Podcast: Special Appearance [Stocks for Beginners]

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I was recently interviewed by Phil Muscatello on the Stocks for Beginners podcast. During the podcast, we discussed both good and bad financial role models. I also shared some of my experiences working as an equity analyst and how the application of accounting principles can prove beneficial when conducting financial analysis as well as several other financial topics.

You can visit the blog post on the Stocks for Beginners website here.

You can listen to the entire podcast below.

An edited transcript follows:

Phil Muscatello:

Hi and welcome back to Stocks for Beginners. I’m Phil Muscatello. There are two kinds of role models: the best ones set an example showing you how to do things, the bad ones can do the exact opposite or surprisingly can motivate you to take action to avoid ending up like them. To talk about this and other matters financial, I’m joined by Philip Weiss. Hello Phil.

Philip Weiss:

Hi Phil, how are you today?

Phil Muscatello:

Always good. Thank you. Phil is the principal of Apprise Wealth Management. He started his financial services career in 1987, working as a tax professional for Deloitte and Touche. For the past 25 years he’s worked extensively in the areas of personal finance and investment management. So let’s begin the chat by talking about your role models.

Philip Weiss:

If you go back to what you said at the very beginning, I think I had the opposite kind and I’m sure that’s where that comment came from. I grew up in a house where, in particular, my father, when it came to finances, he was not very good. And it had a lot of implications for my life. I left school for financial reasons. We lost my mom to cancer and that was when we really found out how bad things were. And so I think a lot of things that I’ve done are taking what I saw as not to do and saying, “This is what I need to do is just the opposite.”

Phil Muscatello:

How old were you when your mother passed away? And I believe that’s when you discovered how terrible the financial situation was.

Philip Weiss:

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 28, and she passed when I was 30.

Phil Muscatello:

And what was the state of the financial affairs?

Philip Weiss:

While I was in college, my father couldn’t get credit. I started at Duke, and I left Duke and I moved to Arizona. And then I came back and after I finished, I graduated from Rutgers because Duke didn’t offer accounting degrees. And I moved back home after I graduated. And one day I got home early, and I got the mail. And I looked in the mail and there was a credit card bill, actually two credit card bills that had my name on them, but they weren’t mine. And after some investigation, I found that my father had forged my name to open up these accounts and I confronted him on it. He admitted it, and he had asked me to pay rent while I was living at home. I used my rent to pay these off.

And I told the credit card companies what had happened. And they weren’t really that interested in doing anything about it. So they let the account stay because he had been making at least the minimum payments along the way. Once my name was off the account and they were his accounts, he stopped paying. He also was behind on the mortgage. So that’s when we found out how bad things were. My mom had been diagnosed and we were trying to understand the finances, and he owed money on the house and the interest rate was… You know, in the 70s rates were in the teens. Well, in the late eighties, early nineties rates were no longer at that high, but that’s what he was paying because that’s all that he could get.

And he had this credit card debt. And so my parents actually had to move from their house because they couldn’t stay there because he couldn’t pay.

Phil Muscatello:

Did you have a particular light bulb moment? Although it sounds like when this happened, when you were 28, you’d already embarked on your career and education. So you hadn’t been influenced at an earlier stage by this?

Philip Weiss:

I had, because like I said, these things force me to leave school. So I remember the biggest light bulb moment for me was probably the year that I graduated from Rutgers. When I was at Rutgers, I paid for my tuition, and I paid for my rent sometimes with credit card checks. They would send these checks in the mail. And if I couldn’t make the payment, I would use a credit card check knowing that I could pay that off. And that was the tail end of the time at which you used to get credit card statements and they’d say how much in interest to pay during the year. And I looked at that and I said, “Oh my God, I know what I make and I can’t afford to pay that much in interest.”

So I immediately created a plan, which as I am more knowledgeable and experienced now, it’s one of the two ways that they recommend that you pay off credit card debt: it’s either the snowball or the avalanche. And I guess the one that I took is more like the avalanche where I just look for the largest balance or the highest rate. That’s why I attacked the highest rate and said, “I’m going to pay this one until it’s gone. And then that way I can use it responsively while I’m paying the other ones off.” And I just gave myself a timeframe in which to do that. And then for work, KKR did a leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco.

