In this first annual stock update, I need to give you an introduction first. When I went to college for physics, I didn't care about money. I grew up in a family of very modest means and it never really bothered me. I always had enough, including enough to go to college. I started at smaller colleges and worked my way up by using a combination of pell grants, scholarships and summer work. My parents were unable to pay for college, but I did live at home for two of the six years to earn my Bachelors.
That's right, it took me six years to earn a Bachelor's Degree. The reason for this is that I developed a love and a thirst for knowledge. I couldn't resist taking classes all over the spectrum, even if they didn't support my degree. In fact, during my first two years of college, I didn't take a single physics class, even though I eventually chose that field. But, the point is, I didn't care about money. I only cared about the ivory tower of truth, knowledge and learning. With this attitude, I set off for graduate school in physics and got married.
Life at graduate school as a newlywed was mostly great. I continued not caring about money and enjoying what I considered to be an amazing opportunity to chase my dreams. This was followed by a postdoctoral position and then a second and a third. My first child was born during graduate school and my second child was born during my first postdoc. My wife quit her job when our first child was born and decided she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and I did my best to support her. Sometime during the second postdoc, our financial situation began to take its toll.
My wife became unhappy with our situation. She hadn't signed up for this life. She thought it would be graduate school and return to Utah where we met, get a job, a house and enjoy the American dream with our friends and family close by. This was never my dream. I wanted to continue pursuing my academic interests, no matter where they took me and make great scientific discoveries. Although I sometimes conceded that I would give up those dreams and find a good job in Utah if that was what she wanted, but she was determined to support me and did not let me do this. Nevertheless, things started becoming more difficult and finances especially started becoming more and more difficult. I finally landed a faculty position, but unfortunately, she passed a few months after I started and did not reap the rewards of her long, patient support. I consider this to be one of the sick jokes played by the universe and do not agree with attempts to find a silver lining. As a matter of fact, positive comments about it really upset me.
By this point, I was completely disillusioned with the idea that money didn't matter. Money does matter. It gives us the power to avoid the fear and stress of not having enough, of not being able to support our families, of not being able to visit friends and family and so on. It also gives us the ability to do greater good in the world than we could otherwise. Although we always had enough to eat and did not fully appreciate what many around the world suffer, I gained a new appreciation for money during this journey. I didn't want to have money stress anymore. And, I dreamed of becoming a philanthropist and doing more good in the world.
When I moved to Illinois, I was determined to buy a house well within my means. Even when the banks offered to loan me much more money for a home and my real estate agent encouraged me to look at more expensive locations, I pushed to buy a house that I could easily afford and have significant funds left over after each payment. During the first couple of years, I saved like crazy and spent money like I was still a student or postdoc.
At first I put my extra money in a savings account, but as it began piling up, I started making extra large payments on my mortgage. Meanwhile, my university allowed us to choose whether we wanted our retirement in the standard defined benefit fund or whether we wanted to do a self-managed fund on the stock market. It was a one-time, lifetime choice that could not be changed later. Over time, I had developed a lack of confidence in the defined benefit funds. How could they cope with an increasing number of senior citizens needing medical care? And, if our lifespans were increased even more, this would exacerbate the problem even further. (If you read my previous post, at this point, I had not fully returned to thinking hard about SENS yet.) And, I still had the idea that I could "solve" the market.
During graduate school, my good friend, Bryan Field, introduced me to the stock market. At the time, I mostly politely talked with him about it. I still believed money didn't matter. But, as time wore on, I began thinking more about what he told me. I picked up some of the books he told me about and a few others and began reading up on stock-market investing. My favorite book of this period was by Jason Kelly called The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing. This book gives the reader a concise introduction to the ins and outs and the methods of investing in stocks and I highly recommend it. With this, and other books, I started to analyze stocks, their fundamentals, their charts and everything I could get my hands on.
