Photo Credit: Steve Rotman || Markets are not magic; government economic stimulus is useless with debt so high

Weird begets weird

I said in an earlier piece on this topic:

I use [the phrase] during periods in the markets where normal relationships seem to hold no longer. It is usually a sign that something greater is happening that is ill-understood.  In the financial crisis, what was not understood was that multiple areas of the financial economy were simultaneously overleveraged.

So what’s weird now?

  • Most major government running deficits, and racking up huge debts, adding to overall liability promises from entitlements.
  • Most central banks creating credit in a closed loop that benefits the governments, but few others directly.
  • Banks mostly in decent shape, but nonfinancial corporations borrowing too much.
  • Students and middle-to-lower classes borrowing too much (autos, credit cards)
  • Interest rates and goods and services price inflation stay low in the face of this.
  • Low volatility (until now)
  • Much speculative activity in cryptocurrencies (large percentage on a low base) and risk assets like stocks (smaller percentage on a big base)
  • Low credit spreads

No one should be surprised by the current market action.  It wasn’t an “if,” but a “when.”  I’m not saying that this is going to spiral out of control, but everyone should understand that The Little Market that Could was a weird situation.  Markets are not supposed to go up so steadily, which means something weird was fueling the move.

Lack of volatility gives way to a surfeit of volatility eventually.  It’s like macroeconomic volatility “calmed” by loose monetary and fiscal policy.  It allows people to take too many bad chances, bid up assets, build up leverage, and then “BAM!” — possibility of debt deflation because there is not enough cash flow to service the incurred debts.

Now, we’re not back in 2007-9.  This is different, and likely to be more mild.  The banks are in decent shape.  The dominoes are NOT set up for a major disaster.  Risky asset prices are too high, yes.  There is significant speculation in areas Where Money Goes to Die.  So long as the banking/debt complex is not threatened, the worst you get is something like the deflation of the dot-com bubble, and at present, I don’t see what it threatened by that aside from cryptocurrencies and the short volatility trade.  Growth stocks may get whacked — they certainly deserve it from a valuation standpoint, but that would merely be a normal bear market, not a cousin of the Great Depression, like 2007-9.

Could this be “the pause that refreshes?”  Yes, after enough pain is delivered to the weak hands that have been chasing the market in search of easy profits quickly.  The lure of free money brings out the worst in many.

You have to wonder when margin debt is high — short-term investors chasing the market, and Warren Buffett, Seth Klarman, and other valuation-sensitive investors with long horizons sitting on piles of cash.  That’s the grand asset-liability mismatch.  Long-term investors sitting on cash, and short-term investors fully invested if not leveraged… a recipe for trouble.  Have you considered these concepts:

  • Preservation of capital
  • Dry powder
  • Not finding opportunities
  • Momentum gives way to negative arbitrages.
  • Greater fool theory — “hey, who has slack capital to buy what I own if I need liquidity?”

Going back to where money goes to die, from the less mentioned portion on the short volatility trade:

Again, this is one where people are very used to selling every spike in volatility.  It has been a winning strategy so far.  Remember that when enough people do that, the system changes, and it means in a real crisis, volatility will go higher than ever before, and stay higher longer.  The markets abhor free riders, and disasters tend to occur in such a way that the most dumb money gets gored.

Again, when the big volatility spike hits, remember, I warned you.  Also, for those playing long on volatility and buying protection on credit default — this has been a long credit cycle, and may go longer.  Do you have enough wherewithal to survive a longer bull phase?

To all, I wish you well in investing.  Just remember that new asset classes that have never been through a “failure cycle” tend to produce the greatest amounts of panic when they finally fail.  And, all asset classes eventually go through failure.

So as volatility has spiked, perhaps the free money has proven to be the bait of a mousetrap.  Do you have the flexibility to buy in at better levels?  Should you even touch it if it is like a knockout option?

There are no free lunches.  Get used to that idea.  If a trade looks riskless, beware, the risk may only be building up, and not be nonexistent.