At the time, it was the biggest corporate transaction of that kind ever. And so I spent a lot of time in Atlanta and because I was in Atlanta working that meant I didn’t really have a lot of expenses. So I was able to pay off all that credit card debt beforehand. And I still had student loan debt left. And it was, I guess, eight years after graduation. And I, before I got married, I had been working for a company. It was taken over, I got a take-out payment and I use that and I had married my wife. I had no debt. I used the takeout payment to pay off the balance of my student loan debt and to buy my wife an engagement ring. But the light bulb was really looking at the credit cards and saying, oh my God, I just can’t afford that.

Phil Muscatello:

It seems insurmountable, especially when you’re young, and your income’s not so high. And your only recourse, sometimes, is a high-interest-rate credit card. What are some things that maybe you could possibly tell people that are in that situation and about how, how to attack that?

Philip Weiss:

Like I said, the first thing I did is I said, I’m going to put a plan in place and I’m going to make this go away. And I executed it. I said, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to attack it by interest rate. You can also attack it by the smallest balance if having that sense of accomplishment of making that go away works for you. But either one can work. I liked the highest interest rate. Cause I think over the long run, that’s better. That’s part of it. It’s also becoming more responsible about what you’re spending your money on so that you’re not just doing things like it was a few years later before I met my wife that I bought my first home. And I was like, I don’t know if I can afford this. And I still tell people this all the time, you want to know what you’re spending your money on.

Like during that time I took a piece of paper around with me and if I spent 50 cents on a newspaper, I wrote it down. And at the end of a month or two, I took all that data and put it onto a spreadsheet. I looked and said, here’s what I’m spending my money on. And here are the things that I can eliminate if I need to so that I know I can make that payment. And when clients come to me today and say, well, how do I cut my spending? I say, well, the first thing to do is go to your credit card statements. And we have so many things these days that we have to subscribe for, look at all those subscriptions you have, do you need them all? It’s really about being responsible and also something that I blogged about in the past too. It’s paying yourself first.

If you want to pay off your debt, make sure that comes out first. If you want to save money for retirement, make sure that comes out first. That way you don’t have to worry about having something left to pay and then just be responsible with what you have.

Phil Muscatello:

He worked as an analyst. Was that as a stock analyst?

Philip Weiss:

Yes, it was.

Phil Muscatello:

Yeah. Tell us about that time. What are some of the things that you learned? What were some of the surprising things that you learned in your early career?

Philip Weiss:

So, you know, I had decided I was the tax guy, right. And I didn’t want to do that anymore. And I was writing for The Motley Fool back when they had online portfolios. And that’s when I learned about the CFA. And that was kind of my thing to combine with my accounting background to really change careers. So when I started with the firm, they were an independent research provider and they asked me to cover oil and gas stocks. And I’m like oil and gas. That sounds so boring. But then they said, but if you take that job, then there’s somebody else here that we don’t think can cover that sector because it’s more important and we’ll promote internally. I’m like, all right, well, I’ll do it. And it ended up, it was a fascinating sector because you don’t realize how much technology and how much development and how things have progressed.

It’s not like the old industry that we think and people look around and they see the price of gas at the pump. So everybody’s interested in it. So it was a great sector to cover. And probably when I look back my biggest accomplishment as an analyst in terms of what I did and I use my accounting background to really do this was there’s a company called Chesapeake Energy. And at that time it was a very popular stock. And my first year as an analyst, I was interviewed for a publication about the sector and they asked me, who’s your favorite CEO? And I said, Aubrey McLendon. He was the CEO of Chesapeake. It’s believed that he killed himself a few years later. When I first heard him on conference calls, I thought he sounded brilliant.

