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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Remain calm and carry on: why stocks and stress don’t mix

The popular press is generating a lot of recession-related articles lately and with stocks starting the New Year on a weak note, it’s no wonder investors feel a little nervous. Year-to-date, U.S. large cap stocks are down about 10% while most international markets are down even more. Commodities continue to slide and global economic growth has been revised lower. This is certainly not a confidence-inspiring picture, but here’s why keeping calm and carrying on is the best course of action.

First, I want to illustrate why stocks and stress don’t mix. Let’s say that stocks are down 10% year-to-date, the global growth outlook is muddy at best, and you’re seeing a lot of articles suggesting that the US is headed for a recession. Assuming the above facts and a meaningfully-sized investment portfolio, most humans are likely to feel anxiety, stress, and maybe some fear. Is the market going to fall further? Are we heading for a recession?

Having read enough about neuroscience to be dangerous, I know that when we’re feeling anxiety, stress, and fear, the more evolved part of our brain – our neocortex – is usually off-line and the more primitive part of our brain – our limbic system or brain stem (a.k.a. lizard brain) – is typically running the show. When our lizard brain is calling the shots we often make poor, fear-based decisions because we can’t see the big picture. Our brain shuts down and we become reactive instead of proactive. In these instances our capacity to think higher-level thoughts is greatly reduced.

Speaking of the big picture, did you know that from 1926 – 2015, stocks have delivered average annualized returns of 10%? Notice that includes the two largest US market declines, the Great Depression, and the Great Recession. Not bad. When we get triggered by stress, facts like these can get overlooked and we could make decisions we’ll come to regret. Here’s a schematic of how that might look:

graph 1

You can see how our thoughts and emotions affect our behavior which then reinforces the above pattern or one like it. Unfortunately, the outcome stinks and so I’d like to propose an alternative – – one that leads to a much happier, healthier outcome.

In the alternative pattern, the same triggering event happens, only this time you’re aware of the stress and anxiety it triggers. The fact that you’re aware of the stress and anxiety is huge! It means you’re not identifying with the emotions and thus your rational-thinking, neocortex brain is still online. You now have choices. Given the old pattern, one strategy would be to call your advisor and get some reassurance that the sky isn’t falling. Another option is to simply turn off the TV or the computer and take some deep breathes. Maybe take a walk around the block or engage in an activity you enjoy. The point is to interrupt the old pattern. The more you can do this, the more your awareness grows, and in turn, the more options you have.

Following through with this example you can see that giving yourself a break from the triggering event and getting some perspective allows you to stay calm, and thus make better decisions. Just like the first illustration, when repeated, this one will also reinforce itself. And the outcome is much better.

graph 3

So now that you’re hopefully in a calm, peaceful state, we can talk about the current environment. Yes, stocks have gotten off to a shaky start but the US economy remains on stable footing. Jobs growth is strong, oil prices are low, consumer debt is in-check, and wage growth is finally starting to rise. It’s true that US manufacturing is contracting but it only accounts for about 12% of GDP. Meanwhile, US services sectors, which account for 88% of GDP, remain in expansion mode.

Stocks have been spooked by falling commodity prices, slowing growth in China, and fears of deflation. But most leading indicators remain strong and every recession since the 1970’s has been preceded by a spike in oil, not a decline. Finally, and speaking of perspective, there will always be some risk of recession simply because contractions are a natural and a healthy part of any business cycle. Without them we can spiral out-of-control into bubble-like environments. I for one intend to stay calm and carry on. Nothing else seems to help anyway.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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Holiday Retail Trends & Your Budget

In the midst of this holiday season, is your budget holding together? In this blog, we’ll look at the latest holiday spending stats, the most recent trends in giving, and offer a few tips to help you maintain a financially-stress free holiday season. While money is most definitively not the reason for the season, examining current holiday spending trends gives us some insight into the health of the U.S. consumer and might even inspire reflection on our own holiday spending habits.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), total U.S. holiday spending will rise about 2% in 2015 compared to 2014. NRF estimates that the average American will spend about $1,017 in holiday-related items this year versus $1,000 in 2014. No surprise that the bulk of spending, or 72% of budgets, is expected to go towards gift-giving. Family still comes first in this category as consumers plan to spend four-times as much on relatives than on friends. Spending on food comes in at a distant second, eating up 12% of the average American’s holiday budget, but arguably a very important piece of the pie. Other must-haves like decorations, cards, and flowers account for the remaining 16% of most Amercians’ holiday spending.

