Merriman on High-Frequency Trading

If you’ve been tuned into financial news lately, you’ve no doubt heard about High-Frequency Trading (HFT). HFT is not new. In fact, it’s been around for over 20 years. Investopedia defines HFT as:

A program trading platform that uses powerful computers to transact a large number of orders at very fast speeds. High-frequency trading uses complex algorithms to analyze multiple markets and execute orders based on market conditions.

So why is it news now? Last week, a 60 Minutes interview with Michael Lewis suggested that the stock market was “rigged” by high frequency traders. I want to provide my thoughts, as Merriman’s Chief Investment Officer and as a hedge fund manager, on how HFT is affecting Merriman client portfolios. While we will monitor developments over time, the bottom line is that we believe HFT has minimal impact on our client portfolios.

Here’s why:

HFT firms are the new market markers in the stock market. Market makers, who’ve been active in markets ever since stock exchanges have existed, act to provide liquidity to stock trading by offering to buy stock at the bid price, and sell stock at a slightly higher ask price. While providing liquidity to the market, market makers have always strived to maximize their profits at the expense of institutional investors and the average person buying and selling stock in their brokerage account.

The transaction cost to investors can be viewed as an expense (paid to market makers) for providing liquidity, and has never and will never impact the fundamental value of the stock market. The cost only comes to bare when buying or selling a stock.

Two forces help protect us from market makers making excessive profits.  The first force is the competition among market makers.  As with any business, large profits attract competitors. iStock_000024621112SmallCompetition among market makers drives transaction costs lower as they fight amongst each other to provide this service. The battle among market makers is very similar to an ever increasing arms race, where whoever has the best technology wins. Over the last 10 years, computers have replaced the Wall Street traders and NYSE specialists – who in the old days were just as keen to profit from investors.

The second force limiting market maker profits are the countermeasures institutions use to trade large blocks for their clients. Attentive investors should be monitoring their trading and adjusting their investing/trading approach to minimize transaction costs. HFT is just the next story in the everlasting interaction between market makers and institutional investors. While the SEC and other government agencies will eventually catch on to illegal trading activities, the smartest investors generally take a buyer-beware approach to their trading.

In our MarketWise portfolios we take into account the sensitivity to trading costs when selecting investment managers. Dimensional Fund Advisors is obsessive in monitoring their trading costs and minimizing turnover. Their approach is to trade like a market maker by buying and selling stocks with limit orders and they are agnostic about what stocks they buy or sell (as long as a stock fits that fund’s investment approach). This trading approach is much less sensitive to HFT. Stock-picking active managers, and index funds, are typically demanders of liquidity when they trade stocks, which is much more susceptible to exploitation from market markers whether using HFT or via the old specialist system on the NYSE.

In our TrendWise portfolios, we also carefully track our ETF transaction costs to ensure that our approach is as cost -efficient as possible. And finally, individual investors, trading small quantities of stock in their own accounts, have benefited greatly from HFT as bid-ask spreads have narrowed significantly over the last decade or so.

If you have any additional questions about HFT or its impact on your portfolio, please don’t hesitate to speak directly with your advisor.

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Passwords, pin codes, and security

I recently went to visit a friend in a secure building. He didn’t answer his phone when I called from the front door to let me in, but the building had a keypad entrance system.  After a few repeated attempts, I was able to find the correct key code and let myself into the building. When I got to his front door, he was a bit upset that I was able to “hack” into his building. I said it’s pretty easy to figure out PIN codes and passwords because people pick easy to remember numbers, words and patterns. Most of the time you just try the most obvious options first, and you can guess the security code.

In research done by DataGenetics.com in 2012, of the 3.4 million accounts they looked at 11% of people had the PIN code 1234. Over 6% had 1111 and almost 2% had 0000.  Hacking for passwordGiven that knowledge trying only 3 PIN codes gives me about a 20% chance of guessing someone’s personal PIN code.

