How I Invest.

How Do I Invest? What is My Process?

 Recently, a friend asked me to share the process I use to invest my own retirement funds.  If you, too, are curious, or are thinking about becoming a do-it-yourself investor, this post is for you.

Most people who do not have a background in business (I have an MBA) or years of experience investing their own retirement funds (I’ve been investing for almost 40 years) will be better off having their retirements professionally managed.   However, I am a big advocate for taking charge of your own investments, especially for those who are young and have time to recover from their investment mistakes (like I did).

In addition, there are those who are retired, whose income is mainly from a pension, but who have a small portion of their retirement in an IRA and would like to manage that small portion themselves.  That can make a lot of sense.

This post will not be about what to own.  This post is not a recommendation for any particular investment. (Do your own research!)  Rather, this post is about WHERE I go to inform myself, and what tools I use to manage my portfolio.

Fundamental Concepts

First, you must understand that I take a fundamental analysis approach to investing.  Which means I consider the actual business of each company I might invest in; its profit potential, its competitive position vs. its industry, and I formulate a value for that company.  I then buy selected companies when they are “on sale”.

Fundamental analysis is different from technical analysis or momentum analysis.  Technical analysis ignores the business fundamentals and focuses solely upon the historic pricing of the stock.  Technical analysis can be fun, and I use it to a very marginal degree.  Momentum analysis involves seeing “what’s hot” and piling into those securities while they are rising and exiting when they are declining.  Again, this can be fun, but this is not my focus.

Big Picture

I feel it is important to understand where we are in the business cycle. I make my own guesses as to how close we are to the next recession.  This informs my decision as to what types of securities to own in my portfolio.

I also consider where I believe interest rates are likely to go in the future.  Interest rates represent the cost of money.  High interest rates indicate that money is dear and borrowing is costly for businesses.  In a high-rate environment, a business must overcome a much higher hurdle to justify borrowing to grow their business.

I’m a big believer in the concept of ‘reversion to the mean’.   Here is a great example of how I use this principle.

Source: Advisor Perspectives.com

As you can see in the chart above, from a historic perspective, the price investors are willing to pay for companies in the S&P 500 Index are quite inflated, as compared to their historic average.  This graph tells me that stocks are expensive today.  So I must be extremely selective about which stocks I buy in the current environment.  This is also an indicator to me that we are close to a market top and nearing the end of a business cycle.  That’s my opinion.  I look at these and other charts from Advisor Perspective frequently, to keep my perspective on the marketplace.

Source: Advisor Perspectives.com

Here’s another informative snapshot (above).  This single graph gives us volumes of information, but let’s focus on the blue line.  Interest rates, as measured by the 10-year treasury yields, have been in a long-term decline since the early 1980’s.  Currently 10-year treasury yields are just over 2%.  Money is cheap!  How low can yields go?

These two graphs give us the big picture.  But there is an even bigger picture.  What is going on in the rest of the world and how might it affect the U.S. market?

One source I use to stay abreast of world events is Geopolitical Futures.com  (https://geopoliticalfutures.com/welcome-to-geopolitical-futures/).  For a nominal fee I receive daily e-mail briefings on events of the world.  Another source I use is found at SeekingAlpha.com (https://seekingalpha.com), where many gurus of the financial world come together to share their views.  Each guru specializes in their own unique field. Here, for example, is an entertaining and thought provoking author, Mark J. Grant, who purports that we can expect interest rates to continue to decline, even below zero!  (https://seekingalpha.com/author/mark-j-grant#regular_articles)

So these are examples of some of the sources I use to gain a big-picture perspective, which informs my decision-making.  I am constantly looking for additional sources; looking for contrary opinions to my own.  I’m always asking myself, “What if I’m wrong?”  Years of investing experience have taught me to be humble and open-minded to new and contrary ideas.  My methods are constantly changing as a result.  It makes me a safer investor.  And it helps me identify opportunities.

Concepts of Investing

 Portfolio Diversification and Balance.  You have heard the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”  Depending on my age, my financial circumstances, where we are in the business cycle, and current interest rates, I change the mix of assets in my portfolio and how many securities I hold.  As an example, here’s what my portfolio looks like today:

I’m invested in over 60 securities, none of which represents more than 4% of my portfolio.   At some times during the business cycle I have fewer securities and weight the portfolio more toward high-dividend stocks.  But right now I’m looking to reduce my exposure to stocks and increase my exposure to fixed-income securities.  My portfolio is an ever-changing creature based on the factors I listed above.

