Lagniappe: Some Final Takeaways

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

I couldn’t resist using one of my favorite words—lagniappe. It means a little something extra, given at no cost, somewhat like the thirteenth doughnut in a baker’s dozen. Because there are so many topics and issues I could not cover in the previous chapters, here’s my lagniappe.

Small and Ugly May Be Beautiful. If you need more returns. One possible strategy, supported by decades of research, is to overweight a few market factors in your portfolio. Based on the original research of two well-known academics, Gene Fama and Ken French, you allocate some of your stock holdings to small companies and value stock. Over the long-term, you’re likely to be rewarded with a few extra percentage points of returns.

Maximize Quality of Life, Not Returns. It’s confusing, but after having designed many hundreds of retirement plans, it’s obvious that if you’re near or in retirement and depending on your portfolio to provide cash flow for your lifestyle, a higher allocation to bonds is likely to increase your likelihood of success at the cost of reducing the likelihood of making more money.

Hot Stocks Pay. If you’re an active trader in hot stocks, the activity will pay your broker but not you. Remember two old jokes: 1) Broker to a new client pointing out the window of his beautiful office overlooking the bay. “See that yacht; that’s my partner’s. The one next to it is Mark’s—he’s the broker next door—and the one next to that is mine.” The wise prospect asks, “Where are the clients’ yachts?” 2) How do I make a $1,000,000 in the market? Start with $2,000,000.

Safety versus Certainty. My friend Nick Murray shakes his head when he hears people talking about safe investments. He says (and he’s right): investors confuse safety with certainty. Putting your nest egg into insured CDs may offer the certainty that when they mature, you get your principal back with the promised interest; however, assuming you’re like most of us and find your expenses going up with inflation, over time your safe investment is likely to buy you less and less of the goods and services you need. This is called purchasing power erosion and it’s one of the biggest risks retirees face. The solution is to plan on a safe portfolio—one with bonds and stocks—and avoid the certainty of losing purchasing power with a safe investment.

It Doesn’t Cost You Anything Don’t You Believe It. Unless you’re the kind of person who believes in fairy tales. No professional can afford to work for free. Good investment advice is valuable, and people providing advice deserve and expect to be compensated. So it really angers me when an investor says they were told a service shouldn’t cost them anything.

 Two prime examples are bonds and variable annuities. When purchasing a bond, it’s true that you’re not charged a commission. That doesn’t mean you’re not paying compensation. Bonds are sold based on something called a spread. You might be offered a $10,000 bond at 102.5. That means your cost would be $10,250. The broker may have been told by his bond department: “This bond is available at 100.5. How much do you want to add?” To which the broker responds, “Two.” And the trader says, “Fine. Done at 102.5.” The result: you’re purchasing a bond with a 2 percent markup. The markup is the fee to the broker and brokerage firm. Again, there’s nothing wrong with paying a markup, but make sure you’re told how much it is. The good news is that you can check by going to  http://finramarkets.morningstar.com/MarketData/Default.jsp , a website that provides the details of most bond trades.

A Variable Annuity (VA) is another investment product that, unfortunately, a small minority of unscrupulous brokers use to take advantage of clients. The line is: “Don’t worry. It doesn’t cost you anything. The insurance company pays me.” Although factually true, it’s massively misleading because it ignores the reality of where the insurance company gets the money to pay the broker. The money comes from you, the annuity purchaser. The practice is particularly egregious because VAs typically pay relatively high commissions to brokers and they have no break points, unlike mutual funds. On mutual funds the commission drops as the purchase size gets larger. The broker gets the same percentage on a VA no matter how big the purchase.

Duration, Shmuration. Who Cares? You should. You probably know, or at least have heard (especially if you read Chapter 7, “Getting Your Money Back”), that bonds are subject to interest rate risk. That’s the risk of being stuck with a poor investment if after having purchased a bond, interest rates rise.

Consider John, new owner of a $10,000 ten-year bond purchased when it was paying 4 percent. Five years later, interest rates are up and a new five-year bond of the same quality now pays 7 percent. If John wishes to sell his bond, he would be offering his now five-year bond paying 4 percent. There is no way someone will pay him $10,000 for a bond paying 4 percent when the buyer can purchase a similar quality bond paying 7 percent. So if the owner, John, wants to sell, he’d have to sell at a discount.

That discount is interest rate risk. Most investors equate this risk with maturity—they assume a ten-year bond has significantly greater risk than a five-year bond. Sounds reasonable but it’s not necessarily true. The problem is that focusing only on maturity leaves out an important factor—the coupon, which is how much the bond issuer pays annually. The higher the coupon, the sooner the investor has some funds back to reinvest at the new, higher rate so a high-coupon bond might have less interest rate risk than a shorter-maturity, low-coupon bond. For an approximate guide to the level of interest rate risk a bond has, ask about the bond’s duration. That number will provide a very rough guide to the potential loss in value if rates rise. The measure is 1 percent for every year of duration. So a bond with a five-year duration might be expected to lose 5 percent if rates go up 1 percent or 10 percent if rates rise 2 percent. Not a perfect measure but far better than maturity.

I’ll Keep an Eye on It. When I caution clients about the risk of a heavy concentration in a single investment, they often respond, “Harold, I understand, but I keep a careful eye on it.” That sounds wise. Unfortunately, as Professor Sharpe taught us about the unrewarded diversifiable risk, that’s false confidence. It’s a risk that can blindside you.

Think about the fact that many years ago a crazy person who put poison in some Tylenol bottles threatened the business of Johnson & Johnson or consider the Gulf oil disaster that almost buried BP. Years ago, I used to use as the example of a company building a major manufacturing facility over what turned out to be a toxic waste dump. Well, one day, using that story to persuade my clients to reduce their exposure to the stock they held in the company where they had both spent their careers.

Their mouths dropped open and they said, “Good Lord! You’re right! We’ll sell out.” It turned out that just a few years earlier their company had, in fact, developed a major research facility over what later turned out to be a toxic dump and it almost bankrupted the firm.