Passwords for computers, emails, and online accounts are not much different.  Every year hackers post online usernames and passwords they have harvested. SplashData, a password management company, compiles a list of the most common passwords of the year. In 2013 the top three passwords were 123456, password and 12345678. Other common passwords included phrases like amazon, adobe, password1 and one of my favorites: trustno1.

Since most sites require usernames and passwords for access, and our brains are designed to hold 50 different complex unreadable passwords; many of us opted to make them easy to remember.  Unfortunately, an easy password to remember is an easy password to hack. Below are a couple of things to consider when you create pin codes and passwords to help make them more secure.

PIN codes

  1. Select PIN codes that are random and have no association to you. For example a PIN code of 3976 is much better than a birth year of say 1960. If I know the year you were born, I would make that a PIN code to try.
  2. Select a PIN code that is not an easy visual pattern on a keypad. DataGenetics found 2580 was the 22nd most popular PIN code because it is the numbers down the center of the keypad on your phone.  The code 1397 is an easy guess as well because it is the corners for the phone keypad going clockwise.

 Passwords

  1. Avoid using any part of your login or the site name in your password. If your login to amazon.com is joe.example@fakeemail.com don’t make your password joe123 or Amazon1.
  2. Have a different password for every site. I know this can be a big pain, but if a hacker steals your password at one site, they won’t be able to use it at a different site. Imagine if your password was compromised at some site you used three years ago once, and you only use one password. How many sites do you have to update? How much of your data would be at risk (banking, shopping, investment, email)? With a unique password at each site you can reduce your risk.
  3. Try to use a random password. A password like Fj%9cX44 is much better than F00tballs. While F00tballs has the normal 8 character limit with numbers and upper/lower case letters, hackers are getting smarter and computers are getting faster so simple character substitutions are still risky.
  4. Use an uncommon phrase. For a while, people suggested using a simple phrase such as “ILikeSchool.” However, as the hacking has improved, many security experts now recommend that you use non-sensical sentences as passwords. A phrase such as “eat_baseball_Yards” or “doughnuts around circles” is more difficult to breach.
  5. Try using unique logins for various accounts. If possible, I like to have a login that is unique at each site. Also, if it requires an email address, I like to have a few email accounts I can use for different sites. You can easily sign up for multiple Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo email accounts.
  6. Use a password management program. If it is really hard to remember all those passwords, there are several programs out there that will securely store your passwords. These programs will store you username and passwords and log you into the website automatically. A quick search for Password Manager in Google or Bing will get you on your way.

As I said above, I don’t think we were meant to remember so many sites, logins and passwords stored in our brains. Writing it down on a piece of paper is just asking for trouble. And storing them in an Excel spreadsheet isn’t any better. There is hope on the horizon. As we work with biometric systems for voice and visual recognition we soon might be able to have our image and voice as our PIN code. We might be able to use a fingerprint and say our name to get in our email. No longer will we need to store all these random phrases, we will only need to remember our name. Oh, and the code to my friend’s building was 2468.

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Seahawks Secrets to Success

12Flag-1024x728Seattle is still reeling with excitement from the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl! Over 700,000 Seattleites celebrated downtown to welcome the champs coming home. No matter where your team allegiance lies, it’s easy to spot the strengths of the Seahawks both on and off the field. These lessons can be applied to multiple areas of life, including your finances.

Here are 12 things everyone can learn from the Seahawks:

1) It’s never too late: Russell Wilson was a third round draft pick but that didn’t determine his performance. No matter when you start saving and investing, there is always opportunity ahead of you.

2) Diversification is key: Every player on a team has a specific job to do, just as every investment in your portfolio has a unique purpose. It’s hard to win with a team full of quarterbacks! Design your portfolio with broad diversification to cover all types of positions.

3) Defense wins championships: There is a saying that “offense wins games and defense wins championships.” Many times it’s the team’s offense that gets all the praise and glory, but without a strong defense to hold back the competition, all of the points scored are for nothing. It’s easy to get caught up in short term performance chasing of stocks, but make sure to manage downside risk with bonds so that your returns won’t disappear in a down market.

