A Little Bit of Rebalancing

With all the recent market volatility I thought it would be interesting to lift the curtain a bit on one aspect of how I manage client portfolios, my rebalancing process. This might provide some insight and perhaps some reassurance if I’m managing your investments, or perhaps a bit of help if you’re managing things on your own.

First let me say that setting up and managing a portfolio of investments entails both art and science. There are also tons of details to get your arms around and most are in constant flux. I have to think about the markets, the outlook, taxes, brokerage firm mechanics and expenses and, above all, what the client needs. None of this guarantees success. Instead, portfolio management is fundamentally an exercise in trying to control what can be controlled regardless of what the markets throw at us.

So hopefully without getting too deep into the weeds, let’s jump right in.

Everything I do for my clients is custom and based on factors such as:

General needs – Maybe the client needs retirement income or is trying to accumulate money for retirement. Sometimes, perhaps ironically, it’s both at the same time with the added kicker of wanting to preserve as much money as possible for beneficiaries.

Tax situation – I’ll often build portfolios around concentrated positions that would create a large tax bill if sold arbitrarily. It’s also common that clients need their income to be as tax-efficient as possible. Both requirements end up complicating portfolio construction and put added emphasis on so-called asset location. This is especially true when clients have IRAs, Roth IRAs, non-retirement “brokerage” accounts, and maybe college accounts for their kids and grandkids too; each are subject to different tax rules and should be invested accordingly.

Personal preferences – Sometimes clients want to emphasize (or deemphasize) certain industries or even particular companies in their portfolios. The process for getting this done has evolved a lot in the nearly 20 years I’ve been doing this work and software helps a great deal.

Risk tolerance and capacity – Each of us has our own tolerance for investment risk but we should also understand our capacity for taking it on. The first is psychological while the second is, or at least ought to be, purely financial. Sometimes the two align but often they don’t. The result tends to be a sometimes-tenuous balance between taking enough risk to achieve the returns I know the client needs but not so much risk that I set the client up for failure in a volatile market. And it doesn’t always work.

I have a variety of tech at my disposal to automate the investing process and lots of others in my industry simply farm this work out to third parties. “Freemium” and ultra-low-cost cookie-cutter services are clicks away. But opportunities can get lost in the rush to make everything easier. While there certainly are some similarities between Clients A, B, and C, the differing details of each person’s situation are plentiful and meaningful enough that investment models, and the work I do in general, should be custom.

A client’s model is essentially a list of investments chosen by me to a fill a specific need within the portfolio. Each investment has its own weighting and I put this into fancy software to analyze the model and tweak things until it’s just right. I make decisions about investment income, expenses, exposure to domestic versus foreign stocks, short- versus medium-term bonds, and so forth. There’s a laundry list of analytical stuff that I won’t bore you with here.

Once the model is set up I send it to my rebalancing software. From there I don’t just push a button and let an algorithm buy and sell on a client’s behalf. Instead, I set and monitor target ranges around each investment in a client’s account. For example, let’s say I want 12% of a portfolio invested in the Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF, ticker symbol VYM. The software flags me when the target weighting has dropped by 10%, 15%, 20%, or whatever I want. If the position has grown too much the software recommends selling some to bring it back within range. And since growth in one area naturally means loss in another, the software also points out investments that are at the low end of their target range. This is rebalancing at the micro-level whereas most people go macro by just looking at their overall exposure to stocks and bonds assuming they rebalance at all.

Each week I go through all the portfolios I manage but during volatile times like these it can be daily. This higher frequency is mostly to monitor things as closely as possible and doesn’t mean that I buy and sell every day. In fact, it’s often about what I don’t do, what I don’t buy and sell, that can make a positive difference for clients. That’s one reason why the thresholds are ranges and not 0% - portfolios should be allowed to move around with the markets so long as the range is controlled.

As I monitor the rebalancing process I’m also scrutinizing each investment to ensure it’s still high quality, low cost, and continues to fit within the portfolio. Since I’m unconstrained in what I can buy for clients I’ll swap an investment out if needs be, or I can move things around for tax-loss harvesting.

