The Futility of Financial Planning

“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

Given the comeback bout scheduled for September, the cliche Mike Tyson quote is especially relevant today. And as it applies to financial planning, in particular. Imagine being his planner when he earned over $700 million boxing, then ended up declaring bankruptcy in 2003. Now Tyson runs a cannabis business said to earn $500,000 per month, and his return to the ring is not for the money (his paycheck will go to charity), but rather to satisfy some non-financial goal.

This is one of the conundrums of financial planning. No one can foresee what they will want or need to do with their time or money far in the future. Current events have further exposed this concept – who planned for 2020? However, human nature for most people would result in no savings at all without some sort of savings discipline, and far too little without some semblance of a plan.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George E.P. Box

Current planning software uses the George Box idea, and approaches the task from two angles: goals-based planning, or cash flow planning. Some combine the two. Goals based planning starts with the end in mind, and often uses bucketed strategies to get there. Cash flow planning starts from today’s budget and looks ahead. From the practitioners standpoint, there are reasons to use one or the other depending on the client:


  • Can be used with limited information about client spending and still adequately cover the essential planning topics.
  • Can be used for clients who are savers by nature.
  • Best for plans that are limited in scope.
  • Can be overly simplistic and may not adequately represent all the relevant factors (taxes, social security, medical costs, etc.)

Cash flow based:

  • Helpful for folks who are just starting out, to see the impact of their major life decisions
  • May help motivate spenders when they see how saving can make a difference in the future
  • Good for detail-oriented clients.
  • Can be overly burdensome to both initially develop and to maintain – the more detail that is included, the more that has to be updated going forward.

The other big difference between planning packages available today is the method of calculation available; the “engine” of the software. Most planning software estimates a likelihood or probability of plan success based on the savings and spending plan, some assigned asset allocation, and associated capital market assumptions.  Here are a few highlights of options available today:

  • The engine driving the calculation. Most software uses normally distributed Monte Carlo methods. Market returns are known not to match a normal distribution, but it’s the closest and simplest method of estimation. Right Capital uses a complex fat tails stochastic model that more closely matches actual market returns. GDX360 options include bootstrapping samples from actual historical returns. NaviPlan only includes the Monte Carlo calculation as an option – this software calculates outcomes using a CFP-style deterministic method, which gives a very different feel to the process than using a more probabilistic method.
  • The CMAs:  Capital Market Assumptions (includes returns, standard deviations, and correlations between assets). Most common are historical actual data. However, many planners and software providers feel that historical norms are overly optimistic today, and use CMAs that are derived in other ways.  CMAs for MoneyGuidePro are provided by Harold Evensky. CMAs for Orion Planning (Advizr) are from J.P. Morgan. Other software providers set up their own CMAs. Many allow advisors to enter custom CMAs. The importance of CMAs in planning cannot be overstated – these assumptions determine the outcome of the plan, and the planner must know where they came from and understand and agree with the underlying philosophy behind them.
  • The level of detail in the assumptions, inputs, and calculations. As mentioned above, some planning software includes incredible levels of detail on tax burdens, social security strategies, and medical expenses. This can have a positive impact on the client, with added confidence in the care and competence of the software and the professional. It may also add an unwarranted level of comfort – taxes, medical costs, and other assumptions modeled into the software will certainly change going forward, which will impact the plan.

Financial planning software is an important tool. It’s the obligation of the advisor to understand its underlying assumptions, how it works, and the strengths and weaknesses of the software package we select for our clients.

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Carl Sagan on Skepticism

From the Skeptical Enquirer:

I view skepticism as very much a part of critical thinking. This was written in 1987.  It’s called “The Burden of Skepticism,” which is a great title. A few excerpts:

If you were to drop down on Earth at any time during the tenure of humans you would find a set of popular, more or less similar, belief systems. They change, often very quickly, often on time scales of a few years: But sometimes belief systems of this sort last for many thousands of years. At least a few are always available. I think it’s fair to ask why. We are Homo sapiens. That’s the distinguishing characteristic about us, that sapiens part. We’re supposed to be smart. So why is this stuff always with us? Well, for one thing, a great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society. There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.

There may be more such failings in our society than in many others in human history. And so it is reasonable for people to poke around and try on for size various belief systems, to see if they help.

Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, let’s say high school students, the habit of being skeptical, perhaps they will not restrict their skepticism to aspirin commercials and 35,000-year-old channelers (or channelees). Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Then where will we be? Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in the schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media.

I want to say a little more about the burden of skepticism. You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. This is a potential social danger present in an organization like CSICOP. We have to guard carefully against it.

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, which ever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Propelling emotional predispositions on these issues are present, often unconsciously, in scientific debates. It is important to realize that scientific debates, just like pseudoscientific debates, can be awash with emotion, for these among many different reasons.

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From (

Here are a few selections from the 68 pieces of advice (emphasis mine):

• Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.

• Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.

• Don’t take it personally when someone turns you down. Assume they are like you: busy, occupied, distracted. Try again later. It’s amazing how often a second try works.

• The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth, to flossing.

• Promptness is a sign of respect.

• When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.

• Trust me: There is no “them”.

• If you are looking for something in your house, and you finally find it, when you’re done with it, don’t put it back where you found it. Put it back where you first looked for it.

• To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

• Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.

• You are what you do. Not what you say, not what you believe, not how you vote, but what you spend your time on.

• When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problems, no progress.

• On vacation go to the most remote place on your itinerary first, bypassing the cities. You’ll maximize the shock of otherness in the remote, and then later you’ll welcome the familiar comforts of a city on the way back.

• When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict.

• Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

• The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be much easier to do if you embrace this pronoia.

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Now What? Looking Into Uncertainty.

It’s a global pandemic, and as of this writing we have only glimmers of medical advancements. Business and social restrictions ease, but that does not imply a return to previous habits. Extreme unemployment levels will necessarily be reflected both in consumption and production. Governments are responding with unprecedented fiscal and monetary responses, and debt is rising. It’s an election year, and the political climate could charitably be described as contentious. We live in the Chinese curse of interesting times.

Investing requires that there will be future cash flows, and that there will be some value in the cash itself at the time of that income. As always, many future scenarios are possible, even likely, both short term and long term. What is an investor to do? Take a deep breath, and go back to the basics:

  1. Review current status and goals.
    • What is the planning time horizon? If it’s long enough, no adjustment may even be needed now, let alone panic.
    • What does the balance sheet look like today? Consider not only asset values, but values by asset class.
    • What is the outlook for income and expenses, if it is able to be assessed?
    • How have these items changed over the last few months?
  2. Check your assumptions.
    • What does the current investment policy suggest about your view of the world going forward?
    • Has the pandemic or political reactions to it changed your world view in any way?  Whether it has or not, investing is based on this assumption. If you believe that economies will grow, and that companies will make money and return it to bond holders and shareholders, then investing in financial assets makes sense.
    • Have tactical adjustments been undertaken? If so, a set of decision rules is implied. Be sure these are documented, along with the outcomes.
  3. Assess the possibilities.
    • Inflation:  The Fed has indicated that they will keep interest rates near zero for an indefinite period of time. This will be accomplished by purchasing treasuries and corporate bond ETFs. The money exchanged for these instruments will leave all capital markets awash in liquidity. Inflation will be determined by where that money goes – without an increase in velocity, prices for goods, services, and assets can remain low or even deflate. The Fed has attempted to hit target inflation for 12 years without much success. In recession, inflation seems less likely.
    • Growth: How bad will this be, and for how long? We can look to China and Europe, whose journey in the crisis started prior to ours, for clues to a path forward ( However, our economies differ in structure and makeup – our experience won’t match theirs exactly.
  4. Asset classes: This is where things get interesting.

As an investment manager and investor, I have to be an optimist.  Josh Brown’s classic column sums it up the best (, and Jared Dillian recently updated the idea through the lens of the pandemic (  Asset allocations may change, but investing in financial assets will remain.

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Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds

The Tax Cuts and Jobs act of December 2017 created a new type of capital gains exemption for investors in low-income areas.  Qualified opportunity zone funds (QOFs) have proliferated since that time, and are worth investigating and understanding.

