A while back, I talked about an oddity in my own portfolio. But I have a confession: That wasn’t the only one. In the interest of transparency—and because it may be instructive—I’ll share five more such oddities, and the thinking behind them:
- While I firmly believe that low-cost index funds are the best way to build wealth—and believe that stock-picking is a fool’s errand—I own about a dozen individual stocks.
- While I firmly believe that diversification is critical, one of these stocks accounts for more than 10% of my portfolio.
- While I believe in the potential for value stocks to outperform—and reiterated that view just a week ago—I don’t have an overweight to value myself.
- While I despise hybrid stock-bond funds and regularly caution against them, I actually own one of them myself.
- While I advise against private investment partnerships—because of the high fees and uneven quality—I have participated in a handful of such partnerships.
How do I explain these inconsistencies? Do I not believe in my own advice? Am I knowingly violating key investment principles because I think I know better—like investment manager Cliff Asness, who once advised investors to “sin a little”? No, I wholeheartedly believe in the investment principles I advocate, and I’m not trying to outsmart them. Here’s how I think about these seeming inconsistencies:
1. Yes, I have a collection of individual stocks, but that paints a misleading picture. The overwhelming majority of my investments are allocated to a simple portfolio of index funds, in an allocation designed to weather the stock market’s ups and downs. That, in my opinion, is the most important thing. No portfolio is entirely free of oddities—and even warts. But if you have the big picture right, I think that’s the most important thing.
2. All but one of the individual stocks in my portfolio represent tiny percentages. Many are just 0.1%. So why bother with them at all? The truth is that these are all vestiges of the time when I worked as an equity analyst—that is, a stock-picker. I still keep these stocks because they provide a constant reminder of the counter-intuitive reality of stock-picking. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the rewards when you pick a winner can dwarf the returns of a humble index. Especially in recent years, it hasn’t been hard to pick winners. Companies like Apple and Amazon aren’t exactly secrets, and their stocks have done phenomenally well. But that’s just one side of the stock-picking coin. Here’s the other: What the data show, time after time, is that it’s incredibly difficult to build an entire portfolio of market-beating stocks. When I look at my own portfolio, I see this in living color. I can pat myself on the back for buying Netflix years ago. But I can’t escape seeing GE alongside it. And I can’t escape the memory of A123 Systems, an electric car battery maker that went to zero. If I had allocated my A123 investment to Tesla instead, it probably would have put my kids through college. The bottom line: There’s no experience like your own experience. Maybe I pay a small price for keeping this motley collection of stocks, but they’ve more than paid for themselves because of the bigger role they play.
3. If you own any of the so-called FAANG stocks—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google—that’s great, but it may have also left you in a tricky spot. When a stock has delivered outsized returns, it can leave an investor with two less-than-ideal choices: live with the risk carried by an outsized position, or pay a capital gains tax to reduce it. The challenge, of course, is that, looking forward, you never know whether a big bet is going to help or hurt. If you did, then there wouldn’t be any question whether to hold or to sell it. That’s the situation I’m in with one of those FAANG stocks, and that explains the single holding I mentioned. Since I don’t have a crystal ball, I’ve just adopted a split-the-difference approach with it, selling some, donating some and holding some. The lesson: In managing your portfolio, there will inevitably be challenges and imperfections. Don’t worry too much about these things. As noted in #1 above, worry more about the big picture.
4. In my work as a financial planner, I try to be my own guinea pig as much as possible. That explains the stock-bond fund that I despise so much. I thought it would be a great all-in-one solution, but I have since discovered its many drawbacks. Unfortunately, I bought it during the last recession at a low price, so there would be a tax bite if I sold it now. There is a silver lining, though: Like the individual stocks, it’s a reminder of what not to do. That’s a small price to pay if I can use this experience to help others avoid the same pitfall.
5. Real estate is a challenging asset class. Almost without exception, my own portfolio, and that of my clients’, is invested in stocks and bonds (and cash). But that leaves a big hole: real estate. Many investment advisors use real estate investment trusts (REITs) to fill this hole, but I’ve never found this a satisfying solution. The returns of publicly-traded REITs aren’t much to write home about, and non-traded REITs are something the SEC has written about. This explains the investment partnerships I’ve tried out. They’re all in real estate. The results? They’ve been pretty good, even after the high fees, but it’s been very uneven. One project, for example, owns the land under a supermarket. That’s delivered steady but unexceptional returns. Another built apartments in an up-and-coming area, and that provided a quick, positive return. But offsetting that gain is another project that’s been mired for years in a zoning battle and may be a total loss. I still don’t recommend private funds of any kind, including real estate, private equity or hedge funds. I just don’t think that, on average, they’re worth the fees, the opacity and the risk. But if you do go down this road, my observation is that diversification, which is always important, is even more important in this realm.
6. English philosopher Carveth Read said, “It’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.” If you ask why I recommend an overweight to value stocks but haven’t implemented it myself, this is the reason. When building a portfolio, there are some things that are important, and some things that are really important. In my view, asset allocation and diversification are most important. I work hard to get those right, and that’s where I focus most of my time. Meanwhile, a tilt toward value is more like the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. Yes, I should add it, and I know I’m giving something up because I haven’t done it yet. But in the end, this helps illustrate a reality for all of us as we manage our financial lives: No question, it’s good to have a true north in terms of investment principles. But if you veer a little to the left or a little to the right, it doesn’t make you a sinner; it just makes you human.