I recently came across a personal finance article entitled “Millennial deficit: 1 in 4 trust no one about money”. The author sites a Fidelity Investments study which surveyed 152 adults aged 25-34 and found that nearly 4 in 10 of these participants worried about their financial future at least once per week. Roughly 33% of those surveyed stated that they trust their parents most for information about money (although many stipulated that they lacked the necessary communication with their parents to effectively have these conversations). Nearly half of the participants said they never received financial advice from their parents. The average millennial investor (aged 21-36) has 52% of their savings in cash, compared to 23% for other age groups .
Millennials; also known as Generation Y, are the demographic cohort born between the early 1980s and early 2000s. This generation is currently under a great deal of study as it will comprise more than one-third of all adult Americans by 2020, and will subsequently make up as much as thee-fourths of the U.S. workforce by 2025). Many Generation Y-ers witnessed their family’s struggles in the aftermath of the Great Recession; and many have had first-hand accounts with the importance of employment, budgeting, and retirement savings. Despite Millenials propensity to save, it is clear that they need guidance. In an effort to be timely and responsive to geo-political uncertainty and market volatility, I’ve prepared some general pointers to help Millenials keep a clear head during a turbulent market.
Have a game plan
Having predetermined guidelines that recognize the potential for turbulent times can help prevent emotion from dictating your decisions. For example, you might want to employ buy-and-hold principles for the bulk of your portfolio but keep a small portion of your portfolio free for tactical investing based on a shorter-term market outlook. You also can use diversification to try to offset the risks of certain holdings with those of others. Diversification may not ensure a profit or guarantee against a loss, but it can help you understand, optimize, and balance your risk in advance.
Know what you own and why you own it
When the market goes off the tracks, knowing why you originally made a specific investment can help you evaluate whether your reasons still hold, regardless of what the overall market is doing. Understanding how a specific holding fits in your portfolio also can help you consider whether a lower price might actually represent a buying opportunity. And if you don't understand why a security is in your portfolio, find out. That knowledge can be particularly important when the market goes south, especially if you're considering replacing your current holding with another investment.
Remember that everything's relative
Most of the variance in the returns of different portfolios can generally be attributed to their asset allocations. If you've got a well-diversified portfolio that includes multiple asset classes, it could be useful to compare its overall performance to relevant benchmarks. If you find that your investments are performing in line with those benchmarks, that realization might help you feel better about your overall strategy. Even a diversified portfolio is no guarantee that you won't suffer losses, of course. But diversification means that just because the S&P 500 might have dropped 10% or 20% doesn't necessarily mean your overall portfolio is down by the same amount.
Tell yourself that this too shall pass
The financial markets are historically cyclical. Even if you wish you had sold at what turned out to be a market peak, or regret having sat out a buying opportunity, you may well get another chance at some point. Even if you're considering changes, a volatile market can be an inopportune time to turn your portfolio inside out. A well-thought-out asset allocation is still the basis of good investment planning.
Be willing to learn from your mistakes
Anyone can look good during bull markets; smart investors are produced by the inevitable rough patches. If an earlier choice now seems rash, sometimes the best strategy is to take a tax loss, learn from the experience, and apply the lesson to future decisions. Expert help can prepare you and your portfolio to both weather and take advantage of the market's ups and downs.
Consider playing defense
During volatile periods in the stock market, many investors reexamine their allocation to such defensive sectors as consumer staples or utilities (though like all stocks, those sectors involve their own risks, and are not necessarily immune from overall market movements). Dividends also can help cushion the impact of price swings.
Stay on course by continuing to save
Even if the value of your holdings fluctuates, regularly adding to an account designed for a long-term goal may cushion the emotional impact of market swings. If losses are offset even in part by new savings, your bottom-line number might not be quite so discouraging. If you're using dollar-cost averaging--investing a specific amount regularly regardless of fluctuating price levels--you may be getting a bargain by buying when prices are down. However, dollar-cost averaging can't guarantee a profit or protect against a loss. Also, consider your ability to continue purchases through market slumps; systematic investing doesn't work if you stop when prices are down. Finally, remember that your return and principal value will fluctuate with changes in market conditions, and shares may be worth more or less than their original cost when you sell them.
