#RWRI Thoughts on the business model and cleaned up notes

RWRI has a fantastic business model.

  1. Make the faculty your friends and investment committee
  2. Get paid to meet for a week each trimester // you have a no-cost central office, you are getting paid to bring your international (virtual) business together for a week
  3. Record your talks to capture new ideas, spontaneous content
  4. Train the students who will take your work forward when you are gone
  5. Receive feedback about how your work is being used in the world
  6. Up-sell your most passionate (book) customers => Robbins model
  7. Create an environment where you expand your network with people likely to engage and help you => HUGE self-selection bias in student population
  8. Invite world-class speakers in areas where you’d like to learn

This business works well for its owners and they are (more than) smart enough to see that.

Keep it small, sell out each meeting, avoid the temptation to expand and remember why you started.

I cleaned up my handwritten notes via the creation of a Google Doc.

Mistakes remain my own.

Considering Wealth at the Real World Risk Institute

2019_HalloweenTo shake up my thinking and expose myself to highly-believable people, I attended the two-day program at Nassim Taleb’s – Real World Risk Institute.

You can find my daily notes here. Cleaned up digital version of my notes here.

What follows is my thinking on wealth inspired by what was presented. Mistakes are my own. I can hear things differently than what was actually spoken, so don’t assume my attributions are strictly accurate.

To prepare for the clinic, I re-read the Incerto and I’m glad I did it. Each pass through Taleb’s work provides additional insight. You can find his lectures and lessons on YouTube => well worth your time!

We live in a world where a single bad decision can have massive costs => a few thousand dollars and four days of my time is a small price to (try to) think better.


One of the aspects of my job is guiding the transition of wealth between generations. This sounds sophisticated but it’s a role played by elders and parents in every family system.

My personal greed makes me too focused on financial wealth. It takes effort to step back to see wealth as including:

  • The ability to say “no” to others
  • The ability to keep promises to myself
  • Control of my schedule
  • Health, athletic functionality and contentment within my body
  • Love and companionship – the ability to share experiences
  • Engagement via teaching (my kids, my students, anyone who’s open to implementing what I’ve learned)

What I’m shooting for is creating a strategy, so effective, so straightforward, that an idiot could execute it and preserve wealth access generations.

This is what Taleb calls “Zero Intelligence Investing” but we are focusing on a broad definition of family wealth, across generations, through time.


The impossibility of prediction

Joe did an excellent job of demonstrating how complex systems (even those built on very simple rules, defined by the observer) can be impossible to predict. More specifically, certain systems can only be understood, defined, by running them forward in time. He laid out a host of reasons, any one of which could prove the folly of prediction.

Consider your own life. Cut your age in half, how would you have defined wealth at that age? In my case (25 years ago) the list might have looked like:

  • Wine, women and song
  • A ton of work that pays well
  • Watching my personal balance sheet grow
  • Being very strong in the gym
  • Travel to new places

There was no way to predict my values (today) without living through the 25 years from then to now (the divorces, the insolvencies, the setbacks, the pain of toddlers, the post-traumatic growth).

Because of the role of time in life, we can not predict the future.

However, we can have useful ideas about what not to do. We can get a handle on what might ruin our families.


So if my goal is to preserve, ideally grow, the collective wealth of my family system what can I do.

  • Be vigilant about ruin (in fat tailed environments)
  • Spot, discuss and remove fragilities
  • Position the family to benefit from positive optionality

One of the things Taleb does best is consider his best ideas across domains, gain insight then translate his insight to the reader via real-world examples. It is the secret sauce of his success.

BUT, reading great ideas doesn’t improve my life! I need to go the next step and tinker with a limited number of outstanding ideas.

Who gets the benefit of your best ideas?

Taleb’s best ideas…

Ruin via the fat tail hitting my fragilities => fancy way of saying don’t blow yourself up! I’ve written about this a lot: Taleb’s written about Russian Roulette => his 1,000,000 chamber gun story in Fooled by Randomness changed the direction of my life.

In the seminar we talked about the non-zero risk of a “zero-risk first cigarette.”  Why does a (near) zero-risk choice have a non-zero risk in our lives?