In order to maximize the tax benefit, the investor begins by selling appreciated securities.  If invested into an qualified opportunity zone fund within 180 days, the capital gains tax on the realized gains will be deferred until 2026 (or as long as the investment in the QOF continues).  This date is important, because the capital gains tax is also reduced by 10% if the QOF investment is held for 5 years, or 15% over 7 years.  In order to hold the investment for 7 years, an investment into a QOF made from appreciated realized gains must take place by the end of 2019.

As implied above, another key to this tax reduction strategy is long term investment into the opportunity zone fund.  Taxes on the gains from the QOF are eliminated after 10 years.  The IRS has released several iterations of guidance on how these funds or companies must be set up and managed in order to meet the requirements for tax exemption.

For an investor considering a QOF investment, the taxes and holding period are far from the only considerations.  Most QOFs are real estate development projects, although they can also be other types of businesses.  Some funds include a single property or development, while others include a specific list of projects.  Blind pools are also available, meaning the sponsor will choose the properties or businesses and the investor does not know what they are at the time of investment.  Another important detail:  if the QOF is dissolved prior to the 10 year period, the tax benefit is lost.

QOFs are set up similarly to traditional real estate deals.  There are varying minimum investment requirements.  The sponsor will usually charge management fees ranging from 0.375% to 2% of fund assets per year.  There may be placement fees of 1-2% paid to brokers.  There is a preferred return set to be paid to all investors, often in the range of 5-8%.  The payouts for these funds are lower than those seen in traditional real estate, probably due to the tax benefit.  QOFs also include “promote,” which is similar to carried interest.  Once the preferred return is paid, the sponsor will retain the promote, often 20-30%, of any additional profits.  In this way, QOFs are similar to hedge funds or private equity, but with a very long (10 year) lockup period and the attractive tax exemption.

Obviously, the due diligence requirements for these funds are substantial:

  • What is the fund investing in?  Is it possible to evaluate those properties or businesses?
  • Who is the sponsor?  Do they have the proper capabilities?  Will they be an ongoing concern in 10 years?
  • Has the sponsor invested in the QOF?   As Taleb would say, “skin in the game.”
  • What assurances does the investor have that the QOF will, in fact, meet the IRS requirements?  It would be an unpleasant surprise to get to the end of 10 years and find out that the exemption is disqualified.
  • Can the investor afford the 10-year lockup period?
  • What are all the fees and costs associated with the QOF?

The benefits of these qualified opportunity zone funds accrue not only to the investors, through tax benefits, but also to the low-income communities that are targeted, through additional infusions of investment.  The idea here seems to be a win-win.  However, investment professionals looking with a more cynical eye may see a 10 year lockup and an investment structure created by a real estate developer.  Regardless of your view on the concept, this is definitely a case for “buyer beware.”





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Stay in the Game

Just read this.

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Market Timing

As of this writing, August 2019, the US and global equity markets have made substantial gains and hit all-time highs year-to-date.  However, the yield curve inversion earlier this year and other leading indicators are flashing warning signals of possible recession within the next few months to a year.  Based on these indicators, the Fed recently cut rates. We know that recessions are always accompanied by equity drawdowns. Is now the time to sell?

Let’s look at some data.  After making new all-time highs, do markets tend to revert to the mean or continue to grow?  From Dimensional:

Average Annualized Returns After New Market Highs
S&P 500, January 1926–December 2018


In US dollars. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. New market highs are defined as months ending with the market above all previous levels for the sample period. Annualized compound returns are computed for the relevant time periods subsequent to new market highs and averaged across all new market high observations. There were 1,115 observation months in the sample. January 1990–present: S&P 500 Total Returns Index. S&P data © 2019 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. All rights reserved. January 1926–December 1989; S&P 500 Total Return Index, Stocks, Bonds, Bills and Inflation Yearbook™, Ibbotson Associates, Chicago. For illustrative purposes only. Index is not available for direct investment; therefore, its performance does not reflect the expenses associated with the management of an actual portfolio. There is always a risk that an investor may lose money.

This chart strongly suggests that selling following all-time highs may not be the best strategy or timing tool.

Can we glean any useful market timing information from the Fed rate cut? Data is mixed.  From


Although the average and median returns are all positive for every time period studied here, there is a great deal of variation. Most troubling, the 2 recent Fed rate cut cycles show the only negative returns, and they each exhibit a very different pattern from the older data.  Has something changed over more recent history? Or will our current cycle revert to previous patterns?