While holiday spending isn’t surging by any means, it’s up significantly from the depths of the Great Recession when the average American spent only $682 in November and December. For the last several years wage growth has been relatively lackluster while consumer debt has inched lower and savings rates have grown. This suggests consumers learned a valuable, if not painful lesson during the financial crisis: moderation. Lower debt levels and more savings are both net positives for economic growth and asset appreciation. These trends, coupled with signs that wage growth is finally starting to improve, suggests healthier consumers in the years ahead. Given that household consumption accounts for 70% of U.S. gross domestic product or GDP, we may be in for more holiday cheer for years ahead.

Now that we’ve covered some stats, let’s talk about gifts! What do family members want from Santa this year? A poll by the National Retail Federation found that our female relatives rank gift cards as their top gift item, followed by clothing/accessories, books, CDs, and DVDs. While men also named gift cards as number one choice, more of them wanted consumer electronics or computer-related products than women. Looking to give something a little more personal than a gift card? Check out Amazon’s most gifted list (www.amazon.com/gp/most-gifted) for a bevy of ideas by category. Some of the world’s largest online retailer’s best-selling gifts this year include the LEGO Minecraft Playset, the “Inside Out” movie DVD, Amazon’s tablet “fire”, and Adele’s latest CD, among others.

Have a twenty-something in the family mix? A survey from Eventbrite suggests that Millennials prefer experiences over things. In which case you might consider a gift card to the spa or tickets to a play or ball game for the young professionals in your clan.

All this gift-giving talk, while fun to think about, can really strain a budget if not carefully considered. While we’re more than half-way through the holiday season, it’s not too late to reassess your spending plan and even start strategizing for next year. If you’re feeling some financially-related holiday strain, now is the perfect time to stop and take inventory. What was your original holiday budget? Did you have one? And how much have you spent on holiday-related items so far?

In order to relieve money stress, the best and only place to start is by honestly looking at your current situation. The key is not to use your predicament as an opportunity to criticize yourself, but as a starting point for improvement in the years ahead. By intentionally setting a limit on the amount you’ll spend on decorations, gifts, food, etc… you’re less likely to overspend and more likely to avoid feeling financially overwhelmed during the most wonderful time of the year. If you’re already over-budget and swimming in financial strain, don’t sweat it! What’s done is done. The best thing you can do is use this as a learning experience for next year and beyond.

With that in mind, I find that planning ahead is often the best way to navigate any budget. Once you’ve determined a comfortable amount that won’t strain your finances – and you can do this as early as January – you’ll have an entire year to purchase thoughtful gifts for family and friends, on your terms. You can take advantage of sales throughout the year or simply be open to discovering the perfect gift for that special someone. By planning ahead and giving yourself plenty of time to find just the right gift, you’ll have more time to enjoy being with family when the holidays finally arrive. Instead of rushing around the mall at the last minute or spending a fortune on over-night shipping, you can relish the charm of the season and enjoy time spent with loved ones.

Good luck! Wishing you a happy and financially healthy holiday season!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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The Power of Spending Choices

While it’s still well ahead of the official holiday season, a recent email got me thinking about what really drives my spending habits. My sister messaged our family a week ago asking if we were planning to buy presents for the kids this Christmas. I love my nieces and nephews but they are eight in number with at least one more on the way. Buying each one of them a birthday present reflective of their unique personalities is a delight, but as their numbers have grown, holiday shopping has become a little less joyful (‘tis the season) and definitely more stressful.

After the email arrived I knew immediately what I wanted to do – not buy Christmas presents. Only it wasn’t so easy to type those words back. So I waited. Everyone else had responded in the affirmative, but I held back. I felt torn between what I thought I should do and what I knew I wanted to do: enjoy the holiday season with family, minus the gift-giving.