I began "trading" on MarketWatch, a virtual simulation of stock market trading so that I could see what my trades would do if I really invested them. Not only was I not sure of myself, but I also had no real money to invest at this point. So, this was the only way I could test my ideas. But, I figured this would be good preparation for the day that I did have investable funds. I also began a competition with my family on MarketWatch. At this point, I had been, by far, reading the most about stock-market trading, and I thought I would crush them. But, I didn't. My brother, which "bought" Google on a whim, crushed me while I actually lost money. What a let down.
With this failure, I decided I just didn't have enough data nor a sufficiently sophisticated modeling system. Later, I also became interested in artificial intelligence and neural nets. I began studying and writing my own neural net from scratch. This was long before the explosion of deep learning, but I remember already thinking, why should there only be 1 hidden layer? Surely, our brains have many layers, or perhaps no layers at all. I didn't know what kind of neural net would be right for this, so I created an evolutionary genetic algorithm that was driven each generation towards a maximal profit by a simulated annealing algorithm. For the time, and considering I was doing this completely on my own, I think it was fairly sophisticated.
I pushed my computer hard, gave it tons of data, and ran this program day and night, searching for the best neural net, the one that earned the greatest profit over a specified time frame. But, in the time I worked on it, on the side of my real job, it never succeeded in beating the market on test data. I figured it just needed more data and more sophisticated training, but it was beginning to take a lot of my time and not giving much return. Not to mention, I still had no investible money and I still had a "day" job that I loved and was passionate about. Furthermore, I wasn't ready to quit my academic pursuits and put my family through the financial difficulty of having no income while I pursued what I was not 100% confident of in the first place. So, I finally put it on the back burner.
A postdoc or two later, after I landed my faculty position, I finally began building up a fund that I could safely invest. I had my "self-managed" retirement fund and I was beginning to save a decent amount of money in my savings account. My parents had always taught me that the savings bank was the best place for building your wealth and, as we were older, that the stock market was a great place to lose your money. But, I wasn't so sure. Nevertheless, I still didn't know how to do it the "right way". I wasn't completely confident I could make my neural net idea work in the amount of time I had to devote to it. I was a single widowed father of two young children and I was just starting a tenure-track faculty position and had all the pressures of earning tenure and taking care of the family. So, I disfavored attacking the stock market like that. But, then how?
As I thought about this, I started reading again and I very fortunately came across Jason Kelly's newest book, The 3% Signal. This book changed my life. It describes a new way of thinking about investing. It takes a long-term view, where you make trades on a quarterly basis to rebalance between a stock fund and a bond fund. However, it does not reset quarterly to a predefined percentage like simpler models. Instead, it has a signal line that grows at 3% per quarter for the stock fund. At the end of each quarter, you calculate your signal value and compare with your actual value. If your actual value is higher, then you sell the excess and bring your stock value down to the signal line and move the revenue into the bond fund. If your actual value is lower, then you sell a fraction of your bond funds to bring your stock fund up to the signal level. Thus, you sell a portion of your stocks when stocks are high and you buy a portion of stocks when they are low and "on sale". And, the amount you buy/sell depends on how much your actual value differs with the signal level.
The details can be read about in Jason's fantastic book, but there is another aspect of his philosophy that really resonated with me. Although I have only read it once so far, there are many passages that still resonate with me and I still think about. I will only mention a few here and perhaps others in future posts. Jason leads us away from the roller-coaster stress of worrying every time the market goes down and being over-exuberant when it goes up. He suggests developing a sort of Zen attitude towards the stock market, removing the Peter Perfect-obsessed post-diction angst with where the market ended up and why you didn't sell your shares or buy more shares the way Peter did. He suggests, instead, that we simply pump the market, like a swing. Buy when it is low and sell when it is high, in proportion to how low or high it is. Of course, the idea of selling high and buying low is not new to Kelly, but his method of knowing when and how much to buy or sell is spot on and usually beats the market in the long run.
