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Heed 2023′s teachable moments when it comes to investing

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At the start of 2023, investor sentiment hovered near record lows, pushed down by a number of weighty concerns: inflation not seen since the 1980s, skyrocketing interest rates, an ongoing war in Eastern Europe, a consensus view of impending U.S. recession and dismal market returns in 2022. Yet when the dust settled on 2023, the S&P 500 had gained over 26%, tech stocks surged well over 40% and Bitcoin skyrocketed over 150%.

Looking back, 2023 offers some teachable moments that can make us better investors if we pay attention.

Lesson 1, Understand recency bias. This is an aspect of human nature that causes us to place undue weight on recent events when formulating expectations for the future. In the markets, this bias often causes us to be cautious when we should be aggressive and aggressive when we should be cautious.

That caused us to be defensive in regard to the markets, entering 2023. Now, we need to be mindful of how we invest when markets are in rally mode. The markets are a forward-looking discounting mechanism, always attempting to anticipate what will happen next, not stuck in recency bias.

To optimize your investment outcome in 2024, you may want to consider looking for opportunities arising from the possible reacceleration of global economic activity, the potential for the resolution of one or more of the ongoing global conflicts and a presidential election cycle that climaxes later in the year.

Lesson 2, Keep an eye on the Fed. Last year’s large swings in the stock market coincided with changes in the outlook for continued Federal Reserve interest rate hikes. It reminded investors of the importance of understanding the power of the Federal Reserve to move the stock and bond markets and therefore the importance of being aware of what the Fed is thinking at any point in time about the U.S. economy — and inflation.

In 2024, look for the Fed to hold steady on interest rates as U.S. inflation remains stubbornly high and business activity surprises to the upside. The consensus view right now is that rate cuts could start in March, but that is unlikely if economic activity remains stronger than expected in the U.S.

Lesson 3, Consider passive versus active. Investing for growth means taking risk, and risk-takers by nature like to win. For many, this means trying to pick individual companies or funds we think will outperform. Last year was another disappointing year for “active” equity mutual funds as the majority, around 60% according to Morningstar, underperformed their passive benchmark.

Bottom line, U.S. equity markets are growing increasingly efficient, and it’s getting more difficult for active managers to justify their higher fees. If you don’t have time to do the research, you’re normally going to be better off going with a more cost-efficient index fund.

Lesson 4, Stay diversified. The U.S. represents approximately one-quarter of the world’s economy and just over 60% of the world’s publicly traded stock market. Yet most American investors ignore the rest of the world. Recognize how quickly capital can flow from overvalued markets to undervalued markets and construct an investment portfolio designed for an increasingly global future. Most of the developing world has a meaningfully younger demographic which sets these economies up nicely for future growth. Because it’s normally impossible to predict when the economic winds will change, long-term investors concerned about portfolio volatility should stay diversified geographically.

2024 holds the possibility to further uncover the potential for artificial intelligence, a technological advancement with the power to increase human productivity, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the invention of the internet or electricity. At the same time, the world faces ongoing conflict in the form of wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, as well as at home in what will undoubtedly be a contentious U.S. presidential election.

Investors need to stay focused on the opportunities ahead, while remaining diversified to lessen the inevitable bumps in the road.

Michael J. Francis, president of Francis LLC, is a registered investment adviser and can be reached at [email protected].

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