Investing Philosophy

I’ve been meaning to update the my portfolio post which is linked under the “portfolio” navigation tab, but I’m in the process of deploying cash as part of the on-going correction. So I figure I’ll write a separate post about my investing philosophy.

Below is a list of the basic tenets that I try to follow:

  • Long biased
  • Globally diversified
  • Minimize taxes and expenses
  • Diversify sources of return
  • Strategy diversification
  • Market timing according to cycles of years of duration or longer
  • Use options to generate income and smooth the ride

The first three bullet points are in the “main stream”. As a rule, I don’t have a regular “cash” allocation in either passive or active strategies. Instead, there is a separate emergency fund component in the total portfolio. I’m also far more comfortable being long than short. In the passive accounts at least, I maintain a 50/50 US/international split in equities, although the composition such as large/small US equity or international developed/EM can be fluid. To the third point, I maximize tax deferred contributions every year, including back-door Roth. All assets in the passive accounts are tax-advantaged with the exception of physical PM bullions. In the active accounts, the taxable fixed income CEFs are in tax advantaged as are about half of PM miners and bullion funds. Expenses are minimized by using best-of-breed funds for each asset and doing everything myself. In passive accounts, that means Vanguard index funds/ETFs or equivalent. For individual stocks, I use InteractiveBrokers where the commission is usually under 1 basis point, and partially covered by the interest from security-lending. My expense ratio for holding stocks is at least one order of magnitude less than that of the lowest cost index funds.

The fourth point “diversify sources of return” motivates me to look beyond the traditional stocks and bonds. It’s the reason I have a significant allocation to leveraged fixed-income CEFs (target 24% of active). Taxable multi-sector CEFs have equity like returns and volatilities but are no more than 40% correlated to equities (e.g. VTI, correlation is period dependent, cf. Leveraged muni CEFs provide tax-free income and even lower correlation to equities (same comment as before). In contrast, sub-sectors within equities are correlated to whole at 90% or above. In the context of mean variance optimization, assets with reasonable returns AND low correlations are extremely valuable in portfolio construction. This is contrary to the Bill Bernstein view that one should take risks in equities and fixed income is for safety — a view that unsurprisingly leads to equity dominated portfolios and equity dominated risk profiles. Note that when the fixed income allocation is viewed across my entire portfolio, the risk profile is a “bar-bell”: stable value funds in passive and leveraged CEFs in active. Diversification is also a reason behind my overall 15% allocation to PMs which I discussed here. The blog post by Charlie Biello is highly recommended — I think of it every time I read a straw man attack on gold along the lines of: gold is thought of useful as an inflation-hedge, data shows it is not; therefore gold is useless. Another often-heard objection is based on the inclusion of gold’s return data just 1975 when gold ownership was again legal despite data from PortfolioCharts shows gold’s ability to lower volatility from multiple starting and ending dates. From a portfolio construction perspective, the only requirement for the inclusion of gold is the low correlation to other assets. I haven’t seen any evidence or prediction that this correlation is going to change in the future.

The fifth point “strategy diversification” speaks to my adoption of both passive and active approaches. The passive/active debate is all the rage in financial media today. Passive is clearly winning and the shift is far from over. Lower fees is undoubtedly beneficial to the investing public. However in so far as the democratization of investing makes it easier to invest and funnels more capital to assets, their valuation must rise thus suppressing future returns. A recent post from the always-insightful PhilosophicalEconomics discussed from a similar perspective. As passive grows in dominance, another danger is the synchronization of investor’s emotional response to market declines. This is a major reason I employ both passive and active strategies so as to be able to hedge from within the active accounts when the time comes. I also try to avoid the most obvious pit falls in active, i.e. high fees, lack of diversification, to at least give myself a shot at beating my benchmark.

The sixth point “market timing” is perhaps the most controversial. My reasons were laid out this post. The primary objective is to avoid large draw downs in preparation for early retirement within 10-12 years. If my portfolio should suffer a 30% draw down, there would be a significant impact on the quality of retirement or alternatively the retirement date. I haven’t been able to find a static asset allocation that provides adequate protection while simultaneously provide a high return – that pretty much captures the main dilemma facing all investors. A more diverse allocation can reduce the size of the hedges necessary but no static allocation can ever be truly “all weather”. I believe the solution is market timing but only at the right intervals. The tools I rely on are a specific equity pricing model and technical analysis. A second objective of market timing is to enhance returns. I have been say since last November that we’re entering a blow-off phase in the stock market; the view reinforces my long bias and allows me to increase my equity exposure from a baseline of <50% overall. My current projection for the market top is S&P 3000+ sometime around Q4’18 to Q1’19. I also see PMs in a bull market which gives me license to go above a baseline allocation of 10% gold bullion to include silver and mining equities that are leveraged to gold. My current view is that PMs will top after equities, probably later in 2019. Gold should be over $3500 and has a good shot at $5000/oz.

Lastly I use options to enhance returns. More opportunities are provided by directly owning individual stocks than an index as the parts will move more than the whole. I’m a premium seller since it’s known that realized volatilities are lower than implied volatilities. I predominantly sell margin/cash secured OTM puts on stocks I’d like to own while use technical analysis for entry points. From time to time, I also use options for leveraged longs as discussed here.

So there you go, these are the seven tenets that guide my investing decisions. People attach an almost religious fervor to their chosen investment approach, so I’m not out to convert anyone. It is a human condition that no amount of back testing or modeling can predict the actual returns which will only be known at the end of our investing lives by which time it’s too late to change. I have made peace with my path and will accept anything that comes my way.