One of the most noted and real impacts of the coronavirus is that employees are working from home. While it has been a huge shift, four plus months in, the results have been positive for many, and headlines in business publications are examining whether a substantial fraction of these employees may never return to the office. There is solid debate about how big the impact will ultimately be, but there is no doubt that companies will be revisiting their spaces.
This trend might lead one to worry that real estate values will plummet as demand falls and supply stays constant. To this I would offer two counter points. First and foremost, commercial real estate encompasses a wide range of investments. The pie chart below shows the sub-sector breakdown of the holdings of our most widely recommended real estate investment, the Dimensional Global Real Estate Fund (DFGEX).
REITs that focus on office properties as of June 30th, 2020, made up just 12% of the fund’s allocation. Office REITs do not just own high-rise commercial office buildings in downtown cores. Much of the space they own is in suburban office parks and includes space leased by dentists, hairstylists, lawyers, and small research and engineering firms. While many more things can be done virtually, there are still many businesses, such as orthodontists and spas, that will always require an in-person experience.
While demand for some types of office space may be dropping, demand for other types of real estate in the fund is growing. As of June 30th, the top three holdings in the Dimensional fund were American Tower Corporation, Crown Castle International Corporation, and Prologis Inc. American Tower and Crown Castle are owners and providers of infrastructure for wireless communication and fall into the Specialized category. Prologis is in the logistics real estate business, leasing distribution facilities to support direct fulfillment to customers. All three of the companies are poised to see substantial growth from increasing demand. The fund owns many other businesses, from cold storage warehouses to multi-family apartments to medical facilities, where demand remains high.
The second point is that changes always follow any societal upheaval. There is no doubt that COVID will have an impact on our world. However, it is unclear that the shifts will be as radical as some are predicting or that COVID alone will cause the demise of industries or institutions. Large scale change rarely happens that quickly or dramatically.
For example, the idea that demand for office real estate will suddenly drop 60–70% seems overblown. IBM was an early proponent of telecommuting. In a 2009 report, they boasted that “40 percent of IBM’s some 386,000 employees in 173 countries have no office at all.” According to an Atlantic article from 2017, they unloaded 58 million square feet of office space at a gain of nearly $2 billion. By all accounts, it sounded like a winning strategy. Only, it did not work out, and in March of 2017, IBM decided to move thousands of its workers back to physical company offices.
The problem was likely a drop in what the Atlantic terms “collaborative efficiency”—or the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. Physical distance still mattered when it came to team creativity, and remaining competitive in a rapidly changing landscape more and more requires novel solutions to complex problems. Offices may look different, but I believe that more than ever people and employees will need places to gather and connect.
The future trajectory is never clear even to the greatest minds. What is clear is that people will always need spaces to live, work, and conduct business. What those spaces look like will evolve, but companies are motivated to adapt. And historically, they have changed industrial warehouses and former malls into Amazon fulfillment centers and multi-family apartment complexes. Despite the recent drawdowns and changing landscape, we believe that investing in a diversified real estate portfolio continues to offer the potential for equity-like returns, current income, and solid inflation protection, all important elements of a well-balanced portfolio.
As a dad and a financial advisor, I find myself constantly trying to explain how money works. In my opinion; budgeting, investing, and creating income are topics that should be equally important to my 8-year-old daughter as they are to a 50-year-old client. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, access to financial literacy tools for money management are not a mainstream part of our educational system. With more and more resources available at our fingertips, it is my hope that the next generation will grow up already knowing how to save and plan for retirement way before they get their first job.
Take my daughter for example. Last summer, my then 7-year-old asked me what I do for work (I’m a financial planner). It turns out, her friends were all talking about what their parents did for a living, so naturally my daughter wanted to join in on the conversation. Up until this point I had always told her that I helped people get ready for retirement, which I summed up as a “summer vacation that never ends”. She didn’t give it much thought until other kids started talking about how their parents owned a restaurant, helped people get better as a doctor, or worked on getting packages delivered faster as an engineer at Amazon. When my daughter told her friends that her dad helped people get ready for a never-ending summer break, she got a lot of “Huh?” faces.
I then decided to have a more in-depth dialogue with my daughter around what I actually did. The basics of how investing works seemed like a good place to start. So, using the tools we had at our disposal (crayons, blank paper and a 7-year-old’s imagination) I set out to explain what a financial advisor does. It started with a simplistic explanation of what the stock market is, and by the end of our first conversation, my daughter had learned the rhyme: “Stocks make you an owner, and bonds make you a loaner.”
