The Independent Market Observer

8/29/13 – The Sound of Silence

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA®, CFP®

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This entry was posted on Aug 29, 2013 6:42:04 AM

and tagged Market Updates, Europe

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One of my earliest musical memories is listening to the song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel playing on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that my father had brought home when I was very young. I am sure that I had heard music before— on the radio at a minimum—but I remember being very struck by the beauty of the song, particularly the harmony of the voices, in a way that I had never been before. I actually trace my interest in music to that particular song and that particular moment.

I was remembering this in the context of a quiet week in Maine, where I have had the chance to do quite a bit of hiking in fairly unfrequented areas. The area around my cottage has also been quite empty during the week, so I have had a chance to listen to considerably more silence than is normally the case. Silence very definitely has a sound of its own, and, as much as I love Jackson, quiet he is not.

I have also taken the chance this week to get away from the daily chatter of the markets. I have been reading the papers, but once that is done in the morning I disconnect— something that is hard to do, at least for me. The unaccustomed silence has allowed me to think in ways that I have not had the chance to do for some time.

There are two kinds of silence. The first is when all of the meaningless noise drops away, leaving you to reflect on only the important things—the signal stands out as the noise disappears. The second, a more active silence, is when something is sneaking up to pounce on you. This will be familiar to any cat owner. From an investing perspective, in fact, both are the same because hearing the signal should allow you to know whether something is sneaking up on you.

Warren Buffett is famous, among other things, for living in Omaha instead of New York. He has said in the past that being away from the noise helps him think. From a very different context, we have Sherlock Holmes solving a case based on the dog that did not bark.

The challenge, as always, is to discern the important from the merely loud. This is largely what I am attempting to do in this blog—to identify issues that will be important, either immediately or over time, and call them to your attention along with analysis and recommendations about what to do. I think I have done a pretty good job on this, but the question I have asked myself this week has been: How can I do better?

Where I think I can do better, going forward, is to focus more clearly on what is not being discussed in the mainstream press and talk some more about those issues. This is contrarianism in its purest form—that is, focusing on something specifically because no one else is—and it has risks of its own. Nonetheless, it is something that I will be attempting this fall.

I have done this over the summer with the debt ceiling debate, and unfortunately I turned out to be right. It is looking pretty ugly. What I am wrestling with right now is trying to determine what might be sneaking up on us next.

Europe is a leading suspect. Another is a sustained move by investors out of U.S. Treasuries, driving rates up further. A serious currency/trade disruption, probably in Asia, is a third. And I know there is at least one that I am missing.

Not all surprises, however, are negative. I turned positive on the U.S. economy and the housing market well before many people. Being right about positive things is every bit as important as being right about the negatives. I would put faster wage growth in this context as a very probable positive surprise over the next several months. Again, I am sure there are others that I do not yet see.

This has been a valuable week in many ways, both personally and professionally. One of the things that prompted me to do this was the fact that Bill Gates has done the same thing—taking a week every year to go away and read and think by himself. I will be doing this type of retreat again next year.

Besides focusing on stories not being told, the other plan for the fall is to spend more time learning how to think and learn more effectively. At the end of the day, this is what determines how effectively we as investors succeed—not the amount of activity but the correctness of the activity—and it requires effective thinking and learning. As you now, I read extensively, but it seems to me that I could do so more effectively. I will be passing along that information as well.

Overall, a successful week, and one that is not over yet!

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