“In life, you must assume that you’re going to take the risk again, and again, and again.”

This completely changes the calculation with regard to the “first” taste of risks that might ruin you: alcohol, rage, opiates, cocaine, sleeping pills, infidelity, felonies, roulette, recourse leverage, luxury spending, unnecessary capital projects… things with the potential for large and unpredictable downsides. Bad habits are always trying to seep into my life!

So, to preserve wealth, you need a process to remove your fragilities, because these are what’s going to ruin you. My family history has persistent, recurring fragilities that hit us hard.

The first step is to gain control of your schedule and create space so that you’re able to think more clearly about what can ruin you. Simplify.

Another great insight – life is not about avoiding risk…

“Take chances, lots of them, and focus on areas where volatility works for you.”

In an uncertain world, one of the best sources of optionality is non-recourse finance.

My first career (Private Equity) could be described as getting overpaid to hold a call option over other people’s work, using other people’s money, without recourse.

Negative action is powerful medicine, with low side effects.

It’s tempting to ask Taleb “what to do.” I did, twice, and he didn’t seem keen on advising positive action with regard to an unknowable future. That’s probably good, as I’m not equipped to implement, or even understand, his technical advice. However, his negative advice (on what to remove) generated huge wealth for me => my total cost was the price of buying Fooled by Randomness on Amazon ($10.17 in December 2005 – my Christmas 2005 reading list, you can skip the flat earth book, the rest were great).

There are many sources of optionality:

  • where I have limited competition
  • where I understand the domain as well as anyone
  • where the cost to enter is small

A few ideas:

Get married, have kids, then take excellent care of everyone (!) => dementia is in my family tree => doing well by my family is the “cost” of a call option for times of future stress => an option that has a constant payoff in companionship, personal growth and a semi-captive audience for teaching.

Technical education in a robust field => look back in time for Lindy professions => spend time and effort for continuous education

But be careful, the “honors” part of my college education (1st class honors Econ/Fin) proved to be technically useless. However, it helped get me a seat at the table in Private Equity. The overall degree taught me valuable skills with regard to financial accounting, programming, mathematical finance and calculus.

Knowing how to count, and being exposed to the way people seek to cheat you, these are useful life skills to prevent ruin. – quote mine

Other sources of optionality => tinker within your social network, attend conferences (and force your introverted self to speak to people), write (then publish), talk to believable people that disagree with you, donate time to people who might benefit from your technical skills (especially within your local community)…

Your body can be a call option on: future mates, future physical experiences, the ability to lift your carry-on overhead as you age…


So the “how do I stay wealthy” answer is about removing fragilities => cutting back a high cost of living, habits with large potential downsides, physical weakness…

The “how do we best grow wealth” answer is about exposure to opportunities that open up the possibility of growing True Wealth (connection, experience, engagement) => each generation can, and should be encouraged) to, contribute based on their current, unpredictable and changing definition of wealth.

Together the family creates its own definition of wealth.

Each generation re-defines wealth based on its collective values.

I would have learned more if I stayed for the entire week but it’s Halloween tomorrow and I got more than enough from the experience.

Growing Up

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Our oldest turned 11 this month.

We are past the fog of the early years and moving away from a moment-to-moment focus.

The way things have played out:

  • 0-6 years old => learn to get along with others
  • 6-12 years old => learn how to learn
  • 12 years old onwards => learn how to live independently

With a desire to prepare the kids for Phase Three, I ask myself, “How do my kids see me act?”

I find myself lacking at this transitional point.


My kids’ teen years will not be well served by listening to me complain. Complaining is endemic in my demographic, usually about the shortcomings of others.

Most my complaining is internal.

Likewise, they won’t be served well by watching me manage a team of staff to cater to their every whim. You see, my strong marriage (today) is a function of a decade of outside assistance around our home. Creeping ever-upwards, this outside help had a side-effect of my kids getting used to being waited on (and me doing less at home).

Beware of the double-whammy => complaining about the staffing required to take care of things you’re unwilling to do.

So I need to change, but what should I change?

