Chicken Fried & Cold Beer On A Friday Night

Can Investors Learn A Few Things From A Country Song?

Those of you who know me well know that I am from Alabama and that I still have some Southern boy in me.

Those of you who know a little country music may also recognize that the title of this post is based on a Zac Brown Band song, Chicken Fried.

The part of the song that inspired me to write this piece is:

“Well, it’s funny how it’s the little things in life that mean the most
Not where you live, the car you drive, or the price tag on your clothes
There’s no dollar sign on a piece of mind; this I’ve come to know”

It goes with the following chorus about what really matters most in life:

“Cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up
Well, I’ve see the sun rise
See the love in my woman’s eyes
Feel the touch of a precious child
And know a mother’s love”

Beyond my fondness for good country music, why is a wealth management guy quoting Zac Brown?

Well, if you stay with me on this, I promise to tie it all together in the end.

I probably don’t have to remind many readers that, unfortunately, the market is off to a rocky start this year. Understandably, some investors are concerned.

Based on my past experience inside big investment firms, how are some investment product managers and sales professionals likely feeling?

Giddy.

As I have written about before, Wall Street likes nothing more than a little fear and is off to the races marketing the latest impressively presented strategies designed to protect investors. I am getting multiple emails a day from large investment houses and asset managers selling low volatility funds, down-side protection trades and absolute return funds. The pitches all have implied promises of significant down-side protection, and some are even being sold based on attractive hypothetical returns (yes, was smiling when I wrote “hypothetical”).

The vast majority have little transparency, however, and, you guessed it, high fees that drive high profit margins.

I am not suggesting that all of the presentations are improper.

What I am saying is that our industry tends to make things too complex and does not give investors enough information about how products are created (translation, the real ingredients) and about how they work, especially when you need them the most (example: many broke down during the last financial crisis).

To be fair to the industry, many of these strategies, which are literally created by rocket scientists, are based on complex investment and economic theories. What is the key word in this sentence?

Theories.

The products tend to be designed based on models that strive to price how multiple investments, which themselves are priced based on multiple factors such as earnings estimates, interest rate and currency projections, and emotion, will perform in various market cycles.

Whew, yes, that was a mouthful.

What could possibly go wrong with complex models that rely on key words such as “estimates”, “projections”, “emotion”, “likely” and “multiple factors”?

Among the things that make me pause is that, when pressed over “a cold beer on a Friday night”, my ex-rocket scientist investment friends from MIT admit that their theories can, and likely will, break down from time to time based on market dislocations that can’t be fully factored into their models.

Getting back to Zac, my hope is that this is all starting to spark a few questions about what’s really important and what really adds value.

When I founded my firm almost four years ago, I spent a lot time asking questions about what adds the most value to clients. During conversations with many wealthy individuals and investment professionals, I was routinely reminded of the following comment from a long-time client:

“Preston, I hired you to help our family develop and implement an investment plan. I am very happy with the management of our investments but do you know what I have come to realize that I really pay you for? Transparency, simplicity and peace of mind.”

Yes, some might think I’m a broken record on this but, as an adviser to President Kennedy is rumored to have told him when he thought he was saying the same things over and over again:

“When you are at the point that you think you are going to get sick if you say it one more time, you have finally reached the point when many people hear it for the first time.”

Some folks seem to be hearing what the evidence consistently says:

Keep-it-simple index strategies can perform just as well, if not better, than complex approaches.

Investors are following the advice of Warren Buffet and David Swenson, the Chief Investment Officer of Yale*, and putting record amounts into index funds (see links to articles on Buffet and Swenson at the bottom of this post).

It seems that our industry still has some listening to do, however, as it continues to spend an enormous share of its time and money promoting complex products, such as multi-factor models, that are designed to protect against market down-turns and defaults (if this doesn’t sound familiar, go see the movie or read the book The Big Short).

To hopefully help, the following are a few “Don’t” bullets points for Wall Street to consider.

Don’t Make Investing A Competitive Sport

  • Each individual is different and can have unique goals
  • Winning in investing is reaching client specific goals, not beating the other guy who might have different objectives or appetite for risk

Don’t Sell Crystal Balls or Be A Sheep

  • As we all know, but don’t want to admit, Wall Street predictions are often wrong (see our recent Groundhog Day or Talking Heads blogs)
  • Resist the urge to run with the herd and easily sell what has been hot in the past or whatever is being currently promoted as the next great New New Thing

Don’t Avoid Conversations About The Bad or Ugly

  • Fully disclose the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  • If clients understand the pros and cons of a strategy before implementing it, they will be less likely to change course at the wrong time when the going gets rough, which it will from time to time

Don’t Forget Taxes, Especially With Hedge Funds

  • Remember that a very large portion of hedge fund returns tend to come back to clients in the form of short-term capital gains
  • If your client is in the highest tax bracket, please adjust your return projections down by approximately 50% before making your pitch

Don’t Underestimate the Advantage of Liquidity

  • Individual clients are not endowments and generally have periodic liquidity needs for large purchases, gifts, and regular income
  • Place a premium on fully liquid investments
  • Remember that during the financial crisis many endowments found out the importance of liquidity the hard way when they did not have access to funds that they needed

Don’t Sell Anything That You Don’t Fully Understand

  • Do we really understand how complex strategies will perform over various market cycles?
  • No additional comments really needed

As you can sense, I am little cynical about how Wall Street sells the fear of missing out by helping to create what data suggest are relatively unproductive competitions to find and sell alpha.

Rather than taking the easy way out and simply selling relative performance and relative risk metrics, let’s spend more time listening to what clients want to achieve, and implementing strategies that are designed based on their goals, not industry models.

Related to this, I am not a big fan of active management, but as I recently wrote in What’s In A Name, if investing in an active strategy or working with a large brand makes a client feel more comfortable, and will allow him or her to stick to a plan more easily then, regardless of the relative performance versus an index, these might be the correct choices.

At Fiduciary Wealth Partners, we believe that by focusing on transparency and simplicity, our clients will benefit by being more comfortable with their investments, which in turn will increase the likelihood that they’ll stick to long-term plans during good times and bad (what many studies show is the key to long-term investing success).

Hopefully this will also increase peace of mind and allow all to enjoy a little more

“Cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up
Well, I’ve see the run rise
See the love in my woman’s eyes
Feel the touch of a precious child
And know a mother’s love”

 

*  Both Warren Buffett and David Swenson have repeatedly discussed the evidence in favor of index funds and consistently recommended index investing to individual investors.  See the following links for more information:

Warren Buffett To His Heirs: Put My Estate In Index Funds

Warren Buffett’s Advice to LeBron James: Index Funds

Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment – David F. Swensen

 

Preston McSwain is a Managing Partner and Founder of Fiduciary Wealth Partners, an SEC registered investment advisor committed to forming fiduciary wealth partnerships with clients, professional colleagues, and the community. To see more of his posts, and follow him on social media, please visit the following:

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