Why Do You Invest?

Nick Maggiulli at Of Dollars And Data asks: why do you invest?

Really think about it. My gut response used to be, “to replace my future income,” as I’ve discussed here. However, this response was incomplete. I say incomplete because it seemed too cold and mathematical. It was not based on my personal values. Investing without considering your values is like having the fastest boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no set destination — no matter how fast you go, you will always feel lost. Chasing riches without knowing why you truly want them is a surefire path to lifelong misery.

You might be skeptical, but think of the countless investors who have lost their fortunes, their families, and their freedom pursuing money without purpose. Don’t get me wrong, some of these individuals may have valued the idea of having the most money, but I would guess that they are actually trying to fill a deeper psychological need (i.e. being respected intellectually) instead.

Read the whole thing. This is a foundational issue and will have a dramatic impact on how you view the markets and various investment strategies. I spend a ton of time (arguably too much time) thinking about this.

Why I Invest

#1 – To attain financial independence. Financial independence is a tricky thing to define. For some people that is hanging out and playing a lot of golf. For me, financial independence boils down to “F*** You Money.” That is, having the flexibility to choose when, how and for how much money I am willing to work. I live a pretty minimalist lifestyle and am not located in a high cost of living part of the country. Based on my current budget I think I could live off $36,000/year without substantially compromising my lifestyle. Throw in a couple kids and maybe that moves up somewhat. So I view attaining financial independence as a reasonable goal.

#2 – I love the game. That is, I love investing as a purist. I love doing research, and combining that research with strategy and tactics based on what is going on in the markets. I love that the risk/reward tradeoffs in the markets are always shifting, and that the game is always changing. To me, investing is basically the greatest strategy game ever devised.

Reason #2 is why I write this blog. Reason #2 is also why much of what I write here pokes fun at the investment management business and the financial advice complex.

What passes for “investing” in those contexts is often really just an exercise in “getting market exposure.” If all you are really doing at the end of the day is getting market exposure, you should make sure you are doing it in a cost effective and tax efficient manner. From there you are welcome to run in endless circles debating whether this one particular guy happened to be lucky or skilled in beating the market over a particular trailing 15-year period.

Hence why I find the active versus passive debate so tedious. As my career progresses and my values come into focus I am less and less interested in that discussion. Ultimately, if you are providing financial advice, the “best” thing to do mostly comes down to the specific client you are working with, and that client’s goals and values.

If I know someone’s goals and values, it is easy to go to my investing toolbox and say:

“Well, you are a 22-year old with no debt who inherited $10,000, and you have no particular interest in investing other than ‘putting the money to work’ in an abstract sense, and you are modestly concerned about the price going down ‘a lot.’ Given the circumstances something cheap and simple fits the bill. Here is [an index fund or a low cost, diversified active fund]. Let’s touch base again in a year to see if your circumstances have changed. Life comes at you fast in your 20s.”

Or, conversely:

“Oh, so you are very high net worth, former C-Level executive, and would like to earmark 20% of your portfolio to generate extraordinary capital appreciation. You are hyper-aggressive as an investor and your net worth is such that you’re not going to destroy your legacy if some of this stuff blows up. By the way, it can ALWAYS blow up. There are no guarantees in this world. And going this route will incur higher management and due diligence costs. All that said, to have a snowball’s chance in hell of generating that level of capital appreciation we need to look at private equity, single manager hedge fund investments, maybe a very highly concentrated portfolio of individual stocks.”

Why It Matters

Where you run into real problems is when you build a portfolio out of sync with your values. What happens is that you start doing stupid things as you attempt to “tweak” things to your liking. If you are an advisor and you have a client in the wrong portfolio, the client will eventually fire you. The CFA Level III Curriculum actually teaches a couple of mental models for dealing with this issue.

The first model involves classifying investors into Behavioral Investor Types. There are four main types. Obviously most people share some characteristics of different types but I bet if you are honest with yourself you can sort yourself into one of the four:

Passive Preservers: These are individuals who accumulated wealth primarily through diligent saving, and not through risk taking. A significant portion of their overall net worth may be in the form of defined benefit pensions or social security. Passive Preservers are characterized by risk aversion and low levels of investing knowledge. My mom is a textbook Passive Preserver. The biggest risk for a Passive Preserver like my mom is that she will not take enough risk in her portfolio, and that inflation will erode her wealth in real terms over time.

Friendly Followers: Friendly Followers chase fads (and thus performance). They tend to buy high and sell low, and rationalize those decisions in hindsight. The main risk to a Friendly Follower is that he whipsaws his net worth into oblivion over time by constantly buying high and selling low. Friendly Followers often display acute Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

Independent Individualists: If you are reading this blog, I suspect you are an independent individualist (or at least have that streak running through you). Great! We share the same behavioral investor type. I hardly need to tell you that for us, making up our own minds is paramount. If someone tries to force feed us instructions, we will push back. Our greatest asset as investors is our predisposition toward contrarian thinking. However, as a fellow Independent Individualist I will tell you our greatest weakness is confirmation bias. Once we make up our minds, we tend to seek out information confirming our views and spend less time and energy considering evidence that may contradict them. This can lead us to overlook or downplay certain risks.

Active Accumulators: Active Accumulators have generated significant wealth via risk taking. These individuals tend to be entrepreneurs, business owners and senior executives. They are extremely aggressive and confident investors (their confidence is rooted in their past business successes). Active Accumulators tend to take too much risk, in too concentrated fashion. They also tend to discount the impact of randomness on investment outcomes. The biggest risk for an Active Accumulator is that he (yes, they tend to be men) blows up his portfolio with a concentrated bet. On the flipside, their risk tolerance can also allow them to win big when they are right.

Now when you think about these types, you can probably get an idea of who is more suited to passive investing versus active. The CFA Institute material has a nice diagram that ties it all together:

CFA_Behavioral_Types
Source: CFA Institute

The trick is to tailor your investment program to your behavioral type. Now, on occasion you will have a situation where someone’s biased preferences cause him to do things that put his standard of living at significant risk. In that situation you have to evaluate the level of risk to decide whether to attempt to moderate the behavioral bias or simply adapt the portfolio to the bias. Which leads to the second model:

CFA_Modify_vs_Adapt
Source: CFA Institute; SLR stands for Standard of Living Risk

The more emotionally driven your behavior, and the lower your standard of living risk, the more flexibility you have to adapt the investment strategy to your behavioral type.

Of course, understanding your values and behavioral type also helps in the selection of a financial advisor if you go that route. Different behavioral types need different things out of an advisor:

Passive Preservers need a counselor.

Friendly Followers need a teacher.

Independent Individualists need a sounding board and/or devil’s advocate.

Active Accumulators need a sparring partner and/or punching bag.

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