Identifying Your Investment Philosophy

investment philosophyI’m never surprised when I meet a tech person who is well informed on particular aspects of the market. As voracious readers, I would expect nothing less. However, that knowledge is often limited to the top-selling finance books focusing on one story or perspective of the stock market, or news articles about why certain technology stocks will rise or fall in the next year.

This is natural – we tend to gravitate toward what is in the news or what we are currently focused on from a business perspective.

What’s amazing to me is when I meet a tech entrepreneur or executive who understands exactly what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable in investing. One individual I talked with had figured out what made her comfortable without fully understanding the technical jargon and the possible ways of investing in the market.

Before I asked a question, she told me she believed in diversification across the entire stock market. She didn’t want to waste time and emotion on trying to time particular industries or company stocks – it felt too much like betting. She told me how much money in dollar terms she was not willing to lose from her portfolio, and that she knew this might affect the likelihood of reaching her goals. She wanted to maximize her investment return while following consistent, scientifically proven methods that made sense to her. She felt this way of investing kept her from needing to look at her portfolio daily and feel concerned when particular areas of the stock market had “bad days.”

Needless to say, I was blown away. Determining your investment philosophy is usually the hardest part. It requires understanding behavioral biases, asking uncomfortable questions and playing to your strengths in what you can tolerate. From this foundation, you can build an approach to your financial future.

Overcoming Behavioral Bias

We all want the upside without the downside. I have seen the internal struggle time and time again – how do you balance investing methodically without reacting to stock market news and the emotional rollercoaster that investing entails?

Investing is about knowing what drives your decisions, and then acting on it. You know what the right thing to do is, but struggle to implement it due to our inherent psychology.

So let’s play a game. First, you are given $10,000.

Now you must make a choice… which of the following would you prefer?

  • A sure gain of $1,000
  • A 50% chance of gaining $2,000, but also 50% chance of gaining nothing

Then, another choice… which of these would you prefer?

  • A sure loss of $1,000
  • A 50% chance of losing $2,000, but also 50% change of losing nothing

Were your answers different? If so, this is loss aversion – the fear of losing money more than obtaining increased value in your investment portfolio.

This belief drives investors to hold on to losing investments and sell winning investments too quickly. Loss aversion is a classic problem of chasing returns. This thinking leads investors to sell stocks near the bottom of a stock market cycle and then not buy the stock back until a substantial increase in price has already occurred.

Here are some other behaviors investors struggle with.

  • Procrastination: Some individuals wish to avoid planning their investing approach altogether. Ben Franklin said it well: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”
  • Hindsight 20/20: Attempting to time economic shifts and anticipate changes in stock prices may seem obvious when looking back at the event, but it’s very difficult different to accurately predict. Seeing errors in hindsight can makes us overconfident in predicting it “next time,” ahead of the event occurring.
  • Here-and-now reactions: The media has an uncanny ability to focus on particular stories that increase readership and draw the stories out for as long as they can. When looking at economic newscasts, a story is one pin point for an entire outline of what makes the financial markets tick.

Last year’s sound bite? It was all about the S&P 500 rising dramatically. When someone uses the S&P 500 as synonymous with the stock market over the last year or two, this indicates a here-and-now reaction.

How do you feel about the stock market?

This question makes people uncomfortable. I see the shift in their body language and gaze, and suddenly I get the uncomfortable vibes.

“Um, I don’t know,” or “I am in a growth strategy… I think.”

How you are currently invested may not be the best for you. So what are some driving factors in establishing what is best? Here are some things to consider.

What am I willing to lose?

  • How comfortable are you investing in the stock market?
  • How much money (dollar-wise) are you willing to lose from your investment portfolio?
  • The average intra-year S&P 500 stock market drop is 14.7%[1]. How does that make you feel? Surprised, unsettled or unfazed?
  • What are your goals and how much time do you have to save for each goal?
  • What level and kinds of debt do you currently have?
  • How many stock options do you have? What time frame do they vest over?
  • What is your professional plan for the future?
  • What benefits are available to you in your employment agreement? What risks are apparent?
  • What obligations or goals have you set as a family?

What drives your decisions around investing?