It doesn’t matter how blue the blue chip is, the risk is there. Many years ago I warned a trustee that a portfolio allocation to AT&T stock representing about half the portfolio value was a significant risk. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very persuasive and the trustee scoffed at my warning—after all, it was AT&T. About a year later the value dropped over 50 percent. The drop had nothing to do with my having a crystal ball; it might just as well have doubled in price. The point is that the risk is real.

Counting on Gurus to Predict the Future May Be Hazardous to Your Wealth. No question about it: when doing investment planning, you need to have some opinion about future market returns. In my office, I have all of the important elements, including extensive databases, sophisticated analytical software, an expensive crystal ball, and a Ouija board. The future is mighty cloudy and surprises even the best of us.

The moral? It’s not Buy and hold, it’s Buy and Manage. Make your best estimates about the future and be prepared to change. Just don’t put too much faith in any guru’s ability to tell you where the market’s going, no matter how confident he or she may be.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

The Efficient Frontier: How Much Risk Can You Stomach?

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Anchoring on the efficient frontier may sound like something out of Star Trek, but it’s not. It’s better.

Harold Evensky (HE): Mr. and Mrs. Curtis, good morning. I’m Harold Evensky and this is my partner, Matt McGrath. Welcome to Evensky & Katz. I always like to start by asking, “What brings y’all here?”

Mr. Curtis (Mr. C): Well, Harold, Vickie and I are thinking about retiring in just a few years. We’ve saved quite a bit and think we’ll be in good shape, but we had some friends who retired a few years ago, who thought they were in good shape only to discover that things didn’t work out quite as well as they expected and they’ve had to do some major cutting back in their lifestyle. We don’t want that to happen to us. The Hamptons said you helped them do some planning for their retirement so we thought we’d like to work with you to do the same.

HE: Wonderful. Let’s have some fun envisioning your future. And that’s the key—it’s your future. Our job is to empower you to plan that future. Suppose we start off with an introduction: “Modern Portfolio Theory and You.” Matt, may I have a blank sheet of paper from your pad? Thanks.

Here’s a simple picture of the investment world. On one axis, we’ll plot risk and on the other, return.

The Efficient Frontier Chapter Image file - .01.png

As you’d expect, cash would not be very risky, but it would not provide much in the way of return, whereas stock might provide a high return but at some risk. Bonds are somewhere in between.

With just these three choices, we could still design thousands of portfolios. For example, 99 percent bonds and 1 percent stock or 99 percent stock and 1 percent bonds. If I put dots on my graph for the risk and return combinations of all of these combinations, I’d fill up the picture with dots. Then, if I drew a line enclosing all of those dots, I would end up with a curved line that’s called the efficient frontier.

The Efficient Frontier Chapter Image file - .02

That means, at least theoretically, there is no best portfolio but rather an infinite number of best portfolios, depending on the risk one is willing to take. We know that everyone would like to have a portfolio with no risk and lots of return. Unfortunately, the real world of potential portfolios lies on or below the efficient frontier. So what does that mean for you?

Well, it means we have to do some planning, and then you’ll have a decision to make. First, as I said starting off, we need to make a best guess as to what return your portfolio would need to earn over time to provide you the money you need to accomplish all of your retirement goals. Then we need to make a best guess as to your risk tolerance. If we just focused on your return needs, we might conclude it was possible to achieve your financial goals with a portfolio allocated 90 percent to stock. But that might not work out very well if we faced a major bear market in a few years. After you saw your nest egg lose 40 percent, you’d call us and say, “Harold, we can’t stand it. Please sell our stock and put our money in cash!”

That’s why we define risk tolerance as the point of pain and misery you can survive—with us holding onto your belt and suspenders—just before you make that call to tell us to sell out.

With those two anchors, we can now revisit our graph. Suppose the results look like this.

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We have two portfolios for you. Portfolio A is one that provides the return you need to achieve your goals, and B is one in keeping with your risk tolerance. Which one is right? In fact, both are, but our recommendation is to plan on Portfolio A. Why? Even though we believe you can live with more risk and would end up with more money, determining risk tolerance well in advance of a terrible market is more art than science. The consequence if we’re wrong and you bail out of the market that would be catastrophic. So why take that extra risk if you don’t need it to achieve your goals?

How about if we found a different outcome? Suppose we concluded that you needed Portfolio A to provide your needed return but had a risk tolerance associated with Portfolio B in this picture.

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That’s not very good, because now you have to decide between eating less or sleeping less. In this case, our recommendation would be to readjust your goals to meet the return expectations of Portfolio B. Why? Again, when markets seem okay, it’s all too easy to say, “I’ll take a bit more risk.” But later, when it seems the world is coming to an end, you’re not likely to remember your willingness to hang in there.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Managing Risk: Smart Ways to Avoid the Bad and Manage the Good

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Come and join me again in my Wealth Management class.

Good morning, everyone. I hope you all had a great spring break. Anyone do something especially fun?”

“Professor E, I went home to Istanbul to visit family. It was all too short a trip but it was wonderful seeing everyone, as I’d not been home in a long time.” [That was my ace teaching assistant, Cagla.]

“Henry, how about you?”

“Well, I’ve been working on my dissertation, so I hunkered down to move it along. I still have a lot to do but it feels good having such a good start.”

“Excellent. Is everyone ready to get back to the best class in the program? [Needless to say, the class offers a resounding confirmation.]

Okay, this afternoon we’re going to begin with a discussion about two Nobel laureates, Harry Markowitz and William Sharpe. I know you all have thoroughly read the assigned material including some of their seminal works, so my question is this: how would you describe the significance of their work to a client? Katie, why don’t you start with Professor Markowitz?

