Ergodicity: The Coolest Idea You’ve Never Heard Of

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Surely that’s a typo…ergodicity!? No, it’s right! Ergodicity is a powerful concept in economic theory, investing, and personal finance.

Even if the name seems wild to you, the idea is simple—stick with me while I explain it. And then we’ll apply ergodicity to retirement planning and investing ideas.

By the end of this article, you’re going to be seeing ergodic systems and non-ergodic systems all over your life!

Ergodic, Non-Ergodic, and Russian Roulette

Ergodicity compares the time average of a system against the expected value of that system. Let’s explain those two terms: time average and expected value.

The time average asks, “If we did something a million, billion, trillion times…what would we expect the results to look like?” It needs to be a sufficiently long random sample.

The expected value asks, “By simply averaging probabilities, where would we expect the result to be?”

At first blush, you might think, “Those two are the same thing…right?” Right! Or, at least you’d be right if the system in question is ergodic.

I flip a coin a billion times, and I end up with a time average of 50/50 heads and tails. Alternatively, I could just use their known probabilities and surmise the expected value of 50/50.

In this case, the time average and the expected value are the same. Therefore, the system—coin flipping—is ergodic.

But let’s contrast coin flips against Russian Roulette. The expected value of Russian Roulette is optimistic. ~83% success and ~17% failure. But what happens if one “plays” a million times? Ahh! I think you’d agree that the time average of Russian Roulette is 100% failure.

When one fails in Russian Roulette, it is a devastating failure. To only look at the expected value of the system is too simple. The expected value is far different than the time average. Thus, Russian Roulette is non-ergodic.

Ergodicity –> Over and Over, Big & Small

Ergodicity rears its head in two circumstances. First, ergodicity matters when we do things over and over and over. And second, ergodicity matters when certain outcomes are meaningful while other outcomes are insignificant.

To further explain ergodicity, imagine this bet:

I have a 100-sided die.

I’ll roll the die and you pick a number. If it lands on any other number than your number, then you win $1000.

But if it lands on your number, then Mike Tyson punches you in the face and takes your money.

What a deal! You call 99 of your friends and you all come to take this bet. Sure enough, one of your friends loses. But the rest of you win a combined $99,000 and agree to pay for his medical bills (which may or may not be covered by the $99K…which is another crazy blog post waiting to happen).

The “ensemble average” is that you won! One individual loss doesn’t change that.

But would that result be the same if you had played 100 times by yourself? No! In that scenario, there’s a 63% chance that you’d eventually lose the roll, lose your money, and get punched in the face.

The expected value (you and all your friends) is different than the time average (you doing it 100x). This is not an ergodic process.

Revisiting Ergodicity & Coin Flips

We concluded earlier that coin flips are ergodic. The expected value of a single coin flip equals the time average results of many coin flips.

But let’s change the rules a bit. Imagine I promised you a 40% positive return on heads but a 30% loss on tails. You start with $100,000. Would you take this bet?

Again, let’s call up 100 of your friends. You each take the bet.

We can predict that half of you will end up with $140K (40% return) and half end up with $70K (a 30% loss). On average, you each have $105K. As a group, you’ll end up 5% higher than you started.

Sure enough, we can run this simulation a million times and that’s exactly what we see. Both the mean and median results of these simulation show a 5% profit. Taking the bet was smart.

But what if you took the bet 100 times? Same result?

Same for You?

To start, let’s look at two common snippets in the sequence of returns: one win followed by one loss, and one loss followed by one win.

Win then loss

Loss then win

(You mathematicians will see the commutative property at play. The order of this multiplication didn’t matter.)

This result completely shifts our mindset.

When two people share a win/loss, then end up with $140K+$70K = $210K, or $105K each. They gain $5K. But when one person sequentially suffers a win/loss, she ends up with $98K, or a $2K loss.

What happens if you take this bet 100 times in a row? On average, you are going to lose money. Let’s look at a 50/50 heads/tails split.

Group 50/50:

That’s a 5% profit.

You 50/50:

That’s a 64% loss

But you might “spike” a certain run where you get more heads than tails. What happens if the group gets 60 heads and 40 tails? What happens if you get 60 heads and 40 tails?

Group 60/40:

You 60/40:

That’s…a big profit. $37.3 million.

I simulated the “you get 100 flips” case 100,000 times. As expected, the median result is a 64% loss. But the best result of the 100K simulations turns your $100K bet into $950 million dollars (68 heads, 32 tails).

This bet is non-ergodic. The expected value (100 friends scenario) is completely different than the time average (you 100x bets scenario).

But it’s also interesting that the distribution in the expected value case is tight (low risk, low reward) while the distribution in the time average case is extremely wide (high risk, potentially high reward).

EV is a profit, while time average is a loss. EV is low variance, while time average is high variance.

In case you can’t tell, ergodicity economics and subsequent economic theory is a serious field. There are big conversations taking place and serious money to be made (or lost).

But let’s focus a little closer to home: ergodicity and retirement.

Ergodicity and Retirement

In retirement planning, probability of success is often used as a figure of merit. I’ve used it here on the blog.

For example, the famous Trinity Study and 4% Rule cite a “95% chance of success,” where success is equivalent to “not running out of money before you die.”

Die with money? Success! Die without money? Failure! This is an expected value metric—for 95% of all people, the 4% rule would have worked.

But a few problems in this thinking immediately arise and ergodicity is to blame.

Problem 1: Equal and Opposite?

The 5% of retirement fail cases are painful. Very painful. I would argue that the pain of failure in retirement is greater than the joy of success.

This is reminiscent of loss aversion, or the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.” The keyword in loss aversion is “equivalent.” People would rather avoid a $100 parking ticket than win a $100 lotto ticket. Those are equivalent. And yes, loss aversion is irrational.

But is failing in retirement equivalent-and-opposite to succeeding in retirement? I’d argue no. Failing in retirement is akin to a Russian Roulette loss. Devastating! And succeeding in retirement is a Russian Roulette win. It’s “expected.”

Problem 2: Expected Value & Risk Sharing

Let’s assume we all follow the 4% rule. And true to historical form, let’s assume that 95% of us have successful retirements, but 5% of us “fail” and run out of money.

In the previous examples—100 friends and Mike Tyson, or 100 friends and the 40% win/30% loss coin flip—we assumed that the group would share the risk and share the reward.

This guaranteed that we’d see profits, but eliminated our chance to win $950 million. This guaranteed that even if we did get face-punched by Mike Tyson, our winning friends would still help us out.

But in retirement planning, people do not share risk. The 95% winners have no obligation to bail out the 5% losers. This changes the game. This isn’t traditional ergodicity.

Instead, we’re all in the game by ourselves (like the time average participant), but only have one shot to get it right (lest our retirement plan fail). From the ergodicity point of view, it’s a conundrum. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with a 20-chamber gun (5% failure = 1 chance in 20).

How do potential retirees react to this change in the rules?

For starters, many real retirement plans are couched with so much conservatism that the retiree ends up with more money when they die than when they retired. Put another way—their investment gains outpace their ability to spend.

And we know that money is time. Therefore, we can conclude that many people work for years more than they need to. They’re cursing at spreadsheets when they could be sipping mojitos. Pardon my 2020 vernacular, but this is an abundance of caution.

Is there an ergodic solution to this over-cautious planning?

Does Ergodicity Have a Solution?

What did we learn from Mike Tyson ergodicity example? What did we learn from our coin flipping?

If we share risk, we reduce our potential upside but also eliminate downside.

Imagine that 100 retirees pool a portion of their money together. They all know that 95% of them won’t need to dip into that pool. They also know that their money in the pool is probably going to have worse returns than it would outside of that pool.

However! These 100 retirees also realize that the pool will save 5 of them from failure. And thus, the pool guarantees that their retirement will be successful. Instead of 100% of them worrying about a 5% downside, now none of them need to be concerned.

The purpose of investing is not to simply optimise returns and make yourself rich. The purpose is not to die poor.

William Bernstein

Some of you will know that this “pool” concept already exists. It’s called an annuity.

Annuities?! Jesse, You Son of a B…

Wait, wait, don’t shoot me! Besides, you only have one bullet in those 20 chambers (thank ergodicity)

Real quick: an annuity is a financial product where a customer pays a lump sum upfront in return for a series of payments over the rest of their life. Insurance companies often sell annuities.

Annuities—on average—are losing propositions. Just like my pool above, the average annuitant will suffer via opportunity costs. Their money—on average—is better invested elsewhere.

Insurance protects wealth. It doesn’t build wealth.

Ben Carlson

Never let someone convince you that an insurance product is going to build your wealth. Why? There are only two parties involved—you and the insurance company. If you’re building wealth, then the insurance company is…losing money? No way.

Insurance products are equivalent to average mutual funs with high fees. The high fees drain you like a vampire bat. They make money, and you lose via opportunity costs.

But one thing that annuities get right is that they hedge against downside risk in your retirement planning. The insurance company—i.e. my pool in the example above—collects a loss from most customers in order to provide a vital win to few customers.

This is just like real insurance. Most people pay more in insurance premiums—for their house, their car, their medical life—then they ever see in payouts. But for a vital few, insurance saves them from complete disaster.

Of course, detractors will rightly point out that annuities aren’t always guaranteed. If the insurance company goes belly-up, your state guarantor might only cover a portion of what you’re owed. Yes—that means your risk mitigation technique has risk itself. Riskception.

Annuities aren’t perfect. I don’t plan on buying one. But if the ergodicity of retirement planning has you fretting small chances of failure, annuities are one way to hedge that downside.

Is Robin Hood Ergodic?

Jesse is a boring index fund investor. It’s true.

But not Robin. She day-trades on Robin Hood, often experimenting with exotic trades with high leverage.

We can examine Jesse and Robin using ergodicity.

Jesse is playing the long game. In this simple hypothetical, his yearly returns are +30%, +10%, then -15%. The same three-year cycle keeps repeating. One might look at those three values and think, “Ah. About 8.3% per year, on average.”

Robin thinks daily. She wants money now. In this hypothetical, her daily returns are +60%, +15%, and -50%. The same three-day cycle keeps repeating. Again, one might look at those three values and think, “Ah. About 8.3% per day, on average.”

You might see a problem. We’ve used the arithmetic mean here. The arithmetic mean is useful in finding the expected value, in ergodicity terms. If Person A gains 60%, Person B gains 15%, and Person C loses 50%, their average change is an 8% gain.

But sequencing investment returns—e.g. the ergodicity time average—requires that we use a logarithmic average. So let’s do that below:

[note: exp = the exponential function, ln = the natural log]

Uh oh. Robin’s log average return is negative. And sure enough, if Robin executed this particular day-trading strategy, she would turn her $10,000 into $500 in less than four months. Meanwhile, Jesse is fine with his 6.7% annual return (trust me…he is).

The simple lesson is one that new investors love to scream from the rooftops (and that’s a good thing). Namely, a given portfolio loss requires a larger equivalent gain to return back to even. The arithmetic mean does not capture this fact, while the log mean does.

The larger the loss, the more significant the returning gain needs to be. That’s another ergodicity concept.

E.g. a 1% loss is offset by a 1.01% gain—they’re essentially the same. But a 50% loss—like the one Robin suffers every third day—requires a 100% gain to offset it

Just like we said earlier in the post—big risks matter most, and those large downsides are when we’re likely to see non-ergodic systems.

Everyday Ergodicity

I would argue that a smooth, ergodic personal life is also optimal. Imagine ranking your days on a scale of 1-10. Would you rather have half 10’s and half 4s? Or all dependable 7’s? Or two-thirds 10’s and one-third 1’s?

To each their own. I’d prefer the 7’s. I don’t want half my days to be “bad,” even if the flip side of that coin is that half my days are “perfect.”

Don’t make ‘perfect’ the enemy of good enough.

-Someone at Jesse’ work

Maybe it’s boring. Maybe it’s the same muscle that pushes me towards indexing and away from Gamestop. To each their own. But I’ll take the 7’s.

Ergodicity in Grad School

In grad school, I studied fluid dynamics. See—this is me! Specifically, I worked on reaction-diffusion-advection problems in the University of Rochester Mixing Lab.

Fluid mixing is a terrific example of ergodicity. Take a few seconds to watch the video below. It’s a pretty way to view equilibrium statistic physics. Ergodicity applies to many different dynamical systems, stochastic processes, thermodynamic equilibrium problems, etc. It’s a mechanical engineer’s dream.

Ergodic mixing

If we mix sufficiently, we see that small sub-sections of the fluid are representative of the fluid as a whole. The time average of many mixes is equal to our expected value of a uniform mix. This is ergodicity. This system is ergodic.

If this was butter and sugar—soon to be cookies—we could take any teaspoon of the mixture and draw reasonable assumptions about the mixture as a whole. Mmmmm!

But imagine if we accidentally introduce a dog hair into the mix (not that that’s ever happened in my kitchen). Suddenly, the mix is no longer ergodic.

Why? The expected value of any given cookie is that it will not contain the dog hair. But of course, eat enough of the cookies and you’ll eventually find the hair.

Or put another way, a single teaspoon of the mixture—which will contain either the entire dog hair or no dog hair at all—is no longer representative of the total mixture.

Good Article. Ergo…

Ergo it’s time for the summary.

Ergodicity is a fun concept. Or at least fun for nerds like me. It’s a terrific way to consider risk. It helps us in behavioral economics, personal finance, and real retirement planning.

What do you think? Any cool ergodic or non-ergodic systems in your life?

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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Tagged ergodicity, retirement, risk, statistics

Source: bestinterest.blog

Alternatives to 401(k)s: Other Routes to Retirement

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Today, guest author Jeff Cooper of Have Your Dollars Make Sense offers interesting views on alternatives to 401(k) accounts. I maximize my 401(k) with my investment strategy, but I enjoyed understanding Jeff’s ideas.

Thanks Jeff!

-Jesse from The Best Interest

For most of us, a 401(k) is our main approach to saving for retirement. The concept is easy—stash away money now and use it later. But there are alternatives to 401(k) accounts…and for good reason!

Many people take pride in saying “I max out my 401(k)”, with the assumption they are taking the best possible route to retirement. But are they?

The two main objectives of investing are diversifying assets to lower risk while still maximizing returns.  401(k) accounts don’t check both of these boxes all of the time. They are a great tool for retirement planning but shouldn’t be your only tool.

So let’s look at alternatives to 401(k) accounts that will make your money work best for you and your retirement goals.   

401(k): Why You Should Contribute  

I’m not suggesting you completely ignore your 401(k). There are good reasons why you should be contributing. To name a few…

Company Matching

Many companies that offer 401(k) accounts will also match a percentage of an individual’s contribution. In the eyes of the employee, this is literally free money. There really is no reason not to take advantage of this benefit. Avoid any alternatives to 401(k)s that neglect this free money.

You should, however, be aware of how much your employer will match. Many employers cap the matching around 4-6% of your salary. After that, only your dollars will count towards your nest egg.

I also recommend looking into your company’s vesting schedule to understand when you’ll get partial- and full-ownership of the company matches.

Some companies will “clawback” their matching funds if you leave before a predetermined amount of time. You should, however, still be entitled to your full individual contributions. You’ll have to determine if you plan on being at your company long enough to take full advantage of their matching.     

Maximize Pre-Tax Dollars

Another money-saving advantage of a 401(k) is that your money is invested before taxes are taken out. This means you’ll get more bang for your buck, and here’s why:

If you wait to invest your post-tax dollars, there’s less money available to invest. For example, let’s say Jesse loses $50 per month due to taxes. It might not seem like a big deal. Just $50 a month!

But that $50 deficit will add up over the years. $50/month * 30 years = $18,000!

On top of that, the power of compounding gains on those missed dollars could be a difference of tens of thousands of dollars by the time retirement rolls around. The example below shows how Jesse might miss out on $40,000+ in compounding returns.

Chart, line chart Description automatically generated

Lower Taxable Income

Contributing pre-tax dollars to your 401(k) will also help to lower your taxable income. Few alternatives to 401(k) accounts can mimic this benefit.

Let’s say you have a salary of $100,000 per year.

If you contribute 8% of your salary, not only are you investing $8,000 of untaxed earnings but now Uncle Sam will only consider the remaining $92,000 to be taxable. It’s a rare win-win situation for the little guy when it comes to tax season.

Alternatives to 401(k): Customize Your Investment Strategy

There are definitely advantages to contributing to a 401(k), and it’s easy to understand why it remains one of the most popular investing options. But it’s also important to take a step back to think about what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish.

Here are some alternative ways to invest in your financial future (both short- and long-term) that may be better suited for you and your retirement goals. Let’s step through these alternatives to 401(k) accounts one by one.

Assess Current Financial Obligations

Retirement should be one of your top financial priorities once you enter the workforce, but that doesn’t mean you need to throw every last penny towards it right away.

In the beginning, contribute what you can while still maintaining current financial responsibilities.  Once you start to build up a solid financial foundation, you can begin to increase your contribution accordingly.

Another top priority is that emergency fund. Ideally, everyone should aim to have four to six months’ worth of expenses stashed away somewhere nice and safe. If you don’t have that money set aside, then putting less into the 401(k) and more into your savings may be more beneficial. 

Debt is also a big factor to consider when determining your contribution.  For as much as compounding gains can help you, compounding interest payments can be devastating. The interest rate on debt is typically guaranteed, but the rate on your investing gains often isn’t.

While you don’t need to wait until you are 100% debt-free before investing, you do need to be able to comfortably make all debt payments (and preferably extra) before amping up your 401(k) contributions.

Don’t Limit Yourself

Remember that diversity objective? Well, in my opinion, you can’t get a truly diversified portfolio in a 401(k).

Most companies provide a basket of 20-30 different mutual funds to choose from, and that’s all you get. Yes, by nature mutual funds will give you some degree of diversity. But you can’t reach the same levels that a traditional investment account can offer.

Plus, I wouldn’t want someone telling me what I can and can’t invest in. It’s my future! Alternatives to 401(k) accounts can open more doors.

And here’s a heads-up: mutual funds charge fees for managing your money—often called the expense ratio. Make sure to look for funds with low expense ratios. Index funds are typically the lowest.   