  • Do you understand the level of risk inherent in different types of investments (i.e. stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, private equity, angel investments, etc.)? All investments involve a degree of risk.
  • Do you know what style of investing you prefer?
    • Active investing – managing your investment portfolio by picking particular investments you believe will outperform the financial markets. You will time when to move in and out of each part of your portfolio using different types of analysis to find opportunities.
    • Passive investing – systematically buying into a strategy you will hold for a long time period. You’re not worried about daily, monthly, or annual price movements. You’re looking to capture the persistent and pervasive opportunities the financial market provides overall.
  • What analysis and strategy will you use in maintaining your investment portfolio?
    • Do you believe the financial markets are unpredictable over the short term?
    • Do you believe in diversification?
    • Do you prefer picking stocks?
    • Are you concerned with trading costs and rebalancing your portfolio?

A great book to begin this discussion can be found in my post Where are you on the investment continuum?

Should you do it yourself or hire a financial advisor?

  • Will you manage your own investments?
  • Do you have the time to manage your investments?
  • How will you choose which stock, bonds, mutual funds, etc., to invest in?
  • Are you aware of the fees involved in investing?
  • How will you track the tax implications of investment choices?
  • Will you hire an advisor?
    • How will you find the right advisor for you? Do you trust them?
    • Do you care if they are a fiduciary required by law to do what is in your best interest?
    • Do you understand the difference between hiring a financial advisor at an investment bank or an independent advising firm?
    • Does the financial advisor understand who you are and where you are going?

Your investment philosophy is made up of guiding principles that will govern your future investment decisions. These crucial choices and commitments help you filter through the noise that doesn’t matter and focus on the path to wealth creation, accumulation and maintenance.

Be honest with yourself through the process of investing – it’s easy to reach analysis-paralysis quickly and feel overwhelmed. So whether you’re analytical or laid-back in nature, it’s is easier than you think to misstep and begin judging your future moves based on making up for past mistakes.

That’s where a good financial advisor can step in and help you remove the emotion from investing, while helping you maintain discipline in the markets.

[1] Source: Business Insider, CHART OF THE DAY: Here’s One Chart Every Stock Market Investor Should Pin To The Wall by Steven Perlberg on Dec. 3, 2013. Standard & Poor’s, FactSet, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Returns are based on price index only and do not include dividends. Intra-year drops refers to the largest market drops from a peak to a trough during the year. For illustrative purposes only. Returns shown are calendar year returns from 1980 to 2012. The 2013 numbers represent returns as of 9/30/13.

Old Scheme, New Tricks

iStock_000027123745LargeInsider trading is not a new concept, but it continues to be a high priority for the SEC’s enforcement program because it undermines investor confidence in the fairness and integrity of the securities markets.

Individuals are getting more creative in looking for ways to cover their tracks. In 2014 the industry has seen everything from someone attempting to hide insider trades by using a relative’s account in a foreign country, to a man writing tips on post-it notes that he then literally ate to eliminate the evidence. Meanwhile the SEC is leveraging more technology tools than ever before to strategically detect illegal trading activity.

Put simply, insider trading is buying or selling securities while in possession of material, nonpublic information about the security. Insider trading in this context is illegal – you can’t profit from information that is not available to the whole market. It is also illegal to communicate (or “tip”) material, nonpublic information to others who may trade in securities on the basis of that information. All information is considered nonpublic unless it has been effectively disclosed to the public. Material information includes anything that an investor might consider important in deciding whether to buy, sell, or hold securities. For example: new product development, earnings reports, mergers & acquisitions, major personnel changes, obtaining or losing important contracts, litigation, or a big scandal.

Just an investigation, even without subsequent litigation, can be very costly both financially and personally. Penalties for insider trading vary depending on the severity of the crime, but generally include disgorgement (forced giving up of illegal profits) plus interest, civil fines of $1 million or three times the profit gained or loss avoided through the trade (whichever value is greater), criminal penalties up to $5 million, bar from serving as an officer or director of a public company, and imprisonment for up to 25 years.

You should never trade while aware of material, nonpublic information. If you receive a tip: don’t place any trades; don’t share the information with anyone; and tell the person who gave you the tip that it is insider information that he/she should not be sharing with anyone.

Sign of the Future – Electronic Signatures

The days of printing and mailing hard copy contracts are quickly moving into the past as more and more companies are using electronic signatures. Having to address and stamp an envelope in order to mail a signed contract will eventually become a distant memory. Merriman is excited to partner with DocuSign to allow our clients to submit paperwork online. DocuSign was founded in Seattle in 2006, and now has nearly 1000 employees spread world-wide. Merriman is using DocuSign for client contracts and our custodians, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade and Fidelity, are using DocuSign for most account applications (excluding forms that need to be notarized).