Katie: Professor Markowitz recognized that in investing we need to consider risk as well as return. That may seem pretty obvious today, but at the time, the sole focus of investors was on which investment would provide the highest return. To the extent risk that was considered at all, investments were simply categorized as conservative or speculative. In fact, for decades, there were lists of legally approved, “safe” investments for fiduciaries such as banks and trusts. For our clients, the significant insight Markowitz introduced was the concept that a well-designed portfolio of individually risky investments could actually result in a safer portfolio. Professor Evensky, may I use the blackboard to demonstrate?

HE: Of course.

Katie: Okay, picture two very volatile investments. Although we expect that over the long-term their returns will be positive, on an annual basis their returns may vary significantly. Basically, this is our expectation of traditional investments such as stocks.

Here’s a simple example:

Managing Risk Chapter Image file - .01.png

Although stocks A and B are both very volatile, they both trend up. As my graph demonstrates, if we were to invest half of our portfolio in A and half in B, we’d end up with an overall portfolio with almost no volatility. Unfortunately, in the real world, we can’t find investments that complement each other so perfectly, but we can find investments that don’t move in exactly the same pattern, or as a mathematician would say, investments that are poorly correlated. That’s the wisdom that Professor Markowitz introduced. So today we don’t think in terms of risky investments but rather in terms of complementary investments; that’s why professional advisors and wise investors are so focused on portfolio diversification.

HE: Well done, Katie. David, how would you explain Professor Sharpe’s contribution to your clients?

David: Well, I’d start with this picture:

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Professor Sharpe demonstrated that there are two fundamental types of risk—unsystematic and systematic. Unsystematic risks are those uniquely associated with individual investments. This kind of risk is considered unrewarded because it’s risk that provides no expectation of extra return.

There are many reasons an individual investment might fail. A company may be badly managed and go belly up, or it might be well managed but fall prey to unfortunate market conditions, such as an energy company facing a collapse in oil prices. From the investor’s standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether the business failure is due to poor management or market forces. If the business fails, the investor is the loser.

At least theoretically, an investor may eliminate this unsystematic risk by diversifying. For example, a real estate investor owning and renting out a single-family home that ends up unoccupied would face a total loss of income, but if he or she owned ten homes, a single vacancy would mean only a 10 percent loss. Here’s what unsystematic risk looks like in the stock market:

April 20, 2010 – BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Stock Price April 20, 2010 ……..……………….. $50.20

Stock Price Three months later ……………….. $28.74

I can buy a portfolio of five hundred of the bluest blue chips—all the stocks in the S&P 500—but if the market drops 20 percent, that means my diversified blue chip portfolio took a major beating. In my pie graph, that risk is the first wedge of systematic risk—market risk. Many investors say, “I know that and that’s why I buy only high-quality municipal bonds.” Well, as we know, bonds are subject to something called interest rate risk. That means if I buy a bond and a few years later interest rates go up, the value of my bond goes down.

Some astute investors respond by saying, “I know that. That’s why I buy only one-year CDs and roll them over. That way, when rates go up, I get the new, higher return.” That also sounds as if it makes sense, but rates can go down and the investor’s income can drop precipitously. That risk is called reinvestment risk. (See Chapter 18, “Flight to Safety.”) So, although many investors think of bonds as a simple, safe alternative to stocks, the reality is that they come with their own unique kinds of risks.

Finally, there is the last wedge—purchasing power erosion. We all know that throughout time the costs of things we buy and the services we need go up due to inflation. That’s the other real risk of depending on bond income as the sole source of cash flow. Many investors get in trouble by confusing certainty with safety. Bond returns may be certain, but when you factor in inflation as a primary source of income, they’re certainly not safe.

HE: David, well done. I believe your future clients will be well served by your educating them about the wisdom of the laureates.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Dangerous Measures: The Fine Art of Calculating Returns

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

The person responsible for translating the math chapter of my book, Wealth Management, into Japanese told me, “You give me much headache.” Welcome to the math chapter.

Okay, class, today we’re going to be discussing one of the most common activities for financial planners, namely, the calculation of investment returns. Accounting in some measurable way for changes in investment values is fundamental to the work of financial planners. It may come as a surprise to you that such a simple concept is fraught with danger. The danger lies in the potential misuse of valid measurements.

There wouldn’t be much room for confusion if there were only one valid measure of investment return. Unfortunately, the mathematics of finance offers many choices. Among the most common are:

  • Current return
  • Total return (holding period return)
  • Real return
  • Compounded return
  • Time-weighted return
  • Dollar-weighted return (internal rate of return (IRR) and modified IRR)
  • Arithmetic return
  • Risk-adjusted return
  • Sharp ratio

Let’s consider each and I’ll simplify the discussion by assuming that we’re referring to the income received for a full year.

Current Return

This is perhaps the most popular measure with investors and some mutual fund marketing mavens. It is frequently referred to as the yield or payout. It’s an attractive measure because it provides a simple measure of the annual payout on an investment.

Dangerous Measurs Chapter Image file - .01

Although simple, this measure has a major problem. Consider the number we use for total income. That single number doesn’t distinguish the nature of the income. Is it interest income or principal payments, or capital gains, or some combination of those? There’s no way of knowing how consistent an income stream will be in the future. I’ll promise to pay you a current return of 20 percent per year as long as you don’t ask me for any money after five years.

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Okay, let’s focus on the interest income. Will that resolve the problem? Not necessarily. The bond fund we’ve invested in may hold many premium bonds. Those are bonds that were issued when interest rates were much higher, so although we receive significant current annual income, some of that is actually a return of principal. When bonds mature they will be paid off at par not at the bonds’ current market premium value.

Now we can talk about some measures that may be more useful.

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This simple measure eliminates potential misleading factors that affect current return, but it fails to answer a number of important questions. Measuring total return is only a starting point in evaluating investment returns.

Real rate of return = Total return minus Inflation rate

Another simple but very important calculation determines what investment advisors call “real return”—how much did an investor actually make after inflation. Earning 10 percent if inflation is 3 percent would be nice, but if a few years later inflation is 8 percent and they’re still earning 10 percent total return, that wouldn’t be so nice. All our clients live in the real world, so all of your planning should be based on an “after inflation” real return.

