A common question in the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community involves how much money you need to retire. Before I became a card-carrying member of the community I would hear the question something short of a dozen times per year. This blog means I hear the question a lot more these days. And people still don’t believe my answer.
There is a great misperception over how much money is needed to cash a check and walk your own path. I’ve consulted with 70 year old men worried they don’t have enough to retire. In the FIRE community younger people are more interested in the same question with a different set of rules.
Social Security changes all the rules. The 4% rule is wildly off the mark because they forget two simple facts; facts we will cover right now.
How Much is Enough
I will use one example to outline how much you need to retire. It is easy to adjust to fit your personal circumstances.
This exercise began when I started to wonder how much Social Security I’ll receive monthly at 70. We will not use my actual numbers. Instead, we’ll use a hypothetical married man my age. (I don’t use my actual numbers since they are atypical.)
Later this month I’ll tip the age scale at 54. Yeah, I know. Never thought I’d live that long either. It also brings up a few interesting facts. First, I qualify for early retirement (qualify for early discounted Social Security) in eight years. (Where the heck did the time go?) Full retirement for Social Security is 13 years away and I can get a bump in my benefits every year I wait until 70, or 16 years. Regardless, Medicare is for the taking at 65, or 11 years for your favorite accountant.
So how much do you think I need to call it a career? A million? More?
It all depends on my spending habits really. Depending on the circumstances, most years I spend about $20,000. Some years I spend as much as $30,000 in the event the car dies (every twenty or so years) or some other personal adventure arises. Summertime is low spending season. An average summer month sets me back $600 – $800. Rare is the non-winter month that sees a four-figure reversal on my spending fortunes. Winter is another matter. December is property tax month. January (February, too) is cold in backwoods Wisconsin. The utility bill gnaws at me the entire time. By the time the frost clears I’ve lost $20,000 of weight from my money belt.
The 4% rule (bantied about in the FIRE community a lot) says you need a cool $625,000 to be safe with a $25,000 annual withdrawal rate. This is just plain stupid! You don’t need $625,000 to retire with a $25,000 annual budget!
Here are the two mistakes most people make. First, it assumes you’ll never earn another penny after you retire. Oh, for God’s sake people! You will earn money after you retire, if only by accident. Heck, you can sell tradelines if you’re allergic to work and need a thousand or so each month to supplement your wants.
Time for Math Class, Accountants
Let me ask you this. If you have $625,000 at age 54 and withdraw 4% ($25,000) annually, how much do you have at age 70? Answer: More than Zero! The 4% rule is considered a safe withdrawal rate to never run out of money in retirement.
But this assumes you want to leave a legacy at least as big as your net worth pile right now! If 4% is a safe withdrawal rate then in all but the rarest of circumstances the account balance will continue growing!
The second mistake people make when deciding how much they need to retire is using the 4% rule rather than amortizing the liquid net worth balance over the maximum years needed before another form of income kicks in.
There are plenty of amortization calculators around the web. I’m using the program inside my tax software. I asked my amortization program a simple question. How much will I need today to withdraw $25,000 annually for 16 years (remember I’m 54 and want to wait until 70 before drawing Social Security) at a 4% return? Since many people consider the 4% rule safe (as do I) it is acceptable to amortize the liquid net worth balance at a 4% investment return rate.
My tax software says I need $291,307 (I rounded) to make this work. I’ll have exhausted my liquid cash at the same time Social Security kicks in. (Assumptions: withdrawals for the year are in one payment in advance with the money market holding the funds prior to use earning 0% with the first payment drawn the first day to account for an immediate retirement and the next full year withdrawal of the first day of each fiscal year.)
This is a far cry from $625,000! The amortization solution doesn’t take into account several factors. You are likely to earn at least a small amount of income in the next 16 years, but inflation is not factored in so buying power slowly erodes. It also assumes the stock market (I assume we’re using broad-based index funds) only performs at half its historical average. That is a serious assumption! Odds are the market will do better and you will still not use up your nest egg by the time Social Security kicks in. If fact, it’ll probably be bigger than when you started.
The Crazy FIRE People
The crazy FIRE community needs even less than my calculations indicate. When a 35 year old walks into my office and wants to know how much more he needs to retire when he has $200,000 stashed away already with no debt I tell her she can retire today. After they break the dead stare they think I’m joking. I’m not!
Once again we are assuming the $200,000 will only throw off $8,000 per year under the 4% rule. Not so. Once you give up on the rat race you can join a race you really enjoy! If you’re 35 you need something to fill your time. First, you are likely to move to a lower cost area if you don’t already live in one. (My low living expenses are partly a product of geography. New Your City or most of the West Coast would force me to talk out of the other side of my mouth.)
Second, you’re 35 years old!!! There is only so much travel or golf a guy can handle. It gets old fast, becoming the new rat race you want out of. Then reality sets in and your interests bubble to the top. A side hustle you always wanted to try is now a viable option. It doesn’t have to pay tremendous amounts of money. Your cost of living will decline unless you engage stupid spending habits. If you have said habit it is unlikely you’ve read this far. (For the rest of you, this way.)
Using the assumptions above, the $200,000 amortized over 32 years will throw off a bit more than $11,000. Still not enough to retire.
But if you spot a 35 year old $11,000 per year and she only needs $25,000 per year to live you have a helluva start!
If you can swing $1,200 per month with a side hustle you can retire at 35! Yes, Social Security might be pretty small, but your side hustle will add to your account when calculating benefits. At full retirement a husband/wife team should realize around $2,000 a month even with the low earnings assumed here! Retiring at 35 with $200k is doable if you have any interest at all in any activity with potential to throw off an income stream.
Crybabies this Way
The information above has the tendency to bring out the crybabies. “I can’t do that! Waaaa!” “It’s impossible! Waaaa!” “I want my mommy! Waaaa!”
Your mommy isn’t here so pull up your shorts and listen. $200,000 is a bit light to retire on at 35, but not bad for someone a certain accountant’s age. Amortized over a shorter period means you will have enough until pensions and Social Security kick in.
At 35 you will be required to still earn some coin. Notice I didn’t say work. Please don’t break out in a rash.
A seasonal or part-time job can provide enough money to enjoy a very joyful and full life. The first ingredient is cutting out all the stupid spending! The more you spend annually, the more you will need at the start to make it to the finish line!
If you live in a high-cost area it many require a move. If you stay put you need to adjust my numbers. Younger people need to calculate on their age, not mine! If you have a higher lifestyle than mine you’ll need more to start unless you plan on spending more time on your side hustle.
Until your health gives out or you die, you will bring in more income than you realize. Just doing the stuff you enjoy doing has a tendency to become an income source. Even small income sources do wonders to your investment account. Using your favorite accountant as an example, the lower spending habits of summer means money is left to earn more before it is spent. Every nickel earned on the side is one nickel less needed to appreciate the awesome retired life you’re living.
You probably worry as much as my clients about how much you need to retire. Financial advisors always scare you with big numbers. It’s good for them when they get more of your money. The truth is you don’t need as much as you think to have a comfortable retirement with spare change for some travel and entertainment.
And for God’s sake, please don’t be that guy who has $200,000 in cash, a $25,000 annual spending budget and is 65 with Social Security checks for him and his wife totaling over $3,000. Just don’t be that guy. You’re never going to run out. Now go and enjoy your life.
Wealth Building Resources
Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?
Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.
PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.
QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. Quickbooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.
A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.
Amazon is a good way to control costs by comparison shopping. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you.
There is a secret seldom spoken of by the financially independent. Those in the know can hear echoes of the secret periodically in the utterances from great financial leaders like Charlie Munger when he said the surest way to get in financial trouble is with the three Ls: liquor, ladies and leverage. Then Munger’s buddy, Warren Buffet, laughs about the comment in an interview saying Charlie was joking about the first two; it’s leverage where all the trouble lies.
Did you miss the secret? Unless you are loaded (financially, not with liquor) there is a good chance the greatest secret of wealth whistled past your left ear unnoticed.
Here is the secret for those who missed it:
When you are in debt the clock works against you. Every morning when you wake—weekends, holidays, sick days, birthdays and work days—you are already behind. The mortgage, credit card, car loan, et cetera, all tacked on interest the second after midnight. Long before you rolled out of bed and poured your first cup of coffee you need to work to pay the interest before you have money for food, clothing, shelter or entertainment.
Here is the secret if you weren’t paying attention:
Saddled with debt the clock works against you. Tally up all your debts and calculate the interest accruing daily. Now you know why it’s so hard to get ahead. It isn’t your wage; it’s you! You forgot to do the math and now the universe is teaching you a valuable lesson. If you survive. More on that in a moment.
Here is the secret if you were distracted by the bright lights:
If you have no debt you start each day with a clean slate. You own nothing to anyone as you start your day. You still need to take action to cover your daily needs, but at least you are not behind before you start.
The secret again is:
Without debt, but with investments, interest accrues to your account before the coffee is brewed. Dividends were earned, wealth created.
The secret again:
Investments in interest baring accounts build slowly, yet daily. Investments in index funds means virtually every purchase by every man, woman and child added something to your nest egg. Each sale added to the coffers that pay you dividends. Each sale adds value to the companies you own in the index fund. Each sale is part of the wealth creation process.
In case you missed it, the secret is:
Without debt and a load of investments you have millions of people on your payroll managed by some of the brightest and most educated people in the world. They work hard for a salary. They work hard making you rich!
***In debt you are a slave; without debt you’ve broken the chains and ripped open the shackles and threw them into the abyss.
Without debt you are free; without debt and in possession of wealth, each day is yours to use as you chose.***
Pay attention! I will repeat the secret one last time:
Debt turns you into a slave! Every day you owe your master. Every day! He is a cruel, heartless master. When the clock ticks past midnight the interest for the day ahead is due.
Only those without debt and in possession of investments are free! Those with wealth are free to live each day as they choose. They can build or create more value or take time to reflect on a life well lived. You can share it with family and friends. Without a harsh master demanding your soul you can walk any path you choose. Any path.
I could go on for another 2,000 words, but it would be to no avail. This doesn’t need a long story. The message is short and simple. Even a child can understand it. It requires the poison of mass media to brainwash you into wanting more than you need on a short term of slavery, ah, easy payment plan.
Copy this post and paste it on the refrigerator door so you see it first thing in the morning.
Paste a copy on the bathroom mirror so you can read it as you brush your teeth.
Carry a copy in your pocket close to your heart.
Never forget the message. Read it again and again until it is internalized. Only then is the ultimate secret of wealth personally yours.
Now you know the secret:
1.) Get out of debt.
2.) Invest constantly in broad-based index funds.
3.) Live the life of your choice.
Now that you know the secret you are free. Perhaps for the first time in your life.
Wealth Building Resources
Personal Finance is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Finance is free?
Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to skyrocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.
PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.
QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. Quickbooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.
A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.
Amazon good way to control costs and comparison shop. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you.
Twin brothers walk into the Wealthy Accountant’s office. One brother is as smart as a whip with an IQ of 147 and a wiz with numbers. The other twin, while looking identical to his brother, is a bit short in the mental category. The less bright brother is hard working, but knows he can’t outthink his twin brother.
Which twin do you think has the greatest financial advantage? Which one is likely to become a millionaire?
Would you believe me if I told you the super-smart twin is orders of magnitude less likely to amass a financial fortune? Yet time and time again I see it in my office: smart people underperforming and average people hitting it out of the park.
Here’s the funny thing. Both brothers are probably equal in intelligence. Life experiences caused one brother to think of himself as average. Perhaps the less intelligent brother preferred working outside with his hands while the high IQ brother pursued a profession.
Doctors and attorneys are awesome at playing financial offense. Many professionals share this quality. But high levels of intelligence don’t correlate well with high levels of financial wealth.
Big Hat, No Cattle
Thomas J Stanley argues in his 2001 book, The Millionaire Mind, that many professionals with a high income don’t have a corresponding level of net worth. Decamillionaires (people with a net worth north of ten million) have a term for people with high levels of income and little to show for it: big hat, no cattle.
These high earning professionals are also extremely intelligent. So intelligent, in fact, they start to believe they can outsmart the markets by timing them. They also have another weakness. Professionals need to maintain an outward appearance of affluence to convince other they are really good at what they do. Who would ever believe an accountant driving around in a bank reposed beater or attorney living in an 800 square foot home?
Average people in average income jobs are more suited to seven and eight figures of wealth! You read that right. The salvage yard owner is far more likely to have a serious level of net worth than a doctor, attorney or (gulp) accountant. Stock brokers and other financial advisors should have an inside track, but spending levels and a high level of understanding of how markets work causes many of these professionals to trade or time the market. The only traders with a snowball’s chance in hell of winning long-term are the market makers and financial newsletter publishers.
My Side of the Desk
Swing around, if you will, to my side of the desk. From my perspective you can see things clearer.
Every day people from all walks of life wander through my office. I have law firms, doctors and even accounting firms as clients. By and large this group enjoys a higher income than average. They also have a low level of net worth compared to what they earn. Worse, I’ve seen more than a few of these professionals pulling in upwards of a half million annually with only a low six figure net worth to show for it.
Before we continue, re-read the last sentence of the last paragraph. For some reason I find it vaguely important to our discussion.
There are plenty of excuses as to why these people are worth only slightly more than their last paycheck. None of them resonate with me.
Don’t leave my side of the desk yet. I have a few more clients to introduce you to.
Oh, here comes Sam. He worked in the mill his entire life. Not the smartest guy in the world, but a helluva family man. He goes to church every Sunday. His wife died a few years back. Worked in the paper mill his entire life before retiring with $4.7 million. By looking at him (or his car or his home or his . . . ) you would never guess he is rich. (Sam is a real client with a different name.)
Here comes another wonderful client. Jack has a landscaping company. He clips and maintains lawns for businesses and rich people, you know, the doctors, attorneys, financial advisors and accountants. Don’t say anything, but the guy maxes out his retirement accounts before adding more to his non-qualified accounts. Oh, and he is a millionaire too. Didn’t expect that considering the rust bucket he’s driving, did you?
The same pattern holds for farmers (they’re not all poor!), truckers, salvage yard dealers and guys laying concrete.
Don’t bite your tongue so hard. They aren’t all rich. Yes, I know guys in the military (or retired from) who are pretty darn rich. Many are pretty darn poor, too.
Not every doctor and attorney is net worth poor compared to their income. Many people in average jobs struggle. What I’m getting at is the people you expect to be rich are putting on a show. They have a big hat, but no cattle. They spend all their money putting on a façade. There’s nothing left to fund real wealth!
