There must be a lot of anti-bond sentiment circulating these days, as my inbox has been lighting up lately with questions about whether bonds still make sense to investors. It started last year when Ray Dalio got on a roll and made a series of rather provocative comments about how he thinks you’d be crazy to hold government bonds and how cash is trash, too. It accelerated as interest rates continued to drop to new lows. And it has reached a bit of an apex as bond returns have taken a pretty decent hit in the last few months. Was he right? Should you sell all your bonds now before it’s too late?
Buried in an otherwise mind-numbingly boring regulatory filing released recently was a seemingly innocuous line item that most people would not give a second thought. Sometime in the second quarter, Berkshire Hathaway invested a comparatively tiny 0.3% of their total portfolio into just a single new company. No big deal, right?
But it wasn’t just any company. After spending decades as perhaps the most respected and widely-cited critic of gold as an investment, Warren Buffett bought 21 million shares of Barrick Gold — one of the largest gold mining companies in the world. It was so out of character that the financial world immediately did a huge double-take. The headline from Bloomberg pretty much speaks for itself:
Berkshire Makes a Bet on Gold Market That Buffett Once Mocked
As one might expect, investors on both extremes of the gold-appreciating spectrum are furiously debating what this all means. Buffett’s closest gold-averse followers are circling the wagons and dealing with a lot of cognitive dissonance, while gold bugs are enjoying dishing out some playful jabs after years of being on the receiving end. Lost in the middle is a vast sea of normal investors watching the news and searching for actionable information.
This article is for that last group just wanting to know the truth about gold and what it can (and can’t) do for their own portfolios.
As the entire world locks down in reaction to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, our number one concern as a group is mutual solidarity in saving lives. But the ultimate impact of the tiny COVID-19 virus extends so far beyond the immediate health toll. The disruption to our global economy required to prevent its spread is having profound, deep-scarring effects on the everyday lives we take for granted. Entire industries are closing their doors, countless people are losing their jobs, and any short-term treatment for the disease may simply be a prelude to a much longer financial road to recovery.
So as we shelter in place taking care of our families and waiting for the worst to pass, it’s natural to count not only our stock of food in the pantry but also our collection of stocks in the market. No matter how you invest, I wager it isn’t pretty. It’s not just you. There’s no hiding from the turmoil, and we’re all feeling the pain.
The resulting anxiety prompts normally self-confident investors to suddenly get very curious about how others are doing in the same situation. I get it. So let’s talk real numbers and put the current financial crisis in perspective for different types of portfolios.
I’ve flown a lot over the years, and I understand first-hand how all of the little details like packing, efficiently getting through security, and getting settled on the plane become so routine for frequent travelers that they can do them without even thinking. But occasionally life throws you a curveball, just as it did on a recent flight where I was without my normal headphones. Stuck for several hours with nothing but the drone of the engines to keep me company, I can’t say I was thrilled but it turns out it was just the inspiration I needed to explain a complicated concept:
How do consistent portfolios full of volatile assets actually work?
Sure, I could go into a detailed discussion of covariance, standard deviations, and the complicated math behind efficient portfolio construction, but frankly I know I would quickly lose most people and even bore myself in the process. So inspired by the the desire for silence I normally take for granted, let’s step back and think of the problem a little differently in terms we can all relate to — noise.
Something must be in the financial water lately, as even the most bullish investors have started publicly expressing worry about the stock market finally reaching an unsustainable climax after more than a decade of record growth. With increased stock volatility, inverted yield curves, and global trade worries all making news, the economic tension is palpable to the point that the dreaded R-word is starting to get some significant buzz.
Are we headed for a recession?
Recessions get people worked up for a variety of reasons. For example, the events of 2008 decimated the stock market, cost scores of people their jobs, forced many leveraged buyers out of their homes, and nearly upended the entire financial system in the process. While there are many factors that contributed to that turmoil beyond the recession that came with it, it’s true that recessions tend to coincide with a lot of negative financial events. So it’s understandable that anyone who lived through the situation might be worried about a repeat and walking on eggshells given current market sentiment.
