Bah humbug to ridiculous year-end financial advice

Bah humbug to ridiculous year-end financial advice
Washington Post, December 26, 2015




It’s that time of year when the media is filled with all manner of terrible investing advice:

“10 ETFs to own in 2016!”

“Give up lattes to get your budget in order.”

“The stocks/sectors/countries you MUST invest in!”

“Who was the best mutual fund manager of the year?”

And that’s before we even get into the forecasts by some guru who is purporting to tell you where the market and economy and Apple and oil and gold and your favorite stock will be next year. How did following that guy’s advice work out last year — not so great, right?

I offer you none of that: no stock picks, no predictions, no economic analysis.

Note I am not going to tell you to “buy this, sell that.” I can’t for the simple reason I have no idea who you are, what your financial goals are, what taxes you owe, what you earn, how much you have saved and how old you are. Without knowing those factors (and other relevant information), how can anyone tell you what is right for you?

Instead, I am going to share 10 ideas with you. Follow them, and you will be a better all-around investor. Bonus: Everything on this list is broadly applicable to other endeavors.

Ready? Strap in:

Write out your investment philosophy: How can you put your money at risk in the capital markets if you do not have a philosophy you can articulate? It should be short and easily understood. You would be surprised at how many investors don’t have one.

I’ll give you a start with my own investment philosophy: I own a broadly diversified portfolio of low-cost global indices in various asset classes and I rebalance them regularly.

That’s the short version; the longer version explains the advantages of indexing, why keeping costs low and diversification are important, etc.

Now you try.

History teaches us: What has the market done? How long do bull and bear markets usually last? How far can they go? How do they begin and end?

We spend a lot of time around the office looking at historical data, running regression analyses to see what the past has looked like: What happened when rates rose from very low levels with low inflation? What is the actual average valuation across time? What happens when markets become narrow with fewer stocks participating? What does a bad year in the bond market look like?

Very often, the market behavior that people seem to think is unique is really quite ordinary.

How can you better understand money? Over the years I have come to think of money as a tool; it allows me to buy the necessities, as well as security, comfort, memories and the occasional toy.

I obtain money by trading for it with my time, which is a (very) finite resource. Many people do not seem to understand what money can and cannot buy for you. Some do not realize how expensive it is to buy money with their time.

What am I getting wrong? Simple fact: You will be wrong, quite often and, occasionally, quite spectacularly.

The key to being wrong well is to not waste it.

Ask yourself three questions: What do I not realize I am wrong about? What ways can I identify errors and avoid blind spots in the future? And, perhaps most important of all: What can I learn from my mistakes?

Do these three things and you will be smarter than 90 percent of the people you meet over the next year.

Become comfortable with basic math and statistics: You cannot be an investor and not have a basic facility with numbers. You have to be able to review your own investment returns, understand what is owed to you via dividends and bonds, review your quarterly statements, and be able to discern how well or poorly you are doing.

You have to be able to calculate how much money you are going to need to live on once you stop working. You need to figure out compounded returns, discount the effects of inflation and determine a percentage annual draw off of that nest egg.

How many books did I read last year? Which books should I read?

Think about the 10 people you would like to learn from; then go read their books in 2016. Or, alternatively, try this: Ask 10 people you admire what the best book they read last year was, and that’s your annual reading list. (I’ll give you a head start. My favorite in 2015 was “Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived” by Chip Walter.)

Understand human psychology: Speaking of which, the myriad ways in which people react to external and internal stimuli help to explain why the markets have been topsy-turvy.

When thinking about psychology, there are only two things you need to learn: Crowd behavior and your own. Master those two and you will become an extraordinarily successful investor.

How can I eliminate noise and distractions? This is a subject we haveaddressed previously, but it bears repeating: You want less of the distracting nonsense that interferes with letting your portfolios work for you.

Most people spend too much time on irrelevant noise. They end up with too much information, but it is all of the wrong kind. They rely on anecdotes and narratives instead of data. And they easily confuse short-term concerns of traders with their much longer term investing goals.

How can I be more productive and efficient? I don’t mean this in the way that the management consultants do, I mean this simply: How can you do the things that have to be done as quickly and correctly as possible, so you can spend time doing what you really want to do?

Some people are fortunate to be able to work in a field that they truly enjoy. Still, it does matter if you want to get things done and focus on the most important things. Which brings us to our last thought:

10 How am I spending my time? How do I want to spend my time? This is very important, one that many folks don’t think about until it’s way late.

Time is an extremely limited resource, one that you should use appropriately. Are you spending this finite resource doing things you dislike, or are you pursuing that which gives you the most satisfaction?

Remember, everybody gets the same 24 hours each day. What differentiates some people from others is how they spend that precious resource.


Ritholtz is chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, The Big Picture. On Twitter: @Ritholtz.




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  1. A commented on Jan 2

    Great summary Barry.

    Perhaps Number 11: Become a willing student.
    Otherwise, history teaches us nothing (building on point 2).

  2. VennData commented on Jan 2

    Great post.

    There is too much oil and the incoming suoply of other commodities is the same, too much.

    It’s not a demnad problem. The Saudis SAID they were going to produce flat out. When they did prices dropped. The funny thing is invested oil type loud mouths PREDICTED prices would rise back up. They were wrong. They had no idea that the Saudis would continue to over produce.

    The big mouthed prognosticators got mad. They blamed the Fed. They said with interest rates “too low” there is too much production of all things, and at the same time predict an imminent recession, and therefore predict a collapse in demand.

    Then they say that interest rates will drop further even as Central banks have trillions in bonds that must be recycled.

    Why anyone listens to them and not sage advice in this post is a hair-tearer.

  3. mpappa commented on Jan 2

    Maintain a solid multi asset global allocation. Don’t overweight anything where you can get hurt. Do not use leverage. Do not think you can cath a bottom orntime anything. Rebalance anually. Repeat each year and adjust your stock/fixed income weighting as needed for risk tolerance. You will win over the long run. Ignore those who brag about their winners. They never talk about their 10:1 loser ratio.

  4. KDawg commented on Jan 3

    A little off subject, but has anybody else noticed that core inflation is currently on target?

    Kinda explains the Federal Reserve’s rationale for raising rates. Not that I agree with their target of raising to 1% by year end, but I haven’t seen many people reporting on core inflation. Seems like something that should be mentioned.

    • RW commented on Jan 3

      One of the complaints about Fed thinking is they don’t seem to be treating core inflation as a target but rather as a ceiling; i.e., they start tightening as it approaches 2% rather than adjusting as it oscillates around a center point.

      Currently at 2.02%, the merest tick above ‘target,’ and without the slightest suggestion off acceleration. Not a persuasive case even if risk was symmetric — as easy (or difficult) to manage deflation as inflation — which it isn’t.

      Those of us fairly convinced that 2% is too low as a target are unequivocally convinced it is much too low as a ceiling.

    • KDawg commented on Jan 4

      I’m with you regarding an apparent ceiling policy even though I’m a pro rate hiker. My view is that it is time to raise rates since we can do it very slowly right now. I think 1% by year end is too fast though. This should be a trial balloon this year, not a true blue monetary policy change.

      We could break out Excel and start modeling away on the monetary effects of various rate hike scenarios, but I personally feel that would be a waste of time given that psychology is currently the main concern with rate hikes. No sudden movements please, or the recovery might get scared and run away.

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