Don’t be trapped in the past

Williams 150x150Dan Williams, CFA, CFPInvestment Analyst

Just over 10 years ago on September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy shocking the global financial markets. In retrospect, the collapse trajectory was there for all to see with the shock being more attributed to people’s reliance on things staying the same than any new data. This clinging to the past was so strong that a postmortem analysis showed that Lehman Brothers employees, the very people who were the insiders to see the company’s problems, were shown to have kept buying stock. Many believed, both insiders and the public, that the stock was a compelling value as they anchored their valuation toward the stock high of $86.18 in February 2007. When the end finally did come for Lehman it was a long time coming based on the data stream but felt abrupt based on our ability to process the new reality. When a character in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises” was asked how he went bankrupt he said, “Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.”

Not all individual stock downturns lead to a rapid collapse or even a permanent lower price range. Still, this anchoring to past prices is prevalent enough for investors to frequently be told to fear “value traps.” A value trap is a stock which looks cheap based on previous stock prices, but an analysis of future prospects show that the underlying stock’s fortunes have significantly and potentially permanently changed for the worse.

The fact that companies’ future prospects are always changing is a sign of a dynamic economy that through creative destruction increasingly improves the products for the consumers of an economy. Much has been made of the disruptive Amazon effect that through making the purchasing of products easier as the one-stop shop for online shopping has crushed traditional brick and mortar businesses and other smaller online retailers. It is bad for those businesses left behind but the consumers win.

This lesson of unreasonably expecting things to remain the same holds meaning outside of just the financial markets. In George Friedman’s 2009 book “The Next 100 Years” he opens by taking a quick survey of the way of things at 20-year intervals starting at 1900. He notes that in 1900, London was the capital of the world and Europe was at peace with great prosperity, in 1920 Europe was torn apart by an agonizing war, in 1940 Germany had reemerged to dominate Europe, in 1960 Germany was crushed and the United States and the Soviet Union were the superpowers, in 1980 the United States had been defeated in war by tiny communist nation North Vietnam showing communism was on the rise, and finally in 2000 the Soviet Union had collapsed with a United States hegemony being the state of the world. If I would take license to write his 2020 view, it would talk of the global uneasiness of a China on the rise to legitimately challenge the United States as an economic and political power.

What is clear is that things change and failing to try to at least look around the next corner is akin to walking backward. Just because you have not walked into a wall yet is a poor reason to expect an unending clear path. Our role as the investors of capital attributes special importance to forward thinking but it is a lesson for all to learn.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

Getting your investments up to bat

Williams 150x150Dan Williams, CFA, CFPInvestment Analyst

With spring comes my favorite time of the year. Yes, the weather improves and the days get longer. However, for me, it is baseball season and corresponding fantasy baseball season that excites me. Baseball more than the other major sports is a game of statistics. It is engineered to be a series of one on one duels between a hitter and a pitcher such that individual contributions can be isolated. However, much like investing, a focus on the short-term and randomness leads even the most astute into a false knowledge of skill, and it is only through long-term analysis can truer knowledge be gained.

Consider a single at-bat between a hitter and a pitcher. The outcome is going to be a hit, an out, or a walk. If a hit occurs, especially if a home run, it is assumed that at least at that moment the hitter is very good and the pitcher is very bad. If an out occurs it is assumed the reverse. If a walk occurs the hitter has managed the least favorable of the positive outcomes and the pitcher has let the least unfavorable of negative outcomes happen. There is additional analysis that can be taken into the semantics of these three outcomes but the point remains that we have a data point of an individual success or failure. Similarly, in investing over the course of a quarter or year of performance of an investment fund we have an outperformance, underperformance, or an approximate market return relative to the corresponding benchmark and again additional stats can be gleaned from the performance such as standard deviation, upside capture, or attribution by sector selection vs. security selection.

