An alternative to the financial news treadmill

Every day, financial news sites and channels provide a steady stream of conflicting opinions and predictions that often leave investors feeling confused, frustrated, and paralyzed. Don’t believe me? Please allow me to elaborate.

In addition to reading a wide range of investing and personal finance pieces each day, in the evening I often browse a site called RealClearMarkets.com to make sure I take a look at some of the interesting and/or important articles I might have missed during the day. RealClearMarkets.com is basically a consolidator of articles from a number of other sources. You might want to take a look at it just so you can see what I mean.

When I review the list of approximately 50 headlines, I always find it interesting to see how many compelling yet contradictory articles and videos are in one spot, one right after another. It’s common to see one claiming one view, with another of the exact opposite view right below it. China is imploding/China is still a sleeping giant, Gold is headed much lower/Gold will touch new highs by the end of the year, The stock market is about to re-visit the lows of 2008/The stock market is pausing before reaching new highs by year end, Stick with large cap U.S. stocks/America’s best days are behind us and one should look abroad for better investing opportunities, A bond catastrophe is upon us/Don’t believe the bond bust hype, Inflation is about to run rampant/Deflation is the new worry, Emerging market stocks and bonds are to be avoided at all costs/The long term secular growth story of the emerging markets is still very much intact. Good grief! What’s an investor to do?

We’ll continue to see these contradictions, but one does not need to feel paralyzed by them or compelled to decide which one is the better path to follow. The truth is that they all have elements of truth and quite often are written by some very bright people. This month marks my 27th year in this business, and I have seen investors get caught up wrestling with these contradictions in each and every one of those years. Please let me offer an alternative.

Rather than struggling to decide if this is the right or wrong time to hold stocks or bonds in your portfolio, or which types of each to hold, how about always holding a portion in stocks and a portion in bonds, along with an adequate cash reserve for emergencies or opportunities that may arise? Of the portion devoted to stocks, hold U.S. and foreign (including emerging markets), small  and large cap, growth and value, and also some REITs (both foreign and domestic). Of the portion destined for bonds, hold those of the highest credit quality (which tend to hold up relatively well when the stock market severely declines), and those with short- to intermediate-term maturities (which have lower interest rate risk in a rising rate environment).

With regard to cash reserves, the rule of thumb in the financial planning community is to maintain enough to cover 6 to 12 months of living expenses, depending on your situation, but often these targets tend to be on the low side. My experience has been that during periods of severe market or personal financial stress, nothing provides peace of mind like cash. Nobody ever complains about having too much cash on hand during these times. And when opportunity knocks, it’s nice to have plenty of cash on hand to take full advantage. Even when yields are as low as they are now, cash is king. The purpose of your investment portfolio is to deliver returns in excess of inflation over time. Cash is for liquidity, flexibility, and peace of mind.

The appropriate mix of these various asset classes, of course, depends on your individual circumstances and objectives. A big part of my job as an investment advisor is to help clients establish and maintain this mix in the face of unrelenting alarmist news headlines.

If all this advice sounds like nothing more than common sense and things we’ve all heard before, you’re right. But interestingly enough, many people tend to get caught up in all the predictions and hype out there, and they tend to ignore or forget these time-tested principles. As Paul Merriman once said, “There is a Grand Canyon of difference between what people know they should do and what they do.”

If you are tired of feeling confused, paralyzed, and frustrated and would like to jump off the financial news treadmill, I invite you to contact us. If you are not quite there yet, I wish you luck and a quiet mind as you continue down your path. We’ll be here when you need us.

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Convertible bonds as an asset class?


Please share your view of convertible bonds as an asset class for folks entering retirement.


Convertible bonds are a unique asset class in that they have features of both stocks and bonds. They are often referred to as “hybrid” securities. This, along with their typically sub-par credit rating, is why they do not fit into our bond portfolio.

