Break Free

$1 well spent at Super Target

My kids have started asking me “what’s next” in terms of high school and college.

I told them to save those questions for a few years – what’s important right now is learning the basics and enjoying themselves.

They did, however, get me thinking.

This starts out as a letter to our youngest.


I’ve spent the last 20 years with ~2,000 hours (per annum) of self-directed time. When I reach “normal retirement age”, I will have had an extra ~70,000 hours versus what I was told to expect.

Consistently making choices as if time is more important than money has been a defining characteristic of my life after 30. Those choices, much more than my personal results, have been what gave me a 1-in-10,000 life, so far.

By the time you get to my age, you will have a series of stories you tell yourself about why you can’t do certain things. You’re also going to have the habit energy of 30+ years of choices.

The good news is many of our choices matter much less than we think, I got past a lot of bad choices.

Avoid ruin, build good habits, persist and you can achieve a very useful form of freedom.


My adult life, that you didn’t see, splits into three parts:

  • High school (to 18 yrs old)
  • Early adulthood (18 to 25 yrs old)
  • Adulthood (25 to 40 yrs old)

Along the way, people will be giving you never ending advice — to seek your attention, to get your money, to convince you to serve their ends…

Most of this advice is going to be tactical, short-term, single-action oriented // not particularly useful and a distraction. To blow through this (largely useless) advice I hope you to make a habit of asking yourself three questions:

  • Who is this person?
  • How do they know?
  • What are they selling me?

You’ll have to figure out your own purpose in life. Here’s what my choices say about what I did from 18-40 years old…

Free to choose…

…how, where and when…

…I allocate my time.

What I’m going to share is a strategy for getting yourself time.


What’s the role of high school?

Create options for further study. Science, mathematics, engineering, finance, accounting, technology… choose your courses so you can take any of the challenging majors in college. In 1986, I could have gone any direction at any major university in Canada.

If you can’t pull that off then learn a valuable trade, or skill, where you have a shot at becoming world-class.

The above is your “to do” list. There’s a wide range of successful outcomes possible, if you avoid early setbacks.

  • Pregnancy – avoid it in yourself and your friends – free contraception saves lives
  • Early habits of addiction and substance abuse – hook yourself on exercise
  • Suicide – keep an eye on your friends, and yourself – get help when you need it – everyone needs help

Pregnancy and addiction can be overcome. With regard to suicide, stay in the game – your future self will thank you.


Early Adulthood

Every year you take off before 25 is an extra seven years you will work later in your life.

You must have faith about the impact of long-term compounding – it’s why I started saving your allowance in Kindergarten. Our brains are not set up to comprehend exponents.

What’s the goal here?

The best technical education you can acquire without borrowing money.

But what if I could join the professional class?

If you can figure out how to do it debt-lite then fine. Otherwise, be wary of the time you’ll give away to get there — and — the habits you create from living a debt-funded aspirational lifestyle.

The professional class are just as enslaved by the system as most other people — they have nicer cars, bigger homes and beautiful wardrobes — they still lack time and cope with status-anxiety.

There are, however, certain professions that are ideal fits for a life with meaning.

For example, my friends who are docs/surgeons get a ton of satisfaction from helping their fellow citizens. They traded a lot of time to achieve their positions – a good trade, as they are valuable members of their local communities.

At 25, I was a well-trained financial technician. Globally, there are tens of thousands of people with similar training. What made the difference?

  • I was young – option value of youth!
  • I trained myself to live on half my income – I didn’t, and don’t, miss the spending
  • I was debt-free with four-years living expense saved – four years living expenses saved at 25

What mattered…

  • Valuable skills
  • Living below my means
  • Time for my net worth to compound
  • Time to follow my healthy passions (athletics, coaching, relationships)

Compare that to my smartest peers at 25 — better educated, negative net worths (due to college borrowing) and a higher baseline cost of living.

Like a lot of things, there’s no visible difference until you hit mid-life.


Adulthood

A favorite question of mine for friends who are over 60 – name something your grandparents could have done that would have positively impacted your life today.

It’s a tough question – we are talking 50-100 year timelines.

Many families settle on… core real estate holdings that enable shared experiences across generations and time — the mythical cabin on a lake, and similar (not always ideal) investments.

