In my last post on the subject, I introduced the idea of monitoring and maintaining a portfolio’s asset allocation.
Determining when and how to effectively rebalance your portfolio requires careful monitoring of not only portfolio performance, but awareness of your tax status, cash flow, financial goals, and tolerance for risk. The act of portfolio rebalancing results in transaction fees and has the potential to incur capital gains in taxable accounts. Thus, while there may be good reasons to rebalance, the benefits must outweigh the costs.
Given these challenges, a practical approach to rebalancing takes into consideration the occurrence of “triggering” points, yet provides enough flexibility that costs are effectively managed and minimized.
When to Rebalance
Defining triggering points helps us decide when to rebalance. Most experts recommend rebalancing when asset group weightings move outside a specified range of their target allocations. This may be widely defined according to either a stock-bond mix or to a percentage drift away from target weightings for categories like small cap stocks, international stocks, and the like.
How to Rebalance
While rebalancing costs are unavoidable, several strategies can help minimize the impact:
- Rebalance with new cash. Rather than selling over-weighted assets that have appreciated, use new cash to buy more under-weighted assets; this reduces transaction costs and the tax consequences of selling assets.
- Whenever possible, rebalance in the tax-deferred or tax-exempt accounts where capital gains are not realized.
- Incorporate tax management within taxable accounts, such as strategic loss harvesting, dividend management, and gain/loss matching.
- Implement an integrated portfolio strategy. In other words, rather than maintaining rigid barriers between component asset classes and accounts, manage the portfolio as a whole.
While there are good reasons to adjust portfolio risk by rebalancing, it does incur real costs that can detract from returns. A good strategy includes determining which investment components can acceptably drift, and adopting tax-saving and cost-saving strategies during rebalancing. In helping our clients rebalance, we strive to develop a structured plan that remains flexible to each individual’s unique blend of goals, risk tolerances, cash flow, and tax status.
No one knows where the capital markets will go—and that’s the point. In an uncertain world, investors should have a well-defined, globally diversified strategy and manage their portfolio to implement it over time. Rebalancing is a crucial tool in this effort.
Moreover, if and when your overall financial goals or risk tolerance change, you have a foundation for making adjustments. In the absence of a plan, adjustments are a matter of guesswork.
Derivatives (complex financial instruments) are time bombs and “financial weapons of mass destruction” that could harm not only their buyers and sellers, but the whole economic system.
“Derivatives generate reported earnings that are often wildly overstated and based on estimates whose inaccuracy may not be exposed for many years.”
After seeing Michael Lewis on both 60 Minutes and The Charlie Rose Show last week, I had to read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the just released book by Lewis about the subprime mortgage disaster. Lewis is a fabulous story teller, and I cannot recommend this book enough.
He tells how the subprime mortgage market was created, who benefited, who lost, the cons, the dupes and the dopes and “how some of Wall Street’s finest minds managed to destroy $1.75 trillion of wealth in the subprime mortgage markets” and created the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Essentially billions of dollars were lent to people who had very little chance of ever paying it back. And Wall Street firms earned billions of dollars creating, packaging and betting on complex financial instruments whose raw material was the risky mortgage loans they created. And that was just the beginning.
Tremendous leverage (using borrowed money to magnify possible returns) increased the risk of destroying entire firms.
Lewis follows a few very colorful individuals who gradually figured out just how corrupt the entire risky mortgage system was. These investors made billions by betting against the subprime market by selling short.
Note that “selling short” is an entirely legal transaction, but generally considered a high risk one that involves betting against something, i.e. a stock, bond, or currency, for example, which isn’t “actually” owned by the investor. Selling short requires astuteness, foresight, excellent timing and staying power. Being “right” too soon can be both nerve wracking and very costly, because until the market agrees with your assessment, you are at risk of losing a great deal of money. (Disclosure: I do not sell short.)
