The Best Policy

|The most important takeaway from today’s musings is the importance of having a personal Investment Policy to help guide your asset acquisition activities.|

About twenty-five years ago I wrote my first Investment Policy. The intention was to create a document that could help guide financial decision making knowing that my circumstances and goals would change over time. A recent review of that policy (which for a long time I referred to annually; not so much in the last few years) was rewarding and I share a couple of observations here. There were four parts to the original version that have been gently modified over the years. For our purposes today, only the first and second are discussed.

Part one of this investment policy consisted of three sentences intended to be touchstones under any circumstance and have never been changed. It still frustrates me I didn’t grasp the value of these ideas a decade earlier:

  • Spend less than we earn
  • Eliminate and eschew debt
  • Continually increase the value of our assets

Easy to explain the immense worth of these three. First, for most people what they save will be a lot more than what they make with investment speculations. Second, most financial traumas find their origin in debt. Finally, what ultimately matters is having assets that can be monetized when you most need them.

Part two was specifically intended for use when evaluating the merits of specific investments like stocks, mutual funds, and bonds. Later these concepts guided me in acquiring what has become the largest component of my portfolio, real estate (mostly physical but also by proxy in equity markets):

  • Being reasonable
  • The long-term
  • Diversification
  • A global perspective
  • Reversion to the mean

At some point, “Reversion to the mean” was replaced by “Black Swan events” something currently undergoing re-evaluation.

Over decades the equity markets go up more than they go down.

investment-policy-tech-dailyThe actual ratio is up about 60% versus down about 40% of the time. However, this does not hold true for individual stocks. After 50 years, less than 90 of the original members of the S&P 500 are still viable businesses. Over shorter periods of time, the valuation of any given business can vary wildly making it difficult to determine the mean price of any given stock. My frustration when trying to gauge when a stock has gone up too fast (growth) or dropped too low (value) led me to discount the merits of the “Reversion” metric. My heavy involvement in buying and selling rental properties in the half-dozen years before the sub-prime debacle also left me questioning this notion.

Side-stepping the mortgage fiasco of 2008-2009 by pure luck I was able to look (somewhat) objectively at what happened. A personal need to shut down a long-running partnership led to selling an inventory of a dozen rental properties at top prices in 2007 (all but one going sight unseen to buyers in California). This led me to understand very precisely what Nassim Taleb describes as a “Black Swan event.” While continuing to purchase income-producing real estate, I have not and will not re-enter the single-family home rental market.

The conundrum of “Reversion to the mean” versus “Black Swan events”.

So, the conundrum of “Reversion to the mean” versus “Black Swan events” has my mind moving back toward finding more relevance in “the mean” than Black Swans. Mostly due to some challenging reading over the last few years about theoretical mathematics my understanding of how to gauge the mean of a range of numbers has become more nuanced. A Black Swan is by definition unknowable and is best managed by a focus on “Diversification.” In other words, make sure you have a range of relatively uncorrelated assets to prevent a permanent impairment of capital if one of those asset groups becomes unexpectedly worthless. And don’t owe more money than you can repay in a cash crunch.

As for “Reversion to the mean,” it also needs to be understood in terms of “Diversification.” There are many metrics available to assess the value of equity and other investments. Looking just at the stock price (or selling price for real estate) is a risky business. Amply demonstrated by the technology big boys – Apple, Microsoft, Google – price-to-earnings may be a less valuable measure than price-to-sales. Maybe a change in debt level is a better context in which to think about a potential acquisition? When considering if something is worth adding to your asset collection, the exercise of analyzing a mean valuation is worth the effort. 

The most important takeaway.

Yet the most important takeaway from today’s musings is the importance of having a personal Investment Policy to help guide your asset acquisition activities. Without some guiding principles, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the madness of crowds or entangled in the webs of greed. Or, as described once as the lesson Warren Buffett offers us, “The pursuit of unchanging goals through ever-changing means.” Think about it.


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