Everyone’s Unique

Jeff Raupp Jeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Whenever I go to the bowling alley it strikes me how unique people are. And no, it’s not because of the multi-colored shoes or even the matching team jackets complete with catchy names like “Pin Pals” or “Medina Sod” sewn on the back. It’s because of the bowling balls.

Every time I head to the lanes, I can bank on spending at least ten minutes trying to find a ball that works for me. You have the heavy balls with the tiny finger holes and the huge thumb, the balls with the finger holes on the other side of the ball away from the thumb, and the ones where it seems like someone was playing around and drilled three random holes. Half of the time I find myself weighing the embarrassment of using a purple or pink ball that feels okay versus a more masculine black or red ball that weighs a ton but can only fit my pinkie. I’m always left thinking, “Where’s the guy or gal that this ball actually fits?”

Raupp_Everyones_Unique_2.14.14But at the end of the day, I find that if I find the right ball, where my hand feels comfortable and the weight is just right, I have a much better game.

In the same way, how to best save toward your life goals is unique to each investor. Even in the scenario where two investors have the same age, same investable assets and generally the same goals, the portfolio that helps them achieve those goals may be decidedly different between them. Investor emotion can play a huge role in the success or failure of an investment plan, and keeping those emotions in check is vital. There is nothing more damaging to the potential for an investor to meet their goals than an emotional decision to deviate from their long-term strategy due to market conditions.

Fortunately, there’s often more than one way to reach a particular goal. There are strategies that focus on total return versus ones that focus on generating income. Strategies that are more market oriented versus those that look to produce a certain level of return regardless of the markets. And there are tactical strategies and strategic strategies. For any investor’s personal goal(s), several of these, or a combination of these, might provide the necessary investment returns to get you there.

Raupp_Everyones_Unique_2.14.14_1Here’s where the emotions can come into play—if you don’t feel comfortable along the way, your emotions can take over the driver’s wheel, and your investor returns can fall short of your goal. In 2008-2009, many investors panicked, fled the markets, and decided to go to cash near the market bottom; but they missed much of the huge market rebound that followed. While in many cases the investors pre-recession strategy was sound and ultimately would have worked to reach their goals, their irrational decision during a period of volatility made it a tougher road.

Unfortunately, you don’t have the benefit of rolling a few gutter balls while you’re trying to find the right portfolio. That’s why working with an expert to find an investment strategy that can get you to your goals, and that matches your personality and risk profile, is vital to success.

Good bowlers show up at the alley with their own fitted ball and rightly-sized shoes. Good investors put their assets in a strategy fitted to their goals.

Financial Advisors Finally Confident in U.S. Economy, Q3 Brinker Barometer Finds

We have the results of our third quarter 2013 Brinker Barometer® survey, a gauge of financial advisor confidence and sentiment regarding the economy, retirement savings, investing and market performance.

For the full press release, please click here, but in the meantime check out the infographic below for some of the highlights:

BrinkerBarometer3Q2013_WebFINAL

Should I Sell My Fixed Income?

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Now that we’re able to look back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s pretty easy to pick on the mistakes that investors made during the financial crisis of 2008. For instance, as equity markets sold off, emotion took over, and many investors that entered the crisis with a well balanced portfolio abandoned their plan and made wholesale changes to fixed income or, even worse, cash. At the time, it seemed like a rational reaction—Wall Street institutions that had existed for decades were insolvent, and each day seemed to bring a new, ineffective government program to stabilize the credit markets, along with yet another triple-digit loss in the stock market.

7.18.13_Raupp_FixedIncomeWe know now that what had started as an economic slowdown and then recession extended into a full-fledged market panic, where investors sold indiscriminately of price. In the years that followed, those that kept their heads recovered and reached new highs with their investments; those that joined the panic are, in many cases, still hoping to recover their 2008 losses.

Today, many investors are considering a question that could very much have the same negative long-term consequences, namely, “Should I abandon fixed income altogether?”

The question comes up after interest rates spiked in reaction to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s May testimony in which he outlined a scenario where, with the right economic growth in place, the Fed could start lowering the level of bond purchases they’re making as part of the quantitative easing (QE) program. Over a two month period, the yield on the 10-year Treasury jumped from 1.6% to 2.8% and at -2.3%, the Barclay’s Aggregate Index had its worst quarterly return since the second quarter of 2004 when it fell 2.4%.

