Smart People, Dumb Investments

When I started this financial blog a couple years ago, I wondered if I would run out of ideas to blog about.  Luckily, so far anyhow, I have had a different problem — How to choose amongst all of the ideas that pop into my head.

Thing train of thought takes me to consider what explains the relative success and failure — the investing fates if you will — of various investors.  It would be foolish (and wrong) of me to make the blanket statement that smart people make poor investors.  On the contrary I believe that successful investors are very smart people — John Bogle, Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim, Peter Lynch, Bill Gross.

What is interesting and occasionally baffling to me are the poor choices that I see smart people making.  For whatever reason, people tend to share two things with me:  personal information and personal investing information.  If I had to guess why, it is for two reasons.  1) I am actually interested, fascinated in fact. 2) I am very discrete.  Still this doesn’t quite explain why relative strangers tell me these things.

One thing is for sure.  I listen. And on thing I have learned is that people love to tell of their investing success and are hesitant to share their investing misses.  I feel privileged to hear both types of stories.

For the record there is, perhaps, no such thing as a bad (or good) investment in the present.  The “goodness” or “badness” of a given investment is only truly realized when the position is closed and the gains and/or losses are counted.   There are, however, in my opinion, poor portfolio decisions.

Here is my overall impression of the types of under-performing (aka bad) portfolio decisions that smart people make.  Most notably rationalizations for extreme non-diversification.

1) I work in field X.  I understand field X.  I believe the outlook for field X is tremendous, therefore I’m going to pick my favorite stocks that participate in X.  [I heard this all the time during the tech/dot-com pre-bubble and bubble].  I’m going to focus my portfolio in X…. meaning I’m going to severely underweight all other sectors.

2) I’ve followed fund manager, fund company, or my investment manager Y, and I trust and believe in them.  I’m going to put most/all of my money in their hands.

3) I understand the economy, the markets, and what’s going on.  I’m going to make my own decisions, and cut my losses when appropriate.  I’m going to manage my own money, and I’m not going to sheepishly follow conventional wisdom (things such as time-horizon-based asset allocation and CAPM models).  I’m going to bet big and win big on what I believe in.

Over the years I’ve seen that hubris and pride are subject to positive self-reinforcement.  When bets pay off, bettors place bigger bets.  In most cases though, luck eventually runs out and large losses are realized.  This is soul searching time.  Some respond by becoming hyper-conservative for a while (I will only save money in the bank and in T-Bills), some by becoming moderate for a while (I will own some stocks, but mostly bonds), and some by doubling down.

I understand these impulses.  In fact I see that impulse control is a key factor in rational investing.  I understand that smart people are accustomed to being correct.  It is instinctual to believe that this extends to investment decisions.  I’m saying, “If you believe you are orders of magnitude smarter than ‘the market’, think twice.” Or put another way, it is better to be wise than smart when it comes to investing.

To summarized, I know first hand that smart people sometimes make very dumb portfolio decisions.  They believe that their personal academic and career success will translate directly to investment success.  I also know that many such very smart people have been burned, to the tune of $100,000+ (if not millions) of losses directly attributable to non-diversification.

And finally, as to my personal investments, I happily say that I have been relatively steadfast in my Boglehead-like investing style.  So far it has paid dividends.

Small Investors: The Best of Times

The small investor has some truly excellent options these days.  Two in particular are just this side of awesome.  The first is index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).  The second is low-cost online trading.  ETFs and cheap online trading form a powerful combination for the small investor.

In addition, the wealth of online investment information is voluminous, and in many cases free.

So for the small investor (whom I define as someone with < $1,000,000 of net assets to invest), 2010 is a pretty great starting point to get serious about personal finance

I recommend that before you embark, that you have at least a 3-month emergency fund and little to no credit-card debt.  If this doesn’t describe your financial situation, this article doesn’t currently apply to you.  [Please consider paying down those credit cards and then saving up a modest rainy day fund!]

However, if you meet these basic criteria consider the following suggestions:

  • Open a Vanguard account with a minimum of $3000.  Put those first funds in either the Prime Money Mkt Portfolio or the Tax-Exempt Money Market
  • Keep putting spare money into Vanguard.  Once you hit $10,000 to $25,000, consider other Vanguard offerings.  If you are unsure of what to invest in, call a Vanguard adviser.
  • Consider maxing out your 401k contribution, if your income permits.  Keep that “rainy day” fund in mind.  A rainy-day fund is cash, money market, or diversified short-to-intermediate AA or better rated bonds or CDs.  Stocks, mutual funds, etc. don’t count for rainy day cash.
  • Keep that Vanguard account.  If your tax situation permits, consider making Roth IRA contributions.  Vanguard is a good place to hold these, Fidelity is another.
  • Once you’ve got your rainy-day fund to 9 months or more, and can maintain solid 401k and Roth IRA contributions, congratulations.  You may be read to become a “big-time small investor”.

Enough preamble.  Let’s assume you are ready.  Now what?

You can select any number of online brokerages and invest for less than $9 per trade.  That includes option trades.  Some even allow futures trades.  So, the world is your oyster.

However, prudence is crucial.  There are just so many opportunities, options, pitfalls.  May I make a few suggestions?

  1. Start by investing in ETFs.  Consider, SPY, VTI, BND, VEU,  and, now, VOO.  These are excellent diversified ETFs with very low expense ratios.
  2. Want to dabble in individual stocks?  Diversify.  If you buy some tech stocks, also buy some consumer goods, or basic materials, or utilities.
  3. Want to dabble in options?  Try starting with writing (selling) covered calls on your ETFs.
  4. Futures?  Think once, think twice.  Do some research and think a third time.  The just maybe you might given them a try.  But, please, please do so with caution. [Note futures contracts require a margin account... please tread carefully with margin (aka leveraged) investing.]

That is just a start.  Might I also point out that an investor today could construct an excellent life-long portfolio with just VTI, BND, and VEO… re-balancing annually as age and situation dictate?  As age 60 approaches, mixing in a few laddered CDs (bank certificates of deposit) is not an unreasonable option.  Owning and paying-off a home is also a reasonable retirement goal.

I, however, am now content to fully adopt a reasonable and prudent approach.  I also dabble with a small Crazy Ivan Account (CIA), and with (limited) option strategies.  I also incorporate rental real estate into my investing mix.

The point I want to emphasize is that there are so many opportunities for the modern small investor.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices.   But, by starting with the basics — Vanguard mutual funds, low-cost diversified ETFs, and online investing — it is possible to construct and manage very solid personal portfolios.

Best wishes.

Buying new Vanguard Funds

I’ve been reading through the prospectus for some of the Vanguard tax-exempt funds.  There are four that generally cover the municipal funds markets:

Comparing Vanguard Tax-Exempt Funds

They all have great expense ratios of 0.2% and credit ratings (for what they’re worth) of AA or AA-.  What is most interesting to me is a comparison of duration to yield.  Duration, in brief, is a standardized measure of bond price sensitivity to changes in interest rates.  High duration bonds (or funds) swing more to a 1% change in interest rates than lower duration bonds.  When I graph the relationship I get a very straight looking line:

vanguard_tax_exempt_yield_vs_duration

In essence this is the current yield curve for this family of funds.  The leftmost point is the short-term tax-exempt bond fund, followed by limited-term, then intermediate term, and finally long-term.

So what was my decision?  I bought into 3 of the 4, the short-term, medium-term, and long-term.  They all look like great funds.  I’ll keep you posted.