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Prepare clients for market volatility

Prepare your clients for the fact that their portfolios will experience periods of disappointing performance. I often share this advice in my presentations on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read,” but I’m always seeking more specifics on how to do this. At the NAPFA Spring 2019 Conference, I picked up practical ideas for how financial advisors can achieve this.

Financial plan as source of certainty

In “Improving Investor Behavior Through Behavior Coaching,” Jay Mooreland of the Behavioral Finance Network touched briefly on how financial advisors can prepare investors for volatility. He suggested focusing on the financial plan as a source of certainty.

Talk less about performance, and more about the plan, he urged the audience. “Remind them that your plan accounts for this volatility,” he said. After all, as he said, we can’t control market volatility, the economy, or politics. We can, however, control our investment strategy and our behavior and our reactions. In fact, you can coach clients to view volatility as their friend. That’s because it gives people an opportunity to “buy low.”

Pre-commitment plan

Mooreland suggested creating a “pre-commitment plan.” Tell your clients you understand that it’s difficult to buy during volatility. That’s why you have clients commit in advance that if the market falls X%, they’ll move Y% into stocks. You can make plans for multiple levels of market declines. “From a behavioral standpoint, it can be powerful,” said Mooreland.

Mooreland also showed two market performance graphs that reinforced why investors shouldn’t let short-term volatility upset them. If you fell asleep on September 1, 2018, and woke up on Easter Sunday, 2019, the market would be at roughly the same level. That investor wouldn’t have experienced volatility.

The perception of volatility is a function of how often you look at the market, said Mooreland. The more often you look, the more often you’ll see what is ultimately a good investment look bad.

Use your communications to reduce the volatility and stress that your clients feel. Both you and your clients will benefit.

Avoid guarantees

Of course, don’t promise that the financial plan will protect clients from harm in any scenario. You know how the SEC feels about guarantees. Still, there’s plenty that you can do within the constraints imposed by the regulators.

Investment commentary–5 ways to outsource

Market and portfolio performance commentary is an important part of communications strategy for most investment and wealth managers. But sometimes writing that commentary becomes a drag on the firm’s employees. Or perhaps the firm realizes that its employees are better at strategy and portfolio management then writing. If this describes your firm, it may be time for you to outsource your investment commentary.

I see five main models for commentary outsourcing, depending on the kind of commentary you need. These vary in terms of how much control you give up over the content and the process.

Option 1: Completely surrender control of your investment commentary

If investing isn’t a core part of your firm’s expertise, you may not feel the need to express insights specific to your firm or your portfolios. In this case, you can simply buy ready-to-use commentary or commission a trusted financial writer to create the market recap and outlook that goes to your clients.

Buying commentary from a provider who sells the same text to multiple clients is likely to be easy on your budget. You can find the names of providers on my list at “Ready-to-use content for financial advisors.”

Alternatively, there are writers—not me—who specialize in writing marketing commentary based on their own research. Both the content providers and the writers may allow you to customize their content. Before you edit or slap your name on their content, check the terms of your agreement with the provider.

Option 2: Hire someone to write interview-based market commentary

When you have distinctive, well developed views and the evidence to back them up, then this is a good option for you. Firms that struggle to find time to generate commentary also find this helpful, in my experience.

To ease your quarterly crunch, schedule your interview prior to the quarter’s end. I usually suggest seven to 10 days prior, so you have a good sense of how the quarter is shaping up.

Involve your key decision-makers in the interview. Sometimes that means only your investment strategist. Other times that may mean your investment policy committee, or one person who’s an expert on stocks and another who’s an expert on bonds. A good interviewer will give you questions to mull over prior to your call. This will help to find your commentary’s focus.

Here are some sample questions for your interviewer:

  • What is the most important message you want readers to take away from your commentary?
  • How did your clients’ portfolios perform relative to the market—and why?
  • What factors most influenced the market during the period? Do you expect their influence to continue?
  • Are there a few statistics that you’d like to highlight?
  • How have you adjusted your portfolios during the period under discussion and do you anticipate more changes?

Above all, it’s helpful to focus on how the information in your commentary affects your clients’ portfolios. After all, that’s their biggest concern.

