Aug 29, 2021

Proverbs for Today

During the turmoil in the U.S. the last several years, I have occasionally taken a fresh look at what people were saying, regardless of how little sense it has made to me. The commentary I struggle with has come from both sides, left and right, and all generations.

For example, Modern Monetary Theory violates everything I’ve ever thought regarding government finance. From the right, it’s still hard for me to realize that behind Trump’s personally offensive behavior, he actually had some policies that were broadly supported, such as extricating us from a decades-long war in the Middle East.

We have the cancel culture telling us there’s only one right opinion on their subjects. Tucker Carlson, a brilliant media marketing person, is working to out-do Trump, and the Squad torments even Nancy Pelosi. We have people who don’t think vaccines are safe or needed and believe that more people pulled a lever for Trump than for Biden. And the world is consumed by a pandemic that has made many of us lose track of some basics, such as time.

And for a while it seemed that lynching blacks was going to once again be acceptable behavior.

In the mix, Me Too and Black Lives Matter have both gained momentum while too many accept holding immigrants in cages. Equality and identity politics have become the rallying cry for everything, both concepts that have little history of driving cultures.

In my ponderings, I wondered what Proverbs would have to say about my struggles. So I read the book, along with some additional commentary. Assuming for a moment you won’t consider writings from thousands of years ago fake news, today I’m sharing my experience with this ancient book. My observation is that it has a lot of good advice for anyone - any religion or not, any political persuasion, any country, any time. Here’s what I learned.

A proverb is a short, traditional saying, often in metaphorical form, that expresses some obvious truth or familiar experience which may be applied to common situations; an adage; a maxim.

Examples include “a path is made by walking,” or “be swift to hear, slow to speak.” “Haste makes waste.” “Practice makes perfect.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Or from Afghanistan, “You have the watches, but we have the time.”

The first proverbs came from Egypt about 3000 B.C. About 600 years later Ptahhotep, an Egyptian minister, attained high repute for his wisdom. He wrote the first known piece of Egyptian wisdom literature, “The Maxims of Ptahhotep.” It is possibly the oldest known book in the world. This Egyptian "wisdom literature" was meant to instruct young people in appropriate behavior, with speculations about the very worth and meaning of human life.

Wisdom literature is universal among more advanced cultures, including Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia, India and Israel. It was pervasive throughout the ancient east.

The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Old Testament, including Proverbs, but also Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. I grew up with the protestant Bible and have read it most of my life.

Proverbs are probably the oldest existing documents of the Hebrew wisdom movement, generally attributed to Solomon. Both the Jewish Bible and the Quran consider Solomon a prophet, and a wise and famous king of Israel, dating to the 10th century B.C.

Proverbs is put together from numerous independent collections around the 4th or 5th centuries B.C. Its earliest collections came into being about 700 B.C.

The word proverbs comes from the Latin word proverbium, “a common saying, old adage, maxim.” It literally means “words put forward.” The Latin comes from the Greek, pro,which means “forth,” which is derived from the Proto Indo European (PIE) language root, per, meaning “forward, in front of.” Verb is from Latin verbum, “verb” or “a word,” from the PIE language root were, “to speak, say.”

About half of Proverbs is short, catchy sayings implied by the English word, proverb. But the other half is made up of longer poetic units of various types. These include "instructions" formulated as advice from a teacher or parent addressed to a student or child; dramatic personifications of both Wisdom and Folly; and the "words of the wise" sayings.

Proverbs is composed of 31 chapters, divided into several distinct sections, each section sometimes its own collection of wisdom literature. The first nine chapters are an invitation to the young to take up wisdom as a model for a successful life. The next thirteen chapters, the bulk of the book, have hundreds of sayings, often contrasting the wise person with the foolish person.

The third section (three chapters), titled the thirty sayings of the wise, appears to be a facsimile of an Egyptian wisdom text written by Amenemope (“The Instructions of Amenemope”), dated to 1250 B.C. The fourth section picks up from the second section, focusing now on social awareness, contrasting the just and the wicked, and the rich and the poor.