Thus when markets are “weird” and too bullish or bearish, look for the reasons that may be unduly sustaining the situation.  Where is debt building up?  Are there unusual derivative positions building up?  What sort of parties are chasing prices?  Who is resisting the trend?

And, when markets are falling hard, remember that they go down double-speed.  If it’s a lot faster than that, the market is more likely to bounce.  (That might be the case now.)  Slower, and it might keep going.  Fast moves tend to mean-revert, slow moves tend to persist.  Real bear markets have duration and humiliate, making weak holders conclude that will never touch stocks again.

And once they have sold, the panic will end, and growth will begin again when everyone is scared.

That’s the perversity of markets.  They are far more volatile than the economy as a whole, and in the end don’t deliver any more than the economy as a whole, but sucker people into thinking the markets are magical money machines, until what is weird (too good) becomes weird (too bad).

Don’t let this situation be “too bad” for you.  If you are looking at the current situation, and think that you have too much in risk assets for the long-term, sell some down.  Preserving capital is not imprudent, even if the market bounces.

In that vein, my final point is this: size your position in risk assets to the level where you can live with it under bad conditions, and be happy with it under good conditions.  Then when markets get weird, you can smile and bear it.  The most important thing is to stay in the game, not giving in to panic or greed when things get “weird.”

This should be a brief article.  I remember back in 1999 to early 2000 how P&C insurance stocks, and other boring slower-growth industries were falling in price despite growing net worth, and reasonable earnings.  I was working for The St. Paul at the time (a Property & Casualty Insurer), and for an investment actuary like me, who grew up in the life insurance business it was interesting to see the different philosophy of the industry.  Shorter-duration products make competition more obvious, making downturns uglier.

The market in 1999-2000 got narrow.  Few groups and few stocks were leading the rise.  Performance-conscious investors, amateur and professional, servants of the “Church of What’s Working Now,” sold their holdings in the slower growing companies to buy the shares of faster growing companies, with little attention to valuation differences.

I remember flipping the chart of the S&P 1500 Supercomposite for P&C Insurers, and laying it on top of an index of the dot-com stocks.  They looked like twins separated at birth, except one was upside down.

When shares are sold, they don’t just disappear.  Someone buys them.  In this case, P&C firms bought back their own stock, as did industry insiders, and value investors — what few remained.  When managed well, P&C insurance is a nice, predictable business that throws of reliable profits, and is just complex enough to scare away a decent number of potential investors.  The scare is partially due to the effect that it is not always well-managed, and not everyone can figure out who the good managers are.

So shares migrate.  Those that fall in the midst of a rally, despite decent economics, get bought by long-term investors.  The hot stocks get bought by shorter-term investors, who follow the momentum.  This continues until the gravitational effects of relative valuations gets too great — the cash flows of the hot stocks do not justify the valuations.

Then performance reverts, and what was bad becomes good, and good bad, but as with almost every investment strategy you have to survive until the turn, and if the assets run from the prior migration, it is cold comfort to be right eventually.

As an aside, this is part of what fuels dollar-weighted returns being lower than time-weighted returns.  The hot money migration buys high, and sells low.

Thus I say to value investors, “Persevere.  I can’t tell you when the turn will be, but it is getting closer.”

Photo Credit: jessica wilson {jek in the box}


It’s been a while since we last corresponded.  I hope you and your family are well.

Quick investment question. Given the sharp run-up in equities and stretched valuations, how are you positioning your portfolio?

This in a market that seemingly doesn’t go down, where the risk of being cautious is missing out on big gains.

In my portfolio, I’m carrying extra cash and moving fairly aggressively into gold. Also, on the fixed income side, I’ve been selling HY [DM: High Yield, aka “Junk”] bonds, shortening duration, and buying floating rate bank loans.

Please let me know your thoughts.



Dear JJJ,

Good to hear from you.  It has been a long time.

