“Reduce the complexity of life by eliminating the needless wants of life, and the labors of life reduce themselves” – Edwin Way Teale
Roe and I recently watched the HBO series “John Adams.” We both previously listened to the audio version of David McCullough’s biography, upon which this series was based. One of many things we learned from the book and series was how long it took to get anything done. John Adams’ frequent trips from Boston to Philadelphia took two lumbering weeks (one way) on horseback, in all kinds of weather. It took months to cross the Atlantic, which he did many times. Today we make the crossing in about six hours. Back then news or a written letter traveled only as fast as the horse or ship that bore it, which typically meant weeks and months.
Today even with almost instantaneous communications, we have become programmed to want things faster, bigger and better. We have this obsession with what is bigger, better, best. To obtain the things that are bigger, better and best, we have over-extended ourselves in terms of our finances, our time and our privacy.
We have allowed the great American marketing machine to tell us what we need and when we need it and how much of it we need. We allow all manner of advertising to influence our lives. Watch a half-hour sitcom on TV today and you’ll see 12 minutes of commercials. More than three-quarters of the pages in your newspaper are advertisement. It’s the same for many magazines. Rent a movie to watch at home and you’ll have to watch between three and eight coming attractions before you get the title feature. Go to the movie theater and you’ll see a dozen commercials before the movie begins. Go to most websites and you’ll be bombarded with pitches high and low, left and right. Listen to the radio … well; you get the point by now.
Because we have allowed this to happen to us as a society, we have lost sight of what’s really important. We are no longer able to filter the essential from the commercial debris. Even the American media bombards us with all kinds of useless news in order to fill out the 24/7 program cycle of TV and radio. When they choose to focus on a topic, they shine a light upon it that is so bright we actually don’t see anything anymore. Context, pacing and substance all seem like quaint notions now.
Since I write about finances all the time, I wanted to focus your attention on time and privacy in this article. Because without time we won’t have a chance to think about what it is in life we really want. If we don’t take the time to analyze what it is we really want out of life, we may expend a good part of our life chasing what we already have — but just can’t see — because we’re so distracted by the noise and false choices of contemporary society.
So here are some of the lessons and tools we have learned over the years in trying to arrive at a more perfect understanding of life’s fundamental components.
Don’t ever have enough time to achieve all of the things you want to do? It’s a familiar theme with our clients. As a matter of fact, one of the most frequently cited comments from retired clients is that they don’t know how they got things done during their working lives because, in retirement, they still don’t have enough time. You might think that in retirement people would have enough time to do the things they want to do. Yet, it remains a challenge.
So we are always looking for ways to improve our own and our clients’ lives. Most of us have less than a 100-year life span. It’s up to us to manage that time wisely. It is, indeed, our most valued possession. Therefore, we need to protect and control it.
Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach has an exercise called “The Commitment Filter.” You catalog everything to which you have devoted time and resources then review and prioritize the list for what it does and/or does not do for you. As a result of performing this exercise, Roe and I resigned from several committees we were serving on because they were not — in our minds — efficient, effective or considerate of our time. We would rather help organizations or activities that demonstrate progress and are considerate of the volunteers’ time.
The Commitment Filter was an eye opener for us. Both Roe and I also used this exercise to review our social network. Roe and I are by nature helpful, caring, intellectually curious and positive thinkers, and we like to socialize with people who tend to have these characteristics. As Dan Sullivan likes to say about life, “You’re going to put in the time anyway, so why not enjoy your life.”
Therefore, we need to seriously evaluate every situation, request and proposal that comes our way — in terms of the time we have left on Earth. When asked to join a committee, or organization, we now consider the commitment in a whole new light.
Taking control of your time allows you to spend more time doing the things that make you happy.
Controlling your privacy is perhaps the second most valuable possession we own. Because when you allow advertisers to try and influence you, they are infringing on your most valuable possession: your time.
E-mail: Block e-mail you don’t want. A program that really works is ChoiceMail. It only allows the e-mail you choose to receive pass through and blocks the stuff you don’t want. You can buy it from www.digiportal.com. It’s inexpensive and it works.
The Internet: In addition to having a firewall on your computer, you can also protect your privacy on the Internet by purchasing software that removes from your computer all files (tracking cookies and so forth) that allow websites you have visited to keep tabs on your preferences and web surfing activity. There are many products on the market. One that we know works well is ParetoLogic Privacy Controls and AntiSpy-Ware. You can download it at www.paretologic.com then click on the products tab and scroll down.
Catalogs: Put a stop to the flood of unwanted catalogs bedeviling your mailbox. Go to www.catalogchoice.org. We use it and it works. You’ll do your part for conservation by saving trees and the fuel it takes to produce and transport all of that paper. You’ll also save the time you would be tempted to spend browsing for and buying stuff you don’t really need.
Credit Report: Have a look at your credit report at least annually. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com for a free annual check on your credit.
Taking steps to protect your privacy will help you feel more secure and in control and give you more time when you apply for credit of any kind, including a mortgage.
Telephone: Register all of your phone numbers with the national “Do Not Call” list to avoid being solicited on your phone by telemarketers. It blocks your number(s) for five (5) years. To register, visit www.donotcall.gov to protect all your phone numbers at once.
Keeping things simple will make you feel better. Today there is too much choice and customization available for just about every buying decision we make. Buying a car that comes in 14 colors, various trim and engine options and oodles of other options may sound good, but you may find pondering all those possibilities a bit stupefying. If the car came fully equipped and in just, say, five colors, I know I’d feel relieved.
Today, less is more. We don’t need all the stuff the advertisers tell us we need. It just clutters up your home and your mind. Roe has a professional organizer that helped us downsize when we moved. She gave us a great tip when buying clothing to keep our closets from becoming hopelessly cluttered with seldom- or never-worn garments. Before purchasing a new piece of clothing, decide what piece of clothing will be discarded or donated from your closet. This really works!
Having an uncluttered life helps you feel good, in control and less distracted.
Slower May Be Better
The only time we need to react to something quickly is in a life-threatening situation. We don’t need advertisers telling us that this offer is for a limited time only. We don’t really need a new mattress delivered to our home in four hours or a pizza in 20 minutes. We don’t need people telling us we should do this or that. When you hear someone say we should be doing something, stop and think about it. It’s usually someone else asking us to solve their problem. Well, if it’s not your problem to begin with, why take it on as your problem.
Having a memorable meal at a good restaurant that prepares each meal from scratch (slower) is far better than a fast food drive-thru meal eaten in a hurry. The food you get at the restaurant is probably comes in smaller portions, is healthier and comes with great service. In the end, what you appreciate is the quality of the food, your pleasant interaction with professional wait staff and a nice, relaxed environment.
Less is More
I love staying at a Four Seasons Hotel when I travel. It’s not the beautiful building, lobby, room or restaurant that are de rigueur at this esteemed hotel chain. It’s their staff that makes you feel welcomed. Isadore Sharpe, the founder, chairman and CEO of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, had a vision to anticipate every guest’s needs and accommodate those needs through well defined but personalized processes while allowing for the unexpected.
I dislike complexity. Over the years I have really grown to appreciate simplicity. I know a very smart mathematician who once said to me that the best theories are usually simple and elegant. Think of Einstein’s formula e = mc2, the world’s most famous equation. Its simplicity has become an iconic expression of scientific elegance. I think most of us would agree that the simpler something is, the better it is for us. I know that I don’t have the time for unnecessary complexity. Most of us have less than 100 years to live our lives. Therefore, time is the new value.
To put it in a mathematical formula that is both simple and elegant:
Happiness = Time (<100 years) – Complexity
Just call me Einstein!
We have all heard tales of great investments from friends, family and – it may come as no surprise – investment professionals. Many focus on the outcome and the easy money. But these often anecdotal stories are more likely to be a distraction from what really matters: developing a sound and consistent investment strategy.
If you begin by defining your financial objectives, investment horizon and tolerance for risk, determining the fundamentals of such a strategy should fall into place with little difficulty. Yet many inventors approach securities selection haphazardly. False assumptions, overconfidence and the thrill of the game account for some of this recklessness. As with most undertakings, a little study and planning can go a long way. Except that when it comes to investing, the stakes are potentially much higher.
So are you feeling lucky? Get a hot tip from your father-in-law? Come by an intriguing bit of information standing around the office water cooler? As they say in Brooklyn, fuggetaboutit. Rule #1 is to never invest by the seat of your pants. That is particularly true when it comes to investing in stocks. In case you were wondering about Rule #2, it’s never put all (or at least no more than you’d need for a small omelet) of your eggs in one basket. We’ll get to Rule #3 shortly.
Developing an investment strategy that conforms to your financial objectives will impose some prudent discipline on the buying and selling you do for your portfolio. It can also simplify (and therefore accelerate) the process of identifying suitable investments, potentially enhancing profits over time. And, not least, it will help you minimize risk.
Broadly, there are three basic approaches to evaluating a company’s stock:
- Quantitative – This type of analysis focuses on hard numbers encompassing financial and economic data such as revenues, value of assets and the cost of capital.
- Qualitative – A much more subjective and interpretive type of assessment that concerns itself with intangible factors, including the reputation and ability of management, labor relations and quality of research and development.
- Technical – Rather than focus on measures of intrinsic value, this method relies on analysis of historical stock price and market patterns to try and determine future performance. Technical analysis can be seen as the flip side of fundamental analysis, which blends quantitative and qualitative techniques.
In practice, most investors employ all three approaches to varying degrees, depending on their particular stock picking formula. The key thing is to establish a defined set of criteria that guides the investment process and helps make better, more informed decisions, whether you’re buying or selling.
To help you stay on the straight and narrow, make a list of your principal criteria. You’re more likely to hang on to a (temporarily, you hope) underperforming investment if you can see that it still meets the specific criteria that you’ve laid out. But, conversely, it will provide clear signals that you may need to sell – always a more difficult decision than buying. In addition, if you can see data in black and white you’re less likely to make an emotional decision about a particular stock.
Investment decisions, irregardless of whether you fall into the value, growth, or yield investing camp, will become more consistent, more process-driven and consequently have improved long-term return potential.
For a value-style investor, a model checklist might look like this:
A price/earnings ratio of less than 15
Debt-to-equity less than 0.5
Return-on-equity greater than 15
Dividend yield greater than 3%
Insider ownership greater than 10%
If a stock meets three of these five criteria it is likely a candidate for closer investigation. Programmed into your computer, these data points become “screens” in PC parlance and greatly assist investors in efficiently sifting through hundreds or even thousands of stocks to identify a much smaller and more manageable number of prospects for further study.
More advanced investors can build up multiple strategies (or sets of “screens”) to accommodate larger and more sophisticated portfolios.
In addition to your goals and investment horizon, a key element that will shape your stock-picking strategy is to determine your emotional preference. What is emotional preference? It is one’s ability to understand and accept an investment philosophy as logical.
If discipline, patience and a yen for research are your forte, then you’re apt to benefit most from a value approach to investing. Because it involves trying to ascertain overlooked growth potential at a discounted price, the value approach is inherently more conservative. But, over time, it can be very lucrative with the bonus of less volatility along the way.
Those with greater appetite for risk and adventure might be more inclined to growth investing, which typically involves smaller-cap stocks with higher, steadier growth of sales and earnings. Accordingly, your checklist for this type of strategy would reflect not only strong profit growth (and margins) but also robust return on equity and a reliable pattern of stock price increases.
Bear in mind, these two broad investment styles go in and out of favor as the market evolves, which is why most investors have some of both in their portfolios, along with bonds and cash. But whether you’re considering the value or growth portion of your holdings, you should have an appropriate strategy and stick to it. And that brings us to Rule #3. After you’ve acquired a stock, keep an eye on it to make sure it stays within your investment parameters.
Not all investments will work out. That goes without saying. The idea is that by replacing a layer of emotion in your investing strategy with a layer of data-driven process, you’ll be improving your odds of achieving better and more consistent investment returns over time.
Talk about a visual motivator. I think this would cause just about everyone to stop and think about how to allocate the most valuable resource we have our time.
So, are we losing our marbles? Yes we are! No doubt about it.
So do the math, get in the car and drive over to Toys “R” Us and buy those marbles, put them in a jar and start losing them. I would be willing to bet that you become a better allocator of your most valuable resource time.
The first quarter of 2010 portfolio performance was very good, with U.S. stocks enjoying healthy gains.
We’ve had a great run over the past five quarters, and investors looking back on strong returns deserve to feel good, especially given the level of nerve that was required to earn them in the aftermath of a very difficult period. Looking back helps us understand how our economy got to the place it is today. But making good investment decisions requires us to look forward and understand how things are likely to unfold in the years ahead. This is the object of our research and analysis.
The big-picture view is especially important right now because a few key issues will determine what the years ahead bring. We’ve seen massive growth in debt throughout the economy, reaching binge levels in the last decade. All that debt could be thought of as a form of borrowing against future consumption now we must pay it back in the form of less spending. This expectation for lower spending suggests we could see a slower than normal growth in the economy for a number of years to come.
Meanwhile, government spending has jolted the economy back to life, but at a longer-term cost to the budget deficit. Further, entitlement spending (for Medicare and Social Security in particular) is projected to grow by huge amounts in the years and decades ahead. The deficit will be difficult to fix without causing more damage including the possibility that shifting gears to cut budget deficits too early could throw the economy into another recession.
A key factor to the continued and sustainable improvement of the economy is jobs, and data suggests the job market remains generally quite weak and there is little basis to think this will change quickly or dramatically. The best outcome would be one where stimulus spending, low interest rates, and inventory rebuilding together create a virtuous circle in which businesses with strong balance sheets add jobs and consumer and business confidence builds and feeds on itself. While we acknowledge the possibility that the economy could overcome the headwinds, we think the odds are greater that we will see a less favorable environment in the years ahead.
Therefore, our investment view remains cautious, balanced and flexible. Recent signs of economic strength are encouraging but mostly stem from temporary factors like stimulus spending and inventory rebuilding. Based on current valuations, it is likely that stock returns will trend below average in the next five years. Even in our less likely optimistic scenario, annualized equity returns barely reach double digits. This goes for stocks of both domestic and foreign developed markets.
The potential that we may see a number of years in which the economy remains weaker than normal as we go through the process of reducing debt is not very uplifting. But as always, we are committed to working hard to understanding the reality we live in and its impact on financial markets, and make investment decisions accordingly. In looking ahead, we do see positives as we consider the ways we can generate returns that are better than what the markets give us.
The kind of volatile, challenging environment that we think is probable plays to our strengths. We think over the next decade our research and analysis will help us reduce risk when it doesn’t make sense to take it, and take advantage of tactical asset allocation opportunities when they are presented. If we can do this successfully, then our own outlook is decidedly better than the mediocre outlook suggested by the big picture and current valuations.
Below are the returns of the major indices during the past quarter and the last 12 months.
Major Market Indexes
|Index||1st Quarter 2010||12-Mo. Return|
|Dow Jones Industrial Average||4.82%||46.93%|
|S&P 500 Index||5.39%||49.77%|
|MSCI EAFE GR (International equities)||0.94%||55.20%|
|Russell 2000 Index||8.85%||62.76%|
|Barclay’s Aggregate Bond Index||1.78%||7.69%|
|Barclay’s Municipal Bond Index||1.25%||9.69%|
|Taxable Money Market||0.00%||0.08%|
Looking forward over the next three to five years we believe higher returns can be captured by having a risk adjusted, flexible, globally balanced portfolio, which is rebalanced while patiently waiting for compelling opportunities to appear. When those opportunities appear, we will have the liquidity and flexibility to make tactical moves and capitalize on those opportunities.
Our portfolio strategy for the near future is to manage risk first and return second. We continue to remain cautiously optimistic, taking a balanced and flexible, middle of the road approach. This allows us to remain liquid and nimble, so we can seize opportunities as they present themselves. We have been adding new funds to our approved list. Most of these funds have the maximum flexibility to invest in all areas of the market. Since no one area offers exceptional returns at this point, it is important to give our managers the ability to exploit short term anomalies in the market.
On behalf of the entire staff, we thank you for the confidence you have placed in us and the patience you have graciously demonstrated over the years.