Show MenuHide Menu

What's The Plan For This Week?

May 26, 2016
by Bill Sweet

Should be the same as last week, for most of us. If your plan changed because the markets had a hiccup over the last few days, I don’t think that you had a very good plan to begin with.

One of the luxuries of being a financial planner is that I am focused on long investment horizons, usually over 10-50 years. When you expand your timeline on those levels, and measure success over the span of decades instead of days, the exciting daily and even weekly movements of US and overseas stock and bond markets just don’t seem very important.

Not to say that they are meaningless. During weeks like the one we just lived through, like all investors, I find myself checking my investment accounts more often, rationalizing why this index or that stock is up or down, and wondering what is going to happen the next day. This is a natural reaction to volatility, which makes just about everyone uncomfortable.

I try to channel this discomfort, and use it as an opportunity to review things – check into client’s accounts in particular – and make sure that we’re doing the right thing based on their financial goals and their specific risk tolerance. If I did my job up front, we inevitably are.

It’s so important to focus on the process during these times. There is always a temptation to let short-term outcomes shift your focus away from your long-term goals, but this nearly always a mistake. Because I take the time to put an investment plan together for my clients, when clients call to make sure that everything is alright, like they started to do this week, we go back to the plan that we put together and see if anything has changed from when we started to now. The vast majority of the time it hasn’t, and so if we were comfortable enough to own a specific fund or asset class when we started, recent price changes shouldn’t affect that.

With an investment plan you have a much easier time tuning out the inevitable noise and distraction inherent in the investment decision making process.

If you don’t have a plan, and are worried about what your investments or the stock market did this week, instead of reacting emotionally I strongly suggest channeling that energy into producing something helpful. A financial plan is fantastic, but even a basic investment plan, or even just a simple process-based system of reviewing your accounts and making investment decisions can add a lot of value and perspective.

We can’t control what happens with our investments, but we can control our actions. I’ve found that it’s best to do this ahead of time – set rules and guidelines in advance, to be followed under pressure. Because your decisions can be easily influenced by your emotions and particularly fear, even a very simple flowchart can provide a ton of value. Create a process and a system and adhere to it over time.

This is what the financial planning process is all about. It’s systematic. Unemotional. Patient. Sometimes extremely boring. But it works.

Let me know if you need some help. It’s what I do.

– Bill

U.S. Equities: Valuations Per P/B Ratios

May 17, 2016

I’ve grown increasingly concerned about stock market valuation levels.

There are many ways to determine valuations of individual stocks, and then by extrapolation the valuation levels of asset classes or the overall U.S. stock market. Some measures, however, such as P/E ratios, are highly volatile and can at times yield valuation measures which are even, at times, nonsensical. CAPE is, in my view, a better way of determining price on the basis of earnings, given that earnings are smoothed over a decade, although as many have written various adjustments may (or may not) need to be undertaken for CAPE.

Other measures of valuation tend to incorporate yields on U.S. Treasury bills, notes or bonds. While there is much intellectual underpinning to this approach, if you are a short-term investor, I am suspect of the introduction of bond yields into equity valuation models for purposes of a very long-term (15 year or more) investor. Over any 15-year period yields can tremendously vary.

For over a decade I’ve primarily relied upon price-book ratios to provide me a sense of how overvalued, or undervalued, the U.S. stock market may be. Why? First, for the Russell 1000 and 2000 indexes (growth, balanced and value) I’ve been able to reconstruct an estimate of the average p/b ratio, going back to 1977. This gives us 34 years of data to come up with an average. Second, p/b ratios for Russell indexes are provided monthly, giving us fairly up-to-date measures. Third, book values don’t fluctuate wildly over the short term.

Of course, there are downsides to the utilization of price-book ratios. Since 1977 the U.S. economy has moved substantially away from capitalization-intensive industries and toward service industries. As part of this evolution, new industries have substantially grown, such as computer software, which are not very capital intensive. And many companies have outsourced their manufacturing to companies in China, the Phillippines, Indonesia, or other countries, thereby lowering the book equity. Hence, one can argue that the “mean” for price-book ratios should be higher than the “1977-2013 Estimated Average P/B Ratio” shown below.