Here’s part of a screen showing an actual model from yesterday. The investment ticker symbols are on the left followed by my target weightings, actual (current) weights, and variance. We see the software’s recommendations in the yellow column and on the right we see what the portfolio would look like if I said yes to everything. That’s the big picture. Then I consider the client’s situation.

This client has ample cash in their portfolio (and in their bank account) and the 3.5% variance is fine, so we’ll leave that alone. No other variances are beyond even 10%, so we’re good there for now. However, lately I’ve been buying Vanguard Total Stock Market, ticker symbol VTI, and the client’s exposure has inched up with the market. Should it continue to climb I’ll be looking to trim it back and give sale proceeds to bonds via tickers MWTIX, BCOIX, potentially to foreign stocks via VGK, or all three. You may notice how the software is recommending I go up to 19.5% variance on BND, another bond fund. That’s because I put a cap on MWTIX and told the software to recommend BND instead. There are all sorts of fun customizations like that.

All this helps a client’s bottom line over time, and I could go on but let’s leave it there for today. Stocks finally had a good run last week and we saw some decent follow through yesterday. Even though markets finished in the red, it was by a small fraction and, given all the recent volatility, I’ll take it.

Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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I don’t know about you but I’m feeling very exposed lately. Exposed to what, exactly? Everything. Inflation, interest rates, the stock and bond markets, our dysfunctional politics, geopolitics, cultural and demographic shifts, the growing risk of this or that. Each would make for interesting theoretical discussions as a one-off or even a pair. But now they’ve all seemed to coalesce into something much larger, a problem greater than the sum of its parts.

In a way this reminds me of Warren Buffet’s quote about only seeing who’s been swimming naked when the tide has gone out. He was probably thinking about how good times can allow poorly run companies to continue for a while until markets turn and investors start caring about risk again. The quote also works well for personal finance if you put yourself in the company’s role. Are we managing our own situation like Enron, or are we really in much better shape and just feeling extra anxious because of tumultuous headlines and prices at the pump?

How we feel about this is primarily a psychological issue and that’s not where my expertise is. That said, I’m human and am willing to admit to feeling the weight and needing a reminder that I’m okay, even though so much around me isn’t. Funny, that sounds just like what we were talking about last week, right?

Since my corner of the world is all about personal finance, here are some questions to assess your level of exposure to the financial side of all this. Hopefully the end result is at least a little relief from the stressful times we’re living through.

Is your income secure? This question alone can lead to lots of anxiety, but think about it: Is your job pretty steady? If you own a business, how’s your cashflow? If you’re retired and much of your income is from Social Security and pensions, are the checks clearing? All kidding aside, consistent income is the bedrock of your household’s financial well-being and leads into these next questions.

Do you have cash on hand to cover at least six months of household expenses? While there’s no one right amount for the size of your emergency fund, six months is a good target. This should provide time to pivot if you lose your job or have a large emergency expense. But remember this is based on your typical spending and doesn’t include buying big-ticket items in the next year or so. If those expenses are on the horizon you should add that money to your emergency fund so as not to draw it down too low. A much smaller or nonexistent emergency fund leaves you exposed to a number of risks beyond your control.

Do you have enough cash or short-term assets beyond your emergency fund to cover larger expenses expected sometime in the next 3-5 years? Maybe this is tuition money, a car purchase, buying a house, or even starting your own business. Whatever the expense, having those dollars allocated to no-risk or low-risk assets such as CDs or shorter-term bonds eliminates your exposure to stock market volatility for those expenses – five years or less is no place for stock investing. And interest rates are higher now, so this money can actually earn something in the meantime.

Where you hold this money is important as well. It should be easily accessible without large fees or other restrictions and can be at your bank or credit union, or an investment account somewhere. Ideally, short-term spending shouldn’t come from your retirement account unless you’re already retired. Sometimes life happens and you need to withdraw retirement money early because, well, you need it and that’s where it is. I had to raid my 401k when I started this business back in 2014, so I get it, just be extremely careful about the details.

Are your longer-term investments managed appropriately? I don’t mean are they making money right now, because your investments are likely down quite a bit from a year ago. Instead, I’m referring to quality, proportion, and cost of the investments in your portfolio. If you own good stuff in the right proportions and the values are all over the place due to the world today the best thing to do is hold on. Buy more if you’re still accumulating. Hunker down if you’re retired.