Each of these asset types must be researched in a different way.  I find it helpful to follow the research done by experts in these various asset types.  My list of experts is constantly changing over the years.  Currently, for equity securities I use two main sources:

Equities.

Brian Bollinger produces research on equities, with a focus on measuring the safety each stock’s dividend at https://2.simplysafedividends.com/home.  His service also provides an excellent portfolio management system that allows me to see the big picture of my portfolio, with the ability to drill down to each security for an in-depth analysis.

Here’s a snapshot of a small portion of my portfolio:

The amount of the dividend and the safety of the dividend are extremely important to me, since I live off the dividends.  This brings me to a concept I follow, which is that — I try to live entirely off the fruit of my portfolio and avoid cutting down the trees.  That is, I don’t sell stocks to fund my living expenses.  Rather, I try to live on less than the income from those stocks’ dividends (and interest from my bonds).

Why does dividend safety matter?  Because, if I’m confident in the safety of the dividend, I can sleep well at night when the price of the stock goes down in a recession.  So long as the company can continue to afford to pay its dividend, I can live my current lifestyle.  Whereas if my strategy were to sell stocks each year to fund my living expenses I would end up destroying the trees that grow the fruit each year (dividend).  Eventually I would have sold all the stocks in my portfolio and would become a pauper. Not good.  So Bollinger’s dividend safety score at Simplysafedividend.com is very helpful to me.

Another source of research I use for selecting equities is found at FastGraphs.com (https://www.fastgraphs.com/trial/).   Here, Charles Carnevale has created an amazingly simple way to view the current value of a company, its dividend history, its forecast earnings, etc.  Here’s a snapshot of one of my holdings using FastGraphs:

This graph tells a story to those who learn how to read it.

Finding bargains in equities is how I grow the value of my portfolio. But my portfolio income is generated from high-yield equities (utilities, MLPs, REITs, BDCs) and fixed-income securities.

Fixed-Income Securities

If you believe that interest rates will continue to decline (and that’s a big, big question), then fixed-income securities (preferred shares, baby bonds, bonds, closed end funds) become attractive because they not only produce a good yield, but they can also increase in value as interest rates decline.

Again, it really helps to have specialists in these fields ferret out bargains that pop up on occasion.  With their recommendations I can do my own research to pick what I like for my portfolio.

SeekingAlpha.com is a source of two such gurus that send me ideas to consider every week, sometimes every day.  These are Rida Morwa of High Dividend Opportunities, and Stanford Chemist at CEF/ETF Income Laboratory.  I enjoy sorting through their ideas and appreciate their ability to find potential bargains.

Strategy

In my experience, successful investments are typically found where most people are running away from a security.  For example, currently investors are running away from shopping mall REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts).  Brick and mortar retail sales have suffered from too many malls in the United States. Plus there is the ‘Amazon affect’, a significant growth in on-line sales at the expense of brick and mortar store sales. But not all shopping malls are created equal.

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash

The highest-quality mall REIT stock prices have suffered along with the low-traffic malls REIT prices.  Hmmm. Are there bargains to be found here?

Another example of potential bargains can be found in correction facility REITs.  These companies build and manage facilities for state and federal prisons.  Recently, while Democratic candidates have been on the campaign trail, there has been much discussion about prison reform.  As a result, investors have run away from correction facility REITs.

Photo by Larry Farr on Unsplash

Hmm. Are the bonds issued by some of these REITs safe?  How likely is it that congress would come together to make significant prison reform? Would they likely release millions of prisoners?  Or would they make some less-dramatic, cosmetic change that would appease liberal voters?  Is there a bargain here?  These are tough judgments that an investor must make in order to find true bargains.

If you want a decent yield and/or a great potential for an increase in your portfolio value, you must find these bargains.  It sometimes feels like running into a burning building while everyone else is running out screaming.

I hope this post has given you a taste of what it’s like to invest for your own retirement.  My methods are unique to me.  There are as many methods of investing as there are investors.  I love to do my own investing and sleuthing to find bargains, while continually staying alert for alligators.  It’s the great game of life for me.  If you want to chat, I am always, always happy to enjoy a conversation about the fascinating adventure of investing.

