alternative investments

Letters to Our Children #7: Know Your Assets

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Our previous letters have talked about the three buckets you have for your money: short term, long term, and in-between. Each one serves different purposes. Today we will dive into the details of the different assets you can put into those buckets.

The simplest and most familiar asset class is cash. It has a fixed value and is completely liquid, available to spend any time you want. While the change jar on your counter is not exactly an investment, you can put it in a savings account and generate a little bit of interest. Short term certificates of deposit and Treasury bonds can also be considered cash equivalents as long as the maturity is within a few months. They can not be spent without notice, but could be turned into cash quickly for major expenses.

Longer duration CDs and bonds fall into another asset class: fixed income. You can expect higher interest by accepting longer maturities and shakier credit ratings, so fixed income will generate more income than cash. There is a reason for this: your risk exposure also increases. Buying bonds with poorer credit quality increases the risk that the borrower will go broke and default. And if you lock in your money long term at a fixed interest rate, you will be in for pain if inflation and interest rates rise. This can make fixed income investing difficult in a low interest rate environment.

The third main asset class are equities, or stocks. These are what you are thinking of when you talk about the stock market. Stocks represent partial ownership in a given company. Exchange-listed stocks are liquid, and owning a share of a rapidly growing company offers the potential for higher returns. But again, these returns come at a trade-off of volatility and risk. There is no fixed face value or interest rate on equities, and the market price can change rapidly.

There are also alternative investments outside of these three main asset classes. Most alternative investments are tangible assets such as real estate or physical commodities. These assets are largely speculative: they do not grow on their own and do not pay out interest. As such, we do not generally recommend them.

Different assets are useful for each bucket. Your short-term bucket needs both liquidity and stability, so it should be mostly or entirely in cash. Your long-term bucket can tolerate more volatility and will probably want to seek higher returns, so equity investments may be more appropriate. The intermediate-term bucket can hold a range of investments, although you will probably want a healthy proportion of cash and short-term investments.

Your financial situation is unique, and there is no one-size-fits all approach. Clients, if you want to discuss what is in your buckets, please call or email us.


Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Government bonds and Treasury bills are guaranteed by the US government as to the timely payment of principal and interest and, if held to maturity, offer a fixed rate of return and fixed principal value.

CDs are FDIC Insured to specific limits and offer a fixed rate of return if held to maturity.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and should be considered as an investment for the risk capital portion of the investor’s portfolio. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

All investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Expensive Lessons Threaten Teacher Retirements

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An amazing tale of mistakes and worse in the Omaha Public School (OPS) pension fund has been uncovered by the Omaha World-Herald. According to the paper, the fund went from being one of the best-performing funds in the nation to one of the worst.

The most surprising thing? The same issues you and we face in managing our own investments caused a lot of the grief.

• The fund sold stocks heavily at the bottom of the financial crisis, in 2008 and 2009, dramatically reducing its holdings at the wrong time.

• Decision makers sought ways to achieve above average returns without market volatility—almost always a tale too good to be true.

• The risks of alternative investments were poorly understood, not surprisingly. Mumbai real estate, international shipping, Kazakhstan oil companies and distressed housing in Florida? (At least they didn’t buy swampland, as far as we know.)

• When stocks rebounded, the fund missed out—while suffering with poor results from its new strategies.

We endlessly encourage staying the course, hanging in there, living with volatility, avoiding the stampedes, seeking the bargains… in fact, aiming to do the exact opposite of what the OPS fund managers did. It is not easy to do the right thing, but you, the best clients in the world, have shown perseverance and patience when needed.

It is unfortunate that the people responsible for management of the fund lacked the basic good sense that you possess. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results.

All investing, including stocks, involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

International investing involves special risks such as currency fluctuation and political instability and may not be suitable for all investors. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging markets.

 

Steering the Herd

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One of our core investment principles is to “avoid the stampede.” If you read this site regularly you have heard us say this over and over again, but we think it bears repeating.

