Seeking a Greater Purpose in Investing

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Investment Analyst

The “science” of investing is well known. The modern portfolio theory (MPT) of investments developed over the past 50 years, starting with Harry Markowitz, has become so ingrained into the investment management culture that the concept of portfolio diversification has become second nature to most people. This is of course due to the mathematical analysis showing that diversification improves investment portfolios’ risk and return characteristics. To say differently, it makes good math sense.

6.27.13_Williams_1Recently though, investment management research has begun to venture into the new field know as Behavioral Finance. At a high level, this theory points out that the owners of these investment portfolios are not emotionless robots that are attempting to optimize the expected value of portfolios for a given level of risk, but rather humans who have reactions to watching their portfolios change in value and who also have goals for the wealth created. Often times this theory’s task seems to be to point out our human flaws and biases so that we can move closer to MPT. This includes our confirmation bias (seeking out only information we agree with rather than information that challenges our thinking), overconfidence bias (believing we are above average in our skills), and loss aversion (finding that we will irrationally gamble to avoid a loss already sustained but unwilling to take a gamble that might result in a loss, even when the odds are in our favor). Still, this idea also points out what gets lost in the math of MPT. Specifically, that an investment portfolio has greater purpose than just the accumulation of money.

The meaning here can be shown in the following dream scenario. You take a trip to Vegas, you see a slot machine, you put a dollar into the machine for fun, pull the lever, and you hit the big jackpot. You are then told that you can either have the $10 million prize immediately, or a flip of a coin for the chance to win $25 million or lose it all. The vast majority of people would take the $10 million dollars. Consider instead the experience of the MPT optimizing robot. First, the robot would likely not put the $1 into the slot machine. Why put $1 in when the expected value is $0.95? Second, given the jackpot options the robot would likely gamble it all at the chance for $25 million as the expected value of $12.5 million is greater than the $10 million. The math is clear—the robot is optimizing and we are not. But that is not the whole story.

6.27.13_Williams_2First, most humans get utility from putting a dollar into a slot machine outside of the outcome of the gamble. As such, we may be rational to gamble if the utility of the $0.95 expected value and the experience of gambling together are greater than the utility of the $1 in our pocket. Second, given the jackpot options, outside of the fear of losing the $10 million, there is also a diminishing marginal utility to money. That is to say simply that an extra $1 million to you or me changes our lives a lot more than an extra $1 million to Warren Buffett. It is quite possible that the utility we tie to that first $10 million is greater than the utility to that next $15 million. As such, we could be rational in both the action to gamble and the decision to take $10 million.

While lottery dreams are nice, the practical meaning is that our investments allow us to do things. Said differently, our investment balance is not just a number, it represents our ability to meet goals. To some, that $10 million meant the ability to have the freedom to travel, to retire for others, a fleet of cars to those so inclined, and a chance to make the world a better place for still others.

NorthstarIn this line of thinking, the relatively newly developed bucket approach to investment management ties specific assets to specific goals. This simple concept turns a portfolio that is invested based on some risk profile that in an opaque manner will meet your goals into a portfolio of portfolios that represent directly your goals. Accordingly, rather than having portfolio performance measured against a generic market benchmark, the measure that matters is whether each of these portfolios is on track to meet their assigned goals. Accordingly, Brinker Capital’s recent offering in this area is appropriately named “Personal Benchmark.” A final point is that people draw utility not just from spending their investments to meet goals, but also from where and how they invest. Socially Responsible Investing, also known as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), allows people to allocate capital where they believe the welfare of those outside themselves is best considered. Outside of the fact that there is evidence that investing in industries and companies that have these positive attributes may also improve investment performance, the fact that we are able to encourage positive change in the world while we save for our goals is a powerful concept.

In aggregate, the recent changes to investment management are brilliant in their simplicity to give purpose back to investments. The more empowered we feel with meeting our goals with our investments, the more likely we are to meet, and even exceed, those goals.