This was progress! After a few more arts-and-crafts sessions, we had created a story explaining how investing in the stock market works, and it was starting to resemble a book. At this moment, I told my daughter we should try to publish our book so other children could learn about investing, and she turned to me and said, “Dad, you can’t just publish a book. Only authors can do that!” Challenge accepted!
Fast-forward six months, and our rough draft was polished into a finished book. Today, you can find “Eddie and Hoppers Explain Investing in the Sock Market” on Amazon! As a dad and a co-author, I’m very proud of my daughter for helping me create this story and for helping me make the book a reality.
After the book came out, I figured my daughter would stay interested in financial literacy, but I should have known asset allocation and risk management weren’t exactly the most exciting topics for an 8-year-old. I had to find a way to introduce financial topics into everyday life.
Money management for a second-grader is pretty simple. My daughter’s main income sources are: A monthly allowance, gifts from relatives for birthdays/holidays, plus she had a lemonade stand last summer that netted a respectable profit. The problem wasn’t earning the money, the problem was keeping track of it and then remembering how much she had when she wanted to buy something.
So, as a dad/financial advisor, I did what comes natural… I created a spreadsheet to track everything. Turns out, spreadsheets are also pretty low on the list of things that my daughter finds interesting. This is when I had my a-ha moment. I did a quick internet search and found a lot of options for tracking how much a kid earns, spends and saves. Last summer when I was trying to teach my daughter what I did for a living, I did a similar search for children’s books that discuss financial topics and found very little. That’s what inspired me to write our book. Thankfully, this time I was able to find what I was looking for when searching for an app that could help me teach my daughter about budgeting.
Ultimately, I decided to use Guardian Savings with my daughter because it has the right balance of simplicity and effectiveness. Guardian Savings allows my wife and I to be ‘The Bank of Mom and Dad’. My daughter finally got organized, and she consolidated all her savings from the half-dozen wallets, piggy banks and secret hiding spots, so she could make her first deposit. More importantly, when we’re at the store or shopping online and my daughter finds something that she must have, we’re able to open the app and let her see the impact of making an impulsive purchase. Plus, as the parent, I get to decide what interest rate my daughter will earn in her account. Not only do I get to have a conversation about what interest is, but she gets to experience the power of compound interest by seeing her savings grow each month. Talk about a powerful motivational tool!
In this day and age, the idea of teaching your child how to balance a checkbook is outdated. The next generation will live in an entirely digital world. Apps are the new checkbook, and it may be a good idea to teach your children personal finance in the same environment they will be in as adults. Already a digital native, my daughter impressed me by how fast she learned how to use the app, not to mention the principals of saving and smart spending that are encouraged throughout the interface. In a few years, I’ll be able to discuss what asset allocation is and how a Roth IRA works, but for now I’m happy that my daughter can get practice making budgeting decisions and building a strong understanding of the basics. Financial literacy has to start somewhere and the sooner that foundation can be made, the more confident a child will be when it comes to managing money as an adult.
Because economic markets are intrinsically linked across the globe, the impact of a global pandemic can be widely felt. Disturbances in supply chains can impact inflation rates, and an increase in unemployment is a viable risk. Due to this, low inflation rates can impact forex trading and force central banks to reduce country-wide interest rates, resulting in a weaker currency. Despite these changes, it’s vital to take an informed approach when it comes to managing your finances. Here are some ways you can re-strategize in the time of a pandemic:
How to rebalance your portfolio
During epidemics over the last 20 years, the S&P 500 Index tends to exhibit a pattern of dramatically falling then powerfully recovering over a period of approximately six months. A generally prudent strategy to follow is to seek expert advice in redistributing your investment portfolio. In general, selling US growth stocks and buying bonds is suitable for many clients. Selling partial or full positions in order to boost your tax savings is also good advice to follow in the long run. Keeping an eye on your portfolio and avoiding making panicked decisions is crucial in the event of a pandemic.
How to invest according to your current situation
Something else to keep in mind is to invest according to your age group and particular situation. This advice applies whether you’re experiencing the effects of a pandemic or not. If you’re a young investor, it is recommended to hold on to your existing investments and patiently waiting for your returns. If you’re nearing retirement age, you should consider delaying your retirement if possible and focus on building up your funds. Lastly, if you’re already retired, you should hang on to your investments if you can afford it, or attempt to reduce your expenses.
