Photo Credit: Alfred Shum

Photo Credit: Alfred Shum

At this time of year, people often do holiday posts.  I’ve never done that.  I’m going to do it this time, and then probably never do it again.

Close friends of mine know that at the Merkel household, we are Christians that don’t celebrate Christmas.  The main reason is that it is a human holiday, and not a God-appointed one.  There are other reasons, too, but that is a topic for another place.

I write this because of an editorial that has been published in the Wall Street Journal since 1949.  It’s called “In Hoc Anno Domini.”  It was written by a longtime editor of the Wall Street Journal, Vermont Royster, in a time where many in the US feared Communism and other forms of totalitarianism.

In that editorial, he cites the Bible seven times without attribution, and every time takes the part of the Bible out of its context to support economic and political freedom, and oppose totalitarianism.  It’s horrible from an intellectual standpoint, because the Bible is not trying to say anything like that at that point.  I could write an essay showing how the Bible encourages economic and political freedom, and opposes totalitarianism, but I would quote very different Scriptures, but do so in their proper context.  But you may as well get Lex Rex by Samuel Rutherford, which influenced Locke and many others.

I’ve looked around the web, and I have yet to find a critique of this editorial.  I find many posts praising it, probably because its rare to hear something that sounds vaguely Biblical in a major publication.  But to me, it really grates.  Here’s why:

Many people may have a favorite author, or a personal hero who writes a book.  Well, imagine that someone quotes and makes significant allusions to your hero’s book and does so in a way that ruins the original meaning, and replaces it with a meaning of far lesser value very different from the original meaning.  How would you feel?

Well, I feel annoyed, and my response to that editorial will be in the next blog post.  If you don’t like Christian reasoning, skip the next post.  A reduced version of it will be submitted to the Wall Street Journal as a letter to the editor.

The remainder of this post republishes “In Hoc Anno Domini” with a few explanatory notes, to point out what Royster was citing, and clarify some of the language from the King James Version of the Bible.  (An excellent translation, but the English is dated.)

With no further ado, here is an annotated version of “In Hoc Anno Domini” (In the Year of Our Lord)  My comments are marked with a DM.


When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

[DM: Citing Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:16, or Luke 20:25]

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

[DM: citing Matthew 25:40 and Acts 1:8, but the phrase “Kingdom of Man” is nowhere in the Bible – it should be the Kingdom of heaven or Kingdom of God. Geek note: the book of Daniel uses the phrase “Kingdom of men” in chapters 4-5, but was used to show that God ruled over all, even Babylon.]

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.

But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.

[DM: “divers” means various.  Cites John 12:35]

Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.

[DM: Alludes to Acts 9 and Genesis 25]

Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.

And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:

[DM: An apostle is never referred to as an “apostle of the Son of Man” in the Bible.]

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

[DM: citing Galatians 5:1]

This editorial was written in 1949 by the late Vermont Royster and has been published annually since.


In general, people don’t do well with amounts of money significantly larger than they are used to handling.  The most obvious example of that is people who win lotteries.  The money typically gets wasted — bad purchases, bad investments.

Thus I would encourage you to be very careful with any large distributions of money that you might receive.  Examples include:

  • Life insurance settlements
  • Disability insurance settlements
  • Structured settlements arising from winning a court case over a tort against you.
  • Lotteries
  • Pension lump sums
  • Inheritances
  • Big paydays, if you are one of the rare ones in a high-paying short career like entertainment or sports

There are three problems with lump sums — receiving them, investing them, and rate of their use for consumption.  Let me take these topics in the order that they should occur.

Receiving a Lump Sum

Let’s start with the cases where you have a stream of payments coming where a third party comes to you and says that you can get all of the money now.  I am speaking of structured settlements and inheritances where trusts have been structured to dole out the money slowly.  There is one simple bit of advice here: don’t do it.  Take the payments over time.  None of the third parties offering to give you cash now are giving you a good deal, so avoid them.

Then there are the cases where an insurance company is making the payments from a disability claim, a structured settlement, a lottery, a pension buyout, or an annuity that someone bought for you on your life.  The insurance company will be more fair than any third party, because they aren’t usually looking to make an obscene gain, just a big one, because it reduces their risk, and cleans up their balance sheet, so they can do more business.  One simple bit of advice here: still don’t do it.  You can do better by taking payments, and building up money for larger purchases.  Be patient.