The final section (five chapters) is attributed to Hezekiah, who according to the Hebrew Bible was a famous king of Judah around the 8th century B.C. The remainder of the book is a mix of appendices that cover a multiple of random subjects.

So what does Proverbs have to say for today? I looked through the current issues plaguing the U.S. and address three areas: prudence, justice and temperance.

Prudence

Prudence is the importance of wisdom, discipline and reason. Today, we see a country that seems to have left these traits behind, whether instant gratification, avarice, debt, dishonesty, foolishness or general disregard for inner human qualities.

Proverbs first challenges us to seek wisdom versus folly. It asks again and again, “Do you see persons wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them” (26:12). “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near” (10:14). I wonder where the anti-vaxxers lie on the wisdom-fools continuum?

Or the notion that we can borrow our way to prosperity? If this is such a great idea, why didn’t we do it centuries ago? (Countless countries have tried, and for the most part failed miserably.) Does anyone but a fool believe our recent election was “stolen”? If so, by whom?

“Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes” (26:4-5). We would be wise to answer today’s fools accordingly.

The wisdom of Proverbs doesn’t say we’re all equal, a common notion of modern society. Instead, it says that “One is commended for good sense, but a perverse mind is despised” (12:8). Or "Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones... Wisdom is too high for fools; in the gate they do not open their mouths." (24:5-7). Or “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (21:5).

Think buying things you can’t afford. Hasty comes only to poverty, says Proverbs. “How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver” (16:16).

And finally a word to those who see debt as their ticket to freedom: “The borrower is the slave of the lender” (22:7).

Instead, today, we have an abundance of people who value those who talk over others, whether our leaders or our media. Proverbs has plenty to say to them: “To watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble” (21:23). “One who spares words is knowledgeable; one who is cool in spirit has understanding. Even fools who keep silent are considered wise” (17:27-28). “The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly” (15:14).

Shame, mouths of the wicked, babbling fools, perverse minds, mouths of fools, folly, haste. I see too much of it in our society.

Justice

Proverbs speaks clearly in support of justice, including social justice, and despises injustice, depravity, decadence and laziness. This includes respect for righteousness, harmony, charity and generosity.

“When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (21:15). “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (22:8). “The evil do not understand justice” (28:5) “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.” (11:24). “The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding” (29:7).

George Floyd’s nine minute strangulation by four police officers - all on video - has challenged the notion that the U.S. provides proper justice and charity to its minorities. The video vividly shows how little terror exists within parts of our police, and at times how truly wicked they can be. It brutally displayed the lack of respect segments of our society have for other groups.

I acknowledge that the U.S., with 4% of the world’s population, is incapable of taking in all the millions of people around the world that would so welcome immigrating here. We are in the enviable position of having to secure our borders, not to keep people in but to keep others out.

At the same time, people seeking to immigrate here are often in difficult circumstances, badly in need of help. So, although we justifiably cannot fix the problems of all those asking our help, we can still be kind, generous and sensitive to their issues. Washington - both parties - has been negligent in developing a reasoned approach to this complex problem, compounding the suffering.

Still, this is little excuse for our sometimes insensitive and even callous behavior. An example is our policies to punish so-called sanctuary cities, where our citizens are trying to provide a modicum of social justice. Other examples include indefinite detention, separating families and efforts to arrest illegal immigrants while engaging in otherwise legal behaviors.

What does Proverbs say regarding those who are not in power? “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31:8-9). Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (22:9-11).

Temperance

Proverbs values temperance, the quality of balance and moderation, restraint, discipline and decorum. Compare these values with many so prevalent in today’s society: a bad tongue, arrogance, obesity, anger, pride and vainglory.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud” (16:18-19). “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom” (11:2). “Before destruction one's heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor” (18:12). “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control” (25:28). “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth—a stranger, and not your own lips” (27:1-2).

