Just before my life was upended on Saturday morning, I had finished our firm's quarterly client letter, and it began like this:
400 years ago, as the “enlightened” French were washing ashore in Canada, Father Pierre Biard was assigned to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq tribe in Nova Scotia. We’re all taught what the Europeans thought of the character of these inhabitants (i.e. savages), but what did the Mi’kmaq think of the character of their invaders? David Graeber and David Wengrow recorded Biard’s comments in their book, The Dawn of Everything: [The Mi’kmaq] consider themselves better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.” What seemed to irritate Biard the most was the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, ‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort, and time.
As we get older, we grow more aware of our vital ratios related to these greater assets:
Ease of life / Potential ease of life
Comfort of each day / Potential comfort of each day
Time spent on earth / Time left on earth
And any hustle in simply wanting more dollars, commas, and zeroes inevitably begins to wane, even for people once obsessed with money. It has to wane. The time ratio grows more ruthless and sobering. There is a great sadness in people who delay accepting that the raw pursuit of more money, for the sake of more money, is not accompanied by increases in happiness.
Money is worthless without greater assets.
Investors should know that the Mi'kmaq description of these greater assets doesn't have to wait until retirement. I had mentioned that my life was upended. I'm out of work right now. I'll explain in a moment.
But it was upended during a period of notable market volatility, and the predatory marketing machine of financial services is in full spin. Investors are bombarded with messaging that they, the investor, are doing it wrong, about how they should be more strategic or defensive or tactical, and with information about investment "solutions" that they're missing out on.
Inflation protection. Downside protection. Interest rate protection. Yield enhancement.
The fact that inflation is already here, markets already down, interest rates already up, and yields already higher than they've been since 2008, doesn't matter. Downturns are Shark Week for product-pushing.
Instill FOMO. Sell fear. Get sales.
It's a predictable cycle with a long history of success. Because many people aren't at ease with their portfolio right now, aren't comfortable with the current market, and are spending time wondering if they should be taking a different approach.
Lack of ease. Lack of comfort. Lack of time.
And investors keep hearing this scary word recession. I'll borrow again from the client letter:
But…isn’t a recession coming? Maybe. This is a just a word that describes economic hardship. It can be formally declared by a roundtable of economists, but it’s unclear what impact it would have on investment portfolios. Market prices do not wait for economists. Investors are better off considering that the current downturn in prices is already a reflection that we might be heading toward difficult economic times, rather than the other way around. Markets should be expected to react to NEW information about the economy, not old information, nor a group of economists labeling something a recession. There is an equilibrium that gets set between information about the economy and asset prices, and it’s critical that investors not make the mistake to want to “sell stocks if we know the economy is getting worse” – but rather that we “accept that currently lower prices already reflect a worsening economy.” There is no action-item for investors. It would be more natural to worry if the economy worsened but your assets stayed the same price, or the economy was sanguine and asset prices were suddenly extremely volatile. What is happening now is precisely what we would expect in a well-functioning market.
If you or your advisor are reacting to the current market by changing your investment approach...then you're doing it wrong. Full stop.
There is a better way to invest that cooperates with the natural ups and downs of the market, rather than weaving through stop-and-go traffic.
In times like these, you'll often hear the phrase that markets hate uncertainty.
Here's a better one: investments hate people.
Don't be a nuisance to your own portfolio.
Focus on the basic blocking-and-tackling of evidence-based investing (low-cost, broadly diversified, transparent, tax-efficient, etc...), and get the hell out of the way.
As Nobel laureate Gene Fama says:
Your money is like a bar of soap. The more you handle it, the less you'll have.
What does that look like in practice? Marry an investment philosophy rather than casually dating a lineup of funds. They both lead to portfolios that you will inevitably hold during challenging markets, but the former instills discipline and confidence to stay the course, and the latter instills anxiety and hubris, and is vulnerable to the shiny toys marketed by the financial services industry.
Because while investments might hate people, product-pushers don't.
The goal is to design and implement a portfolio that embraces occasionally bad outcomes (like we've experienced the last two quarters) as not indicative of investor errors, and not requiring course redirection. Doing the best you can (now) with the information you have (now).
If you can get there, you will find a lot more ease with your approach, comfort with unpredictable returns, and free time to spend on more important things than stewing about the market.
This discipline not only prepares investors for successful retirements, but makes the journey getting there so much more tolerable.
The Mi'kmaq description of greater assets – that is real wealth. To be truly enlightened to life's real abundances.
Properly stewarding your money is a helpful tool toward this enlightenment, but money itself is not enlightenment.
My life was upended in a great way on Saturday morning, and I'm now on paternity leave.
I'm told it will be expensive, but I've never been richer.
Olive Rae Miller Ely
July 9, 2022