After a little inner conflict and a healthy dose of anxiety, I realized that my desire to not offend, to maintain a magnanimous image, and to avoid the dreaded Scrooge moniker, prevented me from telling my financial truth. I saw that it wasn’t the criticism or praise from others that I was trying to avoid or earn; it was my own inner critic that I was trying to please.

With this newfound awareness, I discovered that not only does this happen at the holidays, but throughout the year! My misguided sense of propriety often influences my spending habits, in a way that is not always aligned with what I really value. Instead, when I notice and promptly ignore my inner critic’s arbitrary rules and demands, it frees me up to spend in a way that’s more aligned with what I really value — like retirement and that future trip to Paris I’ve been planning.

I bit the bullet and told my sisters that I would no longer buy Christmas presents for the kids. It turns out that none of my family criticized me for my decision. This non-reaction was even more proof that my own thoughts and fears – not other people – were behind my financial misalignment.

While some people may not react as well as my family did, when we stop worrying about other peoples’ reactions to our spending choices, they will have less of an impact. We’ll see them for what they are – simply other peoples’ reactions. In the meantime, giving ourselves a break, internally, frees up a lot more clarity to spend in alignment with what feels right. And I can’t think of a better holiday gift!

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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The Pitfalls of Maximizing Shareholder Value

According to Ibbotson data, the US stock market has delivered a 10.1% annualized return from 1926 to 2014. I mention this data, which includes two significant market corrections, because the numbers speak for themselves. The US entrepreneurial spirit, along with a vibrant capital markets system, is alive and well. We see this today in the slew of new technology startups, healthy corporate profits even in the face of a strong dollar, and record foreign investments in US companies. That being said, there’s something I believe investors have gotten wrong, and that’s the virtually unquestioned tenet that a company’s main responsibility is to maximize shareholder value.

This seemingly obvious truth is surprisingly, a new idea, conjured up in the early 1970’s by economist Milton Friedman who wrote a scathing rebuke of corporate social responsibility in an op-ed piece for the New York Times Magazine. Shortly thereafter, two business school professors ran with the notion and published multiple journal articles extolling the virtues of maximizing shareholder profits. The idea stuck and today most in the financial industry agree that this is the primary, if not only, responsibility of a corporation.

Perhaps because I started out as a high school science teacher, followed by a stint at a local zoo, I came to my first financial position at an institutional money management firm with a slightly different perspective. My first year as a stock analyst was confusing. I quickly learned that companies reported two sets of financial data, one based on GAAP or Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, and another set called “pro forma” that excluded a lot of recurring “one-time” expenses. Then I realized that while my Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) studies helped me gauge the health of a company and its growth prospects (among other things), it became clear that the stock market game had more to do with beating Wall Street’s expectations for the upcoming quarter.

What was going on? Roger Martin in his book titled “Fixing the Game” suggests that a misguided focus on maximizing shareholder returns is incenting companies to boost earnings per share in the near-term at the cost of important, and often uncomfortable, investment decisions for the long-term. He notes that executive compensation is now more closely tied to stock and earnings per share (EPS) performance than ever before. This might be one reason why companies in the S&P 500 Index bought back shares at almost record levels in 2014. While reducing a company’s share-count provides a short-term boost to EPS growth, it leaves less cash on a company’s balance sheet for the critical business investments needed to drive shareholder value for the long-term.

So if maximizing shareholder value is not what company management teams should focus on, then what is? As with most pursuits in life, I find that fixating on a certain result often ends badly. No one can know the future, let alone deliver a certain outcome in perpetuity. Sure we can do it here and there in the short run, but in the grand scheme of things, our jobs – as individuals and companies – is to serve our clients and our communities. I believe that when companies focus on their customers, their employees, and their vision for the future, they are much more likely to maximize shareholder value – with the added benefit of contributing to society along the way. But when management teams and investors alike focus on profits for the sake of profits, the whole system becomes twisted and warped. We’re seeing this today in the rampant short-termism on Wall Street, outsized executive compensation packages, and subpar business investment levels – the lifeblood of our economy and capital markets.