Asset allocation is always a marriage between time horizon (when is the money needed for spending?) and expected returns, with some adjustment for risk.  I suspect that you are like me, and play for a longer horizon.

I’m at my lowest equity allocation in 17 years.  I am at 65% in equities.  If the market goes up another 4-5%, I am planning on peeling of 25% of that to go into high quality bonds.  Another 20% will go if the market rises 10% from here.  At present, the S&P 500 offers returns of just 3.4%/year for the next ten years unadjusted for inflation.  That’s at the 95th percentile, and reflects valuations of the dot-com bubble, should we rise that far.

The stocks that I do have are heading in three directions: safer, cyclical and foreign.  I’m at my highest level for foreign stocks, and the companies all have strong balance sheets.  A few are cyclicals, and may benefit if commodities rise.

The only thing that gives me pause regarding dropping my stock percentage is that a lot of “friends” are doing it.  That said, a lot of broad market and growth investors are making “new era” arguments.  That gives me more comfort about this.  Even if the FAANG stocks continue to do well, it does not mean that stocks as a whole will do well.  The overall productivity of risk assets is not rising.  People are looking through the rearview mirror, not the windshield, at asset returns.

I can endorse some gold, even though it does nothing.  Nothing would have been a good posture back in the dot-com bubble, or the financial crisis.  Commodities are undervalued at present.  I can also endorse long Treasuries, because I am not certain that inflation will run in this environment.  When economies are heavily indebted they tend not to inflate, except as a last resort.  (The wealthy want to protect their claims against the economy.  The Fed generally helps the wealthy.  Those on the FOMC are all wealthy.)

I also hold more cash than normal.  The three of them, gold, cash and long Treasury bonds form a good hedge together against most bad situations.

The banks are in good shape, so the coming troubles should not be as great as during the financial crisis, as long as nothing bizarre is going on in the repo markets.

That said, I would be careful about bank debt.  Be careful about the covenants on the bank debt; it is not as safe as it once was.  I don’t own any now.

Aside from that, I think you are on the right track.  The most important question is how much you have invested in risk assets.  Prudent investors should be heading lower as the market rises.  It is either not a new era, or, it is always a new era.  Build up your supply of safe assets.  That is the main idea.  Preserve capital for another day when risk assets offer better opportunities.

Thanks for writing.  If you ever make it to Charm City or Babylon, let me know, and we can have lunch together.



Credit: Roadsidepictures from The Little Engine That Could By Watty Piper Illustrated By George & Doris Hauman c. 1954


I wish I could have found a picture of Woodstock with a sign that said “We’re #1!”  Snoopy trails behind carrying a football, grinning and thinking “In this corner of the backyard.”

That’s how I feel regarding all of the attention that has been paid to the S&P being up every month in 2017, and every month for the last 14 months.  These have never happened before.

There’s a first time for everything, but I feel that these records are more akin to the people who do work for the sports channels scaring up odd statistical facts about players, teams, games, etc.  “Hey Bob, did you know that the Smoggers haven’t converted a 4th and 2 situation against the Robbers since 1998?”

Let me explain.  A month is around 21 trading days.  There is some variation around that, but on average, years tend to have 252 trading days.  252 divided by 12 is 21.  You would think in a year like 2017 that it must  have spent the most time where 21-day periods had positive returns, as it did over each month.

Since 1950, 2017 would have come in fourth on that measure, behind 1954, 1958 and 1995.  Thus in one sense it was an accident that 2017 had positive returns each month versus years that had more positive returns over every 21 day period.

How about streaks of days where the 21-day trialing total return never dropped below zero (since 1950)?  By that measure, 2017 would have tied for tenth place with 2003, and beaten by the years 1958-9, 1995, 1961, 1971, 1964, 1980, 1972, 1965, and 1963.  (Note: quite a reminder of how bullish the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s were.  Go-go indeed.)