Index Funds fees can be significantly lower

Alternative Investments Can Potentially Offer Higher Returns 

Buying individual stocks isn’t typically available through 401(k) accounts. But historically, stocks have much higher returns than bond-laden mutual funds. Plus, there are no management fees when you pick your own stocks! You buy them at a fixed price and that’s that.

Yes, there’s a higher risk involved with hand-picking stocks. But the objective here is to grow your money as much as possible. If your risk tolerance is low, then you may want to stick with mutual funds. 

For those who are willing to roll the dice on alternatives to 401(k) funds, stocks are the way to go. Investing in stocks while still contributing to 401(k) mutual funds can both increase your returns and diversify your portfolio.

Investing isn’t limited to the stock market either. In today’s world, there are tons of different investment opportunities. Money can be invested in ways that weren’t always available to individual investors in the past. There are sites that let you invest in startups, cryptocurrency, online REITs, and the list goes on.

Each alternative to 401(k)s comes with a unique riskreward profile. But again, it’s all about diversifying and maximizing those returns. If you’re younger and can afford to take risks, then the choice is yours.

401(k)s don’t typically provide the opportunity to make these kinds of higher risk, higher reward investments.

Use Alternatives to 401(k)s to Align Overall Retirement Goals

Most people just assume they’ll work until they’re 55, 60, or 65 years old and use the 4% Rule. But that’s not for everyone—I know I don’t plan on it!

If you’re looking forward to an early retirement like I am, you’ll need access to your money. This may be a problem if most of your investments went into your 401(k), as you can’t begin to make penalty-free withdrawals until the age of 59½. The money will be sitting right there, but you can’t touch it without getting slapped. 

Having a well-diversified and accessible investment portfolio will allow you to retire when YOU decide you can. 

Conclusion

401(k) accounts have their advantages and deserve a place in your retirement portfolio. They offer several tax benefits and might give you free money, making it a no-brainer to contribute to them right away.

But you shouldn’t overlook the other options out there. There are alternatives to 401(k) accounts that have lower fees and higher returns. The money saved from fees and gained from higher returns could potentially outweigh the taxes you might save. It’s a big balancing act.

But remember: whatever you decide to invest in, it’s bringing you closer to your retirement goals and financial freedom!

Thanks again to Jeff Cooper of Have Your Dollars Make Sense for today’s article.

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Tagged 401(k), guest post, retirement

Source: bestinterest.blog

Priced In: How 50 Million Vaccines Is a Bad Day

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I love today’s topic—“pricing in” future events. As with many stock market ideas, it combines both rational and irrational thinking. (The stock market, irrational?!) Today’s idea combines math and psychology—two blog favorites. We’ll pull fun analogies from sports betting and beauty contests and the NBA draft. Understanding how future events get “priced in” is vital to properly grasp stock market behavior.

What Does “Priced In” Mean?

Priced in” means that future events are already being considered in determining the price of a stock (or asset).

Expectation and anticipation cause traders to buy and sell stocks before the event they’re expecting or anticipating actually occurs. As the event becomes more likely to come true, the event gets more priced in.

Wonka Suspense - Reaction GIFs

The anticipated event often comes to fruition and the stock market barely reacts. Why? Because the expectation and anticipation have already priced in the event itself.

One of my favorite quotes from Burton Malkiel explains the concept perfectly:

If it were obvious a stock will go up tomorrow, why wouldn’t it go up today?

Burton Malkiel

Doesn’t that make sense?

If everyone knew that Apple stock was going up to $200 tomorrow, people would buy it today. As long as you buy today under $200, it’s a smart move.

But the act of buying—a.k.a. increased demand—would push the price up. The price would settle at $200. Why? Because there would be no demand to buy the stock at $201. Buying at $201 would be dumb if we know it’s only worth $200.

The prophecy has fulfilled itself, albeit a day earlier than expected. The price didn’t go up to $200 tomorrow. It went up to $200 today. The news of tomorrow’s increase got priced in before tomorrow acutally occurred.

This is a simple example of future events getting priced in to a stock price. The real world is more complex than Malkiel’s quip. It’s never that obvious. But news gets priced in to asset prices every day.

News Is Priced In To Tesla’s Stock

Let’s take a real-world look at Tesla. Why is Tesla up 800% since the beginning of 2020?

Tesla delivered 500,000 cars in 2020. They delivered 367,000 cars in 2019. But that’s not 800% more cars!

Nor did Tesla build 800% more manufacturing facilities. Their 2020 revenue stats aren’t reported yet, but their third-quarter revenue was only 39% more than their Q3 2019 revenue. That’s not 800%!

So how can we explain Tesla’s 800% stock growth? You guessed it. Future expectations are being priced in to the stock. Some people call this “pulling forward” future profits. Analysts believe that Tesla will eventually justify its high stock price.

If I expect that Tesla is going to produce 5 million cars a year by 2025, then that should be priced in to their stock today. If Tesla will have $200 billion in annual revenue by 2030, then that revenue should be priced in to the stock today.

The market is already leaning forward on Tesla, and now Elon Musk’s feet (wheels?) need to play catch-up.

Top 30 Cybertruck Glass GIFs | Find the best GIF on Gfycat
The shatter-proof Cybertruck windows. Oops!

Is “pricing in” always accurate? Of course not. I’m sure some optimism around Tesla is misplaced. It’s psychological. It’s irrational. …We’ll get into that later.

Good News, Bad Results

Pfizer is one of the leading developers of the COVID-19 vaccines. Surely their stock would be a smart purchase…right?

If that’s the case, then we need to examine why Pfizer’s stock price is down ~15% since mid-December 2020. And the problem involves too much good news being priced in.

Let’s go back to March 2020, when COVID-19 first shocked the Western world. If I had predicted, “A company will develop a vaccine and ship 50 million units by the end of the year,” I would have been called crazy! No vaccine had ever been developed in that kind of timeline.

So why did Pfizer’s stock price drop so much when they announced in December that they’d ship 50 million units by the end of the 2020?

It’s because they had earlier promised 100 million units, and that promise had been priced in to their stock. “Good news” is all relative. “50 million units” is phenomenal compared to our March 2020 assumptions. But “50 million units” is disappointing compared to the promise of 100 million units.

We frequently see this pattern in the stock market. “Good news” can make stocks go down. “Bad news” can make stocks go up. “No news” gets interpreted a million different ways. It’s all relative, and all depends on what news has already been priced in.

The Keynesian Beauty Contest

Up to this point, we’ve only thought about fundamentals getting priced in to an asset price. Future revenue, future profits, future production, etc. These are all metrics that affect a company’s intrinsic value and their potential dividends. And those metrics get reflected in the stock’s price.

But there’s also a psychological component to the stock market. It’s game theory. Specifically, it’s the thought process, “Screw my opinion. How will everyone else react to this news? How will ‘Mr. Marketreact?”

To explain this idea, famous economist John Maynard Keynes created (in 1936) the “Keynesian Beauty Contest,” a game theory/psychological metaphor that remains useful in describing markets today.

Alive in the long run - The enduring legacy of John Maynard Keynes | Books & arts | The Economist
John Maynard “The Mustache” Keynes

Keynes asks you to imagine a newspaper beauty contest with 100 contestants. You can act as a judge by writing to the paper and picking your top six most attractive faces. If you pick the most attractive faces, you win a prize.

At first blush, your job is easy. Who do you find attractive? Pick your six and your job is done. Maybe you’ll win the prize.

Keynesian Inception

But then you pause. You really want that prize. Does your strategy make sense?

No, your strategy doesn’t make sense. Instead, you realize, you’d be better off thinking, “How do others judge beauty? Who would they pick as their six most attractive faces?”

You should pick a new set of six faces based on your views of the group’s judgment.

But then you pause again. Perhaps everyone else has already priced in the group’s judgment into their choices!

Individual opinion was Level One. And your views of the group’s judgment was Level Two. Instead, you should now ask, “What does everyone else think about how everyone else thinks?” That’s Level 3.

It quickly gets confusing, a layered onion of opinions about opinions.

This is how Keynes described the stock market, and he’s largely been proven correct. Some people buy stocks not because of fundamentals, but instead because they think other people want the stocks.

Human psychology gets priced in.

Sports Betting, Sports Drafting

There are two terrific analogies of the “priced in” phenomenon from the world of sports.

Sports Betting

Let’s say everyone’s favorite Buffalo Bills just beat the evil New England Patriots by a score of 31 to 20. And yet, in this hypothetical, people who bet on the Buffalo Bills lost their bets? (Trust me, it’s my hypothetical!) How can this be?!

Buffalo Bills GIF by NFL - Find & Share on GIPHY

A betting line is a form of gambling where the bookmakers set a handicap that changes a contest’s probability to approximately 50/50.

In my hypothetical scenario, the bookmakers handicapped the Buffalo Bills by 15 points. That’s how good they think the Bills team is. Via this betting line, the Bills’ skill has already been priced in to their performance.

So when the Bills win by “only” 11 points, it’s disappointing news relative to how good the bookmakers thought they were. They were supposed to be 15 points better. The Bills team is happy, the Bills fans are happy, but Bills bettors might be unhappy. The Bills weren’t quite as good as they had hoped.