After the interview, your writer will digest the information to create an outline or draft for your review. She will highlight questions or data gaps that she’d like you to fill. Then it’s your turn to provide the missing information and give feedback.

If multiple people give feedback, I suggest that you consolidate it in one document, with Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” turned on. “Track Changes” will help your writer identify text to be proofed for grammar and related issues. If two of the evaluators disagree on a substantive issue, please reconcile your views before you forward your document to the writer.

What if significant new data comes in between the time of your interview and when you’re giving feedback to your writer? I ran into that with congressional negotiations over the sequester in 2012. One option is to discuss potential scenarios at the time of your interview, so your writer is prepared. Another option is to jot down your take on the news as part of your feedback to the writer, who can smooth out the words to make them more compelling, clear, and concise. Another possibility is to request a brief update call with your writer. Prior to that call, it’s helpful if you can send her some bullet points with your take on the news, so she can focus her questions to make the most efficient use of your time.

This interview-driven approach isn’t right for everyone. If your commentary typically changes significantly between the first and final drafts—or if it relies heavily on data that comes in late—you’re more likely to find option 3 more helpful.

Option 3: Hire an editor for your commentary

For investment professionals at some firms, putting their ideas into writing is a useful exercise. It helps them to discover their opinions and collect the supporting evidence. This is a form of writing to learn, as writing expert William Zinsser discusses in his book, Writing to Learn: How to Write – and Think – Clearly About Any Subject at All.

However, the folks who generate this commentary become so engrossed in the details that they may find it difficult to edit themselves. It’s hard to get distance from material when you’re immersed in it. Plus, a financial education usually doesn’t include intensive training in copyediting or in understanding the reader’s perspective.

One of the most valuable things that an editor can do is to reframe and reorganize the flow of your information. For example, she can expand on the WIIFM—“What’s in it for me”—of the content. She can also improve logical flow of the piece, and apply my first-sentence-check test.

Other valuable functions that your editor can perform include adding informative headings, streamlining text, and checking grammar and punctuation issues. Headings make it easier for skimmers to absorb your opinions and perhaps even be drawn into the details of your commentary. Sentences that average 14 to 22 words and lack distracting errors also help with reader comprehension and retention.

Option 4: Hire a writer for attribution-driven performance commentary

In contrast with market commentary, attribution-driven performance commentary is specific to your firm’s funds or portfolios. Mutual funds’ annual and semiannual reports also fall into this category.

The components of this commentary may include:

  • Your portfolio’s returns versus the benchmarks for the relevant periods
  • Attribution analysis—for stock funds, this would include the impact of sector allocations, stock selection, and possibly the cash position
  • Discussion of specific holdings that contributed to or detracted from performance relative to the benchmark
  • Optional: market commentary, transactions during the relevant period, and investment strategy

Some companies provide all of the necessary data directly to their writer, while others incorporate research or portfolio manager interviews conducted by the writer.

Option 5: Commissioning a critique for the DIY commentary writer

Some firms can boost the quality of their commentary simply by implementing suggestions they receive from a one-time critique of their writing. A writer-editor who’s familiar with commentaries can identify your commentary’s strengths and weaknesses, and provide guidelines for improvements.

For an assessment of your current commentary or newsletter, you can hire me to critique one example of your work or to coach you.

 

What’s next for you?

If you’re rethinking your firm’s approach to your commentaries, contact me to learn how I can help.

 

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.
Note: I am re-publishing this post in 2018 because it remains relevant. I edited this piece on Dec. 21, 2014 to correct some typos.

 

Word repetition—good or bad?

“Can I repeat this word throughout my report, or is it better to mix things up?” That’s a question I hear sometimes. Many people think that repetition is bad.

I like the following quote from Roger Rosenblatt in Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing:

Read Hemingway’s short stories, where he uses the same words over and over, and the words gain meaning with every repetition. If you have someone say something, let him “say” it—not aver it, declare it or intone it. Let the power reside in what he says.

I love that last line: “Let the power reside in what he says.”

