LAST WEEK, I TALKED about some of the unsettling trends in the financial markets. In that article, I focused on the role of brokers and day traders, and noted that it takes two to tango. But it turns out the dance floor is quite a bit more crowded than that.
Yes, brokers and day traders are doing their part, but there’s another set of actors who are less visible but a whole lot more influential.
IN HER MOST RECENT book, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright quotes Mussolini. “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time,” he said, “no one will notice.”
Don’t worry, I’m not veering into political commentary. But when I heard this quote, it brought to mind what we’ve been seeing in the financial markets this year. Taken individually, there’s nothing that strikes me as a clear red flag. But taken together, the current environment looks a little bit like a chicken that—all of a sudden—seems to have lost a whole lot of feathers.
THIS PAST WEEK, I received an email from a reader—let’s call him Tom. He described his experience during this year’s unruly stock market. After the market dropped in February and March, he said, the stock side of his portfolio lost a lot of its value. He decided to rebalance—that is, to buy more stocks so his original asset allocation would be restored. That is just what I would have done. But the key question—always,
I CAME ACROSS a statistic so surprising it was hard to believe: During the recent market downturn, according to Fidelity Investments, approximately 15% of investors sold all of their stock holdings. And among investors age 65 and older, nearly a third sold all their stock market investments. It was a discouraging figure, meaning that large numbers of people had picked exactly the wrong time to abandon their investments.
Fortunately, the figures were corrected a few days later.
AS AN INDIVIDUAL investor, what’s the key to success? It’s a question I hear a lot, especially in volatile times like this.
The answer, I think, is that there isn’t just one key, but rather five. The most successful investors seem to be equal parts optimist, pessimist, analyst, economist and psychologist. Together, I call these the five minds of the investor. If you can develop and balance all five, that—I believe—is the key to investment success.
EVERY YEAR, when spring rolls around, investment folks trot out a favorite catchphrase: “Sell in May and go away.” This is based on the idea that the stock market lags during the summer, as people go on vacation.
While it may sound hokey as an investment rule, it’s hardly the only one. There’s also the January effect, which says that stocks do better just after the new year. Its cousin, the January barometer, stipulates that the market will have a good year if it has a good January.
IF YOU HAVE a surplus in your household budget, what’s the best use for it? Does it make more sense to pay down debt or to invest those extra funds? With interest rates at such low levels, this is a question I’ve been hearing with increasing frequency.
Suppose your mortgage rate is 3.5%. If you pay down that debt, it’s like earning 3.5%. By contrast, if you invested in the stock market, your annual return would be uncertain.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, before the coronavirus hit, my family visited an amusement park. Everyone had fun—except my nine-year-old, who complained about the injustice of the rigged “down the clown” game.
You have probably seen this sort of thing: You’re given a handful of baseballs. Then, standing from about 10 feet away, the challenge is to knock down as many mechanical clowns as possible for a chance to win a prize. It doesn’t appear difficult—you aren’t that far away and the clowns are tightly spaced—but most people walk away empty-handed.
CONVERSATIONS on Twitter aren’t known for their civility. Still, it came as a surprise last week when, out of the blue, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb launched a broadside against investor Clifford Asness, calling his work “crap,” along with other insults.
Asness wasted no time firing back, calling Taleb “very wrong and clearly both nuts and a world class terrible person.”
From there, the insults escalated: nasty, overrated, unoriginal, illogical, pretentious, emetic. That last one I had to look up in the dictionary.
WITH EVERYTHING that’s been going on recently, one story that’s received less attention is the ongoing spat between the White House and the board of the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). As of a few days ago, there had been a ceasefire in the debate, but it isn’t over. It’s worth understanding what’s at stake—because the underlying issue has been a recurring theme in the investment industry.
If you aren’t familiar with the TSP, it’s one of the retirement plans available to federal government workers.
ON JAN. 10, 2000, America Online co-founder Steve Case stood on stage in New York to announce the largest corporate takeover in American history, buying venerable Time Warner for $165 billion. At the time, commentators called it the merger of the century. But just five years later, Case acknowledged that it was actually “the worst merger in history” and argued that it was time “to take it apart.”
Making financial decisions is difficult even in good times.
IT’S OFTEN SAID investors are driven by fear and greed. But I’d add a third item to the list: regret.
The past year and a half have been enough of a rollercoaster to rattle even the most even-keeled investor, creating ample opportunity for regret. Since the fall of 2018, the stock market has dropped 20%, gained 30%, dropped 35% and then gained 30% again. Result? Here are some of the sentiments I’ve been hearing over the past month:
“Why didn’t I sell at the top?”
“Why didn’t I buy at the bottom?”
“Why did I bother with international stocks?”
“Why did I buy high-yield bonds?”
“For the love of God,
I JUST CAME ACROSS a magazine article from the B.C. era—before coronavirus. The article, which appeared in a popular personal finance magazine, described a certain type of bond investment. The writeup was well researched and balanced, including a discussion of various risks.
In fact, the author raised the possibility of an economic downturn. How did he assess that prospect? “Recession, as always, is a risk,” he wrote, “but where’s the recession? Not seeing it,
I HAVE A BIG problem with a small word. But before I get to that, I’ll start with a little bit of history.
In his book The Success Equation, Michael Mauboussin tells this story: Back in the 1970s, a Spanish man won the country’s biggest national lottery, called El Gordo—the Big One. Awarded annually at Christmastime, it’s the rough equivalent of our Powerball. In this particular year, when the winner was interviewed,
WHEN I WAS IN GRADE school, I remember a field trip to a highflying local company called Prime Computer. At the time—it was the 1980s—Prime was a Fortune 500 company with a popular line of minicomputers and a runaway stock. Today, Prime is long gone and barely remembered. A Wikipedia page is about all that remains.
For a long time, I didn’t understand this. How could a company so successful simply cease to exist?