Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Smart Beta ETFs the Next Big Thing?


For those of us involved in financial services it is hard to check your Twitter stream or visit an industry website without seeing the term smart beta. ETF providers have really taken to this trend and have introduced many new ETFs based on some aspect of smart beta.

Nobody follows a trend quite like the folks who market mutual funds or ETFs and smart beta is the hip thing that all of the “cool kids” are doing. At a recent ETF industry conference sponsored by Morningstar (MORN) this was virtually all anyone was talking about in the sessions I attended.

What is smart beta and is it really smart?  Are smart beta ETFs the next big thing in ETF investing?

Smart Beta Defined 

According to Investopedia (for whom I am a frequent contributor):

“Investment managers that follow a smart beta investment strategy seek to passively follow indices, while also taking into account alternative weighting schemes such as volatility. That’s because smart beta strategies are implemented like a typical index strategies in that the index rules are set and transparent. Smart Beta strategies will differ from standard indices, such as the S&P 500 or the Barclays Aggregate, in that the indices focus on areas of the market that offer an opportunity for exploitation.” 

We will attempt to expand on that definition a bit below. 

Factor investing 

Most smart beta ETFs take an aspect or a factor from a traditional index. Traditional index ETFs passively track a market value weighted index like the S&P 500.  Some popular factors include low volatility, momentum; equal-weighted indexes, dividends and quality are common factors. An equal-weighted index would give equal weighting to a huge stock like Apple (APPL) and to the smallest stock in terms of market capitalization in the S&P 500 Index.

An example of a smart beta ETF based on a factor is the Powershares S&P 500 Low Volatility ETF (SPLV).

This ETF invests in the 100 stocks in the index that have exhibited the lowest volatility over the past 12 months. A sound idea in theory and perhaps ultimately in practice.

Like many smart beta ETFs the inception date of SPLV was May 5, 2011 over two years after the low point of the markets during the financial crises. The index the ETF follows was essentially created in the lab via back-testing, much like the Peter Boyle character in the movie Young Frankenstein. This means that most of the “history” of this ETF is via back-testing and not real performance data. As a presenter at the Morningstar conference said, he’s never seen a back-test that did not yield a positive result.

Looking at SPLV’s results, the ETF trails the S&P 500 index in terms of trailing three year returns 12.95% to 14.77% on an average annual basis for the period ending 10/19/2015. However for the year-to-date period through the same date SPLV has gained 1.27% versus 0.41% for the index.

Looking at another measure, standard deviation of return which measures the variability of the ETF’s returns (up and down) over the three year period ending 9/30/2015, the standard deviation for SPLV is +/- 9.63% versus +/- 9.74% for the index. My guess is that a selling point of this ETF would be lower volatility but over the past three years the smart beta ETF is only fractionally less volatile than the index and an investor would have considerably less money if they had held SPLV over a more traditional ETF like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY).

Is an investment in SPLV a bad idea? I don’t know because I have no idea how this ETF will hold up in a pronounced bear market. Yes it has performed better than the full index so far in 2015 including the volatility in August and September. How will it do if we hit a rough patch like 2000-2002 or 2008-2009? Good question.

A growth area 

According to data from Morningstar as of 6/30/2015:

  • There were 444 smart beta products listed in the U.S.
  • These products accounted for $540 billion in assets under management which was 21% of all U.S ETF assets.
  • Of the new cash flows into ETFs over the past 12 months, 31% went into smart beta products.
  • The assets in these products grew 27% over the same period.
  • A quarter of new ETF launches over the past five years were smart beta products.

Who uses smart beta ETFs? 

From what I have heard and read smart beta ETFs are being used largely by financial advisors and institutional investors versus individuals. You might say so what? These folks are likely investing your money either via your relationship with a financial advisor who may use them in a portfolio or use a TAMP (turnkey asset management program) program offered by a third-party to manage your money.

