Evaluate the Forest, not each Tree
Warren Buffett has a way of communicating financial principles in ways that hit home, and this year’s annual letter to shareholders is no exception. He’s managed Berkshire Hathaway since 1965, growing the company into a $500 billion conglomerate that owns and operates 66 different businesses generating $225 billion in sales.
Brady Siegrist, CFP, Managing Director of Wealth Management at Janiczek Wealth Management explains how the color-coded Wealth Optimization Dashboard, a key exclusive feature of Janiczek’s patented system, can help all clients, regardless of their net worth, business knowledge, age or investment savvy.
We monitor and measure things everyday. We glance at our speedometer to confirm we are not exceeding the speed limit. Thermometers tell us if we are running a fever or if our outside plants are in danger of freezing. A scale lets us know if an envelope requires extra postage. Think of all the diagnostic tests that report plusses and minuses of our physical well-being. How, then, do we measure our financial well-being? Why does financial strength matter?
Strength = Durability
Contrary to what some may assume, the number of digits it takes to record a person’s net worth is not an indicator of his or her financial strength. Size does not determine financial strength. Rather, durability is the measure of strength.
Powerful changes in today’s world are empowering individuals and consumers like no other time in history. But as our employment, political and social circles rapidly change, we seek ways to cope, survive and thrive under these new circumstances. While providing tremendous opportunities on one end, they challenge our beliefs and security blankets on the other. These changes can at first seem alarming because they not only allow us to be our best but actually demand us to be our best. How do we handle all of this change? What do we do?
The turbulence of our times demands strong finances and habits that can be effective in all economic climates. With the breakdown of employment security, it is a dangerous moment in history not to have our finances in tip-top shape. To face the future with poor financial flexibility and stamina creates a severe disadvantage. Therefore, the economic and job stability we cannot find in the outside world must be created within our own personal finances.
While the S&P 500 remained near its all-time high, the recent massive selloff in the technology sector went mostly unnoticed. But for investors who follow the so-called “FANG” stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) the hit was painful: About $60 billion in value was wiped out in just one afternoon, representing the largest selloff in nearly 2 years.
The wipeout was a function of just how big these companies have become and the position they are in with new tax reform looming. Tech companies are expected to receive little benefit given its already-low average tax rate of 18.5% (below the 20% proposed rate).
This has caused investors to rotate out of the tech stocks and into the financial services sector, which stands to benefit more from a corporate tax rate that would drop from the current 35% to 20%.
Interestingly, the S&P 500 was relatively unaffected while this rotation into financials and out of tech ensued. The index’s volatility actually remained low, as did correlations among the S&P 500’s member stocks.
In other words, the diversity offered by the S&P 500 Index allowed for the index too remain relatively unscathed by the trading within the tech and financial sectors, a key reminder to investors that having proper exposure across the markets continues to be important with the S&P 500 near its all-time high.
Does intelligence equate with investment management success?
What might it take to succeed in investing? Intelligence alone? You have to be intelligent to get into Mensa. They only accept applicants with IQs that place them in the top 2 percent of the population. One might expect that if Mensa members formed an investment club, their returns would exceed market averages, or at least match them. In actuality, between 1986 and 2001, while the S&P 500 was returning a robust 15.3% annually, the Mensa Investment Club had average returns of 2.5% per year.
How did these geniuses and near geniuses manage such poor results in such a strong market? Their basic problem was a lack of discipline. Instead of using their intellects to determine a sound investment approach and sticking with it, they got sidetracked into exploring trendy new tools and theories of how to predict market trends. When one strategy didn’t work they tried another. They made frequent trades, thus increasing their transaction costs. In short, they provided a perfect example of Warren Buffett’s comment: “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with the 130 IQ.” Common sense and discipline will beat erratic genius every time.
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.
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%.
Wealthy families or their advisors rarely appreciate hearing the term “generation-skipping transfer tax” (GSTT) The nuances of this specific tax law can be quite complicated, but there’s a reason for it: families and individuals often enjoy giving from one generation to the next, and the GSTT offers a fixed rate that ensures such gifts are taxed appropriately.
There is a recent study from Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, an estimated $59 trillion will be transferred from 2007 to 2061. While not all of that is subject to the GSTT, it does illustrate how important such a tax is today – and will become for the future (simplistically thinking about our federal deficit and the upward trending expectations for servicing our debt through higher taxes—the government will get their cut!).
It’s been an annual tradition of mine to put something special together to share with clients and friends for the new year. This year, the theme is “The Big Breakthrough” and it includes three powerful tools for mastering time, focus and wealth. Watch the video presentation and download the companion worksheets below: