Stocks on Sale

U.S. stocks have already seen two pullbacks greater than 5% so far in 2018, as measured by the S&P 500 Index. That compares to only one pullback over 5% in the last 2 years. To say that recent stock swings have been jarring would be an understatement. While sharp declines in prices are unpleasant, equity volatility has been unusually low since the Financial Crisis ended in 2009. Unprecedented support from the Federal Reserve coupled with steady economic growth has pushed stocks steadily higher for 9 years.

As a result, investors have gotten used to smooth and steady stock market gains. But our experience since 2009, in which the S&P 500 Index declined 5% or more only 10 times, is not the norm. Going back to 1945, on average the S&P 500 Index has experienced declines of 5% or more every six months – almost double the frequency of pullbacks we’ve had since the Financial Crisis. While the recent past has been a pleasant ride, market volatility is likely to increase going forward, which may not be a bad thing.

A friend of mine and savvy stock investor once told me that she loved market pullbacks. “It’s like a sale,” she said, “…an opportunity to buy quality products at discounted prices!” Her analogy stuck with me over the years and today I view market pullbacks as opportunities rather than a reason to panic.  Granted, training my brain to think this way took some time and effort. But as an investor, it is an endeavor worth pursuing.

Consulting firm, Dalbar, provides an excellent reason to re-frame your thinking regarding market pullbacks. According to their research, while the S&P 500 Index has delivered an annualized trailing 10-year return of 6.95% through 2016, the average investor return was just 3.64%! Even more striking, the average investor earned a 4% annualized return over the trailing 30-year period compared with the S&P 500 Index’s 10% annualized return for the same period!

As the data clearly indicates and as Dalbar notes, “Investment returns are more dependent on investor behavior than fund performance.” These well-below market returns happen because investors tend to sell their stocks (and bonds) as prices are falling or bottoming. Instead of buying low and selling high – the tried and true way to grow wealth – a lack of investment discipline causes many retail investors to do just the opposite. To compound matters, after selling their stocks and funds during market downturns, many investors – scared from the market turbulence – typically sit on the sidelines as markets recover and therefore never recoup their portfolio losses.

While not all market declines present perfect buying opportunities, falling asset prices do present a chance to add to positions at lower prices. Stocks (and bonds) are on sale! Sometimes downturns are longer and more severe than we would like or expect. However, timing the market is a losing game. Research suggests that taking a long-term approach to investing, regularly rebalancing your portfolio to an appropriate target allocation, and staying invested through market downturns significantly increases the odds that you reach your long-term financial goals.

Weathering market turbulence is not for the faint of heart – which is why a financial advisor can be such a valuable asset. During turbulent market environments your advisor will guide you through market downturns, rebalance your portfolio to take advantage of lower prices, and ultimately remind you why you’re invested. On that note, we’re grateful you’re our client!

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The Tried-and-True Way to Build Wealth

In today’s ultra-connected world it’s even more tempting to compare ourselves to our family, friends, and neighbors. Are we falling behind in our career? Is our family life sub-par? Should we be making more money? Although we all know that people post their best images and experiences on social media, it’s easy to forget that we are tuning in to a lop-sided view of reality. Ironically, this warped perspective can encourage ideas and behaviors that move us further away from what we’re trying to find: a happy and rewarding life.

At Parsec, we work with one aspect of a happy and rewarding life: helping our clients reach their long-term financial goals. Often these include becoming financially independent and retiring comfortably.  While social media and the popular press would have you believe that the right image, owning an expensive car or home, and living a lavish lifestyle translates into financial success, it doesn’t. What does lead to financial independence – and happens to be highly correlated with happiness – is much less glamorous and a lot simpler. It’s the age-old adage of living below one’s means.

Although it’s not sexy, spending less than you earn month-in and month-out is one of the most dependable ways in which to accumulate wealth. Sure there are a handful of folks who will strike it rich with the next great idea, but for the vast majority of us, we will earn our livelihoods working for a company. This is good news, really. The risks are much lower with a nine-to-five job, along with stress levels, and the path to financial independence is quite clear. Time and again, research confirms that spending less than you earn while regularly contributing to a low-cost, well-diversified investment portfolio can lead to significant wealth accumulation.

No, it’s not very exciting and unfortunately, it’s not that easy either. We can see how difficult it is for Americans to live below their means by examining our aggregate retirement savings metrics. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the median retirement savings of all working-age families in the U.S., defined as those between 32 and 61 years old, is a mere $5,000! That stands in stark contrast with the amount of money most experts suggest we need to retire at age 67. While retirement savings will vary considerable from one person to another, one rule of thumb recommends having ten times your final salary in savings. Given a median U.S. income of $59,039, this suggests that the average American needs about $590,390 in savings to retire.

So why is it so difficult for most Americans to live below their means? Of course, it varies from person-to-person, but there are some recurring themes. In general, Americans seem to want instant gratification more so than in the past. One theory is that as an over-worked, time-crunched culture, we are dealing with higher stress levels than earlier generations. We then try to manage our stress by turning more and more to material things and experiences. While we know intellectually that spending on items we don’t really need only provides temporary relief, our tendency to accumulate things often becomes habit-forming. Big money problems can then arise when our need for immediate gratification gets paired with a lack of financial awareness. America’s current retirement savings situation reflects just such a scenario.

All that said, if you are reading this article it suggests you have or are starting to cultivate financial awareness, which we believe is a big part of the solution. As we start to question our spending motivations individually and as a culture, it will help us become clearer on what we’re really after and how to get there. While we are a vastly diverse nation of people, it would seem that at the end of the day most of us are after the same thing: a happy and fulfilling life.

Once we realize this, we can start to eliminate habits or tendencies that get in the way. We can start to simplify our lives and spend our time, energy, and money on things and activities that contribute to a happy and fulfilling life. Doing so naturally helps us live below our means and comes with the added benefit of reduced stress levels. From a financial perspective, a simplified lifestyle not only helps accelerate your ability to save for retirement but it means that once you reach retirement, you will require less income in your golden years. Starting to live below your means early-on, questioning your spending motives, and simplifying your life can become a virtuous cycle that suggests your retirement years can truly be golden.

Carrie Tallman, CFA, CFP®

Guest Blogger

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Bear Market Anniversary Reflections

March 9th marked the 9 year anniversary of the most recent bear market bottom. It passed quietly with no bands playing and no flags flying. For those who endured the decline, it was a stressful experience that tested the mettle of all of us as investors. The market peaked in October 2007, and then the S & P 500 index of large-company US stocks fell 37% in 2008. Stocks continued to fall in early 2009, until the market finally bottomed on March 9th.  Overall, there was about a 57% decline in the S & P 500 from peak to trough, the magnitude of which no one had seen since the Great Depression. Although the length of the decline was in line with the post-World War II average for a bear market at 17 months, it seemed like it would never end. After hitting the bottom on March 9, 2009, the market recovered sharply and closed up 26.5% for the year. It is interesting to note that despite these declines, the calendar years 2007 and 2009 were both positive for stocks. All declines, while distressing at the time, have proven temporary.

2017 marked the 9th positive year in a row for stocks. While we remain optimistic about the economy, we recognize that eventually there will be another negative year or years. There’s just no way to predict exactly when these will occur. Fortunately, all the major declines in modern history have been short-lived, typically lasting 2-3 years. In the past 92 years, 1929-32 was the only consecutive 4 year down period for stocks. 1973-74 was a 2 year decline, and 2000-02 was a 3 year decline.

If you don’t know when the declines are going to come, what can an investor do to maximize their chances of success?

Make sure you have an appropriate asset allocation (mix of stocks, bonds and cash) that suits your individual risk tolerance and spending needs. You should keep enough cash to provide for emergencies (we typically recommend 3-12 months of after-tax living expenses) and enough fixed income to serve a source of spending when stock prices are lower. While bonds are not particularly attractive right now with interest rates likely to rise from here, you will be glad you have them to help weather the periodic declines that historically are short-lived.

-Avoid making dramatic changes to your portfolio based on news headlines or the mood of the day.  The sudden “I’ve got a feeling” moves in to or out of the market, with a large portion of your portfolio are what can really hurt investors.

Focus on portfolio income. Dividend income from the stocks in your portfolio should be higher each year since more companies will increase their dividends than cut them. Many S & P 500 companies have histories of consecutive dividend increases of 25 years or more, with some over 60 years.

Understand how much you are spending, including what is discretionary and what is not.  The household spending level is the hardest question for most people to answer as we are updating their financial plans. If you are a Parsec client, take advantage of our eMoney portal to get a better idea of your spending by linking your credit cards and bank accounts. Access to the eMoney portal is included at no additional cost to Parsec clients.

Once you have a good grasp of your expenses, periodically monitor your spending level in relation to your portfolio income and investment assets, and adjust if needed.

Historically, the stock market has many more up years than down years. The key is having an appropriate asset allocation, not making dramatic changes to your portfolio based on the mood of the day, and periodically rebalancing to your target mix (which forces the discipline to buy low and sell high).

 

Bill Hansen, CFA

President and Chief Investment Officer

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Why Trying to Time the Market is a Losing Game

The U.S. stock market has returned 282% since bottoming in March 2009, following the Financial Crisis.  Since that time, the S&P 500 Index has delivered positive returns in seven out of the last eight years and appears poised to produce another gain in 2017.  While it’s true that valuation levels are above long-term historical averages, in this email we’ll explore why trying to time the market is a losing game.

As a client you may be concerned that higher stock valuation levels coupled with a long-running bull market could mean an imminent pullback.  If so, you’re not alone.  Many investors have noted that it’s been a while since we’ve had a major stock market correction (defined as a drop of 10% or more).  This makes sense given that historically, the stock market has averaged three pullbacks of about 5% per year, with one of those corrections typically turning into a 10% or greater decline.  While it has been twenty-two months since our last market correction, we’ve seen longer.  Since 1990, we’ve experienced three periods lasting longer than twenty-two months over which markets did not experience a 10% or greater pullback.  So although we’re not in uncharted territory, the historical record suggests we could be closer to a market decline than not.

Given the above facts, clients often ask why we don’t sell stocks and raise cash in order to avoid the next market correction.  It’s a fair question, but when examined more closely we find that it’s a very difficult strategy to implement successfully.

Research has shown that trying to time the market is a losing game.  One reason is that an investor has to accurately predict both when to get out of the market and when to get back in.  While it’s difficult enough to time an exit right, the odds of then correctly calling a market bottom are even lower.  Part of this relates to the nature of market declines.  Looking back to 1945, the average stock market correction has lasted just fourteen weeks.  This suggests that investors who correctly sell their stocks to cash may be sitting on the sidelines when equities surge higher, often without warning.  While moving into cash may avoid some near-term losses, it could come at the higher cost of not participating in significant market upside.

Another reason to avoid market timing relates to the nature of market returns.  History shows that since 1926, U.S. large cap stocks have delivered positive returns slightly more than two thirds of the time.  As a result, you’re much more likely to realize higher long-term gains by remaining fully invested in stocks and weathering some of the market’s admittedly unpleasant downturns.

At Parsec, instead of market timing, we recommend investors stay invested throughout market cycles.  While this can be difficult at times, investing in a well-diversified portfolio has been shown to help mitigate market volatility and provide a slightly smoother ride during market downturns.  This is because portfolios that incorporate a thoughtful mix of asset classes with different correlations can provide the same level of return for a lower level of risk than a concentrated or undiversified portfolio.  It also ensures that investors participate in market gains, which often materialize unexpectedly.

In addition to constructing well-diversified portfolios, we believe in setting and maintaining an appropriate asset allocation based on your financial objectives and risk tolerance.  We then rebalance your portfolio to its target weights on a regular basis.  This increases the odds that you sell high and buy low.

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How Parsec Monitors Investment Securities

Parsec invests in a variety of securities for its clients.  These may include mutual funds, exchange traded funds or ETFs, and individual stocks, among others.  All of these investments can and do experience significant price pullbacks from time to time.  While Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee (IPC) focuses on investments it can hold for the long-term and performs significant research before adding any new positions, price declines still happen.  In this email we’ll discuss how the IPC monitors investment securities and we’ll share with you our process for when a stock or fund doesn’t perform as expected.

Investment security returns are driven by a number of factors.  For individual stocks, earnings growth, competitive environment, and exogenous events can significantly affect price performance.  For mutual funds and ETFs, the general capital market environment as well as portfolio management departures or changes at the parent company can influence both fund flows and price changes.  At Parsec, in addition to reviewing all covered securities at regularly-scheduled meetings, the Investment Policy Committee continually monitors client investments for these types of factors in between our ongoing investment reviews.

We do this by reading sell-side research reports, company government filings, and the news.  Likewise, the financial software we use alerts us to any new developments on our covered securities and helps us manage the large volume of news flow in order to focus on the most important stories of the day.  When a significant event does happen that negatively affects a security, we research the development by listening to a company’s conference call, reading industry reports, and conducting our own due diligence.  We review our thesis on the fund or stock and determine if and how the latest events could affect the security’s long-term prospects going forward.  In order to gauge an investment’s upside potential we adjust our growth assumptions to reflect the new information and evaluate the security’s risk/reward profile in light of its new price level.

Oftentimes when a major story surfaces there is minimal information on which to make a decision.  At the same time, the market has a tendency to overreact to news events.  For these reasons, Parsec’s Investment Policy Committee may intentionally wait before taking action when a stock or fund experiences a significant negative development.  Although it may appear that we are not responding to the event in question, we are in fact working diligently behind the scenes to gather as much data as possible while reviewing our thesis and assumptions.  This can be a frustrating time for clients who would, understandably, prefer us to take immediate action.  However, we have found that taking a wait-and-see approach allows us to collect more information and answer important questions before making an uninformed or premature decision.

Waiting for the dust to settle while collecting additional information also allows us to better understand how a development could affect a stock or fund’s long-term prospects.  If we determine that a company or fund can recover from an adverse event and the security has fallen significantly in price, it’s often an attractive buying opportunity.

However, on other occasions it may be clear that it’s time to sell a position.  This can happen when an investigation surrounding a security is new but affects multiple divisions or aspects of the underlying company’s or fund’s operations.  Another example may include an environmental disaster or a significant product recall that could take years to resolve.  In these instances the best action may involve taking a modest loss now in order to avoid a much larger loss in the months or years to follow.

While our bias towards higher-quality stocks and funds may mean we’re more likely to hold a security or even add to positions following a negative news event, we are closely monitoring client investments and performing in-depth due diligence as new developments arise.  Our intention is to make objective and thoughtful decisions that will benefit clients and their portfolios over the long-term.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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March Update – Trading

Trading is an important, albeit often underappreciated part of investment management.  In this email, we’ll share with you our investment philosophy and how it drives our trading approach.  While Parsec uses both funds and individual securities across client accounts, this blog applies more to those portfolios with individual stock holdings.  In general, we use funds for smaller-sized accounts because of the immediate diversity it provides, at a relatively low cost.  We generally use individual securities for larger client portfolios as these portfolios offer economies of scale that can overcome trading costs.  Over the years, we have fine-tuned our trading approach with an eye towards minimizing costs and maximizing efficiency.

As you’ve heard us say time-and-again, Parsec does not engage in market timing.  Instead of trying to determine when one asset class will underperform and another outperform, we select our securities using a bottom-up fundamental research approach.   Using individual equities as an example, this means that we first screen any new stock ideas for attractive financial characteristics and then perform additional due diligence to determine its total return potential over the next several years.  Once a stock is added to a Parsec portfolio, we monitor the company regularly for changes in its competitive environment, its growth drivers, and valuation levels.  However, we do all of this in light of our long-term thesis on the stock, as opposed to the market’s near-term noise.

Taking a long-term investment approach in which we focus on a security’s total return potential often allows us to buy and hold securities for many years.  This keeps our portfolio turnover – a measure of how frequently assets are bought and sold – low, and in turn keeps our trading costs low.  When we do trade we use block trades whenever possible.  By aggregating all of our trades into one large transaction we can better assure that clients receive the same price when a given security is bought or sold.

In addition, our focus on a security’s long-term potential largely circumvents the need for specialized trade orders.  Typically short-term traders, and not long-term investors, utilize limit orders, stop orders, or other types of non-market orders.  These specialized trades often come with additional costs, including higher transaction fees for retail investors and various opportunity costs.

One such opportunity cost can arise when setting short-term price targets.  For example, using a limit order to purchase a security requires an investor to set a price target.  However, without thoroughly researching a security using fundamental analysis, price targets are often based on “a gut feel” or are knee-jerk reactions to an investor’s past experience with an asset.  In effect, unconscious emotions can drive the trading decision and lead to even higher costs.  These can come in the form of missed opportunities, as when a stock declines but doesn’t quite reach an investor’s price target to buy.  In this case if the stock then continues higher an investor may have missed-out on significant upside potential.

Another opportunity cost is possible when a security pays a dividend, but because an investor was waiting for a slightly lower price before buying, he or she inadvertently forfeited the added income.  In some cases the dividend payout might have amounted to more than the savings associated with buying at a lower price.

While there are many types of trades, and some that do add value, in general we’ve found that specialized trade orders often come with more costs than benefits.  This is why Parsec identifies assets using fundamental research and takes the long-term view on a security’s total return potential.  Doing so inherently reduces security turnover in a portfolio and thus trading costs.  It also avoids incurring hidden opportunity costs and, we believe, increases the likelihood of reaching your longer-term financial goals.

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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The Benefits of Focusing on Your Long-Term Financial Goals

As your advisor, our main focus is helping you reach your long-term financial goals.  We say this a lot, but it bears repeating.  It’s worth revisiting because near-term portfolio returns and market noise can distract even the best investor from remembering why he or she invests in the first place.  For most of us, investing is about creating the life we want, giving back to family, friends, and community, and leaving a legacy.  At Parsec, our job is to lead you through difficult market periods, including times when your portfolio may lag the major market indexes.  Every portfolio will experience underperformance from time-to-time.  However, getting caught-up in weak near-term performance can actually hinder progress towards your long-term goals.

This happens when we lose sight of the big picture.  Asset class leadership naturally ebbs and flows over the course of any economic cycle, and so too will portfolio returns.  Financial behavioral scientists suggest that if we’re caught-up in near-term underperformance we’re more likely to act reactively instead of proactively.  Reacting to current portfolio performance increases the odds that we sell low, buy high, trade excessively, or even sit-out the next market run.  In other words, focusing on near-term market moves increases the odds that we hinder our long-term performance results.

In contrast, measuring your progress versus your long-term goals is more likely to increase proactive behaviors and thus improve the odds of realizing your objectives.  For example, framing portfolio returns in the context of your retirement savings target several years from now is more apt to help you keep calm during periods of market turbulence.  “Keeping your eye on the prize”, as they say, can cultivate resiliency and has the added benefit of lowering your anxiety levels.  When you’re less stressed, you’re more likely to engage in proactive behaviors like maintaining an appropriate asset allocation mix, rebalancing back to your target regularly, and staying invested during market downturns.

While we acknowledge that portfolio declines or underperformance is never fun, it’s important to recognize that difficult performance periods are par for the course.  Over time some assets and sectors will outperform while others will lag.  Rather than trying to time the market or catch the latest trend – which is extremely difficult to do – sticking with a diversified asset allocation and rebalancing regularly is a tried-and-true method for achieving your financial goals.

With that in mind, our job is to help you stay focused on the big picture.  Doing so lowers the odds of engaging in detrimental behaviors and increases your chances of success.  When you succeed, we succeed!

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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Implications for “Brexit”

Investors received surprising news this morning, as the United Kingdom (U.K.) voted to leave the European Union (EU).  While markets will no doubt experience increased volatility in the coming weeks, longer-term, we believe the negative impact of “Brexit” will be largely contained to Great Britain and Europe.

Trade accounts for about 40% of the U.K.’s gross domestic product (GDP), with most of those exports and imports tied to EU partners.  As a result of the recent vote, Britain is likely to see higher trade tariffs from the EU and more trade staying within continental Europe’s borders.  Both of these shifts could weigh significantly on Britain’s economic growth in the mid-term and would likely weigh on EU growth as well.  One positive is that the U.K. never adopted the Euro, choosing instead to maintain the British Pound as its currency.  This is should make an exit from the EU smoother and slightly less costly than if they had converted to the Euro, and suggests it could be less detrimental than if Greece had left.

While the U.K. is likely to experience the largest negative impact by leaving the EU, continental Europe is also at risk given its relatively fragile economic expansion following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.  From 2010 through 2015, EU GDP has grown at an average rate of just 1.2% compared to U.K. GDP growth of 2.0%.  Thus any major shock, such as one of its strongest members leaving the Block, could derail those modest growth levels.

Turning to the U.S., Europe is one of our larger trade partners with about 16% of total U.S. exports going to the Block last year.  This is not an insignificant number, and will likely weigh on U.S. GDP growth in the near-term.  However, the U.S. consumer remains the largest driver of our economy, accounting for about two-thirds of GDP growth.  Following the Financial Crisis of 2008-2009, the U.S. consumer has gotten healthier, supported by an expanding housing market, strong jobs growth, and deleveraging.  A resilient consumer and relatively better economic growth compared to the rest of the world should position us to better weather the recent developments in Europe.

To be sure, today’s news surprised investors and markets alike.  Although the near-term economic impact will likely be limited to the U.K. and Europe, the vote has broader implications for the future of the European Union.  While we can’t predict the longer-term repercussions of today’s historical vote, we can assure you of the benefits of staying invested in a diversified portfolio over the long-term.  Markets will experience sharp corrections, as well as strong rallies, yet clients who remain invested across asset classes throughout the market cycle have a better chance of reaching their financial goals.  With this perspective in mind, market declines like the one we’re seeing today simply represent an excellent opportunity to rebalance your portfolio at more attractive valuations levels.

 

Thank you,

The Parsec Team

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What is Smart Beta?

You’ve undoubtedly heard this term, used to describe a certain type of investment that is becoming increasingly popular. What does it mean? And if these investments are “smart,” does that mean that the others are “dumb?”

So-called “smart beta” investing is a bit of an active/passive hybrid methodology. Traditional passive investments are typically replicas of well-known market capitalization-weighted indices, like the S&P 500. A market cap-weighted ETF holds each company in the index according to its size in the index, which can be calculated by multiplying a company’s outstanding shares by the current market price of one share. While this provides broad market diversification at a very low cost, one drawback of this approach is that the companies whose stock prices are rising become relatively larger while companies whose stock prices are falling become relatively smaller. If markets are less than perfectly efficient and stock prices are anything other than fairly valued, cap-weighted indices will tend to favor overvalued companies.

“Smart beta” strategies use different weighting schemes to construct a portfolio, involving metrics such as dividends or low volatility, or even equal-weighting, all of which sever the link between price and weight and tend to provide a value tilt to the portfolio. The reason for this is that, when rebalancing the portfolio, these strategies result in buying low and selling high. Portfolios based on market cap-weighted indices will often do the opposite when rebalancing, buying more shares of the companies whose stock prices are going up, and vice-versa. According to Research Affiliates, LLC, “smart beta” strategies must also encompass the best attributes of passive investing, such as transparency, rules-based methodology, low costs, liquidity, and diversification.

Does this mean that “smart beta” is a panacea that will bridge the gap between active and passive investing? Many of these strategies have back-tested well and have become increasingly popular, resulting in large inflows of capital. Rob Arnott, one of the pioneers of smart beta at Research Affiliates, has written about rising valuations in smart beta investments as a result of their soaring popularity (“How Can “Smart Beta” Go Horribly Wrong?”). He cautions against “being duped by historical returns” and advises investors to adjust their expectations for future returns to account for mean reversion. He and his co-authors think there is a possibility of a smart beta bubble in the works, due to the rising popularity of such strategies.

And what about traditional passive investments? Is there still room for these vehicles in an investor’s portfolio? Absolutely, particularly in the more efficient sectors of the broad market.  Even Arnott believes “there is nothing “dumb” about cap-weighted indexing.” At Parsec, we stay abreast of current investment trends, but use a measured approach to portfolio construction that is research-based and backed by sound financial theory. We don’t believe any one investment is particularly “smart” or “dumb,” but rather that there is room for different types of investments within the context of a well-diversified, well-constructed portfolio.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA
Director of Portfolio Management

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