People with average incomes in jobs where there is little to no expectation of wealth have an easier time hiding their financial accumulations. A worn pair of jeans is more than fine to wear to work at the salvage yard or auction house. It’s expected!
When I first started investing in micro-loans on the Prosper platform I was able to see a few details on the borrower. Prosper provided a credit score and income range along with the borrower’s occupation. For some reason accountant’s needed loans in May. This blew me away for two reasons. First, an accountant should be flush with cash after tax season.
Second, some accountant’s work outside the tax field so they could need additional funds. Prosper also listed the reason for the loan request. When an accountant requests a loan to pay bills in May I’m dubious. Online lending platforms are not the cheapest way to borrow money! Any accountant worth his salt would never make such a poor financial decision. I say “his” because no woman would ever do something so foolish. (Yes, that was a joke.)
Prosper confirmed what I suspected from serving my clients. High income professionals frequently are poor handlers of money.
There is a lesson for the wise in this tale. You do NOT need a high income to be wealthy or financially independent! Average people in average jobs with average income can excel financially. The statistics are clear.
Sure, a high income can get you to seven figure net worth status faster if you can avoid the siren call of excessive spending to play the role. Even a below average income can grow into a tidy nest egg if handled properly. Minimum wage is a hard racket, for sure. But once your income climbs to a level even below the national average you have plenty of resources to fund an early retirement!
Excuses will show up in the comments. It goes with the territory on blog posts with this topic. They are still only excuses. Income level plays a role in your net worth. By age thirty you should have at least two years income invested. Once you reach 40 your net worth should exceed at least 10 times your annual income. If you are pulling down a $50,000 annual salary you should have a half mil tucked away in an index fund by your 40th birthday. As each decade passes the net worth report card should grow larger.
This is where the rubber touches the pavement. Really smart people want to trade stocks and bonds. They want to time the market because they did all the research. Of course the market makes a fool of the well educated.
There are only two ways to accumulate money in the market. The first is to drop the money into an index fund, or, if you are so inclined to engage an actively managed fund, a growth and income fund. Forget about aggressive funds and other crazy ideas. Your goal is to be rich!
The other way to get rich investing is to research listed companies for undiscovered value. Buy these gems and hold them for somewhere in the neighborhood of forever. Then go out and find another undervalued business to invest in.
Remember, you don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room. The smartest guy is often broke!
I want to be smart. Just not that smart.
It’s been a while since I showed you my working papers. Below are my unedited notes for this post. It should also be noted the working title of this post was Attributes of a Wealthy Individual; or The Smartest Guy in the Room isn’t the Richest was added at the last minute as a tribute to the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Hope the insight into my writing style helps you with your writing.
What characteristics are most common in the wealthy? High intelligence doesn’t guarantee wealth, it actually hurts! Smart people think they can outsmart the market and time it. Professionals have an appearance to keep. Doctors and sales people need to look the part. The massive spending required to “look good” reduces savings and all the profits those savings generate.
Average people have a much better chance. The salvage yard owner has nothing to prove so she socks away a massive percentage of her income and puts it into index funds because she know she can’t do better,.
I see it in my office all the time. A recent client picked up his return. He is retired with a serious seven figure retirement account before looking at non-qualified monies or other assets. He is an average guy from an average family retired from a mill job. And he’s rich.
Don’t be so smart to talk yourself into poverty. Intelligence can only dig you out of so deep a hole.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. published Harrison Bergeron in 1961. His short story illustrated the ultimate end of inequality as only the humorist could. Today we think of inequality in term of race, gender or income. Vonnegut knew this was only background noise to the real issues of inequality.
In Harrison Bergeron the attempt to erase all inequality is taken to a whole new level. Beauty, strength and mental capacity were also dished out in unequal portions to the masses. To compensate, the beautiful wore grotesque masks; the strong wore heavy weights to hold them back; and intelligent people were hit with a mental pulse of sound every twenty seconds to dumb them down.
Inequality is all the rage today. We demand income inequality between genders and race. On the surface it all seems good and honorable. Beneath the hood something else might be at play.
In Vonnegut’s story Harrison has a keen mind and wants to use it. He breaks free from the shackles holding him to the lowest level of mediocrity. The government action is swift. Harrison is killed, along with his newly discovered girlfriend of tremendous beauty. The government snuffed out inequality before anyone could feel infringed by another’s superiority in anything.
The inequality debate isn’t completely about levels of pay or rights. In many cases it’s about more about “me”. Groups of people demand more because they think as a group they have a better chance for more as individuals.
As we saw in Harrison Bergeron, erasing inequality doesn’t always lead to desired results. Making everyone the same lowers the bar for all involved and it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Joy of Inequality
Inequality is in part a choice. A woman may choose a lower annual income to garner more free time with family or to have a child. Men are starting to join that movement, asking for more paid leave, even if it means a lower salary or fewer other benefits, to spend time with family. On the surface, again, it appears—if you only consider annual wages—that an inequality has arisen between employees with a family and those with a smaller family or fewer family issues.
The perceived inequality is actually an increase in quality of life. What one person desires is completely different from that of another. Offering family leave has less value to someone with a small or no family. Those with family, young parents for example, might find family leave the largest inducement an employer could offer.
Another benefit growing in popularity is student loan reduction. Some companies now offer young employees additional services to help them reduce their student loans. The benefit is worthless to those with no debt.
Inequality can be unfair. Some is a conscious choice. Working part-time or a side gig fits the temperament of some people better than a stress filled, high pressure environment. Some thrive on pressure. It isn’t unfair to pay people in the high pressure jobs more. Putting a mask on the beautiful, weighing down the strong and interrupting the intelligent doesn’t make things more equal!
True income and wealth equality comes at a heavy price. I discussed in the past the only ways income and wealth became more equal historically: war, famine/plague, revolution and societal collapse. Walter Scheidel does a better job of fleshing out the details in his book, The Great Leveler.
The FIRE Community and Inequality
A powerful movement in our society today is the FIRE community. Their dedication to financial independence (FI) and the ability to retire early RE), or at least at a reasonable age, is making headway into previously cherished traditions of lifelong labor in the organized workplace.
From the beginning the FIRE community understood wealth and retirement was not a product of equality for all. Most of the inequality was either by choice or slight in nature. Some members of the community powered their way through to FI as fast as possible to engage the life they wanted. Others took a slower route. The gap year or years became part of the lexicon. Net worth became an interesting discussion in closed quarters.
What surprises the most is the range the group holds as FI. Some say a couple hundred thousand should do it. Others still want to pack the crate with several million. One unique animal in the crowd bows out well before FI to take a slower pace the remainder of her life. Part-time work or side hustles fill the gaps.
As a community it is felt: to each their own.
The FIRE community is special! Judgment is withheld when matters of finance come to the fore. If somebody is happy never engaging in a full-time serious career, nobody thinks twice about it. A few eyebrows are raised when a member want to work like a dog until death do him part. But desire to continue working doesn’t revoke membership.
The original Star Trek series has a unique underlying philosophy connected to Mr. Spock and the Vulcans called IDIC. It stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. The novels covered the topic more than the television series. What was meant by IDIC is that the more diversity, the more combinations of different people, makes us stronger.