In both cases after a short time period, a game for a hitter/starting pitcher or a quarter of performance for an investment fund, the temptation is very strong to extrapolate the just observed outcomes into the future. A successful hitter could have been lucky or was going against a poor pitcher (or a good pitcher who was having an off day). Similarly, an investment fund could have made a few lucky stock picks or was in a market environment that simply worked well with the strategy’s style of investing.

getting your investments up to bat

So does this mean we ignore the statistics of the short-term? That is, of course, foolish as the short-term is what happens as we build the data for the long-term. We always want to know what happened as it helps guide us to what will happen. It is simply wise to temper the conclusions we can draw from data over short periods. It is also humbling to know that even with ample data that can provide very close to proof of past greatness, it can never be fully relied on to provide future insight. At this point, I would say we have enough data to say Babe Ruth was a very good baseball player. However, he has been dead for about 70 years (so he is in a bit of a slump) and even if we through the miracle of science could resurrect a 30-year-old Babe Ruth, it is not a certainty he would achieve the same greatness in today’s baseball landscape. Similarly, an investment fund or strategy type that achieved great success over the long-term in the past may not achieve it in the future.

So where does this leave us? The recognition of great skill recognized solely in the short-term is unreliable and the great confidence we can achieve through the very long-term analysis thereof is not very useful. This leaves us striving for the middle ground. We look at performance data of at least a few market cycles and we additionally gain extra insight through qualitative data by talking to our investment managers and understanding the how of what they do. Through this process, we strive to send the right people up to bat and hopefully, we deliver more winning than losing seasons.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a registered investment advisor.

Investing in Game of Thrones

Williams 150 X 150Dan Williams, CFA, CFPInvestment Analyst

Nothing else could make me, and many others, actually look forward to Sunday night like Game of Thrones. Of course I felt a need to draw some wisdom to the investment world from this show if for no other reason than I get to relieve my separation anxiety from the many months until the show comes back for its final season. Thankfully this season lends itself easily to the task.

For those unfamiliar with the show let me sum it up as briefly as possible (warning vague spoilers). There exists a continent called Westeros that is divided into numerous houses/kingdoms that swore fealty to the House that sits on the Iron Throne. In the recent past, there was a rebellion that disposed of the longstanding ruling House Targaryen and drove the surviving member(s) of the house off the continent into hiding. The show opens with a member of House Baratheon sitting on the throne. Well, that king gets killed “by accident on a hunting trip.” His best mate, who is head of House Stark, becomes involved in investigating the situation in the capital city and gets beheaded. House Lannister slides onto the throne by a member of the house being conveniently married to the former king. This whole situation causes much trouble as House Stark wants revenge, House Targaryen and Baratheon want to take back the throne, and the rest of the Houses see opportunity to reposition themselves. A bunch of people kill some other people by various methods. Some body parts get cut-off. Some dragons show up. Some people come back from the dead by unnatural methods. Really a classic story. So that is it.

Wait! I forgot! Up north there are reports of a huge frozen undead army being formed that threatens to sweep down and kill everyone. This threat is summed up as “Winter is coming.” No biggie, right? Oops!

GOT.Winter is Coming
The parallel that can be drawn to the investment world is that while people are chasing and comparing themselves to each other’s performance and asset class benchmarks, they take the eye off the primary goal – survival. The Houses all want more castles and the glory to sit up on the Iron Throne while John Snow, one of the show’s main protagonists who has been positioned up north for the majority of the show, said this season “If we don’t put aside our enmities and band together, we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.”

While we are not necessarily battling our neighbors – like the houses of Westeros – for bragging rights of investment returns, it is still the wrong struggle to have. The great threat to the north is our inability to meet our goals due to poor investment planning. We can go off track by spending too much or saving too little. We can take on too much or too little risk or invest in the wrong account types. We can be operating tax inefficient. We can fail to insure against the unlikely but devastating potential life events. Planning with an advisor should be focused on setting a path that provides the best likelihood for success against this enemy of insufficient assets for our goals rather than the bragging rights of a few year of investment returns.