Let’s look at one more — total return over the whole year.  Now 2017 ranks 23rd out of 68 years with a total return of 21.8%.  That’s really good, don’t get me wrong, but it won’t deserve a mention in a book like “It Was a Very Good Year.”  That’s more than double the normal return, which means you’ll have give returns back in the future. 😉

So, how do I characterize 2017?  I call it The Little Market that Could.  Why?  Few drawdowns, low implied volatility, and skepticism that gave way to uncritical belief.  Just as we have lost touch with the idea that government deficits and debts matter, so we have lost touch with the idea that valuation matters.

When I talk to professionals (and some amateurs) about the valuation model that I use for the market, increasingly I get pushback, suggesting that we are in a new era, and that my model might have been good for an era prior to our present technological innovations.  I simply respond by saying “The buying power has to come from somewhere.  Our stock market does not do well when risk assets are valued at 40%+ of the share of assets, and there have been significant technological shifts over my analysis period beginning in 1945, many rivaling the internet.”  (Every era idolizes its changes.  It is always a “new era.”  It is never a “new era.”)

If you are asking me about the short-term, I think the direction is up, but I am edgy about that.  Forecast ten year returns are below 3.75%/year not adjusted for inflation.  Just a guess on my part, but I think all of the people who are making money off of low volatility are feeding the calm in the short-run, while building up a whiplash in the intermediate term.

Time will tell.  It usually does, given enough time.  In the intermediate-term, it is tough to tell signal from noise.  I am at my maximum cash for my equity strategy accounts — I think that is a prudent place to be amid the high valuations that we face today.  Remember, once the surprise comes, and companies scramble to find financing, it is too late to make adjustments for market risk.

Another quarter goes by, the market rises further, and the the 10-year forward return falls again.  Here are the last eight values: 6.10%, 6.74%, 6.30%, 6.01%, 5.02%, 4.79%, and 4.30%, 3.99%.  At the end of September 2017, the figure would have been 4.49%, but the rally since the end of the quarter shaves future returns down to 3.99%.

At the end of June the figure was 4.58%.  Subtract 29 basis points for the total return, and add back 12 basis points for mean reversion, and that would leave us at 4.41%.  The result for September month-end was 4.49%, so the re-estimation of the model added 8 basis points to 10-year forward returns.

Let me explain the adjustment calculations.  In-between quarterly readings, price movements shave future returns the same as a ten-year zero coupon bond.  Thus, a +2.9% move in the total return shaves roughly 29 basis points off future returns. (Dividing by 10 is close enough for government work, but I use a geometric calculation.)

The mean-reversion calculation is a little more complex.  I use a 10-year horizon because that is the horizon the fits the data best.  It is also the one I used before I tested it.  Accidents happen.  Though I haven’t talked about it before, this model could be used to provide shorter-run estimates of the market as well — but the error bounds around the shorter estimates would be big enough to make the model useless. It is enough to remember that when a market is at high valuations that corrections can’t be predicted as to time of occurrence, but when the retreat happens, it will be calamitous, and not orderly.

Beyond 10-years, though, the model has no opinion.  It is as if it says, past mean returns will occur.  So, if we have an expectation of a 4.58% returns, we have one 4.58%/yr quarter drop of at the end of the quarter, and a 9.5% quarter added on at the end of the 10-year period. That changes the quarterly average return up by 4.92%/40, or 12.3 basis points.  That is the mean reversion effect.

Going Forward

Thus, expected inflation-unadjusted returns on the S&P 500 are roughly 3.99% over the next ten years.  That’s not a lot of compensation for risk versus investment-grade bonds.  We are at the 94th percentile of valuations.

Now could we go higher?  Sure, the momentum is with us, and the volatility trade reinforces the rise for now.  Bitcoin is an example that shows that there is too much excess cash sloshing around to push up the prices of assets generally, and especially those with no intrinsic value, like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Beyond that, there are not a lot of glaring factors pushing speculation, leaving aside futile government efforts to stimulate an already over-leveraged economy.  It’s not as if consumer or producer behavior is perfectly clean, but the US Government is the most profligate actor of all.