This is parallel to news being priced in on the stock market.

Sports Drafting

I remember being so confused as a 12-year old basketball fan. Why do NBA teams draft untested high school players ahead of seasoned, proven, talented 22-year old college seniors? The 22-year old is clearly the better player, I thought.

But I was wrong. The 22-year old is the better player right now. And focusing only on present talent is an important distinction between 12-year old basketball fans and professional basketball scouts.

When NBA teams draft an 18-year old high schooler, they have priced in his future growth. By the time he is 22, they believe he’ll be better than the 22-year old college player is right now (and potentially better than the 22-year old will be when he’s 26). The college player has a better past performance than the 18-year old. But the NBA cares about predicting future performance.

It’s easy to confuse past performance with future performance. Let’s look at Apple. Their stock is high because they’ve been leading consumer computing hardware for 15 years—right?

Wrong. Sure, the past 15 years of performance give us confidence that Apple can maintain their leading position into the future. But Apple’s price is based on predictions about their future, not on results from their past. The future gets priced in. The past is only useful insofar as it informs that future.

Why is the Stock Doing X?!

I hope the concept of future events getting “priced in” helps you better understand the stock market. Many exasperated questions—why is the stock market going up?! down?! sideways?!—are answered through this lens.

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Tagged beauty contest, betting, keynes, nba draft, priced in

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529 Plans: A Complete Guide to Funding Future Education

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Do you have kids? Are there children in your life? Were you once a child? If you plan on helping pay for a child’s future education, then you’ll benefit from this complete guide to 529 plans. We’ll cover every detail of 529 plans, from the what/when/why basics to the more complex tax implications and investing ideas.

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This article was 100% inspired by my Patrons. Between Jack, Nathan, Remi, other kiddos in my life (and a few buns in the oven), there are a lot of young Best Interest readers out there. And one day, they’ll probably have some education expenses. That’s why their parents asked me to write about 529 plans this week.

What is a 529 Plan?

The 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged investment account meant specifically for education expenses. As of the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (in 2017), 529 plans can be used for college costs, K-12 public school costs, or private and/or religious school tuition. If you will ever need to pay for your children’s education, then 529 plans are for you.

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529 plans are named in a similar fashion as the famous 401(k). That is, the name comes from the specific U.S. tax code where the plan was written into law. It’s in Section 529 of Internal Revenue Code 26. Wow—that’s boring!

But it turns out that 529 plans are strange amalgam of federal rules and state rules. Let’s start breaking that down.

Tax Advantages

Taxes are important! 529 college savings plans provide tax advantages in a manner similar to Roth accounts (i.e. different than traditional 401(k) accounts). In a 529 plan, you pay all your normal taxes today. Your contributions to the 529 plan, therefore, are made with after-tax dollars.

Any investment you make within your 529 plan is then allowed to grow tax-free. Future withdrawals—used for qualified education expenses—are also tax-free. Pay now, save later.

But wait! Those are just the federal income tax benefits. Many individual states offer state tax benefits to people participating in 529 plans. As of this writing, 34 states and Washington D.C. offer these benefits. Of the 16 states not participating, nine of those don’t have any state income tax. The seven remaining states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey, and North Carolina—all have state income taxes, yet do not offer income tax benefits to their 529 plan participants. Boo!

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This makes 529 plans an oddity. There’s a Federal-level tax advantage that applies to everyone. And then there might be a state-level tax advantage depending on which state you use to setup your plan.

Two Types of 529 Plans

The most common 529 plan is the college savings program. The less common 529 is the prepaid tuition program.

The savings program can be thought of as a parallel to common retirement investing accounts. A person can put money into their 529 plan today. They can invest that money in a few different ways (details further in the article). At a later date, they can then use the full value of their account at any eligible institution—in state or out of state. The value of their 529 plan will be dependent on their investing choices and how those investments perform.

The prepaid program is a little different. This plan is only offered by certain states (currently only 10 are accepting new applicants) and even by some individual colleges/universities. The prepaid program permits citizens to buy tuition credits at today’s tuition rates. Those credits can then be used in the future at in-state universities. However, using these credits outside of the state they were bought in can result in not getting full value.

You don’t choose investments in the prepaid program. You just buy credit’s today that can be redeemed in the future.

The savings program is universal, flexible, and grows based on your investments.

The prepaid program is not offered everywhere, works best at in-state universities, and grows based on how quickly tuition is changing (i.e. the difference between today’s tuition rate and the future tuition rate when you use the credit.)

Example: a prepaid credit would have cost ~$13,000 for one year of tuition in 2000. That credit would have been worth ~$24,000 of value if used in 2018. (Source)

What are “Qualified Education Expenses?”

You can only spend your 529 plan dollars on “qualified education expenses.” Turns out, just about anything associated with education costs can be paid for using 529 plan funds. Qualified education expenses include:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Room and board (as long as the beneficiary attends school at least half-time). Off-campus housing is even covered, as long as it’s less than on-campus housing.

Student loans and student loan interest were added to this list in 2019, but there’s a lifetime limit of $10,000 per person.

How Do You “Invest” Your 529 Plan Funds?

529 savings plans do more than save. Their real power is as a college investment plan. So, how can you “invest” this tax-advantaged money?

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There’s a two-part answer to how your 529 plan funds are invested. The first part is that only savings plans can be invested, not prepaid plans. The second part is that it depends on what state you’re in.

For example, let’s look at my state: New York. It offers both age-based options and individual portfolios.

The age-based option places your 529 plan on one of three tracks: aggressive, moderate, or conservative. As your child ages, the portfolio will automatically re-balance based on the track you’ve chosen.

The aggressive option will hold more stocks for longer into your child’s life—higher risk, higher rewards. The conservative option will skew towards bonds and short-term reserves. In all cases, the goal is to provide some level of growth in early years, and some level of stability in later years.

The individual portfolios are similar to the age-based option, but do not automatically re-balance. There are aggressive and conservative and middle-ground choices. Thankfully, you can move funds from one portfolio to another up to twice per year. This allowed rebalancing is how you can achieve the correct risk posture.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Using a 529 Plan

The advantages of using the 529 as a college investing plan are clear. First, there’s the tax-advantaged nature of it, likely saving you tens of thousands of dollars. Another benefit is the aforementioned ease of investing using a low-maintenance, age-based investing accounts. Most states offer them.

Other advantages include the high maximum contribution limit (ranging by state, from a low of $235K to a high of $529K), the reasonable financial aid treatment, and, of course, the flexibility.

If your child doesn’t end up using their 529 plan, you can transfer it to another relative. If you don’t like your state’s 529 offering, you can open an account in a different state. You can even use your 529 plan to pay for primary education at a private school or a religious school.

But the 529 plan isn’t perfect. There are disadvantages too.

For example, the prepaid 529 plan involves a considerable up-front cost—in the realm of $100,000 over four years. That’s a lot of money. Also, your proactive saving today ends up affecting your child’s financial aid package in the future. It feels a bit like a punishment for being responsible. That ain’t right!

Of course, a 529 plan is not a normal investing account. If you don’t use the money for educational purposes, you will face a penalty. And if you want to hand-pick your 529 investments? Well, you can’t do that. Similar to many 401(k) programs, your state’s 529 program probably only offers a few different fund choices.

529 Plan FAQ

Here are some of the most common questions about 529 education savings plans. And I even provide answers!

How do I open a 529 plan?

Virtually all states now have online portals that allow you to open 529 plans from the comfort of your home. A few online forms and email messages is all it takes.

Can I contribute to someone else’s 529?

You sure can! If you have a niece or nephew or grandchild or simply a friend, you can make a third-party contribution to their 529 plan. You don’t have to be their parent, their relative, or the person who opened the account.

Investing in someone else’s knowledge is a terrific gift.

Does a 529 plan affect financial aid?

Short answer: yes, but it’s better than how many other assets affect financial aid.

Longer answer: yes, having a 529 plan will likely reduce the amount of financial aid a student receives. The first $10,000 in a 529 plan is not part of the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) equation. It’s not “counted against you.” After that $10,000, remaining 529 plan funds are counted in the EFC equation, but cap at 5.46% of the parental assets (many other assets are capped higher, e.g. at 20%).

Similarly, 529 plan distributions are not included in the “base year income” calculations in the FAFSA application. This is another benefit in terms of financial aid.

Fafsa memes. Best Collection of funny fafsa pictures on iFunny

Finally, 529 plan funds owned by non-parents (e.g. grandparents) are not part of the FAFSA EFC equation. This is great! The downside occurs when the non-parent actually withdraws the funds on behalf of the student. At that time, 50% of those funds count as “student income,” thus lowering the student’s eligibility for aid.

Are there contribution limits?

Kinda sorta. It’s a little complicated.

There is no official annual contribution limit into a 529 plan. But, you should know that 529 contributions are considered “completed gifts” in federal tax law, and that those gifts are capped at $15,000 per year in 2020 and 2021.

After $15,000 of contributions in one year, the remainder must be reported to the IRS against the taxpayer’s (not the student’s) lifetime estate and gift tax exemption.