Reasons to use Smart Beta 

Morningstar cites several reasons investors and advisors might consider smart beta ETFs:

  • To manage portfolio risk
  • To enhance portfolio returns
  • For tactical asset allocation, meaning an allocation that is based in part on the advisor’s assessment of market conditions
  • Reducing fees versus actively managed mutual funds
  • To use an active strategy grounded by an index core

Many, including me, view strategic beta as a form of active management. A presenter at the Morningstar conference suggested that any smart beta ETF with an expense ratio of 50 basis points or higher should not be considered as this is the lower end of the fee range for the better actively managed mutual funds offering an institutional share class.

What does this mean for individual investors? 

Again I suspect that most of the money invested here will be institutional or via financial advisors. As an individual investor working with a financial advisor who suggests using smart beta ETFs in your portfolio, you should ask them to explain their rational. Why are these ETFs a better choice than an asset allocation strategy using more traditional index products?

If you will using smart beta ETFs on your own, be sure that you fully understand the underlying index which was likely created post-financial crises via back testing. Understand that smart beta strategies may look good on paper but in reality they can take a number of years to prove themselves.  Lastly understand that strategies that look good in testing may not work as well when millions of dollars are actually invested there real-time.

For financial advisors 

Most financial advisors that I know are very deliberate in testing new products and investing ideas before using them with clients. With the rise of third-party advisors such as TAMPs and ETF strategists, financial advisors still need to understand the underlying products and strategies being used to invest their client’s hard-earned money.

The Bottom Line 

Smart beta is the next evolution of ETF investing or so say the firms trying to gather assets into these products. I’m not saying that smart beta isn’t an enhancement or that I am against new investing inovations. I am leery of any investment vehicle designed to solve a problem or fill a role in portfolios that have not gone through a full stock market cycle. With any investment vehicle that you are considering, be sure to fully understand the benefits, the risks and the costs. How smart is smart beta? We really won’t know until the market goes through a full cycle that includes a significant correction.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

The Risks of Too Much Company Stock in Your 401(k) Plan


Retirement plan sponsors are starting to get it, requiring 401(k) participants to hold company stock in their accounts exposes them to major fiduciary liability if the stock price tanks. That said it is still an option in many 401(k) plans.

According to Fidelity about 15 million people own about $400 billion in company stock across 401(k) plans that they administer.

Too dependent on your employer    

Just ask former employees of Enron, Lehman Brothers or Radio Shack about this.

All employees depend on their employer for a paycheck. If you add a high level of company stock as a component of your 401(k) account you have a recipe for disaster. If the company tanks you might find yourself out of job with no income. If this difficulty causes the stock price to decline you are not only unemployed but your retirement nest egg has taken a hit as well.

How much is too much? 

There is no one right answer; this will vary on a case by case basis. Many financial advisors say the total in employer stock should be kept to a maximum of 5% to 10% of total investment assets. This not only includes stock held in your retirement plan but also shares held outside the plan as well shares represented by any stock options or restricted shares that may be held.

Employers and fiduciary risk 

In the past it was more common for companies to use their stock as the matching vehicle in the 401(k) plan and to require that it be held for a period of time. Both are less common today due to a number of lawsuits by employees against companies after significant declines in the price of their employer’s stock. Plan sponsors want to avoid this type of fiduciary liability.


It is important to set a maximum allocation to your employer’s stock in your 401(k) plan and in total.  Use increases in the stock price as opportunities to take profits and diversify. Within your 401(k) plan there will be no taxes to pay on the gains, though there will be taxes due down the road when taking distributions from a traditional 401(k).

Make sure you fully understand any restrictions on selling company shares held in your plan.

Discounted purchases 

Often employees have the opportunity to purchase shares of company stock at a discount from the current market price. This is a great feature but the decision to purchase and how much to hold should not be overly influenced by this feature.

Net Unrealized Appreciation 

If you leave your employer and hold company shares in your 401(k) plan consider using the net unrealized appreciation (NUA) rules for the stock.

