Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Swine Flu, Bear Markets and Human Nature

The latest news on the swine flu virus is that perhaps – according to an unpublished study – getting an ordinary flu shot makes it 30% more likely you will contract swine flu. Canadians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they take the normal flu shot, they are more likely to get swine flu. If they don’t, they are more likely to get regular flu. What should we do?

Well, we’re Canadians, so we'll wait for some government official to tell us what to do.

But this dilemma illustrates an often forgotten aspect of our humanity: life contains risk. Getting the flu is an important risk. There are no 100% guarantees that we will escape the virus whether we get the shot or do not get the shot. It’s all about the odds.

As a financial philosopher and partner in an investment firm, I am often asked about financial risk. The stock market might go up or it might go down. If all my money is in stock market mutual funds, and the market goes up, I win! This is what happened during the 1990s. But if the stock market goes down, I lose! This is what happened in 2001 to 2003 and again in 2008. What should I do?

The pat answer from the investment industry is: invest in some stocks, but also hold a diverse portfolio of non-stock investments, like bonds, real estate or precious metals. But that’s not a real answer, is it? If you own $100,000 in stocks, it will go up or down with the stock market: if you happen to own real estate or bonds or gold, your stock mutual funds will still go up or down with the market. The investment industry’s pat answer does not address the basic truth that there is risk in investing in the stock market and we need to know how to handle that risk. What should we do when the market goes down?

Canadian investors are exposed to wealth risk in the same way that we are all exposed to health risk?

Health conscious Canadians are smarter than wealth conscious Canadians. They expect to take precaution and to do something to protect their health from a flu epidemic. Most Canadian investors are doing nothing to protect their wealth from the ravages of an economic pandemic. During the 2008 market melt-down, most financial advisors encouraged their clients to do nothing: to hang in there and not worry… The stock market would recover.

How would you feel if you got this kind of advice regarding the up coming flu season? “Don’t worry about the flu: if you get it you will recover. Just keep washing your hands and hoping you don’t catch it.”

In my investment book, Beyond the Bull, I point out that an important part of our human experience involves luck. When the experts believe there is a good chance we’ll have a swine flu outbreak, we see that as an increase in risk to our health. When they experts believe there is a good chance we’ll have a banking crisis or an economic melt down, we should see that as an increase in risk to our wealth. In both cases, a normal intelligent person would take precautions to protect themselves. Strangely, however, the investment industry doesn’t see it that way. The slogan “buy and hold for the long term” implies that there is no real risk in the stock market. It always goes up eventually. I suppose this is the same a saying that every flu pandemic will eventually end.

It’s about survival, isn’t it? Will we survive a flu pandemic? Will our investments survive an economic melt down? And, if it’s about survival, then it’s about protecting ourselves against reasonable risk. We hope to protect ourselves from the flu by using vaccinations. And a variety of government health experts are advising us on the vaccination process. But not a single government health agency is telling us “Don’t worry, be happy.”

What is it about the investment industry that makes professionals continually advise individual investors to do nothing – to hold onto our investments through thick and thin?

When I first entered the investment business in 1975, mutual funds guru John Templeton got it right. He used to say: “We shop the world for undervalued stocks. We hold them for three or four years and sell them when that value is recognized.” He wanted us to buy and hold Templeton Growth Fund in full knowledge that he would buy and sell stocks for us within the fund. Modern mutual funds do not talk about selling at all. They want us to buy and hold their mutual funds, and they want to buy and hold stocks within that fund. And they really do hold: how many mutual funds off loaded their stocks before the 2008 melt down? Mutual funds management has changed dramatically since 1975.

In my investment book, Beyond the Bull, I discuss the five keys to correct investing. One of those keys is to have a method of deciding when to buy and when to sell. Sir John Templeton used his value models to help him make this decision. Modern mutual funds managers seem to have methods for when to buy; but they seem weak in the area of when to sell. It seems like their business plans call for the market to go up all the time. And if the market goes down, their mutual funds go down too.

Modern wealth management is a bit like modern health management. Will we take that shot to protect ourselves from the flu? Will we sell our risky investments to protect ourselves from economic weakness? It’s up to us to decide when to protect ourselves.

Ken Norquay, CMT
CastleMoore Inc

Links to Beyond the Bull



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