Monday, September 28, 2009

You have Gone Favre Enough!: Leading a Portfolio Comeback

The NFL is back and for the 18th consecutive year and so is Brett Favre.

I was watching the Jets in New York when the network went to a game update - Vikings vs. 49ers. Favres Vikings were down 24-20 at home to the upstart Niners. With time for one play remaining on the clock, Favre dropped back but was quickly flushed from the pocket. Scrambling desperately, with the final seconds ticking away, Farve stepped up and threw a pass about fifty yards on a line to the back to the back of the endzone. Miraculously, with two defenders all over him, Gregg Lewis plucked the ball out of the air and got two feet in bounds and - Pow! Lighting strike! - the Vikings had won the game.

The crowd at the Metrodome went nuts. His teammates mobbed him at midfield. And the sports cliches came poring in -- Brett Farve, the river-boat gambler! Farve, the old gunslinger! Hes done it again! It was truly an amazing comeback.

And because I am a geek, it made me think of investing.

If you’ve been in the game the last few years, chances are you have been losing too; your net worth that is. Yes, the major indices have rallied considerably in the last 6 months, but all in all those indices are still down approximately 40% from their highs.

Investors want a comeback. But how do you lead a comeback in these circumstances? What does it take to get your portfolio back on track?

The choice comes down to two major sports cliches that any NFL fan (sports fan in general, really) will recognize. Do you try to make make something happen? Or do you take what the defense gives you? The choice for investors is clear.

It can be very tempting to go for the latter and try to make a play. You know, like Brett Favre did. Youre down big. You feel restless, like time is running out, you have to make a play. In football these plays are often called Hail Marys. In investing they are called, well, Hail Marys.

It’s the same play. High risk, big reward, chuck the ball down field into heavy coverage and pray your guy is the one who catches the ball. That is essentially what Favre did. And in his case it was the right play.

When Favre threw his last second pass into heavy coverage, he had no alternative. Could his pass have been intercepted? Absolutely. (And knowing Brett Favre, there’s a good chance it would have been). But the clock was about to run out. He needed a touchdown to win. Not only was it an acceptable risk in this case - it was really no risk at all.

But for investors, even though the temptation can be overwhelming, trying to make something happen is the wrong call.

Football games have binary outcomes. You either win or you lose. (Yes, technically you can tie. But that is an extreme outlier). The object in any one game is to win, so sometimes you have to take risks you ordinarily wouldnt like to.

But investing success is not measured this way (e.g., 2 million dollars or die trying!) Framing one’s investments as all or nothing/win or lose is one of the absolutely worst traps an investor can fall into. It causes us to take foolish, reckless chances - the equivalent of throwing into triple coverage. In a football game with a minute left in the 4th quarter there can be nothing to lose on a play. In investing, it just feels that way. You can always lose 100% of what you have.

In addition to a win/lose framework a second difference is that the clock doesn’t run out on your investing - not like it does in a football game anyway. It is ticking, and thats part of the problem. Sometimes the clock seems to be ticking so loud that it’s all we can hear. But the bottom line is we do have more time left. We don’t know how much. In some cases decades, in other cases much less. But barring the most extreme and unusual circumstances, we are not in a position with our investing to say, I need to make 50% on my money by the end of the year or its game over.”

And even when our biological clock expires, our investments do not. They get, in most cases, passed on to the people we love, spouses, children, grandchildren.

The right way to lead a portfolio comeback is to take what the defense (read: Market) gives you. That is not a code for be ultra conservative. By all means take advantage of cheap valuations. Adjust your asset allocation. But let your choices be dictated by opportunities, not a desperate desire to make it all back on one play. You may find that the supposed long, slow climb back can happen more quickly than we expected - and without advanced warning. Those with broad equities exposure have seen just that in the last 6 months.

Maybe your comeback has begun. I hope it has. Or maybe you have been on the proverbial sideline. If the latter is the case, you may feel an even greater temptation to make something happen. Resist this temptation. Evaluate your goals. Evaluate your holdings. Evaluate your opportunities. And start making sound, measured decisions. Do it. Take what the defense gives you and you will come back.

There is only one Brett Favre.

And as any Jets fan will tell you, he led the league in interceptions last year.
-Dr. Frank Murtha

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