The Investment Scientist

Archive for the ‘Investor Behavior’ Category

images-82Recently, a doctor nearing retirement age approached me with the question of how to maximize his social security income. He is 62, and his wife is 4 years his junior. He made substantially more money than his wife, and as a result, his PIA is $2400, and his wife’s PIA is only $1000.

PIA, or primary insured amount, is the monthly amount a retiree would get if he or she retires at the normal retirement age, currently 66. For every year earlier (or later) that one retires, one would get 8% less (or more). The youngest one may retire is 62 and the oldest is 70.

I’ve found over the years that many people give very little thought to maximizing their social security income, and they jump at the first opportunity when they turn 62 to claim their benefits. But in so doing, they could be leaving nearly half a million dollars on the table. Read the rest of this entry »

images-75Yesterday I received an email from a doctor client of mine telling me how he had a conversation with some fellow doctors, and all of them are pulling their money out of stocks because they feel that with the market breaking new high after new high, a crash is imminent. He wanted my opinion.

First of all, while all of his doctor friends might feel a market crash is imminent and certain, there is simply no such thing as certainty in the stock market. All we can work with are odds. The following are the odds of market corrections:

Magnitude of market decline Frequency of occurrence (out of 64 years from 1950-2013)
>5% Every year (94%)
>10% Every two years (58%)
>20% Every five years (20%)
>30% Every ten years (10%)
>40% Every fifty years (2%)

My study also shows that the market breaking a new high does not substantially change the odds of returns. In other words, the odds of the market dropping over 20% in the next twelve months are still about one in five; the odds of the market dropping over 30% in the next twelve months are still about one in ten.
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Sunk-shipMany people keep their bad annuity investment because it imposes a stiff surrender charge. This is a stereotypical example of sunk cost fallacy, an academic term which describes people throwing good money after bad.

Why surrender charges are sunk costs?

Imagine you were sold a $100k variable annuity with a ten year surrender period. The agent who sold you the contract collected a 10% commission, or $10,000. Where do you think this money came from?

Bingo! Your pocket. I hate to break it to you, but insurance companies are not in the charity business and they sure as heck aren’t gonna tell you that 10 of the 100Gs you just handed over to them are going to pay the agent’s commission! If they did that you’d pull your money out and rightly avoid them like the plague in the future.

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images-46Following the post I wrote about deep risk vs shallow risk, I went to Amazon and flipped through Bill Bernstein’s latest book “Deep Risk” to see if he feels the same way as me.

It turns out there is a lot that we agree on, but not everything.

Here’s where we see eye to eye: 1) our definitions of deep and shallow risks are almost the same: 2) we both see market fluctuation as a shallow risk and 3) we both see inflation as the #1 deep risk.

Our agreement stops there however. Bernstein does not seem to believe behavior risk and agency risk are deep risks, as I do. Instead, he mentions the following three risks as deep risks in addition to inflation risk.

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images-54Recently, a prospective client of mine sent me an email asking about my thoughts on Bill Bernstein’s new book “Deep Risk.” I have not read the book yet, but I do have my own ideas about deep risk vs shallow risk.

I define shallow risk as a potential loss that you can recover from and deep risk as a loss that you cannot recover from.

Market volatility, for example, is a shallow risk. It is very visible and it is scary, there is even a TV channel devoted to it. (That TV channel is called CNBC.)

But taking on shallow risk is how you earn your investment keep. Thus, it should not be feared, it should be welcomed.

Now what are the deep risks you should ardently avoid? I can think of three: inflation risk, behavior risk and agency risk.

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ImageA few days ago, my wife came home telling me the story of a sweet old lady she had met at her army clinic.

She is a 75 year old lady from Thailand, married to an American veteran for 40 years. Her husband just passed away a few months ago at the age of 92.

She couldn’t stop telling my wife how much she missed her husband, that he had married her despite the fact that she was a divorced woman with kids and that she could barely speak English. She went on and on about how he had treated her like a queen, buying her all the pretty things women like and so on and so forth.

Now everytime she passes by her husband’s picture, she still cries; and yet the memory of her husband is all she’s got left, now that she has no income and the home she has lived in for 40 years is being foreclosed.

What happened?

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Image

One very very sharp reader of my blog sent an email to me, and here is what it said:

Aren’t these 2 philosophies opposites of each other? If the market prices correctly based on all available information, how can the stock price be different from the expected dividend? Aren’t these 2 prize winning economists speaking in opposites?

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ImageAs far as investment philosophy is concerned, I am solidly in the camp of Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama and Vanguard founder Jack Bogle. They both believe that the market is by and large efficient, and there is no point in picking stocks.

Most of my money is in broad-based passively managed asset class funds, but I do set aside 5% just to have some fun with and right now I only have three stocks in my fun account.

Safeway

I bought SWY last November after going to the Chicago Booth Entrepreneur Advisory Meeting. From the meeting, I learned that big retailers routinely write off their inventory at a huge loss. The reason being that they can not control demands as they have little information about the needs of the individual consumer, though they can usually make a rough guess on aggregate needs.

I noticed my wife had been shopping at Safeway more and more. After a little digging, I found out Safeway had set up a technology system to track each individual’s needs and price sensitivities. Then it can make targeted offers to shoppers like my wife that unfailingly brought her back over and over. I recalled my earlier meeting and realized they would save tons of money just from better inventory management.