What might be required to achieve that vision…

  • Proximity – the family needs to live close to each other, but not too close
  • Time – the subject of this essay
  • Enjoyment – do we enjoy spending time with each other? What if we don’t? How much are we willing to compromise to get along with each other?
  • Realistic expectations – from 25 to 40 many folks will be busy seeking to free themselves from wage-slavery

When it comes to wealth, be focused on time, not money.

COVID Finances

Local fires make for dramatic sunsets. This was last night at swim drop.

What strikes me most about COVID is how little we’ve been asked to do.

For those of us who avoided unemployment:

  • Stay at home
  • Wear a mask
  • Spend a lot of time with our children

I embraced all three, eventually.

Seven months in, our youngest can run her home school:

  • Print daily schedule
  • Follow links to online classes
  • Turn in her work
  • Make lunch and snacks

It’s not ideal but it’s good enough given the underlying reality.

An interesting part of the underlying reality is how well the top of tier of our society has been doing.

The noise of the election has been drowning out this story.


2 out of 3 kids returned to in-person learning on Tuesday and I hit the road for a day trip to the Collegiate Peaks. COVID has enabled me to feel grateful for things that appeared unreasonable at the start of 2020.

I made three financial decisions this year.

  • Sale & leaseback of my house (January)
  • Roll two years cash flow from bonds to equities (March 18-24)
  • Ski local, reallocate ski money into a new car (Q4)

Similar to 2009-2012, I expected to do a lot more.

However, I’ve done enough. Enough to set up the next decade and enable me to focus on what matters.

That’s a lesson.

If you’re focused on “what matters” then there’s not going to be many decisions to make. Most of your focus is going to be on the day to day (exercise, family, admin, relationships, marriage).

If, like me, you are someone who likes getting stuff completed then you’ll do well to create an outlet (other than churning your portfolio) for this aspect of your personality. Otherwise, you’re going to run up a lot of expenses, pay excessive fees/taxes and greatly increase your chance for unforced errors.

In your larger life, if you don’t give yourself something useful to do then politics, social media and petty pursuits will fill your time.

I need to watch out for these distractions => they bring out of the worst aspects of my personality.

Pay attention to who, and what, brings out your best.


The best investment I made this year was the month I spent weaning myself off social media.

It’s difficult to see the net negative return of Facebook/Instagram until you are outside of their feedback loops.

At its core, Facebook makes it easier for bullshit to reach me.

For others, Facebook makes it easy to argue.

For all of us, the algorithms reinforce confirmation bias and reduce our ability to think clearly.

The algorithms are everywhere – they live in every web interaction we have.

Instagram stimulated my desire to buy stuff and reduced my satisfaction with who I am.

Both platforms are pleasurable but what’s the source of the pleasure? The source is external validation on appearances.

Far more powerful is an internal validation for the actions I take, daily, for myself and my family.

True power is the capacity to create a feeling of goodness for the actions you take, daily, in your own life.


My biggest fan

What was your biggest problem of 1, 5 and 10 years ago?

Can you even remember?

I can.

The biggest challenge of my last decade was a little girl who doesn’t exist anymore.

She’s gone and has been replaced by someone who’s an absolute star.

The difficulties of COVID enabled her, and me, to shine.

Parents, children, teachers, students, superiors, subordinates…

What we see, as a problem, will disappear over time.

…and time is the most valuable asset in our portfolios.

Spend it wisely.

Valuable Options


Record prices, driven by easy credit, in a time of impaired fundamentals. I see this phenomenon happening all around us.

In times of uncertainty, I like to focus on maintaining:

  • The ability to change my mind
  • The ability to cut my cost of living
  • The ability to reallocate my capital

Holding onto these options requires careful, continual effort. For example, it’s easy to join a “tribe” with fixed views, or publish blogs (!), thereby making it much more difficult to change my mind later.

I try to be careful with what I write, say and think. An interesting tip I came across this year about knowledge…

Be wary of using current knowledge as a belief system.

I first heard this advice via the son of a surgeon. When the son finished his surgical training, the father shared that half of what he learned in med-school proved to be incorrect over the years that followed.