Ironic, isn’t it, that white evangelical protestants were primarily responsible for giving us a leader who has little value for temperance or justice, and not a lot of prudence. And this same group persists today, willing to lead an insurrection for a man who is the antithesis of Proverbs. Decorum, restraint, harmony, charity, judgement. These are words that he does not know.

I wonder how such church-going, religious Christians can reconcile their leader with a Bible that shouts otherwise.

Proverbs presents a picture of the proper human life that is far different than much of what we see today. It emphasizes wisdom versus folly, temperance versus excess and extremism, and justice versus inequality and bias.

But a world that dismisses wisdom is hardly much interested in what anyone said thousands of years ago. I would ask, though, that we consider for a moment that people are rarely as smart or independent as they think they are, and some quiet contemplation may present a better way forward than today’s shouting match.

And for those who don’t share my Judeo-Christian heritage, I suggest that you look into your own traditions. Wisdom literature and proverbs are widely found in probably all cultures. And I suspect their observations are quite similar.

Mar 10, 2021

The Case for Coverdell Education Savings Plans

Much is written about 529 plans, the standard tax-advantaged savings plan for a college education. (They are legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code.) Their benefits are wonderful - nearly unlimited savings and tax advantages, flexibility and sometimes a state tax credit or deduction.

For those few with significant resources, it is the no-brainer choice for putting away tens of thousands of dollars into a tax-free college fund for your children's college education.

But for most parents, a Coverdell Education Savings Plan (ESA) not only works just fine, they generally provide more investment options and lower fees. Further, withdrawals can be used for qualified elementary and secondary education expenses as well as for college.

Coverdell accounts limit contributions to $2,000 a year per child for those with an adjusted gross income under $220,000 (joint). But the vast majority of households are under this income limit. Further, for the average family with about two children, saving $4,000 a year is realistically about their college savings limit.

Both 529 plans and Coverdell ESAs offer great benefits. They allow for tax free growth as long as the proceeds are used to pay for qualified education expenses. The plans remain your assets, not your child's, which means you are not committed to giving them this money.

And because the assets are yours, they have significantly less negative impact on financial aid. (Note that if funds are not used for education or other purposes the IRS approves of, the gains are eventually taxed with an additional penalty.)

529 plans are set up separately in each of the fifty states and their rules vary by state. In general, contribution limits are much higher than Coverdell’s, there are no income limits for contributors and have no age limits for beneficiaries.

Further, some states offer a state income tax deduction or credit for contributions to 529 plans but not for Coverdell plans. Again, these are great benefits for high income families trying to save a lot of money for their children's college expenses.

But at the more modest income and savings levels most of us live, a Coverdell ESA is often the better plan. Further, even if you have a Coverdell ESA, you can also have a 529 plan. Here's how the Coverdell works.

Coverdells are widely available at large brokerage firms, such as TD Ameritrade, E-Trade and Charles Schwab, with low minimum balances and no annual fees. You can generally invest in most of what they sell, which is just about everything, usually with no trading costs. Further, they offer broad very low-cost indexed funds, which are considered the best investment for most investors.

For example, you can open a Coverdell at Charles Schwab with no minimum and no maintenance fees. They charge no commissions on online equity trades with no minimums on trades. They also offer standard indexed funds with fees as little as .03%. Note that this is three hundredths of one percent, which is essentially zero. For a typical education savings account of $25,000, the fee comes to less than ten dollars a year.

Here’s some quick math on such a Coverdell. Over the past 100 years, the S&P 500 index (an index of the 500 largest U.S. stocks covering approximately 80% of the U.S. market capitalization), has returned a little over 8% a year after accounting for inflation.

Let’s assume you invest the maximum $2,000 a year into an S&P 500 indexed fund with near zero expenses. Assuming an average rate of return, your child will have about $80,000 in their Coverdell account in today’s dollars, which would cover most of the expense of a 4-year in-state college degree.

Let’s compare this with a 529 plan. My quick check found that most firms admit to fees up to 1% a year, an amount that could cut your total return significantly. 529 plans generally invest in a limited number of mutual funds, which tend to have higher turnover in their accounts, raising the total fees for these funds.

