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Of Faith and Markets

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Here’s another letter from a reader.  If reading about my faith turns you off, stop reading now, because this will be thicker than usual.

Hi David,

 I’ve just started reading your blog, and greatly enjoy it. I noticed you integrated your faith with your perception of the world and economics/policy. I am a Christian who is attracted to the wonder of the financial markets. So many individuals making so many decisions being affected in so many ways; it can be overwhelming. My question regards how you view financial markets within your faith.

 I was originally going to work at an internship at a hedge fund in 2008. I thought it’d be the dream: making big money! But that summer, when all hell broke lose, the hedge fund closed down before I could even start. Fast forward six years, and I’m working in corporate finance at a non-financial company – nothing to do with the markets. I want to jump back in, but not as a trader. I feel there was some Divine Providence in how I’ve perceived my “close call” with the trading world. I’m currently trying to understand how I can approach careers involving the financial markets that don’t force me to leave my faith at home. How do you approach the world of finance with your faith?

 Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and God Bless.

 

Dear Friend,

I went through a similar experience early in my Christian walk, because sadly, I ran into some Evangelicals who denigrated earning money – Evangelical Leftists were more common in the late ‘70s.  Thus, I turned against Finance though I was good at it.  My Master’s thesis anticipated price and earnings momentum, and most quantitative long-short equity hedge funds.  Too bad for me; I aimed at doing development work in the Third World.  As it was, when I figured out that development economics tended to inhibit growth, and its opposite encouraged it, I gave up.  I started a career in finance as an actuary.

When I did that, I realized that I must do many things:

Be a good example to those around me.

  • Be friendly and pleasant to my co-workers.
  • Oppose fraudulent practices.
  • Be honest with those with whom I dealt.
  • Apologize when I sin or make mistakes.
  • Avoid bad language.  That not only means foul language, but also cruel language, even if it is technically clean.
  • Work hard.
  • Learn, learn, and learn.  A dirty secret about Evangelical Christians is that we read more than non-Christians, and have more Ph.Ds per capita.  Okay, the Jews have us beat there, and badly.
  • Avoid working on the Lord’s Day [Sunday].
  • Don’t be afraid about using the Bible as an analogy or as an example.  After all, people cite all manner of garbage as authorities, and the Bible is not permitted?  Is it because the Bible claims universal authority that people want to ban it?  Yes, that is why.  No one wants the Owner of the Earth to remind us of His claims.
  • I was always honest with coworkers about my faith in moments where it was natural, but I never beat them over the head with it.
  • Love your coworkers, and those with whom you interact.
  • Avoid investments in companies that have sinful goals — gambling, illicit sex, etc.  Also avoid companies that try to cheat people.

Practically, the most important thing is to be honest, keep your word, aim for competence, and be faithful in your dealings with others.

Any vocation can be pursued in a worldly or Christian way – most of it is the attitude that you bring to it.  “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord.”

One final note: one time, I was given a very hard time by a boss who was under a lot of pressure.  Nominally, I was his assistant, and so the rest of the team was amazed with what he put me through, while I largely kept a good attitude (it was not perfect).  One of my co-workers, a Christian, came to me privately and asked how I was doing.  I said that I was fine.  She knew me well, and said that she was praying for me, and that the entire staff was astounded that I would put up with what the boss was doing.  I told her that he was the boss, under a lot of pressure, and that if I pushed back, it could do a lot of harm to all of us.  I was not doing it for me.

It made an impression on the staff, and though they liked me, when the boss left six weeks later, they chose me to run the unit.  Truth, management above chose me, but without their support and love, I would not have been half the leader that I was.

So, serve for the good of others, and you will succeed.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Lev 19:18]

Sincerely,

 

David

On a Letter From A Younger Friend

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

A younger friend of mine sent me an email asking for investment advice.  Here is the redacted version of it:

 

I’m not sure if you are aware of a blog called mrmoneymustache.com. The guy who runs the blog retired in his late twenties just working a software development job. Granted, he was really fortunate to have graduated college and started his career in the dot-com bubble, but he didn’t have a really high-paying job by any means during that time. Anyways, his main strategy was saving 70-80% of his income and investing heavily into Vanguard index funds. He stopped contributing to his 401Ks early on and started putting the rest of his savings into taxable accounts with Vanguard (index funds) in order to retire early and withdraw his 4% from his portfolio every year for living expenses. I think it’s a pretty interesting blog and might be worth checking out if you had the time. I’d be really interested in your general thoughts about him and his blog and if you think he gives wise investing advice.

[Wife] and I both have IRAs ([Wife] has a traditional 401k and I have a Roth). [Wife] actively contributes to her 401k every paycheck and I think it has about $XX in it. I put the max contribution amount into my Roth every year, currently $XXXX, and it is at about $XX. I always hear it’s important to max out your tax deferred and tax free accounts before opening a taxable account. I think we’re at the point where I want to start investing in a taxable account. I like Vanguard and their low expense ratios and I know index funds outperform actively managed funds in the long-term.

 I was thinking about opening a vanguard taxable account and starting off small (5-6k) with my investments into VTSMX and VFWIX with a 50/50 split. Do you think this would be a wise move? I don’t want our money sitting in savings accounts and not even keeping up with inflation. I almost feel like it’s foolish not to invest as much as possible.

Anyways, looking forward to your response and thoughts on MMM and his blog.

Thanks Dave!

First, I want to commend you for making an effort to save and invest early.  Most people don’t do that, and it is a major reason why they never become financially secure.

Second, I want to thank you for introducing me to Mr. Money Mustache.  As one that has sported a full beard for the last 20+ years, I can appreciate the name.  He saved lots of money in his twenties, and invested it in stock index funds at Vanguard.  I am a Vanguard fan also, though I use them less often now, because my stockpicking has done well.