While all this may sound discouraging, the good news is that more and more well-regarded financial professionals – among them, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, and Blackrock’s CEO, Laurence Fin – are speaking up. One of our industry’s leading organizations, the CFA Institute, hosted a distinguished investment professional at its latest annual event whose presentation was called, “Shareholder Value Maximization: The World’s Dumbest Idea?” His research found that companies that focused on responsibility to customers, employees, and communities tended to outperform those that did not. All this to say that investors are starting to wake up the outdated and erroneous notion that corporations exist only to maximize shareholder value. We’re finally starting to put the cart back behind the horse, where it belongs.

Carrie A. Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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The “Who” of Earning More

While we’ve all read the articles about the gender pay-gap in the US, I’d like to discuss why it’s important that women start earning more and provide one perspective on how we can go about doing that.

First I’d like to mention that despite earning more college degrees than men, and now, more advanced college degrees, women still make on average 27% less than their male counterparts. That’s a glaring disconnect and it’s significant considering that most women outlive men by roughly five years in the U.S. We’re also the sole or primary source of income for 40% of households with children. That’s up from only 11% in 1960. Thus, a higher income in our working years is crucial if we want to adequately provide for both our children’s and our futures.

While it’s clear the female gender has the intelligence and discipline to master higher education, what isn’t clear is why we don’t reach the same levels of success in the workplace. I can’t claim to know the answer for all women, but I can speak from my own experience. As the first of my sisters to go to college I had little guidance. Fortunately, once I learned the system, established good study habits, and got clear about why I wanted a degree, I started to excel. In college, succeeding meant knowing the material, acing tests, and generally holding myself accountable. I didn’t necessarily need strong interpersonal skills or external confidence. I simply needed to know the subject matter and master tests and assignments.

My first job in finance was a very different experience. In comparison to school, the working world – particularly in the male-dominated world of finance – was much more about confidence, speaking up, and did I mention confidence? Yes, intelligence and a job well-done were important, but I noticed that those who had the confidence to take on challenging projects, talk to the executives with ease, and court clients with swagger seemed to get ahead. Interestingly, I had this confidence outside of work, but in the office my voice cracked, my brain froze up at inopportune times, and my words were often awkward. It was doubly painful to watch myself make blunder upon blunder, all the while knowing that in other environments I was relaxed, confident, capable – in a word, myself. What was happening? Where did I go?

It’s been twelve years since landing my first financial job and since that time my confidence has grown. I believe the biggest contributors to bridging the gap between the outside-work me and the at-work me were awareness, compassion, and trust. Although at times I felt insecure, incapable, and frustrated on the job in those early years, having awareness of the confident, capable version of myself was an important touchstone in the office. It allowed me to notice what triggered my nerves or caused my thoughts to freeze up, instead of believing that that was who I was. With awareness, I could proactively prepare for those moments, give myself a break when I did have a blunder, and trust that in time, I would grow more confident. It wasn’t always easy, but having an image of who I wanted to be at the office spurred me on. So did identifying role models at work, both male and female, and reaching out to those people. Knowing where I wanted to go, what that looked like, and most importantly, who I wanted to be at work were my guideposts.

There were certainly bumps along the way, including raises that were not granted, wrong career turns, and staying in some positions for too long. Despite the setbacks and challenges, I remained focused on my “who” at work and had a willingness, and perhaps a penchant for embarrassing blunders. Money was important to me, and although I aspired to grow my income, it wasn’t my main focus. Surprisingly, my commitment to being more myself and a willingness to work with new, uncomfortable situations had the happy side-effect of promotions and pay raises.

Money is important. Considering that we women often outlive men and are shouldering more and more responsibility for our dependents and ourselves, it’s even more important. The good news is that while money is not always our first priority, from my experience, it doesn’t have to be. A commitment to being more fully ourselves in any environment and a willingness to stretch ourselves with uncomfortable, yet meaningful challenges frequently has the happy side-effect of higher earnings.

Regardless, becoming more fully ourselves brings with it the capacity to weather any financial situation and is, in the end, its own reward.

Carrie Tallman, CFA

Director of Research

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