In life, simple and easy is not always preferable to complex and difficult. But in the financial world today, simple and easy usually means cheaper and better. In the past several decades, largely because of software and the internet, complex financial dealings have become simple products readily available at ultra-low costs to almost anyone.

But financial firms have struggled moving to a world where much of their former work has become largely valueless. Therefore, many work hard to obfuscate how little is needed to get a great return on your investments, instead encouraging products and services you probably have little need for.

This appears to be the case with 529 plans. Most aren’t set up, as are Coverdell’s, to have you simply invest your money in a near-zero fee indexed exchange traded fund, where the firm receives little income and you receive almost all of the gains from the underlying investments.

I did some research on 529 plans offered by Edward Jones. They quickly told me that “investing is personal” and immediately wanted my name so they can put me in touch with one of their financial advisors “to help.”

Unfortunately, these financial advisors are probably not going to help show you that your best option may be an ultra-low-cost Coverdell account where their firm will get less than $10 a year in fees. No surprise, Edward Jones doesn't even offer them. Instead, they quickly try to convince you of all the benefits of their 529 plans.

I tried to find fee information for their 529 plans. I never found any figures but I did find this buried away in their documentation: “529 plans will have fees and expenses, which will lower the rate of return. 529 plans generally carry sales charges (and) built-in operating expenses that affect the fund’s return (including) distribution and marketing fees (12b-1 fees), management fees, networking fees, annual account maintenance fees and transaction fees. Edward Jones receives a portion of the sales charge on 529 plans, and your financial advisor receives a percentage of that sales charge. Further, Edward Jones receives ongoing service fee payments, provided by the 12b-1 fees, and your financial advisor receives a portion of those ongoing service fees.”

Sales charges, distribution and management fees, networking fees, annual maintenance fees, transaction fees, sales charges, service fees. Only a fool would believe their fees are anything close to the $10 a year a typical education savings plan can cost you in a Coverdell ESA with a low-cost brokerage firm.

In comparison to these often complicated plans, a Coverdell ESA is just a simple brokerage account with IRS tax advantages. Otherwise, they function as another brokerage account, often including ultra-low costs.

Coverdell accounts have one other great feature, and that is they generally allow you to purchase almost any investment sold by the brokerage firm. In comparison, 529 plans are often limited to a subset of their mutual funds, often with higher fees than low-cost indexed exchange traded funds broadly offered by brokerage firms.

If you have a 401(k), this may sound familiar. 401(k)s are great retirement savings plans, but a little investigation shows that the same money in an IRA with a low-cost brokerage firm offers far more investment options at a lower cost. That is why whenever you are given the option, it is normally wise to transfer a 401(k) into an IRA, but that’s another topic.

529 plans are a great plan for many, especially for high-income taxpayers, primarily because they have few upper limits for income and contributions, and can offer a state deduction or credit. But when these are not considerations, which is true for most of us, a Coverdell account is a better option. They generally are easy to set up, have lower costs and more investment options, and provide more ways that the money can be used for a child’s education.

As always, 529 plans are different for each state and Coverdell accounts are different with every brokerage firm, so you are encouraged to do your own research before investing in anything.

Jan 11, 2021

Investing for 2021

We just closed out one of the most dramatic years for investing in a long time. The NASDAQ rose nearly 50% in the past year and has nearly doubled in the past two years; the S&P 500 rose 18% in 2020 and is up nearly 50% (including dividends) in the past two years. Tesla is up about nine times in a year, 25% so far in 2021, and bitcoin nearly five times in a year.

Ignoring for a moment the short and steep COVID drop this past March, 2020 continued what may be the biggest and best bull market ever. It started just weeks after Obama took office twelve years ago. From that low, the S&P 500 has risen over five times.

So where do we go now with this "everything rally" continuing to climb? I'll start with my general investing thoughts for any time.
 
