In Case You Missed It

Wallens, JordanJordan Wallens, Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

By now you’ve no doubt heard all about the latest dreadful returns from our nation’s stock market. The first five months of 2013 have been historically galling for most American investors. Wait, what? Am I talking about the same roaring stock market you’re talking about? Yes! And, no.

Yes, clearly the U.S. Equity market has exhibited one of its vintage thoroughbred rallies this year. But no, sadly, it turns out the average American saver largely missed it. How can this be?

Now, throughout this banner season for equities, the largest holding in the majority of Americans’ overall asset allocation has been Cash—which is earning zero. Now lest one dismiss this truth as some other generation’s problem, to be clear: this misbegotten tail-chasing ‘bet on cash’ situation pervades across ALL age groups, right through Generation Y.

It’s like we’re our own worst enemy, because when it comes to investing, most of us are.
The problem is that savers tend to move in backward-looking, frightened herds. Which is wise…if you’re the prey.

But we invest not for short-term survival. We invest to advance long-term purchasing power.

Relax, it’s not life, just money. Money you’re not even using. That and, though it takes awhile to adjust, as a species we haven’t been hunted by predators in some time. (Pray that multi-millennial ‘food chain’ rally knows no end.)

5.30.13_Wallens_InCaseYouMissedItWhen it comes to our money, we largely still don’t get it. It’s why even Warren Buffett and Bill Gates get advice. If investors were a baseball team, they would position all eight of their fielders in the spot where the previous opposing batter’s hit had landed in preparation for the new batter at the plate. Helps to explain why an Institutional fund investor captures 90%+ of the upside in a given mutual fund, while the Retail investor deprives himself via bad behavior of fully 75% of all the long-term gains suffered in the very same mutual fund.

In spite of the adage, the average investor left to his own devices will systematically buy high and sell low every time. And why? Foremost among them, we fear present losses many, many times worse than we covet future gains. This asymmetrical analytically unsound ‘loss aversion’ leads to frenzied investor behavior, which rarely works out well. Ergo, this glorious pan-rally is the worst news in awhile, for those damaged capitalist souls who needed the help the most.

5.30.13_Wallens_InCaseYouMissedIt_2Meanwhile the S&P 500 inconspicuously peels past the thousands like a freight train. Forceful, if not fast. It’s working out great for the professionals, and those who stuck to good advice, those who stuck to their plans, timetables, discipline, and personalized their benchmarks. They never left, and as you have probably observed, historically the majority of the market’s best days/quarters strike closely behind the worst. Miss those best 10 or 20 days, and you forgo a significant chunk of your long-term returns.

Fortunately, with each passing day, more and more investors succumb to longer-term logic and get back with the program—their program. Which is a good thing, as long as you orient your benchmarks around your tested personal risk tolerance and remember your time frames. Then, most important of all, stick to your plan.

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!

How 401(k)s are failing millions of Americans

Recently, some startling facts have surfaced that hint at a looming widespread retirement crisis.

Consider these statistics:

  • According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), there are 50 million 401(k) participants in the U.S.
  • The average 401(k) balance of those is slightly over $60,000
  • The average 401(k) balance of those within 10 years of retirement is $78,000—a third of them actually have less than $25,000 saved.
  • 43% of workers ages 45-54 are not currently saving for retirement at all.
  • In 1980, 60% of private sector workers had access to a lifetime income in the form of a corporate pension. As of 2006, only 10% still have access to a pension.
  • It is estimated that a middle-class lifestyle will require a nest egg of $900,000 at retirement.
  • Social Security only pays $14,780 per year for individuals and $22,000 per year to couples.

To read the entire article on How 401(k)s are failing millions of Americans, click here.

[1] “How 401(k)s are failing millions of Americans. The Week. April 20, 2012. <http://theweek.com/article/index/226886/how-401ks-are-failing-millions-of-americans&gt;