Current (12/7/2014) valuations of U.S. stock asset classes are as follows, based
upon price-book measures of these asset class relative to 1977-2013 norms,
with further adjustments reflecting 11/1/2014-12/5/14 returns:

10.31.14 P/B Ratio

P/B Ratio after 11/1-12/5/14 returns adjustment


Est. Avg. P/B Ratio

Percent Overvaluation / (Undervaluation)

Relative to Estimated Average P/B Ratios
Resulting Adjustment to Asset Class Historical Rate of Return

U.S. Large Cap Growth






U.S. Large Cap Balanced






U.S. Large Cap Value






U.S. Small Cap Growth






U.S. Small Cap Balanced






U.S. Small Cap Value






Source: Data based upon Russell Indexes for U.S. stock asset classes, and Vanguard funds monthly/MTD data, as accumulated and analyzed by ScholarFi Inc. All measures of overvaluation/undervaluation are estimates, only. An adjustment is then made to available month-end data, derived from Russell Index data site, for changes in prices over subsequent period to date shown. PAST PERFORMANCE IS NOT A GUARANTEE OF FUTURE RETURNS. For educational purposes only. No warranties are provided as to the accuracy of the data provided.

The last column in the chart above reflects an adjustment to estimated average rates of return for the asset class, should reversion to the mean occur over a 15-year period.
Just because the stock market is “overvalued” does not mean that valuations cannot go much higher. In fact, following are the “low” and “high” markets of the valuations for the foregoing asset classes during the 1977-2013 era (with 12/6/2014 “current” estimated valuations shown again, for comparison purposes):

Lowest P/B Ratio (Month/Year)

Current Estimated

P/B Ratio (12/5/2014)

Highest P/B. Ratio (Month/Year

U.S. Large Cap Growth

2.06 (12/1978)


11.00 (12/1999)

U.S. Large Cap Balanced

1.23 (12/1978)


5.21 (12/1999)

U.S. Large Cap Value

0.87 (12/1978)


3.31 (12/2000)

U.S. Small Cap Growth

1.73 (12/1978)


5.77 (12/1999)

U.S. Small Cap Balanced

0.99 (12/1978)


2.72 (12/1999)

U.S. Small Cap Value

0.69 (12/1979)


2.11 (12/1997)

Source: Data based upon Russell Indexes for U.S. stock asset classes, as accumulated and analyzed by ScholarFi Inc. All measures of overvaluation/undervaluation are estimates, only. An adjustment is then made to available month-end data, derived from Russell Index data site, for changes in prices over subsequent period to date shown, using Vanguard funds data. 

PAST PERFORMANCE IS NOT A GUARANTEE OF FUTURE RETURNS. For educational purposes only. No warranties are provided as to the accuracy of the data provided.

Where does all of the foregoing leave us? Permit me to share a few of my own conclusions:
First, I believe that the U.S. stock market has likely reached a point of overvaluation, relative to historic norms. Perhaps in the range of 0% to 40% overvalued. (The data, for the reasons stated above, does not permit in my view a closer approximation of values.)
Second, if you tilt your U.S. equity allocation in your portfolios toward value and small-cap stocks (on a diversified basis), it does not appear that value and small-cap stocks are as significantly overvalued as large-cap growth stocks might be. Hence, some comfort should be taken that the value and small cap risk premia are likely to deliver, with a high degree of probability (but not certainty), higher returns in the U.S. equity portion of a portfolio over the long term (15 years or longer).
Third, I don’t believe that valuation levels have reached such stellar heights that investors should flee the U.S. stock market, nor any particular asset class. (I’m not convinced that “market timing” in the form of “tactical asset allocation” can consistently add value, over and above a consistent exposure to the value and small cap risk premia.)
What do you think?

Financial Literacy Highlights of 2014: The PISA data

May 10, 2016

I am starting the new year by looking back and thinking of the highlights of 2014. For me, one event stands out: the release of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, which measures the financial literacy of 15-year-olds around the world. I am very proud that the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center (GFLEC) hosted the U.S. release of the data and that we did it in collaboration with three of the most important institutions for financial literacy: the Department of Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Department of the Treasury. While my team can tell you that the months before the event were really hectic, my preparation actually happened over several years.  It started when the financial literacy expert group that was asked to design the financial literacy assessment for PISA first met. It was in Cambridge, Massachusetts (MA), and we all felt we were starting to work on something very important. Since that meeting, I had been waiting for the day when the data would be made available. That day was July 9, 2014.