4) Find a coach: Every team needs a coach to lead them to victory. Having a financial advisor will keep you on track toward achieving your goals.

5) Don’t compare your strategy to others: Every team has a different approach on how to win games. Your friends and family have their own ideas about investment that may be different from yours, and that’s okay. Stick with the plan you make with your financial advisor – it is unique to you.

6) Break expectations: Seahawks fullback Derrek Coleman is deaf. No one expected him to be able to play in the NFL but he didn’t let other people’s beliefs hold him back. Commit to success and don’t let others get in the way of what you want to accomplish.

7) Take a look back: Teams spend countless hours watching game footage to learn from their mistakes. Look back at historical investments to learn all you can about performance volatility throughout various market conditions.

8) Go all in: The Seahawks have an “All In” sign that they hit on their way to a workout. Often we don’t want to commit to a plan unless we know for sure it will work out…but a plan can’t work unless you commit. Go all in.

9) Never give up: Even when it looks like a team has lost, there is always a chance for a comeback late in the game. Sometimes when a portfolio is down, we are tempted to switch strategies or abandon hope. If you give up too early, you might miss the winning finish.

10)  Have fun: Football is tough work but it is also a lot of fun. Always make time for the activities you enjoy with the people you love. As we say here at Merriman – Invest Wisely, Live Fully.

11)  Give back: In the midst of practice, games, media interviews, and sponsor appearances, Russell Wilson still makes time to visit the patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Appreciate the gifts you have in your life and share them with others.

12)  Identify your 12s: Seattle’s fans are known as the 12th man. Even though the fans aren’t on the field, they play an important role in the game. Find fans who will support you through all your wins and losses, and recognize their contribution to your success.

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Seahawks, Merriman and Bowling

We recently had the opportunity to be the title sponsor for Merriman Live Bowl United Presented by Team Avril, a bowling tournament for all ages and skill levels hosted by Seattle Seahawk Cliff Avril. He was joined by several of his teammates: Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Michael Bennett and Clinton Mc Donald.

DMerrimanSeahawksuring this fun evening, a few Merriman clients and employees got to hang out with some Seahawks and show off their bowling skills at West Seattle Bowl. I think I threw more gutter balls than strikes, but that did not matter because the evening was about having fun and supporting a great nonprofit organization.

Net proceeds benefited United Way of King County and Strikes for Kids, a nonprofit organization that partners with professional athletes in bringing local business, fans, children and sports together for great causes. There is no better feeling seeing the excitement that the children have to meet their favorite Seahawk while having fun with their family. Strikes For Kids coordinates these bowling and golf tournaments across the United States. We were thrilled and honored to sponsor this first event in the Seattle area.

Below are some links to check out video coverage and photos from this event. Go Hawks!

Seahawks video

Komo News coverage

Live Bowl United

 

 

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How the Merriman research team evaluates potential investment opportunities

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‘Tis the season for RMDs

Another year flew by and the holidays are already here. Snowflakes are falling, houses are decorated, and families are reunited! In the midst of all the joy, it’s easy to put your finances aside. However, if you will be over 70.5 years old by the end of the year, we want to remind you that it’s time to take a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) from your IRA or retirement account. An RMD is designed to ensure that you withdraw at least a portion of the funds in your account over your lifetime – and that you pay taxes on those funds. Taking your RMD is important because the stakes are high! Failure to withdraw the required minimum will result in a hefty penalty: The amount that was not withdrawn is taxed at 50%. In other words, if the RMD on your traditional IRA is $8,000 in 2013, but you only withdraw $3,000 during 2013, you will be subject to an excise tax of $2,500 (50% of the amount by which the RMD exceeds your actual distribution). It’s quick and easy to arrange your RMD by calling your financial advisor. We recommend you do so by December 15th to ensure plenty of time for the distribution to occur before the end of the year. The sooner you get it done, the more time (and money!) you will have to spend with the ones you love.