During this season, attempts were made by John Snow to refocus the warring houses to the real threat of the north. This threat has been lurking for all seven seasons of the show and the big question is – is it too late for them? Similarly, the challenge of investment goal planning is easiest when taken on as early as possible or before winter comes. The adviser’s role is similar of that to John Snow’s, get their clients to start to properly prepare as early as possible for the threats that matter.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

A battle of wits with the market

Williams 150 X 150Dan Williams, CFA, CFP, Investment Analyst

One of the greatest temptations of investing is trying to increase investment performance by continuously buying stocks right before they go up and selling stocks right before they go down. As a theoretical matter “timing the market” seems simple as in retrospect the overreactions or ignorance of the markets are clear. Yet, in practice, the task is regarded mostly as a fool’s errand as the timing always seems to be off.

The extremes of market movements relative to economic reality is not a new observation. In his 1949 book, “The Intelligent Investor,” Benjamin Graham asked readers to imagine themselves as a partner in a business with a fellow named “Mr. Market.” On a daily basis, Graham’s Mr. Market becomes wildly optimistic or pessimistic about the business’ value, therefore, is always trying to sell out or buy you out. Graham notes that an investor finds himself in that very position when he owns a listed common stock. The problem is that we are not separate from Mr. Market. Rather, we all contribute a little of ourselves to create this Mr. Market and what he feels, we collectively feel. When he is panicking and wants to sell, so do we. When he is euphoric about market prospects and wants to buy, so do we.

Additionally, Mr. Market is smart most of the time as he knows just about everything we collectively know, and given available information is approximately right about most stocks most the time. This is the oversimplified basis for the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) that states that the market incorporates all relevant information efficiently and accurately into market prices. So what is to be done?

Timing the market

 
As always, I find a movie to reference. This time I am drawn to a scene in “The Princess Bride” where our protagonist, Westley, sits down to play a game of wits with the mastermind bandit, Vizzini. In the scene, two glass of wine are poured, Westley poisons one glass of wine, but mixes up which is which and places both glasses on a table. Vizzini then gets to pick which glass to drink from and Westley is compelled to drink the other. Vizzini, after thinking and overthinking all of the factors to consider and even switching the placement of the glasses on the table while Westley is distracted, takes a drink from one of the glasses and drops dead. We then find that Westley had actually poisoned both glasses and had previously made himself immune to the poison used. Therefore, the whole game of wits was moot.

Similar to trying to beat the market through market timing, the battle of wits Vizzini was engaging in was with himself. Westley instead played the game right by avoiding the game of wits by doing work beforehand. This is exactly what Graham prescribed for investing.

Graham felt through the deep fundamental analysis of individual securities an investor could know with a reasonable degree of confidence what the price/value of a security should be. This value is adjusted to new information that fundamentally changes the business prospects, but most often the investor just patiently waits for Mr. Market to make a mistake. Like Westley, the intelligent investor just waits for Vizzini to drink.

The moral of the story is that to outperform the market you must either do your homework (independent analysis to make yourself immune to the poison of market noise) or do not play the game at all (buy and hold a proper asset allocation and ignore the market noise). In neither case, do you try to use your own emotional intuitions to outthink and time the market.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Invest for the future, not the past

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFA, CFP, Investment Analyst

A common movie plot device is giving the story’s protagonist the ability to redo the past and see what might have been. For example in “The Back To The Future” franchise we have Marty McFly shown the huge changes to the present or future based on a few changes in the past. Marty then gets to pick the better fork(s) in the road. Others, for example “Groundhog Day” and “Edge of Tomorrow”, give the protagonist the unlimited ability to replay a single day until he gets it perfect. Regardless of the specific parameters of the do-over mechanism, this is not the way life goes. We can learn from the past but we can never go back to relive it verbatim.

williams blog

Time travel is of course science fiction but the desire to try to rely heavily on what worked yesterday to plan today is very real. The problem is that the more we perfectly optimize for the past conditions and “fight the last war”, the more likely the rigidness of the perfect solution reached is not applicable to the future. During the 1930s, France built the perfect World War I military defense with the Maginot Line but found themselves outflanked very quickly by the new warfare of World War II. Similarly, at Brinker Capital, we come across strategies that are back-tested to show amazing results but a later review shows subsequent performance to be average at best.

