Be The Benchmark

Dr. Daniel CrosbyDr. Daniel Crosby, President, IncBlot Behavioral Finance

If you’re like so many Americans, you probably made a list of your goals for 2014 back in January on New Year’s Eve. Whatever form those resolutions took; whether the goals were physical, financial, or relational, they likely had two foundational elements: they were specific to you and they were aspirational.

More than half way into the year, you may or may not still be on track to meet your goals. But regardless of your current progress, they will stand as personal reminders of the person you could be if you are willing to do the necessary work. As silly as it may sound, let’s imagine goals that violate the two assumptions we mentioned above.

Can you conceive of measuring your success relative to a goal that had nothing to do with your particular needs? What about setting a goal based on being average rather than exceptional? It defies logic, yet millions of us have taken just such a strategy when planning our financial futures!

shutterstock_171191216There is a long-standing tradition of comparing individual investment performance against a benchmark, typically a broad market index like the S&P 500. Under this model, investment performance is evaluated relative to the benchmark, basically, the performance of the market as a whole.

Let’s reapply this widely accepted logic to our other resolutions and see how it stands up. The CDC reports that the average man over 20 years of age is 5’9 and weighs 195 pounds. If we were to use this benchmark as a goal-setting index, the same way that we do financial benchmarks, the average American male would do well to lose a few pounds this year to achieve a healthier body mass index (BMI). Should we then dictate that all American males should lose ten pounds in 2013? Of course not!

The physical benchmark that we used is disconnected from the personal health needs of those setting the goals. Some of us need to lose well more than ten pounds, others needn’t lose any weight and some lucky souls actually have trouble keeping weight on (I’ve never been thusly afflicted).

A second problem is that affixing your goals to a benchmark tends not to be aspirational. The goals we set should represent a tension between the people we are today and the people we hope to become. When we use an average like the benchmark for setting our financial goals, we are settling in a very real sense. No one sets out to live an average life. We don’t dream of average happiness, average fulfillment or an average marriage, so why should we settle for an average investment?

The bulk of my current work is around addressing the irrationality of using everyone else as your financial North Star. Through a deep understanding of your personal needs, your advisor should be able to create a benchmark that is meaningful to you and your specific financial needs. After all, you have not gotten to where you are today by being average. Isn’t it time your portfolio reflected that?

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of IncBlot Behavioral Finance, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

Investment Insights Podcast – April 30, 2014

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded April 25, 2014):

The sentiments below were inspired by Dalbar’s 20th annual investor behavior analysis. You can read a summary of the study here, via ThinkAdvisor.

What we don’t like: Investors have underperformed the markets, often due to fear and poor timing

What we like: Potential market correction during the summer; important for investors to heed the advice of their advisors and stick to investment objectives

What we are doing about it: Focus on the positives like energy renaissance, manufacturing renaissance, and goals-based solutions

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

Source: Dalbar, ThinkAdvisor

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

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.

Seeking a Greater Purpose in Investing

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst

The “science” of investing is well known. The modern portfolio theory (MPT) of investments developed over the past 50 years, starting with Harry Markowitz, has become so ingrained into the investment management culture that the concept of portfolio diversification has become second nature to most people. This is of course due to the mathematical analysis showing that diversification improves investment portfolios’ risk and return characteristics. To say differently, it makes good math sense.

6.27.13_Williams_1Recently though, investment management research has begun to venture into the new field know as Behavioral Finance. At a high level, this theory points out that the owners of these investment portfolios are not emotionless robots that are attempting to optimize the expected value of portfolios for a given level of risk, but rather humans who have reactions to watching their portfolios change in value and who also have goals for the wealth created. Often times this theory’s task seems to be to point out our human flaws and biases so that we can move closer to MPT. This includes our confirmation bias (seeking out only information we agree with rather than information that challenges our thinking), overconfidence bias (believing we are above average in our skills), and loss aversion (finding that we will irrationally gamble to avoid a loss already sustained but unwilling to take a gamble that might result in a loss, even when the odds are in our favor). Still, this idea also points out what gets lost in the math of MPT. Specifically, that an investment portfolio has greater purpose than just the accumulation of money.

The meaning here can be shown in the following dream scenario. You take a trip to Vegas, you see a slot machine, you put a dollar into the machine for fun, pull the lever, and you hit the big jackpot. You are then told that you can either have the $10 million prize immediately, or a flip of a coin for the chance to win $25 million or lose it all. The vast majority of people would take the $10 million dollars. Consider instead the experience of the MPT optimizing robot. First, the robot would likely not put the $1 into the slot machine. Why put $1 in when the expected value is $0.95? Second, given the jackpot options the robot would likely gamble it all at the chance for $25 million as the expected value of $12.5 million is greater than the $10 million. The math is clear—the robot is optimizing and we are not. But that is not the whole story.

6.27.13_Williams_2First, most humans get utility from putting a dollar into a slot machine outside of the outcome of the gamble. As such, we may be rational to gamble if the utility of the $0.95 expected value and the experience of gambling together are greater than the utility of the $1 in our pocket. Second, given the jackpot options, outside of the fear of losing the $10 million, there is also a diminishing marginal utility to money. That is to say simply that an extra $1 million to you or me changes our lives a lot more than an extra $1 million to Warren Buffett. It is quite possible that the utility we tie to that first $10 million is greater than the utility to that next $15 million. As such, we could be rational in both the action to gamble and the decision to take $10 million.

While lottery dreams are nice, the practical meaning is that our investments allow us to do things. Said differently, our investment balance is not just a number, it represents our ability to meet goals. To some, that $10 million meant the ability to have the freedom to travel, to retire for others, a fleet of cars to those so inclined, and a chance to make the world a better place for still others.

NorthstarIn this line of thinking, the relatively newly developed bucket approach to investment management ties specific assets to specific goals. This simple concept turns a portfolio that is invested based on some risk profile that in an opaque manner will meet your goals into a portfolio of portfolios that represent directly your goals. Accordingly, rather than having portfolio performance measured against a generic market benchmark, the measure that matters is whether each of these portfolios is on track to meet their assigned goals. Accordingly, Brinker Capital’s recent offering in this area is appropriately named “Personal Benchmark.” A final point is that people draw utility not just from spending their investments to meet goals, but also from where and how they invest. Socially Responsible Investing, also known as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), allows people to allocate capital where they believe the welfare of those outside themselves is best considered. Outside of the fact that there is evidence that investing in industries and companies that have these positive attributes may also improve investment performance, the fact that we are able to encourage positive change in the world while we save for our goals is a powerful concept.

In aggregate, the recent changes to investment management are brilliant in their simplicity to give purpose back to investments. The more empowered we feel with meeting our goals with our investments, the more likely we are to meet, and even exceed, those goals.

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.

Classic Indexes Are Hurting Retirees

Personal Benchmark InvestingEngrained in most retirees is that as the markets go, so do their savings—up markets are good, down markets are bad. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong to think that way, it’s just that there’s a better way of looking at your savings in action. Historical benchmarks do a disservice to investors at indicating how successful they can be in creating real purchasing power.

Chuck Widger, Executive Chairman of Brinker Capital, was brought on to TheStreet.com, a leading financial news website, to discuss this new line of thought, and how the industry needs to redefine its value proposition.

Check it out here: Classic Indexes Are Hurting Retirees

*Please note that references to specific holdings in the video are for illustrative purposes only and not necessarily owned by Brinker Capital.

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!