The message that may be hardest to hear in a moment like this is that market timing is a bad plan. But it is still the plan that the human mind naturally goes to. A short history in human evolution shows that for most of our existence, the longest time frame normally needed for survival is one revolution of the earth around the sun. That's a good time period for growing crops, hunting animals and selecting a place to live.

And that's about the timeline that people unfortunately use for many aspects of modern life, specifically investing. Whereas following the crowd has been solid fishing advice for eons, it's not very good advice for investing. Buying now into any of 2020s hot investments is most likely a bad timing plan, but it is the prevailing thought.

Unlike fishing, market timing, normally turns into "buying high, selling low." The people that make money in hot markets are those who were in early and stayed in. The people who lose get in late and then leave after they've lost.

Market timing mostly devolves into chasing returns, sometime referred to as "managing for mediocrity." The adage "a fool and his money are soon parted" aptly applies.

So what can we do in a hot market like today? One of the first things is to evaluate how you are currently invested. What is the allocation you earlier established for your investments, if any? The simplest thing to do is to reallocate back to where you said you wanted to be. That's an easy way to "sell high."

Whether or not you have an allocation established, this is a good time to revisit that allocation. Consider how, regardless of recent returns, you should have your money allocated for the next several years. A good approach, regardless of age, is to keep any money you need in the next five years in cash or fixed income investments, and invest the rest in equities. Equities can safely be kept in a simple, low-cost S&P 500 index fund. They also can be partially allocated into foreign markets.

Another good review of your investments is to figure out the expenses incurred with each investment. Modern technology has made equities available to even the smallest investor at almost no cost. If you have funds charging over .5%, they should go.

Many "no-cost" investments have insidious hidden fees. Funds with high turnover are indirectly charging you for all their trading costs. 401K's are notorious for high fees. If you are able to transfer out, fees are normally considerably lower in an IRA with a low-cost brokerage firm than in a 401K. (But be careful with any transfer to ensure you are not taxed or penalized.)

If you are using a professional investment manager, make sure you understand where they make their money. They are professionals not just at managing your money, but also managing it to ensure they are paid well for their services.

As part of a review of your investments and allocation, also be sure you include all your investments, including you (and your spouse's) 401Ks, IRAs, savings accounts, savings bonds and brokerage accounts.

Do you understand everything you own? If not, either research the investment so you do understand what it is, or sell it and buy something you do understand. The two easiest investments for a well-managed portfolio of any size are an S&P 500 indexed fund and an indexed U.S. bond fund (commonly indexed to the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate U.S. Bond Index). Both are widely available at almost no cost, either as mutual funds or exchange traded funds.

I've survived two horrendous market crashes, the 2000 dot-com crash and the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The first was a bubble in tech stocks where the NASDAQ lost 78% of its value. The second, part of the Great Recession, was broader, with the S&P 500 dropping 56%. I suspect we are in some form of equity bubble today.

But bubbles can expand for years longer than imaginable. And they can quickly crash unceremoniously, or they may drag out poor returns for years. That is, timing what will happen in the next few years is nearly impossible.

I've vowed that I will never again be caught surprised by a crash, but here we are again. For any of you who think it is time to get out, ask yourself what you will do if the market doubles in the next few years. I've known people who waited years after the last crash for still bigger drops. They lost out on most of this current bull market.

And if  you do get out, when will you get back in? After a 20% drop? 30%? 50%? There's no guarantee any of these benchmarks will ever be reached. In fact, the market may never again be lower than it is today.

So here's my 2021 advice. Take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with your current investments and to revisit your target allocation. Understand where your costs are and where you have essentially duplicate investments. Then quickly reallocate to your plan, possibly with some consolidation of equities. Don't buy anything you don't understand and don't buy anything you aren't comfortable owning for several years.

And stay there. If the market changes dramatically, up or down, deal with the changing environment by reallocating.

For years I have done this. When markets are raging, I will occasionally and painfully sell some equities. When markets head down, I just as painfully take the opportunity to buy into a market I do not like. Occasionally, only by accident do I get it right, selling at the highest point and buying at the lowest point. But in total, I'm buying low and selling high.