I took a stand for repetition in “How to discuss index and portfolio returns: My case against synonyms for ‘return’.” I prefer plain old “returned.” However, many of my survey respondents favored more colorful words. I’m glad I found Rosenblatt’s quote to make my case.

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

Quit underlining headings in your documents!

Underlining headings in your written documents used to be common. That’s no longer true, especially because underlined text now leads people to expect hyperlinks.

Underlining headings dates back to the days of typewriters. As Practical Typography says,

Underlining is another dreary typewriter habit. Typewriters had no bold or italic styling. So the only way to emphasize text was to back up the carriage and type underscores be­neath the text. It was a workaround for shortcomings in typewriter technology.

Please stop underlining headings, unless you want to prove that you’re old-fashioned.

Old vs. new style of headings

Sample 1

This is what headings and text sometimes looked like in the old days:

Heading

This is the text under the heading.

Sample 2

Here’s an easy, more modern style of heading:

Heading

This is the text under the heading.

When you compare the Sample 1 with the Sample 2, which is makes it easier for you to focus on the heading? It’s Sample 2.

That ease is important in encouraging readers to skim—rather than abandon—your content. That’s important now that everyone’s attention spans have shortened. If they continue skimming, perhaps they’ll find a heading that tempts them to dig into the details of what you’ve written.

Use heading styles built into your software

If you only have one level of headings in your document, it’s easy to make them all bold. But what if you have different levels of headings? You’re most likely to need multiple levels in a long document like a white paper.

Different heading styles are built into many types of software.

For example, here is one style you can find in Microsoft Word’s ribbon:
Style ribbon in Microsoft Word

 

 

Here’s what these styles might look like in a document:

Word heading style sample

 

You can learn more about using styles in Microsoft Word on Microsoft’s help page, starting with “Show or hide the ribbon in Office.” (Depending on your version of Word, your steps to find and apply headings may differ.)

Styles can get pretty fancy, but I tend to stick with the basics. I prefer to devote more time to writing than design.

Microsoft Office isn’t the only software with different styles for headings. You’ll also find them in WordPress. Here’s an explanation of headings in WordPress.

What are your top challenges in writing investment commentary?

As I prepare to deliver a June presentation on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read,” I’m thinking about how to help you beat your challenges.

Please help me to think about this topic by answering my brief survey about investment commentary. I invite you to identify your top challenges and share tips in the survey. If you prefer, you can share your ideas as comments on this post.

Your comments will inspire my teaching on this topic. An earlier, longer survey on my blog became the basis of “Ideal quarterly letters: Meaningful, specific, and short.”

Folks have already raised some interesting topics in discussions. For example:

  • How can I write commentary that’s original?
  • How can I discuss timely yet sensitive topics without offending people?
  • How can I write long-form commentary for an audience that’s suffering from ADD?

I’m planning to allow lots of time for Q&A in my June 22 webinar, “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read.”

Early Bird pricing ends June 2

Register now to take advantage of Early Bird pricing on my June 22 webinar, which runs from 1:00-2:00 p.m. Eastern. If you’re not available at that time, you can register and watch the recording.

Visit the webinar’s web page for an overview of the program, testimonials, frequently asked questions, and more details.

Susan Weiner presents at NYSSA 2013

 

Fonts: By the numbers

The look of your financial reports makes a difference in the effectiveness of your communication. Fonts are part of your toolkit, as Professor Joyce Walsh explains in her guest post.

Fonts: By the numbers

By Professor Joyce Walsh, Boston University, College of Communication

Walsh_JoyceFor financial professionals, numbers are the heart and soul of client communications. But working with them in documents, presentations and online can be painful. Anyone who’s wasted an hour trying to get the decimal points to line up in a vertical column knows what I’m talking about.

Fortunately, there are ready solutions to numerical challenges. And they come from an unlikely source: your choice of font. You’ve probably spent some time considering the right font for your written material. (If you haven’t, you can read this paper I wrote about typography for financial professionals.) But the right font can also make your numerical life much easier—and your client reports and marketing material more effective.