A glaring example is shown us by the recently departed Stephen Hawking. Hawking was a genius on every level. Unfortunately, life didn’t give him an equal measure. His body suffered from a degenerative disease. His mind more than made up for it. Could you imagine Hawking in Vonnegut’s story? Society would be forced down to Hawking’s physical level while Stephen’s mind would be throttled to the lowest mental member of society.
Inequality can make us stronger. What we need to eliminate, or at least reduce, is discrimination. Race and gender is not a crime. Sexual orientation isn’t either. These are the hard problems to solve. Inequality, income for example, is not always bad.
Underpaying people is a form of discrimination. The FIRE community doesn’t discriminate. The FIRE community example is to accept all people from all walks of life. Workers should be paid a fair wage and provided a safe environment. That doesn’t preclude dangerous work. Risky jobs are secure when the company treats the team as family.
The FIRE community is the most diverse of any I know. It has the Vulcan IDIC philosophy. Color of skin doesn’t matter. Religious beliefs, or lack thereof, don’t affect membership. Both genders and in-between are welcome.
You will find people deep in debt taking their first steps toward financial freedom in the community and those with millions in investments. Side hustles abound. Travel is indicative while accepting those who prefer the closed quarters of home. The homebodies experience the world through the eyes of the world travelers. Once again IDIC turns weaknesses into strengths.
Vonnegut showed us the foolishness of demanding equality in all things. Too much inequality can damage the whole. But Inequality isn’t bad in and of itself. There is nothing wrong with accepting less, an unequal portion, for the same job. In my profession there is the free VITA tax service. There is also plenty of room for professionals to earn a living too. This is not damaging inequality.
As a society we need to embrace inequality. Differences force us to think in new ways. Those on the lower end may not enjoy the process. I get that. But it is rare to find a genius in the lap of luxury. Elon Musk is from South Africa; Steve Jobs had a difficult early life. Equal didn’t make them stronger. Inequality did.
Recent volatility in the stock market has people reassessing their appetite for risk. Investing in a bull market is easy as it seems the only way equities go is up.
The recent bull market has an added way of lulling people into a false sense of security. Last year many indexes never saw even a 5% pullback even once. Some didn’t see a 3% decline at any point! This is a highly unusual situation confirming for some people the stock market doesn’t test your resolve as often as it does.
In the past week we’ve had a > 5% intraday swing in the market indexes. Many individual stocks had even greater moves!
The first shock wave most investors put on a brave face. The constant chatter on social media meant it was all an act. The market caught people’s attention.
The broad market didn’t even close down 10%, a level considered a normal and expected pullback in the broad market, before the clichés were pulled out.
I didn’t Lose Money Because I Didn’t Sell
This is the stupidest thing I hear every time the market pulls back or a correction is discussed. If you don’t sell you don’t have a taxable event, but your net worth has declined!
If you believe stupid clichés to keep you from making bad investment decisions you might want to consider money market accounts before you experience a bloodletting.
There are people who refused to sell Enron. They NEVER actually sold Enron. Does that mean they never lost money? Heck, no! The Enron Scandal destroyed many life savings. Not selling didn’t make it better!
Granted, index funds are different from an individual stock, especially Enron. But the lesson is learned. Whether you sell or not doesn’t change the fact your investments declined at least temporarily.
The worst part about these old worn out clichés is that it focuses your attention on the wrong details. Refusing to sell because you know it’s the wrong thig to do in a down market is radically different from thinking about what you SHOULD do!
I agree, panic selling is a bad idea. But BSing yourself into thinking you haven’t lost money when your portfolio dropped $87,000 is industrial strength stupid.
Another line of reasoning has people backtrack to the last time the market traded at the lower level and then saying if they hadn’t checked their account since then they wouldn’t even know the market went through a conniption fit. But you do know and your brain is in overdrive trying to preserve the previous old highs!
A Better Way
There is a better way to look at the stock market when it declines. Instead of focusing on denial (refusing to sell in a down market only to succumb when it gets super bad at the ultimate low) focus on value.
The underlying value of the businesses you own a fractional share of (that is what stock ownership really is if you didn’t know) probably didn’t change much in value since traders blew out their backside timing the market.
Once a decline begins a lot of selling is forced by margin calls! Sanity or reality has nothing to do with it. Leverage increases risk magnitudes of order. When you borrow to invest it’s not if, it’s when the boom will be lowered. Pray to every god ever known you don’t get lucky the first time using debt. Debt also magnifies gains. If you win the first round you are either addicted or lulled into digging in deeper next time. Either way the carnage will also be increased.
I hate it when people say they refuse to sell into a down market. Has anyone considered putting new money to work during a decline? Just asking.
There are tricks, games you can play, to reduce the sting your psyche experiences, especially when you are starting out. We’ll go there next before we discuss good reasons to sell.
Let’s Play a Game
My 18th birthday came less than month after I graduated high school and I couldn’t wait. I had a veeeery modest nest egg in a passbook savings account (remember those) at the bank. Shortly after I reached the age of majority I pulled most of the money out and dropped it into growth & income funds.
I timed my age perfectly. In August 1982 the market took off like a streak and never looked back. Until 1987.
Even in an advancing market there are down days. As the 80s bull market got longer in the tooth volatility increased. Record highs meant larger point losses if not actual percentage records.
Not immune to the emotions of market moves I knew I had to find a way to short circuit my brain to avoid the fear and pitfalls of down days.
I devised a game from watching my account grow. A down month was never as bad as the overall market because automatic deposits muted the losses. Up months really looked good! Using an old spreadsheet (I think actually used Excel 1.0 at one time (gawd, I’m old)) my account values took on a stair step pattern as each new investment jumped the account value and dividends kept ratcheting higher.
My game only works with small accounts, but it sure helped me when I was building my first million. What I did was this. When the market declined I would do everything in my power to increase new investments so the actual value of the account didn’t decline.
An example would be if I had an account value of $100,000 and the market pulled back 3% I would try to add at least $3,000 of new money during the month. I worked hard to always keep my account value at the old high water mark.
Big declines are hard to offset and as the account grows larger even small declines became hard to offset.
The game was still the same. I might not offset the whole market decline, but I sure put a dent in it.
Then 1987 showed up.
Market volatility increased as the bull market aged. I wasn’t a millionaire at the time, but my accounts worked deep enough into the six figures to make constant investments as the market declined from a top in August to the gut-wrenching losses of October more and more difficult.
I’d be lying to you if I said I controlled my emotions during the market turmoil of 1987. My guts were a disaster. The only good news I can report is that I was so scared $hitless I never sold. I was numb all over. At least I did my job keeping the economy afloat with regular purchases of Fruit of Loom.
What I didn’t understand as a young adult was that my game actually prepared me to think about market prices differently.
Market declines were not about willpower NOT to sell, but rather an opportunity to reassess value.
In down markets there will be companies on sale. Not all of them, but a few.
All those mutual fund/index fund investments also go just a smidge further in a down market, too, buying more shares with each dollar invested. The other game I played was to track the number of shares owned. Philip Morris might be down, but I still own my pro-rata share of the company. That part is mine. My part of the revenue; my part of the assets; my part of the profits; my part of the dividends.
Strangely, the dividend stream never dipped much so I changed my game as the account values increases to add new money to maintain the income stream only.
Isn’t money a fun game?
Smart people will tell you to never try timing the market. I think I’m a relatively smart guy! It could be delusion, but it’s my fantasy so I’m sticking with it.