To answer the question, first let’s look at the downside potential. It’s been a long time since we went through an extended rising rate environment. As our research indicates, from 1945 to 1981 the yield on the 10-year Treasury rose from 1.5% to over 14%. Over that 36-year period, the return an investor in the 10-year Treasury received was actually a positive 2.8%, with 75% of the calendar years in that period having positive returns. The worst one-year loss, 5.0%, was in 1969, and the worst multi-year losing streak happened twice—1955-1956 and 1958-1959 (1957 was a strong year and the five-year period 1955-1959 was close to flat). Compared to a stock market bubble, the downside on fixed income is extremely tame.

7.18.13_Raupp_FixedIncome_1Secondly, you have to think about the role fixed income plays in your portfolio. In heavy stock market sell-offs, fixed income is often the only asset class with positive returns and therefore can act as a hedge against market volatility. Since 1945, there has only been one year (1969) where both stocks and bonds had negative returns. In today’s world, a global flight to safety results in demand for high quality fixed income, driving yields down and bond prices higher. No other asset class plays the low volatility hedging role quite as well. Responding to the threat of low rates by greatly increasing equity, or even alternative exposure, can prove disastrous if markets crater.

Finally, fixed income comes in many varieties. At any given point in time, there are areas of fixed income that provide opportunity and/or protection. By broadening your universe beyond simple treasuries to take advantage of these you can get a better end result.

Let’s be clear, core, investment-grade fixed income doesn’t provide a great investment opportunity right now. With yields still at low levels and likely to rise in the coming five to ten years, we’ll likely see muted returns at best with fits and starts of performance along the way. Inflation is currently in check below 2%, but if we started to see it flare up, investors, especially those with longer horizons, would need to consider the impact rising prices would have on their purchasing power. But even in an adverse environment, fixed income still plays an important role in portfolios.

Behavioral Finance 101: Framing

DanielCrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., IncBlot Behavioral Finance

As we’ve discussed in the first two parts of this series, economic decision makers are not the cold, detached, decision makers they have historically been painted to be by efficient market theorists. Quite the opposite, human behavior is marked by irrationalities and fuzzy logic based more closely on mental approximations than hard and fast rules. We have already touched upon the impact of heuristics and irrational behavior and today will turn our gaze to the third pillar of behavioral finance – framing.

7.10.13_Crosby_Framing_2Simply put, framing is an example of a cognitive bias in which people arrive at a different decision depending on how the question is framed. While homo economicus would weigh all decisions equally and disregard framing effects, actual behaviors indicate that the lens through which we view a decision has everything to do with the eventual outcome. Frames can take a number of shapes; it could be the physical place where we make a decision, whether a question is positively or negatively framed, and even the way we mentally account for the options from which we are selecting.

Consider a real-life framing example with a huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Twice in the past few years, the government has tried to stimulate the economy by offering tax rebates to the hardworking citizens of the U. S. of A. Both times, these efforts have met disappointing ends, and behavioral finance may just be able to tell us why.

Belsky and Gilovich lead us toward the answer in their excellent primer, “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes.” They describe a study conducted at Harvard wherein 24 students were given $25 to spend in a lab store as part of their participation in a research. Any unspent money, they were told, would be returned to them shortly via check. But wait, there’s a rub (there always is when psychologists are involved)! Half of the students were told that the $25 was a “rebate” and the other half told that it was a “bonus.” Could such a minute difference in cognitive framing have a measurable impact on spending behavior? It turns out, it could.

7.10.13_Crosby_Framing_1For those whose earnings were framed as a bonus, 84% spent some money in the lab store, a behavior mimicked by only 21% of those whose money was framed as a “rebate.” Now consider the decision of the U.S. government to give “tax rebates” to help stimulate the economy—an action that ultimately failed, probably at least in part due to framing effects. Irrational decision makers that we are, we fail to grasp the fungible nature of dollars and account for them differently based upon how they are framed in our mind. As Nick Epley, the psychologist who conducted the Harvard study, said more forcibly, “Reimbursements send people on trips to the bank. Bonuses send people on trips to the Bahamas.”

One of the most profound forms of framing effect plays on our fear of loss in times of fear or risk, or the related fear of missing out in times of plenty. This tendency, demonstrated most powerfully by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is known as “loss aversion.”[1] The basic tenet of loss aversion is that people are more upset a loss than they are excited by an equivalent gain. Consider the comical demonstration of loss aversion that resulted from a survey conducted by Thomas Gilovich. Mr. Gilovich asked half of the respondents to a questionnaire whether or not they could save 20% of their income, to which only half said yes. The second half of the respondents was asked whether they could live on 80% of their income, to which 80% replied in the affirmative. To-may-to, to-mah-to, right? So why are the responses so different?