Compounded Return

Now we’re getting to the number most investors are looking for: “What did I earn last year?” The most common measure is called the Internal Rate of Return (IRR). It’s also known as the dollar-weighted return. This calculation considers the timing of additional investments your clients made and/or withdrawals they took during the year and the return of the investments in the portfolio.

Time versus Dollar-Weighted Return

We’re not done yet, one more to go. The power of IRR to include interim additions and withdrawals from the portfolio is also its Achilles’ heel. If you’re evaluating the performance of a portfolio when you have control of the external cash flows, the IRR provides a valid measure. If you have no control of the external cash flows—when your client adds or withdraws money—you need to consider using two measures. The IRR will provide a valid measure of your client’s portfolio performance; however, it will not answer the question of how successful your recommendations were.

To answer that question, you need an alternative investment-return calculation known as the Time-Weighted Return (TWR). Basically, this measure calculates how the investment would have performed if no new additions or withdrawals had been made during the year. After all, if you and your selected money managers have no control of the timing of external cash flows, your performance should not be penalized (or rewarded) for your client’s unfortunate (or fortunate) investment timing.

For example, consider the results of two investors, each of whom invested in the same mutual fund. Investor A invested $90 at the beginning of year one and an additional $10 at the beginning of year four. Investor B placed $10 in the portfolio at the beginning of year one and $90 at the beginning of year four. Here are the results of their investments:

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So there you have it, two investors, investing in the same portfolio, resulting in six different performance numbers. What do those numbers tell us? The average annual return? Not much. The dollar-weighted return? Investor B was lucky and invested the bulk of his money at opportune times and the advice was credited with a 9 percent annualized return.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Market Timing: A Fool’s Game

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Markets don’t care about what you need.

The Trujillos visited me a few months after the technology market crashed in 2002. They were a lovely couple—both in their mid-seventies—Mr. Trujillo was dapper in his tailored blue blazer, and Mrs. Trujillo was beautifully coiffed and dressed in a lovely St. John suit (my wife’s favorite high-end store). They had scheduled the meeting after sustaining significant losses during the tech market crash. After the traditional introductory “how are you” courtesies, Mr. Trujillo came right to the point.

Mr. Trujillo (T): Mr. Evensky, our investments were decimated in the market crash and we’re desperate to recover those losses. We’ve cut our expenses to the bone. The only basic needs remaining are our club and golf dues and our annual cruise. We’re hoping that you, as a professional, can help us.

Harold Evensky (HE): Mr. Trujillo, I’m sorry to hear about your losses. Perhaps you can give me some idea of how you believe I may be of help?

Mr. T: Well, we thought that by judicious market timing and sophisticated stock picking we can earn returns well beyond what we could by just tracking the market.

HE: I understand. Tell me how you were investing prior to the market crash.

Mr. T: Given the extraordinary returns in technology and all of the news about the new era of the nineties, we were heavily concentrated in technology funds. We recognized the risk of putting all of our eggs in one basket, so we diversified among several well-respected technology funds. For a year, we were doing extremely well; our returns were more than 80 percent. Unfortunately, no one warned us prior to the market crash, and in less than a year our portfolio was down 70 percent! I still don’t understand why we lost so much. It seems that if we made 80 percent and lost 70 percent, we should still be 10 percent ahead.

HE: I understand. Let me do some analyses to see how you’re positioned so I can determine what recommendations may be appropriate. Can we get together next week?

Mr. T: That would be fine.

After the Trujillos left, I gathered the information they had provided regarding their current investments and all of their financial goals. Factoring in assumptions for taxes, future market returns, and inflation, I entered all of the information into our planning software, MoneyGuide Pro, and ran several scenarios with varying allocations between bonds and stocks.

It was bad news: no matter how I jiggled the allocations, my conclusion was the Trujillos could reasonably spend only about one-half of what they considered a bare-bones lifestyle. That’s not the sort of news a planner looks forward to sharing with a client. Unfortunately, although Mr. Trujillo said they needed a return that would enable them to maintain their lifestyle, the reality is that the markets don’t give a damn.

How about Mr. Trujillo’s solution of market timing? As I explained to David Samuel in Chapter 14, “Market Timing for Fun and Someone Else’s Profit,” trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not a viable investment strategy. Unfortunately, their experience with the boom and bust of their portfolio didn’t convince them of the market-timing fallacy. Rather than the impossibility of consistently making the right call on market turns, Mr. Trujillo complained that no one warned them prior to the market crash. He ignored the fact that no one warned him because no one knew in advance. If you think about it, had the impending crash been obvious to professional investors, they would have moved to cash prior to the crash. Of course, they didn’t, and across the board, professionals, including the managers of the Trujillos’ diversified funds, were blindsided, as both investors and professionals have been with every market correction and crash.

You may be thinking about people you know who managed to avoid much of the loss during a bear market, and I’m sure that’s true. In fact, one of the major arguments for active management is that it may not work all of the time, but it comes to the forefront during bear markets because an active manager can reduce his or her equity exposure, whereas an index fund must stay fully invested. Although that statement is true, the conclusion is not.

In 2013, my graduate assistant (who’s now a professor), Shaun Pfeiffer, and I researched this argument. We found two fatal flaws: 1) The majority of active managers did not avoid bear market losses. 2) Even more importantly, those who managed to avoid losses in one bad market generally fail to do so in subsequent bad markets.

As for Mr. Trujillo’s confusion about his loss versus his expected 10 percent gain, it’s a classic—and dangerous—mental math trap. Big losses have far greater ramifications than most investors understand. Suppose the portfolio was valued at $1,000,000 before the big 80 percent gain. It would have grown to $1,800,000. If it then lost 70 percent, the 70 percent was a loss on the $1,800,000 portfolio, leaving a balance of only $540,000! Even worse, to get back to the $1,000,000, the Trujillos would need an 85 percent return. Not likely.