In late January I mentioned on social media (Facebook) that I moved to my highest cash position in my adult life. I was promptly jumped for market timing. A few days later we had the current market pullback.
So what gives, Sir Accountant?
Well, in my defense, I wasn’t timing the market. My gains over the last decade have been nothing short of astounding. Second, when I calculated the discounted future value of earnings with higher interest rates due to the tax law changes the numbers no longer added up.
I had no idea my selling would be so well timed. But . . .
My timing wasn’t timing! And even if I was so lucky to time the market so right I still need to pick the right time to jump back in!
For the record, I didn’t sell with the intention of buying back at a lower price.
I sold because the value of future earnings were not high enough to keep eight figures and over 80% of my net worth in index funds and individual stocks.
Since the market DID decline I might return some of the money from where it came. A 5% decline isn’t enough to change my mind. Now if we see blood flowing in the streets I might bite. It’ll take at least a 20% decline to accomplish that. I’m not holding my breath.
I hope this ends all discussion of my mighty stocks timing skills which I don’t possess.
What to do and Where To
So what should you do in volatile markets?
First, DON’T PANIC!!!
The broad markets have always come back and always will. If I’m wrong there will not be earth to live on so it will not matter. You’ll have to sue me after the collapse of civilization if I’m wrong.
If you are a millennial and your account is small enough, try playing my game. Cut every possible expense and add to your regular investments until your account value has little or no change.
If your account is getting bigger play the first game with an eye toward keeping the dividend stream pointing north. This is easy so far as dividends are rising nicely as I write.
I sometimes tell people not to look at their investments when the market falls, but I am assuming there are no adults in the room. I recommend you know exactly where you stand so you can make intelligent decisions like adding extra to the pile while stocks are on sale. And it’s okay to have cash available for just such an event. Some crazy accountant from Nowhere, Wisconsin told me that.
The best way I know to visualize your holdings is with Personal Capital. The best part is there is no cost to open an account and kick the tires. Seeing your investments performance live can provide additional encouragement to play the games I outlined above.
Negative attitudes about declines are caustic! Willpower alone will not help you sleep at night and may actually get you to wait for further declines before selling! Playing a game with your mind to recognize value is a powerful tool.
The last thing I want to touch on is what I plan on doing with the cash balance I built in January.
There are alternative investments available for those in the know. One investment I’m testing is PeerStreet.
PeerStreet works a lot like Lending Club and Prosper but with what I consider less risk since you invest in real estate loans with at least 25% equity whereas Lending Club and Prosper are unsecured loans. Returns are comparable and if recent personal results are any indicator, PeerStreet does better.
This is only one alternative investment I’m considering. With the better part of eight figures in cash I’ll need a few more ideas. I’ll share them when I know more.
I’ll be publishing a PeerStreet review, but there are compliance issues. PeerStreet is only for accredited investors (PeerStreet has the details on their site if you follow the link above). Once PeerStreet’s compliance department grants permission I’ll share my review..
So there you have it. How to control your emotions when the world turns into a raving mad mob of Chicken Littles.
Anyone up for a friendly game?
It started with a simple request for an update to my personal net worth.
Over the years I’ve been mum about the subject, only exposing myself due to the Rockstar Finance Net Worth Tracker. I’m still undecided about discussing my *exact* net worth publically. It’s really nobody’s business and is only public because I write a personal finance blog.
(As an example: Recently I was told point-blank if this blog failed it would be no big deal since I could always do something else and I’m already rich enough. This remark was a jab at the hopeful opportunity to watch something I enjoy crumble. If I really felt that way I would never have started the project.)
The reader kept the emails coming fast and furious when I dodged the net worth question. I had a duty, I was informed, to share my personal life — details and all — since I was a business owner and have a semi-successful blog.
There was a hint of humor beneath the requests so I delayed blocking said intruder. Eventually we started a civil dialog with some serious questions about the current tax law and how it might ripple through the economy.
A week ago I was working in the barn and began formulating a post using many of the questions my intruder asked. I worked myself into a frenzy until it started coming out as a rant. I went to the house and took notes on all the topics I wanted to cover.
So this is it. I promised my intruder a nice post covering a large portion of his questions he had surrounding the TAX CUT AND JOBS ACT. Some of this is tongue in cheek so don’t take this post as hard and fast predictions of the near future.
Then again, I do have a point.
Doubling the estate tax exemption is industrial strength stupid. All this worry about farmers and small businesses losing a lifetime of work due to estate taxes is the dumbest thing ever thrust upon the people.
With the old tax law only a few thousand estates were subject to the estate tax in any given year. Now even fewer will pay the tax.
You can count the farmers subject to the estate tax on your fingers with fingers left over! Some small businesses pay an estate tax, but even that is rare.
What the adjustment to the estate tax did was line the pockets of the uber-rich! Even this blog with a very wealthy readership will not have much to worry about when it comes to estate taxes!
It’s time to stop calling the estate tax a death tax. It’s not a death tax; it’s a welfare tax!!! We keep hearing politicians complain about welfare draining the public coffers. Well, the estate tax is the biggest welfare tax there is.
I see some raised eyebrows. Let me explain. The estate tax is not a death tax; it’s a welfare payment to all the people getting a free ride due to the genetic lottery.
I don’t care what they do to the estate tax personally, but stop calling it what it’s not!
No amount of tax cuts will offset the accelerating wealth accumulation at the top. As the top keeps more due to lower taxes there is less available to spread around to the middle class. The middle class pie gets smaller and smaller as the middle class gets squeezed like never before.
Tax cuts don’t trickle down. And stop with the politics. If trickle down worked it should have leveled some of the income inequality by now. Remember, President Reagan came up with the idea back in 1981.
Tax cuts can stimulate the economy, however, and have been used as a tool to spur the economic growth on a regular basis in the past.
The latest tax cut is a bit weird. Normally the government lowers taxes to encourage economic growth when the economy is sputtering or in recession. This time we spiked the Kool-Aid after six or seven years of modest economic growth.
Cutting taxes with unemployment at a 4-handle (unemployment is 4 point something percent) could actually harm the economy as interest rates and inflation could accelerate destroying any gains from the tax cuts.
Time will tell.
The labor participation rate will collapse if a technical corrections bill doesn’t fix the myriad problems with the latest tax bill. Savers will be able to exit the workforce faster and the FIRE (financial independence/retire early) movement will make it easier than ever for people to check out early, further exacerbating the labor shortage.
Also, the tax code now punishes added payroll expenses significantly since if you didn’t spend on payroll the extra profits are barely taxed (big corps) or you get 20% of profits as a deduction without spending a penny (small business and landlords).
There is no doubt in my mind any increase in the labor participation rate will be short-lived. Also, businesses are more incentivized than ever to lay off workers at the first hint of slower demand.
Automation is cheaper than ever with bonus depreciation increases. Include the 20% business income deduction and I foresee plenty of staff reductions.
The automation was coming regardless. Now we don’t have time to adjust as the changes will come faster. Once installed the jobs are gone forever.
Major corporations will benefit most as the cost benefit calculations will favor more automation up front. Wal-Mart is a perfect example recently announcing a few bonuses and a higher internal minimum wage while experimenting with over 200 of their stores by replacing all cashiers with automation. Total payroll expenses to Wal-Mart will probably fall. So much for their altruism.