Additionally, each state has the option of limiting the total 529 plan balances for a particular beneficiary. My state (NY) caps this limit at $520,000. That’s easily high enough to pay for 4 years of college at current prices.

Another state-based limit involves how much income tax savings a contributor can claim per year. In New York, for example, only the first $5,000 (or $10,000 if a married couple) are eligible for income tax savings.

Can I use my state’s 529 plan in another state? Do I need to create 529 plans in multiple states?

Yes, you can use your state’s 529 plan in another state. And mostly likely no, you do not need to create 529 plans in multiple states.

First, I recommend scrolling up to the savings program vs. prepaid program description. Savings programs are universal and transferrable. My 529 savings plan could pay for tuition in any other state, and even some other countries.

But prepaid tuition accounts typically have limitations in how they transfer. Prepaid accounts typically apply in full to in-state, state-sponsored schools. They might not apply in full to out-of-state and/or private schools.

What if my kid is Lebron James and doesn’t go to college? Can I get my money back?

It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, there are multiple ways to recoup your money if the beneficiary doesn’t end up using it for education savings.

First, you can avoid all penalties by changing the beneficiary of the funds. You can switch to another qualifying family member. Instead of paying for Lebron’s college, you can switch those funds to his siblings, to a future grandchild, or even to yourself (if you wanted to go back to school).

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What if you just want you money back? The contributions that you initially made come back to you tax-free and penalty-free. After all, you already paid taxes on those. Any earnings you’ve made on those contributions are subject to normal income tax, and then a 10% federal penalty tax.

The 10% penalty is waived in certain situations, such as the beneficiary receiving a tax-free scholarship or attending a U.S. military academy.

And remember those state income tax breaks we discussed earlier? Those tax breaks might get recaptured (oh no!) if you end up taking non-qualified distributions from your 529 plan.

Long story short: try to the keep the funds in a 529 plan, especially is someone in your family might benefit from them someday. Otherwise, you’ll pay some taxes and penalties.

Graduation

It’s time to don my robe and give a speech. Keep on learning, you readers, for:

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest

-Ben Franklin

Oh snap! Yes, that is how the blog got its name. Giving others the gift of education is a wonderful thing, and 529 plans are one way the U.S. government allows you to do so.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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Should You Keep Investing At All-Time Highs?

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A note from a dedicated reader inspired today’s article. It’s a question about the stock market and investing at all-time highs. It reads:

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Hey Jesse. So, back in March you said that you were going to keep on investing despite the major crash. Fair enough, good call!

Note: here and here are the two articles that likely inspired this comment

But now that the market has recovered and is in an obvious bubble (right?), are you still dumping money into the market?

Thanks for the note, and great questions. You might have heard “buy low, sell high.” That’s how you make money when investing. So, if the prices are at all-time highs, you aren’t exactly “buying low,” right?

I’m going to address this question in three different ways.

  1. General ideas about investing
  2. Back-testing historical data
  3. Identifying and timing a bubble

Long story short: yes, I am still “dumping” money into the stock market despite all-time highs. But no, I’m not 100% that I’m right.

General Ideas About Investing

We all know that that investing markets ebb and flow. They goes up and down. But, importantly, the stock market has historically gone up more than it has gone down.

Why does this matter? I’m implementing an investing plan that is going to take decades to fulfill. Over those decades, I have faith that the average—the trend—will present itself. That average goes up. I’m not betting on individual days, weeks, or months. I’m betting on decades.

It feels bad to invest right before the market crashes. I wouldn’t enjoy that. But I’m not worried about the value of my investments one month from now. I’m worried about where they’ll be in 20+ years.

Stock Market Crash GIFs | Tenor

Allowing short-term emotions—e.g. fear of an impending crash—to cloud long-term, math-based thinking is the nadir of result-oriented thinking. Don’t do it.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a fun idea. Google the term “should I invest at all-time highs?”

When I do that, I see articles written in 2016, 2017, 2018…you get it. People have been asking this question for quite a while. All-time highs have happened before, and they beg the question of whether it’s smart to invest. Here’s the S&P 500 data from 2016 to today.

S&P 500 – Past five years. Punctuation my own addition.

So should you have invested in 2016? In 2017? In 2018? While those markets were at or near all-time highs, the resounding answer is YES! Investing in those all-time high markets was a smart thing to do.

Let’s go further back. Here’s the Dow Jones going back to the early 1980s. Was investing at all-time highs back then a good idea?

I’ve cherry-picked some data, but the results would be convincing no matter what historic window I chose. Investing at all-time highs is still a smart thing to do if you have a long-term plan.

Investing at all-time highs isn’t that hard when you have a long outlook.

But let’s look at some hard data and see how the numbers fall out.

Historical Backtest for Investing at All-Time Highs

There’s a well-written article at Of Dollars and Data that models what I’m about to do: Even God Couldn’t Beat Dollar-Cost Averaging.

But if you don’t have the time to crunch all that data, I’m going to describe the results of a simple investing back-test below.

First, I looked at a dollar-cost averager. This is someone who contributes a steady investment at a steady frequency, regardless of whether the market is at an all-time high or not. This is how I invest! And it might be how you invest via your 401(k). The example I’m going to use is someone who invests $100 every week.

Then I looked at an “all-time high avoider.” This is someone who refuses to buy stocks at all-time highs, saving their cash for a time when the stock market dips. They’ll take $100 each week and make a decision: if the market is at an all-time high, they’ll save the money for later. If the market isn’t at an all-time high, they’ll invest all their saved money.

The article from Of Dollars and Data goes one step further, if you’re interested. It presents an omniscient investor who has perfect timing, only investing at the lowest points between two market highs. This person, author Nick Maggiulli comments, invests like God would—they have perfect knowledge of prior and future market values. If they realize that the market will be lower in the future, they save their money for that point in time.

What are the results?

The dollar-cost averager outperformed the all-time high avoider in 82% of all possible 30-year investing periods between 1928 and today. And the dollar-cost averager outperformed “God” in ~70% of the scenarios that Maggiulli analyzed.

How can the dollar-cost averager beat God, since God knows if there will be a better buying opportunity in the future? Simple answer: dividends and compounding returns. Unless you have impeccable—perhaps supernatural—timing, leaving your money on the sidelines is a poor choice.

Investing at all-time highs is where the smart money plays.

Identifying and Timing a Bubble

One of my favorite pieces of finance jargon is the “permabear.” It’s a portmanteau of permanent and bear, as in “this person is always claiming that the market is overvalued and that a bubble is coming.”

Being a permabear has one huge benefit. When a bubble bursts—and they always do, eventually—the permabear feels righteous justification. See?! I called it! Best Interest reader Craig Gingerich jokingly knows bears who have “predicted 16 of the last 3 recessions.”

Source: advisorperspectives.com

Suffice to say, it’s common to look at the financial tea leaves and see portents of calamity. But it’s a lot harder to be correct, and be correct right now. Timing the market is hard.

Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.

Peter Lynch

Predicting market recessions falls somewhere between the Farmers’ Almanac weather forecast and foreseeing the end of the world. It takes neither skill nor accuracy but instead requires a general sense of pattern recognition.

Note: The Farmers’ Almanac thinks that next April will be rainy. Nice work, guys. And I, too, think the world will end—at least at some point in the next few billions of years.

I have neither the skill nor the inclination to identify a market bubble or to predict when it’ll burst. And if someone convinces you they do have that skill, you have two options. They might be skilled. Or they are interested in your bank account. Use Occam’s Razor.

Just remember: some permabears were screaming “SELL!” in late March 2020. I’ve always heard “buy low, sell high.” But maybe selling your portfolio at the absolute market bottom is the new secret technique?

“But…just look at the market”

I get it. I hear you. And I feel it, too. If feels like something funny is going on.

The stock market is 12% higher than it was a year ago. It’s higher than it was before the COVID crash. How is this possible? How can we be in a better place mid-pandemic than before the pandemic?

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One explanation: the U.S. Federal Reserve has dropped their interest rates to, essentially, zero. Lower interest rates make it easier to borrow money, and borrowing money is what keeps businesses alive. It’s economic life support.

Of course, a side effect of cheap interest rates is that some investors will dump their cheap money into the stock market. The increasing demand for stocks will push the price higher. So, despite no increase (and perhaps even a decrease) in the intrinsic value of the underlying publicly-traded companies, the stock market rises.

Is that a bubble? Quite possibly. But I’m not smart enough to be sure.

The CAPE ratio—also called the Shiller P/E ratio—is another sign of a possible bubble. CAPE stands for cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings. It measures a stock’s price against that company’s earnings over the previous 10-years (i.e. it’s adjusted for multiple business cycles).

Earnings help measure a company’s true value. When the CAPE is high, it’s because a stock’s price is much greater than its earnings. In other words, the price is too high compared to the company’s true value.

Buying when the CAPE is high is like paying $60K for a Honda Civic. It doesn’t mean that a Civic is a bad car. It’s just that you shoudn’t pay $60,000 for it.

Similarly, nobody is saying that Apple is a bad company, but its current CAPE is 52. Try to find a CAPE of 52 on the chart above. You won’t find it.