People do best when they receive money little by little.  When they get money materially faster than the speed at which they have previously earned money, they tend to waste it.  It is almost always better not to take a lump sum if you have the option to do otherwise.

The last set of situations is when the party that owes the set of payments offers you a lump sum.  It could be a life insurance company, a defined-benefit pension plan, a lottery, or some option uncommonly granted by another payor.  I would still tell you not to do it, but the issue of getting cheated is reduced here for a variety of reasons.

The defined benefit plan has rates set by law at which it can cash you out, so they can’t hurt you badly.  That said, you will likely not earn enough off of your investments with safety to equal the stream you are giving up.  The lottery is often similarly constrained, but do your homework, and see what you are giving up.

One place to take the lump sum is with life insurance companies off of a death benefit.  The rates at which they offer to pay an annuity to you are frequently not competitive, so take the lump sum and invest it wisely.

Economically, the key question to ask on a lump sum versus a stream of payments is what you would have to earn to replicate the stream of payments.  Most of the time, the stream is worth more than the lump sum, so don’t take the lump sum.

The second question is more important.  Can you be disciplined and not waste the lump sum?  Ask those close to you what your money habits are like, if you don’t know for sure.  Ask them to be brutally honest.

Investing the Lump Sum

Again, one nice thing about taking payments, is that you don’t have to invest the lump sum.  If you do take the lump sum:

  • First, pay off high interest rate debts.
  • Second, avoid buying big things and calling them investments.  Don’t buy a big house when you don’t need a big one.
  • Third, don’t invest in any of your relatives’ or friends’ business ventures.  Tell them you try to keep personal affection and money separate.  It avoids hurt feelings.
  • Fourth, look at the time horizon of your real needs.  Plan for retirement, college, etc.  Invest accordingly — get a trustworthy adviser who will help you.  Trustworthiness is the most important factor here, with competence a close second.
  • Fifth, don’t so it yourself, unless you have developed the skill to do it previously.  If you want to do it yourself, you will have to gauge whether the various markets are rich or cheap in order to decide where to invest.  For some general, non-tailored advice, you can look at articles in my asset allocation category.  As an aside, don’t invest in anything unusual unless you are an expert.

Receiving Spending Money from Your Investment Fund

The first thing is to decide on a spending rule: many use a rule that says you can take 4% of the assets from the fund.  My rule is a little more complex, but will keep you safer, and adapt to changing conditions: as a percentage of assets, take 1% more than the yield on the 10-year Treasury Note, or 7% if less.  At present, that percentage would be 2.21% + 1% = 3.21%.

Whatever rule you use, be disciplined about your spending.  Don’t bend your spending rule for any trivial reasons.  Size your budget to reflect your income from your investment fund and all of your other income sources.


Remember that most people who get a lump sum end up wasting a lot of it.  The only thing that can keep you from a similar fate would be discipline.  If you don’t have discipline, don’t take a lump sum.  Take the payments over time.  That will give you the maximum benefit from what is a very valuable asset.

Photo Credit: edkohler || Buy Now and smile!

Photo Credit: edkohler || Buy Now and smile!

One of my clients asked me what I think is a hard question: When should I deploy capital?  I’ll try to answer that here.

There are three main things to consider in using cash to buy or sell assets:

  • What is your time horizon?  When will you likely need the money for spending purposes?
  • How promising is the asset in question?  What do you think it might return vs alternatives, including holding cash?
  • How safe is the asset in question?  Will it survive to the end of your time horizon under almost all circumstances and at least preserve value while you wait?

Other questions like “Should I dollar cost average, or invest the lump?” are lesser questions, because what will make the most difference in ultimate returns comes from  the above three questions.  Putting it another way, the results of dollar cost averaging depend on returns after you put in the last dollar of the lump, as does investing the lump sum all at once.

Thinking about price momentum and mean-reversion are also lesser matters, because if your time horizon is a long one, the initial results will have a modest effect on the ultimate results.