And so I say, keep the rally hats on.  I will be looking to hedge around an S&P 500 level of 2900 at present.  I will be watching the FOMC, as they may try to invert the yield curve again, and crash things.  They never learn… far better to stop and wait than make things happen too fast.  But they are omnipotent fools.  Maybe Powell will show some non-economist intelligence and wait once the yield curve gets to a small positive slope.

Who can tell?   Well, let’s see how this grand experiment goes as Baby Boomers arrive at the stock market too late to save for retirement, but just in time to put in the top of the equity market.  Though I am waiting until S&P 2900 to hedge, I am still carrying 19% cash in my equity portfolios, so I am bearish here except in the short-run.

PS — think of it this way: it should not have gone this high, therefore it could go higher still…


Recently I read Jonathan Clements’ piece Enough Already.  The basic idea was to encourage older investors who have made gains in the risk assets, typically stocks, though it would apply to high yield bonds and other non-guaranteed investments that are highly correlated with stocks.  His pithy way of phrasing it is:

If I have already won the game, why would I keep playing?

His inspiration for the piece stems from a another piece by William Bernstein [at the WSJ] How to Tell if Your Retirement Nest Egg Is Big Enough.  He asked a question like this (these are my words) back in early 2015, “Why keep taking risk if your performance has been good enough to let you reduce risk and live on the assets, rather than run the possibility of a fall in the market spoiling your ability to retire comfortably?”

Decent question.  If you are young enough, your time horizon is long enough that you can ignore it.  But if you are older, you might want to consider it.

Here’s the problem, though.  What do you reinvest in?  My article How to Invest Carefully for Mom took up some of the problem — if I were reducing exposure to stocks, I would invest in high quality short and long bonds, probably weighted 50/50 to 70/30 in that range.  Examples of tickers that I might consider be MINT and TLT.  Trouble is, you only get a yield of 2% on the mix.  The short bonds help if there is inflation, the long bonds help if there is deflation.  Both remove the risk of the stock market.

I’m also happier in running with my mix of international stocks and quality US value investments versus holding the S&P 500, because foreign and value have underperformed for so long, almost feels like 1999, minus the crazed atmosphere.

Now, Clements at the end of the exercise doesn’t want to make any big changes.  He still wants to play on at the ripe old age of 54.  He is concerned that his nest egg isn’t big enough.  Also, he thinks stocks will return 5-6%/year over the long haul (undefined), versus my model that says 2-6%/year over the next ten years.

What would I say?  I would say “do half.”  Whatever the amount you would cut from stocks to move to bonds if you were certain of it, do half of it.  If disaster strikes, you will pat yourself on the back for doing something.  If the market rallies further, you will be glad you didn’t do the whole thing.

What’s that, you say?  What am I doing?  At age 56, I am playing on, but 10-12% higher in the S&P 500, and I will hedge.  At levels like that future market outcomes are poor under almost every historical scenario, and even if the market doesn’t seem nuts in terms of qualitative signals, the amount you leave on the table is piddly over a 10-year horizon.  If I see more genuine nuttiness beyond certain logic-free zones in the market, I could act sooner, but for now, like Jonathan, I play on.

Full disclosure: long MINT and TLT for me and my fixed income clients

I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to contribute a chapter to this book.  I am going to encourage you to buy this book, but let me give some of the reasons not to buy this book:

  • Don’t buy it to give me something.  I don’t get anything from sales of this book.  Neither does Mebane Faber, who is giving all of the profits to charity.
  • Don’t buy it to read my article.  You can read it for free here.  Better, you can read the updated version of the article, which I publish quarterly, here.  (Those reading this at Amazon, there are links at my blog.  Google “Alephblog The Best Investment Writing” to find them.)
  • Don’t buy it to get current ideas.  There are none here.  The weakness of the book is that the articles are dated by 9-21 months or so, BUT… that doesn’t keep the book from being relevant.
  • Don’t buy it if you want one consistent theme.  It’s like reading, except with a broader array of authors.  There is no “house view.”
  • Don’t buy it for the graphics in the book.  The grayscale images in the book are good for black & white, but some are hard to read.  The graphs for my article are far better at my blog.