Don’t be fooled by the token pay bonuses either. Many companies are giving a one-time $1,000 bonus to select staff. This is less than a 2% temporary pay increase. If you paid attention, many of these companies announced a few days later layoffs which will reduce payroll by more than the bonuses.
Big business and the very wealthy know exactly what they’re doing (to you).
Now we get to my net worth. Know this, your favorite accountant will do rather well in this environment. Complex tax laws are always good for people with tax knowledge and a pulse.
We came into this story talking about a certain someone’s net worth. Here I confess I might have adlibbed a bit. The issue was net worth, but more to the point, how much was I going to haul home with all the tobacco company shares I own?
It’s true I own a lot of shares in tobacco companies. Unfortunately only my Altria shares will benefit from the tax cuts. Foreign tobacco companies — Phillip Morris International in my case — will not see a benefit from U.S. tax rate reductions for corporations since they derive all their profits outside the U.S.
This led to a discussion on how many shares of Altria I own. Ah, a lot.
Let’s look at what Altria might do to my net worth. The tax reduction could increase their reported earnings by about $2 per share from the tax reduction alone. Assuming a 10 P/E ratio this will eventually be reflected in the stock price increasing $20 per share. Bad news, kind readers. A twenty dollar increase in MO’s share price will get me a bit more than two-thirds of a million only.
Altria also likes to distribute about 80% of profits to shareholders. Currently MO pays 66 cents per share per quarter or $2.64 annually. Eighty percent of an additional $2 profit increase due solely to tax reductions is $1.60 extra per share per year for me (my favorite person) in dividends.
Your favorite accountant expects the tax reduction for Altria to add a bit north of $50,000 per year to his pocket on top of the current dividend. Not bad for a broke farmer in 1982.
On December 26th my net worth crossed the $14 million mark. Here, less than a month later, I reached $15 million. It took 14 years to amass the first million (age 18 to 32). Now I’m bumping off a million in less than a month. I can’t wait for the day I can brag I lost a million between sunup and sundown!
I am sooooo smart! I doubt anyone has seen their net worth climb in the current environment.
(Okay, the last part is total BS. I didn’t add my stuff up the day after Christmas. A back of the envelope calculation says I’m getting close to $15 million, however. Yes, even your favorite accountant can’t resist looking as his stash when it’s growing so fast. I keep reminding myself, “This too shall end.”)
This tax cut is different than the 1981 cut. Inflation and unemployment were double digits back then; now we have inflation and interest rates near zero with a 4 and change unemployment rate. Dropping a line of crack will not solve a meth heads issues! Stimulating an economy after 7 – 8 years of modest growth with the labor force fully or nearly fully employed is asking for problems.
At least I’ll be okay. I’m not so sure about you.
I could offer solutions, but there are none I can think of. There will be pain a head. You might want to keep that job for a while and eliminate debt. (Always eliminate debt.) For a few years (as long as the economy holds) it will be easier than ever to build a significant net worth and retire early (if that’s your goal).
Don’t worry. The government will print and borrow enough money to fund the upcoming inflation tax.
This entire post is opinion, of course. Many of these questions have come up again and again so I feel it is easier addressing them here for everybody to enjoy, ahem.
If any of these predictions comes true I take full credit.
If I’m off, let it be known I was only predicting the future and we all know the best we can do is guess at the future.
(Note: The light-hearted nature of this post is due to the flu epidemic affecting the nation. Some people are down and out. Your favorite accountant has been only modestly lucky so far. Some days I feel great only to spend several days so tired and exhausted I can barely think. Since I’m writing at a down point I felt it best to leave the serious discussions for a day when my head doesn’t feel like a balloon. There are actually people who follow my advice! Best to assure the advice has a reasonable chance of being right.)
Thirty plus years in the tax field has exposed me to the good, bad and downright vulgar. In the early 1990s I was a top producer at a broker/dealer for several years before refocusing on the accounting end of my practice. Before I left the industry changes were underway. Fee-based asset management was gaining adherents.
The old model of commissions was experiencing the first crack in its armor. Leaving the industry didn’t leave a void in my knowledge as clients consulted with me when considering investments and reviewing their investment advisor.
Fee-based is all the rage today. Many of the original selling points from the 90s are still used today with the exception most reporting is now done digitally online. In a nutshell, people are doing all the fee-based work while still paying a fee.
Rather than call out firms selling fee-based products, I want to focus on how wealthy clients work with their fee-based advisor or firm if they handle investments themselves.
Less wealthy clients seek my advice, too. This allows me an inside look on how wealthy and pre-wealthy (is that politically correct enough?) deal with their investments and the people advising them.
There are remarkable differences. Readers will probably see some of these actions in their own behavior. The wealthy already know this stuff; they have people who have helped them accumulate wealth. The less than wealthy will see where they can change to improve their odds of achieving significant wealth.
Before we start we need to review what I mean by wealthy and non-wealthy. For this study I consider wealthy someone with $10 million or more in liquid net worth. The non-wealthy have a net worth of $500,000 or less in liquid assets.
The examples I use are from my office. I have many more examples of people working with advisors from the lower end of the spectrum. Still, with decades at my post I’ve noticed the speed at which people increase their net worth. Those who act like the wealthy tend to get there faster; those who don’t usually never get there or barely break into the seven figures.
One caveat: The market has been on a tear for nearly a decade now without as much as a meaningful pause. Everybody is smart right now! It’s easy to be smart when you’re winning. Mistakes are easily glossed over in a rabid bull market. Too many people will fail when they are challenged for the first time. Good habits and appropriate demands on your financial professionals will be your anchor in the storm.
5.) No churning! This goes without saying, except it needs to be said. Investment advisors are not immune to the pipe dream of trading your way out of a problem or to success.
You would be surprised how many investment professionals churn an account legally. Churning can be illegal, but my definition of churning is far broader and includes legal activities.
What I’m talking about here is not the typical churning of mutual funds or stocks to generate additional commissions. I’m talking about all the new fangled computer algorithms trading to generate tax-loss harvesting or asset allocation models.
Clients bring me these beautiful folders of color graphs and charts they received from their advisor. It’s junk! Yes, the folder has great information, but swaddled in plenty of BS. I think it’s done that way intentionally to cover for the times results are subpar. You can see the same thing online.
Wealthy people are less impressed with color charts and tax-loss harvesting. Tax-loss harvesting is a zero sum game most of the time with the only value deferred taxes. If you don’t have a large capital gains to offset you are limited to a $3,000 deduction against other income. The rest gets carried over. Tax-loss harvesting has its place, but is overused with several (we will leave unnamed) companies hawking these services.
What impresses the wealthy is intelligent asset allocation. Intelligent asset allocation needs rebalancing once per year. That’s it! No more playing with the money! Leave your fingers off it.
Instead of churning the wealthy avoid investment gains all together with the host of retirement and quasi-retirement options available. Another neat trick to not pay capital gains tax is to not sell a stock with a gain or, in some cases, gifting it to charity and getting massive tax breaks while avoiding capital gains taxes to boot.
Rebalancing your portfolio quarterly only gives the illusion the investment advisor is doing something to earn his keep. With rare exception, rebalancing the account is needed once per year max!
The wealthy know you can’t beat the market with a simple computer program. Moving money around causes tax issues, trading costs and potential missteps in handling the portfolio, leading to loss.
