January 2019 | Posted By Rick Hill

It takes only a glance at Dimensional Fund Advisors’ 2018 market summary to recognize global markets didn’t leave anyone applauding in the end. The volatility put the popular press in a tizzy (with no certainty on what lies ahead). Not surprisingly, our response has been to double down on our perspective on how to maintain “unruffled serenity” in volatile markets.

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For example, in our fourth quarter client letter, we revisited an important, annually updated Dimensional chart depicting yearly market premiums since 1928. We’ve shared similar charts before, but it remains worth repeating whenever the going gets tough. As we wrote in our letter, “No one complains when they finish the year with stock returns much higher than average, but the typical investor has a hard time handling a big down year.”

We share an excerpt from our client letter today, hoping we can help you, too, Take the Long View®.

January 2019

Unruffled Serenity and Taking the Long View

Why would an investor want to accept wild, short-term swings in the markets? Because investors are paid for enduring those swings. It’s that simple and that hard.

Because stocks ended 2018 with a series of dramatic gyrations, we decided to illustrate just how normal these big market movements really are. The following chart, which shows the annual performance of the U.S. stock market since 1928, illustrates why it’s worth maintaining a long view and disciplined investment strategy.

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The blue bars indicate years in which the broad U.S. market delivered an average return above T-bills (i.e., a positive premium). The dark blue bars indicate years when a positive equity premium was within a 2% range of its long-term average (represented by the dotted black line). On the other side, the red bars indicate years in which the market underperformed T-bills (i.e., a negative premium).

The first thing to notice is that on average, the annual market premium has been strongly positive and there have been more years of overperformance than underperformance. But in any given year, the U.S. market premium has varied widely—sometimes producing extreme positive or negative performance relative to T-bills. It’s worth repeating: The premium has been within 2 percentage points of the long-term annual average in only four years since 1928.

As savvy long view investors, we know that if we want a long-term average annual premium from the equity portion of our portfolios we have to expect and endure returns in any given year that are wildly above or below that average. No one complains when they finish the year with stock returns much higher than average, but the typical investor has a hard time handling a big down year. What separates us is knowing that we win over the long run by embracing this volatility. We win because in the boring math of investing, the long-term owner of global capitalism is likely to end up in the top decile of all investors. It’s simple, but it ain’t easy. Maybe we should call it a serenity premium?

January 2019 | Posted By Nell Schiffer

At best, they’re annoying as all get-out. At worst, you end up falling for them. Either way, with phone services gone mobile, scam callers are finding us wherever we go. As stated in this recent AARP Bulletin, “5 Ways to Stop Spam Calls,” American homes are receiving about 4 million robocalls every hour.

That much ringing sure is one big headache. Although I can’t promise to eliminate those pesky calls completely, I can offer several tips for managing them.

Silence Is Golden

You can start by reading the AARP Bulletin I referenced above. One simple tip requires no action at all, just a little habit change. The author suggests answering your phone with several seconds of silence when you first pick up. You may even want to let the other party say “Hello?” first.

While this may seem harsh, the reality is, if it’s a real person trying to reach you, the pause shouldn’t impede the conversation. If it’s a voice-activated robocall, the silence should not only cause them to disconnect and move on, it could trick them into assuming the number is invalid, which might also discourage them from trying to call back.

Pros and Cons of the Cold Shoulder

Should you simply skip answering the phone at all, assuming anyone who matters will leave a message? It’s an easy way to avoid speaking with anyone you shouldn’t. Especially if you find it hard to hang up on an unwelcome call once you’ve answered it, this might still be your best bet. But recognize that, unlike the silent treatment above, reaching your voicemail confirms that your number is indeed in service. This can set you up for repeat attempts and increased robocall volume in the future.

Who’s There?

With most phones offering CallerID, you may be able to identify unwelcome calls on your own. For example, the AARP Bulletin notes, “Beware of area codes 268, 284, 809 and 876, which originate from Caribbean countries.” If the caller’s number is similar to your own, that’s another red flag. For example, say your phone number were 123-456-7890. Any unfamiliar call supposedly from the same 123-456 prefix is likely bogus.

The AARP Bulletin also suggests several free services and apps to help you further identify, flag and block spam calls on your cell phone and landlines alike.

Tough Love About Phone Etiquette

If you do end up answering a spam call despite your best efforts, your top concern should be ensuring you don’t fall into any traps once they get you on the line. The instant you recognize the caller may be illegitimate, go silent. Don’t ask or answer any questions. Don’t even explain why you’d rather not speak with them. Just hang up. Immediately. If the caller was claiming to be from an institution you do business with, such as your bank, you can always call that institution directly to report and ask about the suspicious call. This is similar to the advice I offered on email phishing.

The time has come for us to reframe phone etiquette! The old way called for being immediately pleasant and engaging when a stranger called. The new way? Let the stranger say “hello” first. Although Miss Manners may not approve, answering a stranger’s call with a couple seconds of silence may reduce these calls for good. If you have additional ideas, we are always here to discuss.

January 2019 | Posted By Matt Hall

Even in the normally staid world of fiduciary investment advice, we have our stars – heroes who inspire us with the brave choices they make to better the lives of investors.