What did I tell the Trujillos? As tactfully as I could, I walked them through the numbers and tried to explain the reality of their financial position. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful and they continued to insist that having cut expenses to the bone, they would have to simply find someone who could help. I wished them the best but feared they would simply be digging themselves into a deeper hole with progressively less opportunity to at least mitigate the pain.

The moral? Markets don’t have feelings or morals. They do not care what an investor needs and there is no investment or strategy that has consistently provided returns well in excess of those earned in the broad markets. Consequently, if you care about your financial future, don’t base the quality of your life on hopes, dreams, and the expectation of being the first person to find that pot of gold or win the lottery. Do your planning based on the reality of the markets.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Flight to Safety: The Portfolio that Makes for an Uncertain Future

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Certainty Isn’t Safe

Harold Evensky (HE): Kirin, good to see you. Where’s Autumn?

Kirin (K): She’s out shopping. I wanted to see you alone. I’m very upset and concerned about my investments; I don’t want her to know and get worried.

HE: Kirin, what’s worrying you?

K: Well, as you know, most of my money is in a series of large, one-year CDs that I’ve been rolling over every year. A few years ago, I was getting almost 9 percent. It’s been going down every year, and now I’m facing rolling them into CDs that are paying only 1 percent! Harold, we can’t live on 1 percent.

HE: I hear you and, indeed, rates have come down significantly. We might find a bank paying a tad more, but it would be a small increase. Let’s talk about repositioning at least some money into a balanced portfolio.

K: A balanced portfolio? That sounds like it has stocks?

HE: Indeed, the idea is to balance your investments between stocks and bonds—probably somewhere in the range of 50 percent bonds and 50 percent stock.

K: Harold, forget it! The market’s too risky. No way am I buying stock.

HE: Okay, Kirin, let’s talk about designing a laddered bond portfolio.

K: What’s that?

HE: Well, we would buy a series of high-quality bonds maturing each year during a period of time. If you invested $100,000, we might buy ten bonds, one maturing in one year, the next in two years, and so on until the last $10,000 was invested in a ten-year bond. That way, if interest rates go up in a year, you’ll have the money from the maturing bond to invest at the new higher, ten-year rate, and if rates go down, you’ll have most of your money invested in bonds paying a higher return than the current market.

K: Sounds cleaver, but forget it. No way am I tying up my money that long.

HE: Okay, Kirin, I give up. Stop buying your one-year CDs and buy five-year CDs. At least they pay a little bit more.

K: Harold, no way. Long-term to me is a green banana.

HE: [By now, I was more than a little frustrated.] Kirin, go ahead make my day—die. [Normally, I wouldn’t be so blunt, but Kirin was not only a client but also a long-time friend and I thought he needed a significant wake-up call, so I went on.] If you really did die, I would be distraught because you’re a good friend, but what keeps me awake at night and should keep you awake at night is not dying and having no financial assets to support your lifestyle. As my friend Nick Murray would say, your problem is confusing safety and certainty.

CDs are certain in that you can have confidence that you will receive the interest payments promised and your full principal back at maturity. In the real world, the friction of taxes and inflation is likely to result in your certain payments buying less and less. That means your standard of living will gradually be eroded. That is not safe. The moral? Don’t confuse certainty and safety. A safe investment portfolio has a high probability of allowing you to maintain your standard of living. For most of us, that means investing in both bonds and stocks.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Irrational Investing: You’re Not the only One Who’s Nuts

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Good news! You’re not irrational, you’re human.

I just came from one of the most exciting lectures I’ve ever attended. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, because Danny Kahneman, the speaker, is a Nobel Laureate. Professor Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in economics for what has become known as Behavioral Economics. Basically, his studies brought to light the difference between the rational investor—someone who always rationally makes investment decisions in his or her best financial interest—and real people like you and me. We live in a complex world and that’s certainly true of investing.

To manage the complexities of life, we often use something called heuristics to help us efficiently make decisions in spite of complexities. Think of heuristics as mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work out well; unfortunately, they sometimes result in our making decisions that, when looked at objectively, seem irrational. Each of us also comes complete with a bunch of cognitive biases that lead us to create our own reality, which may not be consistent with the real world. Let me share some examples from Professor Kahneman’s lecture.

Built-In Bias

Just after being introduced, Kahneman asked everyone to look at the audience in the room (there were about one hundred financial planners in attendance). After a few seconds of our rubbernecking, he asked us to raise our hands if we believed that the quality of our planning advice is above the average represented by the other planners in the room. Well, surprise, surprise, we were all above average—just like Garrison Keeler’s Lake Woebegone, where all of the kids are above average.

The problem, of course, is that’s not rational. Half of the audience must have been below average. Professor Kahneman explained that as humans we have an innate overconfidence bias that leads us to have confidence in our judgment—a confidence greater than objective accuracy would suggest. How, he asked, might that get us into trouble when investing? Lots of ways.

We are often overconfident in our ability to pick investments or in the abilities of the money manager we love or the ability of financial media mavens to guide us to the best investments.

Kahneman told the audience about the research of Terry Odean and Brad Barber, University of California professors, who studied the trading results of almost seventy thousand households during a six-year period, accounting for about two million buys and sales. They found that investors who traded the most—those with the most confidence and the best ideas—earned an annual return 11.4 percent. The problem was that the market return was 17.9 percent. The professors’ conclusion? Overconfidence in your good idea may be hazardous to your wealth.

The best protection we have against overconfidence is to step back and apply a strong dose of humility and skepticism before we act.

Next, Kahneman put up a slide that looked something like this:

HHTHTTHTTH

TTTTTTTTTTT

He explained that it represented the results of tossing two coins ten times. He and asked which one we thought was the fair coin and which one was bogus. As sophisticated practitioners we knew instantly that the second coin was bogus: Ten tails in a row? Give me a break. In hindsight, I’m embarrassed to say we fell for the heuristic called representativeness. You know the one: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.