7.10.13_Crosby_Framing_3The first phrasing frames it as a 20% loss of spending power (there is a large body of research that indicates that saving is viewed as a loss. Silly people), whereas the second frames it more positively. Thus, equivalent financial realities are viewed through entirely different lenses that lead to decisions with profoundly different outcomes.

One of the benefits of behavioral finance is that it shines a light on the little peccadilloes that make us the flawed but lovable people we are. But irrational as we may be, we can turn the tide on ourselves and use these quirks to our personal advantage. Framing is only disadvantageous inasmuch as the frames we are applying to our money are reckless. Viewing money through the frame of a charitable contribution or a child’s college fund can impact your financial decision positively just as surely as framing it as disposable can have a negative impact. At Brinker Capital, our Personal Benchmark system accounts for the human tendency to mentally account for and frame dollars, and does so in a way that helps ensure an appropriate allocation of assets across a risk spectrum. As we hope you’re aware after taking part in this behavioral finance survey course, you are not as logical and dispassionate as you might have guessed. Whether or not you use that irrationality to your benefit or detriment is now up to you.


[1] Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1984). “Choices, Values, and Frames”. American Psychologist 39 (4): 341–350.

Applying Behavioral Finance To Investment Process Crucial To Financial Advisors, Brinker Barometer Finds

Earlier this week, the results of our latest Brinker Barometer advisor survey were made public. Click here to read the full press release. This particular Barometer had a focus on aspects of behavioral finance and how advisors gauge progress towards meeting their clients’ financial goals.

Check out some of the most interesting survey results in the infographic below!

1Q13BrinkerBarometer_5_14_13

Behavioral Finance 101: Irrationality

DanielCrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, Ph.D., IncBlot Behavioral Finance

In part one of our three part series, we touched on “heuristics”, or the experiential rules of thumb that serve as decisional markers. Part two will discuss a second pillar of behavioral finance, irrationality. But before we can talk about irrationality in any meaningful way, we must define what it means to be irrational.

One of the hallmark difficulties of psychology as a science is that it requires “operationalization” of the subjective variables it hopes to measure. That is, it must provide sometimes-ethereal constructs such as happiness or rationality with a set of parameters that allow them to be measured and interpreted. When traditional economic models were constructed, they needed to account for things such as “utility” that had to be operationalized to be accounted for within the model.

Using the logic of the time, they put forth the seemingly straightforward maxim that a rational investor, homo economicus, would act to maximize utility at all times, with utility being defined as dollars and cents. Basically, economic decision makers would consistently act in such a way that their investment returns would be improved to the extent possible.

5.22.13_Crosby_Blog2This idea of rational investors working to maximize returns had two profound positives that served it well over the many years it enjoyed preeminence: 1. It had intuitive appeal 2. It was easily measured. After all, do not most of us engage in all manner of unpleasantness (e.g., staff meetings) to make a buck? And are not dollars more easily debited and credited than say, units of happiness or some other more vague notion of utility? Resting on these two foundational strengths, the idea of rational, wealth-maximizing investors persisted for decades…until the music stopped playing.

Four hundred years ago, in one of the first speculative bubbles on record, a Dutch commodity traded for 10 times the annual salary of a skilled laborer. In some cases, this commodity fetched as much as 12 acres of prime farmland and even single family dwellings.

The commodity of which I’m speaking is a single tulip bulb.

5.22.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_2_pic2You see, it was thought that tulips were an investment that would always appreciate in value and were immune to the ups and downs of comparable tradable goods. Fast forward three hundred years to 1925 and you would have heard statements like this from the investment gurus of the day…”there is nothing that can be foreseen to prevent an unprecedented era of prosperity.” Sure there had been disastrous crashes in the past, but this time was different.

It’s comforting to think of New Era mindsets as a relic of the past, a trick of the mind that fooled investors less savvy than ourselves. But as recently as the Great Recession of the past five years and the tech bubble of the turn of the century, New Era Thinking has been more present than ever. In the wake of these most recent crises there has been a dramatic uptick in the acceptance of the fact that investors are simply not rational. Quite the contrary, we engage in a number of irrational behaviors that can thwart our best efforts at financial security. This danger is especially real inasmuch as we remain unaware of their impact.