NUA allows employees to take their company stock as a distribution to a taxable account while still rolling the other money in the plan to an IRA if they wish. The distribution of the company stock is taxable immediately, at ordinary income tax rates, based upon the employee’s original cost versus the current market value.

The advantage for holders of highly appreciated shares can be sizable. Any gains on the stock will qualify for long-term capital gains treatment where the rates are generally lower. For a large chunk of company stock the savings can be very significant. Note there are very specific rules regarding the use of NUA so it is best to consult with a knowledgeable financial or tax advisor if you are considering going this route.

The Bottom Line 

Holding excessive amounts of your company’s stock in your 401(k) plan can expose you to undo risk should your employer run into financial difficulty. You could find yourself unemployed and with a much lower retirement plan balance if the stock price drops significantly. Set a target percentage for your overall holdings of employer stock and periodically sell shares if needed to rebalance just as you would any other holding in the plan.

What is a Hedge Fund?


The term hedge fund is used often in the financial press.  I suspect, however, that many investors do not really know what a hedge fund is.

What is a Hedge Fund?





Investopedia defines a hedge fund as follows:

“An aggressively managed portfolio of investments that uses advanced investment strategies such as leveraged, long, short and derivative positions in both domestic and international markets with the goal of generating high returns (either in an absolute sense or over a specified market benchmark).” 

Here are a few basics about hedge funds to help you understand them.  Note this is certainly not meant to be an in-depth tutorial but rather is meant to provide an introduction to hedge funds.

Who can invest in hedge funds? 

In order to invest in a hedge fund you must be an accredited investor.  The current definition of an accredited investor is someone with a net worth of $1 million (excluding the equity in their home) and at least $200,000 in income ($300,000 with a spouse) over the past two years.  Many hedge fund investors are institutional investors such as foundations, endowments and pension plans.  About 65 percent of the capital invested in hedge funds comes from institutional investors.

What is the minimum investment? 

The minimum required to invest is often $1 million or more though some smaller hedge funds and funds of funds may have lower minimums.  New companies like Sliced Investing are seeking to change these high minimums by allowing investors to invest as little as $20,000.

Do I have access to my money? 

Unlike mutual funds, ETFs, closed-end funds and individual stocks hedge funds typically do not offer daily access to your money.

Some hedge funds allow investors to subscribe (invest) or redeem their money monthly, for others this might be quarterly or based upon some other time period.  Most hedge funds will require advanced notice for redemptions which might be as long as 180 days.  This allows the fund managers time to raise sufficient cash and allows for an orderly sale of fund investments especially if the redemption is a significant amount.

Some hedge funds also require a lock-up which means that there are no redemptions allowed during this initial period.  A typical lock-up period is one year, though some are as long as two years.  In some cases the lock-up period is “soft” meaning that redemption can be made but there will often be a penalty ranging from 2 percent to as high as 10 percent. 

Some hedge funds may also have the ability to enforce “gates” on redemptions which means they can decide to process only a portion of the redemptions requested.  This provision came into focus during the 2008-2009 market downturn as hedge fund redemptions requests swelled as many investors sought to raise cash.

What types of fees are charged? 

The fees charged by hedge funds vary widely.

Many hedge funds charge a management fee of 2 percent or more.

There might also be incentive fees of 10 to 20 percent of the fund’s profits or more.  This rewards the fund manager for superior performance.  The flip side of this is that the manager generally only collects an incentive fee if the fund’s performance exceeds its former highs, known as a high water mark.

If a fund loses 5 percent in a given year, no incentive fees will be paid to the manager the following year until the 5 percent loss is made up.

The term two and 20 is a common one in the hedge fund world meaning that the fund would charge a 2 percent management fee and a 20 percent incentive fee.  This may seem pricey but if the performance is stellar then investors won’t mind paying it. 

What types of investment strategies are available? 