The problem is that the randomness heuristic led us astray. Had we stopped to think it through, we would have realized that getting ten tails in a row is just as random as the first toss series; the problem was it didn’t look random. Our brains, knowing a coin toss is random, took a shortcut and concluded that toss one looked random so it was authentic; toss two was obviously not random, so it must be bogus.

How can that get us in investment trouble? Ever consider investing in a fund with a Morningstar rating of less than four or five stars? Probably not; bad mistake. Use the star information as one element in your selection process, but the Morningstar ratings are not guarantees of future superior performance. You need to do a lot more research than simply defaulting to the stars as the sole selection criterion. Doing so puts you at serious risk of picking a loser and rejecting a superior investment.

Muddled Math

Professor Kahneman also introduced us to the work of Professor Dick Thaler on mental accounting. It seems that in addition to occasionally being misled by our heuristics and biases, we also stumble over what would seem to be simple math. I know this from personal experience with my clients. I remember having a visit after the tech bust from a retired surgeon, who came into my office almost in tears.

“Harold, I don’t understand. Last year I made 80 percent on my investments and this year I lost only 60 percent, yet my statement says I’m way under water!”

My client’s mental accounting told him that a gain of 80 percent less a loss of 60 percent should leave him 20 percent ahead. The reality was that his original $1,000,000 investment grew 80 percent to $1,800,000, so his 60 percent loss was on $1,800,000, for a loss of $1,080,000. The end result? A balance of $1,800,000 less $1,080,000 left him with only $720,000. It was a painful way to learn that big losses take much bigger gains to recover.

Consider, for example, a volatile investment of $100,000 that loses 50 percent the first year, leaving you with $50,000. Suppose the next year you make 50 percent, so your average return for the two years is 0 percent. Did you break even? Nope. Your $50,000 grew 50 percent to $75,000, leaving you $25,000 under water. Remember that the next time you want to risk funds in a high flyer.

Framing

Kahneman presented much more on the problems investors face because we’re human and not necessarily rational. Then he provided us with the hope that we might help our clients (and ourselves) be better investors through the power of framing.

Framing has to do with the idea that the way people behave depends on how questions are framed. Suppose I offered you two brands of chocolate bars. One was 90 percent fat free and the other contained 10 percent fat. I’ll bet I know which one you’d chose. Have you looked for prunes lately? You may have trouble finding them unless you look for dried plums. The Sunkist marketing department understands framing.

How can you use this technique to be a better investor? Here are a few ideas:

The next time your neighbor gives you a hot tip, instead of focusing on all the good things that might happen, reframe your focus and ask yourself what might go wrong. My partner, Deena, once helped a client make an important decision by pointing out that if she made the significant investment she was considering and it succeeded, she could increase her standard of living by 10 percent. However, if it didn’t pan out, she would have to work four years beyond her planned retirement date to make up for the loss. She passed on the opportunity. She may not have made a killing and missed out on taking a world cruise, but she was able to retire just when she wanted to.

Reframe your performance-evaluation horizon. Investing for retirement is investing for the rest of your life, so when evaluating your investment’s performance, keep your eye on the long-term, not the daily market gyrations. That means skip the comparisons to last month, last quarter, or year-to-date performance and look at performance over years and market cycles. Also, reframe your benchmark. You might compare your large-cap core manager’s performance to the S&P 500 but not to your portfolio. Instead, consider using a real-return benchmark—compare your portfolio return to inflation. After all, that’s what your plan should be based on.

Are you holding a position in a stock at a big paper loss, but you’re reluctant to sell because then it would be a real loss? If I asked you whether you’d buy that stock today, you’d tell me I’m nuts. You wouldn’t touch that dog with a ten-foot pole! Let’s reframe your decision. Since the cost of trading today is negligible, you could sell your investment tomorrow and have the cash proceeds in your hand almost immediately. That means by holding onto your stock, you’ve made the decision to buy it again!

The moral? We’re human, not rational, and recognizing reality and learning about some of the problems our biases and heuristics get us into and using framing to help manage these risks will make us far better investors.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Asset Allocation: The Myth of the Portfolio that Acts your Age

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Policy research is great for policy makers but may be poison for you.

I just finished reading an article in a professional journal that reported on extensive research about how people of different ages divide their investments between stocks and bonds. It went something like this.

Our research, based on zillions of responses to trillions of questions, has determined that investors at age forty have 60 percent of their funds in stocks and 40 percent in bonds. Investors at age seventy have 70 percent in bonds and 30 percent in stock. Further analysis, to a high degree of statistical significance, has determined these proportions are close to the proper allocation of resources for the average investor of these age groups.

 Therefore, we have concluded that, based on our studies, investors should use the following formula to determine the percentage of stocks and bonds in their portfolios:

  • The amount to be invested in stocks = (100 – the investor’s age)
  • The amount to be invested in bonds = (100 – the amount invested in stock)

What a terrific solution to how you should invest your money. No muss, no fuss. All you need to know is your age and the rest is just simple math that you can do in your head. If that seems too easy, there are many companies and magazines that provide more detailed suggestions about how to invest your money based on your age. All of these approaches are based on a concept known as life-cycle investing. The general idea is that your financial needs are related to your age. The approach is endlessly popular and sounds terrific. There’s only one problem: it’s hogwash!

Wait, that’s not fair. If you happen to be a sociologist or a government policy maker, this might be terrific stuff. After all, sociology is the study of large groups. Still, it’s dangerous hogwash if you try to use it to plan your own life. Remember, sociologists are the professionals who came up with the concept of families with 1.8 parents and 2.3 children.

Since you’re probably not a sociologist or policy maker, and are more interested in your unique needs than the statistically average needs of everyone your current age, the cookie cutter—life cycle approach—to planning won’t work for you.