In reading Lewis’s gripping story, I alternated between nodding my head in recognition of the self-serving greed that categorized Wall Street to shaking my head in disbelief that Wall Street bankers could have been so deluded that they ended up believing their own lies, I mean “models.” As I read, I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count – truly, Lewis has a way with words.
To give you some background info, in the “old” days, a bank lent money to a home buyer and they held the mortgage. The bank was very serious about getting repaid, so before they agreed to fund the loan, they did some rather basic things like verify the borrowers’ creditworthiness, check their employment and salary history and retain an appraiser to assess the value of the property being bought. A good credit history, a stable job and a property value that would support the loan were enough incentive for banks, back in the “old” days, to grant a loan request.
But when banks started selling the mortgage to a Wall Street firm who repackaged the loan and then sold the package to investors, the incentives became very different. It was like the Wild West before the Marshall came to town to establish law and order.
The acronym IBGYBG came into being. The brokers who made more money than they ever imagined said, “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” so let’s not worry about the suckers who will probably lose their homes or the gullible institutions that bought the crappy investments in the purposely opaque financial instruments. And it was easy to rationalize the sleazy behavior, because, after all, it was possible that this will all work out, if home prices keep rising. That was a big IF.
It was really a mammoth legal Ponzi scheme, or as Lewis called it a “mass delusion.”
The individual characters’ stories are fascinating, but I will not try to summarize them. Instead, here are some observations that emphasize the need for fundamental financial regulation of Wall Street firms.
- No one goes to Wall Street investment banks to make the world a better place. “Greed on Wall Street is assumed – almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed.”
- People see what they have an incentive to see. Wall Street employees, managers and CEOs had an incentive (i.e. huge bonuses – surely, you’ve heard about them) not to see the truth.
- When Wall Street firms were partnerships and the principals had their own money at risk, they had a sane long-term approach to their business operations. When these same firms became publicly traded corporations, risk was transferred to the shareholders. But, of course, huge bonuses were paid to successful traders based on one year’s results. In the short term, traders had every incentive to take large risks. “Heads I win, tails someone else loses, perhaps some time in the future.”
- The fixed income (bonds) world dwarfs the equity (stocks) world in size. The stock market is transparent and heavily policed. On the other hand, “bond salesmen could say and do anything without worrying that they would be caught. Bond technicians could dream up ever more complicated securities without worrying too much about government regulation – one reason why so many derivatives had been derived, one way or another, from bonds.”
- The world of mortgage-backed securities (pooled investments backed by mortgages) and derivatives (financial instruments created by Wall Street) were intentionally difficult to understand, so no one even bothered to try. The book describes the nature of asset-backed securities, tranches, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, etc. You, dear reader, can safely skip those portions if you want to. The horse is already out of the barn.
- It’s difficult to appreciate the amount of backstabbing, mistrust and cynicism that is endemic at Wall Street firms. “Wall Street doesn’t care what it sells.” Investment banks exploited their institutional customers (pension funds, mutual funds, banks). The same firm that is advising them on what to invest in (the sell side) also has an in-house operation that is trading for its own account. Why is this blatant conflict of interest allowed?
- While there may have been some criminal behavior, in the end, group think, mass delusion and incompetence were more important factors. Wall Street firms did not understand the money-making machine they had created or the risks they had taken.
- When lenders ran out of customers who would qualify for a normal mortgage, they dreamt up new ways to lend to people who could not afford to pay the old fashioned way. Hence the introduction of “interest-only negative-amortizing adjustable-rate subprime mortgages.” Translation: you don’t have to pay any principal or any interest on your new mortgage; we’ll just keep adding that to the amount you owe.
- Amazingly enough, Wall Street firms convinced bond ratings agencies (Moody’s, S&P) to give such garbage a Triple A rating. That credit rating agencies are “educated” by and paid by the issuers of the bonds is quite a conflict of interest! And it still exists.
- Lewis asserts that today “nobody believes that Wall Street knows what it is doing.” He understands why Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for example, want a say in how they are regulated. He wonders why anyone would listen to them.
