What Pandemics Can Teach Us About Personal Finance

What Pandemics Can Teach Us About Personal Finance

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.

Psychology of Investing

Psychology of Investing

 

 

“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.

Loss Aversion

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

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

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!

Overconfidence

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

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:

Evidence-Based

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.

Financial Planning

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.

Education

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.

 

 

A New Resource for Amazon Employees

A New Resource for Amazon Employees

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.

Traditional or Roth 401(k)?

Traditional or Roth 401(k)?

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.

If you’re still not sure which option is right for you, we’re happy to help.

How Required Minimum Distributions Work!

How Required Minimum Distributions Work!

When you reach age 70½, or you inherit a retirement account you plan on stretching the life of, you’re legally required to take an annual withdrawal called a required minimum distribution (RMD) from your retirement account. Failure to take your RMD results in a 50% penalty on the RMD. Below is a list of frequently asked questions regarding required minimum distributions.

When do I have to take my first RMD?

You must take your first required minimum distribution by April 1 of the year after you turn 70½. For example, if you turn 70½ on December 15, 2017, you need to take your first RMD by April 1, 2018. Keep in mind that if you wait until 2018 to take your first RMD in this example, you would have to take two RMDs that year. Since two RMDs in one year could push you up into a higher tax bracket, it’s advisable to take your first RMD by December 31 of the year you turn 70½.

What accounts do I have to take an RMD from?

RMDs apply to pre-tax retirement accounts such as Traditional IRA, Rollover IRA, SEP IRA, Simple IRA, 403(b), 457, and 401(k)s. RMDs do not apply to Roth IRAs.

Current law does require RMDs be taken from Roth 401(k)s, but you can easily avoid this by rolling that account into a Roth IRA. (more…)

How Are Oil Prices Impacting Your Portfolio?

oil price volatility

As consumers, we love low oil prices for the savings we receive at the pump. As investors in energy companies, we love high oil prices for the earnings and dividends.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen oil prices fall precipitously from around $100 per barrel to below $40 per barrel as of year-end. Similarly, big oil players such as ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP have seen declines in their stock prices of 23%, 31%, and 41%, respectively. Is this a value investment opportunity? Could be. Can oil prices fall further? Possibly. However, why worry or attempt to time or choose specific sectors of the stock market to invest in like energy, technology or healthcare? Just like other market events, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to consistently predict drops like we’ve seen in oil, and to determine how long prices will stay this low.

Instead, let’s consider how the prolonged drop in oil prices and the corresponding decline in energy stocks play into the overall stock market indices. For the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI), the energy component makes up just 6.1% of the overall index. Over that same 18-month period, the global energy sector fell in price by 43%, while the overall MSCI ACWI declined by just 7%. If you owned only a market index, which would remove company- and industry-specific risk from your portfolio, the decline would have been dampened. In fact, when oil prices drop, consumers use those savings from the gas pump to buy products and services that boost other parts of the economy. In addition, industries whose costs are heavily impacted by oil prices, such as airlines and transports, greatly benefit from this shift. This leveling effect provided by investing in various indices can more importantly help keep you from falling off course from reaching your financial goals.

As a result, we continue to believe in the long-term benefits of broad-based diversification provided by investing in indices across the globe.