And then one day when I was listening to him, I said, one of my favorite books on investing is “Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits” by Phil Fisher. And in the book is 10 points to look for in an investment. And one of them is to avoid highly promotional management teams. So I’m listening to Aubrey talk and I’m like, he’s highly promotional. You know we have the best hedging policy of any company in the industry. We can forecast weather better than anybody in the industry. I started looking and I took out the 10-Ks for a few years in a row. I took out the accounting policy statement for each one of those years. And I looked at them and I noticed that they weren’t the same, that they were making changes in their accounting policy from year to year.

And that to me is always a red flag, especially when it comes to things like lengthening depreciation lies because that’s a way that you increase your income. They had related party transactions. They changed how they treated them. And I took Chesapeake and I put a sell on it. And I was right initially. Then Carl Icahn took a position in the stock and because he took a position, the stock went up. And so I took my buy off for a little bit. And then things got worse. Chesapeake used to do things like they did these things called volumetric production payments, which to me were loans because what they were doing is they were selling natural gas ahead to get money.

And then they would repay with natural gas production. They said that’s not a loan. I’m like, yes, it is. You’re just changing the medium in which you’re repaying it. And then they would get these cost-sharing payments for their drilling activity. And they would drill, drill, drill, because the only way they’re going to get paid is if they spent the money, even if it didn’t make economic sense. And also, their accounting policy, there are two different ways that an oil and gas company can account for their expenses. One is they treat each project independently and the other is that they combine them all into one. And then you really can’t see what’s going on and that’s what they did. And so why did they say they have the lowest cost structure in the industry? That’s because they had these gains that were from property sales and other things that were flowing in there.

And that reduced the costs, as they were all in this big large pool that included gains from selling properties. And that meant that they had a low-cost structure, which eventually didn’t last. But it was really my accounting background that helped me figure all that out and decipher it. That understanding was instrumental in my being to able do that.

Phil Muscatello:

So that’s a great thing about having an accounting background because you can look at the company balance sheet and the company financials and see things that even other analysts aren’t seeing. And I guess in this case, we hear a lot about things like company earnings, which is quite a clean metric to look at what a company, when a company’s value is as opposed to things like EBITDA, which is one of those terms that you hear, which is where the accountants of, I don’t want to say fiddle the books, but they’ve massaged the numbers, haven’t they?

Philip Weiss:

Yes, they have. It’s funny. You mentioned EBITDA because when I was writing for The Motley Fool, I actually wrote an article for them called “Ignore EBITDA”. And it was a company called Lucent Technologies, which was a spinoff from the old AT&T. And that was another company. Like, I like to look at the components of cash flow and the cash conversion cycle, which reflects receivables and inventory and accounts payable and how fast all those things turn over. And they just wanted to base everything on EBITDA. And that was another company like the company got upset about my article actually, but that company went under, too.

Phil Muscatello:

So you can recognize some of these accounting sleights of hand. So are there any others to watch out for?

Philip Weiss:

Definitely, the cash conversion cycle is really important one to me. When I see debt, I want to understand what the interest rate is because high levels of debt can mean different things, depending upon what kind of interest rate is associated with it. I definitely do think it’s important to go through the accounting policy part of the footnotes, which is usually the first footnote in the financial statement, and look at how they recognize revenue because sometimes that can make a difference. Like I said, the depreciation lives when they change the appreciation lives, that can make a difference. Actually, I read that Amazon did that and I read somebody say it in a positive light. And I wasn’t sure that I agreed and I haven’t looked at it enough to know yet if the equipment’s really lasting longer, it may be legitimate, but it always makes me wonder.

I also like to look at big write-offs and things like that, because a lot of times what happens is companies write things off. They might write them off because they’re selling more slowly than they expect. And then at the end of the day, what happens is that they eventually do sell those things. And now their profit looks a lot better. And why is that? Because when they write the product down, they have a lower cost. And so now then they sell it. They have a bigger profit. So that’s something else to look out for. And, you know, these related party transactions, I mean, Cisco did a lot of stuff back in the nineties to where they were selling a lot of their goods to related parties during the time of the internet bubble. And it ended up being bad debt and they had a lot of inventory write-offs, too. So you just want to really look at the details to find these things.