There is a vast range of investment strategies across the hedge fund landscape.  These might include long-short, global macro, market neutral, convertible arbitrage, distressed securities and many others.  Additionally there are a number of fund of funds offered which means that the fund offers a collection of strategies and fund managers under one umbrella.   

What should I consider before investing in a hedge fund?

From reading the above you might ask yourself why would I invest in hedge funds?  Let’s remember that hedge funds are considered alternative investments.  Ideally they will have a relatively low correlation to the traditional long-only equity and fixed income investments in your portfolio.  At their best well-managed hedge funds can add balance and reduce the overall risk of your portfolio, in some cases the strategies are designed to provide absolute returns across all investing environments.

Before investing in a hedge fund or any alternative investment make sure you have considered and fully understand the following:

  • The fund’s investment strategy.
  • How this investment strategy fits with your overall portfolio and investing strategy.
  • What the fund “brings to the table” that you can’t get with more traditional long-only stock and bond investments.
  • Who is managing the fund and their history and investment track record.
  • The required minimum investment.
  • Any redemption restrictions and/or lock-up periods.  Make sure that you won’t need to tap this money during this time period. 

The Bottom Line 

Like any investment option you might consider it is important to understand the pros and cons of hedge funds in general and any specific fund or strategy that you might be considering for your portfolio.

Disclosure: This blog post was written for Sliced Investing pursuant to a paid content arrangement I have with the company’s representatives as part of an effort to raise awareness about alternative investment options. All views expressed are entirely my own, and were not influenced or directed by Sliced Investing.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Why Using Home Equity to Invest in the Stock Market is a Bad Idea


Not that I needed one but an email newsletter that I received from attorney Dale Ledbetter recently served as an excellent reminder what a poor idea using home equity to invest in stocks really is.  From his email:

Strong stock market encourages the resurrection of a bad practice – borrowing money against the value of your home to play the market. The horror story set out below is likely to be repeated if these practices continue.

A married couple, both of whom were in their late 80s, was persuaded by their bank to take out 100% value equity line of credit against their home. They were then persuaded to turn these “borrowed assets” over to the bank’s securities subsidiary where they were told the return would easily exceed the cost of the credit line. 

The broker then advised the couple to put 95% of the total proceeds into a single stock. The securities account tanked, resulting in an almost 100% loss. In the meantime, the house dropped in value by $100,000, resulting in a foreclosure proceeding. The bank then refused to permit a $150,000 short sale to bona fide buyers. 

The husband died. The wife, who now lives in a constant care facility, is entering bankruptcy to force the bank to take the house. 

Of course, the bank and their securities subsidiary blame it all on the elderly couple who they described as “sophisticated investors.” Both husband and wife had been schoolteachers and had no training or experience in the securities industry or in investment strategies. The fact that both were in their late 80s and suffering from diminished capacity, was not enough to deter the aggressive sales tactics of their “trusted advisors.” 

Aside from what would seem to be blatant investment fraud on the part of the bank and their advisory unit, this piece reiterates why using your home equity to invest in the stock market is such a bad idea.  Here are a few specific reasons that I discourage this practice.

Did you really forget the 2008 housing market crash this soon? 

For those with short memories an overinflated housing market crashed and triggered a meltdown in the economy and drastically reduced the value of many homes.  We are still recovering from this and although home values have improved in many parts of the country we learned that home prices will not always go up and that real estate is not the safe store of value we were led to believe.

To put this another way let’s say you tap your home equity to invest in the stock market.  What if the value of your home decreases 10 percent, 20 percent or more?  Now you have to pay back that home equity loan on a house that isn’t worth nearly as much as when you took out the loan.  You could find yourself underwater on your home or worse in foreclosure.  You could also find that your plans to fund a comfortable retirement or your children’s college education are out the window.

What if your investments tank?

Much like these poor folks in Mr. Ledbetter’s example above, not all investments are a sure thing.  What happens if you borrow against your home equity to invest in the stock market and things don’t work out?  If the specific investments you or someone else chose drop in value you are now stuck with investments worth less than your original investment and you will be stuck paying off the loan which is still based upon the amount borrowed.

