Archive for Investment Planning

Financial planning, James Comey, and the least bad alternative

Not to decide is to decide

-Harvey Cox

I’ve been fascinated to listen to James Comey describe his decision process on the interviews with George Stephanopoulos and Stephen Colbert. When discussing his decisions surrounding the Hillary Clinton email revelations and retractions, he is adamant that there were no good options and he believes he chose the least bad alternative.

As always, it depends on what standards you use, what time period you’re talking about, and where your loyalties rest. Here’s where I think Comey went wrong—he seems to have considered the least bad alternative for the reputation of the FBI, not the country. I haven’t read the book (although I intend to) but am just gleaning his statements at the moment. However, who among us hasn’t made decisions by what we thought was true at the time and then found, to our horror, that the consequences were completely different? That describes an awful lot of marriages that end in divorce. (He believed Clinton had a significant lead and although he knew his revelations might hurt her, he didn’t seem to think he would turn an election).

Let’s take a frequent example where we’re faced with all bad alternatives: you haven’t saved any, or enough, money to put your kid through college and they get into a great one with no, or inadequate, financial aid. Do you drain your 401k, co-sign a loan, or tell the kid they’re not going to that college? For a lot of parents, out comes the pen (or they drain the 401k). So you think you’ve demonstrated loyalty and caring to your family, and the co-sign seems like the best alternative. Until the kid drops out, or gets sick, or can’t get a job that will cover the loan payment. But with a little longer time horizon of consequences, you might have (should have) concluded differently.

I’d propose that, in many financial decisions and also the one Comey made, it would have been better to cast the situation in a slightly different role: choose the best alternative among the ones available to you. (Note: this is NOT the theoretical best that could possible exist in some alternate universe, but what’s available to you at the time.)

Phrasing a decision this way often opens up more options than either/or. Comey has repeatedly said there were only two doors he could open, and he chose the least bad. Had he instead considered the “best available” he might have waited until the emails had been reviewed, taking the long view that going off half-cocked had a very good chance of electing a president far more profoundly careless than the woman he was investigating. And since, at the time he was also beginning the Russia probe, he might have considered several other available alternatives: reveal everything about everyone if you’re choosing to disclose unfinished investigations, or wait until investigations actually have evidence before disclosing anything at all, or valuing the good of the country even beyond the supposed impact on the reputation of the FBI (which hasn’t always been stellar for non-partisanship; I’m looking at you, J. Edgar Hoover). These would have required taking a longer view, and perhaps a higher loyalty.

Similarly, the financing-of-college decision can look a bit differently when we look for best available and take a longer view. Here, best available might be negotiating with the school, taking a gap year for the student to earn money, going with the school you can pay for, or having a serious discussion with the student about the possibilities and drawbacks of taking on debt for which they alone will be responsible. It may be deciding to rein in spending (if possible) so that you might help the student pay off debt if and when they graduate. Asking “best available” rather than “least bad” seems, to me, to generate more possibilities.

Comey, and all of us, have made decisions which were agonizing at the time, still seem like they were the only possibility, and yet are tortured by the consequences. The decision to pay off loans or credit cards rather than save for retirement, stay with the spouse for the children, invest in your brother’s now-failed business, report a sexual harasser to the ruin of your career, and dozens of other life decisions that seemed right but have terrible consequences, are simply unavoidable over the course of a life. We can’t make it all perfect, but there is a kind of peace in knowing you chose the best available to you at the time.

So too with investments. No one makes an investment believing they will lose money. But you have a much better chance if you’ve balanced all the alternatives and made the best choice available based on your research and belief in the future. And, you insure your decisions if you consider multiple alternatives rather than a hot tip, and act out of careful consideration and a long view rather than fear, desperation, or unwarranted pessimism.

 

Don’t put your money where the guns are

As anyone who has tried it knows, investing in socially responsible funds is a thorny problem. Even if you drill down to a mutual fund’s holdings, it’s really hard to be okay with everything in a portfolio. Most people interested in the area can agree that tobacco and arms manufacturers are not socially responsible. But what about drug companies (at least some)? Or makers of junk food? Mining companies? Oil companies? Banks with exploitive lending or account opening policies? Or tech companies that are known to exploit workers overseas? Depending on how involved you are, it becomes really difficult to pick a portfolio as well as have a realistic chance of actually making some money.

Nevertheless, while nothing in this world is perfect, we, and investment products, can move toward better choices. Socially responsible investment funds have lately done quite well compared to the market as a whole, so it appears that even with this selection process, you can still find solid investments. But then we get to the issue of guns.

There’s a website, www.GoodbyeGunStocks.com, where you can input your mutual fund and find out if the fund invests in gun companies or purveyors of guns. Sure, withdrawing your own investments from funds that own gun stocks won’t, in itself, change the world. But, making your opposition clear definitely has an impact long-term on both the mutual fund manager’s choices and screening, and the attractiveness of the underlying company.

I conducted an analysis of all the funds I recommend to my management clients. It was rather depressing. Again, there’s going to be a tension between what would be ideal, and what is possible. I can make my peace with managers owning Walmart, one of the largest retailers of guns and ammo, because they are such a large company that they sell just about everything. Getting them to stop selling this would, I think, require a change in gun laws and so action is better taken on the political/legislative front, in my opinion.