MMM reminds me of a more severe version of Dave Ramsey, minus the Christianity.  If you can deny yourself in the early years, work hard, keep expenses down, and build up a nest egg early, wow, do it.  Most people can’t do that.  You and your wife have already accumulated more than most have at similar ages.  Keep it up.  Having a bias against unnecessary spending is a good thing.  When my kids ask me why we don’t get new cars, I tell them that they run, and I will drive them until the cost of maintaining them is greater then the cost of buying and maintaining another car over the long run.

It is wise to avoid too much debt, and wise to pay it down early.  I have been debt-free for the past 11 years, including the mortgage.  Excluding the mortgage, 22 years.  It changes you, and frees you, because when you don’t have worries over paying debts, you don’t have the same degree of concern of are you going to run into financial trouble.

In inflation-adjusted terms, you are roughly as well-off as my wife and I were when we were your average age.  Good job, and keep it up.

Third, you are young, so investing 50/50 in US/Foreign Total equity index funds from Vanguard is fine, especially the Foreign part of it.  I say that because the US Stock Market is priced to deliver 5.5%/year returns for the next 10 years.  Foreign markets offer more return now.  When MMM was investing his savings the market was priced to earn 9-13% or so per year.

This brings up another point.  I don’t like earning nothing on my money, as it is with most banking and savings accounts, but sometimes that is the best option.  In September of 2000, the US stock market was priced to earn -2%/year returns for the next 10 years.  That was a time to throw stocks out the window.  I didn’t do that, and my value investing made money in 2000 and 2001, though I got whacked hard in 2002.

Not every moment in the market offers the same degree of opportunity to make money.  To the degree that you can, be ready to invest when markets have fallen, and things look bad.  If you want to be clever, after a severe fall invest after the S&P 500 is higher than its 200-day moving average.

But investing regularly to some degree immunizes market environments.  You will invest in good times and bad.  In the end, the discipline will benefit you.  You have saved, invested, and did not panic when things went bad.  You lived to prosper when things went good.

But, you might tilt your US assets to the US value index fund, and if Vanguard has a foreign value index fund, you might do that as well.  Value outperforms over the long haul, so do that if you can.  If small stock valuations weren’t so high now, I would tell you to look for small cap value, but I won’t, it doesn’t make sense now.

Fourth, yes, start the taxable brokerage account with your excess money.  I started mine at age 29, and the economic help it has been to me has been significant.  I would not have been able to start my business in 2010 if I had not done that.  Or survive the low earnings years 2008-2012.

Fifth, all that said, I have one more insight to add.  I’m sure that MMM enjoys his life and works, even though he is “retired.”  The Bible warns us about not wearing ourselves out to get rich, in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  Hey, it is nice to live off of a passive income, but the Lord made us to work six days, and rest on the seventh.  Work is an ordinary part of life even if you are managing your assets, and it is to be enjoyed.

What MMM suggests may be harder to bear than many people are capable of bearing.  We should appropriately enjoy life and not be misers.  The Larger Catechism in talking about the Eighth Commandment encourages us to enjoy what God has given us.  As we prosper, we should thank God for it, and enjoy it.

You have a wonderful wife, and that is reward enough.  But save and invest in good times and bad, and it will work out far better for you than those that don’t do so.

Protect Your Older Family & Friends

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

This article was spurred by this article in the Wall Street Journal: Financial Scammers Increasingly Target Elderly Americans.  The elderly are indeed a target because of three reasons:

Seniors are targets, and not just by those who are regarded as fraudsters.  I had an older friend who was approached by the sales professionals of a major bank to manage her $3 million portfolio, which was already well-managed.  They made all manner of promises of what they would do for her, in exchange for a fee on assets — 3%/year.

At that level of expense, there are a lot of things that could benefit the Senior in question, but the nice-looking, unctuous people from the bank sell an expensive mirage.  I’ve never seen a bank that was genuinely good at asset management, and certainly not to the degree of charging a 3% fee.

Every elderly person needs a younger skeptical friend who is sharp enough to be able sense when a deal is sketchy, and the elderly person needs to have the discipline to run things by their younger friend.

As I so often say, “Don’t buy what someone wants to sell you.  Buy what you have researched for yourself.”  The elderly should develop a hatred of marketers.  Hang up on anyone who is offering something that is “too good to be true” because it almost always is too good to be true.

To those who Lead Churches

I am an elder in my Reformed Presbyterian congregation.  I have served my denomination on the boards of its college, denominational trustees, finance committee, and pension board.  In my congregation, we watch out for our elderly members.  We make their requests a priority.  If they need financial advice, I give it to them for free.  God rewards those who aid widows.

I encourage Church leaders who have enough financial sense to be able to know when something financial “feels funny” to gather their elderly congregants, and tell them to call you if they are tempted by slick-talking salesmen to make them part with money.

To those who Love Elderly Family or Friends

Take the time to tell them to be careful, and that you are available to help them whenever someone calls them out of the blue, where that party will benefit from money from the senior, no matter what it is.  This isn’t as tough as telling them to give up the car keys (been through that once).  But they do need to be sensitized to two things:

  • There are people out there who want to cheat them, and
  • You love them, and will help them in any situation like that.

We’re supposed to take care of and honor elderly people anyway.  Societies that don’t do that tend to fail.  So look out for your elderly friends to the degree consonant with your relationship to them.

On Voluntarism

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

One of the great things about the US is that people give their time and effort for things that benefit society.  It is a secular offshoot of the Puritan idea of creating a Holy Commonwealth.  We are out to save the World from itself, but now, without anything like Yahweh/Jesus telling us to do it.