With capital allocation…

When I buy, I lose the option to “buy later” and create switching costs if I want to change my mind.

  • The ability to decide later
  • The size of my switching costs
  • The liquidity of my position
  • The impact on my debt capacity

The future value of the above is difficult to estimate, therefore, our minds tend to latch on to the perceived value of an immediate purchase.

We always underestimate the value of options.


Caution with your allocations at cyclical highs…

At the end of last year, I wrote about real estate in Vanity Markets, the key thing I liked about renting was the ability to change my mind later. The option to change direction became much more valuable during COVID.

A real-world example, we’re going to change the way we approach ski season.

  • We are not changing because I think I know what will happen.
  • We are changing to remove (some of) COVID’s ability to screw up our lives.

I wrote off a lot of money this year due to the virus. More importantly, COVID has been a continual drain on my time and emotion.

Money, time, emotion => you can earn the money back.

The time and emotion are gone for good.


So… we made a decision to ski local.

The savings are material: ski club, driving, ski passes, lockers and seasonal rental => my budget is 5% of last season’s actuals.

Besides saving money “now”, I get the psychic benefit of looking forward to adding back a “better experience” once COVID settles down. I’ve been watching myself for many years and looking forward to an experience is a key part of my enjoyment.

The ability to painlessly change my mind arose because I didn’t buy previously. I stayed variable in my discretionary cost of living. I followed this rule of thumb… Never capitalize luxury spending.

Longer version of the same advice… until your retirement is fully funded, focus on income producing assets (not ramping up current consumption).


There are other benefits.

  • By “going local” I give myself an incentive to teach my kids to uphill ski and camp on snow.
  • Knowing that I am saving (a lot of) money in one part of my life, reduces financial stress across all other areas of my life.
  • I also have a way to fill weekday afternoons, which have been challenging during online school: Morning school, Dad ski, Evening school, Bed. Do that Tuesday/Thursday and I give myself a mental respite from trying to fill the Noon-4pm slot.


A quick update on online school. My zip code contains several thousand CU Students, and all the frats!

Our positives are trending up, again. From Saturday’s paper…


and they aren’t testing students who live off-campus

I’m living in the hottest “COVID zip code” in Colorado right now. That said, if you were going to infect a bunch of Coloradans… we’re a healthy cohort! 😉

Because we were cautious “opening up” our bubble, there isn’t much change for us. The main challenge is we are in Week 26 of Home School.

It can be tempting to toss money (and other people’s time) at my “problems.”

During the pandemic, tossing my kids into the private education channel could reduce my short-term pain – if the angel of COVID flies past their new school without creating an outbreak.

However, one thing I’ve learned from six months of home school – the academic demands are easily managed by a policy of a-little-bit-a-day. The real challenge lies in the emotional demands of being around kids all day!

Similar to the ski example, I frame home school as paying myself to figure it out. I did private school math a few years ago. It would cost me significant time, and emotion, to earn the money for the private channel.

I’ll end today with the two best things I have learned about problems:

#1 => My “problems” will NEVER disappear => my mind simply focuses on something else. It’s my focus, not my problems.

#2 => I had better accept that I’m going to be chipping away at stuff daily, for the duration. While I’m chipping away, keep in mind the true goal is “better problems.”

Figuring out how to enjoy spending time with my kids is a great problem to have.


48-hour storm rolled through the state. Good news for our firefighters.

Wealth and the price of money

One of my best assets – I always wanted to have hair like that!

I graduated from university in the summer of 1990. I didn’t know it at the time but it was an excellent time to start a career in finance.

The price of money has been falling ever since I graduated (1st Class Honors, Econ/Finance, McGill). My first real finance job was the most junior member of a very successful private equity team in London.

It doesn’t enter into popular consciousness but many of us have had the benefit of a 30-year tailwind. This tailwind impacts every aspect of our lives and, like oxygen, we’re largely unaware of it (while it continues).

For the first half of my finance career, a modest interest rate cut was sufficient to get everyone excited.



At this stage of the cycle, it takes a healthy dose of shock & awe to move, or steady, the markets.