— Clay

 

 

 

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Winter Cottage by the Sea

2018 Travels

Our 2018 Travels – From one end to the other.

We’re not done wandering yet.  Not by a long shot.  But, for a number of reasons (which I may get to eventually in another post), it’s time for us to select a winter quarters.   Having spent the past few years wintering in the desert southwest, this year we headed to Florida to see what that was all about.

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I was somewhat familiar with Florida, having spent several months in pilot training near Miami, flew multiple times in the big air show at Lakeland, and visited numerous times for spring break as a kid, not to mention many vacations at the beach as an adult.  One of my favorite areas is Destin, in the panhandle, with it’s amazing white sand beaches.

But much of Florida is overwhelmed by traffic and people in the winter.  Where could we find a quiet haven, near the ocean, that we could afford?  Oh, I know.  Let’s look in one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.  What?

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Is this Florida, or Italy?

Our exploration took us south along the west coast of Florida.  We considered Clearwater, Sarasota, Venice, Fort Myers, Estero ……  And when the road ended, we found ourselves in Naples.

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This city of 20,000 is a place you have to aim at to get to.  It’s not on the way to anywhere. This is the end of the road, unless you want to turn east on I-75 and spend a couple hours crossing Alligator Alley to Miami.  If you go any further west or south of Naples you’ll get your feet wet in the Gulf of Mexico.

Naples on map

Naples, because of it’s unique location, is a quiet place.  There is zero road noise at our little cottage.  It is abundant with nature, and we’re close enough to the ocean that we’ll get a sea breeze most days.

So how can two homeless paupers such as us afford to buy property in Naples, one of the wealthiest cities on the planet?  Well, first, let me be clear.  As with most things in our marriage, I come up with the strategic plan, the big picture.  But Wendy does the real work – all the tactical analysis and research.

Wendy is amazing and relentless.  She found this place.  Basically, I told her, “Yea, sure, if you can find a place that costs next to nothing and can decrease our living expenses, that is by the ocean — I’m in.  Just make sure it has palm trees.”

Don’t ever give Wendy an impossible challenge unless you’re ready to commit.  The greater the challenge, the happier she’ll be.  Here’s what she found:

NLYH Sign

NLYH Pic

NLYH Pool View

NLYH Street View

(Here’s the website: Naples Land Yacht Harbor)

So let me skip to the important part, and then we can fill in the other non-essentials.  Here’s the amazing thing.  Because we live in (and are shareholders of) Naples Land Yacht Harbor, for $30/month we can have a boat slip a short walk from our cottage that gives us access to the intercostal waterway and the Gulf of Mexico.  Endless exploration!  $30/month?  Uh oh.  Looks like there’s going to be another boat in our future.

By the Water
You have to understand.  I don’t think like normal people.  I don’t see a home as an investment.  I see it as a necessary expense.  So long as it places me where I want to be, is safe, and doesn’t require much time or money in maintenance, that’s all I require.
Story time!  Thirty years ago, when Wendy and I moved to Indiana so she could attend medical school, I looked for a house near my new employer, USA Group.  I told the realtor to give me a printout of the home listings in the area (Noblesville, IN).  Then I started at the very bottom of the listing from the cheapest houses with the intention of working my way up the list.  And what did I find at the very bottom?  The listing said,
$59,000 Three bedroom one bathroom, blah, blah, blah …. next to a grass runway.  
Bingo!  Perfect.  The cheapest house … ON A GRASS RUNWAY!  I drove by and all I could see was that beautiful runway with airplanes parked here and there.  Shangri-La!  I also noticed that the roof looked okay on the little house.  Good enough.  
14810 Promise Road

Aerial View – 14810 Promise Road at Bottom Left next to green runway!