The data was accompanied by a report that was written over a period of time (hence the different timing than the data release for other PISA subjects) and that can be accessed on the OECD’s and GFLEC’s website (see  A lot has already been written about the PISA financial literacy data and rather than summarizing the many findings, I would like to highlight three main facts from these important data.
1)      There are large differences in financial literacy across the 18 countries that participated in the assessment. It is not the countries that have the most developed financial markets or the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita that rank at the top of the financial literacy scale. On the one hand, this should be a worry for rich countries, as it shows that their youth is not well prepared to deal with the complexity of these economies. On the other hand, it shows that financial literacy is not acquired informally, simply by living in economies with sophisticated financial markets (financial literacy does not come in the milk bottle.).
2)      There are wide differences in financial literacy within the countries that participated in the assessment. One of the most interesting findings is the difference between male and female students. Many have noted that, on average, there are no gender differences in financial literacy. This requires some clarification. We have worked very hard at designing questions that are gender neutral, and the methodology itself (some questions have open-ended answers, so respondents can answer in their own words) can soften the differences we have observed in male and female responses to financial literacy questions among adults. But gender differences are still present at these early stages of the life cycle. In fact, looking deeper one finds that boys are more likely to locate at both the top and bottom levels of the financial literacy scale than girls.
3)      A sizeable amount of the variation in financial literacy is accounted for by socio-economic status; in other words, the income and education levels of parents matter for youth financial literacy. This is a finding that we have documented among other age groups, for example young adults (age 23 to 28). It shows that differences in financial literacy start to emerge early in life, and depend on the family students are from. This is a worrisome finding, and in my view, one of the main reasons why we need financial literacy in school—to try to create a level playing field. This is the topic we discussed at the conference GFLEC organized jointly with the OECD last November titled “Toward a more inclusive society.” These are also my wishes for 2015: Having financial literacy in school and a more inclusive society (the two topics are related, but, okay, I like to dream big!).
Let me return to July 9, 2014, the day of the PISA data release.  As I mentioned earlier, for the financial literacy expert group (and many were there on stage at the Washington, DC, event), it was a day we had been waiting for for many years, since that first meeting in Cambridge, MA.  And as the data was being illustrated on slides, discussions, testimonials, and reports, we felt we had laid the first brick of a financial and economic structure that includes financial literacy. For me, this was the best day of 2014.
There are a lot of advantages to organizing the release of important data. You get to invite and meet famous people. You get to bring together representatives of important institutions. You get to hear new ideas. You get to test the patience and ingenuity of your collaborators. Arne Duncan, the U.S.  Secretary of Education, came to speak at the event. He is a very charismatic leader and I got to interview him on stage. He sent me a handwritten thank you note afterward, and I have framed it!

Happy new year.

US Federal Deficit Returns To Pre-Recession Levels

May 4, 2016
by Bill Sweet
The Congressional Budget Office published an estimate for the finances of the Federal Government earlier this week. It shows the continuation of a trend that began in 2009 of declining federal spending paired with increasing and federal income (taxes).

Here’s a chart of both going back to 1974, and keep in mind that the the 2014 data are an advance estimate:

With the economy steadily improving and providing more tax revenue, and federal spending moderating since the crisis, the deficit has shrunk each year for the past four fiscal years and is now only slightly above pre-recession levels:

Many have dubbed this “The Incredible Shrinking Budget Deficit” (here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and don’t forget here).

Here’s where the revenue comes from:

Personally, I’m not convinced that any of this matters, to be honest. I think that the supposedly harmful effects of too much government debt are vastly overrated, and that spending even in a deficit is an important function of our national government. To understand the mechanics, the public wants to equate the federal debt with household debt, yet this is patently false. The government is simply not a household, unless we consider it a household that cannot become insolvent (except through inflation) and is the only supplier of the world’s reserve currency, the US dollar (more here). Since many focus on the budget deficit as if it’s the potential cause of our future demise, I imagine the improving situation must be good news to them.

