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.

 

What To Do

2019-09-23 08.07.06-1Between summer day camp and the school year starting mid-August, I’ve had two months of a relatively quiet household.

I used this time to re-read Taleb and Munger. You can find my full notes here.

My initial purpose of re-reading was to figure out “what to do.”

It is far easier to be certain about what NOT to do.

Do you know what can ruin your family’s life?

I do.

  • Racing, especially high speed downhill => physical ruin leading to a downward mental spiral.
  • Alcohol use => historically, my average daily consumption is either: (a) zero; or (b) slowly trending upwards.
  • Anger => if I am going to screw up a key relationship then it will be when I act on anger.
  • Death by Accident or Avalanche

What is your list?


Assets and spending do not create a life with meaning.

My true job is keeping our cost of living down so we maintain the ability to control our schedules.

  1. Be wary of adopting the preferences of others. It’s easy to sign yourself up for millions of lifetime spending that won’t mean a thing to you late in life. Worse yet, you will pass these values to your kids and they blow whatever you leave behind.
  2. Pay attention when you notice “better” doesn’t make a difference. “Wasn’t worth it” happens to me a lot.
  3. Pay attention to the cost you pay in time and emotion => it costs me a lot of worry and stress to get more money. Way easier to spend less.
  4. Once you are beholden to a third-party, you’ve lost.
  5. A lot of times “worse isn’t worse.” We adapt very quickly to setbacks.

We discuss case studies at home. Housing, vacations, cars, the endless “needs” my kids and I dream up.


So while I’m removing things that can ruin me, and beating down my hedonistic tendencies… What to do?

Wait for the fat pitch.

A key benefit of a good position is being able to wait until the credit cycle swings in your favor.

The longer we have to wait, the better the opportunities. Cutting rates, running trillion-dollar deficits at the top of the economic cycle… there will be great deals eventually.

I’m not excited about any asset class right now.

  • The bond market is telling me that we’ve pulled 5-10 years of returns forward.
  • Net yields are under 1% for real estate that I’d like to buy.
  • The rest of my balance sheet feels like “enough” exposure.

I’ve decided to make no material new investments. We are going to periodically rebalance and I am going to reduce my cost of living.

What to do?

Enjoy nature with my family and pass my value system to my kids (by living the life I wish for them).

Years, Leverage, Time and Ruin

2019-09-10 07.55.51The benefit of creating a good position is you can choose not to leave it.

Each time I change strategy, I open the door for error.

2019-09-10 06.08.38A quick review, I calculate financial wealth as:

Net Family Assets [divided by] Annual Cost of Living

The formula spits out an answer in years, not dollars.

To figure out if an idea is “worth it,” I convert to years.

I also consider:

  • Leverage: do I have to borrow, what’s the total dollar value of my exposure, how large/far can things move against me?
  • Time: I have control of my schedule – might this idea change my ability to control my schedule?
  • Ruin: reputation, relationships, finances, health… how does this idea change my exposure to ruin?

I have a lot of (bad) ideas. Thankfully, most don’t get through my filters.

These filters work with EVERYTHING… alcohol & drug use, mistresses, felonies, off-balance sheet financing, sleeping late, losing emotional control, binges…

2019-09-07 06.15.45

How can I put “years” into family wealth without increasing my risk of ruin?

In 2009, we executed a four-year plan that put us in a better position.

A key part of that plan was downsizing, borrowing (30-years fixed at 3.25%) and pulling 65% of the equity out of our primary residence.

It was highly inconvenient to change and we expected the smaller place to be a step down. However, our minds adjusted and we love our existing place. The move paid off in “years”:

  • Our current place runs at half the cost of our old house.
  • The capital we withdrew, earns enough to cover the cost of our current place.

I looked at moving again but there wasn’t any benefit to us after taxes, commissions and hassle. So we’re going to wait and watch.

Remember, “doing nothing” maintains an option to (make a better) change later.

2019-09-05 19.33.32The Elephant(s) in The Room

Childcare and school fees have been a fixture of the last six years. It has been a big number – about double what we pay in housing costs.

Our youngest is in Grade One (yay!) and we just lost our favorite sitter (not so yay). The result is a big slice of the family budget gone.

My first thought was to replace help with even more help. I have a habit of throwing money and other people’s time at my problems. It’s a carryover from my days in finance – where I aimed for maximum subcontracting in my personal life.

Then I had a thought…

  • Consolidate the kids’ schedules (we often have three in three different places)
  • Help out in the afternoons (I’ve done nothing for a few years)
  • Take over the cleaning (ditto on my lack of input)

It’s ~20 hours out of my week => prior thoughts on money and time.

The other elephant in the room is my cash flow deficit. It’s been rolling at 4% of assets for years. I’ve ignored it because our assets have been appreciating at a faster rate. My comfort with deficit spending reminds me of 2004-2008.

So I could “buy” the family a shift from a cash flow deficit to a surplus. Worse case, I crack a bit and hire local kids to help me out. I’ll still cut my cash burn by ~80%.

When I explained my plan to my wife she asked if my plan would make me happy. I said,

“I don’t expect to be happier but I noticed that being a better man never made things worse.”

When Assets Become Liabilites

noodlesThis Q&A with Warren Buffett is packed with gems like the following:

Money has no utility to me anymore as I am very happy with what I have but it has enormous utility to others in the world. More possessions to me would actually be a liability than an asset.

I don’t know Mr. Buffett but I am friends with a well-adjusted member of his demographic.

Last spring, I asked my wealthy friend if I could store a bike in the garage of his 22,000 sq ft house and he shared…

You know, I already have way too much stuff in there. So best if you keep it at your place.

For what it’s worth, my pal’s garage is less full that my own!

What’s going on here?

Another story… last year, I was helping a friend put together a financing for his business. The money was raised and I was invited to a lunch with the key investor. The investor is about twenty year older than me. He’s a fascinating guy with a son that’s in private equity. We had a lot in common, including enjoying health and wellness.

Over the course of the lunch, I learned he had a house locally, a cabin in the mountains, an ocean-going yacht and a winter home in the Southern Hemisphere. In 2005, I was trying to create his life situation for myself!

So what’s it like?

He said with a laugh…

We travel the world repairing things.

 

Wealth Habits – Aspirational Spending

bunny_gGrowing up the following fell somewhere between normal and aspirational:

  • Private education from Pre-K through Graduate School
  • Winter ski vacations
  • Summers spent at a waterfront cottage
  • International trips to tropical and European destinations
  • Two family cars, bought new, every five years
  • A walk-in closet filled with wonderful clothes and shoes
  • A garage packed with the finest sports equipment

Depending on where you live, you are signing up for $3,000,000 to $20,000,000 of aspirational spending.

…and you haven’t bought a bag of groceries!

Is there another way?

Save half of your after-tax income until you have ten years living expenses banked.

Then cut your living expenses and work part-time, so you can…

  • Spend thousands of hours with each of your kids before they graduate high school
  • Live where you don’t need to leave
  • Encourage your family to actively participate inside your community, and outside your demographic
  • Cultivate inexpensive passions (mine are reading, writing, forest walking and cycling)
  • Share simple, local experiences with your spouse (love, holding hands, serenity)

Time & health.

True wealth.

True luxury.