Crypto

The capacity to see beauty

I was going to take a break from posting but this topic gives me an opening to share something useful with you.

So here goes.


Sunrises

First, I know next to nothing about crypto.

Fortunately, my life has been set up to take into account that I am clueless about many things!

I think we can start by agreeing that crypto is volatile.

So I’d suggest you start by thinking deeply about how you, your significant other, your family and your coworkers tolerate volatility.

I don’t need to think deeply. My family abhors volatility. They get nervous about stuff we don’t own.

Personally, I tolerate volatility but tend to sell early. By way of example, I am absolutely certain that I would have sold Amazon 20+ years ago. Grateful I didn’t short it.

So, regardless of the fundamentals, I’m not a good fit for the asset.


About those fundamentals, I can’t see them.

I could learn about crypto but, while learning about an asset class that isn’t a good fit, I am not working on something else.

Let’s repeat that… while thinking about one thing, I am not thinking about another thing.

The opportunity cost of mis-directed thought.


Say I get there – I’m comfortable with the asset class, and I’ve gotten myself and my investment committee past the volatility issue.

Will it make a difference?

Buying, not buying, selling, not selling. Being right will not make a difference in my life.

The opportunity cost of incorrect focus. Big one.


Shades of green

If asset classes don’t make a difference then what does?

I was thinking about this on my run this morning. So let’s start with that… dropping fat, maintaining a stable weight, daily movement in nature, improved strength… big difference!

Since shifting my primary focus away from money, my body has had the opportunity to do a lot of cool stuff.

Trying to get more, of what I don’t need, can prevent me from getting something useful.


A flower

Leaving => I wrote about considering if an asset is a good fit for an owner. What about life?

Leaving makes a difference.. every single time I realize I have different values than my peers, I exit => patiently, quietly, doing a good job on the way out.

I need to watch this tendency. Making a habit of leaving is not going to take me where I’d like to go. Stay where I belong.


Building => Don’t look for easy money, build something.

I helped a friend build a business. Unfortunately, he lied to me and stole money from the investors. Interestingly, when the dust settled, that didn’t make a huge difference. If someone isn’t trustworthy then it’s better to know, as soon as possible. In the end, I learned a lot and walked away with 25-years living expenses.

Learning, while building capital => made a difference, up to a point of rapidly diminishing returns.


A reminder of my first kiss with my wife

As you age, I recommend you transition your focus from money to relationships. Because…

Family => marrying well, raising my children to be exceptionally kind and athletic… makes a huge difference, much more than spending the last ten years building wealth would have done.

Having the courage to change, so my kids’ values are a better fit with my own.


My smiling, lovable savages. You have my eyes…

We tend to over-value what we see.

We see crypto rocketing and we think it must be a good idea. It might be. Like I said, I know nothing about it.

But what we don’t see is often more important.

Thinking about that on my run… the decision “to not” has helped in ways I will never see.

Errors not made.

Not smoking, not using scheduled drugs, not taking sleeping pills, not giving into anger, not quitting…

1/. Will this make a difference?

2/. Will “not this” make a difference?

A useful filter on where to focus, and what to avoid.

Ski Math

The tiny dot in the middle of the frame is my son hiking up from a yard sale, in a gale, at the top of Pali Chair. FIVE minutes later he said, “Dad, I’m glad you’re as good a skier as me.” I’d kept my skis during the traverse! They have such short memories.

Our family ski experience is like my Pandemic Predictions => I got a lot wrong.

When I was shelling out for childcare/preschool, skiing struck me as a very expensive way to do a lot of driving, without much cardio.

Not interested.

A friend, with four kids (and a jet), made the observation… “you gotta be able to do something as a family.” Given his role, as the smartest guy I know, we decided to give it a try.


My wife didn’t believe me when I said, in advance, “We’re making a million dollar decision here.”

Frankly, I took it easy on her. The math is daunting…

But wait, there’s more.

Add-in the inflationary effect of surrounding yourself with the largest spenders in our society.

