to drive home in this book.” Suppose you guessed right and bought the best-performing portfolio at the start of the 40 years, but then implemented the strategy using a financial advisor who invested your money in the average mutual fund. Result? The fees you paid would have wiped out the advantage you gained—and your results would have been worse than the return, before costs, of the poorest-performing portfolio.
As Faber writes, “Ultimately, smart investing requires that we not only monitor asset allocation, but of equal weight, we focus on the advisory fees associated with the investment strategy.”
MY LATEST COLUMN for The Wall Street Journal—and also my last—is about how costly it is to be self-employed. You have to buy your own health and disability insurance, fund retirement with no help from an employer, and pay Social Security payroll taxes as both an employer and employee.
All this has been driven home for me over the past 15 months, since I left fulltime employment at Citigroup. But there is an upside to being self-employed: You have a wonderful sense of autonomy.
How do I use this autonomy? Yes, I’ve developed a fondness for afternoon naps. But I also find I’m working harder than ever. To economists, this would be no surprise: If you’re self-employed, you have a much greater financial incentive to put in long hours. But it’s more than that: Work is far more enjoyable when you know success is almost entirely within your control, with no risk that surly colleagues will drop the ball or an ornery boss will kill the project. Result: Greater happiness. A 2009 Pew Research Center study found that 39% of self-employed workers said they were “completely satisfied” with their jobs, versus 28% for salaried workers.
MY FINAL ARTICLE for The Wall Street Journal appears this week—and, ironically, it’s about self-employment. The Journal recently announced major cuts, including shrinking both the staff and space devoted to personal finance. I decided it was the right time to be moving on—and, while I never heard one way or the other, I’m not sure there would have been a place for my column in the new, smaller personal-finance section.
What’s next? Even without the Journal column, I probably have too much on my plate. I’m in the middle of updating the Jonathan Clements Money Guide for 2016. This fall, I’ll be teaching personal finance at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY. I’m working on a new book, “How to Think About Money,” which I hope to publish mid-2016. I plan to put out a free email newsletter every few months, starting in September. If you want to receive a copy, shoot me an email. I also have various other projects in the works, as well as a few speaking engagements—something I’d like to do more of in the year ahead.