You Can’t See Tomorrow

cook_headshotPaul Cook, AIF®, Vice President and Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

Thomas Hobbes’ famous description of life in times of war as “nasty, brutish and short” could just as easily have been applied to peacetime in the 17th century. Life expectancy in relatively developed England was just 35 years during Hobbes’ lifetime, owing largely to high infant and child mortality rates. In the less developed American colonies, life expectancy was a scant 25 years in Virginia and 40% of New Englanders died before reaching adulthood.

While very few of us would trade the realities of Thomas Hobbes’ day for our own (indoor plumbing is awfully nice), there is no denying that we are psychologically better equipped to prepare for a short life than a long one. The reason this is so is that we have a tendency to focus on the here and now and discount the future that psychologists refer to as “present bias.” To illustrate the power of present bias, consider the following:

Suppose I asked you whether you would like $250 one year (52 weeks) from now or $225 50 weeks from now – which would you choose? Now, what if I offered you a choice between $225 right this second or $250 two weeks from now – would your answer change? If you are like most people, you chose to wait for the larger payout in the first scenario but selected the immediate payoff in the second scenario. The farther we move from the present moment, the more dramatically we begin to discount time. Both scenarios involve a $25 gain for a two-week wait, but we perceive them very differently.

Present bias is rooted, among other things, in our tendency to experience now as a “hot” emotional state and the future in cooler terms. Simply put, right now seems more real than twenty years from now. As a result, many people prioritize meeting the needs of the all-too-real right now but ignore the just as real, but less salient, needs of their future self. If this is done consistently enough, tomorrow becomes today and you find yourself wholly unprepared.

Solution: Stanford Researchers1 have found that seeing a computer simulated aged version of your face makes you more likely to save for retirement. Why? Seeing the “older” version of yourself moves you from a cool to hot emotional state and makes the reality of your retirement more visceral. Psychologists have shown repeatedly that the more salient a variable is, the more likely it is to be acted upon. Start to increase the salience of your own retirement by discussing a few of the following questions with a partner or loved one:

  • Where will I/we live in retirement?
  • How will I spend my days in retirement?
  • What will be the best part of being retired?
  • What problems might arise that I could prepare for now?

For 10 years, Brinker Capital Retirement Plan Services has been working with advisors to offer plan sponsors the solutions to help participants reach their retirement goals.  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.


1 Exploring the “Planning Fallacy”: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times, Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994.

Volatility: Why it Matters

Ryan Dressel Ryan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

Have you ever noticed how many commercials on TV use blind comparison tests to prove that their products are better than their competitors? Soft drinks, washing detergents, tablets, air fresheners, fast food chains, and even web sites all use this marketing tool on a fairly regular basis. One reason companies do this is to try to change your perception about their product. It’s human nature to associate a good or bad feeling about a product, brand, or company based on personal experiences. If you got sick from food at a restaurant for example, chances are you won’t return to that restaurant again, even if it changes the staff, menu, and décor. A blind comparison test is an attempt to convince you that a product isn’t as bad as you might think.

How can this be applied to your investments? You’ll hear dozens of mutual fund companies advertise that they are beating an index, benchmark, or peer group (such as Lipper) over a specific time frame. You could also open the Wall Street Journal and read about a mutual fund manager boasting smart decisions with regard to short-term news, such as the S&P 500 rising or falling in any given week. If you try to interpret headline news or those T.V. commercials without any context, there’s a good chance you could misjudge your portfolio and even worse, make an irrational decision! What you will rarely hear on T.V. or read in the papers is an advertisement for a portfolio that provides steady and consistent returns by managing volatility.

Why does volatility matter? To demonstrate the value of volatility, we’ll do a blind comparison using two hypothetical portfolios (you saw that coming right?). Both Portfolio A and Portfolio B started with an initial investment of $100,000 and have a sum of returns of 65% over a 10-year time period. The portfolios have the following annual returns over that time frame:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7 Year 8 Year 9 Year 10
Portfolio A +2% +13% +5% +20% 7% 4% -7% -1% +16% +6%
Portfolio B +6% +25% -10% +36% -15% +11% -25% -7% +33% +11%

Which portfolio would you predict to have a higher balance at the end of the 10-year time frame? Looking at the returns we can observe a few things that jump out. Portfolio B managed to achieve extremely high gains in years 2, 4 and 9. Conversely, it also had a couple of really bad years in year 5, and year 7. It also finished the last two years with a combined +44%. Looking at Portfolio A, we can see that it never topped 20% in a given year, and never lost more than 7% in a year. It also finished seven out of the 10 years with a return of +7% or less.

If you chose Portfolio A, you would be correct!


As demonstrated in the charts above and below, Portfolio A has a much lower level of volatility. Through the power of compounding, this allowed Portfolio A to finish with a higher balance despite the fact that both portfolios have identical sum of returns. In reality, this is typically achieved by constructing a well-diversified portfolio using a wide array of asset classes. This is also a good reminder of how fixed income and absolute return strategies are beneficial to your portfolio in any market environment.


If these were actual investment products, there is no doubt that you would hear Portfolio B being advertised as an outperformer during a time frame that captures those years of strong performance. In the end however, the only thing that matters is the balance of your portfolio and that you are on track towards achieving your investment goals. Be sure to review your portfolio in the right context, especially during times of market “noise.”

Source: The data used and shown above is hypothetical in nature and shown for illustrative purposes. Not intended as investment advice.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.