Use cash to help manage your mindset
Cash can be the financial equivalent of taking deep breaths to relax. It can enhance your ability to make thoughtful decisions instead of impulsive ones. If you've established an appropriate asset allocation, you should have resources on hand to prevent having to sell stocks to meet ordinary expenses or, if you've used leverage, a margin call. Having a cash cushion coupled with a disciplined investing strategy can change your perspective on market volatility. Knowing that you're positioned to take advantage of a downturn by picking up bargains may increase your ability to be patient. I generally recommend maintaining a cash balance of no less than 10% of the portfolio value.
Remember your road map
Solid asset allocation is the basis of sound investing. One of the reasons a diversified portfolio is so important is that strong performance of some investments may help offset poor performance by others. Even with an appropriate asset allocation, some parts of a portfolio may struggle at any given time. Timing the market can be challenging under the best of circumstances; wildly volatile markets can magnify the impact of making a wrong decision just as the market is about to move in an unexpected direction, either up or down. Make sure your asset allocation is appropriate before making drastic changes.
Look in the rear-view mirror
If you're investing long-term (which you should be!), sometimes it helps to take a look back and see how far you've come. If your portfolio is down this year, it can be easy to forget any progress you may already have made over the years. Though past performance is no guarantee of future returns, of course, the stock market's long-term direction has historically been up. With stocks, it's important to remember that having an investing strategy is only half the battle; the other half is being able to stick to it. Even if you're able to avoid losses by being out of the market, will you know when to get back in? If patience has helped you build a nest egg, it just might be useful now, too.
Take it easy
If you feel you need to make changes in your portfolio, there are ways to do so short of a total makeover. You could test the waters by redirecting a small percentage of one asset class into another. You could put any new money into investments you feel are well-positioned for the future but leave the rest as is. You could set a stop-loss order to prevent an investment from falling below a certain level, or have an informal threshold below which you will not allow an investment to fall before selling. Even if you need or want to adjust your portfolio during a period of turmoil, those changes can--and probably should--happen in gradual steps. Taking gradual steps is one way to spread your risk over time as well as over a variety of asset classes.
Find a trusted, long-term, Investment Advisor
DIY investment management is naturally wrought with emotional impulse and often distracted by daily responsibility. A trusted and experienced investment advisor can help construct the most appropriate portfolio to meet your short and long-term objectives. An investment advisor who understands your risk-tolerance, the emotional elements you bring to your own financial planning, and your overarching goals is best suited to guide you on this path. The right advisor will not only provide you with the personalized financial direction, but also help you weather the very natural (and often healthy) market turbulence along the way.
Please do not hesitate to contact me should have any questions about this article or if you are interested in discussing specifics about your portfolio.
Jason M. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
 CNBC citation
 UBS 2014, further citation
 Brookings.edu citation
Socially Responsible Investing
The notion of “socially responsible investing” first gained widespread attention during the 1970s, when such highly charged political issues as the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa led some investors to try to make sure their money didn't support policies that were counter to their belief systems. Since then, a wide variety of investment products, such as socially conscious mutual funds, have been developed to help people invest in ways consistent with a personal philosophy.
Investing with an eye toward promoting social, political, or environmental concerns (or at least not supporting activities you believe are socially harmful) doesn't mean you have to forgo pursuing a return on your money. Depending on how you define “socially responsible investing,” I believe that it allows one to further both economic interests and the greater good. In fact, my firm, RGA Investment Advisors only makes investments after screening for strict moral and socially conscious attributes that we believe are essential identifiers of truly sustainable, scalable, and defensible portfolio company.
There are many approaches to what may also be known as mission investing, socially conscious investing, green investing, sustainable investing, or impact investing. I wanted to take a moment to discuss how investors can employ these elements to make socially responsible investments for their own portfolio(s).
Screen for the Public Good
Perhaps the best-known aspect of socially responsible investing involves evaluating investments based not only on their fundamentals but also on their social, environmental, and even corporate governance practices. The process eliminates companies from an ‘investible universe’ whose products or actions are deemed contrary to the public good. Examples of companies that are frequently eliminated from these screens are those involved with alcohol, tobacco, gambling, or defense, and those that contribute to environmental pollution or that have significant interests in countries considered to have repressive or racist governments.