Vanguard founder John C. “Jack” Bogle, who passed away on January 16th at age 89, was among the brightest (and most stubborn) stars of them all. The world lost a giant that day, as evidenced by the instant outpouring of respects paid from around the world.

Bogle refuted the status quo and gave birth to the retail version of index investing in the 1970s. He was energized by the crusade until his dying day.  In the video homage below, The Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig observed, “[Bogle’s career] spanned over six decades of change and growth in the industry that he helped to transform.”

To pick a sample from the deluge of sentiments expressed in the media, we especially appreciated a New York Times piece by Ron Lieber and Tara Siegel Bernard, “The Things John Bogle Taught Us: Humility, Ethics and Simplicity.” Many of our other favorite financial voices of reason are represented here, including Behavior Gap’s Carl Richards, and Manisha Thakor, herself a worthy crusader for women and wealth.

We’d say RIP, but Jack Bogle didn’t want people to rest. He roots for us to fight for what’s right, even when it isn’t popular. He was a relentless agitator for good, and his spirit inspires us to keep pushing for better solutions for investors. Every single day.

December 2018 | Posted By Matt Hall

A “Royal Ease” Pose (photo by Matt Hall)

Unruffled serenity. We love that expression. It’s exactly what we seek to bring to our clients – especially when the volume of market noise rises to a roar, as it has in the latter half of 2018. We can’t claim credit for the phrase, though it does pair with our own tagline, Take the Long View®. Both are aimed at detaching emotions from market swings, whether high or low. The long-term view has always sloped up and to the right, but in the short run it’s unpredictable.

Who else can help bring a sense of calm in these times? We point you to Jason Zweig of The Wall Street Journal. Ever since Zweig launched his Intelligent Investor column a decade ago (succeeding the equally adept Jonathan Clements), it’s been far easier to list his few underwhelming columns than the vast majority we’ve enjoyed. His brilliant book, “Your Money & Your Brain” also has a permanent place on our recommended reading list.

As high a bar as Zweig has set for himself, we were particularly pleased by his recent column on market volatility and a behavioral bias known as herd mentality. The article explores a volume of evidence suggesting investors and even portfolio managers are strongly influenced by the “emotional contagion” of their neighbors. This results in market participants in communities, cities and even states mimicking one another’s trading habits, often to their detriment.

“Investors probably behave like their neighbors because gossip, news and beliefs spread by word of mouth,” says Zweig.

His suggested antidote to catching this communicable “disease” strongly reflects our own. Pointing to investment legend and economist Benjamin Graham (Warren Buffett’s mentor), Zweig describes how Graham went out of his way to cultivate “unruffled serenity,” strengthened by “a certain aloofness,” to ward off the constant peer pressure to react to random market noise.

Zweig concludes:

“With markets gyrating, unruffled serenity may become important again. If volatility scares you, spend more time with family and friends who don’t obsess over stocks. You’ll be happier now—and, probably, richer later on.”

December 2018 | Posted By Henry Bragg

Did you know that December 11, 2018 marked the 10-year anniversary of the day Bernie Madoff was charged with securities fraud? His colossal $64 billion dollar scheme came crashing down.

While there is certainly nothing to celebrate about the anniversary, there are lessons to learn. Ranking toward the top of our priority list, we should do all we can to prevent history from repeating itself, at least to the same magnitude.

Madoff’s Manipulative Mind Games

One of the telltale signs of Madoff’s malfeasance is easy to describe, but treacherously tricky to catch when it’s happening to you. Madoff was famous (now infamous) for supposedly employing stock options to deliver unwavering returns, year after year after year, no matter what the market was doing.

Think Houdini. When a supposed gentleman with impeccable credentials is masterfully managing your money like none other, it becomes difficult to recognize what has to be a sleight of hand. A potent mix of your own behavioral biases sees to that. Plus, Madoff’s set-up lacked any of the checks and balances you should demand from your advisor. Without an independent third party custodian reporting directly to you (such as Schwab, for our clients), it’s too easy for a con artist to fabricate a reality that doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, while magic is entertaining, losing your wealth to a deception is no fun at all.

Bottom line, if any money manager claims to be delivering constant, consistent stock market returns for years at a time while the markets swing up and down, you can almost certainly assume something’s amiss.

Back to Evidence-Based Reality

Unfortunately, these kinds of tricksters put us real advisors at a disadvantage. Unlike Madoff’s portfolios, ours won’t deliver magically positive percentages every month of every year – or even every year. Instead, we employ evidence-based investing to guide us through markets whose expected long-term returns are typically delivered in unpredictable fits and starts.

That means, as a realistic investor, you must be willing to tolerate the risks involved when you Take the Long View®. This does not mean you must accept excessive risk. There are a number of ways to manage the downturns while maximizing expected returns:

  • Avoid concentrated risks by employing broad, global diversification instead of trying to pick individual stocks or time the market’s movements.
  • Establish enough liquid (spendable) reserves to tide you through market downturns without being tempted or forced to unwind your long-term investments.
  • Judiciously seek higher returns when warranted by tilting your equities toward expected sources of added risk and return – such as small-cap value stocks.