The book is a good one because there is something for everyone here.  Do you want quantitative finance?  There is a good selection here. Do you want good basic articles about how to think about investing?  There are a good number of those as well, particularly from well-known financial journalists, and some of the most well-regarded bloggers.  Do you want a few unusual articles that might cause you consider some asset sub-classes or techniques that you haven’t considered before?  They are here too.

The writers fall into four buckets — journalists, asset managers, pundits/authors, and those who sell information at their websites.  I will tell you that my personal favorites from this volume are Tom Tresidder, Mebane Faber, Chris Meredith, Ben Carlson (how was he the only one with two articles in the book?), Jason Hsu & John West, and Cullen Roche.

Don’t get me wrong, I like almost all of the authors in this volume, and am proud to be featured among them.  For a number of them, though, I would have picked other things they have written in 2016 that had more punch, and offered more of a difference in perspective.

Why buy this?  After you read this, you will be a smarter, more well-rounded investor.  In my calculations, that’s  pretty good — 32 articles that will take you 4 hours to read.  Got seven minutes?  Read an article; it just might help you a great deal.


Already stated, though if you don’t like statistics, one-third of the articles may not appeal to you.  Also, a few articles veer into political commentary (not that I would ever do that 😉 ).

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

Though almost anyone could benefit from this book, it is geared toward investors with intermediate-to-higher levels of knowledge and experience.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: The Best Investment Writing: Selected writing from leading investors and authors.

Full disclosure: I received two free copies of the book for contributing the article.  That’s all, unless someone buys the book through the link above.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, including books, I get a small commission. This is my main source of blog revenue. I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip. Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book. Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website. Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites. Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

I’d say this is getting boring, but it’s pretty fascinating watching the rally run.  Now, this is the seventh time I have done this quarterly analysis.  The first one was for December 2015.  Over that time period, the expected annualized 10-year return went like this, quarter by quarter: 6.10%, 6.74%, 6.30%, 6.01%, 5.02%, 4.79%, and 4.30%.  At the end of June 2017, the figure would have been 4.58%, but the rally since the end of the quarter shaves future returns down to 4.30%.

We are now in the 93rd percentile of valuations.


This era will ultimately be remembered as a hot time in the markets, much like 1965-9, 1972, and 1997-2001.

The Internal Logic of this Model

I promised on of my readers that I would provide the equation for this model.  Here it is:

10-year annualized total return = 32.77% – (70.11% * Percentage of total assets held in stocks for the US as a whole)

Now, the logic of this formula stems from the idea that the return on total assets varies linearly with the height of the stock market, and the return on debt (everything else aside from stocks) does not.  After that, the formula is derived from the same formula that we use for the weighted average cost of capital [WACC].  Under those conditions, the total returns of the stock market can be approximated by a linear function of the weight the stocks have in the WACC formula.

Anyway, that’s one way to think of the logic behind this.

The Future?

Now, what are some of the possibilities for the future?

Above you see the nineteen scenarios for where the S&P 500 will be in 10 years, assuming a 2% dividend yield, and looking at the total returns that happen when the model forecasts returns between 3.30% and 5.30%.  The total returns vary from 2.31%/year to 6.50%, and average out to 3.97% total returns.  The bold line above is the 4.30% estimate.

As I have said before, this bodes ill for all collective security schemes that rely on the returns of risky assets to power the payments.  There is no conventional way to achieve returns higher than 5%/year for the next ten years, unless you go for value and foreign markets (maybe both!).

Then again, the simple solution is just to lighten up and let cash build.  Now if we all did that, we couldn’t.  Who would be buying?  But if enough of us did it such that equity valuations declined, there could be a more orderly market retreat.

