on the need to do something

So much of investing is the avoidance of doing dumb stuff. If you’re not sure what “dumb stuff” entails in investing then let me provide you a very incomplete list:

  1. Selling a broad index fund after if dropped 20+ percent and going to cash.
  2. Putting more than 5 percent of your portfolio into a single stock.
  3. Frequently trading in and out of a stock based on its gyrations without a well-defined trading strategy.
  4. Buying individual stocks without reading 10Ks, 10Qs, or knowing how to perform at least a simple valuation based on fundamentals.
  5. Being sold an investment product instead of proactively researching the investment on your own.
  6. Paying a front-end sales load for a mutual fund.
  7. Buying most IPOs on the first day of public trading.
  8. Trading volatility or other structured products with too much leverage.

The one thing the above have in common is that they all reflect the need of an investor to “do something” to try to get better returns. The reality is that all of these actions are hazardous to an investor’s wealth.

There’s one simple trick to avoid all the bad behavior that hurts an investor: dry powder.

Dry powder can come in two forms:

  1. Periodic savings from your paycheck.
  2. Keeping a portion of your portfolio in cash until you find the “right” opportunity.

Every investor has heard about the benefits of dollar cost averaging. They’re not exaggerated and I won’t rehash them here. It’s one of the few free lunches in investing and the best use of the periodic savings from your paycheck.

But you probably didn’t come here to be told to dollar cost average your paycheck into a low-cost, tax-efficient portfolio. You came here to know what to do with the portion of your portfolio you’re now keeping in cash as dry powder so you can do potentially dumb stuff while keeping the bulk of your assets in a responsible, diversified portfolio.

Some solid options if you have the need to do something besides have patience while invested in diversified portfolios over long periods of time:

  1. Trade around a core position: every time one of your core diversified holdings drops by some threshold, whether it’s 10, 20, or 30 percent, use your cash to buy some more and then hold on until it appreciates back to the previous price level. Sell, then repeat.
  2. Trade around a core position but sell long-dated put options. Same as the above, but instead of buying the underlying asset you sell an at-the-money put option with a maturity date of 6 months from sale. Hold onto it until 90 percent of the time value (theta) disappears or it gets assigned to you. If it gets assigned to you then hold onto the underlying until it appreciates back to the original strike price. This strategy has the added benefits of some downside protection, timing the sale of insurance when it’s dear, and a dash of sophistication and sexiness because it involves options (even though it’s a dead-simple strategy).
  3. Speculate on companies you think will do really well, allocating no more than half a percent of your overall portfolio to any single position. There are lots of ways to do this – I don’t recommend it for most people but if you keep your position size very small for each stock you probably won’t do too much damage (plus it’s fun to say you bought shares of Tesla 8 years ago!).
  4. Use an active trading strategy, making sure you placed your stop loss where you’re only risking 0.25% of your portfolio on any single trade at least until you’ve mastered the art of trading. For most people this will be a waste of time and money, but at worse it’s a slow bleed with plenty of action.

The last two options typically lead investors astray; however, if you use the recommended position sizing you won’t do too much damage to your terminal wealth.

What’s your edge?

The best part about financial markets is the mythos that the amateur can compete or even outcompete the professional.

How many other ultra-competitive activities does that hold true? Would you step onto the field against an NFL team? Would you wager millions of dollars playing against a chess or golf pro?

Arrayed against you is an army of PhD-wielding mathematicians, economists, and artificial intelligence researchers, backed by another army of programmers that turn the first group’s insights and data into algorithms that get the best executions and take advantage of fleeting market opportunities in fractions of a second.

So why do you think you can outcompete a finance professional? And I mean a real one – a buy-side hedge fund like AQR or Renaissance Technologies or institutional asset managers like Blackrock or Goldman Sachs, not your typical “financial advisor” who is scrabbling for a ten or fifty thousand dollar 401k rollover.

How do you compete?

As an individual trader you have 3 edges:

  1. Smaller pools of capital: you can have tens of millions of dollars and still be a very small fish that with a little care doesn’t have to worry about moving most markets with your order flow. You can get in and out of investments faster than any institutional investor. While they may be faster than you on the execution of any single trade, you’ll almost always be faster when it comes to large-scale portfolio repositioning.
  2. Patient capital: if you trail your index by five years it’s not like you’ll have the capital you’re trading with yanked away from you; however, if an institutional investor trails their index by five years, whoever owns that capital might transfer it to another financial institution to manage. This allows you to be patient and let your investment or trading thesis play out without worrying about career suicide. Most portfolio managers can’t afford to do this.
  3. You don’t have to do something that appears complex or fancy to justify your fees to your clients. You can invest in simple index funds and beat 80%+ of active portfolio managers.