Even if you went with a few index funds and the stock market drops you will find yourself in the same boat.  Again this is a great strategy to ruin your otherwise well-planned financial future.

Who exactly is suggesting this idea? 

Like the poor folks in Mr. Ledbetter’s example take a look at anyone suggesting this idea to you with a very jaundiced eye.  What is in it for them?  Are you the only one with any real skin in the game?

In the example above the bank won at last twice.  They got the interest on the loan and their brokerage unit made money via fees and perhaps other sources on the investment side.  They had no skin in the game and will likely come out whole even after the foreclosure.  

The Bottom Line

Generally, in my opinion, anyone who would suggest this idea to an investor is motivated by greed and does not have the best interests of their clients at heart.  Using your home’s equity to invest in the stock market is just not a sound idea.

There might be instances where tapping home equity to invest can be a good idea, but these are very limited and should only be undertaken by truly sophisticated investors who fully understand the risks involved.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire


According to Fidelity, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants grew to a record high of $91,300 at the end of 2014.  This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform.

According to Fidelity about 72,000 participants had a balance of $1 million which is about double the number at the end of 2012 and about 5 times the number at the end of 2008.  What their secret?  Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint.  Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $18,000 and $24,000 for those who are 50 or over.  If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution that is available to you.  Even if you plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues this catch-up amount is not impacted.  It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to the Fidelity study the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent, while the average contribution across all 401(k) investors they surveyed was about 8 percent.  The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site it is important to contribute as much as you can.  If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start.  Next year try to hit 4 percent or more.  As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them.  They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer.  I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan.  The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments.  By the time you are say in your 40s you should consider a more tailored portfolio that fits you overall situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement.  They are all a bit different, you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general.  The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation.  If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance.  The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts the points mentioned above still apply.  In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job.  Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan if allowed do something, make a decision.  Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can be a huge detriment to your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether or not you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement.  The steps outlined above can help you to do this.  Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

What I’m Reading: Stock Market Highs – Trick-or-Treat Edition


This past Friday was Halloween and that means trick-or-treaters dressed in all sorts of neat costumes.  We didn’t have a lot of kids ring the bell so the neighbor girl made out big-time when she and a friend came to the door later in the evening.

Of note in the financial markets on Friday was the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished at a record high level as did the S&P 500 Index.  The NASDAQ finished at its highest level since March of 2000.   No Dead Bodies Here: New Highs for the S&P 500, Dow; Small Caps Soar by Ben Levisohn in Barons provides a good recap.  The new stock market highs on Halloween capped some scary market swings during October which saw precipitous drops around the middle of the month.

Here are a few financial articles I suggest that you check out:

Investing Blog Roundup: Schwab “Intelligent Portfolios” is the latest edition of Michael Piper’s excellent weekly collection of good financial reads.

Barbara Freidberg answers a reader’s question in Should I Buy Bonds Now?

Ben Eisen writes Investors buy stock funds at fastest pace in a year. 

The Myth of the Dumb 401(k) Investor by Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler.

Managing Someone Else’s Emotions provides a nice discussion of one of the toughest parts of a financial advisor’s job via Ben Carlson.

3 Signs You Have a ‘Zombie’ 401(k) by Scott Holsopple.

I recently became a contributor to Investopedia.  Here are my two most recent articles:

5 Things You Need To Know About Index Funds

Closing In On Retirement? Read These Tips

It will be interesting to see where the stock market goes from here.  I’m hoping the rest of 2014 is not as volatile as the month of October has been.

Enjoy your weekend, back to college football and eating our stash of Halloween candy.

5 Reasons Investors Use ETFs


Fidelity recently polled nearly 600 high net worth investors to gain a better understanding of their thinking about the market and where they plan to invest in 2014. Notably, 43% of investors said they are planning to increase their investment in ETFs over the next 12 months.

