My Confession

Adam M. Grossman

BACK IN 2017, I WROTE about an oddity in my portfolio—an actively managed mutual fund that I bought without much thought to how it fit with my overall financial goals. Today, I have a confession. That fund isn’t the only oddity I own. In the interest of transparency—and because I hope readers will find it instructive—here are five more oddities, plus the thinking behind each:

  • While I firmly believe that low-cost index funds are the best way to build wealth and I believe that stock-picking is a fool’s errand, I own about a dozen individual stocks.
  • While I firmly believe that diversification is critical, one of these stocks accounts for more than 10% of my portfolio.
  • While I believe in the potential for value stocks to outperform—a view I reiterated just six days ago—I don’t have an overweight to value stocks myself.
  • While I despise hybrid stock-bond funds and regularly caution against them, I actually own one of these funds.
  • While I advise against private investment partnerships—because of the high fees and uneven quality—I’ve participated in a handful of such investments.

How do I explain these inconsistencies? Don’t I believe my own advice? Am I knowingly violating key investment principles because I think I know better—not unlike investment manager Cliff Asness, who once suggested it was okay for investors to “sin a little”? No, I wholeheartedly believe in the investment principles I advocate and I’m not trying to outsmart them. Here’s how I think about my apparent inconsistencies:

1. Yes, I have a collection of individual stocks, but that paints a misleading picture. The overwhelming majority of my portfolio is in a simple mix of index funds that’s designed to weather the stock market’s ups and downs. That, in my opinion, is the most important thing—to get the big picture right. No portfolio is entirely free of oddities.

2. All but one of the individual stocks in my portfolio represent tiny percentages. Many are just 0.1%. So why bother with them at all? The truth is that these are all vestiges from earlier in my career when I worked as an equity analyst—that is, as a stock-picker.

I keep these stocks because they’re reminders of the counterintuitive reality of stock-picking. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that the rewards when you pick a winner can dwarf the returns of a humble index fund. Indeed, in recent years, it has seemed easy to pick winners. Companies like Apple and Amazon aren’t exactly secrets, and their stocks have done phenomenally well.

But that’s just one side of the stock-picking coin. Here’s the other: What the data show, time after time, is that it’s incredibly difficult to build a portfolio of market-beating stocks. When I look at my own portfolio, I see this in living color. I can pat myself on the back for buying Netflix years ago. But I can’t escape seeing GE alongside it.

I also can’t escape the memory of A123 Systems, an electric car battery maker that went to zero. If I had allocated my A123 investment to Tesla instead, it probably would have put my kids through college. The bottom line: There’s no experience like your own experience. Maybe I pay a small price for hanging on to this motley collection of stocks, but they’ve more than paid for themselves with the large role they play in my investment mindset.

3. Owning a big winner is great, but it can leave you in a tricky spot. Suppose you own one or more of the so-called FAANG stocks—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google (a.k.a. Alphabet). When stocks like these deliver outsized returns, it can leave an investor with two less-than-ideal options: You either live with the risk inherent in an outsized position—or you pay capital gains taxes to reduce it.

The challenge: Looking forward, you never know whether a big bet is going to help or hurt. If you did, there wouldn’t be any question of whether to hold it or sell it. That’s the situation I’m in, and it explains my one hefty individual stock position. Since I don’t have a crystal ball, I’ve adopted a split-the-difference approach, selling some shares, donating some and holding some. The lesson: In managing your portfolio, there will inevitably be challenges and imperfections. Don’t worry too much about these things. As noted in No. 1 above, worry more about the big picture.

4. In my work as a financial planner, I try to be my own guinea pig. That explains the stock-bond fund that I despise so much. I thought it would be a great all-in-one solution, but I’ve since discovered its many drawbacks. Unfortunately, I bought it during the last recession at a low price, so there would be a tax bite if I sold now. There is a silver lining, though. Like the individual stocks, it’s a reminder of what not to do. That’s a small price to pay if I can use this experience to help others avoid the same pitfall.

5. Real estate is a challenging asset class. Almost without exception, my own portfolio—and that of my clients—is invested in stocks, bonds and cash investments. But that leaves a big hole: real estate. Many investment advisors use real estate investment trusts (REITs) to fill this hole, but I’ve never found this to be a satisfying solution. The returns of publicly traded REITs aren’t much to write home about, while nontraded REITs are something the SEC has written about.

This explains the investment partnerships I’ve tried out. They’re all in real estate. The results? They’ve been pretty good, even after the high fees, but it’s been very uneven. One project owns the land under a supermarket. That’s delivered steady but unexceptional returns. Another built apartments in an up-and-coming area, and that provided a quick, positive return.

But offsetting that gain is another project that’s been mired for years in a zoning battle and may be a total loss. I still don’t recommend private funds of any kind, including real estate, private equity and hedge funds. I just don’t think that, on average, they’re worth the fees, the opacity and the risk. But if you do go down this road, be sure to diversify. That’s always important, but it’s even more important in this realm.

6. English philosopher Carveth Read said, “It’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.” If you ask why I recommend an overweight to value stocks but haven’t implemented it myself, this is the reason. When building a portfolio, there are some things that are important—and some things that are really important.

In my view, asset allocation and diversification are most important. I work hard to get those right, and that’s where I focus most of my time. Meanwhile, a tilt toward value is more like the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. Yes, I should add it, and I know I’m giving something up because I haven’t done it yet. But in the end, this helps illustrate a reality for all of us as we manage our financial life: No question, it’s good to have a true north in terms of investment principles. But if you veer a little to the left or the right, it doesn’t make you a sinner. It just makes you human.

Adam M. Grossman is the founder of Mayport, a fixed-fee wealth management firm. In his series of free e-books, he advocates an evidence-based approach to personal finance. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrossman and check out his earlier articles.

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