How does Signalee apply these edges?

  1. Signalee doesn’t have the infrastructure or knowledge to compete with high-frequency traders so we only play in areas where speed of execution doesn’t much matter.
  2. We ignore the traditional concept of risk that substitutes volatility for the permanent loss of capital.
  3. We use a trading strategy that accomplishes our goals – not someone else’s.

For the average investor, focusing on things they can control like investment expenses (including taxes), diversification, and their savings rate, if they’re still in the accumulation phase, is a much better use of their time than trying to find an edge in the market when the playing field is crowded with more capable competitors.

Fiduciary Standard & Radical Transparency

The best part about only managing your own money is that you’re incentivized to always do the right thing because it’s your own money. My goal is to maximize wealth within the context of a risk management framework. I don’t have a boss that’s constantly pushing me to gather new assets or maximize revenue. So the debate on the fiduciary standard doesn’t really affect me.

But it doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion.

Fifth Circuit v Fiduciary Rule

The Fifth Circuit recently ruled against the DOL. It is now widely assumed that the SEC’s proposed rules will replace the DOL’s fiduciary rule. The SEC rules require brokers to look out for clients’ best interest but it stops short of imposing a fiduciary standard on brokers. The end result is that brokers can keep their kickbacks as long as they disclose them to clients.

Ask yourself how small the print will be when the brokers “disclose” those kickbacks to their clients.

A More Perfect World

In a perfect world, every financial advisor would already be providing each and every one of their clients the lowest cost, most effective financial products that align perfectly with their goals.

This doesn’t happen in the real world.

The easiest way to improve outcomes in the real world is to ask your financial advisor how he gets paid for each product he has you invested in. If you have an honest advisor he’ll show you the percentage you’re paying for the ongoing management fee of the mutual fund, the fee you paid to get into the mutual fund in the first place (although it’s crazy to pay an upfront fee to buy a mutual fund in this day and age – if you’re paying upfront mutual fund fees you probably have an advisor who isn’t looking out for your best interests), and whatever account wrapper fee he charges on top of all of this for his “advice”. You’ll likely get this number in percentage form. Do yourself a favor and convert it to dollars. Ask him who else is paying him so you can figure out if you’re actually the client or the product being sold.

Then think hard as to whether the advice you’re getting is worth that sum. You might decide your advisor is worth it, but it’s easier to understand the true cost when it’s in dollar form because you can more easily compare that number to a list of alternatives. Like a vacation, a bass boat, or a wine cellar.

A less than honest or incompetent advisor will give you incomplete numbers, or even worse, not be able to give you the numbers because he has you in a bunch of annuity products whose fees are opaque as a pint of Guinness.

If you don’t have a family office looking out for you, show your financial statements to a financial advisor from Vanguard, Fidelity, or an honest-to-God fiduciary RIA like RWM. They’ll be able to quickly tell you how much you’re paying in fees, mostly becuase they use it as a selling point to win new business.

Don’t get me wrong – the lowest cost option isn’t necessarily the best choice. The true value of financial advisors for most people is to keep them from doing dumb stuff when they’re panicking in a bear market. But there are a lot of good financial advisors that combine good advice with reasonably low costs.

Radical Transparency

My solution for financial advisors to meet the fiduciary standard is to make every financial management firm present you a quarterly or monthly invoice for every fee they charge. This invoice must be paid by a check you write to them. Don’t allow them to automatically deduct a tiny percentage from your account every day, which is their current practice, and is so small that you don’t notice it but whose effect over decades totals hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.

You know how much your mortgage costs you every month. Why shouldn’t it be just as easy to know the total cost of asset management every month? And if you’re wondering why Vanguard, Fidelity, and Blackrock dominate the asset management business: they’re not screwing their customers with high fees.

Where to put new money?

Based on where the market was trading when I wrote Bitcoin, the Stock Market, and Other Asset Bubbles there weren’t any terribly attractive mainstream asset classes. So I put money to work in some contrarian positions that included EWY and FREL. Since then the market has been a bit more volatile and is off its 2018 peak. We’ve made a little money just because of dollar cost averaging combined with a sideways market, but we’re not exactly crushing it right now.