However, as interest in socially responsible investing has evolved, the screening process has shifted to identify companies whose practices actively further a particular social good, such as protecting the environment or following a particular set of religious beliefs.
Be an Active Shareholder
Both individual and institutional shareholders have become increasingly willing to pressure corporations to adopt socially responsible practices. In many cases, having a good social record can enhance business, making a company more attractive to investors who might not have previously considered it. Shareholder advocacy can involve filing shareholder resolutions on such topics as corporate governance, climate change, political contributions, environmental impact, and labor practices. Such activism got a boost when the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted the so-called "say on pay" rule as a result of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. Companies over a certain size must allow shareholders a vote on executive pay at least once every three years. Though the vote is nonbinding, it could give institutional investors a stronger hand in advocating for other interests.
Explore Community Investing
Still another approach involves directing investment capital to communities and projects that may have difficulty getting traditional financing, including nonprofit organizations. Investors provide money that is then used to offer or guarantee loans to organizations that help traditionally underserved populations with challenges such as gaining access to affordable housing, finding jobs, and receiving health care. Community investing often helps not only individuals but also small businesses that may operate in geographic areas that mainstream financial institutions deem too risky or otherwise unsuitable for their investment objectives.
Invest with Impact
A recent development focuses on measuring and managing performance in terms of social benefit as well as investment returns. So-called "impact investing" aims not only to minimize negative impact and enhance social good, but to do so in a way that maximizes efficient use of the resources involved, using business-world methods such as benchmarking to compare returns and gauge how effectively an investment fulfills its goals. In fact, some have made a case for considering impact investing an emerging alternative asset class. Impact investments are often made directly in an individual company or organization, and may involve direct mentoring of its leaders. As a result, such unique investments may be more similar to venture capital and private equity (where the concept of impact investing originated) and may not be highly correlated with traditional assets such as stocks or bonds. For many years I had been actively involved with a terrific organization called Echoing Green; a impeccable example of this type of initiative. Echoing Green has provided nearly 600 promising social entrepreneurs working in over forty countries with $33 million in start-up funding, customized support services, and access to a vast global network of proven business leaders. Entrepreneurs or “fellows” involved in this program have gone on to launch, and now lead, some of today’s most important social enterprises throughout the world. Please contact me if you'd like more information on this organzation, I'd be more than happy to make an introduction with their leadership.
Focus on the Broader Picture
One of the key questions for anyone interested in socially responsible investing is whether to invest broadly or concentrate on a specific issue or area. A narrow focus could leave you overly exposed to the risks of a single industry or company, while greater diversification could weaken the impact that you might like your money to have. Even if you choose to focus on a single social issue, you may still need to decide whether to invest in a specific company or companies, or invest more broadly through the use of mutual funds whose objective meets your chosen criteria. These decisions are some of the tougher ones to make.
Unless you're familiar with the science behind a specific company's product or service, you might benefit from casting a wider net or finding a socially responsible investment advisor to help you allocate your resources. Though diversification can't guarantee a profit or eliminate the possibility of a loss, it can help you manage the amount of risk you face from a single source. Be careful when investing in mutual funds; carefully consider its investment objectives, risks, fees, and expenses, which can be found in the prospectus available from the fund. Be sure to read the prospectus carefully before investing. Also, make sure your expectations are clear and realistic. Many socially responsible investments achieve solid financial returns; others may not. Though past performance is no guarantee of future results, you should have a sense of what kind of return you might expect. You shouldn't feel you have to accept mediocrity in order to support your beliefs. Monitor your investment's performance, and be prepared to look elsewhere if your investment doesn't continue to meet your needs, either financially or philosophically. The clearer you are about what you hope to achieve with your money, the easier it should be to find a suitable way to invest it.
I hope this information helps you better understand socially responsible investing and further enables you to seek out investments that meet your own socially conscious objectives. Please do not hesitate to contact me should have any questions about this article or if you are interested in discussing specifics about your portfolio.