And… have a look around the parking area, with the smell of legal weed wafting across the empty beer cans… Is this an environment where I’d like to leave my teenaged kid unsupervised?

Still… “you gotta be able to do something as a family”.



$175,000 worth of opportunity cost later, I can ski any run, with any member of my family. This makes me happy during a time of year I used to dread.

Total immersion (5 million vertical feet, in three seasons) let me achieve my goal quickly… Something outside, at a high level, with any member of my family.

Unexpectedly worth it… but only after I figured out our family’s cash burn.


I cope with the “demographic” by focusing my energy on seeking to ski like an instructor, with the fitness of a ski patroller. These goals provide structure for my athletic year.

Like much of my outdoor life, my participation is conditional and always one major crash away from ending.

Stay variable.

Vacation Property 2021


One of the topics from our recent Couples Retreat was vacation property. I needed some time to show-my-work for why I’ve decided to stay variable.

The question, in the context of both buying and not-buying, was…

Will it make a difference?


The question gives me an opening to share some things I’ve learned from 25 years of real estate investing.

1/. I have yet to regret not-buying a vacation property. When vacation markets appreciate, so do investment markets.

2/. The ones-that-got-away have three main attributes: well located, easy to find tenants and decent cash yield. Vacation properties usually only have one attribute… well located.


I’ll share insights about capital allocation:

=> No one in the company is likely to care more about capital allocation than the boss – the CEO sets a cap on how much people will care about capital, and everything else for that matter.

Extend into your marriage, and family….

=> No one will care more about spending and capital allocation than the individual responsible for earning the income/capital in the first place.

Similar to work ethic… the actions of leadership set a ceiling on what to expect. No amount of legal documentation, and pontificating, can overcome this reality.

Don’t waste energy fretting about the way things are.

Be grateful when you’ve been able to create a team that, largely, follows your lead.


Now the math!

I’ve updated my #s for the two markets I follow most closely.

  • A vacation market with an effective yield of -3% (cost to own). I avoid fooling myself that I’ll be able to short-term rental myself to breakeven.
  • An investment market that is generating net cash flow of 2% per annum.

To “get my money back” in the vacation market, the value of the asset needs to grow by 2.5% per annum.

Money back does not mean purchasing power back. The “same” dollars in 15 years time will buy less due to inflation – just look backwards to 2005 in your home real estate market and see what your current place was worth.


We have no idea about what the future holds and 2.5% market growth is probably looking tiny when compared to what you’ve seen over the last year (+30% in my zip code).

You could be right.

I do, however, know markets that are just getting back to their 2008 peaks. In a negative cash flow scenario, that’s a painfully long time to hold.


My goal isn’t to predict an unknowable future. My goal is to answer the question “will it make a difference?”

In the get-your-money-back scenario (2.5% market growth):

  • Take time to calculate your true cost to hold.
  • Make sure you’re OK with permanently increasing your burn-rate, especially if there’s debt service.
  • Know your alternative use of funds => the investment property returns $1.75 for each $1 invested & Vanguard’s VTSAX is currently yielding 1.4%.
  • The vacation property requires an extra $0.45 for each $1 invested. This is before you decide to renovate and burn $$$s on rugs, curtains and furniture!

For that vacation property, here’s what I do…

  • Take the purchase cost
  • Make sure I’m OK with annually spending 5% of purchase cost, forever
  • Consider if I am OK with writing-off the equivalent of 50% for customization, the cost of ownership and agent’s fees

Then remember:

  1. My personal utilization of past destinations has been 15-45 days per annum.
  2. The future risk to my family is we are priced out of our home market (not that my spouse and kids might have to unpack/pack up from a rental).
  3. I tend to change my mind.

Feelings!

One of the challenges with new deals is my feelings are dominated by the expectation of the asset making things better.

I also enjoy the feelings associated with being able to provide for my spouse and kids.

Making things better & doing right for my family => it’s difficult to feel the benefit of doing nothing.

Once I have a good-enough position, the only person who can screw it up is me.

