Preparing for the Inevitable Bursting Bubble
By RON LIEBER
Published: February 26, 2010
Financial bubbles are a way of life now. They can upend your industry, send your portfolio into spasms and leave you with whiplash. And then, once you’ve recovered, the next one will hit.
How are you preparing for the next bubble?
Or so you might think, as a veteran of two gut-wrenching market declines and a housing bubble over the last decade.
There’s plenty of reason to expect more surprises, given the number of hedge funds moving large amounts of money quickly around the world and the big banks making their own trades.
Individuals, as always, may be tempted to make their own financial bets, too. Last time, they bought overpriced homes with too much borrowed money. Next time, who knows what the bubble will be? And that’s the problem, as it always is. How do you identify the next thing that will pop? Is it China? Or Greece? Or Treasury bonds? It is difficult to predict and make the right defensive (or offensive) moves at the correct moment to save or make money.
Still, if you want to better insulate yourself from bubbles — however often they may inflate — there are plenty of things you can do. Your debt levels matter, and you may want to consider a more flexible investment strategy. But perhaps most important, this is a mental exercise that begins and ends with an honest assessment of your long-term goals and how you handle the emotional jolts that come from the bubbles that burst along the way.
FIXED EXPENSES Start with the basics. The less you have to pay toward monthly obligations, the better off you are, and that’s especially true at a time of economic disruption. You certainly wouldn’t want any bills increasing, so now’s a good time to refinance to a fixed-rate mortgage.
Whittle down student loan and credit card debt, too, and pay cash for your car if possible. “Flexibility is priceless in a time of panic,” said Lucas Hail, a financial planner with Foster & Motley in Cincinnati.
SELF-RELIANCE Then take a hard look at how much you should rely on promises from the government. Social Security and Medicare may not fit the traditional definition of bubbles, but that hasn’t stopped Rick Brooks from advising his financial planning clients to expect less from both programs. “Something that is not sustainable will not continue. It just can’t,” he said of Medicare.
Mr. Brooks, the vice president for investment management with Blankinship & Foster in Solana Beach, Calif., said anyone under 50 should assume that Medicare will look nothing like it does now and examine private health insurance premiums for guidance as to what may need to be spent on health care in retirement. Meanwhile, the firm advises current retirees to assume a 20 percent cut in Social Security benefits at some point.
Bedda D’Angelo, president of Fiduciary Solutions in Durham, N.C., has an equally stark outlook on long-term employment risk. If there are two adults in the household, your goal should probably be to have two incomes instead of one. “I do believe that unemployment is inevitable,” she said, adding that people who think they are going to retire at 65 should save for retirement as if they will be forced out of the work force in their mid-50s.
PORTFOLIO TACTICS Perhaps you did what you thought you were supposed to during the last decade. You got religion and stopped trading stocks. Then, you split your assets among various low-cost mutual funds and added money regularly. And the results weren’t quite what you hoped.
Tempted to make big bets on emerging markets or short Treasury bills? You’ve landed in the middle of the debate between those who favor a more passive asset allocation and those who prefer something called tactical allocation.
The first camp sets up a practical mix of investments, according to a target level of risk, and then readjusts back to that mix every year or so.
They frown on the hubris of the tactical practitioners. To make a tactical approach work, they note, you need to know what the right signals will be to buy and sell everything from stocks to gold, during every future market cycle. Then, these tacticians need to have the discipline to act each and every time. This is extraordinarily hard.
The tacticians, however, believe they have no choice. “What consumers need to know is that no matter how comforting it is to believe a formulaic approach or prepackaged investment product will allow them to put their financial future on autopilot, our current and future financial environment will require advice, diligence, education and responsiveness, which takes into account strategic consideration of geopolitical and economic relationships,” as Ryan Darwish, a financial planner in Eugene, Ore., put it to me this week.
Mr. Darwish scoffed at the notion of mere bubbles and said he thought that more fundamental and far-reaching shifts were under way, like the transfer of economic power from the United States to China and other nations.
A growing number of financial planners are embracing a middle, more measured approach: If diversification across stocks, bonds and other asset classes has proved to be a good thing in most investing environments, why not diversification around investment approaches?
“I am not a financial genius, but the geniuses are even worse off because they’re anchored on one philosophy,” said David O’Brien, a financial planner in Midlothian, Va. So he and a growing number of his peers have added some strategies to their baseline portfolios aimed at losing less during bubbles while still gaining in better times. “We’re not trying to shoot for the moon,” he added.
These tactics can include managed futures, absolute return funds, merger arbitrage and other approaches that will get their own column someday.
The embrace of all this even led one investment professional I spoke with this week to express the ultimate sacrilege: It really is different this time.
Thomas C. Meyer of Meyer Capital Group in Marlton, N.J., noted that many of these alternative strategies were not even available in mutual-fund form three to four years ago. So that’s different. He’s now putting 30 percent of his clients’ equity portfolios into such investments.
The big change, however, is that the baby boomer money is getting older. People are further along in their careers than they were during the market crash in 1987, and they can’t rely on pensions as so many more near retirees could in the 1980s (while shrugging off stock market volatility). And the boomers don’t have as much time to make up lost ground, especially if they’re already retired.
“Losing less means a lot right now,” Mr. Meyer said. “So we want to suck volatility out where we can.”
MATTER OF THE MIND But can you live with less volatility — and the permanent end of occasional portfoliowide returns in the teens or higher? Markets run on greed and fear; bubbles expand and deflate thanks to outsize versions of each. One of the few things you can predict about bubbles is that they will test your conviction on where you sit along the fear-greed continuum.
And once they pop, you’ll know a bit more about how your mind works than you did before.
This last downturn was severe enough that about 10 percent of Steven A. Weydert’s clients realized that they had overestimated their own risk tolerance. “Ideally, with an asset allocation, you never want to look back and say you’re sorry,” said Mr. Weydert of Bowyer, Weydert Wealth Planning Partners in Park Ridge, Ill.
So rather than trying to predict the number and type of bubbles, it may make more sense to look inward when trying to predict the future. Bob Goldman, a financial planner in Sausalito, Calif., said that clients often looked at him blankly when he asked them what it was they imagined for themselves in the future. Sometimes, they need to go home and figure out what sort of life it is that they’re saving for — and how much (or little) it might cost.
“People come in and talk about how we all know that inflation is going to explode next year,” Mr. Goldman said. “Well, we don’t all know that. We don’t know anything. But we can know something about our own lives, and there is a person we can talk to about that. A person in the mirror.”