Furthermore, he tells us that we can ignore the market in between the quarterly signals. He tells us how, before he developed the signal system, he was always stressed about where the market would go next and recounts a story of when he was on vacation with his extended family at a theme park but couldn't relax and enjoy himself. Instead, he was filled with anxiety about what the stock market would do next and he felt like he was on an emotional roller coaster far worse than the physical ones surrounding him. Not only did he not enjoy the park himself, he made it less enjoyable for his family. But, with the development of the "sig" system, he decoupled from the daily ups and downs of the stock market. He knew where his account would be at the end of the next quarter. It would be 3% higher. This would either be due to the market increasing by that amount or more, in which case, he would reap the benefits of the higher prices. Or, on the other hand, it would be the result of the market going down and he would buy up to the 3% signal line, thus reaping the benefits of buying at lower, "sale" prices. Either way, he "won" and his stock account grew by 3%. What the stock market actually did should not be stressful. It's simply a signal. Buy if it is low and sell if it's high, according to the signal line. You can take comfort in knowing that your stock fund is 3% higher than the previous quarter, quarter after quarter after quarter.
Furthermore, 3% per quarter, leads to slightly better than 12% per year, which, a simple calculation will tell you, leads to a doubling every approximately 6 years. This is far better than any savings account will achieve and a bit better than a dollar-cost-averaging or a buy-and-hold approach to the S&P 500 will achieve (but if you can't follow this plan, dollar cost averaging or buying and holding the S&P 500 is a very close alternative). Moreover, in addition to slightly improving over the S&P 500, you can enjoy the feeling that you are doing something better than helplessly watching your account ride up and down on the market roller coaster. You are managing it on a quarterly basis, in exactly the right direction and the right amount, not too often, not too infrequently, but just right. You can exit the roller coaster and enter the hot tub and enjoy your life no matter what the market does on any particular day. Jason ends his book with these parting thoughts which deeply resonated with me:
The stock market is humanity’s monkey mind writ large. For many, there is no greater cacophony, no greater distraction from life than the news cycle connected to financial markets. The more enlightened way to navigate the complexity is by letting it all go, reducing the disorder to a concise list of prices, visiting that list just four times a year, letting an unemotional formula tell you what the prices mean you should do, and then doing it. This higher state of investing not only performs better; it costs less and uses less of your limited time on earth.
Life is for living, not flailing stressfully in a zero-validity environment. Put your ambition into areas where intuition makes a difference. Don’t wear it out on a fruitless quest to divine the future. Put your financial security on autopilot and turn your attention elsewhere.
Of course, we may rightfully ask whether this actually works. I have followed it for 6 years now, since 2015. I have had very little stress over it. At times the market went down. Such was the case when I first began in 2015 and each month I saw that my account was worth less than the amount I had deposited. However, I knew that this behavior was only a matter of chance and a consequence of the particular year when I started and that the market would have both ups and downs in the future. The whole point of the plan was to take advantage of this. This idea had resonated deeply with me, so I stuck with it. At other times, the market went way, way down, such as in the final quarter of 2018 and in the second quarter of 2020, the pandemic crash. I am proud to say that I was mentally prepared and I did not waver during these times. Indeed, when it became too difficult to watch the market and my balance sink lower and lower, I put myself on a total stock-market news blackout and just ignored it for weeks and sometimes months at a time until the quarterly action came. On the other hand, when the market rose back up, I couldn't resist watching my account balance sky rocket higher. It was great. But, these are just my subjective musings. What any rational person wants to see are cold, hard numbers and that is what I intend to show you here.
I will begin with an old retirement fund left over from an earlier postdoc at Michigan State University. This was not a large account, but it has the benefit of being locked in with neither fresh incoming funds (since I no longer worked there), nor outgoing withdrawals since I'm not retired. I have followed the 3% Signal in this fund since September of 2015 shortly after I read Jason's book. So, it has been just a little shy of 6 years and I should expect a little less than a doubling at this point. Here is a chart of its behavior over this time frame:
The vertical axis gives the total account value while the horizontal axis gives the timeline. You can see that this retirement account begins with slightly greater than $8k ($8156.22 to be exact). The blue circles represent the 3% signal value and rise at a steady rate of 3% each quarter. The red circles, on the other hand, represent my actual account balance. There are missing circles at the beginning because, although I was following the 3% Signal plan, I was not keeping a ledger of my account balances as carefully at that point, so I don't recall the exact account balances. If my memory serves me correctly, my account balance was below the signal line (the red circles would be below the blue circles during this initial time frame). Before the last quarter of 2018, you can see that my account balance tracks closely with the signal line, sometimes above it and sometimes below it.