Property 2021

My favorite real estate can’t be bought – Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area

Our local property market has popped 30% since the start of the pandemic.

I did not see that coming.

Here’s a key insight => my lack of foresight had no impact on my family => our success does not rely on directional bets.

We establish a good enough portfolio then focus on: (a) keeping our cost of living in line with our cash flow, (b) shared experiences and (c) staying the course.


A recent John Mauldin note reminded me of two components of real estate.

Shelter – a place to sleep, ideally in a great public school district (links to my post on supporting public education)

Investment – the potential for reliable cash flow and long term capital gain

To those I would add:

Signaling – an example from my own life. Before my wife was “my wife,” I bought a townhouse in Boulder. It showed her, I was committed to Boulder. It showed her family, I had the funds to take care of their sister/daughter.

Asthetics – worth between “a lot” and “nothing” depending on my stage of life. As I age, increasingly appreciated. I was 50 before I could relate to the concept of a $1,000,000 view.

Community – In my early 30s, I found myself in Christchurch, NZ. The community was an excellent fit for the life I wanted to live (sharing outdoor activities with friends, elite triathlon). The South Island of New Zealand has always felt “right” to me. On the other side of the equator, was Boulder, Colorado. There I found love and decided to establish my family.

I didn’t need to own real estate for love, community or family. some qualities work best when inverted.

Location inverted => The principle here might be don’t invest anywhere your spouse won’t live.

Asthetics inverted => Absent financial duress, locations you can buy cheap tend to stay cheap.

You can extend to secondary markets.

My family loves Vail.

Rather than buying a 40 yo condo for close to a decade’s worth of core living expenses… we allocated 2% of the capital and joined a world-class ski club.

My annual family ski budget, including club and rental housing, is about the same as what the old condo would cost to own. The principle => don’t capitalize luxury expenditure.

I made this decision because I’m not confident about my life 10 years from now – when I’ll be an empty nester.

In making a decision to “not buy” I have maintained: (a) a cheap option to change my mind in the future, (b) I’m still debt free, and (c) my capital is available to be used elsewhere.

About elsewhere… I am very confident that my children are going to be grateful that I kept the family invested in the Boulder real estate market. Hedge the risk your family will be priced out of the place your kids grew up.

Of course, this assumes you are living in a place you don’t want to leave. It’s not just your spouse you should pay attention to…


The above components can work against each other.

For example, signaling vs return on investment. I’ll give an example…


Trophy house was 55 bags of leaves. Current house 5 bags. Little things have a big emotional impact on me. I love low hassle ownership.

After we married, I bought a very large house, not far off the size of a small school. The bills, and constant yard work, took the fun out of ownership. Being a big shot turned out differently than I expected.

This experience nudged me into a principle, apply the minimum capital to achieve the goal and pay attention to the cost of ownership (money, emotion, time).

And that’s really the point I wanted to make.

In a hot market

  • Consider the need you are seeking to fill
  • Pay attention to the cost in time, emotion and ownership
  • Remember that capital is precious and leverage can trap you in situations where a renter can easily exit
  • If your time horizon is less than a decade then rent

All of this is easier to see when you’ve been through a few recessions. At the start of 2009, I promised myself to never opt-in to avoidable financial stress.

The tough part is building the capital and credit capacity to be able to buy.

Whatever you were seeking to achieve, you achieved it BEFORE you purchased.

Hope this helps.

Family Financial Review: Winning


Monday’s post here – tomorrow we will start using the data you’ve prepared.

Before we get into the analysis, let’s discuss the game.

My game is NOT won by building income, assets and spending.

Something I hope to teach my kids about money:

Any choice made to appear rich has an underlying effect of reducing family wealth.

My game => increase discretionary time while getting the net burn to zero.

I’m willing to wager you will not feel free, or serene, until you get close to that point.

“That point” being where you can sit back and not care about the ups and downs of the world. Being able to sit with equanimity will improve your thinking, and your relationships.