I must admit that I serve in both spheres — I am an elder in my Bible-believing Presbyterian congregation.  I also serve on the Baltimore CFA society’s board, and may become a part of the board that oversees the pension plans for Howard County, should the county executive so choose me.  (As an aside, I applied for similar posts at the Maryland State level, but I fear that I am either too controversial, or too qualified.  I suspect that they don’t want people who really know the business.)

When I came to Baltimore, my boss had a number of things to teach me:

  • When someone asks you for help finding work, give him help.
  • Break off time to aid the broader interests of your industry, in this case, the CFA Society.
  • Where you have the opportunity, favor the local financial community if it doesn’t cost a lot to do so.
  • Help students and young professionals where you can.

I have made an effort to do this.  I aid people who are looking for opportunities, and I advise them.  I may not be the best, but I have been around the block a few times.  I really enjoy aiding people to find jobs in investing.  I love spending time with students, and encouraging them to think broadly about how investing works.  It is not a simple formula.

Thus I find my time pulled many different directions, and my dear wife wonders at how I do it.  The truth is, I don’t do it.  I have as many hours as all those who are alive.  It is just a question of the distractions that you block out in an internet era.

Thanks for reading me, and as Program Chair for Baltimore CFA, if you have any great speaker ideas for me, please send them to me. Thanks.

On the CFA Institute’s “Future of Finance”

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

All hail the CFA Institute.  They are trying to inject more ethics into the market through their “Future of Finance” initiative.  I largely agree, but think they are overly optimistic in some areas.

Here are their basic ideas: http://www.cfainstitute.org/learning/future/about/Pages/statement_of_investor_rights.aspx

Here are their dreams: http://www.cfainstitute.org/about/vision/serve/Documents/integrity_list.pdf

My main problems are with the dreams.  Yes, I eventually want every investor to work with someone who has a fiduciary interest in his well-being.  But many people don’t want to take the time to find the people who have their best interests at heart.  There are many things we can overcome, but we cannot overcome the laziness of investors, both retail and professional.  This laziness is part of the nature of man; a few cure it through consistent effort, but most don’t.

To that end, some blame belongs to the unintelligent investors who barge into a market without sufficient knowledge.  That’s how it should be, because in many areas of business those that try to compete with insufficient knowledge lose vitality because they don’t know the basics of the business.

You can’t protect people from stupidity.   Fraud is another matter.  Deception is different from dumb agreement.

But here is my main challenge to the CFA Institute: where do your ethics come from? Why are they right?  Are they God-given, or merely an agreement among men?

This matters a great deal, because if it is merely an agreement among men, many men will say, “So what! Why should I listen to you?”  If they are God-given, even if men argue with them, the answer comes back from God, “You are a sinner in many ways, including this.  When will you humble yourself to me, and trust in the sacrifice of my Son, which was the largest event in history?”

Ethics aren’t neutral; people disagree about what is right and wrong to a high degree.  Even in finance, there are considerable disagreements in what is the correct behavior:

  • Active vs Passive mangement
  • Value vs Growth
  • Does Technical Analysis work?  (Is there truly a single discipline there?  I don’t think so.)

That’s a considerable reason why it would be difficult to enforce the views of the CFA Institute over the markets.  There is no commonly agreed-upon view of how the markets work.  The views of the academics are ridiculous, and do not reflect market realities. But many asset allocators trust them, even though their results are poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I largely favor what the CFA Institute is proposing.  I just think it will be hard to turn it into public policy because of the large disagreements over how finance actually works.  Also, the degree to which neglectful parties buy into the markets through the persuasion of sellers, because they won’t look out for their own best interests directly.

So, look at what the CFA Institute is up to.  They are part of the “White Hats” in the market, like me, who argue for the good of investors.  My only difference with them is that their model of the market is not fully accurate.  Nor do they understand how men can err, even with detailed ethics codes.

 

Book Review: The Snowball, Epilogue

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

After I finished last night, I realized I had a few more things to say.  First I need to correct what I wrote in part two regarding the separation of Buffett and Susie.  Here’s some help from one of my readers:

I do have a bone to pick with your review of the Snowball, part two: in describing the Buffett’s separation and arrival of Astrid Menks, you have substituted your own judgment for that of Schroeder and Buffett, without making it clear that it is your own viewpoint.  I certainly understand your assessment of the marriage and perhaps your desire to defend Buffett, as he is someone you clearly respect (as do I).  But Buffett’s own view, expressed in the book that Susie’s leaving was “99% [his] fault”.  Schroeder also indicates that Buffett was quite difficult, and of course, he was totally driven, and in any case, not terribly emotionally supportive.

The ethical judgments that I made in parts two & four were mine.  They were not those of Alice Schroeder, Buffett, or anyone in Buffett’s family.  That said, because of the role I play in my church, I have had to counsel some people on marriage.  My results have been good, bad, and indifferent.  Usually I think that I have been called in on the late side, when hope is almost non-existent.  Better to call in a counselor on the early side.

I have known many men, and some women who I would call “pieces of work,” where they are very difficult to get along with.  I’ve seen cases where the spouses of such people succeed, and more where they failed.  In marriage, it takes two to make a failure, leaving aside adultery and desertion.

My opinion is this: if Susie could bear with it for 20 years, she could bear with it for 40 or more.  Buffett was maturing emotionally, and was better able to interact with others.  Susie missed the best years of Warren.

As it is, children are affected even if adults when parents separate; they become more prone to divorce.  Buffett’s children had their own marital problems.  It also doesn’t help when you didn’t get a lot of attention from your father when young.