4.) Matching the market is not a bad outcome. When the stock market was crushing it back in the mid and late 1990s I had a client who was considering moving his portfolio to me. I interviewed him (Yes, I interviewed him! Every warm body walking through the door is not client material.) to find his objectives and to see if we had a similar philosophy. Early in the conversation he said he expected me to do better than 20% per year since anybody could produce those types of returns. I showed him the door.
Good times (like today) give people a false understanding of long-term gains in the broader market. If a potential client has an unrealistic expectation it didn’t pay to begin a relationship; he would be unhappy in a short period of time anyway.
I’ve never had a wealthy client ever spew such garbage. Wealthy people think matching the market is a good baseline to start from. If you drop everything into index funds you should expect to have index results minus fees.
Non-wealthy people always want to take a flyer with the next greatest thing, currently bitcoin. Wealthy people also realize some hot investments today could really be a long-term quality investment. Amazon and Apple are two examples proving their worth and Tesla and Netflix are felt by many to have promise.
Hot stocks are not intrinsically bad! Wealthy people know this. Less wealthy people over-weight the risk of their portfolio. For a few it means immense wealth and encourages other less wealthy people to try to emulate the lucky.
The wealthy allocate a small percentage of their funds to non-traditional investments or high flyers. A typical wealthy client will have the bulk, say 80%, in investments expected to match the underlying market*. The remaining 20% in invested in increasingly risky investments.
A typical example is the wealthy client with most of her money in broad-based market index funds with the remainder in quality individual stocks and a few speculative issues.
Non-wealthy investors complain to their investment advisor of market matching performance. Over the long run this is an enviable track record and the wealthy know it and hence, don’t complain about their good fortune. Even a small outperformance over long periods of time is a cause to celebrate. The difficulty in beating the market before fees is long.
3.) Consider taxes when presenting investment ideas. Taxes can take an awesome investment down to mediocre in three seconds flat! Non-wealthy investors are impressed by before tax results. Wealthy investors want to know what they keep after taxes.
Many times a great performing asset can find a home in a retirement fund to preserve before tax gains. Of course, the investment needs to be made from inside the retirement account.
Buying an investment with a long time horizon is better than short-term results! Non-wealthy people love the quick score, but lose when the tax man begs his share. Wealthy people know a long-term investment with years of upside means taxes will not be due for a decade or longer, allowing for more growth without taxes slicing out a major portion of the gain.
Taxes are not #1 on this list, but are the most talked about issue wealthy clients have once a new investment is introduced. I can count on one hand with fingers left over how many non-wealthy clients asked me about their expected returns after taxes. The non-wealthy who do ask are not non-wealthy for long.
2.) Research. Pretty booklets and brochures don’t cut it with the wealthy! The wealthy don’t like short cuts. They want detailed research with solid numbers and ratios. When is the last time a non-wealthy client asked me about an investment’s cash flow? I can’t remember it ever happening. The wealthy ask EVERY time. Cash flow is how investors are paid and how a company generates capital to invest. The wealthy are nervous when capital requirements are met with borrowed funds. It’s also why Warren Buffett likes Apple now, but didn’t bite twenty years ago.
Research comes in many forms. The most obvious is the lack of research. Investment professionals working with the wealthy know better than to bring an idea to the client without adequately vetting the investment. Wealthy clients ask a lot of questions before investing!
Less wealthy clients are more likely to say, “Cool!” at pretty baubles and trinkets. An S&P index funds doesn’t need a lot of research. Individual stocks and bonds do. Less broad asset classes also need extra research to verify it meets investment objectives. Alternative investments need continual research, even after the investment is made.
1.) Straight talk. If anything drives wealthy people crazy it is double talk. Wealthy people are wealthy for a reason! Most are self-made and don’t appreciate a condescending attitude. Technical jargon will nix a deal faster with the wealthy than anything else. Less wealthy are frequently impressed by such 47 letter words. The wealthy are not!
I’ve noticed wealthy people can sniff out BS from a mile away. That’s why they are wealthy! Investment advisors looking to pocket a quick commission of generate some easy fees are advised to seek out the less wealthy. The relationship between advisor and wealthy client will wither fast when the technical jargon and BS flies.
Honest answers, even bad news, are expected by the wealthy. They don’t have time dancing around an uncomfortable situation. They want straight answers now.
The less wealthy cling to every ounce of hope the losing investment will turn around. It never does. The wealthy lick their wounds and move one; the non-wealthy cling to hope when all hope is gone.
The wealthy are wealthy because they know when to move on. Honesty up front is the only way the wealthy want it.
The wealthy are a big mystery to non-wealthy people. It shouldn’t be that way. There is no big secret the wealthy possess! In a nutshell, the wealthy hate games: talk straight, do your research before contacting them and consuming their time, consider taxes when researching an investment, matching the market is not a crime and most of all, don’t churn their money for a quick fee or to hopefully score big.
When handling your own money expect the same! It’s what the wealthy do.
And that is why you read to the end of this post.
* Each investment has an underlying market. Some wealthy investors keep a lot of their net worth in bonds. Some like equities. The goal of the wealthy is for their investment objectives to match broad market returns they’re invested in. Example: a wealthy client with a risk tolerance for bonds only might have 80% of her funds in Treasuries or high rated corporate and municipal bonds, with the remainder in lower rated bonds and a few percent in junk bonds or junk bond mutual funds/ETFs.
The easiest way to invest in equities is with a mutual fund. The surest way to match market performance is to use index funds. Then there are times we get the urge to do things the hard way.
Of all investment classes the broad market has performed best. The stock market, for all its fits and starts, has outperformed over long periods of time without the need or risks of leverage to accomplish the goal.
A simple strategy of consistent investing in index funds has plenty of adherents in the FIRE* demographic. The reason for this is simple: it works! Depending on where in the market cycle you start, a decade to decade and a half if all that’s needed to fund your retirement. Start saving half you gross income at age twenty and by 35 you are ready to either retire or carve your own path in life.
The plethora of blogs in this demographic are a testament to the successful strategy of wealth building with index funds. What is often forgotten is that you are investing in real businesses even when using an index fund. And it’s business, not stocks, which create the real wealth.
If it takes a decade or so to create an adequate net worth to retire, business can get you there in a few years.
Buying an index fund is a sure way to enjoy average growth. Average is good in this case because the economy grows, always has grown and will continue growing into the foreseeable future. As productivity and other advances and new technology come online you are in for the ride because your index fund owns just about every winner in the crowd. You also own old school companies still growing and/or throwing off massive dividends. There are also a few stinkers in the crowd as some former success stories are headed for the exit.
With this in mind, intelligent people sometimes want to strike out on their own with a small percentage of their portfolio. If you possess the mind of an accountant and the discipline of a saint you can ferret out opportunities with the potential of outperforming the market.
And armed with this knowledge it becomes clear the pickings are slim when the market has been straight up for eight years. There are plenty of great companies, but most sell for a dear price, unworthy of additional investment unless available at some future date at a better price.
A Clear View of the Future
Exotic securities have been devised over the years to hedge various investments. These very same tools are easily used to gamble, ah, speculate.
Farmers have had futures contracts available to them since before the beginning of time. It makes sense for a farmer to use futures to protect their investment in an uncertain world. Agricultural products have thin margins and farmers know it. A small shift in commodity prices between planting and harvest can destroy a farm financially.