For very good reason the disclaimer goes, “Past performance is not an indicator of future results”. Yet investors continue to chase returns and buy the investments today that they wish they had held yesterday. As asset allocators, our goal is to identify strategies with compelling advantages relevant to future performance rather than those that already have had their moment in the sun. This to say the goal is to identify the strategies that have a good chance to work well in the future and we should consider past performance only if it is helpful in projecting future performance. Sometimes past performance provides a proof of concept in the strategy’s investment process/philosophy. Other times the past performance are period specific and should hold little weight in the present allocation decision. Knowing the difference is easier said than done.

In this pursuit of separating the gold from the fool’s gold in investment strategies we find valuable insight in both quantitative and qualitative characteristics. The Brinker Capital Investment Team often does look at the historic performance and holding statistics of an investment manager. But we also evaluate the organization and the people in the organization. Does the organization put the investor first? Are the members of the investment team talented, experienced and trustworthy? Are there new relevant competitors in this area of the market? These things matter. This is all in addition to an evaluation of market conditions to suggest success in the asset class as a whole.

The recent arrival of a multitude of Smart Beta/Factor products to the marketplace is especially relevant to this discussion. These products are all well-supported with academic research and have attractive back-tested long-term returns. In theory, these grand returns could have been achieved had both the investment firms had the foresight to make these strategies available and investors had the foresight to invest in them. There is, however, reason for skepticism with using this past performance carte blanche for future investing.

  • First, this strong performance was achieved when investors were not widely aware of the ability of these factors to outperform. Going forward the widespread knowledge of these factors’ alpha potential could cause investors to flock to securities with these attributes causing these securities to become overpriced and leading to a significant muting of future performance.
  • Second, the conditions that these factors outperformed are market conditions of the past. This is to say, these factors may have worked over the past 25 years but may not work for the next 25 years. At the very least we have to consider the possibility that the desire to invest in these strong past performers is more driven by trying to redo the past rather than sound forward-looking investing.

This is not to say that all Smart Beta/Factor and strategies that use back-tests are doomed for failure but rather it is never as simple as doing today what worked yesterday. It would be equally thoughtless to eliminate any strong past performers as it would be to blindly chase them. Some of these factors I expect will show robustness and continue to do well into the future. Others may prove to have just been the result of statistical anomalies, past specific market conditions and data mining.

At Brinker Capital, we believe that strong active management can be found but that it takes a strong due diligence process to find them. It also takes patience and a forward-looking focus.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Investment Odyssey

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFA, CFP, Investment Analyst

In Homer’s Odyssey there is a memorable section where Odysseus and his crew must shutterstock_369235274sail past the island of the lovely Sirens. He has been warned to plug his crew’s ears with wax so that they will not be susceptible to the Sirens’ call. However, wishing to hear the Sirens’ calls for himself, he orders his men to tie him to the mast of the ship and ignore his future orders until they are clear of the island.

The need to stay the course and to ignore distractions are relevant to many facets of life, but I find special meaning related to long-term investing. When people think of investment risk they normally focus on the volatility seen in recent investment returns. However, the returns of a random month, quarter or even a year has an overrated impact on an account’s growth over a 10+ year horizon.

Tolerance for this volatility/risk typically has more to do with investor psychological make-up than the mathematical impact of these short-term returns on much longer term account performance. For me, this volatility and other market noise represent the Sirens that threaten to take investors off course. Two investors who are the same in every other way and invest in the same portfolio, will have a different investment experience based on how often they look at their account and how they feel about what they see.

In other words, similar to Odysseus’ crew, the journey can be made less stressful and easier by turning off the noise. While feelings and emotions are important considerations, as lost sleep and stress meaningfully impact a person’s well-being, a better course is set by focusing on more objective investment risks. Among the most relevant objective risks for investors is shortfall risk.