On the Patience of Buffett

Buffett does not have to deploy capital; he does not have to grow.  He can live with a lot of cash on hand, earning zero.  He knows human nature.  As a group, we tend to panic every five years or so.  Buffett picks up a lot of bargains, whether by sector, or across the market as a whole.  He finds good companies that are out-of-favor, and he gives them a good home.  This is very different than how most people invest.

Buffett waits until he sees a return on book capital with reasonable certainty that exceeds his threshold, and then he buys aggressively.  He can do that because he has a balance sheet, and he has simple goals for return on capital.   So long as he continues to be careful he never has to worry about insolvency — his balance sheet is conservative.

Final note on Religion

Because of who I am, I was interested in how Buffett’s and Susie’s parents viewed religion.  Buffett and Susie were a lot like my in-laws: raised in the church, but turned against God.  There was something in the era, as people sought bad interpretations of the Bible so that they could live their own way, and not God’s way.

Quibbles

Already expressed.  This is a great book if you are looking to read about the life of Buffett, rather than the aspects of Buffett’s investing that you can’t imitate.

Who would benefit from this book:  This book will not help you invest like Buffett, unless you are bright, and know all of the details that lay behind Buffett’s strategies.  This book is the best to help you know Buffett the man.  It is a great book.  If you want to, you can buy it here:The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

Full disclosure: I borrowed it from the local library.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

If you Want to be Well-off in Life

Friday, November 30th, 2012

I write this because it should be obvious but is not.  I grew up in a house where my Dad earned an average income from his business, but my Mom took around 10% of the income and invested it half in utilities and half in growth stocks.  As my Mom said to me, “My utilities are my bonds.”

Bright lady; my first teacher in investing.  She beat the market for four decades plus.

But the main thing that she did right was to spend less than my Dad earned.  This is critical.  You can’t build capital unless you set assets aside.  This is the most important of the rules.  You must consume below your means, and invest the surplus wisely.  I remember many ways in which she said “no,” to a variety of expenditures.  We didn’t live below the appearances of our neighbors, but we were one of the last on the block to get a color TV.  Good thing, TV is such a waste of time — and I wasted a lot of time there when I was a kid.

The second main thing that she did right was take moderate risk.  Looking at her portfolio, one might ask, “Why so many utilities?”  Or comment, “A lot of boring GARP-y stocks.”  I contrast her with my paternal grandfather, who retired in 1966-7, and sold his business to his two sons, and then lived off the interest income from CDs, etc.  He took no risk in his retirement, though he took moderate risk as a businessman, and as a pool player.  (Rumor is he was Wisconsin state champ at some point… but I can’t prove that.  I played him a kid, and never won.  My Dad, who learned from him, I beat only once, and lost many times to him.)

An investor in CDs will get what he contracted for, absent default.  The investor who is like my Mom will have a more jagged trail, but will earn more.  Even in the late 70s and early 80s, my Mom did not lose confidence in her strategies, even as Grandpa earned 15%/year on his CDs.  Her time was yet to come.

My Mom would hold stocks for 10 years on average.  So long as you pick companies with a sustainable competitive advantage, you will generally do well over longer periods, should you have the fortitude to not trade frequently.

So, my third point is don’t be an aggressive trader.  Yes, have trading rules, but don’t try to make money in the short run.  Try to make money in the long run.

My fourth point would be “do it yourself” if you can.  (Yes, I know I run money for others.  I will say what I believe even if it costs me business.)  But that means you have to learn a lot, like my mom, or me, or my father-in-law, three people all mostly self-taught, with different investing philosophies.  Good investing is like running a business on the side.  It is not easy.

My fifth point is pay attention to taxes, but don’t let taxes dominate your decisions.  There’s a balance here, and for my clients, I try to generate taxable losses on net, while letting winners run.

My sixth point would be that income in investing is important, but not for the reason you might expect.  Income is important because it motivates reinvestment opportunities, not consumption opportunities.  When you are older this changes a little, but in many cases it is smarter to focus on total return, and consume from capital rather than have every stock try to produce income.  That said stocks that pay dividends tend to do better than those that don’t.  28 of the 33 stocks in client portfolios (of which I am a client as well) at present pay dividends, and the portfolio as a whole has an above-market dividend.  Reinvesting income compounds your gains in new ideas that were hopefully more promising in the new environment.

The seventh point is study investing to the point where you have an intelligent strategy, and once you have that, don’t abandon it.  Too many people flit from one hot idea to another, but never end up with a coherent strategy that that employ for decades.  Even if I close down my investment business, I will keep applying the same investment strategy for myself, it has worked well for me, even if at present it has been middling for clients.

Every investment strategy goes through periods where it works poorly.  That’s life.  If you have a strategy that always works well, that means:

  • You haven’t run it long enough.
  • You’re not running enough money.
  • You’re not taking enough risk.

Survive through your bad times, and prosper during the times where your intelligent strategy is paying off.  Patience is a virtue in investing for the most part.

Okay, there are seven points from my experience, from my Mom, and from my late Father-in-law.  None of us trained to invest in a formal way, myself included.  (Yes, I received a CFA Charter, but I knew far more than the syllabus did before I took the exams.  The academic stuff I learned was not a help when I was in graduate school.)

An eighth point to consider is that money matters temporally.  Eternally, no, it doesn’t matter.  No one can buy Heaven, as Psalm 49 points out.  But you can use your wealth to aid those who are trying but failing.  That’s important.  As John Wesley put it, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”  I am fairly certain that the first two were honored more than the last one, but Wesley was correct there.

In general, being willing to give also correlates with prosperity.  Doing well means more than becoming rich; it means living your life for the good of others.  We should not live for ourselves.  Money is merely a means; it is not an end in itself.  Use your money to the best end that you see.  Loan money to a poor but honest friend at no interest.  You will do something really good there, and God will bless you.  I have done that many times in my life, and it has paid off, though I can’t prove that empirically.

