Investing for Millennials

There is an ongoing discussion in the investment advisor industry regarding how to attract millennial investors. I have read several articles that suggest that a great many millennials have minimal savings.  And for those who do, investing for retirement may not be a high priority.

Many millennials are drawn to robo-advisor platforms. I find robo investment advisors to be a sick joke foisted on millennials and others by an industry that makes its money gathering assets.  If for no other reason than robo platforms will never advise investors to sell, the portfolios of many robo investors will suffer losses when the market comes down.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of asset allocation if you have a portfolio of size, are investing for the long term and allocate and re-balance your portfolio correctly.  But most robo platforms do not allocate portfolios correctly. There is a wide variance of portfolio allocations from platform to platform so investors really cannot know with any certainty how the platform they select will perform.

I have seen more than one study that suggested that millennials are attracted to robo investment platforms not just for their convenience and affinity for technology but because a great many millennials distrust the human financial advisors who their parents used.  Trust is important when you select any professional to work for you.

But the wholesale lack of trust in financial advisors is misplaced. I say that as a representative of the generation that coined the phrase: “don’t trust anyone over 30.” The truth is that the best investment advisors are older, having been seasoned by a market cycle or two. There was a lot to be learned when the market crashed in 1987, 2001 and 2008.  Advisors who were around and learned those lessons should be less likely to let their clients take losses in the next crash when it comes.

There is an annoying debate based upon studies that suggest that the average financial advisor cannot get even average returns, meaning equal to a broad index, year in and year out. The debate tips toward the idea that passive investing, just buying the index or sectors within the index, is superior.  Passive index and sector investing is what you get with a robo platform.

For the most part, the large institutions, insurance companies, pension plans and endowments, still invest the old fashioned way; using fundamental securities analysis to purchase investments that will either provide a good continual rate of income or which are likely to appreciate in price. Most stocks and bonds are bought and sold on the basis of research. Robo and passive investing is still a small portion of the overall trading volume.

Most asset allocation models counsel that younger investors can accept more risk and allocate a higher percentage of the portfolio to stocks.  The theory is that younger investors can take more risk because they have more time to make up losses if they occur.  Stocks are usually riskier than bonds.  If you invest a significant portion of your portfolio in stocks or a stock index you are guaranteed to experience losses when the stock market comes down.

Investing in an index, riding it up and then down is foolish. A smart investor gets out of the market before the market turns down. A smart investor takes their profits when their stocks move up and then invests in something else.

There is also an idea that millennials can begin investing with a very small amount of money. In some cases, I have seen firms advertising that you can start with as little as $500 or $1000.  I would certainly encourage any young person to begin saving, but a diversified portfolio of securities on a robo platform is not where you should begin.

If you were to take a reputable course in financial planning one of the first lessons that you will learn is about something called the investment pyramid. If you Google “investment pyramid,” you will find that there are many versions of it but that all are variations on the same basic theme; save first, invest later.

An investment pyramid starts with the idea that before you invest your first dollar you should have some cash in savings.  The standard has always been enough to cover 6 months of living expenses in case you find yourself unemployed because the company downsized or you cannot work due to an accident or illness.

The idea behind any investment pyramid is that you build a sound base for your portfolio of safer, income producing investments, usually bonds, before you buy anything else. The interest from the bonds, together with your annual contributions, will help the portfolio grow.  After you have built a sound foundation you can move up to the next layer of the pyramid.

The second tier of the pyramid also contains income producing investments, usually dividend paying stocks and REITs. At this point the idea is to have a steady income stream from everything in which you invest.  In many cases, the companies in which you invest will have dividend re-investment programs that will allow you to accumulate additional shares without paying commissions.

As you move into stocks you should diversify your portfolio into different sectors, some energy stocks; some pharmaceutical companies; some transportation companies.  It matters less if all the companies pay dividends. In years when one company’s share price is down, the dividend re-investment program will purchase more shares at the lower price. Over time, this will have the effect of lowering the average price per share that you paid and increase the overall dividend yield of the portfolio.

Once you have a solid base and a second tier both of which produce income that will continue to add value to your portfolio, you can add a third tier of growth stocks and a smaller top tier of more speculative investments.  Do not take risks with your money unless and until you have taken care of the business of building a portfolio that will take care of you after you retire.

Let us say that you are fortunate enough to put away $50 -$75 thousand by the time that you are 35 years old. Using an investment pyramid you will likely hold only cash and bonds.  If you use a robo investor platform you are likely to hold mostly stocks which may be worth more or less than the money that you actually put into the account.  This is a lot like the story of the tortoise and the hare; the tortoise usually wins over the long term.

The counter argument, and you will find it everywhere, is that stocks will potentially give you more bang for your buck. Smart people will tell you that you will be sorry if you fail to invest in the next Amazon when it comes along. If you can spot the next Amazon and the one after that and so on, you do not need advice from me.

The importance is that you realize that if you use a robo platform they are more likely than not going to steer you into stocks. If you use the investment pyramid model, you are going to start out with bonds and stay with bonds for a while. Its apples and oranges.