Benchmarks, Diversification & Time Horizons – Part 1 of 4

In this four-part blog series from Merriman Research, we’re offering our thoughts on the following important investment questions:

  • When evaluating your investment returns, what benchmark(s) are relevant?
  • What is the rationale for diversification?
  • How should your investment time horizon be considered?

Investors may overlook the fact that these questions are highly interrelated. To properly consider any one, you must understand the context the other two foster. We’ll just have to jump right in to explain.

Part 1: Thoughts on benchmarks – What’s the right yardstick for you?

For investors, a benchmark is the yardstick by which to measure the relative success of their investment returns. Broad market indexes, for both stocks and bonds, can serve well to provide a daily status report on how the investment community interprets news and developing trends on the economy, corporate profits and even international geopolitics. And, over time, broad indexes do present appropriate performance standards, which can be used to evaluate an investor’s performance in terms of both achieved return and experienced risk. read more…

Social Security strategies for couples

iStock_000010373589SmallThere are countless articles online on strategies for maximizing your Social Security benefits. Married couples have far more options than singles, and the rules are complex. If you are married and eligible (or almost eligible) for Social Security, it is worth talking to a financial or tax professional to ensure you weigh all of your options. In the meantime, this article from Kiplinger provides a nice primer on two of those available strategies: File and Suspend and Restricting an Application. It’s worth a quick read so you can come prepared to speak intelligently with your advisor, and thereby maximize your probability of a successful outcome.

Leveraged Global Opportunity Fund

In a follow up to a recent blog piece on our TrendWise Investment Program, the Merriman Research Team got together again to discuss our hedge fund, the Leveraged Global Opportunity Fund. Mark Metcalf again hosted Rafael Villagran,  Dennis Tilley, and Alex Golubev for a discussion on how LGO fits into Merriman’s overall investment philosophy.

The Merriman Research Team discusses our TrendWise Investment Program

Recently, our Research Team of Dennis Tilley, Rafael Villagran, and Alex Golubev got together with Financial Advisor Mark Metcalf to discuss our TrendWise Investment Program. Many of the program’s details were covered, including the following:

  • Harnessing market momentum using objective data
  • Rules based trend following
  • Limiting subjective interpretation
  • Dealing with whipsaw trades
  • Small/Value tilt in the program

Enjoy!

Stop worrying about rising interest rates

There is practically universal opinion that interest rates will rise in the future, and that bond portfolios will suffer painful losses when this happens. At Merriman, we think the financial news media has blown this story way out of proportion, with inflammatory headlines designed to capture attention. Narratives include “the coming bloodbath for bond holders” and “the imminent bursting of the 30-year bond bubble.”

Our Chief Investment Officer, Dennis Tilley, recently wrote an article detailing three reasons why we’re not worried about rising interest rates. Here’s a quick summary:

1. The Experts and Consensus Are Often Wrong

History provides countless examples of when experts and/or a super-consensus have been wrong about the future of stock and bond movements. This is why we don’t use market predictions to manage client portfolios.

2. A Portfolio Duration of Four to Five Years Is Optimal

The sweet spot duration for Merriman investors holding bonds is in the maturity range of four to five years. This intermediate duration provides a nice compromise of offering overall portfolio stability, market crisis/deflation/recession protection, a long-term real return above inflation and – perhaps most importantly – the ability to quickly adapt to a rising-rate environment. With this duration, we believe our clients don’t have to worry about rising interest rates. The article provides more detail and charts illustrating this point.

3. Rising Rates Signal an Improving Economy

Finally, rising interest rates are likely to coincide with an economy that is improving, which is generally good for stocks. Yes, temporarily, bonds will lose value due to rising yields. However, we expect only single digit losses from our bond portfolio, not the “bloodbath” that some pundits seem to think will happen.

Read the full article here to get more insight.

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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