Dimensional recently studied the performance of actively managed mutual funds and found that even these teams of money managers are not beating the market: over the last 20 years, 77% of equity funds and 92% of fixed income funds failed to survive and outperform their benchmarks after costs. Although market timing is not likely the entire explanation for this, it is certainly a component.

When considering technical or quantitative analysis methods, we can look at many rules-based ETFs. lists 83 ETFs as momentum- or quant-based.  Of these, only 19 (23%) lag their Yahoo Finance category returns YTD.  However, if we look at one-year returns, which include the drawdown in December 2018, a whopping 73 of 83 ETFs (88%) are underperforming their category (data from Yahoo finance).

What about valuations, such as the Shiller CAPE/10 or other similar growth/value metrics? John Hussman has studied these extensively.  His current hypothesis is that valuation metrics cannot be used as a timing tool.  He is studying other market metrics to combine with value, hoping to find the market timing holy grail.  Here is the latest market commentary which details these thoughts:

Once you successfully sell at or near a market top, what are the indicators that it is time to buy back into the equity market (presumably at a lower level)?  It’s important to remember that market timing success requires that the timing is correct on two successive transactions, not just one.  It is not safe to assume that the market low point is somehow identified by just the reverse, or inverse, of whatever timing tool is used at the top.  In other words, your model needs to be proven at both extremes to be successful.

For many advisors and clients, the simplest and most time-proven method of success in owning equities is simply to hold through the downturns, small and large.  Regardless of any other metric, more time in the market is associated with a greater likelihood of positive returns.  Again, from Dimensional:


Frequency of Positive Returns in the S&P 500 Index

Overlapping Periods: 1926–2018


In US dollars. From January 1926–December 2018, there are 997 overlapping 10-year periods, 1,057 overlapping 5-year periods, and 1,105 overlapping 1-year periods. The first period starts in January 1926, the second period starts in February 1926, the third in March 1926, and so on. S&P data © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global. Indices are not available for direct investment. Index returns are not representative of actual portfolios and do not reflect costs and fees associated with an actual investment. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Actual returns may be lower.



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On Writing

The above is from Dan Martin via FPA blog.

1.) Write Like You Speak

2.) Read It Out Loud

  • First, it can help you practice and ultimately, master Tip #1 (writing like you speak).
  • Second, it can help you identify the areas where you need to add some qualifiers to simplify and clarify certain thoughts.
  • Third, it’s the best way I’ve found to ensure that content is conversational enough for your audience, and for the objective of the piece. Reading aloud will help you identify the areas of your work that really lend themselves to a conversational style (i.e., something that you, or at least some human being, might actually say), and those that need some adjusting.

3.) Edit, Don’t Sterilize

My last piece of advice on engaging writing is to remember that the small imperfections and quirks in your writing style are not necessarily bad things. I think some of these quirks make up an important part of anyone’s writing style, and not all of them should be eradicated through the editing process.


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Time to diversify?

Following the pullback at the end of 2018 and subsequent recovery, most analysts agree that we are likely near the end of the bull market. The 10 year – 2 year yield curve nearly inverted in December, and the 10 year – 3 month yield curve inverted in March. Other leading indicators have been mixed, as well.

Over the last several years, the best performing asset, by a lot, has been US large cap stocks. For those investing with a home bias, this has been a winning strategy. For those investing with global diversification, it’s been a long hard road.

Looking at valuations, it appears that emerging markets have the best opportunity for higher forward-looking returns, followed by international developed, with US equities coming in last (see P/B, CAPE, and cyclically-adjusted CAPE values all suggest that the S&P 500 is due for a rough 10 years ahead.  However, this has been true for at least the last 3 years. John Hussman has been predicting low returns for far longer. If you examine his analyses (at, they are clearly well researched and make sense. But they haven’t worked.

One unaccounted-for variable has been central bank interventions. This includes not only our Federal Reserve, but actions of the central banks of Europe and Japan as well.  You can find a monthly update showing the close correlation of the S&P 500 to the total of these balance sheets at Since October 2017, the Fed has been reducing its balance sheet. Will this cause the US markets to decline? It appears that instead, the other central banks will increase their holdings to make up for at least part of it. The correction in December 2018 has been variously credited oil prices, revisions to 2019 earnings estimates and/or Fed balance sheet reduction. Of those three options, we have many years experience with two of them, and zero experience with the third.