Signing a document electronically is safe, secure and legally binding. We know account paperwork contains personal information so protecting your data is top priority. DocuSign utilizes encryption standards, retention and storage practices, and data security to ensure documents can only be accessed, read and executed by designated users. This means only you and those you authorize have access to your documents. Your content stays confidential, including from DocuSign—employees never have access to your content.

Here are some more great benefits:

  • Whether you’re in an office, at home, on the go, or even on vacation across the globe – as long as you have internet access, you can sign documents electronically.
  • Joint account holders or trustees can each sign documents without having to be in the same location or mail copies back and forth.
  • Increased accuracy – it’s impossible to miss a required field so you’ll never have a document returned to you to redo.
  • Open accounts and transfer funds faster since there is no time spent waiting for mail delivery.
  • It’s easy to maintain electronic copies of all your signed documents, and you can always print a hard copy if you wish.

Merriman Super Bowling Celebration with Earl Thomas & Marshawn Lynch

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When Joe Allen, CEO of Strikes For Kids, reached out to us and asked if we would like to sponsor their bowling tournament for the second year in a row, we were delighted to say yes. Strikes For Kids organizes bowling tournaments across the country to benefit different nonprofit organizations. This year, the event was hosted by Seattle Seahawks Earl Thomas & Marshawn Lynch, and benefited the Guardian Angel Foundation and Fam 1st Family Foundation. We were happy to support these great nonprofit organizations!

During this exciting evening, a few Merriman clients and employees bowled and hung out with Earl and Marshawn, and Russell Okung even dropped by. ESPN’s sports journalist Kenny Mayne got a lesson from Pro Bowler Norm Duke and knocked down a strike. Seahawks mascot Blitz was also there showing off his bowling skills for the kids. There is no better feeling than you get when you see excited kids meeting their favorite Seahawks players and having fun with their family.

You can watch some video coverage of the event here. Next time you are in our office, be sure to check out our autographed Seahawks bowling ball at the front desk!

The nuances of rebalancing

iStock_000019901243SmallI recently received a question from a client of mine about an article that referenced rebalancing a portfolio at the same time each year. In theory, an annual rebalance is not a bad way to go. However, there’s quite a bit more to how we manage the rebalancing process than that.

For Merriman clients, we:

  • Avoid unnecessary transaction costs by using cash inflows and outflows as a tool to rebalance a portfolio back to its target allocation. Cash inflows are used to buy underweight asset classes and cash outflows are used to sell overweight asset classes.
  • Allow assets that are performing well to continue to perform – a documented trend called momentum – by placing tolerance bands around our allocations. This also helps avoid excessive rebalancing transaction costs.
  • Favor rebalancing tax-deferred accounts in December to coincide with mutual fund distributions and Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs), again reducing transaction costs.
  • Help defer taxes by rebalancing taxable accounts in January, when appropriate.

Market performance can also have an impact on the need for rebalancing. If returns are flat for a few years, there is less need for rebalancing. In volatile times, more.

In addition there will be one-off cases such as:

  • Tax loss harvesting. If there is a significant downturn in the markets (think 2008), we can use that as an opportunity to harvest losses to be used against future gains. We did this for our clients in 2008 and it is paying dividends today.
  • Introduction or deletion of an asset class can also provide an opportunity to rebalance your portfolio.

Rebalancing your portfolio is an integral step in maintaining a well-balanced portfolio and reducing its risk. But to do it once a year at the same time every year may not be the best solution for you. Depending on your situation, a more customized rebalancing approach may save you significant money in transaction costs and taxes in the long run. As always, check with your advisor to find out what’s right for you.

Merriman recognized as one of the Top 300 RIAs by Financial Times

iStock_000018550149XSmallWe are excited to announce that Merriman Wealth Management, LLC was recognized as one of the Top 300 Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) in 2014 by Financial Times!

Financial Times uses a number of quantifiable and objective measures of investor-centered criteria to select the top firms, including assets under management (AUM), AUM growth rate, years in existence, compliance record, industry certifications and online accessibility. We are proud to be named in this elite group.

Download a full copy of the Financial Times special report here.

 

Merriman is not affiliated with Financial Times and did not pay to participate in the list. Please see pages 2 and 12 of the FT Special Report for a full description of the selection methodology utilized by Ignites Distribution Research, a sister publication to Financial Times. Rankings are historical in nature and are not indicative of future performance. The FT 300 list is not an endorsement from Financial Times nor a testimonial of client experience with Merriman.

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