Tag Archives: Warren Buffett

How Am I Doing? An 8-Point Financial Checklist

How am I doing?A question that nags at many people is whether they are on track financially.  Even an average financial life can seem remarkably complex.  How does anyone know whether he or she is doing the right things?  A range of studies on how people manage their money suggests that many, if not the majority, are making choices that look decidedly sub-optimal.  Americans don’t save enough money and when they do save and invest, they often make basic mistakes that substantially reduce their returns.  More than 60% of self-directed investors have portfolios with inappropriate risk levels.  Almost three quarters of Americans have little or no emergency savings.  The solution to these problems starts with an assessment of where you are and where you need to be.

The key, as Einstein once said, is to make things as simple as possible but no simpler.  In an attempt to provide a checklist that’s in line with this edict, I offer the following questions that each person or family needs to be able to answer.

The first three questions focus on consumption and saving:

  1. Am I saving enough for to meet personal goals such as retirement, college education, and home ownership?
  2. Am I saving enough for contingencies such as a job loss or an emergency?
  3. Am I investing when I should be paying down debt instead, or vice-versa?

The next five questions deal with how you invest the money that you save:

  1. Is my portfolio at the right risk level?
  2. Am I effectively diversified?
  3. Am I aware of how much am I paying in expenses?
  4. Are my financial decisions tax efficient?
  5. Should I hire an investment advisor?

Anyone who can answer all eight of these questions satisfactorily has a strong basis for assessing whether he or she is on track. Odds are there are more than a few questions here that most of us either don’t have the answer to or know that we are not addressing very well.

Part of what makes answering these questions challenging is that the experiences of previous generations are often of limited relevance, especially when it comes to life’s three biggest expenditures: retirement, college, and housing.

For example, older people who have traditional pensions that guarantee a lifetime of income in retirement simply didn’t need to worry about choosing how much they had to save to support themselves during retirement.

The cost of educating children has also changed, increasing much faster than inflation or, more crucially, household income.  For many in the older generation, college was simply not a consideration. It has become the norm, however, and borrowing to pay for college is now the second largest form of debt in America, surpassed only by home mortgages.  Children and, more often their parents, must grapple with the question of how much they can or should pay for a college education, along with the related question of whether a higher-ranked college is worth the premium cost.

The third of the big three expenses that most families face is housing costs. Following the Second World War, home buyers benefitted from an historic housing boom.  Their children, the Baby Boomers, have also seen home prices increase substantially over most of their working careers.  Even with the huge decline in the housing crash, many Boomer home owners have done quite well with real estate.    Younger generations (X, Y, and Millenials), by contrast, have experienced enormous volatility in housing prices and must also plan for more uncertainty in their earnings.  And of course, what you decide you can afford to spend on a home has implications for every other aspect of your financial life.

In addition to facing major expenses without a roadmap provided by previous generations, we also need to plan for the major known expenses of everyday life. It’s critically important to determine how much to keep in liquid emergency savings and how to choose whether to use any additional available funds to pay down debts or to invest.  There are general guidelines to answering these questions and we will explore these in a number of future posts.

The second set of questions is easier to answer than the first.  These are all questions about how to effectively invest savings to meet future needs.  Risk, diversification, expenses, and tax exposure can be benchmarked against professional standards of practice.

What can become troubling, however, is that experts disagree about the best approach to addressing a number of these factors.  When in doubt, simplicity and low cost are typically the best choices.  Investors could do far worse than investing in a small number of low-cost index funds and choosing the percentages to stocks and bonds based on their age using something like the ‘age in bonds’ rule.  There are many ways to try for better returns at a given risk level, and some make far more sense than others.  Even Warren Buffett, arguably the most successful investor in the world, endorses a simple low-cost index fund strategy.  Upcoming posts will provide a number of straightforward standards for addressing these questions.

Investors who find these questions  too burdensome or time consuming to deal with may wish to spend some time on the eighth and final question: whether they should hire an investment advisor to guide them.  Investors may ultimately choose to manage their own finances, search out a human advisor, or use an online computer-driven advisory service.

