stable value

Safe is the New Dangerous

© Can Stock Photo / onepony

We strive to see the world as it is, and act accordingly. Going by the textbook and implementing conventional wisdom without testing it against actual conditions is not in our playbook. What we see today is nothing short of astonishing—for two reasons.

“Safe” has become the new dangerous. We are astonished at how the investment world appears to be upside down in some respects. And we are astonished that so few of us seem to have noticed.

During the year 2000, the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite index fell over 39%1. This crushing of technology and growth stocks at the start of the millennium and the financial crisis that arose just seven years later drove fear of the stock market deep into the psyche of some investors. Consequently, we believe there has been a flight to safety that has created some real anomalies.

Yields on long term government bonds and high yield corporate bonds have fallen to near historical lows not seen in over 50 years2. It isn’t just in bonds, either. Supposedly safe stocks appear to be the most expensive part of the market.

Standard & Poors reports that the market average price to earnings (P/E) ratio is about 18. Food companies, shampoo makers, toothpaste sellers, medical supply companies and utilities are priced at a premium because those lines of business are assumed to be recession-proof…you know, safe. In an 18 P/E market, these companies are priced at 22, 25, 30, or 34 times earnings3.

We have owned many of these companies in the past at P/E’s of 10 or 12 or 14. Why anyone would own an electric utility when solar plus battery technology is bound to turn them upside down is beyond us. (We wrote about the coming change here.)

Consequently, we believe that allegedly “safe” stocks have become so expensive they are dangerous. The textbook says utility stocks are safe. We look at the world and say, “Not really.” Safe is the new dangerous.

Meanwhile, there are market sectors and companies priced below the market average P/E, including some with dynamic prospects in the years ahead. We believe the stocks we own are bargains. That’s an opinion, not a guarantee. You know we don’t offer guarantees, except that values will fluctuate.

Clients, if you would like a longer conversation about this upside down situation or any other topic, please email us or call.

1Nasdaq, Inc.

2Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

3Standard & Poor’s, Inc.


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 indices are unmanaged and may not be invested into directly.

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.

Floating rate bank loans are loans issues by below investment grade companies for short term funding purposes with higher yield than short term debt and involve risk.

High yield/junk bonds (grade BB or below) are not investment grade securities, and are subject to higher interest rate, credit, and liquidity risks than those graded BBB and above. They generally should be part of a diversified portfolio for sophisticated investors.

Government bonds 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.

Case Study: The Portfolio of Mr. X

© Can Stock Photo / arekmalang

Over the last year or so, you taught us a lesson. We are a little embarrassed it took us so long to catch on. But learn we did, and now we are enjoying the payoff.

The lesson is, some people require a layer of cash or other cash equivalents in their accounts to reduce the volatility and risk of the overall portfolio. We used to see this as a form of heresy against our beloved three fundamental principles. Clients were encouraged to maintain their safety blanket somewhere else, so that we could concentrate on our traditional research-driven, focused approach to investing.

We still aren’t comfortable with market timing, and selling in a panic will always result in an invitation to do business elsewhere. But we finally have started listening to those who desire a portion of liquid assets inside their portfolios, or a layer of less volatile investments.

Mr. X is a patient man who has stuck with us despite our stubbornness. His philosophy nearly matches ours—but not quite. When he visited the shop recently to discuss his desire for a little less risk (again), we explained that we had adapted to preferences like his, and how much cash or liquid assets did he want to maintain in his account?

Mr. X could scarcely believe what he was hearing. He asked if we were really going to skip the part where we argue. When we assured him we would simply carry out his wishes, he was surprised and pleased.

Of course, we discussed the central tradeoff. Higher cash levels will generally result in lower long term returns. Mr. X pondered the issue, and specified a relatively modest fraction of the account to be in cash.

Trading lower returns for less volatility can have desirable effects. The cash layer may enable a person to stay with the overall plan in tough times. Financial confidence is a very nice thing to have, and the cash layer may help address it.

We have not abandoned our principles. We simply came to the realization that we could help more people invest more effectively if we listened to them more carefully. Life is better for us, and more pleasant for Mr. X as well.

If these issues are pertinent to you, please write or call to talk about your situation.


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.

Money in the Bank

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / turk12

We have learned over the years that money in the bank is useful and worthwhile for a variety of reasons. It helps us deal with emergencies and take advantage of opportunities. The confidence that comes from having that certain amount safe and sound is perhaps the best thing about it.

With the right amount of money in the bank, people may have more tolerance to the ups and downs of longer-term investments. With today’s low returns on safe, liquid investments, for some living with volatility is the only way to have a chance at decent returns over time. (We are using ‘money in the bank’ as a term to include a variety of conservative investments likely to maintain value.)

As with so many things, there is a gap between how people usually think of their money and how the financial industry talks about it. For example, when you think about the balance you need to have in order to sleep comfortably, you think in terms of a dollar amount. It might be $2,000 or $200,000 or some other number—a matter of circumstances and personal preference.

But the financial industry talks about it in terms of percentages. For example, a blend of 80% stocks and 20% conservative, or 60/40, or 40/60. We see things a little differently. Like Warren Buffett, we believe a temporary dip is not a loss, we are optimistic about the long term, and we know that tolerating volatility is crucial to successful investing. But you still need to sleep comfortably at night, and you still need those advantages that come from having money in the bank.

Our proposal: we will be working with you in the weeks and months ahead to sort out how much if any of the funds entrusted to us should be devoted to capital preservation first. We won’t be talking about percentages like 80/20 or 60/40; we’ll be looking to help you ascertain that dollar amount in conservative investments that strive to leave you feeling comfortable.

This is slightly harder than it sounds, since the trade-off for more stability is less growth potential over time. But we are here to work you through these issues. Write or call if you would like to discuss your situation in detail, or have other questions about this.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

There is no assurance that these techniques are suitable for all investors or will yield positive outcomes.