In 1998, eToys.com, an internet upstart, had sales of $30M, profits of -$28.6M and a total market capitalization of $8 billion. Toy veteran Toy’s R Us on the other hand, had more than 40 times the sales but only ¾ of the total stock value. The advent of the internet was greeted by Wall Street with great enthusiasm, such great enthusiasm that people lost their minds. The thought that the web would revolutionize the way we do business was correct, but the notion that financial fundamentals no longer mattered was not.

5.22.13_Crosby_BeFiBlog_2_pic3Another example of investor irrationality is the belief that our mere involvement with an investment will make it more profitable. A recent study found that people were willing to pay a mere $1.96 for a lottery ticket with 1 in 50 odds if they were assigned a ticket randomly. However, if they were able to choose their number from among the 50, they were willing to pay $8.67 for the ticket. The odds remained at 2%, but the participants agreed to pay over four times more if they could become personally involved. After all, they felt their involvement spelled positive change. It goes without saying that paying four times as much for something with no measurable increase in the probability of success can hardly be called rational.

I could go on, but the point here is not to erode your confidence or create a lengthy list of your imperfections. The point is to heighten your awareness of the potential for irrationality to damage you financially in ways that have a real impact on you and your loved ones. After all, you can’t correct for what you don’t acknowledge. If there is any good to come out of the trillions of dollars in capital that vanished during the bubbles of the last 13 years, it may be that we have been permanently and irrevocably humbled and have a greater sense of the limits of our own rationality. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson. Hopefully, this time really is different.

What to Do With All Those Receipts?

Sue BerginSue Bergin

There are many little annoyances that an advisor must deal with as a cost of doing business. Tracking expenses is a prime example. Out of necessity, advisors have developed systems for tracking expenses that vary in sophistication. Ranking high on the list is the empty-the-pockets-on-the-assistant’s-desk-and-let-her-deal-with-it system and the stack-the-receipts-in-a-pile-for-a-slow-day-project approach.

While these systems are second nature, the beauty of living in the digital era is that annoying tasks have spawned clever digital solutions.

Such is the case with tracking business expenses. For those who have embraced mobile devices, the days of the crinkled and barely legible receipts can be gone forever. Shoeboxed, Lemon Wallet and ABUKAI Expenses are some of the apps available that make managing receipts painless and efficient. You can download these apps on your Apple, Blackberry or Android device(s), and then simply take photos of your receipts. The expenses are digitally categorized and stored, and in many cases, the data can be imported into a spreadsheet or an accounting program like Quickbooks. With Shoeboxed, you can mail in old receipts and they will make digital copies for you. You can even get multiple “seats” on an ABUKAI account, allowing staff members in your office to contribute to the expense report. Other expenses management software programs, like Expensify and Xpenser, also have mobile applications that result in efficiency gains.

shutterstock_111610157Neat Receipts takes a slightly different approach. They offer a mobile scanner and digital filing system that allows you to scan receipts, business cares and documents. The Neat Receipts software system then identifies, extracts and organizes key information. While these applications might help you to make your practice more efficient, they could also help clients who own businesses. Clients often look to their advisor for tips on how to gain more control over their financial world.

With tax deadlines rapidly approaching, the inefficiencies of traditional approaches are top of mind. Take this opportunity to suggest this small way to remove one of the little annoyances in their lives. You may find that they are quite receptive and appreciative of your efforts.

Your Personal Iceberg: There is More to Measuring Success Than What Lies on the Surface

Wallens, JordanJordan Wallens, Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

This is part two of a two-part blog series.

Next time you catch yourself bemoaning a down day in the stock market, calmly ask yourself, “Did I need the money today?” Benchmarking yourself against daily fluctuations is like looking outside and wondering why that tree in your yard doesn’t look any taller today than it did yesterday.

All of this is not to suggest that you shouldn’t seek help – you should. Simply put, having two sets of eyes and experience on the bridge is always better than one. You’ll fare far better at the essential behavioral art of saving yourself from your base instinct to Buy High and Sell Low, by retaining a seasoned financial advisor to walk beside you and talk you down from the ledge of your litany of poorly-timed short-sighted misbegotten past investment decisions.

The key is to once and for all truly personalize your benchmarks, rather than sweat the screeching heads on CNBC, aka Nickelodeon for adults. Better to diligently establish and maintain your own benchmarks, chart your progress, toward your concrete unchanging goals, including past progress, not just fleeting future predictions.