However, beginning in the last quarter of 2018, my account balance is below, and at times far below, the signal line. This was a significant challenge to watch with a steady hand. But, as I have said, I deeply believed in the system and followed it none the less. When the market fell in December of 2018, I sold my bond funds and used it to buy the stock fund. This was at the bottom of the 2018 market crash, the red circle at $10k at the end of 2018. I knew I was buying cheap stocks that were on "sale" and I believed that they would come back up. They did, and my account balance shot back up in 2019, but not quite to the full signal line yet. I continued following the plan during 2019, sometimes selling small amounts of the stock fund, sometimes buying small amounts of the stock fund, according to the plan. Then, in 2020, the market crashed even harder with the pandemic and my stock fund fell far below the signal line. This was the red circle at around $9k in March of 2020. I used what little bond fund I had left to buy as much stocks as I could. However, because I still had not risen above the full signal line, I was not able to fully fund the buy signal. It is to be expected that this happens from time to time and is discussed in Jason Kelly's book so, although it was painful to see, I followed the plan nevertheless. Finally, throughout 2020, you can see that my patience and diligence finally paid off, and my account balance sky rocketed to above the signal line and this is where I sold a healthy chunk of the stock fund when it was high and reset my stock and bond funds to their base percentages in preparation for the next up and down cycle. The plan, and I, had succeeded!
I have two more accounts to show but, before I do, there are a few things I should note. First, as always, past performance is no guarantee of future performance. I cannot guarantee, indeed I do not know, that the same will happen in the future for any of these accounts. It could be totally different and worse the next time around. I do not pretend to be able to predict the future of the stock market. As Yogi Bera, and others have reminded us, of all the things we might predict, the future is the most difficult. Second, as you can see, there is one thing that this plan requires, which is an absolutely iron will and a steady hand. The natural thing to do when the account balance is way, way down is to sell and try moving your money to a better-performing fund. But, this is exactly the wrong thing to do and will greatly diminish your results and put you far below the S&P 500. In fact, if you do not have an iron will and a deep, deep belief in this system, you will probably be better off simply buying and holding the S&P 500. Third, you may be wondering what stock and what bond fund to buy. This is covered in Kelly's book and I will not go over the details here. But, the main point is to choose a very broad index fund which covers a large section of a volatile part of the market. Volatility is our friend, not our foe as it is in the traditional view of investing. We want volatility because, rather than fearing it, we are going to put it to work for ourselves by pumping it like a child on a swing. Jason suggests using IJR in his book but, because it isn't available in my retirement account, I choose another index fund with similar properties following the direction given in his book.
I will next show a plot of my Illinois State retirement account. This one has 3 different colored circles because this one has a monthly contribution. The yellow circles represent the combined deposits made by myself and by the university. The blue circles represent the 3% growth per quarter target. The red circles represent the total account balance.
So much for my retirement funds. I also had a savings account that had been growing and that I had been partly using to pay down my mortgage. I immediately realized, of course, that I could run the sig system on my savings account and outperform, by a large margin, the insignificant interest rate the bank was paying me so I transferred most of my savings to my brokerage account, which is with Fidelity. The result was much the same as in my two retirement accounts up until 2017, when I finally made the plunge and officially joined Jason Kelly's weekly newsletter. Up until this point, I did not think there was a point to signing up for his weekly newsletter because I felt like I understood his sig plan and could perform it on my own. However, what I did not realize was that he had additional plans with greater potential return (and greater potential risk) that were only accessible via his letter. I was intrigued and joined in January 2017, and was blown away! After being subscribed for 4 years, I can say, without any doubt, that paying the annual fee for this letter has turned out to be the greatest return on any investment I have ever made, including my education, although I couldn't have fully understood it without my education. On the other hand, I should say that even if you do not have the mathematical background to implement this system on your own, he does give you tools to calculate the amount of stocks and bonds to buy and/or sell. So, I honestly believe this system can work for anyone.
