If you’re one of the millions of people launching into the gift-buying spree this holiday season, then there’s a good chance you’re inundated with numbers right now. From performance statistics and customer ratings to price points and discount percentages, smart shoppers are in a constant search for the best bang for the buck. Even if you’re not the type of impulse shopper that particularly enjoys the experience of browsing the aisles for just the right gift, experienced marketing professionals have learned that maximization of value is a powerful motivator that can pull even the strongest introverts into crowded stores against their better judgement. Why do you think they spend so much money on Black Friday ads touting record-breaking deals?
After a lifetime of this type of shopping conditioning, it’s no wonder that this same maximization mindset might bleed into other decisions as well. Like, for example, what asset allocation you might choose for your life savings. So the same highly intelligent shoppers often create very similar lists of investing options sorted by the most common performance metric available — average return. Just like how you might seek the best resolution for a new computer monitor or the highest customer rating for a new toy, you surely want the highest average return for your hard-earned savings. Right?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Contrary to your data-driven instincts, averages lie. So take a break from your holiday shopping, find a comfortable chair with your favorite drink, and let’s talk about how averages distort our thinking.
Whether you prefer jump scares, bloody zombies, or simply a cute dog in a ghost costume, Halloween is all about kicking back and having a little fun with fear. But while watching a good horror flick with a bag of candy may indeed be a good time, the adrenaline may not necessarily wear off so quickly if you’ve been watching the increasing volatility of the markets lately.
For anyone not paying attention to the news, the Mega Millions lottery in the United States just topped a billion dollars and is quickly rising even higher. You read that right — a Billion with a B. For the meager price of a $2 ticket, some lucky person will eventually break their way onto the list of the world’s wealthiest people. Talk about an impressive return on investment! Of course the odds of actually winning that money are beyond astronomical, and one in 300 million is a difficult number to even comprehend.
Generating accurate and intuitive charts to help you navigate the professional asset allocation landscape is pretty darned rewarding, and I take a lot of pride in contributing to everyday asset allocation discussions in my own data-driven way. I also spend a lot of time reading those same discussions online, as not only does it help inspire new ideas but it also helps me understand what drives people. Everyone’s motivations are different, and when you put your life savings on the line the stakes are also quite high so people tend to really tell you what they think.
While that variety of strong opinions makes the financial blogosphere particularly difficult to navigate for new investors, I personally find the abundance of different perspectives a fascinating design challenge. That’s because beyond simply crunching numbers like a good engineer, I’m also a designer at heart and love solving complex problems and bringing new ideas to the table. The Golden Butterfly is one such example, but I don’t believe there’s one perfect way to invest and my problem-solving circuits are always scanning for new ideas to help people find an asset allocation that resonates. So in that spirit, today I want to talk about a new portfolio idea that based on all I’ve read I think a lot of people may find helpful.
I always appreciate it when people take the time to write to offer their feedback on Portfolio Charts. The thanks keep me going through the occasional drudgery, the corrections keep me honest, and the suggestions keep the entire exercise fresh and relevant. The combination of all that feedback with my constant creative processing makes the site a personal passion of mine that I hope you enjoy reading and using just as much as I do writing and creating. I’ve long felt like I owe you all a reward of some sort for your great ideas, and today I’m here to deliver.
Since I started Portfolio Charts several years ago, by far the most common request I’ve received is the ability to enter data in one place and have it carry over into each calculator. I just want you to know that I listened. While it took a long time to try lots of different ideas and fail plenty of times along the way, you asked the right guy with the right mix of creativity and pure stubbornness to power through the problem. So while you may notice lots of things have changed on the site recently, let’s cut to the chase and get to the really cool part — the My Portfolio tool.
Designers who work in new product development tend to think a little differently than others. The truly innovative ones have no professional fear. In fact, there’s a common saying in the industry that one should “fail early and often” and rapid iteration where you improve things in stages is generally prized over slowly working out the perfect product up-front. Machines like 3D printers are some of the most indispensable tools in the industry today to help develop ideas, and for every finished product you see on a store shelf there are probably hundreds of printed prototypes sitting on an engineer’s desk somewhere. That may sound wasteful on the surface, but every single prototype represents a new idea or a lesson learned that ultimately led to the final product you know and love.
Today is one of those days when you’ll notice that product design mindset in my own work here, as I just overhauled every single calculator on the site. Even though I released another major update not too long ago, I learned a lot (both good and bad) from that version and was inspired to improve the experience even more. There’s a lot going on, so let’s get down to business and talk about the changes.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to financial news this week, you’ve probably heard about the large 19% drop that Facebook experienced on Thursday. Facebook is the fourth largest company in the US by market cap — behind only Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon — and the total loss amounts to a staggering $120 billion wiped out. That’s easily the largest single day loss by one company in recent stock market history, and if you’re personally holding a lot of Facebook stock you’re probably not a happy camper.
But let’s say you’re more the index investor type than the individual stock picker. Should you be worried?
Every once in a while life takes the opportunity to throw you a curveball and dump some good financial fortune in your lap. Whether it’s a bonus at work, a family inheritance, or a lucky night in Vegas, an influx of cash is generally a welcome sight. But because of the rarity of these life events, most people are usually caught a bit off guard and are unprepared for what to do next. Set aside for a moment the fantasies we all have about crazy things we might do if we won the mega lottery — what exactly is one supposed to responsibly do with a financial windfall?
You’ve probably seen me mention a few times that I’m always on the lookout for good data. Usually that means an occasional few extra years of a certain asset or perhaps a nice alternative source, and I do my best to accumulate the trickle of new information as it comes in. Well the stars must have aligned somehow as recently I was inundated with a waterfall of data from several new sources. It took a little while to figure out how to handle so much information, but today I’m happy to announce one of the largest updates ever to the site and fellow fans of good portfolio data are in for a real treat.
Yale University recently released their 2017 annual report for the Yale Endowment, and while normally this would pass without much notice they appear to have made a few waves by continuing an ongoing feud with Warren Buffett. In his 2016 investor letter, Buffett criticized how university endowments pursue market-beating returns through active management and suggested they might be better off investing in index funds instead. Of course the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway follows none of that advice himself, but he has consistently said that most investors including his own wife would be better off with a low-fee S&P500 index fund rather than paying expensive active managers so it’s certainly not out of character. In any case, Yale appears to have taken that a little personally and they dedicated an entire section in their annual report to dispute his claim and promote their own success.
To support their belief in active management, Yale provides data that proves their managers have exceeded stock market returns for the past two decades. For example, over the past 20 years they posted an average return of 12.1% versus 7.5% for the total US stock market which gives them confidence to say they “crush the returns produced by US stocks”. Ending with a flourish, they conclude that “not only has the model worked for the past two decades, it will work for decades to come.”
That’s bold. And it caused a bit of a tizzy in the financial blogosphere with several stories on the topic. So are they right?