The Investment Scientist

Archive for the ‘Economics & Markets’ Category

Look forward when investing.

It is well established that investors’ sense of risk reward is shaped by immediate past experience.

However, investing based on immediate past experience is like driving while only looking through your rear view mirror. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The proper way to think about risk reward is to see investing as a risk taking occupation. When there are more job openings than job seekers, wages will rise. When there are many job seekers chasing too few openings, wages will be lower. It’s just simple economics.

In academic circles, this wage of taking risk is called risk premium.

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teenreader1. ThinkAdvisor highlighted a Maryland study which showed that states which pay the highest fees to Wall Street (for managing pensions) have the lowest returns. That says it all about Wall Street. No wonder Rick Ferri wants you to steer clear of actively managed funds.

2. Reuters Money reported how Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) can be used as retirement savings accounts. This information is especially useful for small business owners and self-employed individuals who tend to neglect their retirement savings and face high deductibility in their health insurance. Here is the garden variety of ways they can save for retirement.

3. DIY Investor Robert Wasilewski encountered a bear while hiking. He survived to write about it, but he mused that the same reactions that kept him in the gene pool will surely “eliminate you from the investment pool.”

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Rebalancing your portfolio

Rebalancing your portfolio

Recently, I visited a prospective client in New Jersey. He is currently a client with Fisher Investments, and his advisor told him never to rebalance since that involves market timing.

I have to hand it to this financial advisor for recognizing that market timing is an unproductive endeavor, but he is so wrong about rebalancing that I am compelled to write this article.

Rebalancing is not a market timing activity, it is calendar-driven or condition-driven. For instance, you may decide that you will rebalance your portfolio on January 1st of each year or whenever an asset class allocation is off by 20%.

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New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

Recently, I got a call from a physician client of mine who asked a fantastic question. The Shiller PE of the S&P 500 index is at 24 now, much higher than the historical mean of 16 – is the market headed for a fall?

What is the Shiller PE?

This is a stock market metric invented by Yale Professor Robert Shiller. Basically, it is the average of the PE ratios of ten consecutive years. Because of that, Shiller PE is also called PE10.

Professor Shiller found it to be a reasonably good measure of valuation of the whole market: the higher the Shiller PE, the more expensive the market.

Back to my client’s question, I told him right away that I don’t know the answer. I don’t make investment decision based on opinion. I have to research historical data. After I hung up the phone, I asked my assistant to study the relationship between the Shiller PE and forward one-year and forward three-year returns.

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Bullet train

Bullet train

I just came back from a long trip in China and Taiwan. During the trip, what impressed me the most was China’s bullet train. We rode the longest high-speed rail line in the world – Beijing to Guangzhou – which started services only a few months ago.

The train is futuristic, comfortable and extremely smooth. Zipping at speed of 300 km/h or about 190 mph, the water in my glass sitting on the table stayed still.

With such a speed, one could travel from New York City to Washington DC in one hour and 15 minutes, or from New York City to Chicago in three and a half hours. High-speed rail truly shrinks the country.

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New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

The S&P 500 closed the first quarter at a record high. Should that worry investors? The short answer is, No.

When the market was 30% below the high three years ago, I did some research. I categorized all market conditions into:

1. Breaking a new high.

2. Less than 10% below historical high.

3. Between 10% and 20% below historical high.

4. Between 20% and 30% below historical high.

5. Between 30% and 40% below historical high.

6. More than 40% below historical high.

Then I calculated the one year forward returns of the six conditions.

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New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

With the market up about 5% in January, a prospective client of mine called to let me know he is not going to invest in stocks at this time – in fact, he is going to pull all of his money out of the market.

This may not be the best course of action for him.

According to research done by Cooper and McConnell, what the market does in January has a strong predictive power for what the market will do for the rest of the year.

Using data since 1940, they found that if the market is up in January, it will rise an additional 14.8% for the rest of the year; if the market is down in January, it will rise only 2.92% for the rest of the year. This gives rise to a spread of almost 12%, a highly statistically significant number.

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Approaching the fiscal cliff

Approaching the fiscal cliff

The cliff deal struck between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is a good deal overall for high income folks.

Make no mistake, some of them will have to pay more in taxes, but the amount is far less than if there is no deal and all is set back to the Clinton tax regime.

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New Year's investment resolutions

New Year’s investment resolutions

After working as a financial advisor for six years and after reading tons of research, I have developed a good sense about how the average investor loses money. As the New Year approaches, I think it’s good to share my insight so that readers can determine if they are making these mistakes.

Conflict of interest

I cannot emphasize this enough: Wall Street firms don’t work for you. If you have a Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley advisor, expect to give away 2.5% of your money every year – about half of it will be in explicit fees, the other half will be in hidden fees. If you invest through insurance products, expect to give up 3.5 percent of your money.

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Be prepared for a tax cut sunset

(This is an article I submitted to Physicians Practice magazine, an edited version was published.)

With President Obama re-election, there is now no doubt that the Bush tax cuts will expire come January 1st, 2013.

Why is there a sunset clause in President Bush’s tax cuts?

In 2001 and 2003, Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, significant tax reductions for nearly all taxpayers. These cuts included marginal rate reductions, the introduction of a new 10% tax bracket, an expansion of the child tax credit, and a variety of other provisions. Both bills were passed using a Senate procedure known as “reconciliation” – a tactic that lowers the threshold for cloture to a simple majority of senators (as opposed to a 60-vote supermajority).

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Like Odysseus, automatic investments help investors avoid the Siren call of market timing

We call it stupid if someone takes a $55k job, even if he is offered the same job at $100k.

We call it market-timing when the same thing happens in the stock market. The long-term average annual market return is 10%, but the long-term average annual investor return is only about 5.5%. This is documented both by Dalbar’s study titled “Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior” and Morningstar’s research on fund returns and investor returns.

How could this possibly happen?

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Last week, the Fed announced another round of quantitative easing (QE3).

This time around, they plan to buy $40 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities with created money until the employment picture improves.  Compared to QE1 and QE2, QE3 is open-ended.

How does this affect your personal finances?

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financial blogging

I was in Denver attending the Financial Blogger Conference (FinCon12), and I was thrilled to meet Allan Roth there.

If you don’t know Allan Roth, for the sake of your financial wellbeing, you should.

Allan is an hourly fee-only financial advisor practicing in Colorado Spring. He also writes an investment column for CBS MoneyWatch. Recently, Jason Zweig invited him to write a column in the Wall Street Journal as well. Read the rest of this entry »

New York Stock Exchange

When talking to prospective clients, I am upfront about what I can and can not do. I can NOT beat the market.

Recently, that straightforwardness caused me to lose a prospective client to a major Wall Street firm. Apparently, the financial advisor from that firm was able to convince him that with their exclusive location, expensive brochure, and nice Armani suits, they could beat the market.

This led me to do a mental exercise.

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Golf ball

Is a round of golf all the value you get from your financial advisor?

Why do you charge me 1% every year regardless how well you do for me? I would rather not pay you anything for the first 5% return and split anything above and beyond that.

This is a question a prospective client of mine asked me. Let me explain why this fee arrangement is not in the client’s best interest.

Historically, the mean return of the market is 10%, and the standard deviation of return is 15%. This means the market is equally likely to go up 25% in one year and go down 5% in another.

Despite what they want you to believe, financial advisors have very little control over the market.

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Author

Michael Zhuang is principal of MZ Capital, a fee-only independent advisory firm based in Washington, DC.

Twitter: @mzhuang

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