So does it make sense to buy total market index funds when the total market is at a CAPE of 31? That’s pretty high, and comparable to historical pre-bubble periods. Is a high CAPE representative of solid fundamentals? Probably not, but I’m not sure.

My Shoeshine Story

There’s an apocryphal tale of New York City shoeshines giving stock-picking advice to their customers…who happened to be stockbrokers. Those stockbrokers took this as a sign of an oncoming financial apocalypse.

The thought process was: if the market was so popular that shoe shines were giving advice, then the market was overbought. The smart money, therefore, should sell.

I recently heard a co-worker talking about his 12-year old son. The kid uses Robin Hood—a smartphone app that boasts free trades to its users. Access to the stock market has never been easier.

According to his dad, the kid bought about $100 worth of Advanced Micro Devices (ticker = AMD). When asked what AMD produces, the kid said, “I don’t know. I just know they’re up 60%!”

This, an expert might opine, is not indicative of market fundamentals.

But then I thought some more. Is this how I invest? What does your index fund hold, Jesse? Well…a lot of companies I’ve never heard of. I just know it averages ~10% gains every year! My answer is eerily similar.

I’d like to believe that I buy index funds based on fundamentals that have been justified by historical precedent. But, what if the entire market’s fundamentals are out of whack? I’m buying a little bit of everything, sure. But what if everything is F’d up?

Closing Thoughts

Have you ever seen a index zealot transmogrify into a permabear?

Not yet. Not today.

I do understand why some warn of a bubble. I see the same omens. But I don’t have the certainty or the confidence to act on omens. It’s like John Bogle said in the face of market volatility:

Don’t do something. Just stand there.

John Bogle

Markets go up and down. The U.S. stock market might crash tomorrow, next week, or next year. Amidst it all, my plan is to keep on investing. Steady amounts, steady frequency. I’ve got 20+ years to wait.

History says investing at all-time highs is still a smart thing. Current events seem crazy, but crazy has happened before. Stay the course, friends.

And, as always, thanks for reading the Best Interest. If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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Have You Met Mr. Market?

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Do you know the allegory of Mr. Market? This useful parable—created by Warren Buffett’s mentor—might change everything you think about the stock market, its daily prices, and the endless news cycle (and blogs?!) built upon it.

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The Original Mr. Market

The imaginary investor named “Mr. Market” was created by Benjamin Graham in his 1949 book The Intelligent Investor. Graham, if you’re not familiar, was the guy who taught Warren Buffett about securities analysis and value investing. Not a bad track record.

Graham asks the readers of his book to imagine that they have a business partner: a man named Mr. Market. On some days, Mr. Market arrives at work full of enthusiasm. Business is good and Mr. Market is wildly happy. So happy, in fact, that he wants to buy the reader’s share of the business.

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But on other days, Mr. Market is incredibly depressed. The business has hit a bump in the road. Mr. Market will do anything to sell his own shares of the business to the reader.

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Of course, the reader is always free to decline Mr. Market’s offers. And the reader certainly should feel wary of Mr. Market. After all, he is irrational, emotional, and moody. It seems he does not have good business judgement. Graham describes him as having, “incurable emotional problems.”

How can Mr. Market’s feelings fluctuate so quickly? Rather than taking an even emotional approach to business highs and lows, Mr. Market reacts strongly to the slightest bit of news.

If anything, the reader could probably find a way to take advantage of Mr. Market’s over-reactions. The reader could buy from Mr. Market when he’s feeling overly pessimistic and sell to Mr. Market when he’s feeling unjustifiably euphoric. This is one of the basic principles behind value investing.

But Mr. Market is a metaphor

Of course, Mr. Market is an imaginary investor. Yet countless readers have felt that Mr. Market acts as a perfect metaphor for the market fluctuations in the real stock market.

The stock market will come to you with a different price every day. The market will hear good news from a business and countless investors will look to buy that business’s stock. Will you sell to them? But a negative headline will send the market tumbling. Investors will sell. Please, they plead, will you buy my shares?!

Don’t like today’s price? You’ll get a new one tomorrow.

Is this any way to make rational money decisions? By buying while manic and selling while depressive? Do these daily market fluctuations relate to the true intrinsic value of the businesses they represent?

“Never buy something from someone who is out of breath”

Burton Malkiel

There’s a reason why Benjamin Graham built Mr. Market to resemble an actual manic-depressive. It’s an unfortunate affliction. And sadly, those afflicted are often untethered from reality.

The stock market is nothing more than a collection of individuals. These individuals can fall prey to the same emotional overreactions as any other human. Mr. Market acts as a representation of those people.

“In the short run, the stock market is a voting machine. Yet, in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

Benjamin Graham

Votes are opinions, and opinions can be wrong. That’s why the market’s daily price fluctuations should not affect your long-term investing decisions. But weight is based on fact, and facts don’t lie. Over the long run, the true weight (or value) of a company will make itself apparent.

Warren Buffett’s Thoughts

Warren Buffett is on the record speaking to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders saying that Mr. Market is his favorite part of Benjamin Graham’s book.

Why? Because:

If you cannot control your emotions, you cannot control your money.

Warren Buffett

Of course, Buffett is famous for skills beyond his emotional control. I mean, the guy is 90 years old and continues his daily habits of eating McDonalds and reading six hours of business briefings. That’s fame-worthy.

Warren Buffett

But Buffett’s point is that ignoring Mr. Market is 1) difficult but 2) vitally important. Your mental behavior is just as important as your investing choices.

For example: perhaps your business instincts suggested that Amazon was a great purchase in 1999—at about $100 per share. It was assuredly overvalued at that point based on intrinsic value, but your crystal ball saw a beautiful future.

But Buffett’s real question for you would be: did you sell Amazon when the Dot Com bubble burst (and the stock fell to less than $10 per share)? Did Mr. Market’s depression affect you? Or did your belief in the company’s long-term future allow to hold on until today—when the stock sits at over $3000 per share.

The Woefully Ignorant Sports Fan

I know about 25 different versions of this guy, so I bet you know at least one of them. I’m talking about the Woefully Ignorant Sports Fan, or WISF for short.

The WISF is a spitting image of Mr. Market.

When Lebron James has a couple bad games, the WISF confidently exclaims,

“The dude is a trash basketball player. He’s been overhyped since Day 1. I’m surprised he’s still in the starting lineup.”

Skip Bayless: ESPN's different rules for me and Stephen Smith
Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless: Two Gods of the WISF world

Wow! That’s a pretty outrageous claim. But when Lebron wins the NBA finals and takes home another First-Team All-NBA award, the WISF changes his tune.

“I’m telling you, that’s why he’s the Greatest of All Time. The GOAT. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny he’s the King.”

To the outside observer, this kind of flip-flop removes any shred of the WISF’s credibility. And yet the WISF flip-flops constantly, consistently, and without a hint of irony. It’s simply his nature.

Now think about the WISF alongside Mr. Market. What does the WISF actually tell us about Lebron? Very little! And what does Mr. Market tell us about the true value of the companies on the stock market? Again, very little!

We should not seek truth in the loud pronouncements of an emotional judge. This is another aphorism from The Intelligent Investor book.

But I Want More Money!

Just out of curiosity, I logged into my Fidelity account in late March 2020. The COVID market was at the bottom of its tumble, and my 401(k) and Roth IRA both showed scarring.

Ouch. Tens of thousands of dollars disappeared. Years of saving and investing…poof. This is how investors lose heart. Should I sell now and save myself further losses?

More articles about investing & COVID

No! Absolutely not! Selling at the bottom is what Mr. Market does. It’s emotional behavior. It’s not based on rationality, not on the intrinsic values of the underlying businesses.

My pessimism quickly subsided. In fact, I began to feel silver linings. Why?

I’m still in the buying phase of my investing career. I buy via my 401(k) account every two weeks. And I buy via my Roth IRA account every month. I’ve never sold a stock. The red ticks in the image below show my two-week purchasing schedule so far in 2020.

If you’re investing for later in life, then your emotions should typically be the opposite of the market’s emotions. If the market is sad and prices are low and they want to sell…well, great! A low price for you increases your ability to profit later.

And Benjamin Graham agrees. He doesn’t think you should ignore Mr. Market altogether, but instead should do business with him only when it’s in your best interest (ooh yeah!).

“The intelligent investor shouldn’t ignore Mr. Market entirely. Instead, you should do business with him, but only to the extent that it serves your interest.”

Benjamin Graham

If you log into your investment accounts and see that your portfolio value is down, take a step back and consider what it really means. You haven’t lost any money. You don’t lock in any losses unless you sell.

The only two prices that ever matter are the price when you buy and the price when you sell.

Mr. Market in the News

If you pay close attention to the financial news, you’ll realize that it’s a mouthpiece for the emotional whims of Mr. Market. Does that include blogs, too? In some cases, absolutely. But I try to keep the Best Interest out of that fray.

For example, here are two headlines from September 29, 2020:

Just imagine if these two headlines existed in another space. “Bananas—A Healthy Snack That Prevents You From Ever Dying” vs. “Bananas—A Toxic Demon Food That Will Kill Your Family.”