3.22.13 Wallens Personal Benchmarks2Suppose for example you already have a plan in place to save for retirement. What percentage of annual portfolio growth did you assume? 7%? And how much longer do you expect to work? Well how did you do last year? Forgot already? Too bad, especially if say you earned 12%. Why? Because the good news is, that properly harnessed, last year’s out-performance could very well result in meeting your goals a year earlier than planned. Congratulations, you’re money and you didn’t even know it. (Industry should’ve told you so.) My guess is that rather than properly recognizing, accounting for, and adjusting your risk, you’ve probably already moved on to, “So what’s the best stock to own this year?”

Whenever someone touts a fresh baked personal stock pick, I have a pat response for that too. I ask the inquirer what was the top performing stock last year. For the record, in 2012 that would be homebuilder PulteGroup, yet not a single putative stockpicker polled has answered it correctly. This they rarely relish either. So let me get this straight, if you can’t figure out what was the top stock in the past, do you really think you’ve got edge on what’ll outperform the pack in the future? Sorry, ya don’t. But the best news is, it just doesn’t matter.

Get help, it’s never too late. Start early, and you couldn’t screw it up if you tried. Start too late, and there’s nothing Cramer or anyone can do to help. Rehabilitate your investor behavior. Assess via readily available online tools your personal risk tolerance. Establish and zealously maintain your personal benchmark, un-phased by the chattering masses.

Quit obsessing over schizophrenic ever-changing variables that are outside your control, beyond your comprehension, and have nothing to do with your steady consistent lifelong goals. Ignore the reports of others’ flashy investment performance, and instead manage your personal investor behavior, to achieve the glide path, experience, and inalienable progress toward the life of your dreams. You’ll find you arrive at the station on time and intact, and best of all, without ever disembarking from your righteous path at the least opportune moments.

Another wise fellow declared, “Be the change you hope to see in the world.” But in this instance, ’tis far wiser to simply “Stay the same you want to see from the world.”

Your Personal Iceberg: There is More to Measuring Success Than What Lies on the Surface

Wallens, JordanJordan Wallens, Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

This is part one of a two-part blog series.

As a financial professional, I’m often asked what equity markets will do next. My response never changes: “It will fluctuate”. This truth they do not relish.

A wise man once declared that the beauty of an iceberg lies in the fact that it is 8/9 submerged. Yet when it comes to our investments, we too often make ill-advised decisions driven by passing metrics, subjective outlooks, weather, inputs, and theories that concern only the 1/9 of our personal iceberg showing above the water’s surface. The true tale of the tape for all of us will ultimately be measured not by those investment results, but by our own investor behavior, which accounts for the 8/9 of the iceberg that wise man spoke of. We fret and posture over raindrops when we should in fact, focus on our vessel and navigating the ocean beneath us.

According to a recent nationwide advertising campaign conducted by a prominent global financial services firm, we, as investors, are surrounded on all sides and ever beset by a constantly changing system of confusing and complex variable equations. Whoa, really? Getting anxious? Good, that’s what they intended.

3.12.13_Wallens_PersonalBenchmarksDeep breath and relax. This is but a typical modern example of the financial industrial complex’s fundamental mistruth laid bare by author Michael Lewis, who pointed out that the reason financial types speak in such stilted esoteric jargon, is to constantly remind individual investors that they should never ever consider trying to do this stuff for themselves. They tout “custom strategic solutions” yet sow widespread tactical bewilderment.

And besides, nothing could be further from the truth. Though the eddies of Finance, Economics, and Mathematics may swirl around all of us, the one and only equation that does not change is the “you” part. Your personal benchmark isn’t the S&P500, unless you trade at a 14 P/E and aspire to be one of America’s 500 largest companies. No, your personal benchmarks, like progress toward retirement, college funding, security, vacation home, trip around the world, or whatever you aspire to, are far more static than media barkers would have you believe—which is a good thing (for you, not them).

Worse, this type of indiscrete industry mongering exerts a deleterious effect on individuals’ resolve to do something, anything, to embark upon preparing for retirement, or at least take proper control of their financial future. So what can be done? The good news is things are not nearly as complicated as industry “Chicken Littles” would have you fear. Salvation begins with divorcing the benchmark, and eliminating that pesky habit of gauging your progress by how any given index performs today, this month, this quarter.

Look for Part Two of this blog next week!