The Future of Investment Advice

In order to understand the future of investment advice I think it is essential to understand how the industry has developed to where it is today.

When I started in the financial services industry back in the 1970’s retail customers got advice about what to buy and sell from their stockbrokers.  At the larger brokerage firms that usually meant that your broker would call you and tell that they or the firm’s research department had identified a stock that was a “buying opportunity”. This was often accompanied by a recommendation of what you should sell to pay for your new purchase so your broker would make not one, but two commissions from the recommendation.

When the stock market suddenly crashed in 1987 a lot of customers asked their stock broker why the broker had not seen the crash coming. The brokers really had no good answer. The crash took a lot of money out of the market and caused a lot of customers to lose faith in their broker’s ability to select investments for them.

Partially to placate those customers with something new and partially to make more money the industry introduced wrap accounts. A wrap account places the customer’s account into the hands of a professional money manager for an annual fee which is shared with the introducing stockbroker.

Wrap accounts introduced the idea that the individual brokers would be compensated on the customer assets under management (AUM) rather than the commissions that their accounts generated. This let the brokers do what they do best (sell) and let the professional money managers manage the accounts.

It also created a conflict of interest. Managers kept investors fully invested because that is what they had been hired to do. If the managers started to accumulate large cash positions in customers’ accounts, the customers might withdraw the cash. That would be counter-productive to the brokers who were being paid to bring in more and more new assets.

By the mid-1990s the market had recovered nicely and people started asking how long the boom would last.  At the end of 1996 Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan attributed the sharp run up in stock prices to “irrational exuberance”.  Neither the brokers nor the money managers advised the customers to sell when they had large profits and maintain a cash position

Much of the run-up in the 1990s was attributed to new tech companies that not everyone understood. Consequently, the firms hired highly qualified research analysts to parse through the various issues and recommend what they considered to be the best.

At the same time, the brokerage firms were making a lot of money by underwriting new issues of these tech stocks. In many cases the research analysts were working to support the efforts of the firms’ investment bankers. They only wrote reports describing why their firm’s banking client’s offerings were a “buying opportunity”.

That also created conflicts of interest.  When the market finally crashed it was revealed that some analysts had never suggested that the price of any of the stocks they covered would not go higher. Some analysts never recommended a “sell” on any stock they followed even when fundamental analysis told them that they should be selling.

Again, when the market crashed in 2001 a lot of people asked their broker why they did not see the crash coming or take some defensive action to protect their profits.  And again, the brokers did not have a good answer other than “no one can really predict the market” which, of course, is exactly the skill that the stockbrokers and money managers had been espousing to customers all along.

The brokers themselves got more than a little frustrated with the large wire houses and many jumped ship. Sometook their clients and set up shop as independent investment advisors.

The accounts were still housed at a brokerage firm that got paid a commission on each trade but the advisors now kept all of the annual account management fees. This was a better deal for the advisor even if they now needed to pay their own rent and overhead. The idea that no one can really predict the market suited these independent advisors well because they were more interested in acquiring new customers and assets than picking good investments.

That led to a concept that as long as a portfolio was diversified it really did not matter which stocks were in it. By diversifying the stock portion of the portfolio into different asset classes the advisors were trying to avoid what had happened in the tech wreck. The theory was that if you bought stocks in different asset classes, the collapse of one sector, like tech, would not hurt you too badly.

This did not help investors when the market crashed in 2008. This crash was caused by a bubble in real estate and foolish lending in the financial sector. Most companies are affected by what occurs with banks and real estate as both effect business and consumer spending. Diversification only mitigates certain risks. This crash involved a systemic risk, not an asset sector risk, a fact that many brokers never understood.

It should not surprise anyone that investors again asked their advisors why they did not get them out of the market before it crashed.  Again the response was “no one can predict the market”.

Since 2008 the advisor industry has seen the rise of robo-advisors.  These are popular with millennial investors who do not trust the Wall Street professionals after 2008.  Robo-advisors select portfolios based upon algorithms. This makes as much sense as throwing darts at a list of stocks and bonds even if you are a champion dart thrower.