It’s important to remember:

  • It is impossible to know the future in real time. If you find yourself saying the Fed is making, or not making, a mistake then you’re fooling yourself.
  • It is possible to assess the risk in the system => leverage, debt service, off-balance sheet liabilities, derivatives obligations, debt:equity ratios, months of cash on hand vs monthly cash burn rate… there are a lot of useful measures. You should know these measures for your country, state, county, firm, family and self.

I don’t want to comment on right or wrong. I simply want to share observations that, hopefully, will help you think better about money.


In my line of work, I hear a lot of themes.

I’ll share a couple themes and my counter-dialogue.

The market is so high, I need to sell or I will lose money.

  • Volatility isn’t loss – come back to this one in the next down cycle.
  • Constantly tracking the price of anything will cost you time, lower your return and lead to misery. See Fooled By Randomness, by Taleb, for the best explanation of why you should ignore the volatility of a good-enough portfolio (or life for that matter!).
  • My entry prices are 30-60% below current market. Instead of focusing on a fear of loss, I focus on the cash flow being generated from wise past decisions.
  • If you exit then you need to put the money somewhere. The benefit of a good position is you don’t need to figure this question out. The less I need to think, choose and act… the better.
  • Every positive action costs expenses, taxes and introduces the possibility for error.
  • Most the people who worry about money, don’t need to worry about money. Beware of using financial news as a distraction from what you really should be doing with your life.

Price vs Happiness vs Wealth

  • Price is an illusion – all assets move in cycles.
  • Price changes are not wealth changes.
  • If you build a habit of happiness with price increases then you will experience a multiple of pain with the inevitable declines.
  • Equanimity must be trained, and re-trained.
  • Financial wealth comes from productive capacity, which is the ability to give the world what it wants.
  • What does the world want? My world wants…
    • Cash flow generation
    • Saving time
    • Reducing hassle
    • To survive

When you create a lot of money (see chart above and, note our constant, longterm Federal stimulus), the money needs to go somewhere. When money “goes somewhere”, especially when debt is available on top, prices go up.

The effect is not wealth creation, the effect is asset price appreciation.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool

Feynman’s rule on foolishness

In 2020, all this money creation might be saving us from disaster. At best, we’ll get a chance to argue in hindsight.

Don’t fool yourself by acting as if your wealth has been increased.

The risk in the system has been increased.

Celebrate Success

South Arapahoe Peak, yesterday

Given the simultaneous outbreaks we have in the US, our media is going to have plenty of fodder for negative stories this month.

If you follow the news cycle closely, then this could be a tough few weeks for you.

Consider scheduling a few days offline.


The route follows the left skyline – it was at my limit for “unroped spicy with two of my favorite people”

If you’re sucking in a lot of negativity then you might find spillover inside your head. The spillover may manifest as a negative voice beating you down internally.

A lot of us aren’t able to “hear” the soundtrack in our heads. As a coach, I would notice it when my athletes had a habit of negative expression in voice and written words.

To counter a habit of negativity, I’d assign an excerise => buy a small notebook and end each day by writing down one positive thing that happened.

Every single day.

Life happens where you focus.

Change your focus, change your life.


Ax-man was a little buried by the end of the weekend. When it comes to fatigue, he has developed excellent coping skills.

Our Science Fair was a huge hit.


Secret ingredients to the traditional vinegar/baking soda lava recipe – a little dish soap, a little water and red food coloring – you can see the red chunks in the lava

Public speaking starts at home – learning to listen (and not correct) also starts at home

Spoiled is when you think your life is difficult but it isn’t.

Living under COVID is difficult in many ways. We are learning to embrace and enjoy our challenges.

It would have been very difficult for me to engineer rapid positive change without the challenges of closures, home school and social isolation.


Byrn Family Fitness Center – if there’s a will then you can figure it out. Picture is our Saturday morning fitness program. My son is finishing his “walk back” – I’m running my hill repeat in the background. The local college kids have embraced our street and we see some spectacular runners blaze past.

Personal responsibility is a key value of mine. In the past, this was to the exclusion of maintaining relationships. My kids have helped me do better with finding a balance between hard and soft skills.

Lots of personal responsibility was on display this past weekend: packing our own gear for a climb, learning to recover from a deep bonk (with grace and without blaming anyone), taking care of siblings.

