Most of the time the stock market is climbing north. Interspersed between bull markets are those times when rookie investors act as if the sky is falling.
Long bull markets turn normally intelligent investors into casino gamblers; they even use gambling terminology: we’re due for a bear market or as they say at the casino, “Red is due after 8 black spins” at the roulette wheel; as if the ball has a memory. The odds of it coming up red are the same as it was last spin, in case you were wondering.
Of course, long moves in the stock market sets off our sixth sense that this can’t last forever. Before long you’re not fully invested (a religious mantra of many investing circles) which smacks of market timing.
This brings up a good question: Should you always be 100% invested in the market?
If only it were as simple as a yes or no answer.
The truth is many people should NOT be fully invested in the market and some people SHOULD be and it has nothing to do with market timing. The trick is to know when to be fully invested and if not, by how much.
It boils down to your personal situation: where you are on your journey to financial independence, how close to retirement you are (or if you are in retirement), spending habits and viable alternative investments.
Whether you should be fully invested or have cash in money market accounts includes many variables. The easiest decision is when you are starting out.
Under $100,000: When your net worth (this should probably be liquid net worth) is under $100,000 and you are a good distance from retirement age you should be fully invested at all times.
This is the time to super-charge your tax benefits by funding retirement plans to the max. Employer contributions (if available) are an added bonus.
With time on your side you have to stay fully invested. Markets declines will come and go, but the risk is being out of, rather than in, the market. Riding out the storm of a bear market is only a minor speed bump in the rear view mirror so fully invested you should be.
Fully invested requires some explanation. Fully invested applies to your retirement and non-qualified accounts. These funds are earmarked as long-term investments and should be where they have the greatest opportunity for gain: broad-based index funds. You still need an emergency fund or at least some liquid assets easily accessible should your employment situations change or a major expense arise. We don’t want to be in a situation where we are forced to borrow at unfavorable terms or sell an index fund at market lows. A modest amount of liquidity is necessary and has nothing to do with market timing.
Your level of cash involves several factors. If you own a home and have access to a line of credit, it might be better to keep everything invested always and use the LOC if the need arises. This allows your savings to be working to your advantage. As the economy and business grows, so does your wealth.
In any case, when you are young and just starting out, the more you keep invested the better. Dividends and corporate profits keep climbing with only modest, short-term declines. You need the out-sized returns of the market to reach financial independence in a reasonable amount of time. The broad market averages 10% per year (some years more, some years less) while money market and bank accounts barely keep up with inflation if at all.
$100,000 – $1,000,000: The first $100,000 is the hardest. You earn every dime to get your account value up. The higher the account balance, the easier it is to get it compounding with meaningful numbers.
As your net worth climbs, having more cash can be beneficial, especially if you invest in individual stocks or have real estate investments.
When starting out it is important to invest in less risky investments. While the stock market does go down, the long-term gains are enviable for those with a modest amount of patience.
As your account balance rises you may consider alternative investments. Income property comes to mind. So does Peer Street and similar types of investments. (Most alternative investments should be a minor part of your portfolio.)
Retirement accounts will remain fully invested unless you are in or entering retirement where about 2 years of living expenses should be in a money market account.
Non-retirement accounts are a different story. The higher your liquid net worth the more likely you will keep some money in cash. High net worth individuals have more opportunities to invest than low net worth people. (Consider this an incentive to grow your account values.)
With a higher net worth you are either closer to retirement than those starting out or in retirement. A long-term investment horizon makes index investing almost a necessity. However, once retirement pops above the horizon or is your current lifestyle, more cash needs to be held in liquid money market accounts to satisfy normal (and sometimes abnormal) living expenses.
As your net worth grows you tend to learn how to ease up on traditional labor. Ample money allows you the freedom to choose between more time at work or more time with family; most people choose more family time. Because you now have the resources to spend less time in a formal working environment, you will need liquid funds to cover expenses wages may not.
Over $1 million: Even index funds keep a small percentage of their assets in cash to cover expenses and for withdrawals. Now that your liquid net worth reached seven figures you need to consider the same strategy.
Millionaires start to see their income get lumpy. This means you don’t see a steady income, but larger chunks from sales of assets or from your business or commissions, rents, dividends and interest. While wages can still make up a sizable part of your income, other passive forms of income generally dwarf your earned income. (The stock market gaining an average 10% in a year on a $1 million account yields a $100,000 unrealized gain and $20,000 in dividends at a 2% dividend yield.)
More alternative investments tend to show up now that your stash has climbed to million dollar status. The easiest way to invest a small sum is in an index fund. With a larger pile alternatives play a potential role.
We preach index fund investing a lot around here, but everyone I work with that has at least seven figures of net worth has accumulated several alternative investments. Once you begin investing, opportunities abound. Just be careful it isn’t a scam; they abound, too.
There is a difference between a few dollars and a million plus. With a million dollars you now spend more time allocating assets: how much real estate should I own and where, do I own bonds, individual stocks, gold (please, no), micro lending investments and so forth.
Most of the people I work with that have a large net worth tend to keep a small pile in cash. Five percent of a million dollars is $50,000. It sounds like a lot, but a small amount compared to the whole. $50,000 sounds like a lot until you realize circumstances could require you to need this liquid cushion. Remember, income tends to gets lumpier when your net worth gets reasonably high (and even worse when unreasonably high).
Business Owners and Side Gigs
Readers living off business income have a unique set of challenges. Businesses need working capital so uninvested money needs to be easily accessible for operating expenses or opportunities to expand the business or spike profits.
