alternative investments

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.