Before I display the returns I earned on his higher-octane plans, I will say a few words about my purpose for growing my savings. The first purpose is to overcome the financial anxiety that I have been battling the last decade or so and I am happy to say that I am approaching that goal, with great relief. I'm not ready to quit my day job by any means, but I am feeling more confident that we will be ok. The second purpose is to overcome medical-cost anxiety. Even with insurance, the bills can pile up and unfortunately, I have begun to see the impact of that in a small way. It has caused me to hold back in some cases when I thought it might be beneficial to move forward. And, I expect it will only get much worse with time. Furthermore, I hope to take advantage of some of the rejuvenation breakthroughs in the future but expect that they will initially be quite expensive. So, I still feel quite a bit of anxiety in this area. Third, I want to do some good in the world. I just haven't done enough yet and I feel I have much more to do and that I am partly being held up because of a lack of funds. Therefore, I hope to achieve a level of savings that allows to do greater good in the world. As an old hymn states, "Because I have been given much, I too must give...", a fantastic reminder of how much we have been given and how much more we should give.
There are a lot of ways of doing good in the world, and I am certain my readers are doing much themselves, likely even more than I am. We each choose to do what fits within our means, abilities and interests. I have tried to do this as have you. But, someday I do hope to create some wealth that I can use to go further and do even more. My intention is to spend a good deal of any wealth, talents and time I am fortunate to have in the future in the area of real rejuvenation. By real, I mean, actually undoing the damage of aging that builds up inside us, not merely marginally slowing down the aging process, not merely superficially looking younger but, rather, turning back the biological clock so that our health and our athleticism is as good as in our 20's and 30's.
As I have begun developing many of the problems of aging in the last few years, I have had many people tell me that this is just the way it is. Some people even claim that there is some great purpose to aging, some that this is part of some great plan and so on, and that I just have to accept it. But, why the **** should I accept this? What great plan or purpose is there to all the suffering caused by aging around the world. I sure can't see any. It would be far better to fight it with everything I've got and give both myself and others a chance at being youthful again. Of course, this only makes sense if healthy rejuvenation is within scientific and technological reach in our day. Fortunately, we have the great opportunity that it is, but only with our intense, concerted effort. I have already written some about this in my initial post and will discuss it further in the future, so I won’t belabor the point here. This post is about finance. I will just end by saying, my purpose is not to retire and doing nothing but play golf for the rest of my increasingly frail life. Where is the magic to that? I sincerely hope to help bring the end of aging a bit sooner, and hopefully in time for myself and my loved ones, as well as everyone else. If you have a similar set of interests in creating wealth to do good, I warmly recommend the signal plans as a way to increase your contributions to this great cause and others.
As I mentioned, in January of 2017, I subscribed to Jason Kelly's newsletter and was blown away by his Tier III plan, which is a version of his 3% Signal Plan on steroids. It is much more volatile, much more risky and much more rewarding. It relies on leveraged funds and is not appropriate for everyone. If you must have an iron will to run the 3% Signal Plan, you must have a iron will to the third power to run this Tier III plan. And, I strongly recommend in the highest possible terms to anyone considering it that they run the 3% Signal Plan for a couple years first. Run it long enough that you become comfortable with the ups and downs and build some confidence in your ability to stick to the plan no matter what is happening in the market and no matter what the media voices are saying. This is what I did. In fact, although the Tier III plan immediately sunk deep into my bones and permeated my "soul", I was still hesitant at first. I was especially taken aback when I tried to invest in the leveraged fund for the first time and I got a giant, blaring warning on the Fidelity website that this was considered very high risk. I had to sign a waiver that I understood the risk. I don't remember exactly what it said now, but I remember being scared away for a time while I did further research. When I finally came back, I only invested a small amount of my savings in this Tier III plan and gradually increased it over time. With this warning and explanation, here is my result through 2020.