Likely vs. Certain = Reality vs. Fantasy

Are we SURE our approach is going to work? Do we KNOW, for example, that small-cap value stocks WILL provide premium returns over time?

We cannot be certain. After all, the value premium has disappointed during the past decade. Ten years might tempt even a resolute investor to waiver.

However, while we cannot be certain, we can shoot for most likely, based on the strongest, longest-term evidence we can find. In that context, the evidence clearly informs us that a decade of underperformance in any given asset class is not only possible but is periodically expected.

As this chart from Dimensional Fund Advisors demonstrates, since 1926, the value premium has outperformed growth 84% of the time across nearly 1,000 overlapping 10-year timespans. This means, 16% of the time (during around 160 decade-long periods), it has not.

If you’d like to ponder this phenomenon at greater length, here’s the Dimensional paper from which we extracted this chart.

We also encourage you to read “Factor Fimbulwinter” by Corey Hoffstein of Newfound Research. Admitting that the recently “disappearing” value factor (as measured by price-to-book) could well signify either the death of the premium, or simply a decade of expected variance, Hoffstein calculated how long it should take to be able to determine which conclusion was correct. The answer: 67 years.

He concludes (emphasis ours):

“The problem at hand is two-fold: (1) the statistical evidence supporting most factors is considerable and (2) the decade-to-decade variance in factor performance is substantial. Taken together, you run into a situation where a mere decade of underperformance likely cannot undue the previously established significance. … In investing, factor return variance is large enough that the proof is not in the eating of the short-term return pudding.”

Larry Swedroe also recently analyzed the durability of various investment factors and reached similar conclusions. In his article, he observed:

“[O]ne 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.”

Planning for Uncertainty

Of course most of us don’t have 67 years to wait before we decide whether a market factor is a sure winner or loser. Favoring reality over fantasy, here’s what we suggest:

  1. Incorporate the most robust academic evidence suggesting which risk/return factors to favor.
  2. Tilt your globally diversified portfolio toward those factors (as needed to reflect your unique goals).
  3. Stick to the plan for a long, long time; avoid acting on hopes or fears, favoring only judicious adjustments when warranted.

What’s the alternative? While Madoff is history, we can point to any number of unsavory schemes that continue to be perpetrated by a seemingly never-ending supply of similar scoundrels. So whatever you do and whoever’s advice you choose to take, here’s one tip worth taking to heart: Always be wary of a “sure bet.”

December 2018 | Posted By Rick Hill

We frequently mention the importance of employing global diversification to manage investment risks while pursuing expected returns. The broad concept is simple: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

That said, beyond the simple adage, questions may remain. A recent Dimensional Fund Advisors paper addressed one of them: Since U.S. stocks have outperformed international and emerging markets stocks over the last several years, is it still worthwhile to invest worldwide?

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If you’d rather skip to the compelling conclusion, the short answer is, yes, global diversification is still worth it. Not only do the last several years tell us nothing about the next several years, they could lull U.S. investors into a false sense of home-biased complacency. To emphasize this point, we need only point to the 2000–2009 “lost decade,” when the S&P 500 took a depressing 10-year dive, while most of the world’s indexes soared.

Bottom line: You never know where your next source of best returns will be found, so it’s best to go global – and stay that way.

December 2018 | Posted By PJ McDaniel

Real Progress Is Slow and Boring, and That’s Okay

If you go to the gym for a workout and look in the mirror afterward, you won’t see any results. If you go to the gym the next day and look in the mirror, you still won’t see any results.

Despite your hard work and sacrifice, there’s no visible progress. Therefore, the strategy must be defective, right?

Image from our good friend Carl Richards of The Behavior Gap

In hindsight, someone who has lost weight or completed a marathon knows this logic is laughable. Physical fitness is the byproduct of slow, incremental progress, not large sweeping changes. And yet, we still have 7-day crash diets, magic pills that “burn fat,” and infomercials about toning your abs in your sleep.

Compare these with consistently exercising five days per week, skipping dessert, and getting eight hours of sleep every day. The latter always outperforms the former.

So why do people fall for the shortcuts?

The human brain is wired to enjoy instant gratification; we struggle at rewiring ourselves to embrace durable new habits. Talking about overnight transformation is sexy. Talking about the quiet power of incremental change is not. This applies to weight loss, learning a language, and of course, building wealth.

A Google search for “make money fast” yields more than 1.5 billion results. The cognitive dissonance here is stunning: It’s crystal-clear that financial freedom correlates with systematic contributions to one’s investment portfolio or retirement account, just as systematic workouts correlate with fitness. Think of the ongoing contributions like an extra monthly car or mortgage payment. Over the long run, it becomes a habit.

Unless actions become habits, tangible results remain a pipe dream.

Imagine asking a wealthy person to define the day he or she gained financial freedom. That’s like asking an Olympic gold medalist to define the day he or she got in shape. It’s a silly question.

Obviously that person is financially free, but we have to take a step back to observe the slow, boring progress that was made over months, years, decades — change so slow they hardly even noticed it happened.