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Fall and football

Fall’s arrival is always a sweet end to a perfect summer of sun and warmth – it wakes us up with a blast of cool weather as the leaves change color and fall around us. Most importantly, it brings us football season.

You may now begin your fantasy football addiction, adorn your college or NFL jersey, tailgate, or just notice football games taking over every TV in your life. Football is embedded in our culture. We root for a team to overcome individual idiosyncrasies and be the best and greatest.

Vince Lombardi likes to remind us “Football is like life.” If football is like life, what does your Life Team look like? Is your defense ready to go? Who would be your quarterback? What receivers would make your touchdowns? And what offense is preventing life events from taking you by surprise?

In the game of life, every family needs a good proactive defense behind them:

  • Your goals in life represent the ball – being carried through life against your ever-changing environment and market.
  • An advisor is the quarterback – implementing strategies for success as the on-the-field leader.
  • The research team is the center – the first line of defense to support the advisor in a volatile market, ensuring investment assets are diversified and invested to obtain the best return for the acceptable risk.
  • The technology team and client services are the guards and tackles – creating openings for efficient account activity, evaluating security of trading systems and your data, and blocking negative third-party experiences.
  • The advisor’s professional network represents the receivers – experienced in positioning you for success by looking for opportunities to protect you from potential blocks.

You also need an excellent offense: a proper asset allocation, efficient tax planning, detailed insurance planning and maximized wealth preservation and wealth transfer.

In the team approach, each player comes together to share information and ideas, review strategies for reaching your goals on a holistic level, and ensure an adequate offense to counter life’s hiccups.

Otherwise, the success of one player, you, running the ball all the way to the goal line alone is small. Individuals can at times think too much about changing their strategies, and sometimes don’t take appropriate or timely action when obstacles present themselves. They are not able to move freely through life and enjoy the present.

Consider your current Life Team and what changes you would make.

Over the past 30 years, Merriman Wealth Management evolved into a Life Team to help accomplish your personal and financial goals. We believe by aligning our clients, internal employees and external professionals toward the client’s goals and values, we can make a significant impact in covering the field to implement long-term strategies for success and helping you get what you want in life. Whether you’re ready to take the step to be part of a team, or you’re still thinking about making changes to your life strategies, we will be here when you need us.

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Don’t let your emotions invest for you

Monday, October 19, 1987—aka Black Monday—was a fearful day for investors across the globe. The damage exceeded 20% in stock market declines by the time the exchanges closed. In the wake of such steep declines, investors too often are driven to act by their emotions. In this case, fear. Fear that the decline will continue. Fear that their hard earned savings will be sucked dry by the markets. A more recent example of this fear was invoked by the financial crisis. In both cases the markets recovered in short order. But, the market never recovers for those who sell out of it. Clearly, fear selling is a bad idea.

Fear is not the only emotion that muddles our investment decisions. Greed is just as dangerous.

The 1990s seemed too good to be true. Investors could not lose money in technology stocks. Valuations seemed to have changed and the exponential rising prices were within the new norm. People got greedy. Some went so far as to use their home equity to purchase stocks. And then, just like that, the party was over. The end of the decade saw technology stocks come crashing down. Those who got greedy and concentrated all of their holdings in technology stocks paid the price.

Anytime the sky is falling or the markets seem too good to be true, remember the mantra—be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy.

While fear and greed top the list of emotions that can wreak havoc on your investments, there are others: angst and excessive pride, for instance.

The issue with angst is if you wait for events to happen (government shutdown, fiscal cliff, quantitative easing, etc.) or for the markets to “normalize,” you often miss the boat.

Excessive pride can sometimes drive people to buy individual stocks. It’s the classic cocktail party conversation where someone tells you they bought Microsoft stock in the 1990s or Apple stock at the turn of the century. They do not tell you about the other 10 stocks they bought that went south. By focusing on the one home run, people subconsciously convince themselves that investing in individual stocks is a wise venture. It’s not. In fact, it’s speculation, not investing. Do not let pride get in the way of making smart investment decisions.

