What Did You Get Right – and Wrong – This Year?

Five Midyear Questions for Disappointed Investors
It’s been easy to get things wrong in markets in 2020, but self-examination can help to get things right.
Bloomberg, July 20, 2020





With the second quarter behind us, investors are evaluating how well their holdings have performed. The midpoint of the year is as good time as any to evaluate what you did right or wrong in a very challenging year.

Given how much panic selling we saw at the end of March, there surely are quite a few people who are disappointed with their results. If you are one of those folks, now is the time to determine where you went off track.

Rather than tell you what you did wrong, ask yourself these questions. Your answers will help send you in the right direction:

No. 1. What is my investing philosophy?: It may be a basic question, but it is one some people skip: Am I an active investor, hunting for alpha (market-beating returns), or am I a passive indexer, content with beta (market-matching returns)? For those trying to beat the market, are you succeeding? If you are, then congratulations! You’re one of the few. But ask yourself this: Is your process repeatable and reliable, or did you just get lucky?  This question remains one of the most challenging in all of active management.

If the active approach isn’t paying off, another question awaits: Would you be better off in the long run embracing a low-cost, passive indexing strategy?

No. 2. Where did I go wrong, and how am I tracking it?: Be like Ray Dalio: Don’t hide your errors, but embrace them as a way to become a better investor.

Managing this is a two-step process: First, figure out why you might have gone astray. Were you trading too much, incurring fees along the way? Did you hold onto stocks that you should have sold? Are you part of the Robinhood contingent buying bankrupt companies such as Hertz or JC Penney, which are never likely to pay off? Were you late to investing in Tesla or Netflix when most of the big gains were in the past?

About 40% of active fund managers manage to beat their benchmark in any given year, but net of costs and fees, almost none does so consistently over 10-year periods.

Once you find your weaknesses, the next challenge is to identify them sooner. What objective measures are you using to tell you an investment isn’t working out? How are you distinguishing temporary setbacks and permanent impairment of capital? You need to develop an objective way to determine if an investment was in error so it can be adjusted. It is acceptable to be wrong; it happens to everyone. But it is inexcusable to stay wrong.

No. 3. How strong are my convictions? This question can confuse some investors. It is not a measure of enthusiasm or belief strength, but rather, how warranted is the confidence you place in your philosophy. Does your strategy have a firm, analytical basis in reality? Not merely a feeling or instinct, but something more specific: Do you have a well-researched plan that delineates how you are expressing your beliefs in the markets?

Those investors lacking a high degree of conviction often become more easily influenced by outside forces. They develop self-doubt, bounce from one fad to the next, slavishly following financial Twitter, cable TV and punditry. Low-conviction strategies are not the path to success.

No. 4. What changes am I willing to make? Long-term change in behavior is one of the toughest challenges you will ever face as a trader or investor.

Once you figure out what is not working — which is hard enough — what are you able to do to change it? How much of what you believe has been proven false and must be discarded? What are you watching/reading/listening to that is counterproductive? What events or developments are hurting your investments now and must be addressed immediately? What are you willing to do to make repairs?

Change is never easy; it is especially difficult when money and ego are at stake. But when a situation hasn’t been working, repeating the same thing over and over will not improve your results.

No. 5. How can I stay on track in the future? The above questions are all about being brutally honest with yourself. Your beliefs, mistakes, performance and ego must all be addressed head on if you want to improve. This final question isn’t about the past, but the future.

What will you do to stay disciplined? How are you going to evaluate your performance, especially in light of changes in investing strategy?

Even if you don’t have all of the answers, having good questions can point you in the right direction. They go a long way toward helping you get the answers you — and your investments — need.


I originally published this at Bloomberg, July 20, 2020. All of my Bloomberg columns can be found here and here


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