When surrounded by wonderful stories of stocks doubling and more, it can be tempting to want to buy some individual stocks. Normally, the returns don't justify the risk but it's not all bad thinking. If you do, be sure you understand what you are buying and why you believe it is at least a stable investment.

If a stock drops quickly, you may want to sell before you get in too deep. If it rises, be aware that stocks can rise for a long time, even after their financials don't support it. At its worst, you may learn something about yourself. A safe place to start is the list of S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats, the bluest of blue-chip U.S. stocks.

At a larger level, your 2021 resolution may instead be to find yourself a financial advisor who can help with all your financial needs, such as insurance, debt, kids' education, emergency funds and retirement. But like your investments, be sure you understand their fees. A danger sign is when they offer their services, including personally directly all your accounts, for free. These are normally the highest cost services, mostly hidden from you. Your best start is with a Certified Financial Planner who works on a set fee.

Good luck. And let's hope that our investments are our biggest problem in 2021!

Dec 20, 2020

A Very COVID Christmas

Just over a year ago, my wife Ann and I had a grand Thanksgiving celebration in San Francisco where two of our three sons lived, living the high life in the tech center. The whole family plus several orphans were there, a gathering from four states. We made a week of it, flying into San Diego the weekend before. We stayed in a boutique hotel in downtown San Diego before heading north along the coast to San Francisco.

You may remember, though, that while we were away, the Midwest was dumped with snow - twice. To get home we spent two nights in a hotel at O'Hare airfield. We were scheduled on five different flights before finally landing in Duluth, Minnesota, where we've lived for twenty-five years.

One of the planes - a full-size Boeing twinjet - flew less than a dozen of us more than half-way home before they realized that the Duluth airport was closed. Technically, airports don't close. But they stop airplanes from taking off and landing.

During this ordeal, I told myself more than once I'd never get on a plane again. Little did I know, it was an omen for 2020.

Lots happened with our kids this year. Jason and his wife, Nicky, moved back to the Twin Cities from Austin, Texas, over a year ago. This spring, they bought a house in a St. Paul historic district (Dayton's Bluff) overlooking the Mississippi River. It was built not long after the Civil War. It's very cute and very them.

To round out the place, they got a dog, Pecos (named after the Pecos River, a tributary of the Rio Grande, which is named after the Pecos Tribe of New Mexico). We've been down several times to visit. It's a great area to walk.

In March, our youngest song David started a new software job at Uber in San Francisco. By week three he was already working from home and soon facing a 25% layoff. He survived the layoff. When he was told that the earliest he may need to work out of their offices was next summer, he move to Redmond near Seattle. He, too, got a dog, Freyja (old Norse: the lady).

Ben also switched jobs. Last year he moved to Airbnb. Not to be outdone by Uber, they, too, had a 25% layoff. Ben survived that turmoil and Airbnb has since gone public (go figure). He, too, has moved to the Seattle area. He hasn't gotten a dog, though, but he did get engaged. In fact, he proposed on Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior. Like so much of life, COVID has the wedding on hold, too.

When Ben realized he could be working from home for another year, he asked us if he and his soon-to-be fiance could stay with us for a month while working, which they did for October. This was one of our highlights of the year.

Ben and I soon got in our own morning kaffeeklatsch, discussing work, stock markets, the election and so much more. If you sat in on one of these sessions, you might conclude that we're related.

We spent a long weekend up the shore during amazing peak fall colors. After a day kayaking in the Boundary Waters, Ann, Ben and Xin realized canoes are for portaging, not kayaks. They still had a wonderful day.

A couple of years ago, Ann bought me a subscription to Ancestry.com. This has become my latest adventure. It didn't take long, and I was back hundreds of years to Nils Jonsson, born in Ostra Boda, Sweden. I've identified 155 of my Swedish grandparents, half of my DNA. The Finnish side, the superior half, goes deeper still, back as far as 1460, mostly from the two small towns in northern Finland my grandparents were born in.

