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MC Stories – Out of the Mouth of Babes

When I became a mom, I always thought I would be teaching my kids things, not the other way around, especially when it comes to what I do for a living. But as they say—out of the mouth of babes. . . .

One morning recently, I was anxious to take the kids to my parents’ house to go swimming. We’ve been isolating inside like the rest of the world due to the current pandemic, but have been fortunate enough to be able to keep my family in our “bubble.”

My husband and I have three beautiful girls: Dilynn (4), Nora (2), and Harlowe (10 mos). Dilynn is my most tenacious. As we were putting on our shoes to leave, she asked if she could go pack her backpack. Knowing she would put up a fight if I said no, I told her to go pack it quickly.

After a minute or two, Dilynn hadn’t returned. I found her in her room just looking around. Somewhat annoyed, I told her to just grab Puppy (her favorite stuffed animal) and Cozy (her favorite blanket). She pushed back (did I mention her tenacity?) and said she always brings Puppy and Cozy and that she needed to pack other things. She then asked me, “Mom, where are we going? I need to know if I should pack my mittens or a bathing suit.”

That question, out of the mouth of my four-year-old daughter, really made clear just how important it is to know your destination before you pack. Similarly, as advisors, our clients’ life goals—their destination—are so important for us to know before we can create their portfolio allocation. We probably all remember our favorite stuffed animal or special blanket/comfort item, which is, as Dilynn pointed out, an essential item we always pack. Similarly, certain assets like stocks and bonds are essential parts of every portfolio. However, at Morton Capital, we believe that diversification beyond those two asset classes is crucial when trying to mitigate risk and customize our strategy to help clients achieve success. How we choose which additional investments to add to the portfolio is guided by the client’s goals/destination. We need to know if a client needs mittens (maybe that is something that provides more long-term appreciation) or if they need a bathing suit (maybe that is something with less liquidity risk that provides monthly cash flow).

Furthermore, when I first found Dilynn in her room, she wasn’t just stuffing things in her bag. She was looking around. She was taking inventory. To be able to pack for your destination, you have to know what you have first (and what you might be missing). As advisors, we feel this “taking inventory” step, what we call data gathering, is the most important part of the process when it comes to creating a dynamic financial plan that gives our clients control over their long-term financial decisions. Thus, we spend a significant amount of time on data gathering, asking for a breakdown of expenses (such as how much you spend on dining out vs. groceries), mortgage statements, bank statements, insurance policies, and tax returns. Many of our clients assume that providing us with broad income and expense numbers will give us sufficient information to produce an accurate plan, or one that is “close enough.” However, this could mean that you might end up packing a bathing suit when what you really need is a pair of mittens, or, worse, packing half a bathing suit and one mitten (i.e., close but not enough).

It is easy to get stuck in the rhythm of our day-to-day routine. I talk to clients all the time about what we do and why we do it. However, this particular morning with Dilynn really made our process and the reasons behind it more tangible for me. I can’t wait to see what she teaches me next.

MC Stories – An Advisor’s Annotated Book Stack

 

I like to read historical literary texts as well as their inventive modern reinterpretations.  Both sets pose questions that don’t go out of style:  Who are we as a society?  What do we value?  What should we teach our children?  How do we know what we know?  My book stack offers a few examples…

With Infinity in the Palm of Her Handauthor Gioconda Belli takes a line from a William Blake poem and reimagines the conversations of Eve and Adam and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.  Eve, and Adam to a lesser degree, ask the questions that we moderns might also wish to pose.

 

            Eve:  “What is there beyond this garden; why are we here?”

            Serpent:  “Why do you want to know?  You have everything you need.”

            Eve:  “Why would I not want to know?  What does it matter if I know?”

 

            Eve:  “It seems that you want me to eat this fruit.”

            Serpent:  “No.  I merely envy the fact that you have the option of choosing.  If you eat the fruit, you and Adam will be free, like Elokim.”

            Eve:  “Which would you choose?  Knowledge or eternity?”

            Serpent:  “I am a serpent.  The Serpent.  I told you that I do not have the option to choose.”

 

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are among the first origin stories of Western Civilization.  In The OdysseyOdysseus (like Eve, above) gets a shot at Eternity — but only if he marries the goddess Calypso.  Instead, Odysseus chooses finite life on his own terms, reuniting with his wife Penelope.  My copy of The Iliad is a signed first edition of the Robert Fitzgerald translation, a college gift that set me on a lifetime course of inquiry. Together the two books pose grand (and small) questions about how we should live.  The texts’ richness in language and allegory has been the source of new literature for almost three thousand years.  Each generation reinterprets the original.  Four hundred years or so after Homer, Aeschylus wrote The Oresteia, performed in Athenian amphitheaters.  A hundred years ago, an Egyptian-Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy, penned a short piece called Ithaca.