Shortfall risk

Most investors invest to fulfill a future goal/need years in the future. Shortfall risk is simply the risk that the money allocated and invested to this future goal/need proves to be inadequate to pay for it when the time comes. This risk is very real and goes well beyond how an investor feels about it. If an investor needs $100,000 a year in retirement but finds that due to insufficient account growth he or she can only sustainably take out $80,000 a year from his or her portfolio at retirement, the math will simply not work. No solace is offered by the smooth but inadequate investment journey of an overly conservative allocation when the investment goal is not achieved.

Addressing volatility

The challenge is often to achieve the long-term returns that can meet account balance requirements, volatility must be taken on. While Odysseus could have taken a long detour around the island of the lovey Sirens, his goal of getting home in a timely fashion would not have been met (and for those who know the story, he had a deadline). Similarly, an investor could ensure a very smooth investment journey by investing in a portfolio dominated by short-term bonds, but could find investment account growth inadequate to meet the goal of the investment. The good news is that if investors can find a way to plug their ears to the noise, they can get the longer-term returns they need and minimize the stress of the volatility along the way.

Multi-asset class goals-based investing is one way to have the investor take a longer view on his or her investing to see past the present sirens of volatility and recent returns to the goal at the end of the investing horizon. Without the ability to take the long-run prospective, we are like Odysseus hearing the Sirens call. Without an advisor to keep the ship on course, the journey is potentially doomed. Investing is only successful if the investor can stay the course and stay invested. The importance of keeping the investor from letting the heart rule the head is one of the most important roles of the investment advisor.

Brinker Capital understands that investing for the long-term can be daunting. That’s why we are focused on providing multi-asset class investment solutions that help investors manage the emotions of investing to achieve their unique financial goals.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Debt and Skepticism: A Millennial Mindset

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFPInvestment Analyst

Having overshot 30 by a couple of years, I have had to come to terms with the many changes that come with my new age group. Some good, such as lower car insurance rates. Some bad, such as feeling that 9:00pm is closer to the departure time rather than arrival time for a social gathering. Some are mixed; being called “sir” with a high consistency and no tone of irony. I am also no longer considered to be part of the “young adult” group that is said to represent the emerging consumers in the economy and, subsequently, more closely studied by market researchers. These new kids on the block, known as the Millennials, had the financial crisis occur just as many were entering college and the workforce and were beginning to make their first big life decisions. Not surprisingly, they now think about money differently than I did at their age, just a brief decade ago. So what is the current financial mindset of this group some seven years later?

Goldman Sachs reported, in a June 2015 study, as shown below, that this group upon receiving a windfall of cash would look to pay down debt more than any other option by a wide margin.

Williams_chart1

Goldman Sachs Research Proprietary Survey

The result is not entirely unsurprising given that a majority of college students graduate with debt and, often, this debt is of a daunting amount. However, the magnitude of this victory reflects an overall conservative outlook on how to manage their financial matters.

The second finding, shown below, is of greater concern as it shows Millennials to be very skeptical of investing in the stock market. When asked whether investing in the stock market was a good idea for them, less than 20% answered that the stock market is the best way to save for the future. Approximately twice this amount claimed ignorance, fear of volatility, or lack of perceived fairness as reasons to avoid the stock market. Clearly, the events of the financial crisis have left scars on this group that have yet to heal.

Williams_chart2

Goldman Sachs Research Proprietary Survey

I am left feeling very conflicted for this group’s future financial health. On one hand, it’s very admirable that, unlike some prior young adult groups, this group has realized early on that debt is not something you simply attempt to defer payment of indefinitely. At least in the case of high interest credit card debt, it is hard to find fault with the pay-down-the-debt option as a sound financial decision. However, an inflexible focus on debt repayment combined with shunning or deferring of investing in the equity markets represents a significant challenge to this group’s ability to save meaningfully for the future.