We also had our DNA tested, and now I can match DNA into my family tree. I've verified that my parents and grandparents are indeed mine. I’ve done the same with many of my aunts and uncles.

I found a woman living just a few miles north of here in Duluth who I share DNA with. After hours of research I verified that we are connected through four different sets of great-grandparents, one on my maternal grandfather's side and three on my maternal grandmother's side. The oldest DNA connection was 7th great-grandparents born in 1674.

Ann and I continue to run Celebrate Recovery, a program she started at our church twelve years ago. Celebrate Recovery is a 12-step recovery program from Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. A year ago, we had well over a hundred people weekly, including kids, adults and volunteers. Then as quickly as I was sent home from work, our church locked its doors for five months to anyone not in a space suit.

No worries. We missed one week and then reorganized on - you guessed it - Zoom. Ann also setup a weekly Facebook Live. We continued our recovery step program, graduating over a dozen people who refused to be done in by a virus. Ann also organized food deliveries.

But some were done in by the upheaval. Two people involved with us died and several were hospitalized, none for a virus. There has been more to the societal toll than the COVID death count.

Once spring arrived, we moved outdoors. That's when I learned Duluth has 129 parks. Ann, I and others organized outdoor meetings where we could again meet in person. BYO chair, drink and snack. Stay six feet apart. Don't share your food. And no hugs. OK, but not everyone.

We even pulled off the men's 8th annual camping trip deep into the Superior National Forest. Over a dozen guys came, one to a tent, two to a canoe. There's just nothing quite like a northern Minnesota lake in July. We swam, fished, sat around the eternal fire, drank coffee and ate wonderfully.

By late summer, we got back into our church, with numerous restrictions and lots of hand sanitizer. We restarted the band, teachings, and small groups. Even when cases skyrocketed in the area, we've continued without a known infection.

Early in the summer, Ann and I realized that a great place to safely vacation is the North Shore of Lake Superior. We made several trips there. Jason and Nicky joined us for the 4th of July, Ben and Xin in the fall. But we weren't the only ones that had figured this out. We’ve never seen so many people up north. Maybe our rural outdoors shtick is catching on. Finally.

Work was its own challenge. But I soon realized I'll never return to five days a week in an office. Ann and I walk most mornings, and occasionally again in the afternoon. We usually have lunch and dinner at home, sometimes ordering a delivery.

Keeping in touch with people has been especially trying for both Ann and me. But we've pasted together a collage of ideas that together help, whether for church or for coworkers. Zoom, phone, text and email all work, obviously. But many were comfortable with a walk, backyard coffee, outdoors at a coffee shop, lunch in our vehicles or carry-out to a park.

Like most of you, we haven't enjoyed 2020. But there were many nice points to it. Although Ann continues to do most of the cooking, we now occasionally work together on meals. I've taken to watching Netflix movies. I've discovered that Curb Your Enthusiasm can improve any day of mine. And I've gotten back into occasionally taking some pictures, a long-lost pastime.

I have one resolution for 2021: Within 48 hours after Ann and I are both relatively immune to COVID, we will be on an airplane to anywhere!

Great talking. Wishing a blessed Christmas and holiday season to you.

Ann and Jon

Here are some pictures from the year.

May 25, 2020

Of Booms and Busts

I am now in the midst of my third career bear market. I have memories of what I think I did in the past two but our minds play tricks on us. So I went back twenty years into my investment records in Quicken to uncover the truth. Here is what I found and the lessons I have learned for surviving market turmoils.

Let me first share a little of my investing habits. Since I started my career, I have saved regularly into a 401(k). That is, I dollar-cost average. I also have made no loans or withdrawals from my 401(k). Until I got older, almost all of my savings went into equities. (When I refer to "savings," I mean money that my wife and I do not intend to use until after we have retired.)

I have managed mine and my wife's life savings as a single unit, regularly reallocating our total savings to a set mix of fixed income and equity securities. Until we were in our forties, almost all of our savings were in equities.

