Monday, January 23, 2012

The Forgetful Investor

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki, Japanese author and novelist wrote and essay entitled “In Praise of Shadows” in which he offers a cultural view of the differences between east and west; where the eastern cultures appreciate light and shadows, the west is looking for clarity. He wrote: “Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.” Today we are going to take a look at some of those shadows or should I say, those investments that have been pushed to the edge of the conversation.

Today on our daily radio show Financial Impact Factor we visit elocution corner, a feature on this show that deals with a phrase or word that we toss about with great ease without any real foundation in definition. Today’s catch phrase: set-it-and-forget-it.

We have had numerous experts on the show who have suggested that indexing and using ETFs to index the marketplace is hands down the best way to approach the world of investing. In most instances, we view these types of investments as set-them-and-forget them. They offer a simple way to track the marketplace but also provide just enough confusion that using them as the whole of your retirement plan is now consider not only smart but at the same time suggest that it is foolish to construct a portfolio otherwise.

And here’s the problem I have: if your indexed investment for example follows the marketplace, in other words, mimics its performance, and that performance is well-documented as being about 3.2% over the past decade, why is the target retirement return still north of 7-8%?

Ed Easterling of Crestmont Research authored two excellent books on the subject of market cycles—Unexpected Returns – Understanding Secular Stock Market Cycles … and most recently … Probable Outcomes – Secular Stock Market Insights.

In his latest book,  Easterling lays out four points on market cycles and their effects on investors:
  • “First, secular stock market cycles deliver returns in chunks, not streams." This refers to the volatility that makes news on a day-to-day basis and the fact that these swings are often much more dramatic that the overall span of an investor's plan.
  • "Second, most investors live long enough to have the relevant investment period extend across both secular bulls and secular bears." This is the time span contingent that suggest that the longer you remain invested, the higher the likelihood you will benefit from those swings.
  • "Third, investors do not get to pick which type of cycle comes first." Although you may think you can time the market, our emotions still play a role in how we place our goals and what, if any role the media plays in our decision.
  • "Fourth, investors need to be aware that they will likely encounter both types of cycles." To this dollar-cost averaging creates a way to master the market swings by purchasing your investments over time and doing so in an even manner.

Easterling continues: "Those who experience secular bears during accumulation are generally better prepared than investors who are spoiled by a secular bull. A secular bull market is a pleasant surprise to retirees who endured a secular bear on the way to retirement. For retirees who grew to expect a secular bull during accumulation, the unexpected secular bear can be considerably disruptive.”

So I ask my cohosts: is set-it-and-forget-it an investment strategy? Listen to the conversation here.

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