As part of our work we talk to many product representatives who want a slice of our business. There are countless product providers out there competing for our attention, and your money. There are limited amounts of both to go around, so inevitably most of the wholesalers that talk to us are going to be disappointed. However, we still like talking to them as they do us a vital service: they tell us which way the stampede is going.

We are contrarians by nature. When we hear someone tell us that a lot of people are buying something, our instinct is not to line up alongside them. When a lot of people tell us that a lot of people are buying the same thing—our instinct is to run far, far away.

Lately, what we are hearing from the product wholesalers is that everyone is piling into exotic alternative investments. Everyone is looking for exciting new products that are not correlated to stock market returns, and boy, are the product providers ever ready to sell it to them.

We live in uncertain times, and it is understandable to be spooked at some of the troubling headlines we see. We understand the desire to seek safety. But, we believe that safety is not to be found from following the herd. Omaha is famous for its stockyards and slaughterhouses; we know that when the cattle are all getting steered together, it rarely ends well for the cattle.

We know there are always uncertainties with the economy and the markets. But the sales pitches we hear for everything non-correlated to stocks makes us feel a lot more secure in our traditional equity investment philosophy. There may come a time when the herd starts stampeding back towards equities and it will be time for us to look elsewhere. For now, though, our equity focus puts us in lonely company when it comes to wholesalers—and that is just how we like it.

If you want to talk about any market trends or sales pitches you may have noticed, please feel free to call or email us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Alternative Facts, Alternative Investments

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Over the past few months, there has been a lot of hay made in the press about “alternative facts.” The term is a sarcastic euphemism; when something is labeled an alternative fact, the clear implication is that it is not a fact at all.

There is a certain class of investments which are collectively called “alternative investments.” This term is unrelated to the term “alternative fact”, but the similarities are undeniable.

Traditional investments are based on the notion of putting your money to work in order to generate more money. When you invest in a company’s stock, you are buying a piece of a going concern that generates revenue. When you invest in bonds, you are buying a debt obligation that bears interest. Even if you are just holding cash reserves, when you leave your cash with a bank, they are paying you interest to hold onto your money. In today’s interest rate environment you are probably earning close to nothing, but at least in theory there is some return on cash.

This is not to say that traditional investments are not without risks. You are not guaranteed to break even, let alone make money—companies may go broke, leaving stocks and bonds at a fraction of their former value. But you still have the hope that your money can grow into more money over time.

“Alternative investments” is a very large category which encompasses a wide range of assets. The only common element is that they do not fall into traditional investment categories such as stocks and bonds, and in many cases, arguably do not qualify as investments in the traditional sense at all.

Commodities are one form of alternative investment. These are gold, silver, oil, corn, and so on—actual, physical products, not the companies that produce them. If you buy a bar of gold, all you will ever have is a bar of gold. It will never turn into two bars of gold. If you are lucky, maybe you can sell it to someone for more than you paid for it. But that is speculation, not investment.

Derivatives contracts are another type of alternative investment. A derivative’s value is based on (“derived from”) the value of another asset, such as a stock or commodity. When you buy options to purchase a company’s stock, you are making a bet that the company will be successful, just like owning stock. However, stock options tend to have a very short time horizon. You are speculating on short term price fluctuations, not really investing in a company’s long term growth.

Undoubtedly some people make good money speculating on alternative investments. As a result, some portfolio managers believe in buying small slices of alternative investments for everyone in case they happen to outperform traditional investments. Our response: nuts! We want to build an orchard big enough to live off the fruit crop. We have no interest in owning a smaller orchard and trying to make up the difference buying and selling fruit with other fruit speculators.

Clients, if you want to talk about your portfolio, please call or email. But if someone is trying to sell you “alternative investments”, you should perhaps treat them with the same skepticism you’d give to someone pitching “alternative facts.”


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Alternative investments may not be suitable for all investors and involve special risks such as leveraging the investment, potential adverse market forces, regulatory changes and potentially illiquidity. The strategies employed in the management of alternative investments may accelerate the velocity of potential losses.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

The fast price swings in commodities and currencies will result in significant volatility in an investor’s holdings.