PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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Investing, Philadelphia Style
Land ownership once was the only practical form of savings, until banking matured in the mid-19th century. Philadelphia took an early lead in what is now called investment and still defines a certain style of it.

Medical Economics (2)
New topic 2013-04-09 21:37:40 description

Health Savings Accounts, Regular, and Lifetime
We explain the distinction between Health Savings Accounts, Flexible Spending Accounts, and Lifetime Health Savings Accounts. Sometimes abbreviated as HSA, FSA, and L-HSA. Congress should make it easier to switch between them. All three are superior to "pay as you go", health insurance now in common use, only slightly modified by Obamacare. It's like term life insurance compared to whole-life. (www.philadelphia-reflections.com/topic/262.htm)

What Price Success?

One of the best ways to wreck a good plan, is to fail to provide for success. Most innovators spend so much anxiety over possible failure , they never get around to planning for the problems created by the plan's roaring success. So, let's voice some concerns about where the Lifetime Health Savings Accounts might stand, if everything worked perfectly.

In the first place, there could be a conflict between the small investor's best interests. On the one hand, he will undoubtedly do better for himself by purchasing index funds than individual stocks. He gets diversification and low fees, supported by mountains of evidence that only a rare investor will do better with stock-picking and market-timing, no matter who is advising him. But if myriads of people do the same, index funds could overwhelm the market. Already, they represent several trillions of dollars, and show no signs of slowing the pace of advancement. The proportion of stockholders who actually vote their shares will steadily shrink, and ultimately we can expect the few shares that are voted, to be in the hands of managers and insiders of the company. Now it is probably true that the average small investor knows so little of what is going on, that both he and the companies are better off if he doesn't exercise an uninformed vote. A more likely danger is imperfect agency on the part of the managers of the funds. Wall Street periodically circulates rumors of fund managers offering to vote the fund proxies, in return for in return for the selection of their fund for the affected company's pension fund assets. It doesn't matter whether this is true, what matters is it is believed. Sooner or later, Congress will get wind of such rumors and pass inhibiting legislation. The nature of such regulation and/or legislation is ultimately to impair the value of the stock. The salaries of CEOs may go down, and some Wall Street predators may be thwarted, but overall return on investment will be lessened by the suspicion.

The bond market is much larger than the stock market, because leverage is the basis for a great deal of profitability. No one knows what the optimum ratio of bonds to stocks should be. In 2007, the ratio of bank leverage was fifty to one, and few people complained it was too much. In the depths of the 1930 depression it was far lower, and few people complained it was too low. In retrospect, fifty times is insanely high, while if you bought any stock at all in 1939, you probably made a ton of money. The herd instinct always seems to drive this relationship to extremes, but in fact the optimum ratio will also go up and down with the times. Any law setting limits will be meaningless for long periods of time, and then suddenly be a serious impediment to the economy. The problem lies in the reality that bond trading is, with few exceptions, a zero-sum game. For you to win, someone else likely has to lose. By contrast, the stock market represents company ownership, and it is possible for both sides of a trade to be highly satisfied with their outcomes. It certainly isn't guaranteed, but the environment is more favorable for a passive investor. The long run hazard lies in the possibility that nearly all investors will go to school and learn these aphorisms, thereby undermining the bond market except for insurance companies, banks and other long-term investors, who can hold a thirty-year bond to maturity. A flight from bonds would inevitably make their prices drop, followed by a shortage of bonds, which would then make their prices soar. Carried to an extreme, and protracted for a decade, a disturbance of this sort would cause the buy-and-hold stock investor to lose the faith, and ultimately to lose his shirt.

You have to feel sorry for the traditional stock broker and investment advisor. The advent of the computer and of low-cost diversified funds, have badly shaken what has long been an honorable and respectable profession. However, stock brokers have resisted adopting the legal role of fiduciary, pledged to put the customer's interest ahead of his own. Most of the major stock brokers started as private offices to handle the affairs of one rich family, who essentially didn't care about the fees and commissions. As a favor to rich friends, they enlarged the business and utilized economies of scale. In consequence, almost all stock brokers could hope to get rich from trade secrets. With the advent of computers and high-speed trading, the broker trade became an investing profession, graduates of business schools and even mathematics majors from Ivy League Universities. The secret of success in that environment was volume, not trust-fund babies as friends and former classmates. Pension funds in particular aggregated a large number of obedient clients for them; the salary scale was still opulent, but the clientele were no longer their equals in sophistication.

As the brokerage house with walnut panels and oriental rugs began to fade away, the social level of the broker was no longer so important, and high fees interfered with maintaining high volume. It is only a matter of time before the personal financial manager discovers a small volume of potential clients, including trust-fund babies with some investment training of their own. The surviving financial advisors are only cogs in a big machine. In the meantime, be careful of whose advice you take, especially if he steers you away from index funds. There is a significant risk the advice is really coming from the sales manager, unloading the firm's inventory. The most lurid example is what has happened to 401(k) pension plans, where the investment return is heavily consumed by fees, altogether too often. It would certainly pay to browse through a book by Ibottson, containing all of the statistics you need about the last century. Since 1926, large-cap stocks have averaged 10% total return, while somewhat riskier small-capitalization stocks have averaged 12.5%. Your interview with an advisor can't be considered finished until you are told what the 15-year experience has been at that particular fund. Unless you are determined to get the data, you probably won't get it. Because of this behavior, the famous investor Warren Buffett tends not to buy stocks and bonds at all. He buys the whole company. The results of his investment fund, Berkshire Hathaway, are a rather close match to the returns which Ibottson reports.

Ok, ok, got that. But suppose everyone gets it? In that case, one would suppose the prices of common stocks would fall, and the prices of bonds would rise to a new level. At that point, the advice would be to buy funds which hold huge amounts of bonds of all maturities, and hold them to maturity. Remember, investors in Health Savings Accounts would effectively be investing for the next sixty to eighty years. Someone must be found to change the composition of the portfolio rather drastically, and to do so gradually enough to avoid convulsing the market. Panics are essentially what happens when everyone tries to get out the door at the same time. Are we to risk the entire savings of the nation for healthcare, based on that sort of opinion? It seems pretty clear to me that we have to trust someone, but it is not clear to me how we can assure ourselves that the person or persons with authority, will be sufficiently unaffected by politics -- to be trusted.

Which brings up the Federal Reserve. It would be hard to find a group of more serious people, generously infused with a strong sense of duty and fidelity. But strong differences of internal opinion regularly surface, not necessarily following political ideology, as much as creating it. After all, some of this stuff is really hard. In the full century since the 1913 creation of the Fed, the dollar has declined a thousand percent, from the value of one dollar to the value of one penny. John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the wittiest civilized men on earth, loudly and earnestly advocated a deliberate 2% inflation in the value of the dollar. Well, we have it, and the dollar has completely severed its connection to gold and silver, or any other commodity. The currency has now just become a computer entry, when thousands of years of experience speak to the hazard of doing so.

When the dust settles, there remain two reasons why we should take such risks. The first, is the rather good possibility we can indeed extricate ourselves from a looming health finance disaster, by taking this risk. The second, is to reflect on the growing possibility that medical research can eliminate enough disease, and reduce the cost of caring for what is left, to give us the room to ease into sustainable finances. If that's our grand strategy, only America, using American bravado, could pull it off.

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