The financial markets are now closed for the year and with all of the theatrics the verdict is in. Those investors with the following five characteristics prevail over those who fall victim to a host of mistakes and unsuccessful approaches:
- Investing from a superior position of financial strength.
- Being well prepared for a range of possible outcomes.
- Having an investment philosophy and approach you can confidently stick with and win with through thick and thin.
- Tuning out the noise, taming the emotion and focusing on what you can control.
- Investing for long-term success and, in the process, avoiding anxiety-toxic predictions, moves, comparisons, concentrations and traps.
What are tactical adjustments? In their 1986 asset allocation research, Brinson, Beebower, & Hood defined tactical asset allocation as:
“…strategically altering the investment mix weights away from normal in an attempt to capture excess returns from short-term fluctuations in asset class prices (market timing);”
The role of tax strategies in trading and managing investment portfolios
Certain tax strategies can add a meaningful boost to portfolio performance because taxes are an explicit cost to any portfolio and, therefore, a detractor from performance. Although tax situations are unique to each individual, any strategy that limits or delays the tax bill and retains more after-tax return for investors will face little argument.
“Avoidance of taxes is not a criminal offense. Any attempt to reduce, avoid, minimize, or alleviate taxes by legitimate means is permissible. The distinction between evasion and avoidance is fine yet definite. One who avoids tax does not conceal or misrepresent. He shapes events to reduce or eliminate tax liability and upon the happening of the events, makes a complete disclosure. Evasion, on the other hand, involves deceit, subterfuge, camouflage, concealment, some attempt to color or obscure events, or making things seem other than what they are.”— Internal Revenue Manual Code 184.108.40.206.2.1 (05-15-2008) 26 USC §7201 – Avoidance Distinguished from Evasion
Assuming all investors pay taxes either now or later, the chart below illustrates the benefit of delaying taxes. We assume a portfolio of 60% stocks, 40% bonds that is rebalanced every year. The solid line depicts the growth of the 100% taxable portfolio, while the dotted line shows portfolio growth in a 100% tax-deferred portfolio. Of course, the taxman arrives eventually, so we show the hit (a worst-case all-at-once tax consequence) to the tax-deferred line when withdrawing at ordinary income tax rates.
No single input is more important to a portfolio’s success than asset allocation, or determining how much to allocate to various asset classes.
In 1986, authors Gary Brinson, Gilbert Beebower, and Randolph Hood conducted an in-depth study of the various sources of investment returns. Specifically, they analyzed quarterly returns from 1974-1983 for the 91 largest pension funds, and determined that 93.6% of the returns generated were a result of asset allocation.
In a follow-on study in 1991, the authors concluded that 91% of portfolio returns are determined by asset allocation.
Financial advisors can provide peace of mind. But do they deliver a demonstrable, dollars-and-cents advantage to their clients?
Two studies show that the answer is yes—if the advisor is diligent in providing several key services. Let’s start with research from Morningstar, the big Chicago-based investment research firm. A 2012 Morningstar study found that advisors who use an “efficient financial planning strategy” can help clients increase their retirement assets significantly.
When it comes to financial planning, I have found that a systematic approach is needed to make important decisions, focus on what matters most, and evaluate options. In previous posts I introduced the guiding principles of wealth management:
- Make your balance sheet, cash flow, and portfolio your friend
- Compare your finances to standards of excellence
- Stress-test your financial plan
- Know what is holding you back and spurring you forward
- Be specific and proactive to make permanent changes
In my previous four posts I introduced my guiding principles of wealth management, along with the first four principles (links to one, two, three and four). Today I will discuss the fifth and last guiding principle:
Be specific and proactive by identifying and implementing the actions that will result in the best permanent changes
Over the years, I have had the privilege of observing how clients meet challenges and tackle opportunities. Some have a knack for succeeding in any task they take on, while others seem to struggle more than they need to. Eventually, I saw a key distinction between these two groups: Successful people are usually very specific and proactive, while those who struggle tend to be vague and reactive. They set goals, but they do not follow through with a plan of specific actions aimed at meeting those goals. Consequently, instead of controlling events, they wind up responding to events. Getting stuck in reactive mode is another example of the 85% Trap.
By contrast, when successful people see a need or set a goal for themselves, they develop a specific plan of action. In keeping with the concept of the Essential 15%, they strive to find a permanent solution to every challenge, as opposed to a solution that requires ongoing effort.
In my last few posts I have discussed my first few guiding principles for wealth management: make your balance sheet your friend and compare your financial plan to standards of excellence. Today I will discuss the third principle:
Back-test and stress-test your financial plan under various scenarios to further reveal strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities.
The “Elastic Limit” is a term I’ve borrowed from engineering because it has tremendous relevance in wealth management and financial planning. It refers to the amount of stress a material can withstand before undergoing permanent deformation. For example, if you stand on a wooden bench, the wood may sag a bit and bounce back when you jump off. However, if several NFL linemen stand on the same bench, the wood will probably warp, crack, or break.
Compare your finances to standards of excellence and use them to make enhancements
When people with wealth describe to me how they view their current position, they use a wide variety of yardsticks to measure themselves. Some are troubled because they are comparing their finances to friends, family, or associates who appear to be much better off. Others are troubled because they have lost a large portion of their net worth through market declines, bad investments, or business setbacks.
It is more common, though, to meet people who feel quite confident and secure because they’re doing much better than they imagined they would when they were younger. Their confidence may be fueled by the good opinion of others around them, since wealthy, successful people are often accorded tremendous respect and kid-glove treatment.
There is nothing wrong with these benefits of success, but you can’t allow them to lull you into false assumptions about your financial position. If you want to know where you really stand in terms of financial strength, you need to employ objective standards of excellence.
In this article, I will discuss what I call the first guiding principle for managing wealth:
Make your balance sheet, cash flow, and portfolio your friend
There is a critical distinction between possessing a high net worth and having a strong balance sheet, cash flow, and portfolio. Problems in these three areas can give rise to huge frustrations and mistakes. The predicament of a gentleman I’ll call “Harry” illustrates this point.
In terms of net worth, Harry was in an excellent position, with total assets valued at somewhere north of $60 million. I would have thought it safe to assume that his balance sheet, cash flow, and portfolio were spectacular, but that was not the case. A very high percentage of his assets was locked up in a private company he owned, or in his homes and other personal property. In fact, when I first met him, his liquid and semi-liquid assets were not sufficient to sustain his rate of spending for much longer. Though he had a $3 million portfolio, he was beginning to tap it at an unsustainable rate. Harry was wealthy and he felt wealthy, but he was heading toward an inevitable cash crunch.
Part of Harry’s problem was that he needed to be more cost conscious. A lot of his cash flow problems came down to over-paying for various goods and services. His mortgage payments were much higher than they needed to be. He was bleeding cash in the form of high brokerage fees. He was paying far too much for financial advice and services that were focusing on the 85% Trap and missing the Essential 15%.