Let me tell you about two of my clients, the Salters and the Boones. When we first worked with them, my partners and I were amazed at how similar these two families seemed. Both families not only live in the same city, they also live in the same neighborhood, just two blocks apart, in houses of the same model, built the same year by the same builder. Mr. and Mrs. Salter and Mr. and Mrs. Boone are working professionals. When we met them they each were fifty-five years old, in good health, and they planned on retiring when they reached sixty-two. The coincidences seemed endless. We thought they even looked alike! Both had investment portfolios valued at $1,000,000 at that point, and they all considered themselves moderately conservative investors. Because neither the Salters nor Boones have children, they have no desire to leave an estate.

Well, if lifestyle planning worked, these two couples’ investment portfolios should look alike. Lucky for our clients we are financial planners and we gathered more information. Here’s what we discovered:

Asset Allocation Chapter Image file - .01

How about that? To a sociologist, these couples looked alike; to a financial planner, based on their savings rate, their retirement income, and financial goals they looked very different. Let’s see how our recommendations differed from the life-cycle solution.

Asset Allocation Chapter Image file - .02.png

Note that the life-cycle recommendation is the same for the Salters and Boones. That seems a little strange because the Boones plan on spending a lot more than the Salters in retirement, and the Salters are saving more between now and retirement and have significantly more Social Security income. The fact that their ages, risk tolerance, employment, home, health, and planned retirement dates are similar is irrelevant.

After careful analysis and based on the information specific to our clients, we made the following recommendations:

Asset Allocation Chapter Image file - .03.png

It sure doesn’t look like the 55 percent bond formula you’d get by subtracting their age from one hundred. Why the difference? In spite of similar demographics, the Salters and Boones have very different resources and goals. Remember, you’re unique and planning based on simple rules of thumb can be a mighty dangerous way to plan the quality of the rest of your life.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Life Timing: What Did Lynn Hopewell Teach Us?

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

You’re not average, so don’t plan the quality of the rest of your life based on averages.

I was sitting front row center in a big conference room at our national planning symposium; I’d been looking forward to this talk for a while. The speaker, financial planner Lynn Hopewell, was a good friend and one of the most thoughtful practitioners I knew. My partner, Deena, and I had been responsible for planning this program and we invited Hopewell to speak because he told us he had a few major concepts he wanted to share with his peers. Here’s what he shared that day:

And End Not So Near

Welcome, everyone. I have few stories to tell that I hope will be a wake-up call for the financial planning profession. The first is about my planning for an engineering client, Ms. Jane. She is sixty-three, a very successful and accomplished civil engineer, and president of a major structural engineering firm. She hired me to work with her in developing a comprehensive retirement plan. Well, since I too am an old engineer, I know how they think—detail, detail! So I worked very hard to provide Ms. Jane a plan that would resonate with her. Finally, I was sitting down with her, ready to blow her socks off, and after going through my complete analysis, I thought I had.

“Mr. Hopewell,” she said, “I’m very impressed with the thoroughness and depth of your plan. I have only one small question.”

Well, needless to say, I was beaming at the compliment and looked forward to answering her “one small question.”

She went on, “I understand that selecting a mortality age—the age the plan assumes I die and will no longer need income—is a critical element in the planning process.

“Obviously,” I said, “if we arbitrarily use a very old age, such as one hundred, we’re likely to have to tell you to reduce your spending so that your nest egg will last to that age. Of course, if you die before one hundred, you’ll be leaving a lot of money on the table that you could have enjoyed spending while you were alive. If we assume a much younger age and you’re long-lived, the consequences could be even worse because you’d run out of money before you ran out of time. As a consequence, we work hard to select a reasonable planning age.”

“That makes sense to me,” she said, “and I understand that the age you selected for the plan is based on the projected age of my death from a national mortality table.”

“Correct! And not just any mortality table. We spent quite a bit of time consulting with actuaries to determine which table reflected the most current actuarial data.”

“I understood that. What I’m still a little confused about is the meaning of that age. As I understand it, if the table says my mortality age is eighty-eight, that means half the people will have died by eighty-eight and half will still be alive.”

“Correct.”

“Well, doesn’t that mean if I plan to age eighty-eight, I’ll have a 50 percent chance of outliving my plan?”

That question hit me like a Mack truck. Ms. Jane was correct. Even worse, in thinking about it, I realized that anyone with the resources to need the advice of a financial planner was likely to have had better health care and nutrition than the average of the universe of individuals making up the mortality table. That means Ms. Jane had better than a 50 percent chance of outliving my plan. This was a major wake-up call for me and should be for any practitioner relying on a traditional mortality table. Lynn said, “After acknowledging Ms. Jane’s point and scheduling a follow-up visit to give me time to consider the ramifications of her simple question, I hunkered down in my office to consider how I might resolve this problem.”

So, I went back to my own office and did the same. After additional conversations with my actuary friends, I concluded that a reasonable solution would be to use more customized actuarial tables—those that allowed me to factor in whether the client is a smoker, nonsmoker, her current health, and whether the lifespan of her immediate family is long, average, or short. Then, using the appropriate customized table, we would select an age that represented only a 30 percent chance of her outliving the age indicated in the table.

Here’s an example that shows how big a range the mortality age can be depending on these factors:

Life Timing Chapter Image file - mortality age range

Obviously, there is no guarantee that the age selected will coincide with the client’s mortality; however, following this process is likely to provide a much more realistic estimate.

Well, Lynn was right. That was a major wake-up call, because I’d been using a standard actuarial table and mortality age for my planning assumption. That was about to change.

Even if Lynn had stopped there, this information would have justified all of the time and cost of attending the three-day symposium, but there was more. Lynn’s next story was about the ah-ha moment he had one day when developing a college funding recommendation.