Volatility! Trade Wars! Trump!

The headlines are creating noise to try to explain what’s going in the market these days. The good news is that none if it is going to matter in the long-run. If you’re wondering what to do in the face of these headlines my advice is to ignore the noise and focus on implementing a strategy that is robust, stupidly simple, and dirt cheap. One of the easiest way to accomplish this goal is to go back to the ol’ standby of momentum trading to put new money to work.

Momentum Trading Asset Selection

The first step in implementing Momentum for Dummies is to select commission-free ETFs (we’re using ones from Fidelity) to mimic as many as the asset classes as possible:

  • SHY: T-Bills
  • IVV: US Large Cap
  • IJR: US Small Cap
  • IEFA: EFA
  • IEMG: EEM
  • IEF: US 10-year
  • LQD: US Corporate Debt
  • FREL: REITs
  • FMAT: Commodities/Gold

There isn’t a good commission-free option for commodities or gold so I’m substituting FMAT, which is Fidelity’s Materials Sector ETF.

Bridesmaid Momentum

The crux of the Momentum for Dummies strategy is to take a look at the past twelve months performance and buy the second-best performing asset. That asset is then held for 12 months and the process is repeated.

Where’s the Exit?

I typically preach that a trader needs to have a well-defined risk management strategy that takes into account the macro environment and some sort of stop loss. The Bridesmaid momentum strategy doesn’t use one; however, you can always add a long-term moving average as a stop loss or diversify the number of ETFs you’re holding at any given time (e.g., hold the top 3 or 4 ETFs instead of the second-best performing ETF) to diversify asset-class risk.

What’s your benchmark?

Trend Trading vs Buy & Hold

An interesting argument was recently raised where it was posited that a trend trading strategy should be the default benchmark instead of a buy and hold strategy. If this benchmark was adopted it would represent a fairly large shift in thinking in the financial advisory and asset management industry.

The buy and hold benchmark that has been almost universally adopted in the current asset management industry suffers from hindsight bias and cherry picking the data. It’s even worse when the benchmark is set to the S&P 500. As an industry we have collectively decided to pick one of the best performing assets of the past century and say that this is the benchmark to beat. There’s a significant amount of appeal to using it: the S&P 500 was easily investable by institutions and later retail investors. There were no decisions or trading that had to be done as the rules-based market cap index methodology made all the changes for you.

But America, and the S&P 500, is truly exceptional. The question is whether it will continue to be exceptional. It’s possibly unpatriotic to ask this question or build a portfolio that doubts that bedrock principle, but managing true risk, which is the permanent loss of capital, is the only way to stay in this game for the long run.

Global Real Returns

The US is an outlier – out of all the investable markets it had the best real return at 4.3 percent. If you look at the chart below from “Everyone is Wrong on the Internet, stock market returns edition” published by the Financial Times, it shows that 21 markets had positive annualized real returns while 17 had negative annualized real returns.

Global Returns

Now, it’s pretty obvious that you could improve your odds by avoiding the countries where the rule of law is fairly absent and corruption abounds, but there are five developed country markets on the chart that not a lot of investors would have avoided.

Just think if you were a Greek, Argentinian, or Peruvian and had all your money in your home country. You’d be broke. Investing in a global portfolio and avoiding home country bias is one way to avoid negative real returns. Diversifying into other types of assets is another.

An Alternative to Buy & Hold

Trend trading can avoid the giant drawdowns. In a trendless market where swing trading does well a trend trader will get chopped up, but it does a decent job of wealth preservation. Since wealth preservation is towards the top of the list of important things an investor should focus on, it makes more sense to set trend trading as the default benchmark than looking at something like the S&P 500’s performance over a most extraordinary century.

How to Fail as a Trader

The two biggest causes of failure among new traders are bad trading systems and unfettered emotions.

