diversification

I’m 100% Stocks and Happy with my Diversification

Are you worried about an impending recession?

I know! The financial press has been a froth of excitement over the inverted yield curve and Fin-Twit has been awash with doom and gloom traffic.

So I’m not here to tell you it’ll be alright.

Nope.

There will be a recession. It’s a’coming. It’s the nature of markets to go in cycles and according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis there have been 12 recessions since (and including) the Great Depression.

 

You’re probably thinking of hunkering down. Am I right?

Hunker Down

But what type of hunkering do you need?

Well that depends on where you are in your financial and life journey.

If you’re in the accumulation phase when you are trying to grow your net worth, then a recession is not necessarily all bad. You’re still investing money in the market and lower prices and lower valuations can provide longer term real returns. The key during this phase is not to lose your employment during a downturn. If you can hang onto your job and keep plowing money into the markets then you’ll probably do fine.

If you’re in the final approach to retirement then you’re concerned about a large loss in your assets before you retire. In this case it seems like an ideal position to take some risk off the table. This might involve moving some of your assets from stocks to bonds. The key is to ask yourself whether  a 30-40% loss on your equities in the next few years would make you queasy and impact your retirement plans.

 

If you are in the retirement phase then a poor sequence of returns with a large asset loss early in your drawdown phase can impact your future retirement. However there is a delicate juggling act here. Historically portfolios have required a high equity exposure to sustain a reasonable withdrawal rate of 3-5%. So reducing your equity exposure too much for too long may impact long term sustainability of your withdrawal, but having too high an equity allocation exposes you to sequence of returns risk. I’ve done a lot of work here: Introduction to Sequence of Returns and Buying a Boat in RetirementReprise! Sequence of Returns Risk

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My Wealth

So what am I doing?

At this point I’m aggressively invested in stocks. I’m some years from a planned retirement and believe this will provide me with the necessary growth engine to get over the finish line. We can argue about the future level of the equity risk premium but I don’t want to bet against the equity market; historically it’s been amazingly robust.

I’m not all in stocks, I have some real estate and bonds, but in my liquid assets it’s mostly stocks.

 

So you can see that I’m concerned that there’s a potential rocky road ahead and wondering whether to take some mitigating action. 

Analysis

My wealth is really composed of four key elements:

  • My liquid and illiquid investments,
  • My home equity,
  • My employer pensions, and
  • My future earnings.

I have money tied up in my house. At some point we will sell and realize that equity, some of which we might use to buy a smaller place. However, I count it as part of my wealth.

As a couple we are lucky enough to have a few company pension promises in the form of a traditional pension plan. These are monthly pensions, rather than a “pot” of money like a 401k. I’ve put a value on these, and you can do too with the only actuary-sanctioned method in the blogosphere Valuing a pension – actuary style

The last item is perhaps the most contentious.

All the previous three items are wealth that I’ve accrued to-date. It’s money that I’ve earned, and that money is tied up either in investments, primary residence or company deferred compensation in the form of a pension.

 

However, the fourth item is future earnings. This is money I have yet to earn.

Future Earnings

I don’t think of my wealth as my assets at a point in time, I think of what I am worth. Part of that calculus must consider the investment I’ve made in myself in terms of my education, training and development as a professional. That has given me a certain earning potential.

Those future earnings are by no means certain and it would be wrong to build future certainty into a value today.

However it’s an actuary’s job to put a value on future uncertain events and so I’m going to put a price on my future earnings.

Suppose I expect to work another 5 years. It would certainly be wrong to add in five years’ of earnings to my calculation. A lot can happen.

My employer could go bust.

In a future recession I could lose my job.

My bonuses might be limited by a future recession.

All these can be built into a calculation though. I will take five years of future earnings but I’ll discount them. This means that I will reduce the value of earnings the further out they are. I’ll use the following assumptions:

  • Assume my 50% savings rate continues and future tax rates are unchanged,
  • Give my future compensation a haircut to be conservative.,
  • Discount the future payments by an amount that reflects the probability of default by my employer.
  • Add additional discounting to reflect the fact that I’m a highly compensated employee and a likely target if we have a recession and my employer is looking for cost-cutting measures.

     

What's the Right Discount Rate?

Let’s look at those last two items in more detail.

My employer is rated BBB by the bond rating agencies. This is the lowest level of investment grade credit and BBB rates are currently at lows of 3.3%. This rate reflects the risk that borrowers incur in lending to my employer and is a good starting point for a discount rate. I’m now going to add 2% to that to be super-conservative and reflect my last bullet point above. That gets us to a 5.3% discount rate.

 

I’ll take the next five years of expected earning adjusted for the measures above and then discounted at 5.3% a year. 

Results

When I look at the four key elements of my wealth I arrive at the following allocation. 

diversification

You can see that my wealth is pretty diversified over these four groups.