More recently, a classics professor at Bard College, Daniel Mendelsohn, wrote An Odyssey.  His aging father audited Mendelsohn’s class on The Odyssey, and this book becomes a meditation on what these historic texts mean to college students with brief life experience, juxtaposed with the meaning for someone who has lived a very long life.  The elder Mendelsohn audited the class in anticipation of joining his son on a Mediterranean cruise that would track the voyage of Odysseus.  An important part of Homer’s Odyssey is a son taking a journey to search for a father he doesn’t know; in Mendelsohn’s Odysseyit, too, is the search by a son for a father, this time a psychological and emotional expedition.

When my older daughter was a sophomore in college, she invited me to audit a class with her; the course combined architecture with gender studies.  Following a conversation with the professor, and germane to the syllabus, I wound up giving a lecture on “advice texts through history”.  In addition to the first four chapters of Homer’s Odyssey, other assigned reading included Discourse to Lady Lavinia His Daughter.  Here, a nobleman during the Italian Renaissance, Annibal Guasco, prepared his 11-year-old daughter to be a Lady-in-Waiting in the Court of Savoy, and as a gift, wrote the Discourse for her.  At such a young age, she required a crash course on decorum.  These are two examples offered by Guasco to Lavinia:

  • On the subject of talking badly about others behind their backs,“…Guard against this, for not only would it be unworthy of your noble rank, but the very earth would repeat it [even] if men remained silent.”
  • On the general topic of being thoughtful in one’s speech,“…Learn well how to control your tongue, considering that Nature enclosed it mysteriously within the lips and the teeth, as if behind two doors, to [hold back certain thoughts] with our teeth, even if they had got as far as the tip of our tongue, and then restrain them with our lips, if they had escaped the confines of our teeth.”

Guasco gave Lavinia advice in many areas of daily life, and among them, this:  “…it is very true that no greater happiness is attainable in this world than through intellectual achievement.”  In the year 1585, this was quite a bright light from a father to a daughter.

The Swerve – How the World Became Modern is a story that begins in the early Italian Renaissance, in 1417, with the discovery of an ancient text written by the Roman poet Lucretius, a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.  (First, though, to set the record straight:  to be an “Epicure” is not to be a pleasure seeker in a hedonistic way; Epicurus placed greater emphasis on the avoidance of pain rather than the pursuit of pleasure, with more focus on intellectual pleasure, as it is the longer lasting one.)  In 1417, scholars knew of Lucretius, but his work had been lost to history for over 1,000 years – until an Italian manuscript hunter (yes, a real job) found a copy of “De Rerum Natura” (“On The Nature of Things”) tucked away in a German monastery.  The ideas contained within “On the Nature of Things” were shocking.  Though written before the birth of Christ, the text was heretical to the Catholic Church.  Contained in the most beautiful Latin verse were the ideas that all physical matter is made up of an infinite number of very small particles called “atoms”; there are different types of atoms, though the types are limited in number.  These atoms move in eternal motion, randomly colliding and swerving in new directions.  In this world of Lucretius, there are particles and voids – and nothing else.  Once brought back to Florence, the manuscript was treated as a secret document, and very few people were allowed to see it.  Scholars and artists learned about the ideas within “On the Nature of Things”, but to write about it would risk a Church accusation of heresy.  Painters, though, caught a break; they could paint the ideas of Lucretius onto the canvas, but they had, to use a modern term, “plausible deniability” when confronted by the Church. (“No, Monsignor, that creature is not from an early species that evolved into humans.  It is a chthonic beast from Greek mythology.”)

The Order of Time by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli shakes up what we know about the nature of time.  Rovelli is a lyrical writer, so the book is both a joy to read and a challenge, as our perceptions of time are challenged by him.  He tears down our assumptions about time, revealing a universe, where at the most fundamental level, time disappears.  Flipping through the pages just now, I see that I am going to have to re-read it.

Last, but not least, is the classic and definitive book on investment bubbles.  Written in 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds covers Tulip-mania, the South Sea Bubble, and John Law’s Mississippi Scheme.  There are, unquestionably, lessons to be learned from this book about today’s financial world — particularly regarding the Fed’s current money-printing regime, as well as the understanding that people will, and do, pay crazy amounts of money for items of fleeting worth.  Popular Delusions shows how the bubbles build.  From a distance of two centuries and more, foolishness seems obvious.  When we are living in it, though, it takes focus to keep questioning commonly-held beliefs, asking ourselves over and over, “How do we know what we know, and from there, which actions should we take?”

Next time:  “What’s the deal with all those record albums in the picture?!”

Bruce Tyson