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A little background on myself since it affects my review. I have read over 200 books on investing. My conclusion is that investing in a diversified portfolio of low cost index funds is the way to build and maintain wealth. I am a member of the Internet Forum Bogleheads dot Org, whose members are disciples of Jack Bogle's passive investing strategies. William Bernstein occasionally posts on this forum. I am also the author of the book Index Mutual Funds: How to Simplify Your Financial Life and Beat the Pros. I am also a contributing author to the Bogleheads 2nd book on investing titled The Bogleheads Guide to Retirement Planning. I recently met Bill Bernstein at the Boglehead's 8th annual convention in Fort Worth in October 2009. I heard Bernstein answer questions and give a 20 minute lecture on the four lessons he learned from the Crash of 2008.
I have enjoyed Bernstein's previous books, and I really like his Retirement Calculator from Hell story posted on his Efficient Frontier web site. I looked forward to reading the Investor's Manifesto.
Bernstein correctly points out that every few years we experience a Bear Market in stocks, but nobody knows when to predict when the next one will begin. If you examine history from WWII, you will find we have experienced about 13 Bear Markets in 65 years.....or roughly a Bear Market about every 5 years. Bernstein's solution to the dilemma of not knowing when the next Bear Market will begin is to hold a diversified portfolio of low cost index funds, including both stocks and bonds. Bernstein's recommendation is not new with regards to holding a portfolio of both stocks and bonds. Benjamin Graham back in his 1934 book Security Analysis recommended roughly a 50:50 split between stocks and bonds.
At first, I was a little surprised that Bernstein said the field of finance (and investing) is a relatively small one compared to other fields. He said the number of major ideas is small compared to medicine, engineering, or the social sciences. After I thought about it, I realized Bernstein is right. A while back I was doing research for a short story on investing. My research showed very few major ideas and most of them were just within the last 20 years or so. For example, it took until 1994 for William Bengen (engineer turned financial advisor) to study past stock market returns and conclude that retirees should not withdraw more than an inflation adjusted 4% of their initial portfolio during retirement. Up until that point, many people suggested you could withdraw 10% annually, the historic return of the stock market. In 1998, the famous Trinity Study was published with findings similar to Bengen's. Fama and French's 3-factor study identifying small value stocks as giving the highest returns was published in 1992. Monte Carlo analysis of retirement withdrawals did not start until 1997.
In recent years, the financial planning profession has started to recommend SPIA's (single premium immediate annuities) for retirement. There are pros and cons of SPIA's including giving up control of your money to an insurance company for 20 or 30 years. In most states, there is a State Insurance Guaranty Association which is a group of insurance companies which are supposed to pitch in and maintain annuity payments to policy holders if the issuing insurance company goes bankrupt. As the Sub-Prime Crash of 2008 pointed out, many insurance companies (think AIG) participated in the mortgage security shenanigans and almost went bankrupt. Because of the risk of insurance company bankruptcy, Bernstein is recommending avoiding SPIA's. He speculates that maybe the Federal Government will issue SPIA's in the future.
Bernstein correctly points out that the best annuity you can buy....is to wait until age 70 to start drawing Social Security.
Bernstein also correctly points out that very few people can be their own financial advisors. To be your own effective financial advisor, you have the following four traits: 1) interested in investing, 2) math skills, 3) knowledge of history, 4) understand and control your own behavioral finance tendencies.
Bernstein believes the Gordon equation should be used to predict the future returns of stocks. When the book was written, the Gordon equation predicted future stock market returns of 4-8% in inflation adjusted terms.
Bernstein says Markowitz's mean variance optimization is a great teaching tool, but it should never actually be used in the real world of investing.
Bernstein also recommends not investing in the countries with the fastest growing economies. Most studies have found an inverse relationship between economic growth rate and stock market returns.
In regards to asset allocation, Bernstein suggests the starting point of the Rule of 100 (100 minus your age is your suggested stock allocation). Jack Bogle calls this rule "your age in bonds".
Bernstein cites Benjamin Graham's 1934 classic The Intelligent Investor with regards to asset allocation. Graham recommended a 50:50 stock to bond allocation..."We have suggested as a fundamental guiding rule that the investor should never have less than 25% or more than 75% of his funds in common stocks, with a converse inverse range of between 75% and 25% in bonds. There is an implication here that the standard division should be an equal one, or 50-50 between the two major investment mediums."
Bernstein is ok with tilting your portfolio towards small-value per the Fama-French 3-factor study, but correctly points out it might take 20-30 years for small cap value to show its out-performance.
In this book, Bernstein recommends including your Social Security and pension as a bond in your asset allocation. When I recently heard Bernstein speak, he said it was much simpler not to include these two items in your asset allocation. In my experience, there is no harm at figuring your asset allocation both ways (with and without SS and pensions).
Bernstein also generally agrees with the current financial planning industry rule of thumb of not withdrawing more than an inflation adjusted 4% of your retirement portfolio. His modification is...2% SWR is bulletproof, 3% ok, 4% you are taking some risk, and 5% you are destined to eating Alpo.
Bernstein believes in the role of behavioral finance impacting investor's decisions. He includes some reference to behavioral finance issues in this book. Separately, I have heard him recommend reading Jason Zweig's book Your Money and Your Brain. I have read Zweig's book, but would instead recommend Pompian's book Behavioral Finance and Wealth Management.
I found Bernstein's story about Venice in the 1300-1500 period very interesting. Venice forced wealthy people to buy government bonds yielding 5%. A secondary market arose where these bonds traded anywhere from 20% to 90% of face value, depending on the condition of the country. Given the U.S. huge deficits, maybe our Federal Government will institute the same law as Venice did.
All-in-all an easy read which covers the basics of investing very well. This book is shorter than most, so hopefully more people will actually read the book. I think Bernstein accomplished his objective of making a shorter and simpler book that more people will read and understand. I'm going to buy a copy for my son to read.