One more note, when you are a giver, you become more careful with your own spending.  You begin thinking more broadly about the world, and realize there is little advantage to most luxuries.  If you have enough, good.  Even Warren Buffett (No Christian he) likes his Burgers and his Coke.  He does not look to luxury in consumption, even as he owns jewelry stores.

He is a bit of a miser, but as he has aged, he has handed over most of his wealth to the Gates Foundation.

In closing, take care over your saving, investing and giving.  They are all important aspects of how those who are improving their financial well-being improve their lives.

Set it and Forget it

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

This post is directed at people who don’t get the markets.  People who think they they are experts can stop reading now.

I’m the Chairman of the Pension Board of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.  Yes, that long-lived but small denomination that never went through the controversies of modernism, still teaching that Jesus Christ rules everything on earth NOW, and we exclusively sing the psalms of David without accompaniment in our worship.

Here is something that is no surprise: most pastors who are serious students of Scripture don’t get financial markets.  Truth, that is true of most people who know their technical crafts, but don’t get how financial markets work.

What I am about to say should work for most people who don’t get investing — choose a blend of risky and less-risky assets.  Ask your self this question: how much are you willing to lose in a year at worst as a percentage of assets? Take that amount and multiply it by 2.0-2.5.  That is the maximum amount that you should allocate to risky assets.  (Strangely, that mostly corresponds to the current margin rules.)

Average people can’t monitor the markets, and even if they did, they would not know what to do.  Far better that they “set it and forget it,” than that they panic when things are are going bad, or get greedy when things are running hot.

Thus we encourage the pastors to buy blended funds.  I encourage them to buy one notch down on their risk tolerances, because the return give-up is small, but the likelihood of them not panicking is large.

For those who are uninformed, that is important.  Buy-and-hold is a good strategy if maintained at a risk level that avoids panic.

Now. I’m not crazy about the market at present.  I would shade allocations to the 2.ox side of risk, not the 2.5x side.  But what we have found at the pension board of the RPCNA is that the pastors do best who choose a blended fund that they can stick with through tough times.

My own pastor is squeamish with investing, but I looked at what he “should” do in investing, and told him to dial it back one notch.  It has been to his benefit.  He has not panicked, and has made decent money over the last 10 years.

Thus to summarize: estimate your willingness to lose money over a year, and size your allocation to risky assets appropriately.

Sorted Weekly Tweets

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Market Dynamics

 

  • On Paradigm Shifts http://t.co/h68quEDX Hunter takes us through mental exercises 2 make us intelligently contrarian. “Invert, Always Invert” May 02, 2012
  • Hedgers’ net short position vanishes in US oil http://t.co/X0hLOWGB Commercial interests do not fear lower prices, could be bullish 4 crude May 02, 2012
  • There’s Plenty of Money for Junk http://t.co/vXML0Bao Presently the credit cycle is virtuous; vicious part is coming, but no appt set $$ May 02, 2012
  • Bad Models Mistook Housing Bust for Dot-Com Bubble http://t.co/IxC8m2mk Busts of assets that are heavily levered harder than unlevered $$ May 02, 2012
  • Best U.S. Real Estate With Self-Storage http://t.co/mxyHdK2U Self storage a winner in the past, may not do so well in the future; hi vals May 02, 2012
  • Marginal oil production costs are heading towards $100/barrel http://t.co/G2zNB5JS Same as my reasoning on high crude prices $$ May 02, 2012
  • Four-percent rule a relic, advisers say http://t.co/PrdHQy48 Better rule: 10y Tsy yield plus 0% if bearish, 1% if neutral, 2% if bullish $$ May 01, 2012
  • The remarkable resurgence in synthetic credit tranches http://t.co/1iIZ8ous Increases in the notional amounts of several corp bond swaps May 01, 2012
  • Contra: Black Scholes & the formula of doom http://t.co/flVNsYMx Debt levels & Asset-Liab mismatch largest causes of crisis not BS model Apr 30, 2012
  • Energy’s Pain is Consumer Discretionary’s Gain http://t.co/lM7UW0T7 I have been on the wrong side of this trade. Sigh. $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • Notes from the DoubleLine Lunch with Jeffrey Gundlach, Spring 2012 http://t.co/KDiqA5Sp Gives a good overview, w/a large topping of snark $$ Apr 30, 2012

 

China

 

  • China’s Auditing Train Wreck http://t.co/UeIZtw06 Any Chinese firm listed in the US, the auditors should be subject to SEC scrutiny. $$ May 05, 2012
  • China bear Pettis says world coming around to his view http://t.co/lo1nGc7e Pettis isn’t a bear but a realist; invt-led growth overplayd $$ May 04, 2012
  • The Family and Corruption http://t.co/R4NwZ6od Family ties & group affiliation dominate economic/political power among Chinese Communists $$ May 04, 2012
  • Who is Fu? Chinese exile is ‘God’s double agent’ http://t.co/plyQhwtg Story of a Chinese Pastor in US & escape of Chen Guangcheng $$ May 02, 2012
  • Microblogs Survive Real-Name Rules–So Far http://t.co/5UItJjwj Even the CCP would have a hard time shutting down their Twitter-apps $$ May 02, 2012
  • Beijing’s secret: It’s not really loosening http://t.co/3RPhAOwH There is not enough demand in China 2 pay all of the high prices. $$ May 02, 2012
  • China’s Left Behind Children http://t.co/OL0gmSFE Economic growth that separates parents from children imposes significant costs on China $$ May 02, 2012
  • China Closes Unirule Website http://t.co/ItkW0p0A Founder receives award from Cato Institute; China government shuts down his website $$ May 02, 2012
  • China’s property boom has peaked, forever http://t.co/aLC2U8F8 Amount of deadweight in China property is so large that prices have peaked $$ Apr 29, 2012