The habit of having to take care of ourselves at home is spilling over into our larger lives.


Ax looking down the wrong turn I was about to make for my family. Thankfully, we managed an upward traverse back onto the main route.

Money and Kids

The basics:

  • An unconditional allowance set at $1 per week, per year of age
  • Money sits with Bank of Dad and yields 10% APR – I want my kids to get very excited about compound interest – we have a generation of kids growing up in a no-yield environment – this will have a HUGE impact on our societies – don’t know specifics but do know it will change finance for a long time
  • I hold a veto on any spending out of the “allowance account” – there is no obligation for me to be reasonable – if you disagree with my decision then…
  • Buy it yourself, kids can earn their own money – own money equals own choices – I want my kids to get excited about providing value to others and earning money for themselves – this is much more important to me than winning in sport
  • Summer reading prize – read every day across the summer and get a very good prize – it costs me $100 per kid, per summer, to create a habit of morning reading, without being asked!

The incentive structure has been successful.

Our latest addition is babysitting – our oldest taking care of our youngest. We’ve settled into $7 per hour for the oldest with $2 per hour to the youngest at the same time. We give them a written schedule with some easy chores to complete. This is the easiest “kid combo” for us to manage – the older sister/younger brother dynamic hasn’t been figured out, yet.

Another popular product is exterior cash wash at $5 per car, per kid.

Our oldest makes scrunches, masks and children’s stuffies. Orders, pricing, manufacturing, delivery… all sorted by her. Since school ended, she is averaging $75 per week of supplemental income.


Dawn breaks near the 4th of July Mine, Indian Peaks Wilderness

Assets with high holding costs

2020-05-13 13.49.25-1

With all the talk of indoor transmission being more likely (than outdoor), we’re moving martial arts outside whenever possible.

+++

I’m going to chat you through the financials of a rental property I used to own in Tucson.

This will help you understand the situation facing airbnb hosts and other owners of assets with high holding costs.

  • Picture a condo, bought and furnished for $75,000.
  • The condo has a current value of $100,000.
  • The condo doesn’t have a loan against it but costs $8,500 per annum to hold (8.5% of value). The high cost to hold is due it being a fully furnished rental => things like taxes, HOA, cable, insurance, utilities…
  • The furnished rental does great and yields net cash flow of $4,500 per annum after all expenses, taxes and commissions => 6% of cost.

This was a good investment but I sold out, and switched into Boulder real estate, with a mortgage. Here’s what I switched into:

  • Cost to hold the house (mortgage, taxes, insurance and maintenance) => 3% per annum vs 8.5% for the condo. Without the mortgage, the cost to hold the house drops to 1.25%.
  • Worth emphasizing the debt-free annual cost to hold comparison => condo 8.5% vs house 1.25%
  • House has rights to land, condo doesn’t include any land rights.
  • House has alternative uses… can live in it for the cost to hold, or rent and receive a net yield of 1.5% (2.75% excluding the mortgage).

Both locations worked out.

I checked on the condos yesterday and they were selling at ~$150,000 pre-virus, up significantly from 2008-2010 crisis values.  Boulder housing has seen similar appreciation.

What concerned me in 2012, when I sold, was the high cost of ownership, which can bite in a downturn.

Picture the condo debt financed => this is the issue facing aggressive airbnb hosts

  • A $75,000 purchase, with a mortgage of $65,000 against the property
  • To buy the place, you needed $10,000 of equity, which appreciates to $35,000 as the capital value rises (on paper) to $100,000.
  • The paper profit is 3.5x your money (yay) => you get this from 33% market appreciation, similar to what has been seen in many markets over the last 3-5 years.
  • But… the Virus pops up and the property is going to cost you $7,500 of new cash to hold for the 1st year of the crisis => 7,500 / 35,000 is a negative 21% return on equity.

All of a sudden, the warm feeling of paper profits is replaced by the reality of writing checks, monthly, for a vacant rental.

Depending on your tax bracket, one year cost to hold might be the equivalent of the last three years profits.

+++

The high cost to hold can bite in different situations.

Club Memberships => $50,000 to $250,000 membership initiation fees with annual dues of $5,000 to $25,000.