Robo-advisors are not even attempting to predict the market and they are not programmed to ever sell the portfolio if the market starts to crash, which we all know, it will. They are just selling diversification at a lower price. They achieve “diversification” by buying mutual funds or ETFs. These contain so many stocks that mathematically, there is no actual diversification.

Robo-advisors advertise that people pay too much for investment advice. I would argue that most customers pay too little.  My current advisor spends countless hours poring over financial statements and research reports to pick individual stocks.  He gets the same 1% of AUM as advisors who put all of their clients into pre-selected diversified portfolios of various funds and ETFs without really knowing a lot about them or how they might be expected to perform. With investment advice, like everything else in life, the rule should be that you get what you pay for.

What I think may be an intelligent alternative going forward is for people to just put their investment advisor on a fixed monthly or yearly retainer.  It would cost more for a larger portfolio than a smaller one because all portfolios need to be constantly monitored and larger portfolios require more time. Advisors would keep their customers and get referrals by keeping their customers happy.

And what makes customers happy?  They want to have more money in their accounts at the end of the year than they had at the beginning of the year. That is true even if the market crashes because there is nothing more foolish than staying in the market when the market is going down.

The customers will never truly be happy and get the results they truly want until advisors thoroughly analyze and review the stocks they recommend and purchase and hold only those that they believe are likely to appreciate. They will never get there if advisors refuse to take profits and move to cash when the market indicates that they should. They will never get there if advisors diversify to mitigate some risks, but not all.

People actually do predict the future performance of individual stocks and the market in general. I doubt that you would be surprised if I told you that the ones who do it well get paid a lot of money by investment banks, mutual funds and large institutions.

The advisor industry needs to understand that parroting the phrase “no one can predict the market” every time the market corrects is the fastest way to be demonstrate that you do not know what you are doing. Providing beneficial investment advice takes time and effort. Advisors are entitled to be paid for their efforts. But first they have to actually do the work and that work is accurately predicting the future price of individual securities and the market in general.



Any Investor Can Beat an Index

People invest money to make money. That may not seem like a profound statement but a lot of investors think that it is a lot harder than it is and there is an ongoing debate that suggests that most professional investment advisors are not worth what they charge. Personally, I do not buy it.  I would not think of investing any significant sum without a competent advisor.

I know that most large institutional investors still use fundamental analysis and good old fashioned research to select investments.  CALPers, the nation’s largest public employee pension plan has several hundred research analysts on its staff.

The best research analysts are specialists who cover a single industry and have much more than a cursory understanding of the companies that they cover.  It is not unusual to find research analysts with degrees in electrical engineering covering tech companies or doctors who went from medical research to covering drug companies.

When I started on Wall Street the firms would release research reports to their institutional clients first and retail clients a day or two later.  With the advent of discount brokerage firms and DIY investors, a lot of the research available to individual investors has been watered down and is not very insightful.

I am not suggesting that every research analyst is great and there are a great many conflicts that color the reports that some analysts publish. What I am suggesting is that if you cannot read a research report and you do not read several before you make any investment decision, you are shortchanging yourself.

No one has to invest. Leaving your money in the bank where it will currently get you about 1% in interest is better than investing it in the market and losing 10% or more. This is especially true if you have only a minimal amount saved up.  Protect what you have before you start taking market risks.

A lot of people believe that they can just buy an index mutual fund or index ETF, hold it for the long term and everything will be fine.  The “common knowledge” is that the markets will likely be higher years down the road and that an index fund captures a large diversified basket of companies. Neither is necessarily true.

The markets today are higher than they have ever been. No one can tell where they will be next week, next year and certainly not a decade or two from now when you may need your money.  Whether your portfolio will be worth more or less than it is today when you retire is something that is best worked out with a financial planner.