Now, if you care about price momentum, you may as well ignore the rest of the piece, and start trading in and out with the waves of the market, assuming you can do it.  If you care about mean reversion, you can wait in cash until we get “the mother of all selloffs” and then invest.  That has its problems as well: what’s a big enough selloff?  There are a lot of bears waiting for rock bottom valuations, but the promised bargain valuations don’t materialize because others invest at higher prices than you would, and the prices never get as low as you would like.  Ask John Hussman.

Investing has to be done on a “good enough” basis.  The optimal return in hindsight is never achieved.  Thus, at least for value investors like me, we focus on what we can figure out:

  • How long can I set aside this capital?
  • Is this a promising investment at a relatively attractive price?
  • Do I have a margin of safety buying this?

Those are the same questions as the first three, just phrased differently.

Now, I’m not saying that there is never a time to sit on cash, but decisions like that are typically limited to times where valuations are utterly nuts, like 1964-5, 1968, 1972, 1999-2000 — basically parts of the go-go years and the dot-com bubble.  Those situations don’t last more than a decade, and are typically much shorter.

Beyond that, if you have the capital to spare, and the opportunity is safe and cheap, then deploy the capital.  You’ll never get it perfect.  The price may fall after you buy.  Those are the breaks.  If that really bothers you, then maybe do half of what you would ultimately do, but set a time limit for investment of the other half.  Remember, the opposite can happen, and the price could run away from you.

A better idea might show up later.  If there is enough liquidity, trade into the new idea.

Since perfection is not achievable, if you have something good enough, I recommend that you execute and deploy the capital.  Over the long haul, given relative peace, the advantage belongs to the one who is invested.

If you still wonder about this question you can read the following two articles:

In the end, there is no perfect answer, so if the situation is good enough, give it your best shot.

When to Deploy Capital, and Vice-versa was originally published on The Aleph Blog

What do we ‘know’ about investing — but can’t prove with stats?



The statistical revolutions that have overtaken sports, business and markets have bred suspicion of any observation or assertion not backed up by hard numbers.

This is a good thing in most respects. Yet experts who study these complex realms surely have ideas about how they work based on…

What do we ‘know’ about investing — but can’t prove with stats? was originally published on The Aleph Blog

What do we ‘know’ about investing — but can’t prove with stats?



The statistical revolutions that have overtaken sports, business and markets have bred suspicion of any observation or assertion not backed up by hard numbers.

This is a good thing in most respects. Yet experts who study these complex realms surely have ideas about how they work based on…

What do we ‘know’ about investing — but can’t prove with stats? was originally published on The Aleph Blog

What do we ‘know’ about investing — but can’t prove with stats? was originally published on The Aleph Blog

Here is a letter from a reader:

Hi David,

 Long-time reader of yours.  You put out some of the best blog content on the web and I am grateful for that.

I’ve got a question I’d hope you consider answering in the blog.  I’m almost embarrassed to ask it, for fear of appearing facile, but here goes:

Our economy is struggling with a lack of aggregate demand, low monetary velocity, and a whiff of deflation.  QE does not seem to be transmitting its monetary effects to the real economy, just helping to inflate asset prices instead.  So why wouldn’t we consider sending direct stimulus to households, similar to what we did in 2008-09, only on a much bigger scale?  Say there are 120MM households.  Send each one a $5k check, and if I’ve got the zeroes right, that’s a “mere” $600B we’re borrowing to disburse – about 60% of what the Fed is doing annually with QE.  Most of the money would recycle and multiply quickly to the economy (net of what gets allocated to debt paydown, and what gets banked by the well-off).  And due to some current one-times in the Federal budget, we’ve actually got a better balance sheet in the moment to do something with added borrowing/spending. 

Crazy thought, but these are uncommon times.  Curious what you think. 

Dear friend, I think about this in two ways: ethics and metaphysics.  The metaphysics are easy — yeah, let the Fed remit all of its seigniorage to the people rather than to the Treasury.  Far better than letting the government spend it.

But the ethics are touchy.  How do we define ethical taxation systems?  My view is that people should be taxed according to their increase in net worth, and at a flat rate, but with no ability to defer income from taxation.  Most wealthy people don’t care about tax rates because they can find ways to defer/reduce taxable income.  This is a major reason why you should distrust the Democrats, because their desire to raise tax rates would do little.  This is also a reason to distrust the GOP, because there is no decent reason to decrease tax rates.