How to re-categorize your budget
During a pandemic, individuals and families are likely to juggle new financial challenges. At this time, it’s a good idea to rethink your priorities. For instance, figure out your new baseline income based on potential pay cuts or unemployment, as well as any benefits you may receive. After this, work on calculating how much you need to pay for the essentials, such as rent, utilities, and food. Finally, you should try eliminating or reducing unnecessary expenses where you can. Dining out, entertainment, clothing, and travel are some areas where you can cut costs during this time.
How to get refunds where you can
In order to limit the spread of illness, it’s common practice that major events, flights, and services like gym memberships will be canceled. Because of this, you’re usually entitled to some form of compensation. If a travel ban has been put into place, airlines are likely to give you a refund or some form of credit if your travel plans were made in advance. Concerts and sports events should have similar policies put into place, so check your spam folder for any emails and updates regarding your refund. If you haven’t received any communication from the relevant organization, reach out and contact them to see what can be done.
In the event of a pandemic, it might be tempting to give in to your emotions and worry about your finances. To prevent this, building up an emergency fund beforehand with approximately three to six months’ worth of expenses and maintaining a strict budget plan will help you maintain peace of mind.
Prepared exclusively for merriman.com by Danielle Houston
Important Disclosure: This article is for informational purposes only, and does not intend to address the financial objectives, situation, or specific needs of any individual investor. The general suggestions provided are not intended to serve as personalized financial and/or investment advice since the availability and effectiveness of any strategy is dependent upon your individual facts and circumstances. Investors are highly encouraged to work with a financial services professional to discuss their financial situation and suitable solutions.
“The world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.” – Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
“It’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.” – Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway
In its most basic form, investing involves allocating money with the expectation of some benefit, or return, in the future that compensates us for the risk taken by investing in the first place. Investing is a decision: buy or sell, stock A or stock B, equities or bonds, invest now or later. But as the great Charlie Munger reminds us above, investing is far from easy. Prior to making an investment decision, we create statistical models, build spreadsheets, use fundamental and technical analysis, gather economic data, and analyze company financial statements. We compile historical information to project future return and risk measures. But no matter how much information we gather or the complexity of our investment process, there isn’t one rule that works all the time. Investing involves so much more than models and spreadsheets. It is an art rather than a science that involves humans interacting with each other—for every buyer, there is a seller. At its core, investing is a study of how we behave.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are famous for their work on human behavior, particularly around judgment and decision making. Judgment is about estimating and thinking in probabilities. Decision making is about how we make choices under uncertainty (which is most of the time). Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work in 2002, an honor that would have certainly been shared with Tversky had he not passed away in 1996. Their findings challenged the basic premise under modern economic theory that human beings are rational when making judgments and decisions. Instead, they established that human errors are common, predictable, and typically arise from cognitive and emotional biases based on how our brains are designed.
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes our brains as having two different, though interconnected, systems. System 1 is emotional and instinctive. It lies in the brain’s amygdala and uses heuristics or “rules of thumb” to simplify information and allow for quick gut decisions. In contrast, System 2 is associated with the brain’s prefrontal cortex. It is slow, deliberate, and calculating. As an example, if I write “2 + 2 =”, your mind without any effort will come up with the answer. That is System 1 at work. If I write “23 x 41=”, your mind most likely switches over to the slower moving System 2. While Systems 1 and 2 are essential to our survival as humans, Kahneman found that both systems, and how they interact with each other, can often lead to poor (and sometimes irrational) decisions. We can apply much of what Kahneman and Tversky discovered to investor behavior. Let’s focus on some of the most common biases and how they impact our decision making.
Kahneman and Tversky summarized loss aversion bias with the expression “losses loom larger than gains.” The key idea behind loss aversion is that humans react differently to gains and losses. Through various studies and experiments, Kahneman and Tversky concluded that the pain we experience from investing losses is twice as powerful as the pleasure we get from an equivalent gain. This can lead to several mistakes, such as selling winners too early for a small profit or selling during severe market downturns to avoid further losses. Loss aversion, if left unchecked, can lead to impulse decision making driven by the emotions of System 1.
Confirmation bias leads people to validate incoming information that supports their preexisting beliefs and reject or ignore any contradictory information. In other words, it is seeing what you want to see and hearing what you want to hear. As investors, we are prone to spending more time looking for information that confirms our investment idea or philosophy. This can lead to holding on to poor investments when there is clear contradictory information available.