Fidelity created this graphic that highlights 5 reasons investors use ETFs (or don’t use them).

 5 Reasons Investors Use ETFs

Other key findings of the Fidelity study include:

  • Despite the small gains this year in the DJIA (1.6% as of June 5, 2014), 55% believe it will end the year up 5% or more.
  • When it comes to the U.S. economy, investors continue to feel cautious. The majority (71%) feels it’s headed in the right direction vs. 29% who say it’s stagnant or headed in the wrong direction.
  • 62% of investors also believe a market correction—when a major index declines by at least 10% from a recent high—is likely to happen in 2014.
  • The indicators that would motivate the most investors holding cash to re-invest into the market are a stronger U.S. economy (28%) and higher interest (12%). 25% report holding no cash on the sidelines.
  • Over half (59%) of investors prefer to grow their portfolio by investing in domestic equities vs. 18% in international equities.
  • Over a third (35%) invest in ETFs for broad market exposure (indexes), while 27% of investors don’t invest in ETFs because they need to learn more. 

Advantages of ETFs 

ETFs have several features that are advantageous to investors:

  • ETFs are generally transparent regarding their holdings.
  • ETFs can be bought and sold during the trading day.  This offers additional opportunities for investors.
  • Stop orders can be used to limit the downside movement of your ETFs.
  • ETFs can also be sold short just like stocks.
  • Many index ETFs carry low expense ratios and can be quite cheap to own.
  • Many ETFs are quite tax-efficient.
  • ETFs can provide a low cost, straightforward way to invest in core market indexes.  

Disadvantages of ETFs  

  • ETFs can be bought and sold just like stocks.  In some cases this could serve to promote excessive trading that could prove detrimental to investors.
  • ETF providers have introduced a proliferation of new ETFs in response to their popularity.  Some of these ETFs are excellent, some are not.  Many new ETFs are based on untested benchmarks that have only been back-tested.  Additionally there are a number of leveraged ETFs that multiply the movement of the underlying index by 2 or 3 times up or down.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with these products they can easily be misused by investors who don’t fully understand them.
  • Trading ETFs generally entails paying a transaction fee, though a number of providers have introduced commission-free ETFs in order to gain market share.  

ETFs have proven to be a great innovation for investors.  If used properly they are a great addition to your investing toolkit.  Like any investment make sure you understand what you are investing in (and why) before you invest.

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Peyton Manning and Investing Success


I attended the Envestnet Advisor Summit at the Chicago Hilton this past week.  Excellent conference, Envestnet offers a robust platform for financial advisors.  A colleague urged me to attend and I’m glad I did.

The highlight of the conference was Peyton Manning’s keynote address on Friday morning.  Regular readers here know that I am diehard fan of the Green Bay Packers, but I think all football fans have to respect Manning’s skill and his character.  His address was about leadership and being a game changer.  I felt that several of his remarks and comments have a direct correlation to being a successful investor.

Peyton Manning

Thrive on discomfort 

Manning made this reference in terms of it being a key trait of game changers.  I think this is a key trait of successful investors as well.

The investing landscape has certainly undergone change and disruption since the beginning of this century.  We’ve experienced the bursting of the Dot Com Bubble, the financial crisis of 2008-09, the Flash Crash and many other disruptions.

Successful investors adapt to change and embrace it to their advantage.  In some cases this means knowing when to change their investing style, in others it means knowing when to stay the course.  It also means knowing how and when to use new investing tools like ETFs and others.

Ask questions 

Manning mentioned this as a key trait of leaders in business and something that he does constantly in an effort to guide his team to even greater levels of success.

Investors should always ask questions.  Some key questions include:

  • Would I buy this particular investment today?
  • Is there a better place for my money?
  • What are your conflicts of interest in terms of advising me to make this investment?
  • How does this investment fit into my overall portfolio?  