I am pretty sure that if I told you back in the dark days of 2009 that over the next five years that 1) federal spending will flat line, 2) tax revenues will increase by 50%, 3) the federal deficit will shrink by 65%, 4) we’ll have more jobs than we did in 2007, and 5) the economy would be moderately expanding, I think that I would have been laughed at.

Yet all of this is true today.

The future is unknown and unknowable, of course, but I think that all of this is good news for the US economy.

– Bill

The Influence of Teachers and Teaching

April 26, 2016

I moved over the summer, and it was as hard as moves are predicted to be. It took a lot of time and created its share of stress, but fortunately nothing broke and the new place is a lot nicer and very enjoyable. A friend told me that when you move, you lose something and you find something. Sure enough, a few things went missing, and who knows what happened to those boxes. But I also found a big envelop full of letters and correspondence that was sent to my old address at Dartmouth. Somehow it ended up on a shelf under a pile of papers and I never opened it. I looked inside and found some foreign correspondence, old issues of the Economist, and then a letter in a thick, elegant envelope. I opened it and found a wedding invitation. It came from one of my former students; she was in my class several years ago and also worked for me as a research assistant. I remember her vividly: a very petite Asian student who did not speak very much in class but who ranked at the top of the course. With my Italian mamma attitude, I felt protective of her; she looked so much younger for her age than the other students, and so fragile. But in fact, she had an iron will and when she was admitted to an excellent law school, she decided that the town where it was located was not ideal for a foreign student—the reasoning of a mature person who knows what she is looking for.  She had been put on a waiting list at some other schools and ultimately ended up at another Ivy League institution. And now she was inviting me to her wedding in California. I read the invitation several times, thinking of that petite student in the classroom.

As teachers, we tend to forget how much of a difference we can make for our students: we can motivate them to study more and harder, we can provide opportunities for them to ask a lot of questions, to challenge existing ideas, and we can push them to do more. The Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, also known as CSWEP, asked many famous economists how they chose their career. In many cases, the answer was that a teacher influenced them to choose economics or to go to graduate school or pursue an academic career.
I used to teach freshmen at Dartmouth, and I remember the faces of students in class, the mixture of curiosity and terror at taking their first economics course, which, on campus, had a reputation for being very difficult. Because of the work I had done on financial literacy, I knew that female students needed different arguments in order to find the course interesting and relevant.  And they needed encouragement to participate in class, ask questions, and volunteer their opinions. And I knew that technical terms—economics jargon—were off-putting for everybody, so I started the course simply and built both the “language” of economics and finance and its principles day by day. Truth be told, most of the students enrolled in economics courses because their parents told them to, so I had to prove to them that their parent were, in fact, right. (Do you see now what a tough job we have?)
When I talked to these students, many told me stories about their teachers, in some cases explaining that they had applied to highly selective colleges because their teachers had encouraged them to aim high. I heard that they loved math because their teachers made the course so good, and that they did well because their teachers cared about them. If I look back at each stage of my education, from elementary to high school to college and to graduate school, like my students, I can point to some teachers who had a profound influence on me and on who I am today. 
I am reminded of this lesson any time I start teaching a new class, any time I enter in the classroom where a new set of students are waiting. As a teacher, I have the good fortune of working with young people whose life of accomplishments has just begun.  I have a chance to influence their knowledge and, in turn, what they can do with it.
There are a few profound pleasures in life. One is receiving an invitation to the wedding of a former student. As the new academic year begins, I am reminded of the special job I have and what it means for students. For me, what I found during my move was a lot more important than what I lost.

Norway on Horns of a Fossil Fuel Dilemma

April 19, 2016

You gotta love the irony of the situation. Norway has been considering a change in the investment policy of its giant $800 billion national wealth fund by divesting all its holdings of fossil fuel companies to help stop climate change. Guess where the $800 billion came from? That’s right, from its North Sea oil.

They are not gonna divest however, as they think it would not be effective. They plan instead to “influence from inside” by working directly with bad companies. That’s a relief since the fund on average owns 1.3% of every developed public market equity and a sale of those assets would probably knock back Canada’s energy and coal mining companies yet more.