The attitude of the market on a qualitative basis doesn’t seem nuts to me yet, so I am at maximum cash for ordinary conditions, but I haven’t hedged.  When expected 10-year market returns get to 3%/year, I will likely do that, but for now I hold my stocks.

PS — the first article of this series has been translated into Chinese.  The same website has 48 of my best articles in Chinese, which I find pretty amazing.  Hope you smile at the cartoon version of me. 😉


Just a note before I begin. My piece called “Where Money Goes to Die” was an abnormal piece for me, and it received abnormal attention.  The responses came in many languages aside from English, including Spanish, Turkish and Russian.  It was interesting to note the level of distortion of my positions among those writing articles.  That was less true of writing responses here.

My main point is this: if something either has no value or can’t be valued, it can’t be an investment.  Speculations that have strong upward price momentum, like penny stocks during a promotion, are dangerous to speculate in.  Howard Marks, Jamie Dimon and Ray Dalio seem to agree with that.  That’s all.

Now for Q&A:

Greetings and salutations.  🙂

Hope all is well with you and the family!

Just have what I believe is a quick question. I already know [my husband’s] answer to this (Vanguard index funds – it his default answer to all things investment), but this is for my Mom, so it is important that she get it right (no wiggle room for losing money in an unstable market), hence my asking you. My Mom inherited money and doesn’t know what to do with it. a quarter of it was already in index funds/mutual funds and she kept it there. The rest came from the sale of real estate in the form of a check. That is the part that she doesn’t know what she should do with. She wanted to stick it in a CD until she saw how low the interest rates are. She works intermittently (handyman kind of work – it is demand-dependent), but doesn’t have any money saved in a retirement account or anything like that, so she needs this money get her though the rest of her life (she is almost 60). What would you recommend? What would you tell [name of my wife] to do if she were in this position? BTW, it is approx $ZZZ, if that makes a difference. Any advice you can give would be very much appreciated!

Vanguard funds are almost always a good choice.  The question here is which Vanguard funds?  To answer that, we have to think about asset allocation.  My thoughts on asset allocation is that it is a marriage of two concepts:

  • When will you need to spend the money? and
  • Where is there the opportunity for good returns?

Your mom is the same age as my wife.  A major difference between the two of them is that your mom doesn’t have a lot of investable assets, and my wife does.  We have to be more careful with your mom.  If your mom is only going to draw on these assets in retirement, say at age 67, and will draw them down over the rest of her life, say until age 87, then the horizon she is investing over is long, and should have stocks and longer-term bonds for investments.

But there is a problem here.  Drawing on an earlier article of mine, investors today face a big problem:

The biggest problem for investors is low future returns.  Bonds have low rates of returns, and equities have high valuations.  You’ll see more about equity valuations in my next post.

This is a real problem for those wanting to fund retirements.  Stocks are priced to return around 4%/year over the next ten years, and investment-grade longer bonds are around 3%.  There are some pockets of better opportunity and so I suggest the following:

  • Invest more in foreign and emerging market stocks.  The rest of the world is cheaper than the US.  Particularly in an era where the US is trying to decouple from the rest of the world, foreign stocks may provide better returns than US stocks for a while.
  • Invest your US stocks in a traditional “value” style.  Admittedly, this is not popular now, as value has underperformed for a record eight years versus growth investing.  The value/growth cycle will turn, as it did back in 2000, and it will give your mom better returns over the next ten years.
  • Split your bond allocation into two components: long US high-quality bonds (Treasuries and Investment Grade corporates), and very short bonds or a money market fund.  The long bonds are there as a deflation hedge, and the short bonds are there for liquidity.  If the market falls precipitously, the liquidity is there for future investments.

I would split the investments 25%, 35%, 20%, 20% in the order that I listed them, or something near that.  Try to sell your mom on the idea of setting the asset allocation, and not sweating the short-term results.  Revisit the strategy every three years or so, and rebalance annually.  If assets are needed prematurely, liquidate the assets that have done relatively well, and are above their target weights.

