Market Drops

After an explosive move up in January, we were subsequently reminded that stocks (and indexes) can still go down. This is a time when it is especially important to avoid emotional reactions and focus on intelligent decision-making. Here are a few investment thoughts, offered up once before, that might be worth considering.


1. Don’t make more predictions than your data can support. A collection of just four or five exchange-traded funds (ETF) is all most people need for a successful retirement account. If you own individual equities then understand the basics: what does the company do, how does it make money from that and what does it do with the profits? Beyond this, short of being a member of the company’s management team, there’s not much else you can know for sure. Assume nothing and avoid the temptation to believe a business is holding a winning lottery ticket. As Warren Buffett once noted, “You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because someday a fool will.”

Focus on the not-too-distant future

2. Near-term forecasts are more certain than 10-year projections. Remember all of the investment analysts who were predicting a big drop in February with an immediate rebound? Me neither. The future has always been hard to predict and this fact is unlikely to change just because investors wish it would. Always be suspicious of undue emphasis on the long-term, especially when the short-term isn’t looking so good.

Understand your assumptions

3. Be aware of the weakest links in your argument. Without doing this, it is pretty much impossible to know when it is time to exit an investment position. When a key assumption changes, or more likely proves incorrect, it may be best to exit the investment and move on to the next good idea. Put another way, keep a lookout for what you didn’t think about when entering an investment.

Be wary of precision

4. It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong. Too much detail gives a false sense of security. This explains why successful panhandlers always ask for an exact handout, like sixty-three cents. It’s just human nature to think someone predicting that earnings for the S&P in 2012 will be $107.63 must know more than someone who simply suggests that earnings will be less than $100. Yet a prediction of a range – less than $100 – can prove more helpful in understanding the underlying assumptions, such that the S&P will struggle to achieve growing earnings.

Leave yourself an intellectual paper trail

5. By definition, our memories are terribly biased. During my 13-month experiment as a day trader (using a Scottrade account specifically for this purpose), I kept a spreadsheet documenting every trade, the cost to trade and the profit or loss on every position. While I ended up with about an 8% return (this was way back in 2007, when it was pretty hard to lose money in the markets), the amount of work involved as well as some of the risks assumed, made it obvious that market timing isn’t a good strategy. Being able to revisit the actual data has been a valuable reminder for staying focused on what works for me. I keep remembering how wildly successful I was, a notion difficult to reconcile with the actual data.

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Coin of the Realm

That Bitcoin and its ilk are experiencing a “Netscape Moment” should serve as a cautionary note on many levels to investors. The practical similarities between the web browser Netscape Navigator as an investment, and Bitcoin as an investment are obvious. Netscape made using the World Wide Web practical for the average computer user. Bitcoin is the first application to make blockchain technology accessible for the average computer user. But with technology stocks, it does not usually payoff to be the first person at the party. So, it should come as no surprise if the “Bitcoin Moment” ends badly.

How the web was like blockchain

The World Wide Web was for much of its early years an intriguing idea without any widespread application beyond the military and academia. It took the creation of a universal access tool, initially Netscape Navigator, to make a sprawling, but difficult to access network something everyone could find a use for. Navigator made it possible for anyone to get aboard what is now called the Internet and communicate (email), connect (Facebook), share information (Google) and offer a platform for commerce (Amazon).

Netscape Navigator 1994 IPOLong story short: Navigator launched in late 1994 with an IPO in late 1995 being one of the most successful ever, up to that time. Additionally, Netscape set what many investors would still consider a bad precedent by also being unprofitable when it went public. Long story short, by 1997 Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was the hand’s down winner in the so-called “browser wars” and Netscape never recovered. In 1998 AOL acquired Netscape. Its fate was the canary in the coal mine.

For our conversation today, let’s sum up the browser analogy this way. When Netscape opened up access to the Internet, few people were thinking about e-commerce or online bullying. The evolution of the Internet browser was trial-and-error in its purest form. Where blockchain ultimately ends up taking us remains unknown and we are still very early on a long journey.

So, what’s up with the futures exchanges?

What grabbed my attention was the announcement of the two Chicago options exchanges now offering futures contracts on Bitcoin. And there is some irony to the fact the contracts can only be bought and sold using dollars – you can’t actually short your Bitcoin collection,BITCOIN-EXCHANGES-RISKS just gamble on its price variations. Yet the speed with which the options exchanges embraced the blockchain left me baffled until reading about a couple of projects MIT is working on in collaboration with two very different consortiums.              Herein might be the next phase of blockchain implementation with the potential for serious impact on the global financial system.

One powerful application of blockchain is to create a viable currency to be shared among fringe economies. Think of Eastern bloc countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Hungary creating a shared currency for use on par with the Euro and Ruble. Or of the many marginal countries in central Africa, also challenged by failed economies. In theory, the open nature of blockchain ledgers would make it possible for everyone – both inside and outside of the currency network – to see when a government is, for lack of a better term, cheating the system and exclude just their blocks from commercial use. Here, the transparency of an open ledger creates value and stability, making allies of adversaries.

Global Blockchain NetworkAnother interesting idea is using blockchain to create a cryptocurrency tied to physical commodities like gold, oil, sugar or wheat. This would eliminate the necessity of having to price commodities in dollars, Euros or rubles, reducing the amount of friction and cost in transactions by moving toward a true barter system. For international trade, this would be a huge shift in the balance of power away from the major currencies. To my mind, this scenario provides a perfect explanation for the rush to embrace blockchain by the futures exchanges.