 

Financial Services

 

  • Caution: Contents May Be Hot http://t.co/cp9yjbH3 I worry about ETF slippage from bad creation/redemption unit design & bad trading by users May 04, 2012
  • Well, That Was Awkward… http://t.co/zS5f6zAI Bank Chiefs’ Regulatory Concerns Met With Official Silence; maybe regulators getting fed up May 04, 2012
  • A talent shortage looms as the industry booms http://t.co/QGLZzzg7 Financial planners getting old/retiring faster than the Baby Boomers $$ May 04, 2012
  • 2nd attempt2 automate bond trading 1st failed RT @BloombergNews: Goldman preps trading system for corporate bonds | http://t.co/NceasmN7 May 04, 2012
  • Mortgage Rates in US for 30-Year Loans Fall to Record Low http://t.co/LPolAP5Q Mtge rates b nimble, MR b quick, MR go under limbo stick $$ May 04, 2012
  • Spending A Year On An M&A Bidding War Is Apparently Overrated http://t.co/tKguPYGy It’s well-known that scale acquirers underperform $$ May 04, 2012
  • Every liability has an asset, but not every asset has a liability. Some are owned outright. http://t.co/fB3ARju7 May 03, 2012
  • Canadians Dominate World’s 10 Strongest Banks http://t.co/qj6TOgA3 Ask again after their housing bubble pops, same 4 other fringe nations May 03, 2012
  • Pimco’s latest ETF shields against price spikes http://t.co/TmOrCIj2 I wonder if active ETFs will have more performance slippage. $$ May 02, 2012
  • Hedge Funds Hurt by Volatility http://t.co/ogoL62qT Hedge funds r vehicles that do better when credit spreads r tightening $$ May 01, 2012
  • Bond Market Is Creating A New Galaxy for Trading http://t.co/YgvNwz1j Dealer inventories thin; trading costs rise; electronic mkts start May 01, 2012
  • US banks still cutting commercial real estate exposure http://t.co/qsqIMRph Banks still rotating out @ an almost constant rate since 2009 $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • Largest U.S. Banks Resist Federal Reserve’s Credit Limits http://t.co/JndcrvWI Big banks need 2b broken up or shrunk; they don’t accept it Apr 29, 2012

 

US Fiscal/Regulatory Policy

 

  • CEOs rank Texas tops for business, California worst http://t.co/jWEIGP89 8th year in a row for this survey; high taxes/regs annoy CEOs $$ May 04, 2012
  • Exposing the Medicare Double Count http://t.co/HIVIx3lJ Same $$ being spent twice, must borrow the difference. May 02, 2012
  • Coburn: `We Ought to Totally Revamp Our Tax Code’ http://t.co/71WquMIf Very similar to my proposals; simplify code eliminate deductions $$ May 02, 2012
  • U.S. Considers Notes That Float http://t.co/jynXGcYG Intermediate-dated Tsy floaters would trade above par, neg yields like TIPS $$ May 01, 2012
  • Trying to Shed Student Debt http://t.co/0GmvckOn Lawmakers Rethink Bankruptcy-Law Ban on Walking Away From Education Loans $$ #slavery Apr 30, 2012
  • Can the US Economy Recover Without a Housing Recovery? http://t.co/Tqy4l8J3 It will probably have to try w/o housing’s assistance $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • Central Bank paper suggests house prices have ‘over-corrected’ http://t.co/KDrXCkzy Have Irish housing prices overshot? Tough 2 say. $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • http://t.co/KbnUO93s Treasury floaters could b issued @ premium 2 par 2 inflation speculators allowing the Tsy 2 finance @ negative rates Apr 30, 2012
  • U.S. Perfecting Formula for Budget Failure, Says Bowles http://t.co/vlLQzZ8q It’s nice 2b a part of a nation that is a global leader ;) $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • Will TARP Make a Profit? That’s the Wrong Question http://t.co/MZBHaO51 Conflicting govt goals make policy hard 2 implement & interpret $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • You will buy more Govvies, or else http://t.co/DLrnyb9u Financial Repression, Quantitative Easing, Debt Monetization, Hyperinflation $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • On Student Loans, Accounting Gimmicks, Electric Cars, FX and a note on SS http://t.co/2BCB9nAi Hodgepodge of insight from @brucekrasting $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • “The Treasury should be issuing 100 year or perpetual bonds until the market can’t stand it anymore to lock in these … http://t.co/gXMUXW4C Apr 30, 2012
  • The floating YTMs will probably be negative, as interest rate speculators will pay more than par for the floating rat… http://t.co/OSmE7QuJ Apr 30, 2012

 

Eurozone

 

  • The euro crisis just got a whole lot worse http://t.co/XSqmQnGv Election of Hollande may lead2 Euozone policy paralysis; growth v austerity May 04, 2012
  • Making eurozonians, or not http://t.co/JmuO5OXC The Eurozone was never a natural place to set up a shared currency. $$ May 04, 2012
  • Madness in Spain Lingers as Ireland Chases Recovery http://t.co/BXdYSX5e Ireland may b rebounding, as Spain’s slump deepens #austerity $$ May 02, 2012
  • Why the New York Times’s Paul Krugman is clueless about the European economic crisis http://t.co/xMuzZXC7 Aside frm Ireland no austerity yet May 02, 2012
  • Core infection and eurozone PMIs http://t.co/xr97yPgD Core of the EZone sluggish @ a time when it can least afford it $$ #depressionary May 02, 2012
  • ECB Measures Pushing Domestic Bonds Into Domestic Banks, Planting Seeds for Euro Disintegration http://t.co/HAITJJnX Yeh, this da future $$ May 02, 2012
  • The rise in the Eurozone money supply has not improved credit conditions http://t.co/rYazqcuP Euro M3 diverges from bank loans $$ May 01, 2012
  • The ECB lending to periphery governments via “backdoor SMP” http://t.co/uQeG2QQK How to stuff the ECB full of Eurofringe debt, c/o LTRO $$ May 01, 2012