The greed and miscalculation of Wall Street firms caused the near collapse of the world economy. Governments around the world felt forced to commit trillions of dollars to resuscitate the banks.
Regulation of firms and people which have fundamentally the wrong incentives will not be easy. Regulatory reform of institutions that are too well connected to fail will not be easy. Change is never easy. But it is absolutely essential or we will all be at risk of a repeat performance of the last financial crisis. Without reform, the investment banking system can crash again, taking with it jobs, savings and U.S. tax payer dollars.
When meeting with new clients, I always discuss risk and return before helping them design a portfolio that will meet their needs. We live in an uncertain world, so there are no guarantees, and generally, risk and reward go hand in hand. I help my clients arrive at a portfolio that is well diversified and, most importantly, has an acceptable (for them) risk profile. It allows my clients to “stay the course,” even when market declines occur, as they inevitably will.
While global diversification gives investors a valuable tool for managing risk and volatility in a portfolio, it requires maintenance. Over time, asset classes have different returns. This is inevitable and, in fact, desirable. A portfolio that holds assets that perform dissimilarly will experience less overall volatility, and that results in a smoother ride over time.
However, dissimilar performance can also change the integrity of your asset mix or allocation – a condition known as “asset drift.” As some assets appreciate in value and others lose relative value, your portfolio’s allocation changes, which affects its risk and return qualities. If you let the allocation drift far enough away from your original target, you end up with a very different portfolio.
If you do nothing, “asset drift” will cause your portfolio to deviate from your long range plan and risk tolerance. As I said, even a well diversified portfolio requires maintenance.
Rebalancing is the remedy. To rebalance, you sell some assets that have risen in value and buy more of assets that have dropped in value. The purpose of rebalancing is to move a portfolio back to its original target allocation. This restores strategic structure in the portfolio and puts you back on track to pursue long-term goals.
At first glance, rebalancing seems counter-intuitive. Why sell a portion of outperforming asset groups and acquire a larger share of underperforming ones? A common reaction is to want to buy what has gone up, because you think it will continue to outperform. This logic is flawed, however, because past performance may not continue in the future. In reality, there’s no reliable way to predict future returns. The old stock broker mantra (slightly modified, simply because you can’t predict the future) holds true, “Buy lower, sell higher.”
Equally important, remember that you chose your original asset allocation to reflect your risk and return preferences. Rebalancing realigns your portfolio to these priorities by using structure, not recent performance, to drive investment decisions. Periodic rebalancing also encourages dispassionate decision making – an essential quality during times of market volatility.
In the real world, portfolio allocations can be complex, incorporating not only fixed income and stocks, but also the multiple asset groups within equity investing. And, of course, tax considerations are very important.
In summary, to ensure that a portfolio’s risk and return characteristics remain consistent over time, a portfolio must be rebalanced. Rebalancing is a tool to control risk and also an antidote to becoming too optimistic or too pessimistic. You are, in effect, buying low and selling high, whether you want to or not.
Determining when and how to effectively rebalance is the subject of Part 2.
“This isn’t liberal or conservative.” – Elizabeth Warren.
Why would six former presidents (two of whom are deceased) take the trouble to visit President Obama? And who arranged this “Presidential Reunion”? For the answer, visit Funny or Die, the popular comedy Web site.
Of course, consumer protection is really no laughing matter, especially if you or someone you know is paying 18% interest on credit cards or has seen their mortgage payments balloon to unpayable (i.e. forecloseable) amounts.
For a detailed, intelligent 20 minute discussion of the issue, click on the Charlie Rose interview with Elizabeth Warren, the Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel.
Here is a summary of some of her points.
According to Professor Warren, of the Harvard Law School, no federal agency is looking out for the consumer when it comes to such matters as credit cards, mortgages, check overdraft fees, and car loans. She has been pushing for the formation of a new consumer agency for much of the last year, and it is currently the subject of Congressional negotiations.