If you’re having trouble with numbers in your documents and presentations, here are solutions to five common problems:

Problem #1: My numbers don’t align properly in columns

Arranging a column of numbers is a standard feature of most financial and investment reports. Whether you’re showing the market caps of your top 10 holdings or presenting a balance sheet, your figures need to stack up in an orderly way, with all decimal points in vertical alignment. If yours don’t, it’s because your font choice uses proportional figures, where each character varies in width. When 8s take up more space than 1s, your column will never line up properly.

The solution: Use a font that offers tabular figures, where each number is the same width on the page, and 1s take up the same horizontal space as 8s. If your default font doesn’t have a tabular option, consider investing in one that does or use a different, complementary font when presenting a numbers in a column. Many font families, like Gotham, offer both proportional and tabular options.

Pro tip: Not sure whether font figures are proportional or tabular? Here’s a quick way to find out: Type a line of 1s, then type a line of 0s underneath it. If the two lines end at the same place, the numbers are tabular.

Problem #2: When I bold a number in a column, it bulges out

Using bold is a great way to call attention to a significant number. But even if you’re using tabular figures, doing so can still throw a column out of alignment. If this happens to you, it’s because your font doesn’t have weight-duplexing figures.

The solution: Invest in a font that offers weight-duplexing, a feature that allows bold numbers to stack without bulging out of columns. Whitney, a font by Hoefler & Co., is a good example.

Pro tip: Speaking of bulging—10- and 12-digit numbers are common in today’s financial world, and they can wreak havoc in the best of layouts. Consider using a font that offers condensed numbers, which are designed to fit big numbers into narrow spaces without losing their readability or visual appeal.

Problem #3: When I use numbers in the body of a report, the spacing doesn’t look right

Financial professionals often use figures within the body of a report. And, yes, sometimes they just look off—the spacing seems out of whack or the numbers appear to be larger or smaller than the surrounding words. That’s probably because you’re using tabular figures instead of proportional ones. Within any font family, proportional figures are more like letters in their overall shape and appearance, and they tend to be more evenly spaced.

The solution: Always use proportional figures in running text or the body of a document. Their variable width makes them easier to read and lends a more harmonious feel to the content.

Pro tip: Beware of fonts with old-style figures, where the numbers approximate the size and shape of lowercase letter forms. While they work in a sentence, they look tiny and out of place in ALL CAP headlines. You’re safer with a font that offers lining figures, which are all-cap height and work well everywhere. Fortunately, most common system fonts default to lining figures.

Problem #4: I need more currency symbols for my reports

As the global economy expands to include emerging and frontier markets, forward-looking financial professionals need a font that goes beyond the dollar, pound, euro and yen to include symbols for currencies such as rupees, pesos and the new shekel. While it is possible to enter special numbers and codes to produce them, the process is slow and labor-intensive. If you use international currency symbols frequently, it’s just not practical.

The solution: Invest in a font family with extended currency symbols. Gotham, Mercury and Whitney are good examples of fonts with a wide range of monetary symbols.

Pro tip: If you want to make your articles, reports and presentations more useful and attractive for your audience, consider purchasing a font family that offers an extended character set. These typically include vertical and diagonal fractions, ordinals, and advanced mathematical and statistical symbols. Some even come with indices—circles with numbers in them—a very handy item if you want to compare plot points on a graph or add a distinctive touch to financial footnotes and disclosure references.

Problem #5: I need charts in my WordPress blog

The solution: You can apply the principles discussed above and post your charts as graphic files, such as JPGs or PNGs.

Pro tip: If you want to create charts and graphs while in WordPress, you will need a plugin. The WordPress Chart plugin is free and customizable, but is not user-friendly. Visualizer is also a free WordPress Plugin but is much easier to use. Just save your Excel XLS file as a CSV file. Then create a chart in the WordPress editor by selecting Add Media > Visualizations. To display the chart, simply add its shortcode to your post.

 

About Professor Joyce Walsh

Professor Walsh’s work has been featured in publications, exhibitions and corporate art collections around the world. Her book, Graphic Design Essentials: Skills, Software and Creative Strategies, was the first book to combine design fundamentals with creative software skills

Business data analyzing image courtesy of alexisdc/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Investment commentary numbers: How to get them right

Investment commentary calls for lots of numbers: benchmark and portfolio returns, economic data, and more. When you get those numbers wrong, you undercut your credibility and embarrass yourself.