We prefer to keep the stock and bond components of our portfolios separate. Our bond portfolio is designed to buoy the allocation in times of stock market stress. The potential for convertible bonds to act like stocks does not jive with this logic. If convertibles – due to their hybrid nature – were showing stock-like tendencies when stocks were declining, your portfolio would have much less downside protection. As we have seen in the recent past, it is extremely important that investors maintain some level of protection in their portfolio. We do not believe convertible bonds are the solution. (more…)

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SmartMoney: Fix Your 401(k)

Merriman Financial Advisor Lowell Parker is quoted in this Smart Money article on how employees can patch the holes in their 401(k) plans.

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Best of Merriman updates for 2012

Every year, we update some of the core articles in our Best of Merriman library.

The 2012 update of The ultimate buy-and-hold strategy, which includes performance information through 2011, is now available in our Best of Merriman library.

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The ultimate buy-and-hold strategy

In this update to one of the most important items in our article library, Merriman shows how a series of simple but powerful concepts can benefit patient, thoughtful investors. This 2013 revision updates our hypothetical examples with data through 2012.

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How to invest so your money lasts in retirement

Editor’s Note: Below is an article published first on MarketWatch.com that was written by Larry Katz, CFA – Director of Research at Merriman.

A major concern of many people is whether their savings will last for their entire retirement. If the savings do last, it’s a success, but if the savings don’t last it could be considered a failure.

Key factors which influence whether savings will last for your entire retirement include the size of your portfolio at retirement (bigger is better), the amount of periodic withdrawals (the lower the withdrawals the greater the chance of not running out of money) and longevity (the longer you live, the more you need at the start of retirement).

Another consideration is the diversification among various asset classes within the portfolio. The greater the diversification and exposure to beneficial asset classes, the lower the portfolio risk, and the greater the chance of financial success in retirement. (more…)

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We’ll say it again: The choice of assets can make a big difference.

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal from March 8, 2011 called “Why Small-Cap Funds are Lagging.” It cites a study by Credit Suisse showing that “small-cap funds have increasingly been investing in companies larger than their category name would indicate—and the average fund is underperforming its benchmark.”

The article goes on to say “The average market capitalization of a company in a small-cap fund was about $3.1 billion at the end of 2010, compared to the average market cap of the benchmark Russell 2000 index of about $1.3 billion. The $1.8 billion gap between the two is the largest since September 2008.” (more…)

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Recommended reading – NY Times: A Dying Banker’s Last Financial Instructions

Here’s what Mark Metcalf has to say about a recent article from the New York Times, “A Dying Banker’s Last Financial Instructions”, in which ex-Wall Street salesman Gordon Murray talks about a better way to invest:

Not only is this a powerful article about life, but it just happens to come with some top-notch investment advice.  While “The Investment Answer” differs slightly around the edges from Merriman’s investment approach, it is very much in line with our philosophy, and I would recommend it highly to anybody in search of a prudent way to invest.

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Part 2: Stocks, Bonds, and Cash: A primer on asset classes

Editors Note:
Burt Mayer, a senior at Lakeside High School in Seattle, WA interned at Merriman this summer with the intention of creating educational material for young investors.  This three part series featured on FundAdvice.com is perfect for those investors who are looking to get started but need to know the basics first
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Investors at all levels spend a tremendous amount of time and energy looking for hot stocks and attractive funds. They track fancy-looking graphs and complicated ratios because they’re fancy looking and complicated. Ultimately far more time is spent thinking about individual stocks and bonds than what percentage of their money is invested in stocks versus bonds.

Meanwhile, many academic studies by very smart people have concluded that the way we distribute investments across asset classes is far more relevant to a portfolio’s return than the specific securities or funds in that portfolio. A famous 1986 study by Brinson, Hood, and Beebower (he’s the smart one) called “Determinants of Portfolio Performance” concluded that a full 93.6% of the variation in a portfolio’s quarterly returns can be explained simply by what proportion of the portfolio is put in different asset classes. (more…)

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