 

Rest of the World

 

  • Brazil: cutting at any cost? http://t.co/mh3vN1Te Pushes up asset & price inflation, as currency held down 2aid exporters; unsustainable $$ May 04, 2012
  • Turkey Credit Rating Outlook Cut by S&P on Worsening Trade http://t.co/pFDzEhZl Wide current account def & hi external financing needs $$ May 02, 2012
  • Once poster child of crisis, Iceland recovers http://t.co/Sgr2wTGl Letting banks fail & stiffing foreign creditors -> winning solution $$ May 02, 2012
  • Which emerging economies are at greatest risk of overheating? http://t.co/olHdiYRE A gauge from the Economist on which Em Mkts r2 hot $$ Apr 29, 2012

 

Company News

 

  • Buffett’s CTB Adds Chicken Eviscerators in Dutch Purchase http://t.co/K6Q3NGt2 Buffett’s firm is no chicken; it has a lot of guts! ;) $$ May 04, 2012
  • Sorry, really sorry… May 04, 2012
  • Ackman Rejects Canadian Pacific Deal Ruling Out CEO Pick http://t.co/KYe970NJ Pick is former CEO of $CP rival $CNI – Bad blood; good CEO May 02, 2012
  • Impressive work Mr. Einhorn. The analyst that wrote up the question deserves praise; if you did that… http://t.co/tSTWxqBa May 01, 2012
  • Phillips 66 aims to run more shale oil http://t.co/tC7NBfLO LD: + $COP $PSX First day of trading for the new $PSX. Combo up 2%+ so far $$ May 01, 2012
  • Value investing does not mean cheap. It means margin of safety. Cemex does not have that. Look at the debt. $CX $$ http://t.co/ydklVkth May 01, 2012
  • Falcone Agrees To Step Aside http://t.co/bYgLxMMV “a final agreement may not be reached, and a bankruptcy filing was still possible” $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • Delta to buy US refinery for $150 million http://t.co/IsK9xsDu If zero is dumb & 100 is very dumb, this one scores in the 90s. $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • Discuss “At $1.7 billion, Nook is worth more than Barnes http://t.co/xOz6skwP Spin off Nook 2 create value $$ $BKS $AMZN #interneteatsbooks Apr 30, 2012
  • @ampressman Would it have been value-enhancing to $BKS 2 sell the whole Nook unit 2 $MSFT, in your opinion? $$ Apr 30, 2012

 

Statistical Analysis

 

  • trading-and-the-null-hypothesis http://t.co/QpYutOTb Problem:No academic journal wants2 publish studies with ‘no result’ as their conclusion May 04, 2012
  • . @thenumb47 Allows for too much of a specification search; would be good to require disclosure of everything tried but not published $$ May 03, 2012
  • Have to allow for accidents! RT @incakolanews: just scrub the word “validate” and I think you have a great idea May 03, 2012
  • Thus my proposal for economists: come up w/research idea: goes 2a database. Randomly assigned economist will analyze & trash/validate it $$ May 03, 2012
  • Unlike double-blind studies, raw statistical research allows health analysts to inject their own bias into the analysis, as economists do $$ May 03, 2012
  • Analytical Trend Troubles Scientists http://t.co/bzcAIpHG Health researchers using statistics like economists find ambiguous results $$ May 03, 2012

 

Miscellaneous

 

  • 14 Lessons From Benjamin Franklin About Getting What You Want In Life http://t.co/BWAjCz1l Advice from 1 of the wealthiest men of America $$ May 04, 2012
  • Is Wall Street Meeting God’s Expectations? http://t.co/5H5j2QGG Many Christians misuse the Bible; almost all non-Christians misuse it $$ May 03, 2012
  • What would Jesus trade? http://t.co/Dkrfwt9k Many Christians misuse the Bible; almost all non-Christians misuse it; another example $$ May 03, 2012
  • And in a more honest way than Google RT @SconsetCapital: Long good, short evil. May 03, 2012
  • Apparel-Swapping Millennials Eschew Stores and Malls http://t.co/B7jq2dcY “Is that a new outfit?” “Well, it’s new to me!” An odd trend $$ May 03, 2012
  • @TheStalwart Kasriel was different enough that he will be missed, kind of like the sound of one hand clapping $$ #littledoghasbuddhanature May 01, 2012
  • The record 4 tallest bldg s/b based on weighted average height; weighting based on cross-sectional area @ height http://t.co/03HNZ0BB $$ Apr 30, 2012
  • So if you have something thin at the top, it wouldn’t count 4 much. A rectangular parallpiped would get full credit 4 height $$ #usingmath Apr 30, 2012
  • That would work, simpler than mine $$ RT @Pollack7: @AlephBlog Meh.Highest continuous occupancy floor. Apr 30, 2012
  • As the smartest boss I ever had said “Make bets, but never bet the franchise.” http://t.co/qWdHX3BS Apr 30, 2012

 

Monetary Policy

 