Mind, there is another solution to the Norwegians’ dilemma with their “ill-gotten wealth” that would relieve their collective conscience. Could they not just give the money away to poor African countries?

WaterFurnace Renewable Energy – All's well that ends well

April 11, 2016

WaterFurnace (TSX: WFI) is being acquired by a Swedish company in the same business, bringing to an end the four-year holding that I posted about in 2010 when I first bought shares in WFI. Though WFI’s price took a big jump up from recent $25 or so to about the $30.60 acquisition price, that has only made for an “ok” investment overall. As the Yahoo Finance chart shows, shortly after I bought it, WFI took a prolonged downward slide that it only recently has recovered. Compared to an market index ETF like iShares TSX Composite XIC, the ride has been a lot bumpier to get to pretty well the same place, though dividends are not included and that would put WFI ahead of XIC since its yield in 2010 was 3.5% while XIC’s would have been 1% or so lower – thus 5 years x 1% = 5% more return for WFI bumping it slightly ahead of XIC. Anyhow it’s a friendly acquisition so is almost sure to go ahead and thus is the end of the line for WFI.

Here are my takeaways from the experience:

  • Extreme patience is required and the only way to be able to exercise patience is to have some confidence in the on-going value of the company. The seemingly endless downward slide of WFI’s stock price from 2010 through 2011, 2012 and 2013 didn’t feel great. Stagnant actual company results didn’t help much. In early 2013 when I posted after the release of 2012 results, it looked as though the stock price could only be worth $20 max. Regular in-coming dividends – WFI even increased its dividend during the downward slide of stock price – also help greatly to exercise patience. You are getting something back out of the investment. Funnily enough, WFI’s recent business results haven’t been inspiring enough to think significantly higher stock prices are justified so I am more than happy to sell my shares at $30. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s never over till it’s over”.
  • You can still get sand-bagged by the unexpected no matter how good your due diligence. My MBA-style due diligence before purchase in 2010 was as good as I could make it, yet I still missed the one key factor that has been a severe drag on WFI’s business performance (in addition to housing starts), namely the huge drop in natural gas prices and relative loss of attractiveness of ground source heat pumps for heating/cooling as a result of fracking. I’m still not sure whether WFI management didn’t realize themselves the importance (incompetence), or just didn’t want to tell shareholders (untruthful), but they sure didn’t talk or write about it. On-going paranoia about what could go wrong seems to be a necessary attitude to maintain when investing in individual stocks.
  • A follow-on is that Socially-responsible environmentally-friendly companies are not necessarily the best-run. Managers missed the boat on natural gas prices and they have been increasing their pay much faster than performance would justify too.

Manipulating the Facebook News Feed

April 4, 2016
by Bill Sweet

On average, internet users spend more time staring at Facebook than any other website. For active users in the US, this amounts to about 40 minutes per day. That’s a lot.

Approximately 1.2 billion people use Facebook daily, of which about 204 million or so are active users in the US and Canada (out of a total of 349 million). Google may outpace Facebook in visits to the site, but the entire point of a search engine is to help you find what you’re looking for, which usually means routing you away from the search engine.

Because it commands so many eyeballs in the aggregate, the top of your Facebook news page is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on the internet.

Like the Google search algorithm, the system that controls the Facebook news feed is shrouded in secrecy. The company says that it determines which stories to show based on your connections and activity. Advertisers are very interested in connecting and being active with you, and so there is a natural fit for someone who has merchandise and wants you to notice their products to connect with you on Facebook. Like Google, targeted advertising is how Facebook makes most of its income.

Like any system, the Facebook news feed can be manipulated to achieve a certain result. One way to counter this is to use a special link – instead of simply – after you’ve logged into the site:

That snippet at the end – “?sk=h_chr” lets Facebook know that you want your News feed sorted in chronological order, instead of sorted by the News feed algorithm. That gives Facebook less of an opportunity to sort your friends’ posts for you, and instead you’ll just get the recent stuff. I don’t have a ton of connections on Facebook – I use it solely for personal communication – so this is perfect for me. Getting this to work in the mobile application is a little trickier, but still possible (click the “More” button, or the horizontal lines, and look for “Most Recent” under “Favorites”).