While financial planning can seem complex and intimidating, our series of blog posts on the key issues, as outlined in the eight questions above, will provide a framework by which individuals can effectively take control and manage their financial affairs.

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Game Theory, Behavioral Finance, and Investing: Part 5 of 5

In the first four parts of this article, I have discussed a number of well-known behavioral biases that cause investors to make decisions that are, to put it kindly, less than optimal.  In this final installment, I summarize how best to avoid these costly traps.

As these blog posts have been published over the past couple of weeks, the issues are much in evidence.  Apple (AAPL), long the darling of the market, has lost favor and Groupon (GRPN) seems to be following a relentless downward spiral.  Surely many investors in Groupon must be asking themselves how they could possibly have seen the company as a good bet.  Apple stock, which was trading at $700 in mid-September, is currently at $544, a decline of 22% in two months.  The news that has come out on Apple does not seem sufficient to justify such a broad shift in the market’s consensus as to the long-term value of Apple as a company.  And, of course, we have the poster child of behavioral bias: Facebook (FB).  How is it possible that the market’s consensus view of the share value of such a widely held company could be almost 50% below its first day closing price of $38?  As Warren Buffett is quoted as saying, in the short-term the market is a voting machine and in the long-term the market is a weighing machine.  When voting overwhelms weighing, investor psychology is dominating.

Continue reading

Burton Malkiel: Buy Munis, Foreign Bonds, and Dividend Stocks

Burton Malkiel, Princeton professor and author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, had an Op Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on December 7th that advocates rethinking simple indexed portfolios.  While Vanguard has recently published research asserting the superiority of a simple asset allocation made up of 50% allocation in a stock index and 50% allocation in an aggregate bond index, Malkiel proposes that investors need to look at a range of asset classes that are less familiar to most investors.

To begin, Dr. Malkiel asserts that long-term Treasury bonds (10 years and longer) have such low yield that they are likely to have negative real long-term return (return net of inflation).  Rather than invest in Treasuries, he advocates Continue reading

Why Warren Buffett Was Right: “Diversification is Protection Against Ignorance”

The volatility in the broad stock market has shaken investors’ belief in the true value of portfolio diversification. The problem is that many of the people who believe that diversification no longer works, may not know how to build a truly diversified portfolio.

Warren Buffett is widely quoted as saying : “Diversification is protection against ignorance.” I’ll admit, that sounds pretty negative. But what I believe he meant, however, is that you diversify when you are not sufficiently confident to bet on which asset (or asset class) will do well and which will do poorly. 

Clearly, Mr. Buffett has done very well in managing a concentrated portfolio. But are you willing to take that bet? Continue reading

Relax: Doing Less With Your Investments

In his latest Behavior Gap Newsletter, Carl Richards nails that feeling of confusion that comes when we learn first hand that “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.”

Investing isn’t like hiring a basketball coach, Richards argues, but rather like planting an oak tree: Continue reading

Warren Buffett Exhibits Long-term Investor Thinking on CNBC

I enjoy watching Warren Buffett talk. He just makes so much sense! But it’s especially fun to watch him on his semi-regular visits to CNBC. In this one from earlier this week (video below) Becky Quick does give Buffett room to talk and a chance to break some news (like his opinion that Quantitative Easing 2 should end.) But CNBC is still CNBC and it’s fun to watch her try to drag the man famous for long-term investing into commentary on the market’s momentary gyrations. Continue reading

Arguing with Mark Cuban on Asset Allocation

After reading Mark Cuban’s January post on his well-read “blog maverick” painting asset allocation as Wall Street hucksterism, I wondered if others had responded to his arguments. I found several interesting pieces, one that took Cuban’s tirade as a jumping off point for a discussion of the importance of understanding and believing in your allocation on My Money Blog and another on Darwin’s Money that made its point of view clear in its title: “Mark Cuban is Dead Wrong.” Continue reading