It’s Not My Job

July 19, 2007 by  


By Bob Wood, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

That familiar workplace comment, “It’s not my job,” has always really aggravated me. It seems to me that whatever someone is asked to do must not be too far removed from some part of his/her job description. But the comment also tends to labels its speaker as a short-term thinker, who, eventually, finds nothing at his employer’s company that is “his job”any longer. But my thinking about job responsibilities in the workplace does not carry over to investors, for some things do not belong in their job description. My observations suggest, however, that many investors miss this important point.

Actually, an investor’s job is a pretty simple one, since he has one and only one true objective. This objective will not change any time soon, since it has remained true for as long as investing has been activity pursued by those with excess funds to commit to risky ventures– like the stock market.

An investor has but one goal to achieve, and anything else is pure distraction. But judging by investor performance over the past few decades, far too many of them have ignored what has always been this most important caveat.

The only true objective for investors is: to do everything they can to achieve their financial goals with the highest degree of certainty possible. And, to me, that means taking as little risk as possible. But how many investors do exactly the opposite? How many equate high risk taking with high returns and eventual success?

No doubt most of you have heard the old stock market adage about high risk takers: ‘’There are old traders, and there are bold traders. But there are no old, bold traders.’’ I would venture to guess that neither are there very many old, bold stock market investors. My favorite question is: how many do you know?

My firm contention is that, over time, conservative investors fare much better than aggressive investors. Large, sudden losses, as we saw during the bear market cycle from 2000 to 2002, have a way of wiping out previous profits, especially in the riskiest stocks. Isn’t it too bad that so many high risk stocks were among the most popular with investors, both individual and professional investors alike?

Were you among those who invested in technology stocks like Cisco, Amazon.com or JDS Uniphase in the late 1990s? Do you remember deriding your friends who opted for less aggressive “value” selections, perhaps in the mold of Warren Buffett, among others?

For too many investors, “get rich quick” is the main objective. And you see the same thinking today — even among professionals like hedge fund and mutual fund managers. The pressure to produce high returns within a short term, for fear of losing clients and their funds, causes too many professionals to take stupid risks.

Perhaps you have heard the term ‘’window dressing’’ used in reference to how mutual fund managers load up on the best performing stocks just prior to the end of the quarter. This action creates the illusion that the fund manager had held those winners for the full quarter and was obviously a “winning stock picker.” Some investors may excuse this tactic, appreciating that, while the fund manager may have just bought those hot stock shares, at least they owned them now. And better late than never!

Maybe too many mutual and hedge fund managers simply try to meet the desires and expectations of their customers! If short-term gains get attention and create interest in their funds, is that bad? If doing so requires massive turnover in their portfolios, with the resulting hits caused by high trading costs and too many realized profits taxed at the highest rates, well, that’s the cost of winning!

But now, with the housing market taking a real beating in what were the country’s hottest markets, stories abound about hedge funds that are “blowing up” due to the use of highly aggressive strategies to produce those short-term gains. Isn’t it odd that hedge funds specializing in bond investments have been devastated? How could a manager do so much damage investing in relatively stable assets like mortgage bonds?

Remember the Long-Term Capital management debacle in 1998? At that time, we saw a group of investors who enjoyed the stellar reputations that only Nobel Prize winners in Economics could. But their complicated investment models encouraged them to use massive amounts of leverage, which, again, took a rather conservative strategy and made it too risky even for the best and brightest to manage.

Meanwhile, old-fashioned individual investors, plodding along in boring investments like utilities, mid-cap value and even balanced mutual funds, fared much better. For investors, something can be gained from simplicity. If your portfolio requires frequent changing of your holdings or if it takes esoteric or arcane terminology to explain it, it’s probably managed with a strategy that works better for the seller than for the buyer.

Simply put, it’s not your job as an investor to devise complex strategies or methods. It’s not your job to beat your fellow investors’ performance numbers each quarter, either. And it’s not your job to beat the market consistently, using a benchmark like the S&P 500.

Your job description is simple. All you need to worry about is growing your savings faster than the cost of living is rising. You should only concern yourself with having enough money at retirement to replace your current paychecks.

I wonder how many investors in the recent past wish that they had pursued simpler investing strategies that focused on the return of their money rather than returns on their money. Savings, after all, is that vital pot of money, which you will someday rely upon.

But as I look at my television screen, I see on CNBC a feature called ‘’Trade on This.’’ And each morning, viewers get the trading “hype” as they watch the market’s opening bell signal for ‘’the start of trading.’’ Odd that they do this when a respected investor like Buffett says often that he’s never met a rich “trader.”

Yes, we’d all like to get rich quickly. Maybe it’s only human nature. But how often does it happen? How many who get close to that achievement are able to preserve their gains over the long term? How many wish earnestly for another chance to do it again, thinking that the next time they’d play safer and stay away from high risk moves?

I’m sure there are many who got caught up in the “hype” and fast times in the markets and forgot what their real objective was. The only thing that really matters is saving as much as we can each year and letting our savings grow over time — so it will be there when we need it.

If our domestic inflation was really as ‘’benign, calm and controlled’’ as our government leaders assert, making steady, single-digit gains of 5% to 8% yearly would accomplish our goals without much risk taking at all. But with inflation raging, as I believe it really is now, higher gains are worth pursuing. That can be done easily by including in your portfolio some asset classes, in moderation of course, that show inflationary price rises, to counteract inflation in the cost of living.

And to me, that involves allocating money to energy, precious metals and commodities. It can be done cautiously, without the need for manic trading and leverage, or what is called margin debt.

Getting to the finish line with enough money for retirement is much simpler than most think. It’s purely a function of how much you save, rather than how much you make through investing. And saving IS your job! Living below your means and saving every nickel you can is the most important part of your most basic job description. Over the years, you will have plenty of opportunities to boost your returns significantly enough to matter.

But chasing performance with frequent trading is not on your list of job duties. And taking more risk than is truly necessary will keep you working much longer than you had planned!

Have a great week.

Bob

Bob Wood ChFC, CLU Yusuf Kadiwala. Registered Investment Advisors, KMA, Inc., invest@muslimobserver.com.

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