I’m rebalancing client portfolios and harvesting losses where appropriate. This is important and helps performance in the longer-term, but there’s little else to do in the meantime. You should be able to weather this just fine if you have adequate assets to cover the short-term categories mentioned above. If not, you’re overly exposed to market risk and should either cut your losses and rebuild from the ground up or tough it out and hope it out, so to speak.

Are your debts manageable and sustainable? Ideally, these days your debts should cost 4% or less on a fixed rate. Student loan debt has lots of twists and turns to it, but payments should be manageable within your current budget. If your debt is more expensive or you’re carrying credit card balances, this is “bad debt” that you’ll want to prioritize paying off based on rate and terms.

If you can answer yes to each of these questions it means you’re probably less, or even much less, exposed to today’s craziness than you think. You can ride out market volatility because you won’t have to sell stocks to cover near-term expenses. You can let your portfolio and your humble financial planner do their work. In other words, you’re wearing a wetsuit versus swimming naked.

Lastly, I suggest keeping a record of your basic financial information that you look at regularly. Mine is a super-basic Excel spreadsheet that I’ve used for years and manually update every workday. While I love automation and have access to lots of fancy tech in this area, I like the manual process for this because I have to log into accounts and personally fill in the cells, keeping me closer to the information. It doesn’t take long either, maybe 10 minutes or less most days.

Updating my spreadsheet reminds me of what I have at least some control over, like our personal income, spending, savings, and overall structure. It also helps me better understand my actual versus perceived exposure to everything going on out there in the world. I highly recommend you do something like this, whatever format you choose, and regardless of how much money you have. We all have to start somewhere, right?

Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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How High is Too High?

Memorial Day weekend was quite busy this year and I hope you enjoyed it. I took most of Monday off, so this week’s post is lighter than usual. With inflation still elevated and rising risk of recession, it’s interesting to watch what’s happening with prices at the pump and airfares as the summer travel season gets going. Here’s a handful of different data points and some charts for a quick check on the inflation-as-travel-deterrent question.

According to AAA, Memorial Day travel was expected to almost be back to pre-pandemic levels and the summer travel season should be very busy.

If by road, Memorial Day travelers faced a national average gas price of $4.60 per gallon, also according to AAA, but prices are pushing $6 in Sonoma County. Both prices have risen over 50% in the past year.

Gas prices typically go up heading into summer but are obviously a lot higher than normal. The following charts from Bespoke Investment Group detail average Memorial Day gas prices since 2005 and how current prices have shot much higher than the typical seasonal curve.

If by air, travelers were seeing limited options, canceled or rerouted flights, and a huge year-over-year ticket price jump. Jet fuel is up about 116% in the past year, according to an airline industry group, IATA, which of course contributes to higher ticket prices.

But airlines are also making up for ground lost during the pandemic. Even with input costs rising, this is still expected to be a very profitable summer as demand remains high. For example, United Airlines told stock analysts recently that it expects its revenue per seat mile to be around 25% higher this season than during 2019. That’s a huge increase for the airline while flying 14% fewer flights than pre-pandemic levels, according to Reuters. In other words, airlines like United are directly and indirectly passing increased costs through to customers because they can. The following chart from the St. Louis Fed shows the CPI for airfares through April, but just imagine the line steepening into May and probably into summer as well.

Higher prices for air travel likely caused some folks to hit the road instead, but an average of over 2.2 million people still flew each day this holiday weekend, down about 8% from the same time in 2019 but up substantially from pandemic lows, according to data from the TSA.

So what to make of all this? Add it all up - inflation, the shaky stock and bond markets, recession fears, horrific events at home and abroad – Americans still want a vacation and after too long without, no cost seems high enough to dissuade them. Does that kind of elevated consumer demand indicate a recession around the corner? Hard to imagine immediate recession risk, but maybe that’s just me being optimistic on a day memorializing those who gave all to defend our way of life.

Here are links to the data points I mentioned.




Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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60/40 Gets Pummeled

This has obviously been a bad year so far for long-term investors. Pick your asset class and it’s down year-to-date, and some are down much more than others. The real letdown, however, has been the bond market’s poor performance. We’ve talked about this and the reasons why before, but what’s interesting now that we’re near the halfway point this year is seeing how bond returns have impacted the traditional 60/40 stock/bond mix that is so prevalent across portfolios.

I’ve included some recent work on this topic below from my research partners at Bespoke Investment Group. But to give this some scale let’s first look at a couple of charts showing three major asset classes: US stocks (the green line), foreign stocks, (in blue), and US bonds (in orange). To these I’ve added a super-basic 60/40 portfolio mix (in lavender) so we can compare performance.

The first shows dates I cherrypicked from October 2008 through March 2009, the worst of the Great Financial Crisis. Owning the right kinds of bonds helped back then while the stock market was going nuts. It didn’t magically make your performance positive but took the edge off as shown in the spread below. Charts like this foster a certain amount of reliance on bonds as a source of strength within a portfolio.

Now let’s look at this year so far, a year that among other things has turned into one about interest rates (kryptonite for bonds). We see bonds falling more or less in tandem with stocks and a lack of the positive spread shown in the chart above. There have been glimmers, but they haven’t held very long.

This performance tracks along with growing inflation fears and concerns about Fed interest rate policy and if/when it might trigger a recession. The Fed, as you’ll recall, briefly soothed investors in May and we see that in the orange line moving up that month. But then the Fed ripped off the Band-Aid recently with its largest single rate increase in decades to combat inflation at a 40yr high. Rate increases impact markets in a variety of ways but this time it’s sort of twisting the knife, so to speak, in the backs of investors who are merely trying to do as they’re supposed to by practicing the battle-tested approach of asset allocation. “Fairness” isn’t really something that fits within the context of stocks and bonds, but one shouldn’t be blamed for feeling a bit ill-treated by the markets this year.

Where to go from here? As I’ve mentioned before, at some point soon (hopefully) we’ll get to that point of ultimate capitulation and buyers will come back home to stay. In the meantime it’s all about ensuring your portfolio is structurally sound, rebalancing as needed, and harvesting losses as appropriate. Not much fun these days but critical in building and maintaining your portfolio for the duration.  

From Bespoke…

We are only halfway through June, but a 60/40 portfolio continues to get crushed by the combination of soaring bond yields and new equity bear market lows. Using mid-month data from June, a 60/40 portfolio is down nearly 18% in 2022. A similar asset allocation has started the year down over 6% twice previously, in 2002 and 2008. Nothing else comes close to the losses this year. Even looking at all six-month periods, the move since the end of last year is among the worst ever recorded. During 2008-2009, the utter collapse of stocks was a brutal hit to performance. But despite an enormous surge in credit spreads [this happens when investors sell risky bonds and buy safer Treasurys], bonds didn't drop very far or for very long. That's because Treasury yields plunged, driving gains from the risk-free component of the bond market. This time around, though, it's a very different story. While credit spreads have widened, far more important has been the huge surge in Treasury yields [investors sold Treasury bonds and caused yields to rise]. As a result, bonds have delivered -11.7% total returns this year, adding to - and arguably causing - the collapse in equity prices rather than offsetting the stock bear market.

We hope decision-makers (like the Fed) and pundits saying that we still need to see a "market flush" truly appreciate the wealth destruction seen so far this year. [Last week], Chair Powell thought financial conditions including equity performance were "appropriately" tightening, signaling he and other FOMC policymakers are satisfied with the pain in stock and bond markets. For the "average" person that only has a 401k retirement plan that's set to a 60/40 allocation, they're now not only dealing with 8%+ CPI and $5/gallon at the pump, but also the biggest shock to their retirement portfolios since the worst stretches of the Financial Crisis. Not even during the Dot Com Crash of the early 2000s did we see a six-month decline of this magnitude in 60/40 portfolios.

Of course, investor sentiment remains historically bearish after such large declines, and we definitely aren't hearing anything positive from market commentators that had been bullish leading up to the peak six months ago. In terms of historical analysis, most of our work shows that if you have longer than a one-year time horizon, now is the time to be putting money to work rather than raising cash. Remember, the goal is to buy low and sell high, not buy high and sell low! There's a reason the phrase "buy when there's blood in the streets" came into existence. Historically, it has worked. While there isn't an official "blood in the streets" indicator (maybe we'll make one!), we think the second-worst period for 60/40 in 50+ years at least comes close to qualifying.

Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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Perception Gap

There’s a perplexing dynamic playing out between how people feel about their own financial situation compared to how they see everyone else’s. This shows up in private conversation and in national surveys where people report feeling pretty darn good about their own finances while also reporting that the world around them seems to be falling apart a little more each day. Maybe these two things (positive me, negative you) can exist simultaneously but it’s hard to imagine them doing so at extremes for very long.

This appeared in two different places recently and I wanted to share some snippets with you. First, the Federal Reserve updated its annual Fall survey last month for 2021. They’ve been doing so since 2013. Second is a monthly survey conducted by my research partners at Bespoke Investment Group, in this case the data goes back to 2014.

The Fed’s survey found that Americans, at least on average, were doing quite well last Fall. Their personal financial well-being had improved from 2020 which, as the report suggests and makes intuitive sense, ties into the ongoing economic recovery from the pandemic and many months of government money flowing into lots of households. Accordingly, more Americans reported being able to pay cash to cover a relatively small, unexpected bill, whereas even pre-pandemic they would have needed to whip out their credit card.

But amid this positive, even rosy, assessment lurked the glaring and perplexing issue The Atlantic recently called the “everything is terrible but I’m fine” perception gap. The piece suggested that this could simply be part of human nature, that we’re wired to be “individually optimistic and socially pessimistic”. If that’s true I don’t pretend to know why. Maybe it’s obvious to you but the gap exists and, at extremes, can have real world implications for the economy and, by extension, the markets. This is especially true when negative sentiment gets overblown.

Here's a chart and a few sections from the Fed’s report and a link to the whole thing is below if you’d like to read more.

… Despite persistent concerns that people expressed about the national economy, the survey highlights the positive effects of the recovery on the individual financial circumstances of U.S. families.

In 2021, perceptions about the national economy declined slightly. Yet self-reported financial well-being increased to the highest rate since the survey began in 2013. The share of prime-age adults not working because they could not find work had returned to pre-pandemic levels. More adults were able to pay all their monthly bills in full than in either 2019 or 2020. Additionally, the share of adults who would cover a $400 emergency expense completely using cash or its equivalent increased, reaching a new high since the survey began in 2013…

… In the fourth quarter of 2021, the share of adults who were doing at least okay financially increased relative to 2020. With these improvements, overall financial well-being reached its highest level since the survey began in 2013.

Seventy-eight percent of adults were either doing okay or living comfortably financially, the highest share with this level of financial well-being since the survey began in 2013.

Forty-eight percent of adults rated their local economy as “good” or “excellent” in 2021. This share was up from 43 percent in 2020 but well below the 63 percent of adults who rated their local economy as “good” or “excellent” in 2019, before the pandemic…

The Fed survey was conducted last Fall before inflation flared up, before Russia invaded Ukraine, and before the stock and bond markets had one of their worst starts to a year ever. So if the survey was done now it might look something like Bespoke’s results below: declining personal confidence and the perception gap widening even faster.

From Bespoke…

Consumers are extremely negative on the US economy in general. As shown below, economic confidence is a full standard deviation below the previous record low for the data dating back to July of 2014. Typically, general economic confidence is consistent with confidence in consumers' personal finances and expected spending on discretionary items, but over the past year the disconnect has gotten truly enormous. While confidence in personal finances and expected spending are basically at average levels, economic confidence has continued to plunge.

The reason for the collapse in economic confidence is inflation. In the chart below, we show economic sentiment over time by category of inflation expectations. Consumers that expect deflation are by far the most optimistic about the economy, while those who expect manageable inflation (up 5% or less) are more negative. Consumers that expect high inflation over 5% have seen sentiment collapse deep into negative territory. The bottom line: the higher consumers expect inflation to get, the worse they feel about the economy.