We need to tighten up the definition of income in the US, and no longer allow citizens and businesses to defer income.  If we taxed all economic activity as it occurred we would have balanced budgets.

The rich aren’t paying enough in the US, not because of tax rates, but because they can hide their income.  That is the way that policy should proceed, to make the wealthy pay according to their increase in net worth.

I’ll write about this more later, but the main idea is to tax people proportionate to their increase in wealth.  That is the Bible’s solution for how people should give.



Sometimes I think regulators are in over their heads.  They aren’t talented enough to run a company, but they think they can control the excesses of financial companies.  Then there’s the Fed.  They think they can control an entire economy through the weak policy lever of affecting the views of people have for calculating what interest rates they should use to capitalize the values of assets.

Think of assets as a stream of future cash flows.  But what are those cash flows worth today, to buy or sell them?  The interest rate that makes the price and the cash flows equal is the capitalization rate, or, “cap rate.”

For years, at least in the Greenspan era, lowering the cap rate via Fed funds was the rule when times were weak.  He was the anti-Martin, bringing back the punchbowl rapidly when the party was getting a little dull.  Because of that, the economy grew more aggressively for a time, but at a price of growing unproductive debts.

The Problem

You can lower the interest rates as low as you want, but it doesn’t change the underlying productivity of the economy.  You might push asset or goods prices higher — it depends whether saving or spending is more important.  At present, actions of the Fed push asset prices higher, which doesn’t do much for the economy as a whole.  Rising asset prices do not stimulate the economy much.  Though it would be dishonest to do it, it would stimulate the economy more if Ben would rev up the “Helicopter of Happiness” and rain dollars from “Heaven.”

The Fed created the housing bubble with their policies 2001-2007.  They did that to stimulate the economy.  You can only use strong sectors of the economy to transmit monetary policy, because they can absorb more debt.

That’s true when not in a liquidity trap. We are in such a trap now, given the profligate prior Fed policy.  They did not let recessions destroy bad debts leading to a reduction in the marginal productivity of capital.  That value is so low now, that companies pay higher dividends and buy back shares.  Relatively little goes into growth via new investment.

My point is that monetary policy has some potency if central bankers are willing to inflict pain in the bear phase of the credit cycle.  With Greenspan and Bernanke, that was absent.  As such, we suffer in a liquidity trap, and one that current Fed policy will not remedy.  Far better to raise short-term interest rates and let some bad businesses fail, and grow from there.

One of the great things about the US is that people give their time and effort for things that benefit society.  It is a secular offshoot of the Puritan idea of creating a Holy Commonwealth.  We are out to save the World from itself, but now, without anything like Yahweh/Jesus telling us to do it.

I must admit that I serve in both spheres — I am an elder in my Bible-believing Presbyterian congregation.  I also serve on the Baltimore CFA society’s board, and may become a part of the board that oversees the pension plans for Howard County, should the county executive so choose me.  (As an aside, I applied for similar posts at the Maryland State level, but I fear that I am either too controversial, or too qualified.  I suspect that they don’t want people who really know the business.)

When I came to Baltimore, my boss had a number of things to teach me:

  • When someone asks you for help finding work, give him help.
  • Break off time to aid the broader interests of your industry, in this case, the CFA Society.
  • Where you have the opportunity, favor the local financial community if it doesn’t cost a lot to do so.
  • Help students and young professionals where you can.

I have made an effort to do this.  I aid people who are looking for opportunities, and I advise them.  I may not be the best, but I have been around the block a few times.  I really enjoy aiding people to find jobs in investing.  I love spending time with students, and encouraging them to think broadly about how investing works.  It is not a simple formula.

Thus I find my time pulled many different directions, and my dear wife wonders at how I do it.  The truth is, I don’t do it.  I have as many hours as all those who are alive.  It is just a question of the distractions that you block out in an internet era.

Thanks for reading me, and as Program Chair for Baltimore CFA, if you have any great speaker ideas for me, please send them to me. Thanks.