You can find yourself in a contractual relationship where you are required to pay 5-20% of membership value in a downturn.

Now picture a club with 10-20% of the membership unemployed, or ill with COVID.

+++

In a world with: (a) very low discount rates; and (b) professional compensation under pressure, the “penalty” for paying through a downturn/crisis is accentuated.

Many asset owners are likely telling themselves they are simply facing “one bad season” and things will get back to normal soon.

Perhaps.

 

 

Corona Diary 5 May 2020

2020-05-04 10.14.02

Write a kid, it will do you good.

+++


“If you want to determine the nature of anything, entrust it to time: when the sea is stormy, you can see nothing clearly.” Seneca — Daily Stoic (@dailystoic) May 5, 2020

I noticed that Buffett sold out of airlines, completely. Elsewhere, I read about his concern about being an owner of businesses that consumed cash.

The quote above is another Buffett/Munger point => how difficult it is to wait, watch and be patient.

The challenge of no-action, waiting for the sea to calm => made easier by a combination of cash-generative assets and cash.

+++

I was asked for my opinion about inflation/deflation.

Before offering thoughts I want to share a portfolio. The ratios can be tailored to your personal situation.

  • Net Cash Generative Real Estate [See Note 1, below] => 2 years core cost of living
  • Equities => 3 years core cost of living
  • Bonds/Cash => 2 years core cost of living
  • Recourse Leverage => none

(a) I like to think in terms of “years” because it provides a big incentive to keep my spending aspirations modest. (b) The 3:2 ratio, above, implies a 60:40 equity/bond portfolio. (c) Core cost of living => cash it takes you to survive one year.

Pause and think about the above portfolio in deflationary, as well as, inflationary environments.

  1. The portfolio is not optimized for any scenario, there are aspects that will get hit hard. This is OK and to be expected.
  2. The portfolio can survive different scenarios.
  3. You can spend a lot of time tinkering at the efficient frontier but it won’t get you much in the real world.
  4. Get yourself to a position that’s “good enough” and lets you sleep at night => then go out and focus on living your life as best you can.
  5. Pay careful attention to decisions that impact time, rather than money => time you have in your week, time you have in your life, the quality of your time and what you will spend your time thinking about.

The portfolio need not contain solely financial assets: education, time, youth and other options are important sources of family wealth.

About the likelihood of hyperinflation and depression-style deflation…

  • …the levers being pulled have no historical precedent => from this morning, US Federal Government borrowing $1 Trillion per month this quarter
  • …the levers are being pulled different directions by governments, corporations, consumers and central banks
  • …the levers impact the price of goods, services and capital in different ways

The system is complex and opaque, with feedback loops, 2nd and 3rd order effects => the system is fundamentally unknowable => I should constantly remind myself of the truth of unknowability and avoid people who have a vested interest in impairing my thinking.

In lockdown…

  • my most challenging work is increasing human capital via home school, while modeling a strong marriage for my kids; and
  • not decrease human capital by becoming a casualty, myself!

+++

I’ll end with a picture of what I saw when I came downstairs this morning.

Our youngest, mirroring what she sees around her.

Warms my heart!

2020-05-05 06.39.53

[Note 1] Real estate that is a net cash drain can be a source of stress (for you) and fragility (for your family).

One of the two best investment decisions I made in the last 24 months was renting in Vail. The other solid decision was not redeveloping a site, at a time when people were making (on paper) $1 million per flip with high-end renovations.

Capital, used wisely, gives you to ability to not-act and be comfortable sitting in an enviable position.

2020-05-05 06.39.56

Fear and Panic

Yesterday, my local CostCo sold out of Charmin in 15 minutes.

My cognitive capacity is so lit up I can’t remember my daily calendar.

Stress makes us stupid.

So…

#1 – execute my strategy, made before the current crisis

One of the nice things about following a rebalancing strategy is you are very likely to have sold (a little) at the peak. My pre-crisis rebalancing happened January 4th and I sold enough to cushion the psychological impact of recent declines.

I rebalanced on Monday and again today.

Limit down opens => phew!

