An annual delight of mine is reading Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders. Buffett has very much influenced me as a financial advisor and how I manage investments. In this year’s letter he writes, “Investing is often described as the process of laying out money now in the expectation of receiving more money in the future. At Berkshire we take a more demanding approach, defining investing as the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future. More succinctly, investing is forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date.”
Whew, it brings tears to my eyes. Each time I meet with a client, I always try to reframe the concept of “money” and “investing”. Money is all about purchasing power and it’s all about buying things at some point in time. It’s laughably simple, but to me I can think of no other concept that common investors miss. Here are three implications of missing the concept:
1. Responding to volatility – It is human nature to run from scary things. Each time the market goes down, investors panic out of the market. In my opinion, the only time an investor should take his or her foot off the gas pedal of investing is when they have decided that it is time to buy things in the near term. Otherwise, all sails should be up, your hand should be on the helm and you should ignore the reports of monsters in the waters or that you’ll sail off the edge of the world. If you think about when the money you have invested will actually buys things, the answer is often not in the foreseeable future. Naturally it’s different if you are living off your investments in the present time particularly if you are in long term care rapidly draining them down, but this answers the important question of when you are going to buy things. Volatility must be looked at as only that: volatility. Volatility is simply the price of admission that you must cope with in the task of seeking to outpace inflation. Historically, speaking of the broader capital markets, volatility has never ended up being a long term risk.
2. Being irrationally conservative – If an investor embraces the concept that you are taking an amount of money that has purchasing power, investing it in something and that when it is done it will have a different purchasing power afterward, then he or she would probably keep as little money in cash equivalent investments as possible. I think it’s always important to assess how much cash somebody needs to have on hand, but then to highly discourage having anything more than that figure. I have no idea why somebody would get a CD for money that they are not likely to spend in their lifetimes. If somebody gets a $100,000 one-year CD earning 0.50% when inflation is 3.00% in essence they’ve lost 2.5% or $2,500 at the end of the term. If each year this was sent as a bill, I have a feeling people wouldn’t do this as much as they do. Elsewhere in the Berkshire annual report, Buffett notes that since 1965 the dollar has fallen by 86%! It takes $7.00 to buy what $1.00 bought back then. Investors who are earning a rate less than inflation are kidding themselves if they think that they any portion of that interest as “income”. And to turn the knife, that “income” is usually fully taxable. Cash is like oxygen, you want a little around you to breathe, but anything beyond that should be promptly deployed. Ryan Kavanaugh
3. Jumping into Bubbles – This type of investment shows the ugly side of supply and demand. Sometimes an investment will increase in price only because of an expanding pool of buyers and not because the investment is increasing in value. There will be a group of buyers in an investment. More are attracted to that pool not because of the investment, but only because they believe that the buying pool will expand further. The investors are not investing because of what the asset will produce (usually the asset is a zombie from a rational standpoint), but rather because they believe that in the future other investors will desire it even more. The essence of a bubble is that it doesn’t have to do with the investment itself and that there isn’t anything to numerically justify it, it’s all about expecting future buyers of the asset. To me, gold is a bubble. It is a zombie asset and the only thing driving the price is the hope that in the future somebody else will come along who will buy it for more than what you bought it for. This isn’t investing, it’s speculating. If you were given one ounce of gold when you were born, when you died you would have… one ounce of gold. The cruel experience is that investors usually see prices rise and it justifies their investing hypothesis – at least for a while. As a financial advisor, there’s no shame in telling people they shouldn’t invest in something based on principle and then to see the prices of that investment rise afterward. There’s no shame in being temporarily wrong.