Jason M. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
As the end to 2013 quickly approaches, you’re probably starting to think about how to rebalance your portfolio. Most individual investors don’t really think about asset allocation when crafting their basket of investible securities. If you did structure your portfolio with certain objectives in mind, there is no doubt that your allocation now is different from what it was at the beginning of the year. Market forces, for better or for worse, change the relative weight of assets in a given portfolio. If equities perform well, you might find yourself too heavily weighted in this particular asset class, with insufficient downside protection or cash flow yield. If stock prices go down, you might worry that you are no longer able to reach your financial goals in the timeframe you initially set.
Assuming you created a portfolio with a strategic objective and allocation, have you developed a strategy for dealing with these changes? You'll probably want to take a look at your individual investments to ascertain whether they still fit your investment philosophy, but you'll also want to think about your asset allocation and how any periodic adjustment of it would help you achieve your investing objectives.
Obviously, simply making no changes would be easiest. On an emotional level, if you’re happy with your portfolio’s current return profile it may be difficult to make any significant changes. We are all guilty of subscribing to a “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” mentality. Of course, allowing the status quo to persist may affect how well your investments will continue to match your goals, especially during unexpected (and eventual) turns in the market. At a minimum, you should periodically review the rational for your investment choices to ensure that they still hold.
It might feel counterintuitive, but selling the winners and buying the losers (or other investments in underrepresentitive sectors) can bring your asset allocation back to the original percentages you had initially set. This ‘constant weighting’ of relative investment types ensures that your portfolio grows at a proportional rate, factoring in all asset classes represented in the portfolio.
Let's consider a hypothetical example. If your equity allocation in a portfolio that originally represented 50% is now at 70%, rebalancing would involve selling some of the stock and using the proceeds to buy back enough of the other asset classes to bring the portfolio back to 50% in equities. Similarly, if stocks now represent less of your portfolio than they should; to rebalance, you would invest in stocks until they once again reach an appropriate percentage of your portfolio. Maintaining relative percentages not only reminds you to take profits when a given asset class is doing well, but it also keeps your portfolio in line with your original risk tolerance.
When should rebalancing take place? One common practice is to rebalance a portfolio whenever a particular investment represents significantly more than it’s intended share of the portfolio (we call this a ‘tolerance band’); say, 5% to 10% of the total portfolio. One could also set a regular date for rebalancing, say, tax time or year-end.
You could also adjust the mix of investments to focus on companies and sectors that are expected to do well in the future. This is obviously a more speculative approach, and one that more active individual investors attempt to employ. I would not recommend this strategy as a sustainable practice for long-term portfolio growth.
A Hybrid Approach
You could also combine the above two strategies by maintaining a constantly weighted asset allocation with one portion of the portfolio. With another portion of the portfolio, you could try to take advantage of short-term opportunities, or test specific sectors that you believe might benefit from a more active investing approach. By monitoring your portfolio, you can always return to your original allocation.
A Bottom Line Approach
Another plausible solution is to set a “bottom line” for your portfolio; that is, a minimum dollar amount that the portfolio cannot dip below. If you wish to be active with your investments, you can do so--as long as your overall portfolio stays above your bottom line. I do not advocate active management in this fashion, but with this strategy you could theoretically move the portfolio to very conservative allocation (more conservative securities or cash) to protect that baseline amount. Keep in mind that many speculative investments are illiquid, which presents additional and significant problems when trying to exit losing positions.
Key Rules for Rebalancing:
Don’t forget about taxes and transaction costs
Frequent rebalancing can trigger tax consequences and expensive transaction costs. Check on whether you’ve held particular securities for over a year. If not, you may want to consider whether the benefits of selling immediately will outweigh the higher tax rate you'll pay on short-term gains. This doesn't affect qualified accounts such as 401(k)s or IRAs, which are tax deferred.
I hope this information is helpful to you as you work to rebalance your investments for the year ahead. Please do not hesitate to contact me should have any questions about this article or if you are interested in discussing specifics about your portfolio.