Hindsight bias is very common with investor behavior. We convince ourselves that we made an accurate investment decision in the past which led to excellent future results. This can lead to overconfidence that our investment philosophy or process works all the time. On the flip side, hindsight can lead to regret if we missed an opportunity. Why didn’t I buy Amazon in 2001? Why didn’t I sell before this bear market? As I always say, I would put the results of my “Hindsight Portfolio” up against Warren Buffet’s any day!
As mentioned above, investors can become overconfident if they have some success. This can lead to ignoring data or models because we think we know better. As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Overconfidence can lead to a knockout, and investors must be flexible and open with their process.
Recency bias is when investors emphasize or give too much weight to recent events when making decisions and give less weight to the past. This causes short-term thinking and allows us to lose focus on our long-term investment plan. It essentially explains why investors tend to be more confident during bull markets and fearful during bear markets.
I could write an entire book on investor psychology. The bottom line is that we cannot eliminate these biases. After all, we are all human. Even Kahneman, who made the study of human behavior his life work, admits he is constantly impacted by his own biases. However, there are certain actions or “nudges” that can help address such biases and avoid making costly mistakes. At Merriman, we have built the firm in such a way to use our knowledge about human behavior in the work we perform for our clients. Below are some of the main examples:
We build and design our investment strategies based on academic data going back hundreds of years. We are evidence-based rather than emotionally-driven investors. We think long term and do not let short term noise or recent events impact the process. We build globally diversified portfolios across different asset classes to produce the best risk-adjusted returns. That said, we are consistently researching and studying to find data that might contradict our investment philosophy and will make changes if the evidence supports it.
A well-built financial plan is at the core of our client’s long-term success. It is a living document that requires frequent updates based on changes in our lives—retirement, education funding, taxes, change in job, business sale, and estate planning. This forces us to make investment decisions based on the relevant factors of that plan and not on emotions—because at the end of the day, investing is meant to help reach our goals.
At Merriman, we do our best to help educate our clients on our investment philosophy. Blogs, quarterly letters, seminars, client events, and video content are all examples of tools we use to educate our firm and clients. Knowledge and awareness are powerful tools to help us make sound decisions.
We are all going through an extremely stressful situation right now—both personally and professionally. Now, more than ever, we need to lean on each other and show empathy and support through this unprecedented time. Remember, investing is a study of how humans behave. At Merriman, we want to be your resource to guide you through both calm and turbulent markets, helping you reach your financial goals. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you’d like to discuss how we can help.
Do you work for Amazon, or are you considering a career at Amazon?
Navigating the different benefit options can feel overwhelming. That’s why Merriman has created a new resource for Amazonians that has everything you need to know about what’s available to you.
You can find tips and advice on how to get the most out of Amazon’s 401(k), learn about health insurance options and guidance on how to handle the Amazon restricted stock units. We encourage you to take a look and if you have any questions or if you want to discuss in detail how Merriman can help put together a personalized plan, please feel free to reach out.
Often employers offer the option of contributing to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). Do you know which one is right for you?
The primary difference is in the tax treatment. The traditional 401(k) gets a tax benefit at the time of contribution, because money contributed to such an account is not taxed. Moving forward, the earnings in your traditional 401(k) are not taxed as long as the funds remain in the account. When you begin to make withdrawals in retirement, the funds withdrawn are taxed as ordinary income.
Roth 401(k)s are taxed the reverse way. In these accounts, money is taxed when the contribution is made. Earnings on investments in your Roth 401(k) account are not subject to tax, and the money is not taxed when it’s withdrawn.
If the investor’s marginal tax rate is the same at the time of contributions and withdrawals, the traditional and Roth accounts would produce the same results.
Because of these differences in tax treatment, taxpayers in the lowest tax brackets should contribute to Roth accounts, while taxpayers in higher tax brackets will want to use traditional retirement accounts. As a general strategy:
When you’re in the 12% tax rate or lower: Contributions should be made to a Roth 401(k).
When you start moving into the 22% tax bracket: 50% of contributions be made to a traditional 401(k), and 50% to a Roth 401(k).
In your peak earning years: As you move into years with marginal tax rates above 22%, most or all retirement contributions should be made into a traditional 401(k) instead of the Roth.