I know you love your mom, but the amount of assets isn’t that big.  It will be a help to her, but it ultimately will be a supplement to Social Security for her.  Her children, including you and your dear husband may ultimately prove to be a greater help for her than the assets, especially if the markets don’t do well.  The asset allocation I gave you is a balance of offense and defense in an otherwise poor environment.  The above advice also mirrors what I am doing for my own assets, and the assets of my clients, though I am not using Vanguard.

Joel Tillinghast, one of the best mutual fund managers, runs the money in Fidelity’s Low-Priced Stock Fund.  It has one of the best long-term records among stock funds over the 28 years that he has managed it.

The author gives you a recipe for how to pick good stocks, but he doesn’t give you a machine that produces them.  In a style that is clever and discursive, he summarizes his main ideas at the beginning and end of the book, and explains the ideas in the middle of the book.  The ideas are simple, but learning to apply them will take a lifetime.

Here are the five ideas as written in the beginning (page 3):

  1. Make decisions rationally

  2. Invest in what we know (did I mention Peter Lynch wrote the foreword to the book?)

  3. Worth with honest and trustworthy managers

  4. Avoid businesses prone to obsolescence and financial ruin, and 

  5. Value stocks properly

At this point, some will say “You haven’t really given us anything!  These ideas are too big to be useful!”  I was surprised, though, to see that the same five points at the end of the book said more (page 276).  Ready?

  1. Be clear about your motives, and don’t allow emotions to guide your financial decisions

  2. Recognize that some things can’t be understood and that you don’t understand others.  Focus on those that you understand best.

  3. Invest with people who are honest and trustworthy, and are doing something unique and valuable.

  4. Favor businesses that will not be destroyed by changing times, commoditization, or excessive debt.

  5. Above all, always look for investments that are worth a great deal more than you are paying for them.

That says more, and I think the reason they are different is that when you read through the five sections of the book, he unpacks his initial statements and becomes more definite.

Much of the book can be summarized under the idea of “margin of safety.”  This is a type of value investing.  When he analyzes value, it is like a simplified version of reverse discounted cash flows.  He tries to figure out in a broad way what an investment might return in terms price paid for the investment and what “owner earnings,” that is, free cash flow, it will generate on a conservative basis.

One aspect of the conservatism that I found insightful is that he assumes that the terminal value of an investment is zero. (page 150)  In my opinion, that is very smart, because that is the area where most discounted cash flow analyses go wrong.  When the difference between the weighted average growth rate of free cash flow and the discount rate is small, the terminal value gets really big relative to the value of the cash lows prior to the terminal value.  In short, assumptions like that say that the distant future is all that matters.  That’s a tough assumption in a world where companies and industries can become obsolete.

Even though I described aspects of a mathematical calculation here, what I did was very much like the book.  There are no equations; everything is described verbally, even the math.  Note: that is a good exercise to see whether you understand what the math really means.  (If more people on Wall Street did that, we might not have had the financial crisis.  Just sayin’.)

One more fun thing about the book is that he goes trough his own experiences with a wide variety of controversial stocks from the past and his experiences with them.  His conservatism kept him a great number of errors that tripped up other celebrated managers.

I learned a lot from this book, and I enjoyed the writing style as well.  He clearly put a lot of effort into it; many people will benefit from his insights.


His methods are a lot like mine, and he clearly put a lot of thought into this book.  That said, he doesn’t understand insurance companies as well as he thinks (I’m an actuary by training).  There are a number of small errors there, but not enough to ruin a really good book.

Summary / Who Would Benefit from this Book

I highly recommend this book.  This is a book that will benefit investors with moderate to high experience most. For those with less experience, it may help you, but some of the concepts require background knowledge.  If you want to buy it, you can buy it here: Big Money Thinks Small: Biases, Blind Spots, and Smarter Investing.

Full disclosure: The publisher asked me if I wanted a free copy and I assented.

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