 

Living in that house was one of the happiest times of our life.  Wendy was able to pursue her goal, I got my pilots license and started building an airplane, and the kids had acres and acres of lawn to play in — just keep an eye out for airplanes landing.
That’s how I look for property.  Find the cheapest thing available that meets the need.  And pay with cash if you can.  Any extra money spent on the house is money that can’t be used to explore the world and have interesting experiences.
Okay, back to the here and now: our little cottage by the sea.  Nothing fancy.  It is a 50 year old mobile home, one of 352 located in Naples Land Yacht Harbor (NLYH).  It’s an antique.  Who buys this stuff?!?! We do!
113 Pier B
This particular unit has an updated kitchen and bathrooms, and new roof, plywood flooring covered in tile, A/C, and windows.
Although it is tiny at 820 square feet, consider that for the past 4 years of full-time travel in our RV we’ve been living happily in 400 square feet.  For us, this summer cottage is spacious with more than twice our usual living space.
113 Pier B Living Room
It comes fully furnished, including dishes, linens,  washer/dryer and a workshop loaded with tools.
So what do we plan to do if a hurricane wipes it out?  Actually, the eye of Hurricane Irma came right through Naples Land Yacht Harbor September 10, 2017.
Hurricane Irma Path
Of the 352 units in NLYH, 13 had to be condemned.  Many others needed one type of repair or another.  But these old mobile homes did amazingly well.  They’re all anchored to the ground with special straps.  Damage typically comes from flying debris.  But if another hurricane comes barreling through and you’re not so lucky, you just scrape off what’s left and put  a new, 1300 square foot Jacobsen manufactured home on the site.  As you drive through NLYH, you see a sprinkling of the 13 new homes that replaced those that did not survive Irma.
But why an old mobile home? Aren’t there better options? After all, Florida is loaded with retirement condos, apartments, houses and newer park model/manufactured home options.
We want a permanent place here in Southern Florida.  We’ve looked at and considered purchasing:
  • RV pads.  Each RV community we looked at had a great social atmosphere with pickle ball and all kinds of gatherings.  However, the cost would be twice as much for a bare cement pad as we paid for our 2 bedroon, 2 bath cottage (plus we would pay $1,000/yr property tax).  We don’t pay property tax on our mobile home because the property is permanently leased to us.
  • Condos.  These cost 3-4 times as much as our home with the same HOA fee/month that we are paying at the cottage, plus $1,500/yr property tax.  And although these have a community pool, they have no social gathering programs.  And you actually have less privacy with shared walls and the possibility of noisy, smoking neighbors.  No ambiance.
  • Other mobile home parks.  The typical park with 30-40 yr old mobile homes has smaller lots and less green space and costs twice what we paid.  If they have water access to the Gulf of Mexico with boat slips, they cost 3-4 times more.
Naples Land Yacht Harbor is a high quality 55+ community that we think we will greatly enjoy for six months each winter.  It feels like a throwback to old Florida, where 1 mile from the cottage, we can bike by the fancy Naples shops and restaurants on our way to a free day at the beach.
Check out the NLYH website to learn more.  We would love to have you as a neighbor!
You just can’t live any cheaper than this.  And did I mention that you can have a boat slip for $30/month?  Yea, I think I did.
NLYH Canal View
We have a whole new world to explore — this time in a boat.  Something to look forward to in the next several winters.
But first a summer mission this year and then 6 months in Europe next year.  But we’ll get to that later.  Isn’t life grand?
– Clay

Doctors Don’t Know Everything

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[istockphoto.com]

I went to the doctor the other day. Even retired doctors have to go to other doctors sometimes.

Whenever they ask me what pharmacy I want a prescription sent to, I tell them I don’t have one because I shop around for the best prices, and that I need a paper script.

The doctor wrote a script, so I looked it up on www.GoodRX.com.

To use the website, there is no sign-in, no personal information, no membership and no fee.  Just type in the drug name, put in the form (pill, capsule, tablet, cream, solution, etc) and the dosage (mg, gm, mcg, ml, etc) and your zip code.

 

Immediately, it tells you the prices at a lot of the pharmacies in your local area (such as Walgreens, CVS, Rite-Aid, Safeway, Wal-Mart).

The lowest price for my prescription was $740.00!!

 

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[istockphoto.com]

I don’t have drug coverage with my insurance. No way was I going to pay that price!

So, I looked up alternative drugs in the same category, and found one that only cost $70.00. I marched back into the doctor’s office and spoke to the nurse (and the doctor who just happened to be passing by)– they were both shocked at the price and happily changed the script to the cheaper alternative.