My situation or my attitude?


Start by considering what you know is true. In my case…

We have stable finances, a loving family and good health

I’m thinking that this indicates that I need to adjust my attitude rather than my situation.

That block quote is a worth considering in your own life.

Are your problems your problem?

My problems aren’t my problem. I have great problems. I’ve done a good job of improving them.

But it is more than my attitude that needs adjusting.

An improved attitude will correct the faulty thinking inside me but it will not prepare my kids to live in the world.


My kids have _really_ short memories => they are completely dominated by the recent past.

With this in mind, I’ve been playing a new game => introducing my family to TINA (there is no alternative).

The game is cutting outside assistance (nannies, sitters, au pairs and cleaners) and consolidating our schedules. It’s a test if outside help really helps.

We are three-quarters of the way through a reduction of ~4,000 hours of annual assistance. TINA forces us to “work it out” and gives us an incentive to train the kids.

Now, being pointman on cleaning our toilets has not improved my life.

However, and this is an essential insight, my_life_is_no_worse after I have removed the outside assistance.

This lack of negative impact makes me wonder, “Did the decade-long upward creep of spending actually made my life better?”

In the heat of the preschool years, it most certainly did.

However, my kids aren’t the only ones growing up.

Hidden Debt – Hidden Risk

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This is the debt story of zip code 80301-80305.

As many won’t follow this post, I’ll give you a rule of thumb.

If you are under 50 years old then reduce your social security and defined-benefit pension assumptions by 35%.

…and plan on working an extra five years.

What follows is why.


Back in 2005, I came across covenant free loans => banks lending money without rules or restrictions. That observation, combined with reading Fooled By Randomness, started a process of de-risking my life.

Despite taking a whack to my family’s net worth in the last recession, life has worked out well.

It worked out because I had reserves to get me through the tough years.

Collectively, our reserves are being spent on our behalf.


This fall Colorado is asking voters to approve a modification to TABOR, our state’s “bill of rights” for taxpayers. The supporters have a strong pitch, if you vote in favor then the money goes to schools and roads => I love schools and roads!

At the last recession, I was burned because I increased spending to the top of the cycle. So I’m inclined to keep the state’s powder dry for other uses.

What other uses?


PERA => our public employees retirement fund => we’ve been told the fund was fixed last year. The fix assumed net returns of 7.25% per annum going forward. However…

if PERA’s actual returns are 6.75 percent, the debt grows by $5 billion.

Round numbers, every 1% shortfall in PERA net returns creates a need for an additional $10 billion. As I publish this article the 30-year treasury is trading at 2.24%. A net return of 5% over treasuries strikes me as unlikely.

How does that potential shortfall compare to State Tax & Excise Receipts?

Fiscal year 2019/20 Colorado revenue receipts are forecast to be $12.6 billion.

Now, you don’t need to fund a pension deficit immediately. It can be dealt with gradually with a mix of benefit cuts, increased employee contributions and increased government funding. That’s what all parties did with the 2018 fix.

It’s a safe bet that state taxes are going up and benefits are going down.


In the last recession, my unemployment resulted from the credit markets slamming shut and creating a liquidity crisis…

  • The bank went bust
  • The developer went bust
  • The general contractor (and many of its subs) went bust
  • The management company went bust
  • The equity went to zero (within 90 days)

All of the above, culminated with the CEO going bust.

Chains of debt are lethal in recessions.


Noticing the debt bomb sitting in Colorado PERA, I asked myself, “Where else have people borrowed on my behalf?”

  • School district borrowing => ~$800 million in my district => money very well spent to strengthen our future tax base
  • CU Boulder is my neighbor => ~$1.5 billion on their books => the university has a big impact on my local economy and real estate market
  • City of Boulder => ~$225 million => big ballot initiative coming as they want to borrow big, take technology risk and purchase utility assets on our behalf
  • County of Boulder => ~$200 million at the end of 2018
  • State Level => ~$10 billion at the middle of 2018 => over $50 billion if PERA used a rate of return similar to my own

Sitting above it all => $1 trillion Federal Deficit and $22.8 trillion of National Debt.