I have some ideas about how you can avoid mistakes by proofreading and checking your facts.

My expensive mistake

A bad experience impressed me with the importance of checking numbers. Reading the professionally printed copy of my employer’s third-quarter commentary, I noticed a goof. It referred to the second quarter, instead of the third quarter, in one spot. This happened even though four of us had read the piece before it went to the printer. However, the eye tends to read what it expects to see. We all glossed over my error. Oops!

That was an expensive mistake because we had to get the piece reprinted. However, at least we avoided the embarrassment of clients seeing our mistake. Also, it spurred me to develop techniques for catching numerical errors.

Tip 1. Add numbers to your checklist

Checklists, which I recommend in “5 proofreading tips for quarterly investment reports,” can help you catch numerical errors. For a typical quarterly investment publication, I’d add two kinds of numerical items to remind you to check for accuracy and timeliness.

  • Calendar information—record the current year, quarter, and ending date for the quarter. I don’t know about you but I sometimes can’t remember how many days there are in June so it’s handy to know that I should write about “the period ended June 30.”
  • Major index returns for the relevant periods—if you’re writing about multiple investment styles and periods, you’ll use multiple index returns. If possible, run a report that shows only the relevant returns and displays them in a logical order. If you lack the access to run or customize reports, create your own list and proofread it carefully.

After you’ve completed your writing, make one pass through your document to check that you’ve used the right calendar information and returns.

Tip 2. Standardize your sources for index returns

If you’re new to writing about investments, you might think, “The S&P 500 Index return for the fourth quarter is the S&P 500 Index return for the fourth quarter.” Uh uh. There’s not just one number. For example, the return number that comes directly from Standard & Poor’s may diverge from the number spit out by your firm’s performance measurement system. Which will you use?

Your firm needs to decide which are the official sources for index returns. And then, stick with using those sources. By the way, it’s also good to create a rule for how many places to the right of the decimal point you’ll go in reporting returns.

You should create similar rules for reporting portfolio returns, too.

Tip 3. Document sources for other numbers

What about sources for other numbers? Document those as you write.

Footnotes can track your sources. Insert a footnote with your data source. Insert a link to the data if one is available. It’ll make fact-checking easier later on.

Tip 4. Use a fact-checker

Just as it’s hard for you to proofread your own work, it’s hard for you to fact-check it. You’ll tend to see what you expect to see.

If you have an employee, colleague, or friend who can help, ask that person to compare every number to its approved source. Being unfamiliar with numbers, they’re more likely to pick up on mistakes.

Don’t have a helper? Fact-checking will still catch some errors. I know it works for me, especially if I concentrate solely on fact-checking in one pass through my document.

Tip 5. Catch contradictory numbers with informed readers

How can you catch two authors using contradictory numbers? Say, for example, one author says U.S. economic growth was 2.2% while another says it was 2.5%. Both provide a source for their numbers, as suggested in Tip 3, but they don’t match. If you’re lucky, your fact checker will catch the disparity. But you can’t count on it.

There’s a higher chance of catching the error if you have the two authors with overlapping topics read each other’s articles. Ask them to look for inconsistencies. Another approach is to get a third party to look for inconsistencies. You might even ask them to list all of the document’s numbers from non-standardized sources. That would make it easier to see that there are multiple sources for a single number. All of this takes a lot of time.

There’s no easy way to catch these contradictory numbers. If you have ideas about how to solve this problem, I’d like to hear from you.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Top posts from the third quarter of 2015

Check out my top posts from the last quarter!

The top post targeted investment commentary writers. The other posts offered a mix of practical tips on writing (#3, 5, 10), blogging (#4, 7, 9), and email (#2, 6, 8).

    1. Are financial predictions too risky for investment commentary writers?—this post sparked lots of discussion. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment or sharing on social media.
    2. The email subject line you should never use
    3. 7 ways to manage writing by committee—read this if you’ve ever struggled with managing input from multiple people
    4. Credit sources fairly in your financial blog posts—this is important if you want to be fair and avoid copyright infringement.
    5. Financial writer’s clinic: fact vs. interpretation
    6. What YOU say about highlighting text in emails
    7. 8 ways blogging is like bicycling
    8. Email lesson from a PayPal co-founder
    9. Use a wacky days list when you run out of blog ideas—I was surprised by this post’s popularity.
    10. Don’t break up your text too much!