Another way to have fun with the news feed is to trick it. While we don’t know for sure, based on observation, we assume that Facebook’s system is designed to give extra weight to posts that are 1) exciting, 2) personal, 3) involve major life events. In theory, putting words like “new baby,” “marriage,” or “new job” are going to be more likely to be noticed than “Going to the gym now.” To see this in action, check this post out. Or this one.

Advertisers have figured this out as well, and because so much money is at stake, someone was going to find a shortcut to getting their content promoted. Similar to the issues of click bait with Google, services labeled as “Like Farms” now exist to generate buzz around an advertiser’s products via their Facebook page. Because the news algorithm appears to be reinforcing (more attention results in more promotion), generating a rapid amount of “Likes” and hence traffic early is an inorganic but quick and dirty way to get noticed.

“With AuthenticLikes, we observed likes from more than 700 profiles within the first four hours of the second day of data collection,” say De Cristofaro and co. After that, there was not a single additional like.

The team say this is likely to be the result of automated bots operating a set of fake profiles. Just why Facebook is unable to prevent this kind of activity is not clear.

Organic vs. Farmed “Like” Growth

The quote above is from MIT’s Technology Review, which recently studied the phenomena. Another study from Cornell is coming soon.

Facebook itself is very aware of all of this, of course. In late August they implemented some policy changes to crack down on the more egregious click-baiting.

In conclusion, I don’t think that any of this is necessary bad or evil. Like radio and broadcast television before it, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all provide us with incredible services in communication and search capability without directly charging us anything, which is amazing when you think about it.

If you don’t want Facebook or other companies offering targeted advertising, you can always delete your account and not use the (free) service anymore. If that’s a bridge too far, don’t volunteer any information about yourself other than the bare minimum. When you spend 15 minutes telling Facebook which TV shows you like and what kind of car you drive, what do you think they do with that information?

– Bill

Thank You For a Great Tax Season

March 28, 2016
by Bill Sweet

Thank you very much – particularly our fantastic clients here at the firm – for an incredible tax season.

I wasn’t able to post much this year because we had 17% more clients this year than we did in 2014. We’re incredible grateful and humbled by the fact that we’ve been able to meet so many fantastic new people, and sincerely hope that we were able to make a tough time for all of us just a little bit better.

The final figures show that we filed 1,196 tax returns. In the aggregate we reported a combined $117,064,480 of adjusted gross income, and processed $3,793,784 of Federal tax refunds for our people. Thank you everyone for your tremendous support of our small firm. I can’t begin to explain how much it means to me personally and to our team.

– Bill

Families Affected by a House Fire in Tuxedo Need Your Help

March 20, 2016
by Bill Sweet

Two families are in need of assistance following a devastating house fire last night. Both households include veterans, in addition to two small children.  I don’t believe that anyone was hurt, which is fortunate, but the effect of losing your home is obviously catastrophic.

The Town of Tuxedo is organizing a drive – see details below – summary:

– Household goods can be donated at the American Legion Hall

– Gift cards can be left at the Tuxedo Police Department 24/7 (for personal hygiene, clothing)

Clothing is the immediate concern since both of these families lost everything they own.

Update on 04/20 from Shari Brooks at the Town:

A fund has been set up at See link below. Monetary donations can be made at the secure site for the families who lost their homes in the duel house fires this past weekend.

We are accepting house hold items at the American Legion Hall.  (16 Orange Turnpike, Southfields, NY  10975)  For large bulky items please call Town Hall to make drop off arrangements: 845-351-2265. Items such as microwaves, beds, cook ware, towels, sheets etc.…  are needed. We will organize and store these items in the basement for the families. When they are ready it will all be there for them. Any unused items will be donated to other families in need.

I am very proud of Tuxedo for how it supports those in our community who are in need, very recently with Hurricane Irene / Sandy. It is the best and most admirable aspect of the Tuxedo community.

Thank you for your support.

– Bill

UPDATE 05/01:

I spoke with Paul this week and everyone seems to be doing fine. No one was hurt in the fire, and that’s always the most important thing. The families are deciding what to do – to rebuild, or to move on – but all have been touched by the tremendous outpouring of support.

Thank you – everyone.