Quite simply, equity investing has been proven to be one of the best ways to grow purchasing power over time. One advantage the Millennials have is ample time to invest, ride out periods of market volatility and let returns compound. To forego any portion of this advantage has potential to be tragic for future savings. Consider a one-year delay in retirement investing at the start of a career The missed opportunity is more than just the amount of one year’s contribution; rather that one year’s contribution compounded with typically 40+ years of returns until retirement. Over 40 years, a single $5,000 investment compounded at 8% becomes over $100,000. Six consecutive years of $5,000 contributions compounds to over $500,000. This is the potential cost of delaying investing just for “a couple of years.” In other words, earlier contributions are invested longer and can compound to greater amounts. On a per-dollar basis, these are the most impactful retirement contributions.

Contribution at start of year Value of contribution at end of year 40, assuming 8% return per year
Year 1 $5,000 $108,622.61
Year 2 $5,000 $100,576.49
Year 3 $5,000 $93,126.38
Year 4 $5,000 $86,228.13
Year 5 $5,000 $79,840.86
Year 6 $5,000 $73,926.72
Total $542,321.72

Source: Brinker Capital

Albert Einstein said, “Compounding interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn’t, pays it.” More attention is given by advisors to older clients with more assets and fewer years until retirement. Often this is due to the fact that clients become more tuned into investing matters as they begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel (whether it be the light of retirement or the oncoming train of insufficient savings). However, the greater opportunity for advisors to help a client’s future financial situation occurs earlier on in a client’s investment life. Helping young clients start off with good financial decision making, such as early investing, and letting these good decisions compound, is likely one of the best ways he or she can add value. Each client situation is different as each client has different goals. However a secure retirement is likely a very common dream and as Langston Hughes wrote, “A dream deferred is a dream denied.” Anything that we can do to ensure those dreams are not deferred is truly good work.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Keep a Calm Head in Battle

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst

The Battle of Thermopylae, dramatized in the 2007 movie 300, is the story of how a relatively small group of 7,000 disciplined Greeks in 480 B.C. held off a group of 100,000-150,000 invading Persians for three days. Due to the size disadvantage of the Greeks, their eventual defeat at this battle was inevitable. However, this group kept a calm head in battle while the Persian leader Xerxes was said to become so enraged by the delay these Greeks had caused his army that at the battle’s conclusion, he decapitated and crucified King Leonidas of Sparta, the fallen hero of the Greeks, elevating his status as a martyr. While the Greeks lost this battle, at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. the Greek forces won the war. The manifestation of this Greek discipline was the Phalanx formation which lined up troops in close order to form a shield wall defense that marched forward using spears to take down any army in front of them. Given that the Phalanx was only as good as the weakest point, discipline was crucial to its success. This concept was later further refined and improved upon by the Roman legions that used it to great effect to build their empire.

shutterstock_141582367_collegeMay and June mark the end of another school year and the arrival of almost 20 college interns to Brinker Capital. These college students, the most successful not being strangers to discipline, have been exposed to the science of investing in their college courses but have come to Brinker in many cases to help fill the gaps regarding the art of how to identify good investment strategies. To help lay the groundwork for this understanding, we encouraged them to read Money Masters of Our Time by John Train, a book profiling 17 different investment managers of the 20th century.

While all investment managers have proven successful, there was no one right process identified. T. Rowe Price had a process of identifying leaders in very fertile growth areas and holding them long-term until they become mature businesses in a mature industry. Benjamin Graham on the other hand focused on systematically buying the stocks that were thrown away at less than two-thirds of their net current assets and selling once they returned close to intrinsic value. Warren Buffet took a Benjamin Graham initial approach to valuation but then overlaid it with attention given the quality of the businesses and patience to hold these higher quality companies long-term like T. Rowe Price. John Templeton brought a similar attention to valuation and patience but was more willing to go global to find his bargains. George Soros went global as well but speculated more than invested with much more frequent trading in an effort to time the market. This is just to name some of the “money masters” this book discusses.

shutterstock_38215948-soldiersIt is clear that, although all of these managers have been very successful on their own, if hypothetically a super investment management team was able to be formed with these members, the fund would likely suffer from way too many and way too different processes. Like an army with too many generals, having more leaders is not always better. The only element that they seemed to have in common is the fact that they had processes in place that were fundamentally sound and that they stuck to in times of short-term market stress. Some ignored the market swings, some used it as buying opportunities, but all found success by putting their emotions in check when many market participants were caught up in fear or greed. In other words, they had discipline. Like a Roman Phalanx facing down an enemy, a steadfast commitment to a sound plan in the heat of the battle wins the day more often than not.