Phil Muscatello:

You’re a proponent of value-based investing. What’s your definition of value-based investing.

Philip Weiss:

It’s changed a little bit over the years. And part of that again comes down to accounting. It used to be like looking for companies with low price-to-book and price-to-sales, and PE ratios and things like that. But over time, companies rely more and more on brainpower and knowledge. And that’s an intangible asset. And the accounting rules say that the money that you spend on research and development and advertising, which are things that can help build the long-term success of your business, that those you write off as they’re incurred. And they don’t have big capital expenditures or equipment purchases. Like I said, I covered the oil and gas industry. That’s where there are still huge capital expenditures, right? Cause drilling an oil well is an expensive process, but companies like Apple and Microsoft they’re knowledge-based companies. They don’t have a lot of hard assets.

So when you look at those companies by those traditional metrics, you would say that they’re expensive based on things like price-to-book ratios. But that’s meaningless for those companies in a lot of ways. So now it’s companies that I think are undervalued relative to their future, potential more than anything else,

Phil Muscatello:

Because there’s no real physical infrastructure for those kinds of businesses, are there. This whole knowledge-based economy has completely turned that upside down. It’s not like in the past, you’d have a factory. And that was the assets of the company and the factory-produced goods. It’s completely different, completely changed. Now,

Philip Weiss:

It sure has. And even if you think about simple things, when the computer age started, everything was on the disk. Now nobody saw anything on a disk, you connect your computer to the internet and you download your software. So there’s really not even any distribution costs or anything else anymore. So even that’s come out of the system, it’s not just the hard assets. It’s also inventory for a lot of these companies. Isn’t the same thing. There’s not as much manufacturing for a lot of the product

Phil Muscatello:

Dematerialization. Yep. So when I was researching you, I noticed that you’ve got stocks in your personal portfolio that you’ve held for over 25 years. How’s that working out?

Philip Weiss:

I think it works out great. I like to find good companies that I can own for a long time. I can buy them. And then I look for opportunities to add to my positions over time. Some of them have done really, really well. Some of them not as well but still gains overall, but that’s okay because as I look at my portfolio overall, I’m very content with my returns and I’ll sidetrack from my own story for a second, because I love to tell this story. I have a client whose father bought stock in Apple, three days after Apple went public. He bought 10 shares. And the 10 shares were bought with relatively high commissions was bought for a little more 300 and something dollars that 10 shares of stock.

If my memory is right, it’s 2240 shares and Apple’s a $150+ stock. And the quarterly dividend is more than that 14 cent basis in those shares because they’ve been held all that time. That’s my favorite example, telling people about the power that you can get from compounding over long periods of time. I don’t have things that have gone up like that, but I do have, I was looking before and I have stocks that are up seven to 10 times from where I bought them. And over a 25-year period, that’s about 10% annualized return. You know, it’s eight to 9% on the low end, 10 to 12% on the high end, you can do just fine with that.

Phil Muscatello:

Are you a dividend guy or you’re looking for dividends or growth

Philip Weiss:

I like dividends, especially when the market struggles a little bit. I always tell people that you get paid to wait, right? If I bought the stock early and I’m wrong, if they still continue to pay that dividend, then I’m still getting something. So I like dividends. I do like the combination of some dividends and some growth, but definitely in this environment too, where we have such low interest rates, I think dividends have even more valued because plenty of stocks can pay more income to you. Then you can get from holding bonds.

Phil Muscatello:

Phil, can you give us a key, I have a view of your qualifications. So you’re a chartered financial analyst. You’re a certified public accountant and a now fiduciary financial advisor running an RIA. What do these qualifications and terms mean? And what is it that you’re bringing to your advice business?

Philip Weiss:

CPA stands for a certified public accountant, in my case, that gives me the ability to do tax returns, and a an understanding of tax law. Honestly, I try not to do a lot of tax returns for my clients. I only do them for ones that are really insistent on it, but to me, taxes and investing are joined at the hip. So having that qualification I think is very important. You know, it also helps when you’re trying to help people look at things like when I help somebody refinance their house, that accounting background helps with that. When I help somebody decide what’s the most tax-efficient way to move from accumulating your assets to decumulating your assets in retirement. That tax background is really invaluable.