#2 – lean into fear

Since 2014, my portfolio assets have been 60/40 in equities/bonds. For the last six years, I’ve expected bonds to get hammered by rising rates. It didn’t happen. Been wrong the entire time but it didn’t hurt me.

For my long-term capital, I’d rather use a 90/10 strategy (90% in equities). The trouble is getting there. I have zero confidence in my ability to pick the right time to shift. So I created a re-weighting strategy based on VTSAX/SP500.

A simple rule: as the market moves from 20% down to 50% down, I will rebalance equities upwards from 60% to 90% of portfolio holdings.

Today’s rebalance moved me to 63/37. The 63 is held 42/21 VTSAX/VTIAX.

Simple to execute => each time, I rebalance I check the %age off the peak, if we’ve set a new low then adjust the equity weighting upwards. Otherwise, steady as she goes.

This simple strategy is not easy to do => either I want to rush more money in (FOMO) or hold money back (plain old fear).

#3 – real estate

When your neighbors are stocking up on TP in preparation for the end times… it’s generally not a good time to be selling real estate.

What about buying? Real estate prices respond much more slowly to feelings/sentiment. At the last downturn, local real estate didn’t “get cheap” until 18-24 months after the crisis.

I suspect we’re going to see the residential market stop dead for a few months.

After that? I have no idea.

#4 – family

My family has been watching me stock the house for three weeks. They were amused but now we are ready.

I’ve been reassuring the kids they are going to be OK. There’s a lot of fear around.

At school, our youngest heard that “old people” were dying. She took me to one side and asked if I was going to be ok => Yes, Sweetie, I’m going to make it.

That said, a finance background is useful for understanding the impact of compounding. Our state saw a 33% increase in positive tests today. Keep that going through the end Spring Break and we will have 4,200 positives in 16 days (from 44 at Noon today).

Notwithstanding an absence of positive tests in Boulder County, I’m going to start home schooling on Monday. A significant burden on myself but a small price to slow the spread.

#5 – community

Will Colorado’s experience follow Italy, Hong Kong or Taiwan? I don’t know.

What we know for certain is there will be a large, sudden burden on the lower end of our communities. Consider giving a sizable donation to your local food bank.

We also know we will save lives by staying away from each other.

#6 – immunity

Something simple, but not easy, for readers of this blog => cut your training in half.

Take your program, cut it in half and watch what happens with the infection rate in your state.

If your state is on a log-scale infection rate then it will become apparent far more quickly than any fitness loss.

Your immunity will get a boost from this change and you’ll preserve all the health benefits from exercise.

#7 – cash, debt and leverage

If you have an emergency fund then this would be a good time to make sure it is liquid. I have three-months expenses sitting in my checking account.

Not willing to lean into the market downturn? Consider using surplus cash to pay down debt.

If the downturn persists then do you know what can ruin you? There are many types of leverage => I’ve written about this a lot.

 

 

 

 

Diversity of Thought – Things we can’t imagine

2020-01-05 14.39.11-1.jpgA popular theme in the media is handwringing about the divisive nature of political discussion. Everything would be much better “if we could just get along.”

I’m not sure.

Social systems tend to overshoot, overreact, over-everything. When we have widespread agreement (think totalitarian states) humans tend to drive the bus off the road.

Can you name an area where we have wide-spread agreement across the political spectrum?

I can.

Deficits, borrowing, bonding.

Left-right, north-south, east-west, up-down, local-state-national-continental => near total agreement on the benign nature of government debt.

Because disagreement limits the size of potential errors, total agreement worries me.

A surprise in my 2019 was my state’s voters not approving a change to our taxpayer’s bill of rights. It is the only constraint, on the ambitions of government, I noticed last year.

We should not expect government (or friends & family) to “do the right thing” in advance of a crisis. Human nature isn’t designed to work that way. An increase in our collective tolerance of regulation and taxation (ie pain) doesn’t happen until after a crisis.

Our collective problems won’t be addressed until after they blow up.

My individual risks, however, can be addressed right now.

A collective belief in the benign nature of debt is self-reinforcing. While the debt cycle expands, asset values are inflated, consumption is pulled forward and economic growth is nudged upwards. Because of its ability to feed on itself, debt expansion can continue for a very long time, particularly with interest rates near zero. Ultra-low rates enable lenders to fool themselves about the credit quality of the marginal borrower.