I’m not going to pretend that I have all of the answers for every problem associated with recessions, nor am I going to claim I have any idea when the next recession will start. But as a long-time student of portfolio history I’m in a pretty decent position to bring something to the table when it comes to how to structure your investments to weather the inevitable storm. So rather than just peddle in the typical doom and panic, let’s study something productive.
Which portfolios performed the best in recessions, and what can we learn from them?
In the world of investing, it seems most people’s energy is focused squarely on stocks. Massive amounts of research goes into stock investing every day and even casual investors have an incredible amount of information at their fingertips. Combine that wealth of data with a long term growth pattern in the stock market since 2009 that means anyone who has been in the market less than ten years has no recollection of a single meaningful bear market, and stocks are so ingrained on our collective investing consciousness that many people don’t give other assets a second thought.
As a result, while bonds were once staples of any self-respecting asset allocation lots of investors just aren’t into them like they used to be. Some of it is definitely recency bias, and I think another factor is that many people don’t truly understand how bonds work. But I’ll concede that the bond market is also different than it was more than a decade ago, and I can understand why people might think twice about relying too much on historical data. After all, bonds sound like awesome choices when they paid 10% interest, but consistent declining rates over time surely boosted any backtested numbers while depressing yields today to something a lot less desirable. So it’s no surprise that I see questions along this line all the time:
With record low interest rates today that are even negative in some situations, what’s the point of having bonds in a portfolio at all?
That’s a very good question. And the full answer is kinda complicated and includes some advanced finance mechanics that fly under the radar even for very experienced investors. But explaining complicated concepts is kinda my thing, so let’s talk about a little thing called bond convexity.
As I blindly swung my arm to swat at the tedious drone of the alarm on the night stand, it was pretty much a morning like any other. I labored out of bed, trudged my way through the early routine on autopilot, and set out on my long morning commute down highway 280 towards San Jose. I always found that stretch of road to be an interesting experience in dual realities, as the stunning views of the bay and surreal scene of clouds pouring over the mountaintops were all too often completely hidden by relentless inner thoughts of important job tasks needing immediate attention. Silicon Valley attracts a certain type of always-on engineer and actively feeds their obsessions, and my blossoming career as a successful product designer at a job I loved had long since shaped me into eager, if anxious, submission.
Perhaps because of the proliferation of personal finance websites focusing on early retirement, I’ve noticed a lot of talk lately about safe withdrawal rates. I think this is absolutely terrific, as financial independence is one of the single most empowering life goals one can pursue! But greater exposure also has its downsides, as core assumptions such as the portfolio options, withdrawal method, and retirement length don’t always scale the way you might think and misconceptions can quickly propagate.
Withdrawal rates are an intellectual passion of mine, and I’m always looking for opportunities to contribute to the conversation. And with the recent boon in global portfolio data, I’m finally able to address one of the biggest questions that I’m starting to see more frequently these days.
Does the 4% rule apply outside of the United States?
A fellow Boglehead asked a really good question recently, and I think it’s something we’ve all considered at some point:
Why shouldn’t my asset allocation be 100% stocks during the accumulation phase?
After all, the typical justification for a heavy stock portfolio sounds pretty darn compelling. They historically have a higher return than bonds in the long run, which means bonds are defensive assets that reduce volatility but do not necessarily increase returns. On top of that, interest rates are so low today that bonds look particularly unappealing. So if you can handle the bad years and pile as much money into stocks as possible you’ll be much better off and can feel free to be defensive with a larger pile of money once you retire.
Well you know what? If you’re the type of investor with a rock-solid stable job, few financial commitments, and the personality to ride out both short-term and prolonged market pain without sweating your account balances, then putting all of your money in stocks is just fine. The Total Stock Market portfolio is included on the site because I appreciate that it’s a good choice for many people.
But I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that you’re reading a blog about portfolio theory because you believe that just maybe there’s another side to the story. You’ve come to the right place, as I’m a strong believer in the power of asset allocation in creating positive and pleasant investing outcomes. So for those interested in a different perspective, I’d like to try my hand at making the case for broad asset allocation in all phases of life.
Why consider diversifying away from stocks not just tomorrow but today?