Jason M. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
After the most recent crisis, investors are undoubtedly concerned about potential insolvency issues that may arise with their investment custodian. Some of my clients have articulated this concern, and have asked whether it makes more sense to consolidate investment assets at one brokerage firm, or segregate accounts by institution as a form of makeshift diversification. Some articles have been written on the matter, but I find that there is a lack of general understanding in/around the safeguards that have been created specifically to protect investors who hold assets at regulated brokerage firms.
In arguably all cases, when a brokerage firm ceases to continue as a going-concern, customer assets are safe and able to be transferred to another registered brokerage firm. Here’s how:
A note on 'clearing' versus 'carrying' firms
It’s helpful to differentiate between clearing and carrying firms. When you open an account with a carrying brokerage firm, the firm not only handles your orders to buy and sell securities but it also custodies the securities in the account (inclusive of cash). Because these firms generally hold assets for a a large number of customers, they are required to carry a much higher level of net capital than clearing firms, which limit their activities to clearing and settling trade commitments.
A historical note
Historically, brokerage firms that have faced financial insolvency have handled the calamity in different ways. Some have been able to find a buyer to stave off indebtedness. Bear Stearns, for example, was bought by J.P. Morgan in 2008. Other firms self-liquidate, as did Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1990. When a brokerage firm self-liquidates, securities regulators, including the SEC and FINRA, work with the firm to make sure that customer accounts are protected and that customer assets are transferred in an orderly fashion to one or more SIPC-protected brokerage firms.
In short, “Is it safer to use multiple brokerage firms to custody my investments?”
Investors’ assets are separate from the brokerage firm and solely belong to the customer. A brokerage firm’s failure should not result in loss of customer assets. If in an extremely unlikely circumstance a client’s assets are lost (i.e., theft or fraud), account holders would be protected by SIPC up to the limits discussed above. To protect yourself against theft and fraud, choose a well-know brokerage firm that is regulated by the SEC, member to FINRA/SIPC, and that publishes audited financials and statement of Financial Condition by a reputable audit firm. You may also wish to review FINRA BrokerCheck, a free tool offered to help investors research the background of both FINRA-registered broker-dealers and investment advisor firms. Lastly, many brokerage firms actually carry "excess SIPC" insurance that provide additional protection beyond SIPC's limits through private carriers. Maximum amounts may vary by firm, but you may wish to seek out a brokerage firm that carries these additional limits.
While there's no way to completely remove institutional risk from your investment portfolio, I believe that the benefits that arise from account consolidation should outweigh fears of broker malfeasance; especially when you have hired an investment advisor to craft, implement, and manage a comprehensive investment strategy across your varied investment accounts.
I hope this information was helpful. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions.
Jason M. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
RGA Investment Advisors October 2013 Commentary: Our ‘Actively Passive' Investment Strategy
Why understand investing styles?
With the wide variety of stocks in the market, figuring out which ones you want to invest in can be a daunting task. Many investors feel it's useful to have a system for finding stocks that are worth buying, deciding what price to pay, and realizing when a stock should be sold. Bull markets, periods in which prices as a group tend to rise, and bear markets, periods of declining prices, can lead investors to make irrational choices. Having objective criteria for buying and selling can help you avoid emotional decision-making. We discuss the perils of emotional decision-making in many of our RGA monthly investment commentaries. Even if you don't want to select stocks yourself, it can be helpful to understand the strategies to which professionals adhere in evaluating and buying investments. If you align with a given investment strategy, you may be better prepared to hire an investment manager who shares a similar investment philosophy.
There are generally two schools of thought about how to choose stocks that are worth investing in. Value investors focus on buying stocks that appear to be bargains relative to the company's intrinsic worth. Growth investors prefer companies that are growing quickly, and are less concerned with undervalued companies than with finding companies and industries that have the greatest potential for appreciation in share price. Either approach can help you better understand just what you're buying—and why--when you choose a stock for your portfolio.
Value investors look for stocks with share prices that don't fully reflect the value of the companies, and that are effectively trading at a discount to their true worth.
A stock can have a low valuation for many reasons. The company may be struggling with business challenges such as legal problems, management difficulties, or tough competition. It may be in an industry that is currently out of favor with investors. It may be having difficulty expanding. It may have fallen on hard times. Or it may simply have been overlooked by other investors.