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ImageIt really caught me by surprise when Eugene Fama, the newly minted Nobel laureate in Economics said: “It doesn’t matter that much.” when speaking about investing outside of the US.

OK sure, I can understand his point. Why invest outside of the US when the US markets already account of 40% of world capitalization? “The U.S. market is so well-diversified already that combining it with global markets doesn’t really matter,” so said Fama.

However, I think it actually does matter ….

Proportionally, the US market is getting smaller. Right after the second world war, the US market accounted for 70% of world capitalization, now it only accounts for 40%. For a country that boasts only 5% of of the world’s population, this is still exceptionally high.

For the foreseeable future, there are better than even odds that the combined markets outside of the US will grow faster than the US market will do alone. Why forego those opportunities?

The diversification benefit you’d get is certainly not negligible either. During the so-called ‘lost decade’ of 2000 to 2009, the US market, as measured by the S&P 500, had a net loss of 9.1%, while international developed markets went up by an anemic 12.4%, but emerging markets went up by a whopping 154.3%.

It would have made a bog difference if you have a piece of emerging markets in your portfolio.

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ImageWhen I was in California, I had a very intelligent debate with a doctor. He mentioned that in 2012, the US took in $2.5T in revenue and spent $3.6T in government expenditures.

He accurately pointed out, “If I spent like that, I would be bankrupt in a few years.” He believes so strongly that the US is going the way of national bankruptcy that he has moved substantial amounts of his money overseas and has invested a great deal in gold.

I happen to believe that gold is the most unproductive of assets, since it does not generate dividends or interest and it actually costs money for upkeep in a safe in a Singapore bank.

On top of that, by throwing so much money into gold, one could over prepare for a disaster that is very unlikely to happen and thereby miss out on all the opportunities to grow wealth in this country.

But I still need to explain why the US won’t go bankrupt anytime soon. Here are two explanations:

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There have been 17 government shutdowns in history. Today I asked my intern Taro Taguchi to analyze the market performances subsequent to shutdowns.

Using the closing price prior to the day of government shutdown as a base line, he found on average, the market rose 0.97% in one month, 2.38% in three months and 13.42% in a year.

If we isolate the 5 most severe shutdowns that lasted more than 10 days, the picture is a bit worse, but not by much. On average the market fell 4.19% in one month, fell .18% in three months and rose 9.63% in a year.

These historical precedents confirm my gut feeling that a government shutdown is really no big deal, as far as the market is concerned.

More worrisome is the upcoming debt ceiling fight. There is no precedent of US default to guide my outlook on this, but the longer the government shutdown lasts, the deeper heels get dug in by both parties and the more likely a default. Nevertheless, I’m still thinking that will also be a storm in a tea cup.

The bottom line is these are issues beyond our control, there is no point worrying about them. If worst comes to worst (ie default,) and the market should drop 20%. That’s actually great because then we can buy shares at a discount!

Image1. “The gross revenues for the financial services industry in 2010 were $1.129 trillion. That year, total US financial assets stood at $50.38 trillion, meaning that the financial services industry as a whole is skimming 2.25% a year out of everyone’s wealth.” This is an excerpt from a post on Wealthcare Capital entitled “Investment Expenses – The Other Millionaire You Make.” How about I help you cut those expenses by half?

2. Shocking! Shocking! Your elected representatives want the financial industry to continue ripping you off!

3. Ike Devji wrote a piece “Investment Fraud Red Flag for Physicians.” It is packed full of useful tips. I have one thing to add though, never work with a broker, regardless how clean his or her broker check record. These people are not legally obliged to watch out for your best interest.

4. A very succinct piece in Physicians’ Monday Digest about How Rising Interest Rates Would Affect You.

5. Taxpayers beware, AccountingToday has a piece on tax deductions expiring in 2014.

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I had a fun conversation with a prospective client who I lost a few months ago. He actually got me to create an investment plan for him, then he shopped around and found an advisor who charges less.

He then had the gall to call me back and ask whether I think he is paying too much for his new advisor. Here is what he said.

My advisor puts me in low cost ETFs and meets with me every quarter. But otherwise he does nothing with my portfolio, so what exactly do I pay him $15k for?

I know this gentleman has a sizable portfolio, and $15k means a fee of well below 1%. So I told him what I thought.

  1. The fee is very competitive.

  2. The advisor did the right thing by putting his money in low cost EFTs.

  3. Doing nothing with a portfolio is the only right thing to do!

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ImageIf you are a typical investor, given the choice between investing in a small cap value fund or a large cap growth fund, which one would you choose?

You would probably go with the large cap growth since “large cap” sounds a lot safer than “small cap,” and “growth” sounds a lot more promising than “value.”

To prove how wrong you are, I did a study of the relative performances of these two styles in the eight decades between 1931 and 2010. Here is what I found.

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ImageA client of mine is trying to get his money out of an ill-conceived investment. I want to share this with you so you don’t make the same mistakes.

In 2009, he had a windfall of $1m. He asked a lady who had sold him a bunch of annuities where he should put his newfound cash. He further told her he was already up to his neck in annuities so he wanted to take some risks.

The agent pointed him to a celebrity business. Basically, some hollywood celebrity was trying to start an online gaming business, and needed $30m to do so.

My client went to their presentation and was mesmerized by the income projection. Then, when he saw that one of his relatives was a minority partner in the venture, he was totally sold. He signed a check for $1m on the spot.

He might as well have flushed it down the toilet.

Here is what he did wrong.

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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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