As such when we evaluate managers this is exactly what we look for. That is to say we need managers to have an effective, sustainable, and proven investment plan and ability to stick to the plan. Much has been made of how individual investors chase performance in good times and break rank at exactly the wrong time in times of stress. While very few of us will prove to be as successful as Warren Buffet, if we can all strive to at least have a plan and stand our ground to keep emotions out of investment decisions we all can be better off.

Technology Watch: Investing Into The Future

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference that centered on the big ideas in technology happening right now. Hearing from such people as Andrew McAfee (author of the 2012 book Race Against the Machine and his most recent The Second Machine Age), Steven Kotler (author of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think), and Charles Songhurst (former Head of Corporate Strategy at Microsoft), I can make a few blanket statements.

First, these guys are humbled, awestruck, and blown away by the advances being made in technology; specifically in robotics, 3D printers, and in general computing power. Second, the individual and the consumer will be empowered by this technology. Lastly, don’t try to pick the winning company, rather win by picking the area as a whole.

3D PrintingThis last point may seem to some as a “coward’s way out”, but consider the CNN Money article from December 31, 1998, Year of the Internet Stock. In this article Amazon, eBay, AOL, TheGlobe.com, Cyberian Outpost, and a few other names that have since been lost to history, are listed as stocks that had a great year and are part of the revolution. In the 15 years (1/1/1999 to 12/31/2013) following this article, Amazon and eBay clearly have proven to be the winners among the group, returning a cumulative return of 644.81% and 445.81% respectively as the others essentially went to zero. However, if you broaden the technology space, Apple would have been the big winner with an astonishing 5,569.77% cumulative return for this 15-year period. In other words, the idea that the internet was going to be a game changer in the way we communicate and the technologies we use was right, but our clever execution by picking the few likely winners likely would have missed the boat.

Now, let’s fast forward to today as we stare upon a robotic and biotech revolution. While there are a few select names that seem to be the smart bets to land among the big winners—given the magnitude of impact these two areas will have on the way we live and the uncertainty in the specifics of the path this change will actually take—picking an individual winner involves a level of hubris, while diversification within this idea can add value.

Future of TechnologyI left the conference fully convinced that these concepts, both current and future, are going to change the world; however, I remain very cautious regarding the execution and process. Without giving any type of recommendation, there exists at least half a dozen Biotech-focused ETFs. Late last year, the first robotics-focused ETF (ROBO) was launched—and it won’t be the last. All of these are less exciting answers to investing in new technologies versus trying to pick the winner, but as the American poet Ogden Nash once wrote, “Too clever is dumb.”

An Ode to Barnes & Noble

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst , Brinker Capital

On July 8, 2013 the CEO of Barnes & Noble, William Lynch, abruptly resigned. His rise and fall were tied largely in part to his belief that the future of B&N was in its NOOK digital reader. Lynch also felt that being a brick-and-mortar business would overcome the technology headwind of competing with Google, Amazon, and Apple on their turf, the tablet space. In fairness, he is likely right that people do derive a lot of benefit from being able to physically visit their book store. Still the struggle for B&N, and Borders prior to their demise, seems to be compensation for this social benefit. Now the debate is whether the physical book stores can survive in the Amazon age. In my biased opinion, I believe the answer is yes.

