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Breaking the Rules

Jonathan Clements  |  June 27, 2020

YOU KNOW THOSE timeless financial principles? Sometimes they don’t age so well.

Since I started writing about money in 1985, all kinds of financial principles have gone out the window—and that’s continued right up until 2020. Indeed, if you’re still hewing to the financial wisdom of the 1980s, you’re likely hurting yourself today. Here are four examples:

1. Goodbye, Peter. In the late 1980s, America’s most celebrated fund manager was Fidelity Magellan’s Peter Lynch. Back then, and for years after his 1990 retirement, the hunt continued for the next superstar fund manager. Investors would scour past mutual fund performance, confident that it would be a reliable guide to future results.

Today, that confidence has largely evaporated—with good reason: Most fund managers lag behind the market and, among those who don’t, there’s no surefire way to identify the winners ahead of time or distinguish the truly skillful from the merely lucky. Indeed, the proliferation of index funds over the past two decades hasn’t just offered investors an alternative to actively managed funds. It’s also given folks a measuring stick against which to compare those active managers—and, year after year, the managers keep coming up short.

What’s amazing isn’t that investors have lost confidence in past performance and their belief in exceptional money managers. Rather, what’s amazing is that it took so long. It’s been clear since Alfred Cowles’s groundbreaking 1933 study in Econometrica that professional investors typically lagged behind the stock market averages. But for years after, Wall Street continued to propagate the myth that the professionals could make money by exploiting the stupidity of everyday investors—which was not only self-serving nonsense, but also insulting to the very customers they hoped to win over.

2. Broken yardsticks. Starting in the 1990s, stock market valuations broke out of their historical range and climbed skyward. Old timers warned that valuations would soon come crashing back to earth. They’re still waiting.

To be sure, rising price-earnings ratios and declining dividend yields can be partly explained by falling interest rates, which have made stocks more attractive relative to the main alternative—bonds. But it seems some enduring financial trends are also driving the rise in stock valuations, including falling investment costs, ever more capital available to invest, a rising appetite for risk, corporations’ growing preference for stock buybacks over dividends, and the move to spend less on plant and equipment and more on research and development. This last change has resulted in lower reported earnings and hence higher price-earnings multiples.

The upshot: Today’s stock market valuations are undoubtedly rich by historical standards. But it’s hard to know what to do with that information or whether we should even worry—because it doesn’t tell us anything about short-term returns and it may not be that important to long-run results.

3. Loans’ love lost. Our constantly changing tax code has long kept investors on their toes, whether it’s embracing Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s, funding health savings accounts or shoveling money into 529 plans.

But arguably the biggest tax change of recent decades came in 2017, when Congress voted to double the size of the standard deduction. That meant that these days just 10% or so of taxpayers itemize their deductions—and, for these folks, their itemized deductions are often barely above their standard deduction. Result? Most homeowners get no tax benefit from the mortgage interest they pay and, among those who do, the tax savings are often modest.

Some financial experts used to argue that homeowners should take out the largest mortgage possible. That was always a dubious financial principle, but now it’s downright foolish. In fact, paying down debt—including mortgage debt—is typically the best conservative investment we can make. Yes, we should earn higher returns over the long haul by buying stocks rather than repaying borrowed money. But paying off debt will almost always prove more rewarding than buying high-quality bonds and cash investments, because today’s yields are so low.

4. Yielding to reality. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the key implications of today’s tiny bond yields. The biggest impact is on retirees. Because yields on high-quality bonds are so low, delaying Social Security and buying immediate fixed annuities have become more attractive ways to generate retirement income.

Indeed, the core strategy for many retirees—buying bonds and then paying the household bills with the interest—simply doesn’t work anymore. After all, how many retirees are rich enough to live off a portfolio of high-quality bonds, which today would likely kick off less than 2%? It’s time to stop thinking about bonds as a standalone investment. Instead, their sole remaining role is as a complement to stocks. They can provide offsetting gains when the stock market nosedives, a rebalancing partner for stocks, and a way to raise cash if it’s a bad time to sell shares.

My advice for retirees: Forget investing for yield and instead aim to earn a healthy total return by allocating at least half your portfolio to stocks. In buoyant years for the stock market, look to harvest gains. In rough years, get your spending money by selling bonds and cash investments.

Think about what all of the above changes have meant for our personal finances. Two or three decades ago, many folks would have had a portfolio of actively managed funds, a nervous eye on stock market valuations, a collection of bonds to pay for retirement, and a hefty mortgage that they grumbled about each month but celebrated on April 15. Are you still managing your money that way? Maybe it’s time to revisit those “timeless” principles.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include In Our Own WayFarewell Yield and Knowing Me.

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