To limit the risk of prices changing, a farmer can sell his future corn crop in advance. It works like this: A farmer probably knows his input costs of fuel, seeds and fertilizer. He also knows if it makes sense to drill the seeds into the ground in the first place. If the input costs are more than he can expect at harvest he either needs to allow fields to lay fallow, plant a different crop or hope to Mother Mary prices turn around.
Even if the farmer sees current corn prices are higher than his input costs there are no guarantees prices will stay favorable. A drought can devastate his crop and prices tend to decline into harvest as more of the commodity becomes available.
To limit risk the farmer can sell his expected corn crop coming off the field in autumn before he even plants in spring! If prices go up the farmer loses on his hedge, but wins on the actual crop. In prices decline he loses on the actual crop, but profits from the futures hedge.
Futures contracts are a necessary part of farm living. Without the ability to hedge farmers are one, or at best two, bad years away from bankruptcy.
The same tools can be applied to almost any asset.
You Have Two Options
Before we start this part of the discussion I want to give a warning. This is more a case of do what I say, not what I do. I use some very advanced methods when protecting my investments and when buying them. This discussion is on options. I do NOT recommend options except to the most knowledgeable and astute investor! Consider the remainder of this post informational only.
If you are unfamiliar with options and how they work, here is an article on Investopedia and another from NotWallStreet. Do NOT let anyone, me, a broker, a TV talking head or internet article, talk you into options unless you know what you are doing. You don’t.
There are two options in the world: calls and puts. Like futures for a farmer, an investor can hedge her investments against the price on some future date. The market has been rallying hard for years. If you are worried about the market declining, you can sell your stocks or index funds and pay taxes on the realized gains or write covered calls or buy puts. Each action has its own associated risk.
Selling causes tax issues, but at least the damage is known. Covered calls only provide limited protection and if the market keeps climbing you are likely to lose out on future gains. A covered call might provide a few points in premium only. If the market decline is larger you will suffer paper loses. Buying a protective put is a cheap hedge and frequently the preferable route. If the market declines you gain on the put option; if the market rises or stagnates your only risk (loss) is the put premium.
But that is not what I use options for. I’d buy a LEAP call option on the S&P 500 if I got the same deal Warren Buffett did nearly a decade ago. (Buffett paid a small premium for an at-the-money S&P 500 index call with a 10-year time frame with the market off nearly 50%. I wanted the same deal but they showed me the door.)
I rarely use covered calls to generate premiums as the market likes to steal your stock when you do. I don’t speculate or gamble with options either.
The one time I love to use options is in a market like we’ve had the last several years. The market has been doing well for a long time and when I’m looking to buy an individual stock I sometimes use options. (You can use the same strategy with index funds, but I never do. I still invest excess capital into the index fund and wait like a good boy.)
The problem with today’s market is good companies are selling at too high a price. Now if I could pick up some Facebook (FB) at 100 or Apple (AAPL) at 140 I’d be excited. (FB last closed at 179 and AAPL at 170.15.)
Most stocks don’t have much of a premium for short-dated options way out-of-the-money. Some stocks do. The best way to show you how I spike my returns using options is to list what I have in my current portfolio.
First, when I sell naked puts I consider them long-term buy orders in companies I want to own more of when the price is too high. If the price comes down enough the options will execute and I’ll get my extra shares. If the stock doesn’t drop enough or advances I keep the premiums. I never use this strategy in a down market as I can just buy the stock without waiting.
Here are my current naked put holdings:
Company Sold Date # Sold Option Date Strike Sold $ Current $
AAPL 11/15/17 -2 Jun 15, 18 140 3.04 2.87
FB 6/9/17 -4 Dec15, 17 120 2.05 .01
FB 6/29/17 -2 Jun 15, 18 100 2.00 .30
MO 7/31/17 -2 Jan 18, 19 65 8.03 5.90
NFLX 5/25/17 -2 Dec 15, 17 130 4.05 .05
PM 10/30/17 -2 Jan 18, 19 90 4.33 5.25
TSLA 5/25/17 -1 Dec 15, 17 220 6.68 .26
If every stock declined to the strike price or lower I would be on the hook to buy $175,000 of stock! As you can see most transactions will expire worthless before the end of the year and I keep the premiums.
MO is the outlier. Option premiums are low for MO so I sold a LEAP out in January of 2019. I also bought more MO in the low 60s recently.
I am willing to buy each one of these stocks at the strike price should the market decline to those levels and probably will even without the naked puts.
There are two risks to consider. The first requires self control. You only sell naked puts in the amount you have current funds available to buy.
The second risk you can’t control. If the story changes and the stock crashes, you will end up buying back the put at a loss or owning shares in a company where the story is no longer compelling.
Simply put (pun intended), there is no risk free investment. Just wanted you to understand the two risks in this scenario.
The Cash Hoard and the Friends I Keep
Whenever I mention I use this strategy people ask why I don’t stay 100% invested all the time. My answer is, for the same reason Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has around $100 billion in cash currently.
The truth is I like to keep my powder dry. I never have 100% of my money invested. There are a few nickels in my pocket when I walk around town to avoid vagrancy charges. As a business owner I need liquid working capital so I always have something tucked between the mattresses. I also like keeping some money available in case an unbelievable opportunity arises.
You do the same thing on a smaller scale. You might have an emergency fund. If so, it’s probably earning a whopping 1% while it waits for work to arrive.
Another brutal truth to why I keep a larger amount of cash laying around is because I am different than you. The higher your net worth the more liquid cash you will tend to accumulate during certain times of the year and during market overvaluations. I consider the current market overvalued.
Does my opinion of the market conditions change my core investing style? No! I max out all my retirement accounts (Mrs. Accountant’s too) and put it all in index funds. Those suckers keep getting filled.
When it comes to individual stocks I need to build a reserve to buy companies when they are on sale.
I’m not alone in using this strategy to generate income. Back in the 90s Intel (INTC) sold massive quantities of put options with the intention of using a down market to buy back shares. (I’m not sure if INTC still does this or not.)
Over the years INTC had such a large income stream from the naked puts they listed the income separately in their earnings reports and annual report. INTC’s intention was to structure the naked puts to force execution so they could buy back the stock and keep the premium. There was serious money in this for INTC.
I owned INTC for a few years back then. It wasn’t my favorite investment, but it had potential until my research discovered a terrible truth. I went back and reviewed over a decade of financials for INTC and discovered they bought back more stock than their entire earning over the previous decade and still had MORE shares outstanding. Such is the world (and risk to shareholders) of employee incentive stock option.
We’ll leave that discussion for another day.
A Steaming Pile of Schmoo
This was harder than I thought. Novices will be left bewildered and experts already understand the program. How do you present a complex idea like options in under 2,000 words? You don’t! I feel like I left a mish-mash of information. The information is accurate! The issue is communication. Did I get my message across?
There is so much more to this discussion than I could pack into one post. Naked puts are a viable investment strategy if used in a limited fashion, even if INTC used it to the nth degree.
Options in and of themselves are not bad. They do have the potential to cause great harm however and they are easy to abuse. Consider options the opioids of your investment portfolio. They reduce pain at first, but can do lasting damage when abused.
So why do I do it? Because if the market doesn’t decline I keep over $6,200 in premiums. The extra cash, added to an already growing stash, will come in handy when the market does decline and some companies become a steal.
Or I might be an addict beyond help. You decide.
* Financial independence, retire early.