Portfolio performance commentary’s basic components

Commentary about portfolio performance is part of every investment manager’s communications. The depth and breadth of commentary varies widely. It can consist of a single line giving portfolio returns. Or, it can be a multi-page report full of charts, graphs, and details. The longest reports typically target institutional clients—not individuals.

In this article, I review portfolio performance reports’ common components.

1. Portfolio returns

Your portfolio’s results for at least one period are the sole essential element of portfolio performance reports. Portfolio returns are typically compared with the returns of one or more benchmarks to provide perspective on how the portfolio performed relative to its goals, investable universe, or peers. For mutual funds or ETFs, the main benchmark is specified in its prospectus. For separately managed accounts, the benchmark may be specified in the investment policy statement.

Showing multiple benchmarks can provide perspective on performance. Say, for example, you run a small-cap stock fund in the space between growth and blend. Showing returns for the Russell 3000 Growth and plain vanilla Russell 3000 indexes helps readers to understand the extent to which your portfolio’s less growth-oriented approach affected its performance.

Comparing your portfolios performance to its peers—say, Lipper Small-Cap Growth Funds if you run a mutual fund or its decile ranking in an applicable universe of institutional funds—also gives perspective. These comparisons may be more favorable than comparisons to indexes because these returns are measured net of expenses, unlike index returns, which have no expenses deducted. Peer groups may offer a more “real world” perspective on what managers can achieve.

Once you pick indexes for comparison, you must stick with them. You can’t decide, “we look good vs. Lipper this quarter, but bad vs. the S & P 500, so let’s only use Lipper this quarter.” The SEC doesn’t like that.

Similarly, you must be consistent in the periods of performance that you show. It’s a good idea to show more than one quarter of performance. You don’t want your clients to fixate on short-term performance. But once you start to show one-year, three-year, and since-inception returns, you must continue to show them.

2. Attribution analysis

Can you attribute the portfolio’s performance to specific characteristics? That’s the question that attribution analysis seeks to answer.

Attribution analysis is typically measured by numbers. For example, “2.5% of the overall return came from stocks in the financials sector.”

Attribution may be considered relative to a benchmark or independently of benchmarks. When it’s measured relative to a benchmark, a key question is: Why did the portfolio outperform, underperform, or perform in line with the benchmark? You’ll look at factors such as the contributions of security selection, sector weightings, asset allocation, and maybe even cash positions and the flows of money into and out of the portfolio.

You can try to discuss portfolio performance independently of benchmarks. However, you may need to break with that policy if your performance dramatically diverges from the benchmark. This is especially true when you underperform. Your benchmark-savvy clients will want to know why you underperformed.

Numbers don’t tell the entire story of what drove performance. That’s why, at a minimum, someone directly involved in managing a portfolio should review its attribution commentary before publication.

3. Stock or sector stories

Stories about specific securities or sectors can shed light on how active managers think. Stories about winners—and losers—show what the fund managers emphasize in their decisions. Discussions of winners typically show off the managers’ strengths. They also display the managers’ understanding of the larger environment for investments. For example, they may speak to themes, such as beneficiaries of lower commodity prices, that the managers favor. They may also reflect the managers’ market outlooks.

Stories can also illuminate the performance of index funds, to the extent that they demonstrate how the market moves.

To keep the SEC happy, you can’t focus solely on winners, especially if your portfolio underperformed. You must balance your discussion—typically by discussing at least an equal number of losers, although you may have some leeway in a period when losers are hard to find.

Losers pose an extra challenge to writers. Should you defend your holding, in addition to explaining its performance? I like the consistency of keeping the format the same for both winners and losers. Plus, if you’re confined by tight word count limits, you can’t fully explain and defend. However, defensive comments help if you’re writing commentary for use by your firm’s client service team. They’ll thank you for making their job easier when clients question your holdings. Still, if you don’t explicitly defend your losers, you may provide some context in your market recap or market outlook sections.