Over many years, we have slowly increased our allocation of fixed income to over 40%. Regardless of market swings, I have stayed close to whatever allocation we have agreed to, reallocating whenever we have strayed from our goal.

Because of job changes, most of our savings are with Charles Schwab, invested mostly in indexed funds plus some individual securities. We have a joint taxable brokerage account plus separate traditional and Roth IRAs for each of us.

My first bear market was the dotcom bubble that burst in early 2000, wiping out over half of the U.S. market value over nearly three long years, based on the S&P 500 index.

My second bear market was the Great Recession, which almost unbelievably was worse yet. In exactly 15 months, the S&P 500 lost 57%. But we survived both, not because I can pick good stocks and not because we are lucky but because of how we invested along the way and how we responded when the market dropped.

(Please note that all market value and S&P 500 figures refer to the S&P 500 index, excluding dividends. All references to our returns include dividends and all securities, including fixed income. My point is not to compare how our equities did with the market but to suggest how you can invest your money without taking extraordinary risks.)

At the start of the dotcom crash in 2000, we had three small kids. We had our savings allocated into 19% bonds and 81% equities on March 24, 2000, when the S&P 500 started its slow descent.

But I continued my regular 401(k) contributions through this terrible time. I also regularly reallocated back to my 20/80 fixed income/equities allocation. This required that I sell bonds that were doing fine and use the proceeds to purchase falling equities, a tough discipline. At the market's low point, we had 82% invested in equities.

During this bear market, I averaged losing about 16% per year. But if I ignore the monthly, weekly or even daily noise, and instead only look at year-end values for 2000, 2001 and 2002, we averaged losing less than 11% per calendar year for three years, or a total of 29%. This is primarily because we maintained a set allocation of equities and continued to make new contributions into equities.

This is far better than the 51% the S&P 500 lost from top to bottom. When considering a lifetime of saving, for most of us this is occasionally acceptable.

Bear markets do end, and from the market lows of 2002 the S&P 500 nearly doubled over the next five years. During those years, our total returns, including fixed income investments, actually outperformed the S&P 500. This was primarily because of international equities that performed very well, another allocation that can help to keep your total returns from swinging widely with the S&P 500.

But bull markets end, too. The Great Recession started in late 2007, and was brutal for investors. The S&P 500 lost 57% of its value in less than 18 months and our equities did about the same. Coming into the bear market, because of our ages we had increased our allocation of fixed income. Even with these fixed income holdings, which were also pummeled, top to bottom we lost 43% of everything we had saved over decades, a sobering loss.

Again, this isn't the complete story. The market rose for most of 2007, dropped significantly in 2008, and early in 2009 started a steep rise. So if I continue to ignore the monthly, weekly and daily noise, while the market gyrated dramatically, we lost less than 1% during the total of these three calendar years.

Yes, that is correct. Rather than the huge loss that the S&P 500 experienced top to bottom, we instead did not gain or lose much over three years, which is very acceptable. Keeping a larger perspective can be critical to good investing.

And as it did in 2002, the terrible lows in early 2009 were the start of the longest bull run in U.S. history that ran into early 2020. During these eleven years, the S&P 500 went up five times (plus dividends). And although we had a higher allocation to fixed income, we still averaged 10% per year return for 11 years, nearly tripling our savings.

So, what have we learned? Based on my sample size of two, I suggest the following for this and any other bear market. First, any money you may need for the next five years should be in cash or other fixed income securities. Markets can fall fast and recover slowly.

Second, agree to an allocation that you can live with over several years, regardless of market turmoil. I also urge you to keep at least half of the money you do not need for the next several years in equities, regardless of your age or circumstances. Then reallocate your current portfolio to this allocation and stay at this allocation for years, regardless of market changes.

Third, if you are working, continue to save and dollar cost average, preferably into equities. And do this regardless of what the market pundits report with every rise or fall in the Dow Jones. CNBC and Fox Business News provide you with little useful information. If you want to know more about how to manage your investments, read an investment book.

Good luck. Stay calm. There’s little magic with investing. It's mostly a little education and a heavy dose of emotional control.