In the marketplace of ideas, there is no shortage of strategies for investing to produce superior returns. These range from the ‘crackpot’ infomercials schemes that infest early morning television to people that are afraid of the stock market altogether, and also include the research of Nobel laureate economists. The key question for an aspiring investor to ask is what they can learn from each method and strategy.
Let’s start with the Nobel economists. There have been many prominent thinkers who have extolled the virtues of portfolio diversification as it relates to investment in the stock market. The analysis and conclusion of their models are very logical and convincing. When combining securities whose price volatility is not highly correlated, the aggregate effect can be to lower the volatility for the total portfolio, while still preserving average returns. The factor that this analysis misses is the impact of rare, but catastrophic events like a total market collapse. While it is true that portfolio diversification can reduce normal volatility, it is also true that this diversification will not protect against a systemic market disruption.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find people who are afraid of the stock market altogether. Many of the people who express this sentiment were heavily influenced by the stock market crash of 1929 and the great depression. Typically, these people gravitate toward the perceived safety of bonds in lieu of stocks. The implicit problem with this strategy can take one of two flavors. The first is if the bonds are conservative low-interest instruments with guaranteed principal values. There is a significant risk that the value of these bonds will not keep pace with inflation. The other side of risk with bonds is if the investor seeks out high-risk bonds that pay out attractive interest rates, but are issued by companies in dangerous financial condition that may default on their debt obligations.
The final piece of the spectrum is the ‘crackpot’ schemes that are pushed by slick-sounding hucksters. Most of these so-called ‘fool proof’ systems promise fabulous returns by following a few over-simplified steps. Typically, these systems are designed for a particular market environment. When the market shifts, the strategies that once produced tremendous wealth can suddenly generate crippling losses. A prime example is the ‘house flipping’ mania that swept across the country during the real estate bubble. One investor after another reported tremendous gains from buying houses, doing modest rehab work, and then re-selling the house for a significant profit. This system seemed to be working great until the market shifted and the speculative buyers disappeared. At that point, there were suddenly a large number of people holding investment properties that they couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on, could no longer afford to rehab, and were not able to rent out for a sufficient amount of money to pay the mortgage and taxes.
Each of these strategies carries strengths and weaknesses. The optimal way to blend these factors in an advantageous way is what has been affectionately labeled the “barbell” strategy. The basis for this name is based in the notion of combining relatively stable assets such as income real estate with speculative investments such as stock options. Traditional investment theory recommends channeling funds into the middle of the investment spectrum with a diversified stock portfolio. However, the impact of rare events has shown a need for stability that stocks do not adequately provide. Thus, in order to capture upside growth opportunities it is optimal to speculate with a small portion of the total investment portfolio so that the risk of loss is mitigated by the stable portion of your portfolio.
In the end, this style of investing defies almost all of the advice that is popular in the news media. Traditional advice is tilted toward primary investment in the false sense of security that is offered by a ‘diversified’ portfolio of stocks. Unfortunately, this strategy lacks the ability to withstand rare market disruptions, while possessing a limited upside growth opportunity because of the portfolio’s diversified nature. Prudent investors should seek to build a base of returns from assets like income real estate that are spread around in fragmented markets so that speculative opportunities can be pursued without endangering the base portfolio value.
The Heroic Investing Team
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