There could be some double counting and I might have missed another public entity that can issue bonds on my behalf. The precise numbers don’t matter.

This is what matters…

#1 – there is leverage through the entire taxpayer chain with no consolidated visibility or oversight. No consolidated financial statements for you, the taxpayer. The ratings agencies have the entire debt chain rated as very safe. Does this sound familiar?

#2 – every single government entity that touches me has a debt-financed cash flow deficit and off-balance sheet commitments. This sounds familiar as well.

Debt financed, cash flow negative entities blow up.


I remind myself:

  • As a society, we can’t increase taxes at every level simultaneously. This counters my thought, “it will work out, I’m lightly taxed right now.”
  • 600,000 members of PERA are at risk and probably taking comfort from 2018’s fix.
  • If you are planning on receiving a defined-benefit pension then cut your assumptions and plan on working (at least part time) until you are 70 years old.
  • People are going to be pissed when financial reality hits their benefits.

What to do?

Protect your family by saving, investing conservatively and reducing your “total tax bill” as a percentage of net assets => this limits the government’s ability to hurt you via tax increases. I’ve been doing this since 1990 and it works.

Let’s say that again because your financial advisor will not focus you on this number…

“Total family taxes” as a percentage of “total family net assets” is a number you should manage downwards across your career.

Knowing that the system is highly leveraged:

  • keep personal borrowings low
  • be careful with long term obligations (leases)
  • don’t issue personal guaranties
  • don’t capitalize luxury spending

Being able to take pain => how might these scenarios impact your family?

  • 6 months unemployment
  • retirement benefits being cut by a third
  • social security benefits being cut by a third
  • portfolio value cut by a third

I’ve lost jobs, written down portfolios (65% in 90 days, ouch!), put my employer into insolvency (on my 40th birthday) and muddled through multi-year cash crunches (2009-2012).

Bad things happen and life remains pretty good even when they are happening => my wife’s companionship and leadership got me through.

Be careful out there.

Helping Kids

lexi_11I’ve been playing a game where I greet “challenging” kids by name and try to chat with them.

I am leaning against an urge to avoid them.

I aim for a kind word because it is tough to go into an environment, daily, where you’re not fitting in.

An environment where you could be forgiven for thinking that you are being told that “you” are unacceptable (rather than your behavior).

Some of these kids have no safe haven.


I was asked,

If he was your kid then what would you do?

I’ve been thinking about it => Kindness and Mastery.

I would teach kindness by improving the way I interact with everyone around me => his lack of kindness is likely taught at home.

I would find a way for the kid to demonstrate mastery to someone.


Consistent Role Models => I’m in my kids’ lives and I am modeling the behavior I expect from them.

I’m showing my daughters the sort of husband I would like for them. I’m showing my son how I’d like him to act in the world.

The role model doesn’t need to be you.

In certain domains, it is better if I act through peers & coaches.


Where’s The Win? => for yourself, and your kid

  • Where is the “win” in your life?
  • What are you projecting on to your family?
  • What can your kid excel at?
  • If he’s disengaged then are you fully engaged?
  • Might he be mirroring your relationship?

If I see a challenging kid do something well (sport, kindness, reading) then I go out of my way to give them props.

Around my house, I am quick to point out when my kids do something better than me and I acknowledge my mistakes.


Sports => If you find yourself with an aggressive kid then give them a socially acceptable physical outlet.

Moguls, cliffs, chutes, mountains, camping, water polo, medley swimming, jujitsu, BMX, skateboarding…

…activity is superior to modeling anti-social behavior on electronics.

The activities my kids most enjoy don’t have a scoreboard and we don’t go near judged sports.


For lollapalooza effects, combine the above => demonstrating mastery to a male role model will reduce anti-social behavior in boys.

Our children will get the attention they crave one way, or another.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Building Wealth

SuperGirl

When people ask me about asset allocation, I guide them towards family wealth.


Over your life, you will see things blow up.

  • Jobs will be lost
  • Divorces will happen
  • Guarantees will be called
  • Companies will fail
  • Investments will go to zero

Certain habits make us more prone to blowing up:

Debt – fixed obligations can ruin you in bad times.