It’s going to take a while to get there. Here’s something I wrote in 2016 about the process.

I hope you read the link – I chipped away for 31 years and am a better man, on a smaller balance sheet.

The main thing to remember is each time you get an attractive opportunity to lock in a piece of your core cost of living, take it.

Pay yourself in time.


Philosophy of Status

Don’t think I have transcended my human drive to compete for status.

What I’ve done is (try to) channel it away from external approval, virtue signaling and consumption.

Needing a place to allocate this drive, it goes into my writing, marriage, quality of thought and daily actions. For a long time, my drive went into my sport.

Redirection is a whole lot easier than transcendance.

Family Financial Review: Set Up


The picture is what it cost to send a first class letter when I married my lovely wife. The 55c cost today (+34%) is a reminder that inflation ticks away one penny at a time.

When it comes to inflation/deflation, I like to maintain a neutral position. More broadly, I seek to avoid the need to pick winners.

I also avoid making predictions about an unknowable future. Most importantly, because it’s impossible (!) but also because I have no idea what my life is going to be like ten years from now.

What follows is present-focused.


Quantify Your Exposure

Start with your core cost of living – that’s what’s going to inflate and outliving your money is a key risk.

What’s in my Core Cost of Living?

  • Healthcare ($19,300 of premiums and $7,200 to a family HSA for a plan with a $14K family deductible) – this sector is ripe for disruption, I get little for my spending
  • Taxes, Utilities, Car Costs and Insurance
  • Food, Clothing and Kid Activities
  • Childcare – a massive line item 2009 to 2019, now a source of income for the family, our middle-schooler is a sitter
  • Mortgage, rent, car loans – my main project from 2010 to 2020 was getting this down to zero – once that was achieved, I went a step further and turned it into a source of income

Next, consider your sources of passive and active income. Rents, royalties, dividends, interest (at least in the good old days), consulting and any other forms of income. Write it all out.

Compare your Cost of Living with the Sources of Income and calculate your net burn rate, or your net annual surplus.

Net annual surplus gets routed to discretionary spending, luxury items and/or new investment capital.

The best investment decision I ever made had nothing to do with asset allocation. From 1990 to 2008, I routed 50% of my gross income to new investment capital.

In my early 20s – healthcare costs were peanuts, no childcare costs, living in a shared apartment… I saved a ton. Good thing, too. I had no idea how much my cost of living would pop when I had kids.

My 40s (2009 to 2018) saw unexpected unemployment combine with a big jump in childcare, healthcare and housing costs. This resulted in a burn rate that forced us to make a series of changes, and choices, which proved quite useful in hindsight.


Also write out your balance sheet – assets and liabilities.

Include a liability called “deferred tax and agent’s fees“. Estimate this liability as 6% of the gross value of all the real estate you own plus 25% of all the capital gains in your portfolio (exclude the exempt portion of the gain on your primary residence). Making this number real will help you avoid incurring unnecessary expenses by tinkering with your assets.

The best time to sell great assets is never.

Let it roll.

Why Would They Own That

I started thinking about this with negative-yielding sovereign bonds. When something makes no sense to me, I pause and reconsider my assumptions.

The phenomenon, of not being able to understand buyers, has now spread across markets and asset classes. In markets I know well, I’m being out-bid by 20-25%. Missing by a lot, makes it easier to sit out.

The goals and incentives have shifted, and it’s taken me a long time to notice.


A big chunk of global capital sits as a hedge against the value of money declining. A decline in the value of money:

  • is not a risk for anyone rich in youth and skills
  • is seen as a risk for the financially wealthy – a very human trait of worrying about wealth that’s far above one’s requirements for a meaningful life

Over my lifetime, we’ve shifted to a society where wealth is controlled by:

  • People managing Other People’s Money, with access to debt and options on gains
  • Fewer and fewer people, managing more and more money

Toss in near-zero rates and we’ve reduced the incentive for investment discipline.

A shift away from treasuries is painful when they are yielding over 5%. Less so, today. The shift in attitude has happened very slowly – it took more than a decade.