One way to determine a sensible action plan is to think through possible outcomes and consider their likelihoods. Start with some assumptions:  Economic conditions are likely to either stay stable for the foreseeable future or weaken. Although it is possible for conditions to further improve, it seems unlikely based on most forecasts.  Central bank interventions will likely be contingent on economic conditions, which may include market conditions.

What are the possible outcomes of stable conditions vs. weakening conditions? We know that economic recessions are nearly always accompanied by market corrections. We also know that the US market is more richly valued than other markets, which may result in a larger over-correction in the next bear market. OR NOT! In Meb Faber’s article referenced above, notice that the US has been over-valued now for about 7 years. How long can this continue? Is it related to the Fed or to something else?

Many market observers, myself included, believed that this massive Fed balance sheet would cause sustained inflation above the Fed’s target 2%. We have been wrong. Before responding with, “CPI is measuring inflation wrong,” take a look at this article from Cullen Roche: His arguments debunking the idea are compelling. We have not experienced excessive inflation so far, but that doesn’t mean we can’t. Moderate inflation is possible, although hyperinflation in the global reserve currency remains unlikely. How to protect clients from inflation? The traditional answer has been real assets and commodities, with a newer option being TIPS.

Will the US dollar remain the primary global reserve currency through the next recession? Despite the ongoing buzz about how China and the yuan are taking over the world, the answer is almost certainly yes. This article explains why: What does that mean for our analysis? It means the dollar, and US Treasuries, are special compared to any other currency and any other security.

Conclusions for asset allocation:

  1. If you hold US government securities for diversification and stability, there appears to be a strong argument that they will continue to function well in this role.
  2. If you hold most of your equity allocation in US securities, this might be a good time to consider some diversification to a more global allocation, international developed and/or emerging markets. Please note, this involves home-bias risk, because clients will certainly see the underperformance of their portfolios if the current outperformance of the US market continues.
  3. If you have concern about possible inflation, consider a position in one of the traditional hedges, keeping in mind that while these positions have provided effective diversification over the past 10 years, this mainly means that they have been performing poorly compared to US equities and other investments.

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Rules of the wealthy

I’m not sure where “Family Wealth Watch” got this data or information, but it makes sense to me.

Focus on big wins (Edit: I think this should say Focus on Big Goals)

Working hard is not always the right answer. Working hard on the right things is how the elite compete.

Not thinking about retirement in your 20s? Think again.

There will be areas in your financial life that disproportionately affect your chances of achieving financial success. By paying significant attention to these areas – such as eliminating debt, building substantial savings and investing early – the wealthy are able to leverage big financial wins.

Action always beats inaction

Most people feel stuck when it comes to making decisions about money. Information overload and analysis paralysis lead to inaction, which can frequently be the greatest impediment for financial progress.

Being decisive regarding money is vital to building small wins along the way toward wealth. This type of momentum, or consistent progress, contributes to overall success, according to Harvard researchers.

Intangible goods are the greatest in value

How you spend your money matters.

Experiential purchases offer some of the highest returns on investment. By prepaying for trips, vacations, or concerts, you allow yourself to extract the pleasure of the purchase before the event and for years afterward.

Another powerful mechanism that offers high returns on your spending is to invest in yourself. Continuous self-improvement pays off in many ways — and over the long term.

Intangibles, like the financial freedom to make a career change or take a year off to travel, are much more rewarding than a quickly depreciating asset.

Delayed gratification trumps impulse

According to financial experts Thomas Stanley and William Danko, most American millionaires have never spent more than $400 on a suit or $200 on shoes.

Delayed gratification is a learned behavior. And it is often the strongest predictor of success.

Confidence is a commodity

Confidence can be mined. With a deluge of personal financial advice already in the market, creating confidence assists in the decision-making process.

Confidence-building techniques should be part of your daily routine. And according to research studies, there is a strong correlation between positive self-talk, confidence and performance. Additionally, inward questioning and regular rewards allow individuals to continually foster confidence.

This allows room for wealthy thinking.

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