Why are drug prices so different, even for the exact same item between different pharmacies?  Health insurance companies have departments that negotiate for drug pricing on their formularies (a list of medications they will cover for their members).  These ‘Discount Prescription’ cards and apps do the same thing, only you are not tied to the insurance company’s formulary, so you might have more options for medications.

Some electronic medical records your doctor uses have downloaded specific drug formularies covered by your insurance company.  But it’s not a perfect system.  As a surgeon, there was no way I could keep up with all the insurance formularies, but I always told my patients, “When you get to the pharmacy, if the price of the drug I prescribed is too much, have them call my office and we’ll discuss alternatives.”

Sometimes, there is only one drug in a category that will work for your specific condition.  Or serious drug allergies preclude other options. And that one drug may be expensive.

In that case, you might be able to get help directly from the drug manufacturer to cover all or part of the cost.  Most drug company websites have an option for financial assistance.  Look into it.

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Although there’s no such thing as a money tree, drug companies may be able to help with the cost. [clipartpanda.com]

But most often, there is probably a cheaper alternative.  If your overworked doctor won’t work with you on keeping prescription costs down or gets snippy when you ask for more economical choices (especially if you ask nicely and give them time to fix things), then consider changing providers.

 

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[illustrationsource.com]

We’re all in this together.

Takeaways:

1.  Do NOT assume your favorite pharmacy is the best place to go with your scripts because it feels comfortable and they treat you well. There can be a huge difference in price between getting a drug at Safeway, Wal-Mart, CVS or some other place.  Wal-Mart offers a 90 day supply of some meds for only $10! Think about it;  would you be willing to pay $900 for a plain white shirt at Neiman-Marcus when the same one, or a close facsimile, can be found at a discount store for $25?  Just because you like the sales lady?  Remember: she doesn’t get one dime of the money you pay for the shirt.  Just her salary.  The same thing goes with pharmacists.

2.  Take a paper script with you from the office and look it up on http://www.GoodRx.com– it doesn’t cost you anything and there are no memberships or log-ins involved. Then, you print out or show the coupon code on your phone to the pharmacist and they accept it. Verify the price before they fill the script, though.

3.  Doctors don’t have the time to find out what drugs cost, and usually (but not always) there is more than one drug they could prescribe for you for the same medical condition.

4.  If it’s available for the particular drug, ask for the generic version (also known as ‘may allow substitution’ on the script), as it can sometimes save you a lot of money.  There is usually no difference in formulation between brand name and generic.  As an example, go to your local pharmacy and look on the allergy shelves at the price for brand name Claritin (an allergy med) and generic Loratadine.  Or brand Flonase (nasal steroid spray) and generic Fluticasone.  Or Prilosec (stomach acid med) and Omeprazole.  Same drugs, different prices.  Get used to looking at the ‘Active Ingredients’ on the label.  If it’s the same name, it’s the same drug. Only cheaper.  Store brands are usually cheapest.

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A drug by any other generic name… will act the same [clipart-library.com]

5.  It’s YOUR money! Even if you have health insurance, please don’t be a blind consumer– the global economy cannot support the rampant over-cost of drugs and healthcare.
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[vectorfreak.com]

6.  If you get to the pharmacy and ask about the drug price, and it is too expensive, have the pharmacy call the doctor’s office to prescribe something else.  Be kind to your pharmacist– they have absolutely no control over drug pricing.
7.  In a lot of instances, the cost of drugs in the United States far exceeds the cost paid by other people in distant countries for the exact same drug from the exact same manufacturer.  Hence people who medication shop in other countries across our borders (but be very careful if you are considering this:  have you ever seen high-end knock off purses, watches and shoes at hawker’s tables in big cities?  Imagine what some people will do to fake a drug tablet to look like the real thing– and you might have no way of knowing the difference).
We subsidize the world with the prices we pay at our local pharmacies.

 

8.  On a future post, I’ll give you some ‘doctor insider’ ways on how to research possible alternative prescription drugs to discuss with your provider.

9.  GoodRX:  I’m not a stock holder in the website, but it improves my personal portfolio when I don’t spend as much on medications!

Compare prescription drug prices and find coupons at more than 60,000 US pharmacies. Save up to 80% instantly!
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Be a wise consumer of healthcare [printablee.com}

– Wendy
Retired Otorhinolaryngologist, Head & Neck Surgeon