For a species that worries about $4.99 shipping charges (when they save TIME from leaving the house)… Cash Returns Matter – the absence of cash returns gives an incentive to devalue safety.

With negative 10-year (!) rates, the European incentive (to flee safety) must be extreme.


Last 40 years – USD 10-year rate – check that bottom right hand corner

It’s emotionally easier to own marginal assets when cash yields nothing (and you are seeing paper gains across most asset classes).

Risk has been rewarded and reinforced across a generation, maybe two generations.

While it started with good intentions, recent monetary policy has had the unintended consequence of rapidly inflating the assets of the already (super)wealthy. When I think about the resulting incentives for risk tolerance, government spending and borrowing, that strikes me as bad policy.

I’ve no idea how, or when, this play out. Fortunately, I’ve set my life up so I don’t need to be correct with uni-directional bets.

Careful with margin-debt and recourse leverage, it’s been one heck of a run.

With yields this low, there is tremendous leverage built into the system.


I’ll be back posting in 2021 – it’s been a solid year of writing.

Thanks for reading.

Middle Age in the Free Money Era

Controlling my greed is a useful first step.

But how does one do that?

Build a peer-group with better ethics, and less financial wealth.

Then let human nature pull me where I want to go.


Looking around, with my 1990s financial up-bringing, many popular assets look expensive at half their current values. That said, people are making big money and this can be tough to watch.

I work on creating a vibe that I can afford to miss out and seek to temper my envy.

I acknowledge I’ve done enough winning.

So. Much. Winning. 😉


Yesterday, I shared thoughts for my younger self. What about this time in my life?

I’m not young enough to earn it all back, nor am I old enough to lock-it-in and forego further capital appreciation. I checked our joint life expectancy and we’re 50/50 to get another 40 years.

Given that I’m debt free, I’m hurt more by a doubling, after selling, than a halving, and still owning.

Think that through – it goes against every emotion I have with regard to money (and I’ve had a lot of training).

Married, at 51, I need to be taking a 30-50 year view.


Accept the reality of my personal situation and remember the financial reality of near-zero rates.

  • Stay invested
  • Lean into severe downturns
  • Maintain options, and skills, to add value-added work
  • Stay debt free – while this is a great time to borrow against cash flow, borrowing against margin is nuts – at some point, the debt cycle will snap back and I do not want to get closed out in a sell off
  • Keep my spending choices in check – know that every choice I make sets a baseline for my kids to follow AND creates a cash flow requirement for the rest of my life

Here’s the key lesson from my early retirement => If I’d gotten spooked and sold out (I get nervous in rapidly rising markets) then I wouldn’t have had the capital to buy back my existing positions, which remain “good enough” for my needs.

In a Free Money Era, the risk many of us face is acting on our fears and being priced out of a portfolio we never needed to leave in the first place.

Control your risks by focusing on skills, spending, relationships and daily exercise. These are things I control. Global macroeconomic policy, less so.

Tomorrow, why the heck are people buying non-, and negative-, yielding assets at current pricing?


Sorry about the dud link yesterday at the bottom – it was the same as the one at the top of the page, which worked. Here is is again, it’s the link to a calculation which led to some major changes in my life. Putting a price on my time.

The Declining Value of Ownership

Yesterday, I described the forces creating rapid lifestyle, luxury good and financial asset inflation.

What to do?

Aspire to skills, ignore asset-driven status.


Near-zero yields have created a very different world than I grew up in.

  • The skillful can easily lease their needs, at a tiny fraction of the cost to acquire.
  • Businesses, like property management, that charge based on a %age of revenue are bargains, for both sides of the relationship. Managers can scale valuations at PE ratios over 50x net earnings. Owners pay 0.1-0.25% p.a. (of capital) for expert services. Both sides of this equation were unimaginable 30 years ago. Another way to look at this => “Vanguard” pricing is moving across asset classes.
  • In a world with tiny cap-rates and huge PE ratios, Human Capital is very, very valuable.