The juxtaposition of these two headlines reminds me of Jason Zweig’s quote:

“The market is a pendulum that forever swings between unsustainable optimism (which makes stocks too expensive) and unjustified pessimism (which makes them too cheap).”

Jason Zweig

More often than not, reality sits somewhere between unsustainable optimism and unjustified pessimism. As an investor, your most important job is to not be duped by this emotional rollercoaster.

Investing Based on Recent Performance

Out of all the questions you send me (and please keep sending them!), one of the most common is:

“Jesse – I’m deciding between investment A, investment B, and investment C. I did some research, and B has the best returns over the past three years. So I should pick B, right?”

Wonderful Readers

Great question! I’ve got a few different answers.

What is Mr. Market saying?

Let’s look at the FANG+ index. The index contains Twitter, Tesla, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon, NVIDIA, and the Chinese companies Baidu and Alibaba. Wow! What an assortment of popular and well-known companies!

The recent price trend of FANG+ certainly represents that these companies are strong. The index has doubled over the past year.

Mr. Market is euphoric!

And what do we think when Mr. Market is euphoric?

How do you make money?

Another one of my favorite quotes from The Intelligent Investor is this:

“Obvious prospects for physical growth in a business do not translate into obvious profits for investors”

Benjamin Graham

You make money when a company’s stock price is undervalued compared to its prospects for physical growth. You buy low (because it’s undervalued), the company grows, the stock price increases, you sell, and boom—you’ve made a profit.

I think most people would agree that the FANG+ companies all share prospects for physical growth. But, are those companies undervalued? Alternatively, have their potentials for future growth already been accounted for in their prices?

It’s just like someone saying, “I want a Ferrari! It’s such a famous car. How could it not be a great purchase?”

The statement is incomplete. How much are you paying for the Ferrari? Is it undervalued, only selling for $10,000? Or is it overvalued, selling at $10 million? The product itself—whether a car or a company—must be judged against the price it is selling for.

Past Results Do Not Guarantee Future Performance

If investing were as simple as, “History always repeats itself,” then writing articles like this wouldn’t be worthwhile. Every investment company in the world includes a disclaimer: “Past results do not guarantee future performance.”

Before making a specific choice like “Investment B,” one should understanding the ideas of results-oriented thinking and random walks.

Farewell, Mr. Market

Mr. Market, like the real stock market, is an emotional reactionary. His daily pronouncements are often untethered from reality. Don’t let him affect you.

Instead, realize that only two of Mr. Market’s thoughts ever matter—when you buy from him and when you sell to him. Do business with him, but make sure it’s in your best interest (oh yeah!). Everything else is just noise.

If the thoughts of Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett, and the Best Interest haven’t convinced you, just look at the financial news or consider the Woefully Ignorant Sports Fan. Rapidly changing opinions rarely reflect true reality.

Stay rational and happy investing!

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

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Tagged buffett, graham, investing, mr market

Source: bestinterest.blog

The 2021 Monkey Dartboard Investing Invitational

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We’re going to run a stock-picking competition in 2021. You can follow along. I’ve asked my patrons to make their stock picks. And I’m putting my real money on the line. Welcome to the 2021 Monkey Dartboard Investing Invitational.

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P.S. If you’re looking for a 2021 New Year’s resolution, I’d suggest you try out the 2021 Savings Goal Calculator. It’ll help you calculate how much money you should aim to save in the coming year.

Monkeys and a Dartboard

This story starts in Burton Malkiel’s seminal work A Random Walk Down Wall Street. In that book, Malkiel writes:

A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper’s financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.

-Burton Malkiel

Surely Malkiel is bananas…right? Dartboard investing sounds…well it sounds dumb!

Actually, Malkiel’s bold statement was based on academic market research. Malkiel found that picking winning stocks is extremely difficult, even for experts. The question of “luck vs. skill” in the stock market has been answered. Consistent positive results—the result of skill—rarely occur. It’s mostly luck. And that means random monkeys can compete with seasoned “experts.”

If a few monkey throw a few darts, they’ll create a semi-diverse portfolio. That’s what we’ll be doing today.

But we could go a step further and take the monkey business infinite. With enough monkeys throwing enough darts, your portfolio would begin to look like a balanced distribution of the entire stock market. Ah-ha! We have a name for that concept. It’s an index fund. And that’s exclusively what I utilize in my personal investments.

That’s right. I don’t pick my own stocks. I don’t let another person pick my stocks. I let a million monkeys pick my stocks via dartboard investing. Why? Because the math predicts it’ll work, and history has proven those predictions true.

Sounds crazy, I know. Here’s how it worked out in 2020.

But if everyone invested in index funds, surely that’d lead to problems?!

Some investors argue that index funds are causing an asset bubble. Let’s dig into some quick details.

An efficient market, they claim, needs intelligent investors making informed decisions. Index funds, however, are “stupid.” An index fund does not make decisions for itself, but rather purchases stocks based on what everyone else in the market is doing. It’s just monkeys following the crowd. Dartboard investing misses obvious opportunities and therefore is inefficient. This is a reasonable argument.

Another index fund bubble argument points out that the stock market is like a “big theater with a small door.” Small trouble can lead to big panic. When baby boomers begin sell their stocks to fund their retirements, it could cause a mad dash for the exit door. “Sell stocks now, or else they’ll tank even further in price.” The prices will drop and drop and drop. Thus, they claim, the bubble will pop.

My two cents: the index fund bubble arguments are hogwash.

Asking My Patrons to Throw Darts

Let’s get back to today’s monkey business.

I reached out to the wonderful Best Interest patrons to help me with this year-long experiment. I asked them to give me a number 1 through 1000. Little did they know, their numbers would dictate which stocks I bought in this experiment.

The Russell 3000 is a stock market index, similar to the S&P 500 or Dow Jones. The Russell 3000 contains 3000 American stocks. It attempts to benchmark, or track, the entire U.S. stock market. Each patron’s chosen “dart” would hit three of these Russell 3000 stocks to add to my portfolio.

So let’s take a look at patron Craig, who picked 501. Great choice, Craig. Because of that pick, I’m going to include stock #501, #1501, and #2501 from the Russell 3000 in my portfolio. As of this writing, those stocks are:

  • 501: RPM International, an American multinational company with subsidiaries that manufacture and market high-performance specialty coatings, sealants and building materials
  • 1501: Zentalis Pharmaceuticals, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on developing clinically differentiated, novel small molecule therapeutics that target fundamental biological pathways in cancer.
  • 2501: Preferred Apartment Communities, is a Maryland-based REIT corporation that acquires and operates multifamily properties in select targeted markets throughout the United States.

And then I’ll do the same for all the other patrons. We’ll have 33 total darts thrown onto our dartboard investing portfolio. This Google Sheet breaks down the portfolio and will be used to track the portfolio’s performance over the next year.

Link: The 2021 Monkey Dartboard Investing Invitational Google Sheet Tracker

How Will We Rate the Portfolio’s Performance?

There are a few ways we can consider evaluating this portfolio’s 2021 performance.

The first way is to compare it against the market in general—will our random picks outperform the market as a whole? Will they perform better than the S&P500? Better than the totality of the Russell 3000?

The second comparison is against some “expert” hand-picked mutual funds. For example, here are the first five “alpha mutual funds” I found via a Google search. (“Alpha” in this context refers to fund performance that is uncorrelated to general market performance. These mutual funds are trying to beat the market, not just mimic the market the way an index fund would.)

Below are the mutual fund ticker symbols, their net asset values, and their expense ratios. We’ll track these over time in the Google Sheet for comparison.

  • NEXTX, NAV = $44.53, Exp = 1.34%
  • ATRFX, NAV = $8.98, Exp = 3.02%
  • ALFAX, NAV = $26.32, Exp = 1.53%
  • IQDAX, NAV = $12.45, Exp = 2.46%
  • TTDAX, NAV = $13.04, Exp = 1.31%

The goal of these funds is to outperform the rest of the market. At the very least, they ought to beat the Best Interest monkeys patrons, right? Time will tell.

Small Cap vs. Large Cap

Of the 33 stocks in our portfolio, 6 of them are considering “large-cap,” having a total market capitalization (e.g. total value of all their stock shares) of $10 billion or higher. Another 13 are “mid-cap,” with a market cap between $2 billion and $10 billion. The remaining 14 are “small-cap,” with market caps less than $2 billion.

That means about 80% of our portfolio is associated with small-cap and mid-cap stocks. Historical precedent suggests that these small businesses tend to be higher risk/higher reward investments when compared against large-cap stocks. But in this short 1-year context, I’m not sure that’ll matter. In one given year, the large-cap vs. small-cap preference is a 50-50 coin flip.

Updating My Favorite Performance Chart For 2019

The Proudest Monkey

At the end of 2021, I bet that one of the Best Interest patrons will see that their three stocks performed significantly better than average, while another patron will drastically underperform the field.

It will be tempting to ask, “Is one of those patrons more skilled than the others?”

Of course, the answer is no. We already know that. These were random choices that the patrons weren’t even aware they were making.

While the real stock market isn’t quite as random, it is still closer to pure randomness than it is to pure skill. It’s better to be lazy than to hope that you’re skilled, and an MIT study backs up that idea.