Bad Trading Systems

Trading is a game of probabilities and sequence of returns. Systems run the gamut from trend following and breakout systems on one end that have low win rates but (hopefully!) big winners to short-term mean reversion systems that have lots of small wins with losses that aren’t too large. Stanley Druckenmiller said he only targets trades that will return 5x his money so he only has to be right slightly more than 20 percent of the time to make money. But the only way a system like this works is if he has a bunch of small trades going at the same time so he doesn’t get wiped out with losses while waiting for that 5x trade to happen. Too many traders accept small wins and big losses. They trade positions that can permanently go to zero and they compound the issue by using stop losses purely based on price. Even if 90 percent of your trades are profitable, the remaining 10 percent of trades that are losses can more than wipe out your gains.

Emotions

The second most common cause of failure for new traders is decisions made because of panic or euphoria. If a trader’s position goes against him, oftentimes a new trader will sell out at a loss just to see the trade bounce back. To be a successful, a trader has to have a plan to manage the position no matter if it goes up or down, and be able to stick with the plan no matter what.

Euphoria is just as bad as panic. Occasionally a trader will find himself in a situation where seemingly everything he touches turns to gold. Profits are easy and account balances grow. Instead of taking the good fortune in stride, knowing that the hot hand will eventually end, he increases his position sizes, uses leverage, or goes outside his area of expertise. The end result is easily anticipated as the new trader circles back to panic.

Emotions can be tamed in two ways:

  • Trade small until you can handle the losses that will inevitably happen on any single trade. Slowly increase the size of the trade and the size of the losses that you incur. If you panic sell, lose sleep, or want to check prices every 30 minutes then your position size is too big.
  • Instead of trying to come up with your own system or edge when you’re first starting out use the free core position trading system from Signalee. It’s a mechanical system with well-defined purchases and exits and is easily scaleable.

Position Trading

There are a million ways to make money in the stock market and a million more ways to lose it all. Signalee uses position trading to grind out profits over the long-term. We just stick to the boring basics: buying low, selling high, repeating ad nauseum.

Appearances vs Reality

Or why position trading works.

I recently had a conversation with my wife about what options exist to solve the mass shooting crisis in America. She’s come a long way from being 100 percent anti-guns when we met to meeting me halfway in the middle. We’ve both learned from each other – I grew up in the country where hunting and shooting sports were common and she did not.

What I never understood about anti-gunners was their fear. For me and my friends, gun safety and gun handling were drilled into us at a young age. I assumed that everyone had gun safety drilled into them. My wife assumed that no one did. I started turning her around on guns when she agreed to go to a shooting range with me and I spent the 30 minute car ride explaining gun safety, gun handling, and range etiquette to her. And then spent another 15 minutes at the range repeating it.

But even with her becoming more comfortable with guns she said she was still in favor of an outright ban on AR15s. She was in favor because they look scary.

My response to her was that you needed to ban capabilities and not appearances as a Ruger Ranch rifle shot the same bullet, had the same magazine capacity, a similar size and weight, and was just as lethal.

And just in case any firearm aficionados or armchair commandos happen to stumble upon this by accident: please save me the hassle of filling up my inbox saying an AR15 is superior to a Ruger Ranch rifle. That isn’t the point.

Banning an AR15 but not a Ruger Ranch rifle makes no sense. Same thing for any of the other common military rifles that are easily obtainable like the AK47, SKS, SCAR, IWI Tavor, Steyr Aug, or PS90. These rifles obviously fit in the same category but there hasn’t been a single mention in the news about adding them to a ban.

Position Trading: Appearance vs Reality

This conversation got me thinking about how to explain why position trading works. The public has been brainwashed to believe that volatility is bad and mark-to-market losses are even worse. Hedge fund managers live and die by promising investors smooth returns. It’s the appearance of the investments they hold that drive behavior, not the reality of the value of the investments.

What’s really going on?

My best guess is that investors look at the account value and make plans for its uses. When they see the account balance go down they imagine all the uses quickly slipping out of reach. As a result, they liquidate holdings to try to stem the bleeding. This creates a virtuous cycle that forces prices lower and lower as more and more people sell more and more to avoid the nominal loss in their account.

The reality is that the underlying fundamentals of an investment haven’t changed nearly as much as the price volatility makes it seem. Assuming an investor isn’t chasing a bubble, and has realistic expectations of cyclical industries, the fundamental value of the holding is much less volatile than the price would indicate. Eventually enough investors figure this out and pile back in and bid up the now undervalued asset. This causes prices to climb back up and the whole process eventually repeats itself.

This is where someone who ignores price volatility can repeatedly make money using position trading. Position trading relies on reality instead of appearances to consistently grind out profits in volatile markets.