8.1.13_Williams_BookstoresTo say that I am a regular at my local B&N is an understatement. Over my career, I have studied for various FINRA licenses, the CFP designation, and all three levels of the CFA exams. The vast majority of this studying was done at my local B&N. On the rare occasions when I did not have anything to study for, I could not help but continue to go to B&N as it had become such a part of my life. This amounts to a total of about ten years of trips to my local B&N, usually multiple times per week. During this time, I have witnessed a lot of life from my table in the crowded B&N café.  From college interviews, job interviews, dates, people doing quasi-library research (most often on vacation destinations) and people who are clearly looking at books to purchase—of course, not at B&N, but later at a discount from Amazon.com. You can see them all at B&N. And for the most part, these people did not purchase anything from B&N outside of the food items in the cafe. It was fairly typical for me to spend three to four hours on a Saturday studying but only purchase an iced tea and a sandwich. Often, I would grab a new book off the shelf to read, and often I would end up reading a whole book without ever taking it out of the store. It is clear the store was being used less as a place for B&N to sell books and more like a community center or an improved library.

This social benefit of this institution is echoed by Lydia DePillis in her July 10, 2013 Washington Post article “Barnes & Noble’s troubles don’t show why bookstores are doomed. They show how they’ll survive” when she notes:

8.1.13_Williams_Bookstores_2“Here’s the thing: Bookstores, more so than movie rental and record stores, are oases in the middle of cities (and even in suburban malls). We go there to kill time, expose ourselves to new stuff, look for a gift without something specific in mind, and maybe pick up something on impulse while we’re there. Even Borders’ disorganized warehouses left holes in the urban fabric when they disappeared, and Barnes and Nobles would do the same–they’re a kind of public good, at a time when the public is getting less good at supporting libraries.”

However, the free-rider problem is also a known challenge as Lauren Hazard Owen in her July 9, 2013 paidContent.org article “Barnes & Noble throws out its CEO, but that won’t save the company” writes:

“While everyone likes the idea of a neighborhood bookstore, that doesn’t translate into business success. While Barnes & Noble is, in fact, the only neighborhood in a lot of areas, consumers who advocate shopping local may still think of it as a big box store, and they’re not likely to show the same loyalty to it as they might to the charming indie bookstore on Main Street. Instead, they’ll keep doing what they do now: Go in to the store to browse and for the AC, then go home and order books on Amazon.”

The clear lesson here is that providing service to society is only good business if you can be compensated for supplying it. I, however, also know that providing something that people want is a great place to start a business. Ultimately, I think that in ten years we will still have Barnes & Noble at least in some tangible form. First, as I noted above, the café part of B&N works. People who are enjoying their time here are drinking a coffee while doing it. In many ways it is an improvement on the Starbucks experience by having this attachment to the book store. Second, Amazon clearly benefits from B&N existing as an uncompensated partner in many of their transactions. Third, publishers and authors don’t want to be left with an Amazon-only world as book stores represent their physical retail outposts to host book-signings, book-release frenzies, and the like. Fourth, our society seems to value physical book stores (even though they will try to free-ride if they can) as something beyond a retail space.

8.1.13_Williams_Bookstores_3When you have this many interested parties wanting something to exist, I expect it to exist. Maybe B&N survives through a business model with a leaner book store and larger café business model. Maybe Amazon buys B&N and accepts that they will barely break even on the physical book store, but their overall profit will be improved for having B&N around. Maybe B&N, in name, does go away, but Starbucks opens a book store/coffee house location type, recognizing it as part of their positive social image campaign to improve the Starbucks experience—or maybe just the hubris that they can make it work. Some publishers may even band together to create some physical retail super store to replace B&N or cut some deals with to keep them around. The hard part is that it seems best for all parties involved to have someone else step up.

I could be delusional and perhaps thinking with my heart rather than my head as many a beloved business have been washed away by the waves of retail climate change. With that said, as long as there is a B&N,  you can find me sitting there drinking an iced tea blend known locally as “The Dan” (told you I was a regular), reading a book I am perpetually thinking of buying but never do, and watching yet another awkward college interview.

Security mentioned is shown for illustrative purposes and is not owned by Brinker Capital