Most financial planners will caution you about effects of inflation. Even if your portfolio is worth 20 years from now, its buying power may be less.

The idea that an index is diversified is also flawed. An index like the S&P 500 has stocks of the 500 largest companies.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average specifically excludes transportation companies and utilities.

To be diversified a portfolio needs to hold stocks that have a negative correlation to each other.  If you buy a large cap index, a mid cap index, a small cap index and a foreign index with the idea that they are diversified from each other, you are incorrect. Each is likely to hold airlines, telecommunications companies and financial institutions. That is not diversification.

Assuming that you could analyze all 500 stocks in the S&P 500, rank them to identify those which have the best value and create a portfolio of the top 150, you would probably beat the overall S&P 500 index every year.  If you identify the best and eliminate the clunkers, beating the entire index should not be difficult.

By best value, I would suggest that you include those companies whose shares are trading at the low end of their traditional P/E range.  Many market professionals look at the price/earnings ratio of individual stocks that they own and the market in general.  Price/earnings ratios move within a fairly standard range and when they get to the high end of the range they usually pull back and revert to the norm.  Both the current price and the outlook for near and medium term earnings for publically traded companies are readily available.

If you are a DIY investor and it is too much work for you to analyze 500 stocks or you do not need a portfolio with 150 stocks in it, there are easier ways to beat an index. One of the simplest is a strategy called “Dogs of the Dow.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is made up of 30 mature, blue chip companies. The earnings of the companies will vary depending on where in their particular business cycle the companies are and their stock price will fluctuate with the earnings. Most, however, have a fairly stable dividend payout policy.

The theory suggests that when a company is at the low end of its cycle and its stock price is low; its dividend yield will be high.  As the company bounces back, its stock price will rise and its dividend yield will return to its mid–range.

To execute the strategy you would purchase equal amounts of the 8 or 10 highest yielding Dow stocks, hold them for one year, sell them and repeat.  The strategy hopes to allow investors to capture both a high dividend and good price appreciation every year.

Understand that this is not asset allocation. Asset allocation is a method of balancing a portfolio with multiple market sectors hoping that the good ones will outweigh the bad.

Dogs of the Dow is a specific stock selection strategy.  You are attempting to select stocks that will appreciate in price faster than the other stocks in the Dow Jones Index.  A fair number of people use this strategy because it is very easy and because it works most of the time.

If you research Dogs of the Dow, you are likely to come across the Hennessey Funds.  The Hennessy Total Return Fund (HDOGX) invests 75% of its assets in the ten highest dividend-yielding Dow Jones Industrial Average stocks (known as the “Dogs of the Dow”) and 25% in U.S. Treasury securities.

Neil Hennessey was the person who first introduced me to this strategy somewhere around 1985.  He was working with it successfully back then and still does.

This strategy is not hard to master.  It shows that you do not have to be a rocket scientist to be a successful investor and in most years you will beat the index.



7 Reasons Why Robo-Investing Will Not Work. Millennials – Wake Up

Robo-investing is the next really big, really dumb thing. Millennials are expected to pour enormous amounts of money into these programs in the next few years. That would be an enormous mistake.

Robo-investment programs promise to help users to set up investment portfolios now and then to help manage those portfolios for the next 25 or 30 years. The portfolio with which you will end up, all those years down the road, is likely to be a disappointment.

I looked at a number of the websites and advertisements for these programs as I was writing this article. One proposes that a”moderate risk” portfolio would have 90% held in stocks. Another has a member of their investment team who takes a “holistic” approach to financial planning. That may be fine for some people but is not a serious approach to managing your money as far as I am concerned.

These computer programs do not have what it takes to intelligently construct a portfolio for you now or to manage it over a period of many years. Years from now, you will wish that you had a portfolio put together and monitored by a well trained and intelligent flesh and blood investment adviser. By then it will be too late.

Robo-investment advisers tout the fact that they cost less than a human investment adviser would cost. It does not really matter. Robo-investment advisers are inexpensive because they provide investors with little or no value.