Let’s look at an example.

I like to follow real estate, particularly Luxury and Vacation markets. In these markets, there are many people who own $1-10 million places.

Annually, these places cost $15,000 – $100,000 p.a. (cash) to own and, often, sit empty. The cost to hold is not a big deal for these owners because they can afford it.

I’ve always wanted to visit Jackson, WY so I jumped on Airbnb and had a look around. I can lease a Jackson Hole penthouse, roughly equivalent to my net worth, for a few days.

My cost is…

  • 1/20th of the annual cost to own,
  • 1/1000th of the capital cost, and
  • maintenance is someone else’s problem.

Thanks to Airbnb, there’s real value here, especially as I am the one who keeps his freedom.

  • freedom to leave
  • freedom to change my mind
  • freedom to allocate time, share of mind and capital elsewhere

This will be rolled across every under-utilized (negative-yielding and/or depreciating) asset class within our economy. Airbnb’s $100 BILLION market cap, Free Money and the 1000-fold increase in VC gains will make it happen.

Don’t get caught up in the ridiculous valuations we are seeing – what’s important is understanding the process of change.

In a micro-yield world, it costs me 1/1000th of the capital value to get all the annual consumption I desire.

The only reason to buy is to show off, and that’s what humans do. Actually, there is another reason to buy and I’ll touch on that in a couple days.

Given we will stay human, I do not see these changes as a bearish case for asset values, which are driven by the price of money, mood and scarcity.

However, I do think it changes the mental calculus for a young person. In a highly mobile, rapidly changing environment, the assets your (grand)parents aspired to own are a lousy place to put your financial capital.

Tomorrow, some nitty gritty for 16-21 year olds.


PS – I didn’t book the penthouse. I went for a (refundable) 3-bed condo across the street from a playground. I make most decisions assuming they will be multiplied (x3) by my children when they grow up. I like to leave my kids room to (hedonistically) improve on my choices.

The Free Money Era

Watching DoorDash and Airbnb go public this week, brought home how much markets have changed from the 90s.

Big deals are up 1,000-fold in 40 years.

I graduated university in early 1990s, and was born in the late 1960s => part of the first generation to come of age after the very inflationary 70s.

The mentors, and wise-old-men, of my early career had been heavily influenced by their experience with price-inflation. In turn, when those vets had been young stallions, they were influenced by survivors of the Great Depression.

I received a very conservative financial education.


The two “mountains” are annual inflation peaks of ~12% and ~15%. Mid-70s and 1980. I have early memories of “grown-ups” buying CDN government bonds at ~15% with all available cash resources. Note the recession frequency (shaded) from 1970 to 1982.

These days we’re told we don’t have enough inflation.

I’m not sure about that => the price to buy $1 of cash flow has skyrocketed.

I’ll post the last 40 years of price inflation below.


Forward to now – from the 1980 peak. I agree, not much price inflation there.

Watching Airbnb/DoorDash/Bitcoin/Tesla, and looking at luxury real estate, I see inflation at work, but differently.

Inflation is not necessarily a bad thing – there’s never been a better time to be world-class at solving problems for people. More on that later.


I see a tsunami of money.


The tsunami is caused by a long-term decline in the real cost of money => approximately the gap between the red and the blue line in the chart above. Compared to the 80s and 90s, we are living in an era of “free money”.

At market tops, it is easy to find people congratulating themselves for their vision. A favorite quote (from a very successful friend of the family) is “some see, others saw.”

Something I failed to see, when I was on the inside, was the benefit received from:

  • The global money tsunami
  • Constantly dropping long term rates (the current 30-year rate implies a PE ratio over 50x)
  • Increasing investor allocations to our sector

Add non-recourse leverage, ring fence the deals/funds and there was no way to lose.

Of course, we didn’t see it that way => we were smart, we worked hard and we were visionaries.

Now, I’m not so sure.


Tomorrow => what this era might mean for my kids, effectively, two generations behind me.