By Chris Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
The bulk of your retirement accounts and other investments probably are in mutual funds. A mutual fund is composed of two types of publicly traded securities: (1) stocks, or shares of ownership in companies, and (2) bonds, or shares of loans to corporate or governmental borrowers.
Whenever stock and bond markets are performing poorly, investment advisors reassure their clients by pointing to past downturns and highlighting what happened after each: the markets recovered and grew. In the long term, the stock market does very well, advisors always say. You’re investing for the long term. Ride out the storm.
But what happens when you invest for the long term and still don’t get the results you expect?
Why Results Don’t Meet Expectations
That’s the complaint that Jared Williams of Biblical Wealth Solutions has heard repeatedly, ever since he became a financial advisor and inherited nearly 100 clients from a predecessor. Most of these clients had reached or were nearing retirement age. They had been investing in the stock market for decades and, over that time period, they had watched the value of the stock market grow at a healthy average annual rate, such as 10 percent. Clients expected that their individual investment portfolios had grown at the same rate.
They hadn’t. The rate of portfolio growth was less than that of the stock market. In most cases, it was a lot less.
What had gone wrong? Williams didn’t know, so he started digging. His research identified two main causes: market volatility and fees.
“Volatility is the normal ups and downs of the stock market,” he explains. “Most people, even professionals, operate as if volatility has no impact. If the market goes up an average of 10 percent a year, then they assume that their investments go up 10 percent every year. That's not real life. That's not how the numbers work out.”
Most financial advisors charge a fee that is about 1 percent of a client’s investment portfolio. “But clients pay more than that, because every mutual fund has its own fees for the management of that fund,” Williams says. “You should assume that your total fees are about 2 percent. And you pay those fees whether the market is up or down.”
When he examined the combined impact of “normal” market volatility and fees, Williams was “shocked at how substantial it was.” For the investors he studied, real portfolio growth was less than half of expected growth.
Peace of Mind, but Not Better Results
As disappointed as some Christian investors are with the financial results they get, they would be even more disappointed if they achieved better results with investments that were not “biblically responsible.”
“Some publicly traded companies support and even profit from activities that Christian clients may consider unbiblical, such as pornography, addiction, and abortion,” says Williams. “Even if they don’t offer products or services in these areas, the companies may reflect an unbiblical approach through their human resources policies, marketing campaigns, or philanthropic ventures.”
To appeal to biblically responsible investors, some investment firms manage biblically responsible mutual funds. All the companies with stocks included in such funds pass regular screening for unbiblical activities. The funds give Christian investors the peace of mind that they are not making money through activities that they abhor.
Peace of mind, but not better results.
“They’re selective mutual funds, but they’re still mutual funds,” Williams explains. “As such, they still are subject to the same issues that other mutual funds face: market volatility and fees.”
From Wall Street to Main Street
Given the limitations of traditional investments in publicly traded securities, Williams began to look for alternatives in the world of privately funded companies, which are the bulk of companies in the U.S.
The world of Wall Street is a highly regulated one. To help investors make informed decisions on whether to buy, sell, or hold a company’s securities, the Security and Exchange Commission requires every publicly traded company to disclose a wealth of information to the public on a regular basis. A company’s reports must be written in plain English, cannot include false or misleading statements, and cannot omit material information.
In contrast, privately held companies are under no obligation to disclose any information to the public. So how do you analyze such companies? Williams starts with the people who own them and run them.
“I vet the people,” he says. “Usually, there’s a connection: someone I know introduces me to someone at the company. Even with an introduction, I have multiple phone calls and multiple meetings, ideally face-to-face meetings. I ask a ton of questions, and I get to know them.” Their personal values, and the values of their company, have to be similar to those of his clients.
If the vetting process raises any red flags, then Williams usually moves on. “I trust my gut,” he says.
Once the company’s people pass his screening, Williams analyzes the company itself and the investment opportunity, using whatever information the company’s team is willing to share. He crunches the numbers and looks for inconsistencies. Only if he fully understands and trusts the business model does he proceed.
Williams doesn’t want his clients to be guinea pigs. “If this is the first time the company has sought outside investment, then I’m not bringing it to my clients,” he says. “I’m looking for firms that have a track record of successful outside investment.”
Past mistakes are not a problem. In fact, they are essential. “If someone's never had a problem and never dealt with a significant thing going wrong, they're not as seasoned as I would like,” he says. “I ask them how they handled adversity and, more importantly, how the investors fared. If there are good answers there, then I'm much more interested.”
Doing More Than Avoiding the Bad
One area of investment opportunity that Williams has found is in residential real estate.
Most investors already have a stake in real estate because they own the home in which they reside. Increasing your real estate holdings typically involves buying another house and doing one of two things with it: (1) renting it out, thereby earning rental income, or (2) “flipping” it, where you make improvements to the house and sell it at a profit. But most investors, according to Williams, don’t want to become landlords and don’t want to flip houses.
An alternative for some is passive investing in multi-unit rental properties, such as apartment complexes. When such properties are managed by an experienced apartment operator, Williams says, they can deliver good returns with fairly low and understandable risk. “And these investments avoid the market volatility and fees associated with mutual funds and other traditional market investments,” he adds.
But are they biblically responsible? According to Williams, that depends on the property and the people who manage it. But opportunities to do God’s work are available in the world of real estate.
“Sometimes, real estate investments make things better – not just properties, but people’s lives,” he says. “Communities become safer and more beautiful. People who have gotten way behind on their mortgages and are at risk of foreclosure are able to stay in their homes and get rid of a lot of their debt. And these are profitable investments for the companies and for individual investors.
Seeing this led to an “incredible mindset shift” for Williams. “We can do more than avoid the bad with our investments,” he says. “Avoiding the bad is easy. Here, we’re doing good and blessing others. We’re a part of changing people’s lives for the better.”
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Chris Bolinger is the author of three men’s devotionals – 52 Weeks of Strength for Men, Daily Strength for Men, and Fuerzas para Cada Día para el Hombre – and the co-host of the Empowered Manhood podcast. He splits his time between northeast Ohio and southwest Florida. Against the advice of medical professionals, he remains a die-hard fan of Cleveland pro sports teams. Find him at mensdevotionals.com.