Professor Warren believes that the current regulatory framework is “inefficient, and either ignored and ineffective, or captured by the large financial institutions. A fractured, bloated, overly fat — I just don’t know what else to say — regulatory system is what we’ve got now. It works very well for the large financial institutions because it means no effective regulation.”
Regarding the proposed Consumer Protection Agency, she says “You’ve got to have an agency that’s ultimately independent, whether it’s located within the Fed, within Treasury, the Department of Agriculture, or whether it sits in its own separate place. The key is whether or not it is functionally independent — does it write its own rules, does it enforce those rules, and does it have access to a budget that’s independent of the folks who want to smother it.”
“This is an agency that just makes sense. It’s about readable credit cards, it’s about readable mortgages, it’s about prices that are transparent. This isn’t liberal or conservative. The American Enterprise Institute, very well respected, very conservative, has put model two-page mortgage agreements, two page check overdraft agreements on its Web site. … A consumer agency makes sense to get the market working again. So this isn’t a division of ideology. This is about bank lobbyists. This is about people who are paid professionally to stop this agency, their words, “to kill this agency” so they can protect the revenues for the Wall Street banks.”
By the way, Professor Warren also has some very interesting observations on how the government mishandled the financial crisis and what to do about the “too big to fail” financial institutions. So do watch the entire video, if you have the time.
And for a not-so-serious article on the same subject you can learn how the Presidential Reunion video was made possible by reading the New York Times story.
While not directly involved in the making of the video, Ms. Warren did comment on the video’s premise. “Why wouldn’t our past presidents agree on shrinking government by transforming a bunch of bloated, ineffective and unaccountable consumer-protection bureaucracies into a smaller, streamlined, and effective agency? And why wouldn’t they all support two-page credit card agreements?”
Pardon me for getting political (an arena I try very hard to stay out of), but one indication of whether Congress can pass any meaningful reform on anything is whether it can withstand intense lobbying against consumer finance protection. Today Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut is scheduled to release his proposed legislation. We will see if his solution, which covers many more things than just consumer protection, will be acceptable to enough Senators and eventually to the American people.
If this issue is important to you, let your voice be heard. You have the ability to pass this post on to friends; simply click on the title of a post, then “Share This” to forward.
Caught your attention, didn’t I? Please don’t be offended by the title of this post, and please don’t snigger over it. This is serious business, after all. Also called “Financial Pornography,” investment pornography consists of (1) alluring magazine cover headlines promising juicy riches, (2) articles featuring exciting ways to capitalize on supposed opportunities and (3) outlandish claims and predictions that may, in fact, be bad for your financial health. Finally, it has no redeeming value whatsoever (except that it is good for a laugh).
When I go to conferences held by Dimensional Fund Advisors, one of the best run and most respected mutual fund companies, the lecture known affectionately as “Investment Pornography” generally gets the most attention and the most nodding heads of recognition. The presentation consists of articles from popular finance magazines followed by a quick analysis of what actually happened. Punchline: They were spectacularly wrong, time and time again.
Future posts will cover articles that are way too optimistic and were written simply to get you riled up enough to buy a magazine, newspaper or investment newsletter. Today’s topic is of the other kind of Investment Pornography, the alarming article that promotes fear. This is the other side of the outlandish approach to getting your attention.
Sympathy and Recognition
I feel sorry for a journalist who covers the stock markets. A writer typically takes the financial news of the day (which is, more often than not, pretty muddled), and tries to make some sense of it by quoting various people who at least sound as though they know what they’re talking about.
The fact is that sometimes stock prices go up and sometimes they go down, and sometimes they don’t do anything. And no one can predict what is going to happen next. That’s why it’s best to be a buy and hold type investor. But, really, who would read that story over and over? Would you?
So although writers try to be accurate, relevant and interesting, they frequently stray into making predictions. In my opinion, trying to predict the future is futile, and can be downright dangerous. Sometimes a writer will positively mislead you and convince you to do something you will regret.
