Investing: Thinking through a recovery

Fund advisor Ken Kamen takes a big-picture approach.

Interview by Alyssa Abkowitz, reporter

Ken Kamen: "Right now is not the time to make any rash decisions from headlines."

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Ken Kamen, president of Mercadien Asset Management, has a simple goal: to help investors understand the big picture. "The more time people spend looking at the leaves of the tree, the more they miss the forest," he says.

And as the economy begins to show signs of recovery, he believes investors need to look beyond the ups and downs of today's market and think about where their money will be down the road. Fortune spoke with Kamen to get a sense of where the market stands today, how investors should read it for the future, and why people shouldn't make hasty decisions based on headlines.

Q: What's your opinion of the market right now and what should investors be focusing on?

A: Investing, by my definition, is managing risk. We're in a market environment where everyone thought the risk was so overwhelming that they went back to being a saver -- they just wanted it all back in their piggy bank.

No one wants to get burned again, but now people are starting to go, "Well what happens if this market is real? I don't want to miss the next leg up, because if I miss the next leg up I can't afford to be on the sidelines yet again."

All the pundits are saying, "The market could be going down again, because it's over-baked," so the individual investor is in a quandary right now. Do you get in and buy into a potential fool's rally?

I try to tell people this idea of bull and bear is really a question of time. What's your time horizon?

If you're planning your retirement, you have to be a long-term bull because quite frankly, if you're not, you're not going to get it in fixed income. That doesn't mean you're 100% invested in the market, but if your time frame is like a trader and it's a one-week time frame, well then maybe you want to be bearish because you think the market's a little toppy now.

My goal is to keep people not necessarily on long-term or short-term but on the big picture. Your goal as your own money manager is you want to make sure you don't run out of dollars before you run out of heartbeats.

Q: You talk a lot about investors giving up on the structure of the market. What do you mean by this and what do you think happened?

People lost structural confidence that the market was even a place for their retirement money to be in and that loss came from things the president said and all this stuff about fiduciary responsibility and that Wall Street let everyone down. The market got so oversold, because people weren't looking at values of companies.

It was viewed that the market is for suckers. Every uncle that never invested in the market was rubbing salt in the wound of every one of his nephews. So the market was pricing in a total depression when what really happened was just the worst recession we've had in 50 years.

Now, the market is starting to come back to being priced where it would've been priced if people weren't structurally afraid of the system. So when people say the market is big now, sure it kind of came up, but the reality of it is, the market got down as low as it got down because it was pricing in a collapse of the system. It wasn't valuing the companies.

Q: You've also likened the Cash for Clunkers program to the market. What's the connection?

The reason I bring up the two in tandem is because what the market and the Cash for Clunkers program show is that cash was there, but people weren't motivated or too nervous to bring it out to play. When you look at Cash for Clunkers, people are going, "OK, it might not be cheaper, I might not get it at a better price, but I'm going to take advantage of this because there might not be a better time to do it than this."

We're seeing the market being fueled by the same type of thing. People don't want to miss out if this really is the real next bull because it hasn't corrected off yet. Even though people might not be all that comfortable, it's not that they don't have the capital to commit, it's that they're thinking, "Well maybe we should do something now." There's an interesting parallel there.

Q: Overall, what's your take-home message for people?

Right now is not the time to make any rash decisions from headlines. The headlines are all going to go away and the things you thought were important are going to turn out to be trivial things and the things you never thought of are going to be, "Wow where did that come from?"

Now is the time to really take seriously your responsibility to make sure your family is taken care of in the long run. It's important to think things through. To borrow from Ross Perot, "Now's the time to measure twice and cut once." To top of page

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