The next level, and this is where it starts to bother me, is investment in sporting goods stores who promote guns and ammo as a major business angle. I, personally have a problem with funds that invest in, say, Vista Outdoor and Dick’s Sporting Goods and will be reviewing investment recommendations in funds that own them. I’m going to leave this up to a client’s decision if this disturbs them, but from now on I will be raising the issue. I do live and work in an area where there is great support for stringent gun control.

The ones that really bother me are the ones that directly invest in gun producers, like Ruger and American Outdoor Brands (Smith & Wesson).  I’m not sure I can personally invest in any mutual fund with holdings in such companies, and I will be making clients aware of this in discussing investment possibilities.

In addition, I have contacted the managers of these funds to raise my objections to these specific holdings. Hearing directly from advisors and investors makes a direct contact. You can easily find the managers of your funds on Morningstar.com, or contact me and I’ll get the names and addresses for you.

Most international funds are free of these investments. Thanks to stringent gun control in other countries, most gun manufacturers and sellers are in the U.S. Sigh.

 

Some resolutions for millennials

I thought I might start off January with some financial resolutions for people at different stages of life, based upon what seems to be difficult but achievable. I’m not going to suggest lose weight and get more exercise because I’m going to try to come up with things you and I might actually do. I’ll disclose a secret and say I’m not actually a millennial. But one lives here, and I meet with millennials fairly frequently. Even if you’re not a millenial, some of these will still apply. So here goes:

  1. I will calm down about my student loans. Just about everyone has them, and everyone hates them. It’s probably too late to do anything about what you borrowed, now, so you have to think through how to manage them. They’re not shameful—they were an investment you made in getting a better job. If they’re fairly low, say under $30,000, it’s really the equivalent of paying off a car over 10 years (rather than 3 or 5 for an actual car). If they’re higher, hopefully you have selected a career that made it worthwhile—if not, you should definitely look into the various programs to bring down the monthly payment.
  2. I will assess whether I should pay off my loans early. If your loans are the subsidized kind (under 4%) you’ll probably be better off investing and saving rather than rushing to pay them off—in the long run, the same money judiciously invested will earn more than the loan is costing you.
  3. I’ll make sensibly frugal choices. Don’t buy an expensive car (or even a new one) until you’ve worked out a budget. Watch the rent you commit to paying. Try to downshift spending without denying yourself the fun—go out, but maybe drink beer instead of a craft cocktail. Meet for drinks instead of dinner. Choose a medium priced restaurant and do your gourmet eating and drinking at home—you can buy a pretty darn good bottle of wine for the cost of a glass or two at a restaurant. You get the idea.
  4. I’ll contribute to my retirement plan the day I’m eligible. There will never be a better time in the future when it will be easier. It’s always hard. If you never get used to that 10%, you won’t miss it as much.
  5. I’ll think of that retirement account as gone and locked up. Don’t borrow from it and don’t even think of cashing it in when you change jobs.
  6. I’ll build up an emergency fund before I take a vacation. Or buy a house. Or have kids.
  7. I’ll commit to paying off my credit cards every month, and pay attention to how to maximize rewards. Play that right and you’ll be able to take more vacations.
  8. I’ll manage my career. Think of your career as an investment asset—get all the training you can to continuously upgrade skills. Everyone gets a terrible boss someday, and everyone has co-workers they can’t stand. Get interpersonal skills training, read up on coping skills, and always have a plan B for moving on. Go to conferences and networking events in your field, and learn as much as you can about marketing. If you’re dreaming about a creative or independent job, realize that at least 60% of that job will be selling the product, not creating the product.
  9. Insofar as possible, I won’t quit without lining up another job. If I get fired, I’ll find career services or a job hunting group to get me back on my feet as soon as possible. Losing a job is debilitating and depressing, even if you hate it. Finding a new one is a part time job. Plan for it.
  10. I’ll pay attention to my employee benefits. Employee benefits can be worth 1/3 of your salary. Does the job offer a Flexible Spending Account? Disability coverage? Free life insurance? How much vacation time? What’s the deductible on the health insurance? Decent or crappy investment options in the 401k? Good employer match, bad, or none? Will they pay for more education (which I will definitely avail myself of)? These are things that you should know before you accept a job, because they’re potentially worth thousands to you. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen who have paid for a lawyer to produce a will (or not made one at all) when their employer offers low cost legal service. Just go light your cigar with a $500 bill.
  11. I’ll set savings and required payments on autopilot by setting up auto withdrawals. Making a decision once, by setting them up, is more likely to continue (on time) than if you have to make a decision every month. You can always cancel the auto-pay if you absolutely must.
  12. I’ll learn about investing. Even if you’re a good saver, you need to educate yourself about investing. I can almost guarantee you didn’t learn about it in school, and unless your parents were exceptional, you didn’t learn it at home either. The only way is self-study—and don’t believe anything you hear at one of those free “investing” lunches—nothing in the investment world is EVER free.

 

Happy new year and best wishes for 2018.