Lack of emotional control – this runs deeper than, say, anger management.

People who make a habit of rationalizing a lack of control in one domain (elite sport, closing a sale, acting in a client’s best interest) rarely have the capacity to control themselves across domains. If you might get caught, then you’re fragile.

Substance Abuse – it’s more than the cost of sorting yourself out – it is the lost opportunity of a life well lived and the impact on the rest of your family, especially your kids.

Spending vs Cash Flow – personal spending, burn rate and fixed costs => the more spending you have relative to cash flow, the more fragile your finances.

The above is a long way of asking, “What aspects of your life might blow up?

Which is a polite way of saying, “I’m not sure asset allocation is the most pressing issue in your life.

If you work in an ethically-challenged field, have a lot of borrowings, have a high burn rate or are surrounded by peers with issues…

…then tweaking portfolio construction is a lower priority item than immediately removing what might ruin your life.

I’ve done it. You can do it. It’s better on the other side.


How large is your current portfolio when compared to your lifetime portfolio? – AKA you might have more wealth available in your career than your portfolio.

Investing is different at 25, 40 and 55 years old.

The nature of “different” depends on your personal circumstances.

#1 => Consider your Core Capital. The single best thing I did out of college was save four years of personal living expenses, $100,000 in the mid-1990s. It sat in a bank account, while I worked my ass off at my career.

Having that money enabled me to choose better and choosing better became a habit.


Very, very, very (!) few people can be professional investors – AKA can I get rich by beating the market?

Take an honest look at the people that you know in finance. How many of them “got rich” from their own money? Remember these are the experts.

In finance, most people get rich due to the rules of their game and collecting pools of other people’s money (your money, by the way).

With your portfolio, keep it safe, simple and low-cost. A target-date fund makes a nice core holding.

Having my Core Capital enabled me to take more risks in my career path, and life experience => not with my Core Capital.


Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities happen once a decade – AKA great deals happen when credit markets are shut

Here are the assets I own and why I own them:

  1. Index funds => long-term, diversified, not linked to my home real estate market
  2. US Treasuries/Core Capital => 5 to 10 years family expenses
  3. Boulder real estate => A relative value play against California, a cost-effective way to raise a family and a fantastic outdoor life. Think very carefully before locking yourself into any location. As a young man, my lack of ties enabled me to jump at great opportunities.
  4. Cash => my early retirement was funded by three deals I did coming out of the last credit crisis. Once you have your Core Capital (say, five years living expenses) then building up a pool for “great opportunities” is a consideration.

Starting out? Read this PDF.

Be wary of home bias => you can see it in my portfolio => even more risky is having your balance sheet, retirement and job reliant on the success of your employer.


Switching Costs – AKA think carefully before you sell good assets

I have assets in my portfolio that I would not buy at today’s prices. Financial theory tells me I should sell these assets.

  • I have zero confidence in my ability to predict the future.
  • If I sell assets then I pay taxes and commissions.
  • After selling, I have to figure out where to put the capital.
  • I doubt any “new” plan will be better than my current plan, which is simple and low-cost.

Release yourself from constant optimization => good enough is good enough.

Put your efforts into being a better version of yourself.

 

Impossible Conversations

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Around the house, I’m fond of saying, “Good people can make bad decisions.” I say this because I’m aware of my past misdeeds and my continued capacity for misjudgment.

However, out in the real world, telling someone that you believe they made a bad decision can have unpredictable outcomes => especially with people who have not come to terms with their own role in a situation.

If you feel cornered, and have been asked for your opinion, then here is a useful fallback…

I will never know the facts. What I do know is I believe in forgiveness and want the best for you and your family.

You’ll preserve the relationship and can move on.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to associate, do business or live with someone.

Forgiveness means you free yourself from the burden of carrying around the past.


By the way, I’m reading a book called Impossible Conversations.

My #1 “unhelpful” conversation habit is parallel talk – both out loud and in my mind. I have a bunch of other habits that hold me back but I can’t tackle too much at once!

The book is worth your time.