A value investor believes that eventually the share price will rise to reflect what he or she perceives as the stock's fair value. Value investing takes into account a company's prospects, but is equally focused on whether it's a good buy. A stock's price-earnings (P/E) ratio--its share price divided by its earnings per share--is of particular interest to a value investor, as are the price-to-sales ratio, the dividend yield, the price-to-book ratio, and the rate of sales growth.
Here are some of the questions a value investor might ask about a company:
A contrarian investor is perhaps the ultimate example of a value investor. Contrarians believe that the best way to invest is to buy when no one else wants to, or to focus on stocks or industries that are temporarily out of favor with the market.
The challenge for any value investor, of course, is figuring out how to tell the difference between a company that is undervalued and one whose stock price is low for good reason. Value investors who do their own stock research comb the company's financial reports, looking for clues about the company's management, operations, products, and services.
A growth-oriented investor looks for companies that are expanding rapidly. Stocks of newer companies in emerging industries are often especially attractive to growth investors because of their greater potential for expansion and price appreciation despite the higher risks involved. A growth investor would give more weight to increases in a stock's sales per share or earnings per share (EPS) than to its P/E ratio, which may be irrelevant for a company that has yet to produce any meaningful profits. However, some growth investors are more sensitive to a stock's valuation and look for what's called "Growth At a Reasonable Price" (GARP). A growth investor's challenge is to avoid overpaying for a stock in anticipation of earnings that eventually prove disappointing.
A momentum investor looks not just for growth but for accelerating growth that is attracting a lot of investors and causing the share price to rise. Momentum investors believe you should buy a stock only when earnings growth is accelerating and the price is moving up. They often buy even when a stock is richly valued, assuming that the stock's price will go even higher. If a stock falls, momentum theory suggests that you sell it quickly to prevent further losses, then buy more of what's working. The most extreme momentum investors are day traders, who may hold a stock for only a few minutes or hours then sell before the market closes that day. Momentum investing obviously requires frequent monitoring of the fluctuations in each of your stock holdings, however. A momentum strategy is best suited to investors who are prepared to invest the time necessary to be aware of those price changes.
At RGA Investment Advisors, we think that value and growth are not mutually exclusive. We seek investments with an identifiable margin of safety, a true underlying value, and a cost lower than the asset’s fundamental worth. We use a metric of financial and performance screens to identify investment opportunities, and we follow a watch-list of competitive companies with long-lasting, measurable advantages. We further perform comprehensive financial analysis paired with deep company diligence in order to develop the necessary conviction. We only buy investments within an opportune price range, and we practice patience and diligence when making purchases in client accounts. (Read more about our investment approach here).
Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions on this post or my own investment philosophy.
Jason M. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
The truth about target-date funds
For those unfamiliar, these products aim to provide a low-maintaince and singular retirement plan option. These funds, which are also referred to as life-cycle or age-baed funds, crossed the $500 billion threshold in 2013 as reported by Morningstar (Reference). They are designed, through the rebalancing of its asset-allocation, to become more conservative as the target date (usually retirement) approaches. The demand for these products appears to remain strong. In fact, Casey Quirk (an asset management consulting firm), predicts that target-date funds will account for nearly half of all U.S. defined contribution plan assets by 2020 (Reference).
While these retirement plan options do indeed make long-term investing easy, I do caution my clients that these funds are anything but simple, and my not really serve the purpose to which they are intended. Here's why:
Most investors select these target-date funds through their employer-sponsored 401(k) plan without ever considering the points noted above. Be sure to do your diligence and resist selecting a life-cycle fund just because it's easy.
If you need any help analyzing your options, feel free to contact me.
Jason M. Gilbert, CPA/PFS, CFF
Jason Gilbert is Managing Director of RGA Investment Advisors LLC. He has over 10 years of experience in investment advisory, including portfolio construction, financial strategy, and advanced planning for high-net worth and institutional clients. He maintains an extensive background in both forensic accounting and personal finance, and serves as a fiduciary and trusted partner to his long-standing clients.