4. Market recap

A market recap discusses recent market performance. It may focus narrowly on the portfolio’s asset class or it may range more broadly to provide context.

For example, a market recap for a U.S. high yield bond fund might discuss Treasuries, investment-grade bonds, and riskier bonds to show how investors’ attitudes toward risk factored into the portfolio’s performance.

The goal of a market recap is to provide context for the portfolios’ performance. It may also provide insights into how the manager views markets.

5. Market outlook and portfolio positioning

Providing insights into the market’s future is the focus of the market outlook. Managers vary in their willingness to make predictions. Passive—AKA evidence-based—investment managers may shun predictions. However, for active managers, predictions help their investors to understand their portfolio positioning.

Comments on portfolio positioning complement market outlooks to the extent that the managers’ allocations to securities, sectors, and asset classes are driven by their market predictions. Of course, other factors affect positioning, such as the managers’ perception of long-term trends outside the markets—so-called secular themes—that will influence the performance of investments.

6. Top 10 holdings

Top 10 (or top five) holdings is a popular section on mutual fund fact sheets for the clues it offers into a fund’s composition, particularly when compared with its benchmark.

If you present to institutional clients, who tend to crave more detail than individual investors, you may write a brief description of your top holdings and why they’re in your portfolio.

7. Securities bought and sold

An asset manager’s buy-sell philosophy is important to investors as they evaluate placing their money with manager. Naturally, once they’re invested, they’d like to see how the manager implements that buy-sell philosophy.

Discussion of buys and sells isn’t part of every investment commentary. There simply isn’t room in some formats.

If you discuss your trades, don’t focus solely on your winners. As I said earlier, the SEC doesn’t like that. However, you can use objective criteria, such as every quarter discussing the three largest purchases and the three largest sales.

If you have enough room, give your readers a brief description of each company and why you bought or sold.

8. Graphs and charts

Some information is easier to absorb as a table, chart, or graph. Take advantage of these formats to help your readers. I particularly like graphs that show portfolio performance vs. a benchmark.

What did I miss?

Did I cover everything that you see as essential to investment commentary? Please share your opinions and insights.

Financial writer’s clinic: fact vs. interpretation

Fact or interpretation, which should you place first in your article, commentary, or blog post? You’ll find a useful model in Justin Wolfers’ “A Better Gauge Shows Steady, Dull Growth,” which appeared in The New York Times.

Which is more intriguing?

Let’s compare your reactions to two sentences from Wolfers’ article.

  1. The Bureau of Economic Analysis on Friday revised the nation’s gross domestic product to a new estimate that it contracted by 0.7 percent in the first three months of the year from its initial guess that the economy grew over the winter at an annual rate of 0.2 percent.
  2. The government reckons that the American economy shrank over the winter, but no one really believes it.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Which sentence is more intriguing and more revealing of the writer’s opinion?
  • Which sentence is easier to absorb, in terms of writing style and content?

To me, it’s clear that #2, the author’s interpretation of the data, wins as the answer to both questions.

When #2 is the introductory sentence, it snares readers’ attention and sets them up to absorb the GDP information presented in #1. This is how Wolfers starts his article, as you see in the image.

New_York_Times_article_053015-249

Unfortunately, too many financial writers drone on and on about the facts before they get to the interpretation. As a result, they fail to attract readers. Also, they quickly lose the readers who start to scan their articles.

I’m not saying you should never start an article with a fact. That works sometimes, especially when it’s a startling fact. In any case, it’s good to quickly mention your interpretation or give the reader a reason to care about your topic.

“The Upshot” as a model

Wolfers’ article appeared as one of the columns in The New York Times’ “The Upshot” columns of news analysis. If you read the columns, you’ll get more ideas for structuring your articles.

For example, Wolfers’ articles is structured as follows:

  1. Author’s interpretation of the topic
  2. Specific data point
  3. Criticism of how the data is calculated
  4. Suggestion of alternative data
  5. More criticism of the data
  6. What all of this information means for how we view the economy

Can you see how you might apply this approach to your next article, blog post, or investment commentary?