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!