Inflation concerns have caused extremely negative sentiment readings, and it's hard to imagine these readings getting too much worse as there's a floor in terms of how low they can go.  Therefore, barring a significant negative shift in the economy, this would suggest a higher likelihood of positive surprises (lower rate of inflation) than downside surprises at this point, and any cooling on the inflation front should result in a bounce-back for sentiment (and potentially the stock market).

Here’s a link to the Fed’s paper.


And here’s a link to the opinion piece from The Atlantic on this issue.


Bespoke Investment Group is a subscription-based service, but you can follow them on the socials for free.


Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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Good News?

The rough patch for stocks deepened last week with the S&P 500 posting its seventh weekly loss in a row and almost touching bear market territory (a 20% loss from a recent high). Parts of the index, such as Consumer Discretionary and Technology sectors, are already there. In fact, the only two positive sectors so far this year through last Friday are Utilities and Energy, up about 1% and almost 49%, respectively. Otherwise, the next best (or least bad, depending on your mood) sectors are still down around 8% this year.

During times like these we often have to sift through the rubble to find silver linings. Here are a random few as I write on this Tuesday morning.

Major indexes like the S&P 500 eked out a positive close last Friday, even though they were down for the week. Stocks had opened higher Friday morning and, as has often been the case lately, promptly fell and seemed set to close on a dismal note. But then prices reversed higher in the last hour, even the last 15 minutes, of the trading day. This phenomenon has been around for a while and tends to be when the so-called smart money shows up.

Here's what this looked like on Friday. The smart money can go either way, but this sort of last-minute buying is positive. We got confirmation yesterday when futures were higher before the morning bell and the big indexes stayed higher for the whole session – a real anomaly these days. Markets are set to open lower again this morning, but at least Friday shows there are willing buyers out there.

Retail investor sentiment has understandably gotten worse in recent weeks. How can that be a silver lining? Simply, extreme retail investor “bearishness” is a contrarian indicator. Fanning the flames, major financial news outlets are referring to current market volatility with terms like biblical, carnage, and even lost decade. Lost decade? There have been exceptionally few rolling ten-year periods when a well-diversified investor has lost money in the stock market. In fact, to go negative you’d have to end your 10yr period in the middle of the Great Depression or the Great Financial Crisis, according to Crestmont Research. There will always be those peddling doom and gloom, and the rising volume of their hyperbole is probably a contrarian indicator too.

This economic indicator heatmap from JPMorgan contains lots of small type, but just look at the color difference from 2020 on the left to this year on the right – from red to green, poor to positive. The outlook is mixed and there are various opinions about a recession in the offing. “Recession” is defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research as a significant and widespread decline in economic activity lasting more than a few months, and its beginning and ending dates are only determined afterwards. Activity usually peaks heading into a recession and maybe that’s where we are now. But whatever comes next, our economy is still humming along even amid myriad issues.

The bond market seems to have found it’s footing after falling, sometimes in lockstep, with stocks for much of this year. Bond performance has been a gut punch for more conservative investors who rely on bonds for cash flow but also for stability within their portfolios. The following chart shows the last ten days for stocks, the black line, and bonds, the blue line. High quality bonds should perform like this when stocks are challenged, so the last couple of weeks or so is a return to normalcy. Let’s hope it lasts.

Also, bond investors are reassessing their fears of runaway inflation. There are many ways to gauge inflation expectations, and one way common in financial markets is to look at so-called breakevens in the Treasury Inflation-Protected securities, or TIPs, markets. These breakevens are trying to price the future direction of the Consumer Price Index and suggest lessening inflation pressure across the 2yr, 5yr, and 10yr timeframes. The chart below from Bespoke Investment Group shows this clearly, especially for CPI in the short-term. Maybe inflation ends up waning because we’ve entered a recession, or maybe it dies down for a host of other reasons. Either way, slowing inflation would be welcome by just about everybody.

Here's a link to the page about 10yr rolling periods. This isn’t a guarantee, just a historical perspective on the importance of thinking like a long-term investor – it’s a marathon, even an ultramarathon, and not a sprint. Sprinting would be like buying NFTs just because your favorite boxer gets paid to “influence” you to do so. Don’t let that be you.


And here’s a link to the heatmap above so you can see the details more clearly.


Have questions? Ask me. I can help.

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