College Calculations

Not long ago I was preparing a simple college funding recommendation for a client. You know how that goes. It’s a simple time-value calculation that requires input on how many years until college, how many years of college the client wants to pay for, the annual cost, and the college tuition inflation rate. My input looks something like this:

Life Timing Chapter Image file - college calculations

A financial calculation would result in a recommendation that the client set aside about $145,000 to fund this expense. When I presented this to the client, he asked how confident I was about my number. When I thought about his question, I realized the answer was not very. My estimate was what we refer to as a “point estimate.” This means that unless every assumption I made was exactly right, my recommendation would either over- or underfund the college tuition bill.

As a former engineer, I remembered that when trying to estimate the probability of uncertain events, we used a technique known as a “Monte Carlo simulation.” Developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Second World War for the design of nuclear weapons, Monte Carlo is really a simple concept. Rather than making a single guess regarding a possible outcome, we make guesses about the likely ranges of the outcomes. We then simulate thousands of possible futures with different combinations of those possible outcomes.

Let’s expand the table I showed a minute ago to more realistically reflect the uncertainty in our estimates.

What we know with some certainty:

  • Years to college 4
  • What we’re making an educated guess about
  • Tuition somewhere between
  • Annual cost $30,000 to $50,000
  • College costs inflation 5 to 7 percent
  • Investment return 6 to 10 percent

With these ranges, there are many thousands of possible outcomes, for example:

Life Timing Chapter Image file - college calculations no. 2

The Monte Carlo simulation calculates for each of these examples how much money that investors would need to set aside today if they want to fully fund four years of education. If the analysis ran a thousand examples, the results, listed in order of decreasing savings, might look something like this:

Life Timing Chapter Image file - college calculations no. 3

In this case, the question was how much should you put away now if you want an 80 percent probability of meeting your goal? The answer would be $167,000, because 80 percent (800/1,000) of the simulations would have succeeded with that amount of savings or less.

Well, this was another major wake-up call for me. In hindsight, it seemed obvious that a point estimate was inappropriate and that a Monte Carlo simulation could provide a more meaningful answer. In wrapping up his discussion, Lynn reminded us that expanding the input matrix meant making more guesses. Despite the mathematical rigor of a Monte Carlo simulation, adding more guesses does not justify adding two more decimal places to the answer. His point was that we should use Monte Carlo as an educational tool and not suggest it is a mathematically accurate answer.

The Takeaways

When planning retirement, don’t assume average mortality—you’re not average.

When attempting to quantify an uncertain future, don’t default to a single estimate. Use a Monte Carlo simulation to develop an understanding of the likelihood of possible outcomes, but don’t take the results as gospel.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.

Market Timing for Fun and Someone Else’s Profit – Don’t Do It

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Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

A broker stands looking out of the window of his sumptuous office down at the marina thirty stories below with his client at his side. “See those yachts down there?” says the broker to his client. “The one on the left is mine, the one in the middle is my partner’s, and the one on the right is our office manager’s.”

“Where are your clients’ yachts?”

David Samuel: Hello, Harold. It’s David Samuel again. I know you have that AAII meeting coming up next week, but this can’t wait. My brother said he just got a call from his broker, who told him to bail out of the market at least for the next few months because the firm’s technicians said they see a major correction coming within weeks. I assume you’ve probably seen the same and agree, but I just wanted to double-check.

Harold Evensky: David, I just want to be sure I have this straight. You’re saying the broker is confident enough in his crystal ball to say that everyone should run to cash?

DS: You got it.

HE: Hum, I know he works for a big wire house; I wonder if that firm has moved all its money to cash? I don’t think so, because a move of that magnitude would have made the papers, and none of the managers we monitor have made significant liquidations recently. It somewhat makes you wonder what your brother’s broker knows that no one else does.

DS: Well, I understand that he’s been in the business for decades and he’s a senior VP at the firm, so he must know something.

HE: I’m sure he knows how to sell, because the impressive title comes with generating big commissions for the firm. There are many quality SVPs who earn their commissions from long-term quality advice.

Unfortunately, there are some who succeed by focusing on generating commissions independent of the client’s needs. That’s the basis for the old joke: “How do you make $1,000,000 in the market? Start with $2,000,000.” In deciding whether market-timing advice is something you want to follow, remember, when market timing, a broker earns a commission for the sale of each and every one of the positions their clients sell and another commission when they repurchase those positions. Here are a few things you might want to consider:

Can you name the top ten musicians of all time? The top ten baseball players? The top ten presidents? Of course, you can. We might argue about the list but most people can make up a list.

Now, tell me the top ten market timers of all time? Can’t even name one, can you? Your brother’s broker may be the first, but do you really want to bet on that?

What do market reality and statistics tell us? There are innumerable problems with market timing, including transaction and tax drag. But there are two major problems. You have to make two correct calls: 1) when to get out and 2) when to get back in. Factoring in transactions and taxes, research indicates you need to be correct about 70 percent of the time.

Markets don’t just drop precipitously, but they recover quickly, so waiting for confirmation of the end of a bear market usually means missing a significant part of the recovery. That makes for a tough hurdle.

For example: In a study covering the period 1987–2007, research found that the annualized return for someone invested for 5,296 days was 11.5 percent. Unfortunately, if you missed the ten best days (less than 2/10 of 1 percent), your return would have dropped to 8 percent,

Why would you be likely to miss those best days? Because those best days occurred within two weeks of a worst day 70 percent of the time. And they occurred within six months of a best day 100 percent of the time!

In an industry study in 2008, researchers found that although the annualized market return for the prior twenty years was 11.6 percent, the average stock fund investor earned a paltry 4.5 percent. It turned out that for most investors, market timing was mighty expensive. And, David, unless you’ve recently obtained a working crystal ball, it’s likely to also prove costly for you.

To make money in the market, you have to be in the market through thick and thin. In fact, if you remember our discussion on rebalancing, you’ll remember that bear markets are great buying opportunities for long-term investors. So, my advice is to stop listening to so-called experts spouting nonsense and go back to making money in your business.

This blog is a chapter from Harold Evensky’s “Hello Harold: A Veteran Financial Advisor Shares Stories to Help Make You Be a Better Investor”. Available for purchase on Amazon.