Learn Through Practice

Nothing teaches a lesson like having skin in the game. If choosing stocks makes you nervous, my hope is that this fun year-long exercise will help you learn that (despite not having skin in the game yourself). I have $1650 in this game, and it’ll be fun to see what happens to that money!

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox. That’s how you can get future updates throughout this year 🙂

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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Tagged investing

Source: bestinterest.blog

The Market Crash Is Coming! (…Eventually)

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Here on the Best Interest, I provide a lot of “you should be investing!” advice. I talk about the power of long-term investments. And stock market strategies. And even about my specific investment choices. But today is different. Today’s post is about the upcoming market crash. Well…it’s coming eventually.

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Perhaps you’ve come to believe that I’m an unwavering bull. A pure optimist. That I think investments can do nothing but increase in value. But that’s not true. I know the crash will come. It always does.

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And that might seem scary. If the crash is coming, then why not do something about it? So that’s what today’s post is about. Even though we’re aware that a market crash is coming (eventually), we can take a step back and think about it rationally.

Being a Bull Before the Market Crash

Here’s a prediction.

I predict that I will eventually make a blog post where I say something like,

“I bought some shares of an index fund this month—just like every other month. And I think it’s one of the smartest things you can do as an investor.”

And after that future blog post, the market will proceed to fall 30% over the next few months.

Some people will then look at the Best Interest and think, “Pfff! This guy Jesse doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about! He invested a few thousand bucks right before the market crashed!! What a dummy!”

I’m calling it now. It’ll happen. And I understand why it will appear like I’d be a dummy.

So let’s dig in. Am I a dummy?

Dummy Test GIFs | Tenor

Historical Data: The Market Crash Always Comes

The market crash always comes eventually.

Bear markets—where the stock market value drops by 20% or more from its previous high—have occurred 12 times since 1929.

Years of Bear Markets Percent Drawdown from Previous High
1929 – late 30s (Great Depression) -86%
1956 – 57 -22%
1961 – 62 (Flash Crash of ’62) -28%
1966 -22%
1968 – 70 -36%
1973 – 78 (Bretton Woods + Oil Crisis) -48%
1980 – 82 -27%
1987 – 88 (Black Monday) -34%
1990 -20%
2001 – 05 (Dot Com Bubble) -49%
2008 – 09 (Financial Crisis) -56%
2020 (COVID) -32%

The market ebbs and flows, oscillating between “unsustainable optimism and unjustified pessimism.” If we believe the assumption that stock prices are current unsustainably optimistic, then it’s believable that a serious bear market could happen in the next few years.

But lesser corrections—typically defined as at least a 10% drawdown—occur even more frequently. Since 1950, there have been 37 corrections of 10% or more. That’s more frequent than one every two years.

It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict a future market downswing. I’m not calling a 1-in-1000 event. Market corrections happen all the time.

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“But if he gets elected…!!!”

You can find arguments from both sides of the political aisle that certain parties lead to better stock market performance. But let’s investigate the data itself.

First, let’s look at the president only. But heed warning: this is a slightly dangerous game. Does the president alone have enough influence to affect the stock market? Will the answers we find here be conclusive of causation? Or will they only present correlation?

From 1926 to 2020, we have 95 years of S&P 500 data. During that time, we’ve had 48 years of Democratic leadership and 47 years of Republican leadership. Republican years saw an average S&P 500 return of 9.0%, while Democratic years saw an average return of 14.9%.

That’s a pretty big difference! But is it causal i.e. one thing causes the other to occur? Can a system as complicated as the stock market be tied down to a single influencing variable like the president’s political party? Probably not.

After all, that’s only 23 presidential terms and 15 individual presidents. Eight Republicans and seven Democrats. Not exactly a huge sample set.

Keep this in mind for the next time a President tweet-brags about the stock market’s success.

President + Congress

But there is another working theory worth inspecting. The theory is that our government is more efficient when the Congress (both Houses) is controlled by the President’s party. If the President and Congress work together effectively, then we all benefit. It’s a “teamwork makes the dream work” situation.

In the 95-year period since 1926, we’ve had 48 years of President/Congress unification (14 years Republican and 34 years Democrat) and 47 years of division (33 with a Republican president and 14 with a Democrat). The market performance during these periods is very interesting.

President / Congress S&P 500 Average Annual Return
Dem / Dem (34 years) 14.5%
Repub / Repub (14 years) 13.9%
Dem / Repub or Split (14 years) 15.9%
Repub / Dem or Split (33 years) 7.0%
Total Unified (48 years) 14.3%
Total Divided (47 years) 9.7%

Is this causal? Does a unified Federal government ensure that the economy and stock market perform better? I doubt it’s conclusive. But it is interesting nonetheless.

The market trends upwards no matter who is in office, but it appears that political cooperation might help grease the wheels.

The Silver Lining of Market Crashes

Back when we consulted Mr. Market, one big takeaway was:

The only two prices that ever matter are the price when you buy and the price when you sell.

Ask yourself: what are your investing plans are for the next few years? Are you going to be a buyer—someone who is investing for the future? Or are you going to be a seller—someone who has invested for the past few decades and now wants to live off those investments?

If you’re a buyer, then a market crash has a pretty significant silver lining. Cheaper prices! If the market declines, then you get to invest at lower prices. It’s the easiest way to increase your long-term investing potential. Buy low, sell high. Dollar-cost average investors relish these chances to decrease their cost basis.

If you’re a seller, let’s look at how your past 30 years have been. The S&P 500 value was around ~350 in 1990. And now it’s at ~3500, or about 10x higher. If the market drops 20% next week to 2800, then your returns are only ~8x compared to 1990. But an 8x return ain’t bad!

“If the market crash is coming…why not sell now and wait to re-invest after the prices drop?”

Before I answer the question above, let’s consult Peter Lynch—who is considered one of the most successful investors of all-time.

Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections than has been lost in corrections themselves.

Peter Lynch

What exactly is Lynch saying? How do people lose money by “preparing” for corrections?

People lose money “preparing” for corrections because they sell too soon and then don’t know when to buy back in. It’s that simple. Both actions—selling too soon and not buying back in soon enough—can cause investors to miss out of years of growth and years of dividends.

That’s why Peter Lynch’s quote rings so true. Timing the market is hard.

So we don’t sell in preparation for a crash. But what about saving up cash and waiting to buy? Why not hold cash, wait for the 10% drop (that we know happens every 2 years, or so) and buy in then?

Well, I looked at that too. Back in March ’20, my “Viral Stock Market Strategies” article (get it? viral?!) looked at an assortment of supposed strategies that involved holding onto cash while waiting for the market to drop. I back-tested these strategies against the historical S&P 500 data, and simple dollar-cost averaging beats all the “wait for a drop” strategies.

You think there’s a market crash coming? I know, me too (eventually). There’s certainly a chance that holding onto cash and waiting for the crash is correct right now. But if you try that tactic over time, it’s a losing strategy.

Don’t sell. And don’t wait to buy. Carry on with your normal investing cadence.

Don’t do something. Just sit there.

Jack Bogle

“But what if it’s the crash?!”

What if what’s coming is the big market crash? The mother-of-all-crashes! What if society falls apart? Or if a meteor hits Earth and life changes as we know it? What if we all start scavenging for beans and scrap metal and fuel for our souped-up dirt bikes?

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Mad Max – where fuel and water are all that matter.

Scary questions, but they have a pretty simple answer. If an existential threat ruins your investments, then the stock market will be the least of your worries. That’s it. If “the big one” hits, then the stock market will be one of many societal structures that no longer matter.

If it’s not “the big one,” then the market will recover. It always does.

Why? Why does the market always bounce back? In part, it’s because humans are resilient. We learn and grow and work towards progress. While this year’s COVID market recovery can be attributed to many different factors—like the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates—it can also be attributed to human resiliency.

If “the big one” is coming, then shouldn’t you just “YOLO” and spend your money now? Yeah, you should. I suppose we all need to do some probability analysis.

  • What are the odds that “the big one” is about to come and you look stupid that your investments become worthless?
  • What are the odds that “the big one” never comes and you wish that you had invested in your younger years to enable retirement?

I’ll take my chances and save for retirement.

Crash Landing

So, am I a dummy? I hope I’ve convinced you otherwise.

A 90s Kid's Journey Through the Disney Canon: March 2015

Even though we know that the stock market will eventually succumb to 10%, 20%, or even larger drawdowns, there’s no basis that you’ll benefit by trying to wait or time that market crash. It might work, but it usually doesn’t. That’s what the historical data tell us.

Waiting for the election doesn’t matter either. Democrats, Republicans…the market does its own thing. There might be some causality, but it’s tough to tell.

There are silver linings in corrections and crashes. If you’re investing for the long-term, then corrections enable cheaper prices and greater returns.

And if this market crash is “the big one,” then none of this really matters. It’s hard to blog if the electrical grid fails.

If you enjoyed this article and want to read more, I’d suggest checking out my Archive or Subscribing to get future articles emailed to your inbox.

This article—just like every other—is supported by readers like you.

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Tagged crash, stock market, timing

Source: bestinterest.blog