It’s over move on after a bad play

Manning cited the uncanny ability of 49ers great Joe Montana to lead his team to a touchdown on the series immediately following his having thrown an interception.

This is a key trait for successful investors to adopt.  I can’t tell you how many investors I’ve spoken to who want to hold a losing position until it breaks even.  The ability to accept an investment loss is critical.  Sometimes it is better to realize a loss and reinvest the proceeds elsewhere.  Even the best investors make bad investing bets.  The successful ones are capable of admitting this and moving on.

Invest in a coach to keep you growing

Manning hired the current Duke Head Football Coach as his offseason coach to help him improve his quarterback skills.  This individual was his offensive coordinator in college at Tennessee.  This is Peyton Manning, 5 time MVP and Super Bowl champion hiring a coach to help him improve his game!

Many investors do a great job of accumulating wealth and managing their investments.  At some point even the most successful ones realize that they might need some outside expertise to take things to the next level.

Perhaps this realization comes as their career and family obligations limit the time they can spend on their investments.  Often this realization comes as retirement approaches.

Hiring a financial advisor is not a sign of weakness; rather it is a sign that you realize the limits of your expertise and the best uses of your time.  If you are at this point here is a guide to choosing a financial advisor that might help you.

Peyton Manning spoke about leadership and did a great job of tying in his experiences as a leader in sports to what financial advisors need to do to lead clients to the successful outcomes they are seeking.  As I listened to him speak I couldn’t help but see the relevance of his message to what I believe it takes to be a successful investor in today’s dynamic investing world.


Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner.

Photo credit:  Flickr

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Investing: Time and Diversification are your Friends


Each quarter Dr. David Kelly and his staff at JP Morgan Asset Management publish their Guide to the Markets.  This is a comprehensive chart book of investment and economic data that I find invaluable.

For the past several quarters the Guide has included this chart which as a long-term investor should be quite important to you.

The chart depicts the range of average annual returns for stocks, bonds, and a combination of the two over rolling 1, 5, 10, and 20 year periods from 1950 through 2013.  In my opinion every investor should understand the impact of diversification and time on their investments as depicted on the chart.

Understanding the chart 

The green bar depicts stocks, the light blue bar depicts bonds, and the grey bar depicts a 50-50 mix of the two.

As you can see the greatest volatility of return occurs over rolling 12 month periods.  The range of a 51% gain to a 37% loss in a 12 month period is huge.  The range for bonds is more compact and the range for a 50-50 mx of stock and bonds is slightly more compact.

As you move out to the 5, 10, and 20 year ranges you will note that the ranges from the largest gains to smallest (or a loss) become smaller with the passage of time.

Also of note is that in no 5, 10, or 20 year rolling time frame depicted does a 50-50 mix of stocks and bonds result in a negative return over the holding period.

What does this mean to you as an investor?

Diversification dampens the variability of your returns. As you can see from the chart stocks have a wider range of returns over all of the periods depicted than do bonds.  Combining the two tends to dampen the volatility of your portfolio.  Further enhancing the benefits of diversification is the fact that stocks and bonds are not highly correlated.

Taking this a step further, while an investment in an index mutual fund like the Vanguard 500 Index (VFINX) would have lost money if held over that 10 year period 2000-2009, a portfolio that was diversified to include fixed income, small and mid-cap funds, international equities, and other asset classes would have recorded gains during that same time period.

Time reduces the volatility of returns. I will leave any scientific explanation to those more attuned to this than myself, but certainly part of the reason are the ebbs and flows of market and business cycle factors that have an impact on stocks and bonds.  These might be recessions, interest rate movements, or other factors.

Implications for the future

The performance and characteristics of stocks and bonds might well differ in the future.  Diversification for most investors will likely mean holding more than just Large Cap domestic stocks and Intermediate Bonds as the graph depicts.  A few thoughts for the future, especially in this market environment of record highs for many stock market indexes:

  • Diversification reduces risk.
  • Diversification among assets with low correlations to one another further reduces risk.
  • Diversification is important because we have no way of knowing which investments or asset classes will perform well or poorly or when.
  • A longer holding period will generally serve you well as an investor in terms of smoothing out portfolio volatility. 