Businesses must have an adequate cash reserve! Every business owner enjoys surprise opportunities unannounced. Some of my best money-making opportunities were the result of having cash available when competitors didn’t.
Side gigs are really micro businesses. The same opportunities fall in the laps of side gig purveyors.
The type of business determines the amount of cash needed. In my tax practice I generally keep $50,000 liquid with a $100,000 line of credit. Small opportunities do not require the risk of waiting to sell an asset or borrowing money; I can write a check. As strange as it sounds, there are times when they sell dollar bills for 82 cents a piece. (Well, it seems that way. I use multiple bank offers with this working capital, snagging thousands of dollars annually in bonus interest. I also can buy assets or invest in a new business venture connected to this blog or my practice without funding concerns.)
As you approach retirement you also need to consider more liquid funds because there will be a need in a few years or less. (Index fund investing should have a 5 year time horizon minimum.)
Short-term funds must always remain liquid to prevent a market decline forcing you to sell at a loss! As I stated, money needed within 5 years should be in a bank product or money market account. This applies to everyone at all net worth levels. Nothing guarantees a market decline better than dropping short-term funds in the market you’ll need in six month or a year. It’s almost like God is punishing you for being stupid (or greedy). (Yes, I’m speaking from experience.)
Retirement changes everything. As you are growing your nest egg you are also bringing in outside cash from work and/or income properties, et cetera. When you are in retirement you are earning less (or nothing) so you need the income stream from investments to cover daily expenses.
You annual spending habits and investment values determine how much you will need to keep liquid.
If your net worth is really high and spending level low you can keep all your money invested in index funds and live off the dividend stream.
For everyone else it is a good idea to keep around 2 years of living expenses in cash (money market accounts). If the market keeps climbing you can sell enough of your index fund to pay bills. When the market declines you can live off the money market funds. If the market decline is steep you can divert dividends to the money market account rather than reinvesting dividends.
The goal is to a void a cash crunch when the market is down significantly. Small declines ( a correction, defined as a 10% decline from a recent market top) are no problem as you’ll still sell part of the index fund for living expenses (if dividends don’t cover the bills). What I’m worried about is the 2008 type decline of 50%. I don’t want to sell in that environment no matter what. It’s a buying opportunity if anything.
As my net worth grew over the decades I noticed I keep more and more money in cash when valuations become stretched. While this isn’t technically market timing (buying and selling to capture small market movements), it is done with the expectation of investing at a later date at a better price.
Currently I’m at a high cash position. Money pouring in over this year I’ve kept in money market accounts (I still invest automatically in my Vanguard index fund, but the money coming in is always more than the baseline I automatically invest). For a while I invested in Peer Street and made a few other modest investments. I tried to get out of investing in individual stocks, but I had to invest more in Altria when the world was coming to an end and the dividend yield jumped over 6%. I also added to my Facebook and Apple holdings modestly when their stocks declined significantly.
Another reason I keep more money liquid now is that I want a ready pile of cash for an emergency investment. The economy is humming right now, but the day always comes when a piece of real estate shows up 30% below market value for a fast sale. And I’m just the guy to make a fast sale to because I don’t need a loan; I can close this afternoon.
Liquid funds have a low rate of return until you can pull the trigger on a deal like no other in zero time! Businesses and individuals frequently have fire (or should I say FIRE) sales for a variety of reasons. I enjoy getting first dibs because the seller knows I can close the deal fast.
Interest rates also play a key role in how much you should have in equity index funds. When interest rates are high it’s easier to keep more liquid funds as your money market pays stock market returns.
We haven’t seen high interest rates in well over a decade. That doesn’t mean those days will never return. In the early 1980s you could buy a 30-year Treasury with a 14% coupon (the bond paid 14% interest annually for 30 years) and the interest was state tax free. Regardless of what the stock market did, I would not have had hurt feelings if I had money in Treasuries for 30 years at 14%. That is about the best risk-free investment there ever was.
If Treasury bonds climb to 7% or higher I will probably keep some money in bonds. If you are starting out you still need to ride out the stock market storm as you need the compounding effect of growing businesses to build your nest egg. If your stash is a bit bigger risk-free bonds might be at home in your portfolio. (For the record I currently hold one, that is 1, Treasury Inflation Protection Security (TIPS) of $1,000; my entire bond portfolio.)
If interest rates ever climbed to double digits there is nothing wrong with dumping a large portion into Treasuries, especially if you are retired. You can throw the 4% rule out the window when the U.S. government is paying more than 10%.
Reading personal finance blogs might lead you to think holding cash is a sin. It Isn’t! Having plenty of cash ready to jump at a moment’s notice is a powerful wealth building tool. Warren Buffett keeps large amounts of cash at his firm, Berkshire Hathaway. He keeps the cash handy for potential claims from his insurance business and for opportunities to buy good businesses at a good price. You and I should be no different.
If you buy and sell the market hoping for a quick gain you are market timing and you will eventually get you head handed to you (if you already haven’t). Every client I ever had who *traded* the market had sub-par results and most took a bloodletting.
It might seem like a fine line between market timing and what I’m suggesting here. It isn’t. Money I keep to the side for potential investment can stay in money market accounts for years for all I care. If I don’t find a super deal for the money is plods along earning 2.3% (the rate as I write). It may never get invested. If, however, the market declines I’ll allocate more of these liquid funds to the index.
And if Apple decline more or Facebook drops (or gets better management) or Altria stays at these levels (or buys Juul, I think it’s a god fit) I’ll be exchanging more of that cash burning a whole in my pocket for pieces of those businesses.
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