The Optimism for an Economy with a 7.8% Unemployment Rate

Dan WilliamsDan Williams, CFP, Brinker Capital

Currently, the U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.8%, an improvement from the 8.5% a year ago and the 10% from the recent peak in October 2009. Still, compared to the consistent sub 6% rates we were used to seeing from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, it is hard to feel good about this current state of employment and what this means for the health of the economy. There are those that argue that the “real” unemployment number is even worse (due to discouraged works exiting the equation and poor measurement methodology etc.). While it’s hard to show optimism for our economy, that is what I aim to do here.

A meaningful place to start is to define what an economy is. By its simplest definition an economy is a measure of the value of the goods and services the people of an area produce. Increase your number of people, increase the amount each person can produce, or produce more valuable stuff and the economy should grow. As you trade and cross-invest between economies, you can make further optimizations. In the short run, economies go through cycles and go by the whims of politicians, the media, central banks and consumer confidence. Still at its core, the economy is just a measure of what the people of a country are able to produce.

More Efficient Per EmployeeThe clear point here is that unemployment represents a failure to produce all we could. However, even with that fact, looking at GDP (expressed in 2005 dollars) we stood at $13.3 trillion at the end of 2011 (the highest year end number ever) and have seen continued growth such that 2012 will be even higher. So we have managed to become more efficient with what each employed person produces. This is the equivalent of a factory using fewer workers but producing more. If the real unemployment rate is actually higher than the 7.8% stated, that means we did it with even fewer workers. This seems like a good thing, right?

What makes the unemployment statistic different from a company having unused equipment is, of course, that people are not computers who can have their software updated over a lunch hour to be instantly redeployed to a new task. The fact is that many of those who are presently unemployed are trained for jobs that are no longer available. Also, people suffer when they are not able to work. There is no spin I can put on that other than to say things will get better given the time to retrain and redeploy. However, is this true?

A challenge to the idea of time healing this employment wound is the fear that technology efficiencies will replace more jobs such that even if the real GDP grows, maybe not all of us will get to be a part of it. Professor Andrew McAfee in a June 2012 TED Talk “Are droids taking our jobs?” echoes this sentiment when he references that in his expected lifetime, he believes we will see a “transition to an economy that is very productive but just does not need that many human workers.” He even notes that in the future an algorithm will be able to do writing tasks so a computer could author this blog. Basically, he sees no current job that we do as safe as these technologies accelerate.

This, however, does not mean that McAfee is pessimistic about our future employment. He is in fact quite optimist. He believes that these new technologies of efficiency represent the opportunity “to make a mockery of all that came before us”. (A phrase originally used by historian Ian Morris when he was speaking of the industrial revolution). What the industrial revolution did to magnify the productivity of our muscles, he feels the technology revolution is going to do to the productivity of our minds. To say differently, he expects we should expect an acceleration in our ability to innovate as technology improves.

A more skeptical reader would be right to ask that if innovation is accelerating, why are we still in the aftermath of the great recession? Thankfully Mr. McAfee is not alone in this technology optimism and has an economist among his group with an explanation. Joe Davis, Vanguard’s chief economist, in a December 2012 speech titled “Better days are in store” notes that the growth of industrial revolutions do not proceed in straight lines. The steam revolution of the late 1770s led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the 1830s. The telephone revolution beginning in 1876 led to an economic overconfidence and collapse that occurred in the late 1920s with the Great Depression. In both cases Dr. Davis argues these tough times caused businesses to go through the required creative destruction to survive and took these technologies to a major inflection point of further growth. Today, we are in that inflection point of the microprocessor revolution that began in the 1970s. If history is any guide, this is the economic hiccup that will cause us to get to new technology heights.

Unused Human CapitalSo where does this leave us? Over the past five years, the U.S. has learned to do more with less, has additional unused human capital to deploy, and the efficiencies afforded to us by technology are likely to accelerate. While the near term may be messy, there is an undeniable potential for us to be so much greater and “make a mockery of all that came before us”. While the details of this future and what an economic blog of 2063 will read like are unknown, there does seem to be rational reasons for great optimism. With that let me say, Happy New Year!