asset classes

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.

The Benefit of Being Picky

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Suppose you had the opportunity to attend a fancy catered gala. When you get to the dessert table, a dizzying array of delicious looking pies are spread out for you to sample, too many to choose from. Not knowing which ones might be the best, a fellow next to you tells you he’s going to sample a little bit of everything and offers to help load up your plate the same way.

If you happen to be deathly allergic to peanuts, you would ask your helpful friend to skip the peanut butter pie and just get you some of the rest.
“Nonsense,” he tells you. “You never know, the peanut butter pie might be the best of the lot.”

“But if I eat it I’ll go into shock and might die. I can’t even let it touch the rest of the dessert on my plate.”

“You don’t know the future. Just because you’ve had an allergic reaction before doesn’t mean that you’ll have one now,” he says, handing you a plate with a slice of peanut butter pie smack in the middle. Instead of getting to enjoy your dessert you’re left unhappily trying to pick around the edges of the uncontaminated slices of pie.

This situation sounds absurd, and it is. And yet it resembles a commonplace practice within the investment industry. There is a portfolio strategy known as asset allocation that says that since we can’t know for sure which assets are going to go up or down, investors should aim to own a slice of everything. Because different asset classes move in response to different economic pressures, when one goes down it will hopefully be balanced out by a different asset going up. The goal is to try to reduce volatility through diversification.

However, just like our unhappy party-goer in the example above, there are probably some slices you don’t want any of—period. Tech stocks during the dot-com bubble in 2000 and mortgage based securities during the real estate bubble of 2007 were two slices of the investment universe that were very dangerous to your financial health.

Proponents of asset allocation dismiss this notion as market timing, saying that you can’t predict when the bubble will burst and that you miss out on potential gains by staying out of the bubble. But if we’re allergic to the pie, we don’t care how delicious the pie might be—we don’t want a slice.

Our approach may or may not be the right one. Nevertheless, we believe that being picky about the slices we take may bring us better results than blindly grabbing a bit of everything. If you want to talk about how this may apply to your portfolio, please 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. To determine which investment(s) may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing.

There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not protect against market risk. Asset allocation does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.