While every investor is different as is every investment environment, diversification and patience can be two of your greatest allies.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.

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New Stock Market Highs: It’s Different This Time Right?


Dow Jones (19-Jul-1987 through 19-Jan-1988).

It seems like every time we hit new highs in the stock market, the pundits tell us that somehow it’s different this time.  In 1999 we didn’t need to worry that many of the high-flying tech stocks had no balance sheet or even a viable business plan behind the company.  We all remember how that turned out.

In 2007 Wall Street couldn’t securitize questionable mortgages fast enough.  Mortgages and real estate were very secure investments.  Again we recall how that turned out.

This year the markets are again reaching record highs.  Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 stand at record levels as I write this.  No worries say the experts.  Valuations are reasonable and this isn’t a bubble (translation, it’s different this time).  We don’t know how this will turn out, but hopefully those of you with any degree of common sense will recall and apply the lessons of the past 15 years.

Who’s paying the pundits? 

Day after day there are guests on CNBC and similar programs touting stocks.  The chief investment strategist of a major financial services firm recently dismissed any talk of a bubble in stocks at least in the near term.

These folks may be right; perhaps this almost five year old bull market still has a way to go.  But somewhere in the back of my mind I also have to wonder if they aren’t touting stocks because it is in the financial interests of their firms (and perhaps their annual bonuses) for investors to keep investing in stocks.

So what should investors do in this stock market environment? 

What should you do now? 

If you are a regular reader of this blog nothing that I’m going to say below will surprise you nor will it differ from what I’ve been saying for the 4+ years that I’ve been writing this blog or the almost 15 years that I’ve been providing advice to my clients.  For starters:

  • Step back and review your financial plan.  Where do the recent gains in the stock market put you relative to your goals?
  • Does your portfolio need to be rebalanced back to your intended allocations to stocks, bonds, cash, etc.?
  • Review your asset allocation.  Is it still appropriate for your situation?
  • Review the holdings in your portfolio.  In the case of mutual funds and ETFs, how do they compare to their peer groups (for example if you hold a large cap growth fund compare it against other large cap growth funds)?  Would you buy these holdings today for your portfolio?
  • Ignore the market hype from the media and from financial services ads.

If you don’t have a financial plan in place this is a great time to get this done. 

Remember the lessons learned from the market downturns of 2000-2002 and 2008-2009.  While your portfolio will likely sustain losses in a major market downturn or even a more moderate and normal sell-off, diversification helps.  Diversified portfolios fared far better than those that were overweight in equities during the decade 2000-2009.  Portfolios with a diversified equity allocation generally fared better than those heavily weighted to just large cap domestic stocks that use the S&P 500 as a benchmark.

Of note, bonds have been a great diversifier in the past, especially over the past 30 years with the steady decline in interest rates.  With rates at historically low levels at the very least investors may need to rethink how they use bonds and what types of fixed income products to use in their portfolios.

My point is not to imply that a market correction is imminent or that investors should abandon stocks.  Rather the higher the markets go, the greater the risk of a stock market correction.  Make sure your portfolio is properly allocated in line with your financial goals and your tolerance for risk.  Many of the investors who suffered devastating losses in 2008-2009 were over allocated to stocks.  Tragically many couldn’t stomach the losses and sold out near the bottom, booking losses and in many cases missing out on the current market gains.

Revisit your financial plan and rebalance your portfolio as needed.  Most of all use your good common sense.  It’s not different this time regardless of what the experts may say.

Please contact me at 847-506-9827 for a complimentary 30-minute consultation to discuss your investing and financial planning questions. Check out our Financial Planning and Investment Advice for Individuals page to learn more about our services.  

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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