A year ago, on March 6, 2009, I took the New York Times to task for fear mongering at (possibly) just the wrong time. By coincidence the stock market hit its actual bottom a year ago on March 9th, the next business day. Read that post for an egregious article that, if followed, would have cost you dearly.
While, in general, I love the New York Times’ reporting, here is a recent example of fear mongering from the January 25th article, Volatility and Politics Spark Fears of Market Correction, by Javier C. Hernandez.
Here are some questionable quotes with my comments:
“Brace yourself for another wild ride on Wall Street.” (Sounds scary, doesn’t it?)
“Worries about the strength of the global recovery and proposals from Washington to clamp down on banks have sent fresh jitters through financial markets, prompting chatter among traders that stocks could be poised for that rare but alarming phenomenon: a correction.” (Rare and alarming? Not really; it happens more often than you’d think.)
“Over three tense days last week, stocks tumbled nearly 5 percent; the Dow posted triple-digit losses on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, ending the week at its lowest level since November.” (So? Five percent declines are quite common and mean nothing. Three days should definitely not make anyone “tense.”)
“Some analysts believe the downward momentum may continue.” (True, but other analysts don’t.)
“A confluence of all those headwinds creates a perfect storm of uncertainty on a market that had already been a bit vulnerable to a pullback,” said Quincy M. Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial. (“Perfect storm”- nice phrasing; I sure hope that it didn’t convince you to abandon a well-thought out plan, though.)
“A severe decline in the market is far from assured. There are no certainties on Wall Street, and stocks have been known to bounce back after similarly turbulent periods.” (Thank you, thank you, thank you! I couldn’t have said it better myself.)
“In the near term, an unusual degree of uncertainty may bring more losses to the stock market.” (Yes, and then again it may not.)
Fast Forward Five Weeks
By contrast, after the market had gone up, the New York Times had this March 5th article: Markets Find the Upside of the Jobs Report also by Mr. Hernandez.
What a difference five weeks makes! Now, after the stock market has gone back up, we read “better-than-expected snapshot of unemployment in the United States lifted Wall Street on Friday, reinforcing hopes that the job market — and the broader economy — might be gaining strength.”
Here are more quotes with my comments.
“The fact that unemployment is not getting worse is great news for the market.” (First of all, it is possible that statistically the recession has already ended. Second, the unemployment news tells us only what has already happened, not necessarily what the stock market will do.)
“In light of that uncertainty, the question for Wall Street is whether the upward push can endure.” (You are free to guess what the stock market will do short-term, but no one knows.)
“The major indexes have recovered from their losses in January, and they are in positive territory for the year. Last week brought strong gains, with all three indexes ending the week more than 2 percent higher.” (Good thing we didn’t bail out and sell after reading that January 25th article, hmm?)
I am not picking on the New York Times. It is a must read for me every day, for its reporting and also for its opinion columnists. In truth, if I had to give up either reading the New York Times or watching TV, it would be a difficult choice.
And the New York Times is certainly not alone in its fear-mongering role; almost without trying, you can easily find dozens of predictive articles in most, if not all, national publications. Money magazine has had many silly articles that would have cost you big bucks. SmartMoney is frequently not-so-smart. Business Week and Forbes should be ashamed. Time magazine is well known for its lurid front covers of Depression-like photos.
My advice is to ignore such articles, because they are in fact “Financial Pornography.” They attempt to, and often succeed in, getting people riled up, by either pandering to fear or greed. More likely than not, they are heavily influenced by what has already happened.
If they correctly predict what the markets subsequently do, it is merely a coincidence, in my opinion. Save your time and your money. Pay no attention to sensational articles with worrying predictions, or ones that identify sure-fire investments for that matter. By the time you read the story, any relevant facts are already reflected in today’s prices. It is too late to consider what you read to be useful, actionable information.
Do not be influenced by short term fluctuations or worrying articles. It is much better to have a plan and to stick with it.