If you have any doubt that these robo-investment adviser programs are less than worthless, here are seven obvious reasons why the actual portfolio that you will get from a robo-investment adviser program is likely to perform poorly.

Number One: It is not about your age.
One of the few personal questions that a robo-investment adviser program will ask is your age. If you are thirty the program will assume that you can afford to take on more risk than a person who is sixty. If it is suitable for you to take on more risk then your recommended portfolio will get more stock funds or ETFs and fewer bond funds and bond ETFs.

Investing based upon your age assumes that your age and the markets are somehow related. What you should or should not buy today is dependent upon the market, not upon your age. If you start down this path, what you will have bought or sold over the years that you stay with the program will have had nothing to do with what might have been a good investment at any time.

Number Two: Today might not be a good day to invest in either stocks or bonds.
Let us say that the program suggests that you create a portfolio that is 35% bond funds or bond ETFs and 60% stock funds or stock ETFs with 5% held in cash. In truth, it does not seem that most of these programs ever hold a lot of your funds in cash which always increases the portfolio risk.

If you begin investing this year when the stock market averages are making new highs it is reasonable to expect that next year or the year after the market might correct. It is very possible that five years down the road 60% of your portfolio will be worth less than it is today.

After seven years of forced low interest rates is this a good time to put 35% of your money into bond funds or ETFs? Savvy investors know that bond funds do not do well when interest rates rise. The computer will not adjust for the hike in interest rates that everyone knows is coming until after it happens and the portfolio has taken the loss.

Number Three: It is about the right math, the right data and more.
Robo-investment advisers claim to have sophisticated algorithms that will crunch the numbers and produce good results. The algorithms may be good but these programs look at the wrong numbers. A robo-investment adviser never gets past a limited set of gross market data. A robo-investment adviser never actually looks at any company’s balance sheet. They are an example of the GIGO principle of statistical analysis; garbage in, garbage out.

It is not only about the numbers. Before I would invest in any company I would want to know about products that the company might have in the pipeline, what its competitors were up to and what the CEO is thinking about. I am not alone. A robo-investment adviser is never interested in these things that most other investors would want to know.

Number Four: Investing cannot be done in a vacuum.
The computer program does not get a live news feed and would not know if Germany had invaded Poland so events leading up to any crisis that might affect the markets and the portfolio would necessarily be ignored. The program does not concern itself with current commodity prices, currency rates or international politics. Intelligent investors do.

To my mind, using a robo-investment adviser to construct and manage your long-term portfolio is the same as making all of your investment decisions from inside a small closet with the lights off and the door closed.

Number Five: The markets will not be static for the next 25 years.
The noted theorists upon whose works Modern Portfolio Theory and asset allocation are based were examining data from the markets prior to 1990. The financial markets have evolved significantly in the last 25 years. It is not just the speed or the technology. The markets are now global, there are a lot more participants and there is a lot more money in play. How the markets will continue to evolve and operate in the next 25 years is anyone’s guess and is certainly not built into any robo-investment program.

Number Six: The data that the program uses to select portfolios is based upon the past performance of the markets and past performance only. I should not have to tell you that past performance is an unreliable indicator of future results. If you invest with any one of these programs future results are exactly what you are trying to achieve. Why use data that is unlikely to get you there?

Number Seven: Human beings are actually necessary.
The sales pitch for these robo-investment advisers suggests that can do better than any human financial adviser. One company even touts that its program alleviates the risk of human error.

Using a robo-investment adviser will inevitably lead to portfolio losses every time the stock market goes down or interest rates go up. It will never tell you to avoid downturns or to get out of the markets all together before a crash. Likewise, the program never looks for new companies that might do very well or for any other investment opportunities that might make you money.

Severe market downturns can be scary. Investors are prone to panic. When your account value is dropping you are going to want someone to call. The robo-investment adviser will offer neither solace nor advice. That will only come from a knowledgeable human being. For that you have to pay a little more.