Roughly we have one part future earnings, pensions and house equity, and two parts assets.

This puts my equity-heavy weighting in context. Yes, it’s a high weighting to equities, but it’s only 42% of my overall wealth.

 

But is my wealth diversified?

diversification

Diversification?

First let’s look at house equity.

House prices undeniably suffer in a recession, and so I wouldn’t expect my house to provide much of a cushion in a downturn. However, I was hoping that the desirable area I live in might be more cushioned than most.

I wasn’t able to get a good house price history for my zip code but I was able to compare real house prices in the Boston area with the USA as a whole. I was also keen to use prices adjusted for inflation (‘real prices’), which is shown below.

I was interested in the potential downside exposure and not the actual dollar amounts so I re-based everything to “100”.

In the chart below you can see that in the late 80’s Boston house prices fell relatively more than the US (bad), but in the financial crisis they fell by less (good). 

house prices

So the conclusion is a little unsatisfactory. I don’t think I can rely on my house to provide a good diversification through any recession, so I need to think of it as more like stocks allocation.

 

What about the other two elements – pensions and future earnings?

Pension and Future Earnings

These are basically bonds.

In the case of a pension I loaned my employer my time and expertise and they will then pay me a monthly “coupon” in the form of a pension check. It’s like a bond. It’s secured by the assets in the plan along with the safety measures put in place by the Government. It may not be as safe as a Treasury bond, but it’s pretty damn safe, and so I have no concerns during a recession.

My future earnings is also like a bond. Whereas a pension is deferred earnings, this is immediate earnings. Again I’m paid a monthly “coupon” in exchange for my sweat. (Figurative, not literal sweat. That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, an actuary sitting in a sweaty pool staring at a spreadsheet – right?).

My future earnings is a much more risky bond since there is a possibility of my employer blowing up, or me getting fired. So in the above calculation I reflected that risk by putting a high discount rate on the future payments.

 

But it’s still like a bond. 

Conclusion

What does this all mean?

My investments (mostly stocks) and house equity comprise around 60% of my portfolio, and my “bond” assets (pension and earnings) comprise around 40%.

That’s a classic “60/40” portfolio of stocks and bonds.

It’s a nicely balanced portfolio in aggregate. Not too “growthy” and not too conservative. I’m pretty happy with that balance going into a future recession and so I don’t see the need to re-balance away from stocks in my liquid investments.

 

What about you? Have you ever thought about counting future earning in your wealth? Do you look at the whole wealth picture like me, or do you think this is actuarial withcraft and prefer a pure look at your investments?

Author Bio: I started actuary on FIRE as I did not see any actuaries taking a prominent role in the personal finance area and wanted to remedy a shortage of actuary jokes and write for those that appreciate rigor with fancy charts. In my regular day job I advise corporate US on investment and retirement strategies. I’m a qualified actuary, investment adviser and have a PhD in mathematics and reserve the right to have the occasional math post. 

18 thoughts on “I’m 100% Stocks and Happy with my Diversification”

  1. Huh, so your house is like a stock? Isn’t the real issue risk AND reward? There is less risk and less reward to a house, so I think it is like a bond. And with liquidity and market issues… like a non-publicly traded one at that.

    And your human capital is more like a stock in the risk/reward spectrum. Provides amazing return (if you value money more than your time!) but it could ‘CRASH’ at any time. Come one now, none of us are irreplaceable.

    1. I don’t think primary residence is like a bond. It shares none of the same characteristics – regular income, certain nominal return.
      However it shares many stock- like characteristics – equity very sensitive to market downturns in recession, potential for large losses and large gains.

      I also think my earnings are more like a bond, albeit a bond valued on the “junk” end of the spectrum. I started with a BBB yield and added 200bps. That brings us well I into junk/high-yield territory so I’m discounting my future earning by a huge amount in acknowledgment that I am not irreplaceable (and actually attractively replaceable).
      However we are sort of both right. As you move down the credit spectrum from invedtment grade (BBB) to high-yield the bonds become more equity- like in nature. So we don’t disagree too much on that last point!

      Thanks for visiting!

      1. I totally agree with you actuary on FIRE. A property whether held for investment purposes or owner occupied has a very similar investment profile as shares. As an adviser of many years I was often intrigued as to when I asked clients what they thought the risk was out of 10 was for a property investment they always said 3. When asked about shares they always replied 10! As share markets have cycles so too do property markets.

  2. Really interesting post. I’ve been wondering about my own AA given that I’m a tenured university professor. If I follow your calculations above, my future earnings are a big proportion of my overall net worth, suggesting that I should be heavily equities (even though I have no traditional pension). But some suggest that 100/0 rarely performs better than 90/10? In my own case, I’m more willing to tilt toward EM, etc.