Oh Time, Thy Pyramids

Let’s start with a reminder that equities and fixed income instruments don’t respect the Gregorian calendar. Why should it? At what point does the fact that a year consists of about 356 days, and further divided into twelve months of more or less 30 days each, be considered a reason for selling stocks? This is not a concept of particular interest to Mr. Market. It is also a concept that should remain off the radar of investors, especially those with retirement accounts.

A brief history of time for investors

Retirement not accountable to Egyptian Calendars

Egyptian Calendar

Conceptually, we call the time it takes for the earth to complete a full rotation on its axis a “Day.” The time it takes for the earth to complete a full rotation around the sun is called a “Year” during which period almost 365 days occur. The actual starting point of this cycle began around four billion years ago and as such remains a bit of a mystery. That this idea of a year being divided into twelve-month segments that have some kind of significance can be blamed squarely on ancient Egypt. Not only were the Egyptians responsible for the calendar as we understand it, they also suggested a start and finish to the year for help with planning around the annual flooding of the Nile. But they also invented tax collection, another questionable practice (as a side note, they also invented beer as we know it, and I’ve long been suspicious there’s a connection between this simultaneous appearance of beer and taxes). Today, as a recent article in National Geographic demonstrated, religion can also play a role in setting the start and finish of a year; March for Hindus, September for Jews and Muslims.

To tax, or not to tax

In tax-deferred and retirement accounts, no changes should be made just because the calendar says it is December. Or March, or September. Long-term investments are as oblivious to a twelve-month calendar as Mr. Market. As for investment transactions made in taxable accounts, there might be reasons for things like selling stocks to “harvest tax losses” but this often has the feel of market timing. Yes, you can sell a stock for a loss on December 30 and use that credit to avoid paying some taxes on profitable equity trades you’ve made. But why would you sell a stock with long-term potential for a short-term benefit? And if it was a crummy investment, why wait until year-end to sell? Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, you can “tax harvest” at any time. 

The first page of the papal bull "Inter Gravissimas" by which Pope Gregory XIII introduced his calendar.

“Inter Gravissimas”

So please don’t make a bunch of trades in your IRA or 401K retirement accounts because it’s the holiday season. Or because of decisions made by an Italian pope named Gregory in 1582 that subsequently provided the U.S. Internal Revenue Service with a framework for how to start taxing incomes to pay for the U.S. Civil War. Of course, we all know that taxing incomes in 1862 was just a temporary action initiated by Congress that couldn’t possibly endure since so many citizens were opposed to the idea.

What about stock markets next year?

Now, having said all of the above, let’s ruminate on S&P 500 returns for the year that was, and the year ahead. Knowing now that an artifice like the Gregorian calendar doesn’t have any relevance you can confidently declare a better reason for all those December sales of stocks in your retirement account. Everyone knows that after a big year like 2017 – likely to finish the year up around 20% – the next year will likely be not so good. This could be an unfortunate assumption.

As clearly demonstrated by the Boys at Bespoke (highly recommended), the performance of equity markets over time has about the same predictable correlation as flipping a coin; none. In fact, comparing index performance year-over-year is falling victim to the same bias; that Mr. Market has an internal clock and a memory. Comparing 12-month results from December to December will vary dramatically from comparing results from August to August. The S&P 500 had a very good year in 2016, up almost 12%, with most of the gains coming in the 4th quarter. Certainly, a signal to sell going into 2017, right?

As for next year, well, if you’ve built a well-diversified portfolio of indexed funds anchored around a core holding like the S&P 500, your returns are likely to benefit from the fact that markets tend to rise more than they fall. In the final analysis, it’s about building wealth over time, not market timing to get rich quick.

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Foreign Affairs

Invest-Notes has always been a big advocate of investing in enterprises operating beyond the borders of the United States. And while the world has not turned out to be quite as flat as predicted during the close of the last millennium, this increasingly volatile terrain remains a viable place to look for foreign investment opportunities. Almost a quarter of my personal retirement accounts are invested in stocks and bonds from non-U.S. companies.

Emerging Markets

Among the sectors that can be found across international equities, the most (in)famous is likely Emerging Markets. The most popular exchange-traded fund (ETF) proxy for this sector is EEM, iShares MSCI Emerging Markets. Up around 35% since the regime change in Washington, DC a year ago, this remains a scary place for many individual investors. Crushed during the market mayhem in 2008-2009, EEM has taken a longer, more volatile route back to a solid uptrend. Which might just make this a time for those without exposure in this space to consider adding some international flavor.

Foreign Investment - BRIC Nations Brazil, Russia, India and ChinaA quick comment before we do some analysis. Early on Emerging Markets was a catchphrase for the BRIC counties – Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These days Mexico, South Africa, and Taiwan also play supporting roles with walk-ons from countries like Turkey, Thailand, and the Philippines. All-in, most Emerging Market indexes offer up around 10% of total world equity capitalization making this suitable only as a small part of your total foreign investment portfolio. In my case, 6% is invested in a competitor to EEM, Vanguard’s VWO. Today we’ll compare and contrast these two ETFs with an eye to the future based on some recent events.


While the biggest difference between EEM and VWO is the number of stocks included in their respective portfolios, a quick comparison points up a couple of points to consider:

EEM – iShares Emerging Markets

  • MSCI index
  • 900 stocks with around 9% turnover annually
  • 1.25% yield
  • 27% of the index value is in the top ten stocks, seven of which are Chinese

VWO – Vanguard Emerging Markets

  • FTSE index
  • 4,000 stocks with around 13% turnover annually
  • 2.25% yield
  • 17% of the index value is in the top ten stocks, five of which are Chinese