Random thoughts on investing

I have a lot of thoughts on money, which in my case center not so much around how to spend it as how to save it. I rely heavily on my own prejudices, which are heavily influenced by my cynicism as an auditor who sees crooked finance and operations people every day at big multinational oligarchic companies. And I was heavily influenced by Rich Dad, Poor Dad (although some of my earlier infatuation with Kiyosaki has lessened as I thought more about his advice – more on that later).

Saying there is nothing urgent about saving money for the future is, to put it mildly, famous last words. Better to deal with things when you can do it in a calm and relaxed manner rather than needing to scramble when you’re 65.

I am a believer in the US market primarily because there is no real alternative for a corporate employee who has to put most of his savings in a tax-advantaged 401(k) that only really allows cash (money market-type holdings), bond funds and mutual funds as investments.

I have held individual stocks for most of my investing life, but no more. Why? Here’s an example. I was holding Wal-Mart stock. I got it when it was selling at 6. It split 4 or 5 times, went up to 50, and then stagnated for years, paying an awful 3% in dividends which were reinvested.

I took a look at Cigna, a major holding of my very elderly grandparents, recently. I personally think it is utterly crazy for retirees in their eighties to have so much money in a single stock. Cigna right now has a .04/share yield, which considering the $163/share price is effectively $0 yield per year: therefore they are losing 5.25% on 100,000 per year, or 5250. So if there was a capital gains tax hit of 15%, it would take 3 years to get in the black (and that’s simplified since I’m not considering taxes on interest). From a risk perspective, I think an insured money market would be far safer and significantly more liquid. The instant liquidity of cash principal may be important soon, and if they were forced to sell Cigna when it WASN’T selling at near its 52-week high, they could take a huge (imaginary, since it never really existed as a “gain”, only on paper) loss. Cash will not go down (except via inflation, blah blah blah, but that can be effectively hedged with a TIP or a money market, since inflation is not running at 17% – yet). CDs, barring some economic meltdown, are safe and insured.

However, it will take 3-4 years to be in “profit” mode selling off a huge stock holding like that, so it might not be worth it from that perspective. But in the long run at 5-6% in a CD/online savings account they could squeeze out another $5000 or so of cash a year.

The general fragility of the US economic system is a big bugaboo for Bubelah (my wife, at least what I’ll call her on this blog) and me. We have spent some time trying to figure out how to legally open a Euro bank account to start shifting our money out of the US. People put a great deal of reliance, for example, on the Chinese not calling their 500 billion in loans to the US. And I got really spooked by our stock-concentrated savings a couple of years ago – actually maybe a year and a half ago – watching a documentary about Enron. They were issuing “buy” recommendations on that while unbeknownst to the analysts, regulators, etc. Jeff Skilling was dancing around drunk telling his staff to make up fake invoices inflating sales. Is any other company out there as bad as Enron? Beats me. Could be. Maybe not. Maybe so. Probably so, in fact – human nature being what it is there’s always a guy out there who thinks he can game the system.

My thinking with finances has therefore been that rather than trying to think I can outsmart the thieves, the traders, the investment banks with their Crays making 8.2 million trades per second, better to plow everything into high-return cash and mutual funds that mimic the market, and then forget about it. If the US crashes, we’re in a bad spot, but if 5 of the Fortune 500 turned into Enrons tomorrow it would only be 1% of our portfolio. If someone holds a half dozen stocks, it’s 15% of theirs.

It’s tricky. Obviously I’m not retired and living off my investment income in Bermuda so it’s not like I know it all.