    1. Agree with 90/10 or even 80/20 preferable to 100/0. My actual asset allocation is probably nearer 90/10 but “100%” stocks as a title is so much more compelling.

      Given you are in a pretty secure job with tenure I would discount your future income with a much higher quality yield than I used. Perhaps even a treasury yield or AAA or AA long yield. Also I wouldn’t add on the additional cushion of 200bps that I used to reflect my future earnings uncertainty.

  3. Great point including future earning potential in the calculations.

    I do a similar calculation on my FIRE revenue streams, where the asset value of the paid-off home is substituted with imputed rent.

    Also onboard with 100% stocks, sans 12-18 mo of cash earning more than any govt debt instrument courtesy of a high-yield savings acct. Why have the cash? The data in Part 25 of ERNs safe withdrawal series suggests it’s an inexpensive yet effective hedge against a substantial downturn in order to keep the SWR high (4%). The idea being: the cash bucket is tapped when market drops 20% as opposed to selling shares and is NOT replenished after/as its depleted. In other words, it’s a single-use strategy.

    1. Didn’t know that cash a single use strategy. With the flat/inverted yield curve I’m having to get used to cash not being the devil!

  4. I had entered my 5 year pre-retirement window and finally decided to start as-risking my portfolio.

    I was 75% equities and dropped it down to 60%. I figure this is a good way to lower the downside in exchange for some loss in the upside which I am ok with.

    I have a small pension as well from a former job that will provide around 12/yr when I qualify for withdrawal.

  5. I’m stil 90 / 10 in the stock / bond department, but I also have some investment real estate, crowdfunded real estate, and a small home and cabin. I don’t typically factor in either the value of my online business or the future earnings it may bring, but both are tangible assets.

    I liked the way you framed this for us, actuary on FIRE!

    Cheers!
    -PoF

  6. “If you can hang onto your job and keep plowing money into the markets then you’ll probably do fine.”

    Pretty much sums it up, but them what if you can’t hang onto your job and are forced to RE, really early and your house isn’t paid off, and you’re at only 50% of presumed independence, and the job loss erases your pension. And the 25% of your stock you held in “the company” evaporates because the company evaporated, you’ll probably do lousy.

    “My wealth is really composed of four key elements:

    My liquid and illiquid investments,
    My home equity,
    My employer pensions, and
    My future earnings”

    Every one of these is about owning risk and every one is levered. You can consider each risk separately and discount it, but is the net discount simply additive and uncorrelated or are they correlated? Are they correlated dependently as in if the company evaporates #3 and #4 evaporate so you get a 50% hit not a 25% hit, or because they are part of the same portfolio and therefore open to the same SORR (because if #4 goes independently there goes the shooting match?) I read about how some well positioned “white collars” types, with pensions and IRA’s and houses and nice lives wound up living in their cars working AMZN fulfillment centers in 2008 and for years thereafter. Nothing like losing your job, your pension, your house, and half your stocks like a series of dominoes, to wake you up.

    I like you showed the concept of discounting, I just wanted to point out there may be another deeper side of the risk management. Good article!

    1. You make a very fair point that I did not adequately model the inter- correlations of these elements. Especially losing my job.

      I felt I captured this to an extent by taking a haircut on my assumed salary and also adding 200bps to the discount rate.

      But there is a tail event that is not captured by this simplistic calculation. However, with my risk tolerance I’m not going to live in the tails. That’s a conscious decision I’ve made.

  7. Any time PoF features an post of yours on the Sunday best it is a hit! Either he is good at picking out good posts or everything you write is gold. I am going to poke around your site some and find out.

    As a young investor I feel that this is important for us to know especially in a downturn. It will be much easier to stay the course when stocks come crashing knowing that I have 20-30 years of future earnings coming my way.
    Keep up the good work!

  8. I’m no actuary but I would have thought you should discount your earnings far more than the company bond rate. You are just an employee who is part of a team which is then underneath a large company structure and bonds.

    You are in a much more fragile situation than the company. You can get sick, have a family issue, get outsourced, have an ethical issue, fail out with your boss, accidentally break a policy, be automated etc. etc.

    If I was to model myself I would be putting a 20 to 50% discount rate.

    1. That’s why I added an extra 200bps to the discount rate and gave my future comp a haircut. I could have given more details to make this a bit clearer. I think after all the above I probably ended up discounting at around 25%. 50% sounds pretty high though – that’s a bit like saying you have a 50/50 chance of being fired each year. Feels high – unless there’s something you know that I don’t!
      Thanks for adding to debate – visit again Bludger.

  9. Are you familiar with the book: Are You a Stock or a Bond, by Milevsky and/or the 2007 paper: Lifetime Financial Advice: Human Capital, Assett Allocation, and Insurance, by Ibbotson, et al

    1. I had not heard of that so thanks! I did know that Zvi Bodie has written some stuff on human capital and I’m a big fan of his.

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