And it’s something that a lot of advisors don’t have to the same depth. It also allows me to reach out to the IRS as a practitioner instead of just a regular person. It makes it a little bit easier if, if that’s necessary, the CFA, the chartered financial analyst designation is something that I added because when you start in tax, it can be hard to get out of the tax department. I learned about that designation while I was writing for The Motley Fool. And to me, that was my ticket out of tax. It’s a very broad-based financial curriculum. It’s really a self-study program for the most part. It took three years because you could only take one level per year. And if you didn’t pass, you had to wait another year to take it again.

Now you can do level one. I know they offer that twice a year. The materials look at stock investing. They make you look at bond investing. You will study alternatives and all those different things, too. It also does get into the aspects of creating an investment policy statement. That reflects some of the things that help dictate how an individual invest when you’re managing money for them and things like that, it gets into portfolio management. It’s really a very broad-based financial investing curriculum. And then to be a fiduciary means that I’m obligated to put my client’s best interests ahead of my own. I have to make recommendations that work for them, not what makes me the most money, but what works for them.

It means that I don’t sell products. I don’t earn commissions. I get paid a fee for providing a service. That fee can be just the dollar fee that we agree on, or it could be based upon how much in assets I’m managing, but it’s always based upon the services provided. And not me selling them anything as a registered investment advisor. I mean, there are three ways that I’m obligated to act as a fiduciary. One is the CFA Institute requires that I do that as a CPA, working with clients, the way that I do I’m obligated. And then as a financial advisor structured as an RIA, I’m also obligated to treat clients, to be a fiduciary for my clients.

Phil Muscatello:

And the way the system works is that there are some advisors who are not obligated to be acting in their client’s best interest. Is that the case that they’re actually just selling products?

Philip Weiss:

Yeah. I mentioned the fiduciary standard. The other standard is a suitability standard. If you’re operating under a suitability standard, then your obligation is to make recommendations that are suitable for your client, but they might not be what’s best for your client. For example, you could look at three different S&P 500 mutual funds. One could have an expense ratio of 0.02%. One could have an expense ratio of 0.25%, and one could have an expense ratio of 0.75% and pay the advisor for selling it. And that suitability standard, he might do the one that’s either pays him, or it might be the one that his firm runs.

So that even though he’s not getting directly, I mean, some people say that you can be a fiduciary and do that. I tend not to agree with that point of view, but that’s just kind of the difference. Like you can look and see similar funds that are very different and the fiduciary is the one that should pick the one when they’re comparable, that should be the best for the client would be the one that costs them, the least.

Phil Muscatello:

How does one recognize that? How would our listener be able to tell quickly what the difference is?

Philip Weiss:

If you want to know if an advisor is a fiduciary, the easiest thing you can do is ask them. You can also look them up through the FINRA website. That will tell you what type of advisor they are. When it comes to understanding fund expenses, there are two places I like to look. I always go to get that information primarily, I’ll go to Morningstar. I have software that actually extracts the data and lets me look at it that way and parses through it. But Morningstar, if you look on the quote page for any ETF or mutual fund Morningstar it’s morningstar.com, we’ll give you that information. It’s also usually available on Yahoo Finance,

Phil Muscatello:

The information about how much their cost is, what the expense ratio what’s at the MER management expense ratio. Is that what you’re looking for?

Philip Weiss:

Yes. Obviously, each fund is managed or marketed by a specific investment company. If you go to their website, you can look at the prospectus for that fund. And that would also give you the information that would be like looking forward at the source. The other two places that I sent our way to make it a little bit easier.

Phil Muscatello:

So a big part of what you do would be managing clients’ stress when markets take their semi-regular tumbles, how do you approach that? You must have some standards, rules, and tips that you talk to people about. What’s that like for you as part of your work?