Clearly we cannot let our emotions guide our investment decisions. Emotional investing is not successful investing.

Follow these steps to help avoid the pitfalls:

1)     Build a plan. Write it down and stick to it. If the markets turn over, do not deviate from your plan. If anything, rebalance your accounts back to their initial targets.

2)     Turn off the news and tune out the financial pundits. In the age of information, the evening news is not going to give you a leg up on investing. That is, everyone knows everything and it is all factored into the price of securities.

3)     Do not assume things are correlated when they are not. GDP is not nearly as highly correlated to stock market returns as people think. Nor, for that matter, are political events.

4)     Diversify your portfolio. Put another way, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. Remember what happened to technology stocks in the 1990s.

5)     Focus on what you can control. You can control how much you save and whether or not you succumb to your emotions. You cannot control the markets and politicians.

Here’s the exciting part: if you can keep your emotions at bay, invest wisely and let the markets work, you can reduce your stress and increase the likelihood of a successful retirement period.

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Getting debt under control

I recently had the good fortune of being featured in this article which appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times Business section, and I want to share it with you.

A.J. and Amy are a young couple burdened by debt who did not have the resources to pay for a financial planner. The Seattle Times reached out to me through my affiliation with the Puget Sound Financial Planning Association and asked if I would build them a plan. After several meetings we were able to identify and build a plan around their short and long term goals. I am thrilled to report that they feel like they are finally in control of their debt and retirement savings. Most importantly, they have developed peace of mind around their finances.

Please keep in mind no two investors are alike, this article referenced above is a specific recommendation based on A.J. and Amy’s personal finances. If you would like to give the gift of financial peace of mind, I am always more than happy to help your friends and family develop their own personal plan.

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Business Continuity Plan

Emergencies and disasters can happen anytime, anywhere, and often without warning. Last year, Hurricane Sandy caused significant and wide-ranging damage, which led to the closure of the equities and options markets on October 29 to 30, 2012. As a fiduciary, Merriman has a responsibility to protect our clients’ interests from risks resulting from the inability to provide advisory services due to a disruption in business, such as a natural disaster. A Business Continuity Plan (BCP) provides guidance regarding the steps and actions that should be taken in the event of an unanticipated interruption of normal business operations.

Here are the top five ways a BCP helps to minimize the effects of emergencies and disasters:

  1. Reduce downtime. Every hour business is down is time we miss helping our clients. Having a BCP helps us get back up and running more quickly. In the meantime, since Merriman is not a custodian, our clients are also able to call Schwab and Fidelity directly if we are ever temporarily unavailable.
  2. Ensure important business operations continue. Some of our day-to-day work is flexible and can be done at any time, but other tasks are time sensitive and cannot be delayed. A BCP helps identify mission-critical staff and processes.
  3. Allow for remote operation. If we are unable to get to our building (for example, due to a large snow storm), employees can work from a remote location via remote desktop connection. We also have a virtual phone system so that if the phone lines in the building are down, all incoming calls can be routed to employee cell phones and/or home phones. In addition, this year we switched our email to Office 365, which is cloud-based – meaning our email is accessible from any location as long as there is an Internet connection.
  4. Protect important information. Merriman keeps electronic copies of important documents so that information is not lost in the event of a fire. We also back up our data so we have redundancies in place in case a server goes down.
  5. Take care of everyone in the office. We have an emergency food and water supply that is restocked annually in case we are forced to stay in the building for a period of time.

It’s not enough just to have a plan; we also need to make sure it works! Every year Merriman conducts BCP testing using simulated disasters to ensure we are prepared for a variety of crisis situations. We take what we learn from our testing and update the plan as needed.

If you are interested in reading more, the SEC, CFTC and FINRA jointly released this advisory alert that addresses the importance of implementing and testing a Business Continuity Plan.

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