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There is so much to keep track of these days. There is the crash in oil prices. The terror in Paris. The political drama in Greece. The unexpected decline in interest rates. Inflation expectations. The QE program in Europe. The Fed's next move. China's new stock market. The global economy. And of course, there is the state of the earnings season.

But this morning, I'd like to take a moment to step back from the news flow and the blinking screens to talk about investing strategy. More specifically I'd like to talk about the idea of investor expectations.

It's that time of year again. Time to assess how your portfolio performed in 2014 and to decide if there are any adjustments needed for the new calendar year. But here's the problem. The vast majority of investors and a great many investment professionals go about this task the wrong way.

What's Your Number?

Ask yourself, how do you review the performance of your investments? Is there a certain number you are looking for each year? If so, have you done your homework and do you know if that number is achievable on a long-term basis? Have you studied up on the historical returns of stocks, bonds, gold, real estate, etc.?

Or do you compare your returns to the popular indices such as the S&P 500, the Dow, or the Russell 2000? And if you do, should you be? For example, if you have a diversified portfolio, is it really appropriate to compare your holdings in stocks, bonds, commodities, emerging markets, etc. to a single index?

So, if you have a diversified portfolio, do you create a blended benchmark for the portfolio that represents the target allocations within your actual holdings? If not, you may want to consider doing so.

Let's Talk Stock Market Returns

Hopefully the point that there is more to analyzing a portfolio's return than simply looking at the S&P is being made here.

For folks investing specifically in the stock market, comparing results to the S&P is a good place to start. However, it is most definitely not the end-all, be-all number.

For example, if you hold mutual funds, do you know the specific goal/strategy of the fund? Do you know where the fund fits within the "style box" universe? And perhaps more importantly, do you know how the benchmark for that specific style box performed last year?

To be fair in your assessment of performance, you really ought to know the style and the objective of the fund/ETF/strategy you are using and then compare accordingly.

Last year was a good example of this point. The S&P 500 wound up with a gain of 11.39%. As such, most investors believe it was a strong year for the overall stock market. However, this was definitely not the case. While the S&P put up a double digit return, the "generals" of the market - aka the Dow Jones Industrial Average - gained just 7.52%. And then the small caps, which is where so many growth-oriented investors are focused, returned 3.69%. So, as you can see, not all stocks were created equal in 2014.

And this dichotomy got worse the further away from a passive S&P strategy one strayed.

A Difficult Environment For Some

By now you've probably seen the headlines that 2014 was not a good year for active managers. For example, hedge funds had their 3rd worst year on record. According to Goldman Sachs, the average return of the 782 hedge funds they followed was -1.0% on the year as of early December. The HFR Equity Hedge Index saw a return of 2.26% last year. And the HFR Global Hedge Fund Index was down -0.6% in 2014.

In addition, some very big names in the active space got spanked last year. One firm, which manages in excess of $5 billion saw their flagship strategy fall more than -20.5% during calendar 2014.

Next, according to a report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, a measurement of the alpha (the risk adjusted return above the overall stock market's return) in the market hit the lowest level in more than 30 years last year.

The point here is that the S&P's return didn't really tell the story of how the year went for those active managers attempting to manage risk and create some alpha.

What's an Investor to Do?

So, what do you do if your strategy underperformed the S&P 500? Fire the manager? Quit the strategy? Move into a different fund/ETF? Write a nasty note telling the manager how disappointed you are?

The next point might be tough to take for some. You see, there is no such thing as a silver bullet in this business. Sorry, but there is not a Holy Grail fund/manager/ETF/strategy that wins year in and year out, without ever letting you down.

And yet, this is what a lot of investors think they should be receiving from their funds/advisors.

There IS a Price for Admission...

Here's the really big point this morning. If you are implementing a strategy that attempts to do much of anything other than buy-and-hold the S&P 500 (for example, trying to avoid the nastiness that occurs in bear market environments and outperform the S&P over time) you need to understand that there will be times when you have to pay the price of admission for such aspirations.

There will be times when things just don't go your way. There will be times when you are frustrated or disappointed. If you want to have your cake and eat it too in this game, you need to understand that there will be bumps in the road. And this, dear readers, is what I deem the real secret to long-term investing success - understanding the game and having the proper expectations.

The bottom line is that ALL investment approaches/strategies/styles underperform from time to time. Remember, even the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, the man perceived to be the greatest investor of his generation, has underperformed on occasion. And sometimes badly.

So, with that said, does it still make sense to compare everything to the S&P 500 or to that number in your head? Wouldn't it make more sense to actually compare apples to apples? I.E. Compare what you are trying to accomplish to an appropriate benchmark?

So, before you send that scathing email to your financial advisor for underperforming the S&P 500 last year, you may want to do some homework. Be sure to first identify what your overall objective was. And then determine how other strategies similar to yours performed.

If your portfolio lost -20% when most others in the class produced returns within a couple percent of breakeven, by all means, fire that manager or quit that strategy.

However, if you were planning to fire the manager/fund/ETF/strategy because it failed to outperform the S&P 500 last year while the return was within the norm of returns for the style utilized, you may want to give that decision a second thought.

Turning To This Morning

The focus in the market remains largely the same this morning. In the early, pre-market session, traders appear to be following Europe's lead. And with the major indices across the pond all green so far, the mood appears to be improved after the last two days of selling on Wall Street. However, it is worth noting that this was also the case going into Monday's session. Europe was up on the expectations for QE and futures in the U.S. were pointing higher. However, within 2 minutes after the opening bell, the big boyz and their computer toyz focused their algos on the price of oil. And with oil breaking down to a new low yesterday, stocks followed suit. Which brings us to this morning. Once again, European bourses are up nicely. Once again, yields are falling. And once again, oil is falling to a fresh new low as it appears that a price war is developing between OPEC and non-OPEC countries (and yes, that is an extreme oversimplification of the situation). So, the question is if the day will play out as it did yesterday with stocks immediately reversing the opening tick. Or will this be the day that traders stop worrying about oil and return their focus to things like earnings and the economy?

Pre-Game Indicators

Here are the Pre-Market indicators we review each morning before the opening bell...

Major Foreign Markets:
    Japan: -0.64%
    Hong Kong: +0.79%
    Shanghai: +0.18%
    London: +0.65%
    Germany: +1.19%
    France: +1.25%
    Italy: +1.14%
    Spain: +1.23%

Crude Oil Futures: -1.49 to $44.58

Gold: +$7.10 at $1239.90

Dollar: higher against the yen and pound, lower against the euro

10-Year Bond Yield: Currently trading at 1.888%

Stock Indices in U.S. (relative to fair value):
    S&P 500: +9.94
    Dow Jones Industrial Average: +90
    NASDAQ Composite: +25.00

Thought For The Day:

If you want to live, give up your foolishness and let understanding guide your steps. -Proverbs 9:6

Positions in securities mentioned: None

Wishing you green screens and all the best for a great day,

David D. Moenning
President, Chief Investment Officer
Heritage Capital Research
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