Philip Weiss:

Fortunately, I don’t get a lot of it, but I try to remind people that we need to be focused on the long term. It’s not a short game, it’s a long one. I try to remind them that our goal isn’t necessarily to beat the market. Our goal is to invest in a way that allows us to live the quality of life that we want. And if I’m trying to beat the market, I’m likely taking on more risk. I remind people that when we’ve had bad markets in the past, it’s typically been 18 to 24 months on average and duration doesn’t mean it’s always going to be that, but I try to protect them by saying, all right. If we think that it could be 18 to 24 months when you’re adding assets, I don’t worry about this the same, but if you’re taking assets out of your account in retirement, we’re going to have 18 to 24 months in something that’s very liquid.

That shouldn’t fluctuate a lot so that we can draw on that while the market’s down and then replenish it when it’s over. I remind them that something that sometimes is hard to understand if you’re adding money to the markets if you’re working and you’re putting money into your 401k or any retirement plan on a regular basis, falling markets are your friend. I always give the example,  that you should think about it this way. If you were putting $200 a paycheck into your workplace retirement plan, and what you were buying was $25 a share. So you have eight shares and now the market falls 20%. You still buy that same $200 worth.

Now you can buy 10 shares instead of eight. If we assume that it gets back to where it was, when it gets back to 25, now your 10 shares are worth 250. The eight shares are only worth 200. So you got $50 worth of gain just from the market’s recovery. It’s really good to keep buying through that. And so that down market is actually working to your benefit. That’s part of it. I also remind them of the importance of having a process. I’ve spoken on behavioral, investing on a number of occasions, which is really how our minds can have negative impacts on what we do as investing. I say, kind of the two worst things we can do are buy high and sell low. And if we can put a process in place that helps determine what our allocation should be.

And here are our rules for rebalancing. Now I’m taking some of the emotions that come out like, oh my God, the market’s falling. We know what we’re supposed to do. One of my favorite stories with one of my clients is one day I was talking to one of my clients and I asked her a question and she said to me, you know, from talking to you. I know that I don’t need to look at my portfolio that often. So I don’t, but now you asked me this question and I have to go look. And if I’m not happy with what I see, it’s going to be all your fault because you made me look and I wouldn’t have even noticed if you hadn’t asked me this question.

Phil Muscatello:

So tell listeners about Apprise Wealth. How can people find out more about you and get in contact?

Philip Weiss:

So, Apprise Wealth is based in Phoenix, Maryland, not the Phoenix in Arizona, and actually, the Phoenix in Maryland was first. One of my kids told me I did not know that.

Phil Muscatello:

But less famous, a little less famous,

Philip Weiss:

A little bit less. Yes. And we are a little more than 20 miles north of Baltimore in Maryland. Obviously, I work with people right now in over 15 states across the country. So a lot of my business is virtual. You know, I meet with people on Zoom all the time. My website is apprisewealth.com. And you can go to my website. You can schedule a meeting with me through my website. You can also subscribe to my blog by going to my website. And if you’re looking for financial information on a specific topic, there is a search bar on my blog page so that you can find information.

One of my favorite things that I like to talk to people about is if you have a high deductible health care plan and you have a health savings account, use that as part of your retirement savings. It provides a triple tax benefit. It’s more tax-efficient than saving in your 401k, saving in an IRA, saving in a Roth, because with an HSA, you get a tax deduction for the money that goes in. You can actually invest it. You get tax-free growth. And as long as you have qualified medical expenses during the time that you had the HSA, not necessarily in the year that you pull the money out, you can pull the money out tax-free. If you can take that money and put it in today and save it till you retire. Now that’s just another leg in that retirement stool.

Philip Weiss:

And there’s a blog that I wrote called HSA is a triple tax benefit.

Phil Muscatello:

Oh we’ll put a link to that particular blog post article in the notes and the blog post for this episode,

Philip Weiss:

Or that would be great. Thank you,

Phil Muscatello:
Philip Weiss, thank you very much for joining me today. It’s been great. A great pleasure chatting with you.

Philip Weiss:

Same here, Phil. I really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

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