What to do?

Life is not filled with only bad news! Am I able to take advantage of unexpected positive surprises?

It’s counterintuitive but I’m positioning myself to borrow a lot of money. My 2020 project is creating an option to borrowing 30-years fixed at an interest rate that none of us can currently imagine.

How might unexpected negative surprises wipe me out?

Consider who is getting out of hand with their current borrowings. What’s the credit quality of… your employer? your family? your largest customers? your local/state/national government?

Do you work for a high-leveraged company, in a state with massive unfunded pension liabilities, while rolling your credit card balance each month?

Hidden liabilities lie (mostly) hidden. Ponzi schemes, unfunded retirement benefits, promises for future spending, fixed price contracts… think about your life. Where do you have exposure to a single person, CEO, manager, employee, fund, investment? In an easy-money environment, it is possible to hide significant liabilities.

Things we can’t imagine are likely to be underpriced.

Kinda tough to imagine the unimaginable! What seems impossible to imagine? Inflation, interest rates at historical norms, rapid nominal growth, credit crisis in a large sovereign, large hot-war…

For me, the goal is not to predict the outcome. My main goal is to protect my lifestyle from shocks and surprises.

To make it real, I ask, “what could blow up ski season?” Health, injuries, illness => my current risks are more human, than financial. Think beyond the money.

To focus on new ideas requires us to reduce the noise in our lives. Are you engaging in a policy of constant distraction?

There is a lot we can do to manage our exposure to the errors of others. Bad companies, bad relationships, bad government… many of us have the ability to pack up and leave. I’ve lived and worked in eight different countries, on three continents. Gradually working towards a situation where the main person who can hurt me is myself!

As a young man, I spent many years exposed to the errors of a single individual (my bosses and my business partners). More common is exposure to the errors of a single corporation.

With preparation, you can benefit in times of stress, but first you must survive.

Rent vs Buy in Vanity Markets

2019-12-07 09.28.44A vanity market is one where the main benefit you gain from ownership is telling your pals that you own.

Similar to my observation that I was wired to buy a “big” house, there are other purchases our ego gravitates towards: cottage at the lake, ski chalet, big-city pied-a-terre, beach house, farm…

Our ego’s weaknesses depend on our cultural background, childhood memories, current mood and social situation.

My ego can lead me far astray, particularly with non-yielding real estate, and depreciating assets.

I’ve been battling with myself since I first visited Vail, Colorado. I’ll illustrate with real figures from the neighborhood of East Vail. It is a niche market, which I’ve been following for 16 years.

The “buy” => $1 million buys you the opportunity to spend another $375,000 to renovate, and furnish, a property that was build in the 1970s. After your renovation is done you pay ~$25,000 per annum in taxes, insurance, HOA and running costs.

The “rent” => $25,000 to $40,000 all-in rental cost for the same property.

Something we noticed about skiing, most skiers don’t ski.

Put this observation another way… there’s a lot of empty real estate around.

I’m sure every empty place has a history of buyers, who were certain they’d use the property more often than they do.

A useful rule of thumb is to assume that every $1 million, in a vanity property, costs your family $50,000 per annum. Renting makes (some of the) opportunity cost real, and allows you to calculate the cost-per-night of what you’re using.

Above is what you can see and calculate.

What about what you don’t see?

#1 => the option to change your mind, without cost or hassle. This is a powerful argument when framed correctly.

Honey, the kids are going to grow up and leave. When that happens, our life will change in ways that are impossible to predict. We should maintain the flexibility to change our minds.

#2 => the option to buy in a downturn. About once a decade, property values snap downward. Waiting does not feel like a valuable option but it is. I’ve seen brief, 50% markdowns numerous times.

#3 => what I think I will like does not match what I actually like. I am a master at fooling myself. Fooling myself with regard to location, views, amenities, garages, layouts… you name it.

Renting “forces” me into different types of properties. Because mistakes are so expensive, I write down the lessons from every new property.

Here’s the best lesson of all…

Assets don’t create the life you want to lead.

Focus on shared experiences with the people you love.

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