  • Bernanke Charts New Mission For Fed: Financial Stability http://t.co/6RrWEQws Fed has a hard enuf time w/a double mandate, triple will b wrs May 02, 2012
  • Then again, if focusing on financial stability forces the Fed to be more restrained in its monetary policy, that would be good. $$ May 02, 2012
  • Bernanke: Be Humble! http://t.co/6icSHD1K The picture says it: http://t.co/OqOflqsI Humility in BB’s view: leaving monetary policy loose $$ May 01, 2012
  • My Speech Delivered at the New York Federal Reserve Bank http://t.co/DbAhOdQR An Austrian let loose amid the marble palace in NYC?! Wow. $$ Apr 29, 2012

 

US Politics

 

  • Renewed Hope that Jon Corzine, President Obama’s Top Tier Campaign Bundler, Will Face Criminal Charges http://t.co/wCLrXFve J. Tavakoli $$ May 01, 2012
  • Occupy Wall Street Plans Global Protests in Resurgence http://t.co/0FLjKfiJ #OWS won’t b effective until they organize as a 3rd party $$ + May 01, 2012
  • Or, organize to influence the Democrats the way the t-party does the Republicans. #OWS is irrelevant until then, b/c it doesn’t do anything May 01, 2012
  • Is that a bailout in your pocket? http://t.co/8xwW4Cbi Boyazny, panel’s populist, replied that the credit markets had become “undemocratic” May 01, 2012

Life With Wife

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

My wife has only given me financial advice twice in my life.  She was totally right both times.  Now, she doesn’t have a financial bone in her body.  She was raised in a household where she never lacked anything, with non-materialistic parents where the father earned a lot as a nuclear physicist.  She was a princess,never having to worry, and married a prince, me, where she never had to worry.

As an aside, the father recently died, and he was quite a guy, but humble.  If you ever get therapy in a hospital that requires a cyclotron or any delivery device that allows positrons or any anti-particle to be used in surgery, my father-in-law was the brains behind it.  He was an amazing man, and though my wife is astounding, one benefit of marrying her was getting to know her father, who was an amazing man.  (Did I tell you he was amazing? ;) )

Anyway, the first time my wife gave me investment advice was when I worked for the St. Paul.  My boss invited me to his officein early 2000, and handed me an envelope.  He said, “This is your bonus, invest it wisely.”  At that point in time, St. Paul was in the tank, and no one liked it much at all.  I took the wad, and put it all on The Saint Paul.  (My wife was amazed at the size of the bonus, but the bonus was given for keeping the company safe, not for making a ton.)

Eventually, it leaked out that I had invested so much in the parent company.  Members of my investment team told me I was a dope, and that the St. Paul was a lousy company to invest in. One told me, “No that’s not value investing, value investing requires a catalyst, and there is no catalyst here.”  (Note: catalysts do not always appear, and they can be expensive.)

Me, a value investor thought that buying a company at 55% of liquidation value, and a single digit multiple of forward earnings would do fine.  After one month, several P&C insurance CEOs announced that they were seeing pricing power, and the stock of the St. Paul rose 30%.  I could not sell, because I was constructively an insider, though I had no insider information.

After another 3 months, the cycle was in full swing, and the St. Paul’s common stock was up 80% from where I bought it.  At that point, my wife came to me and said, “You’ve been talking a lot about the St. Paul over the last few weeks, how important is it to our family?”  I told her, “It is half of our net worth.”  She said, echoing things she had heard me say previously, “Shouldn’t you take something off the table?”  I told her that I would.  I liquidated the whole position at my first opportunity, given my restrictions.  My gain was 95%, over six months.

As it was, after I did this, that many people at the St. Paul came to me saying, “You sly dog, you are a genius, but now we are doing it too; we are in this with you.”  I told them, “Aack, no.  Don’t do this.  You are buying  the top.”  And, wrong again, the price rose for a few more months, only to fall dramatically.

-==-=–=-=-==-=-=-=–=–==–=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-==-=-=-=–

A few years later, my wife said to me, “You keep talking about Wright Manufacturing, and how well it is doing, but how much do we own of the company?  I said, “You see our house?”

She said, “Of course.”

I said “Well, our holdings are worth a little more than our house.”

Beyond her ordinary ability, she asked, “Okay, David, but would you invest in this company to the degree that you have if it were publicly traded?”

I told her “No.”

She then asked, “then why don’t you take something off the table?”

I was cut to the heart, and I told her I would do so.  I sold half of my shares to the second largest shareholder.He told me that he would meet me at my office at Hovde.  After he got there he was amazed at me and said, “Wait, you are a smart guy, what am I missing here?”  I told him that I needed the money for the college educations of my children, so I needed more liquidity.

That mollified him, and allowed me to sell before the price cratered in 2008-9, as the company nearly failed.

But that’s another story, one where I bought amid distress, but not enough….

-==–=-=-==–=-=-=-==–=-=-==-=-=-=-=–==–==-=–=-=-==-=-=–=-=-==-

I love my wife.  We just celebrated our silver (25th) anniversary.  She is wonderful in so many ways that I cannot describe here, and her children (and mine), biological and adopted would agree.

Though a princess, she absorbed enough of my ideas to counsel me at two particularly important turning points for the good of our home.  With the St. Paul, I probably would have done the right thing but with Wright Manufacturing, probably not.

So I praise her here for absorbing my wisdom, and applying it to me, when I could not do so myself.

–==–=-==-=–=-==–=-=-==-=-=-=–=-==-=-=-=-=-=-=–==-=-=-=-=-=–==-=-=-

To bright people in finance I would say pay attention to those near you who don’t have your acumen, if they have been around you long enough.  They may give you cues that you could not ordinarily get, and it might just save your hide.

For me, this gives me an opportunity to praise the second most important person in my life, my wife, who typically has no impact on financial decisions, but at a few critical points did very well for me and the family.  She learned from me.

As for the one most important, that would be Jesus Christ, who many imagine they are honoring at this time of year, even though he never asked that his nativity be celebrated.  Just saying.

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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