The ice sculpture and the turkey

iceHave you got too much cash?

This may sound ridiculous – could there be a more first world problem?

But having too much cash sat idle in a portfolio is a common problem, one I see a lot in my coaching.

Many smart, hardworking people are good at earning and saving but have a blind spot when it comes to investing. They accumulate cash savings but then get stuck, paralysed by indecision and the endless choices available.

Don’t get me wrong, its important to have some cash. This could be say 3 – 6 months spending held in a separate bank account as an emergency fund for unforeseen expenses (e.g. house or car repairs). You should also allocate cash for near term liabilities such as a tax bill due within a year.

And if you are retired, its also helpful to have some extra cash (or government bonds that can be turned into cash easily) so that you are never a forced seller of shares to fund your living costs.  If you have enough cash or gilts (treasuries) to cover say 3 – 5 years of spending, that’s enough to cover most bear markets.

But people who are still earning and working full time should generally be putting idle cash balances to work, preferably into productive real assets (either shares or property).  You want your money to be working hard for you, not slacking off taking fag breaks, reading The Sun and wolf whistling inappropriately at passing women.

Buy to let landlording can provide a successful vehicle for wealth-building.  But, in the UK, 50 years of population growth combined with planning restrictions have given people the quaint notion that you can’t go wrong with property. Unfortunately you can definitely go wrong with property, as many people found out the hard way in 1981 when UK interest rates hit 17% and 1992 when they briefly hit 15%.

Real estate has a couple of psychological advantages over stocks. People love that they can see and kick their property: It must be real, my foot hurts! They also like that there is no market price quoted on a screen.  That way, they can ignore price fluctuations and pretend they don’t exist.

But as Ben Graham explains in The Intelligent Investor, the fact that shares have easy marketability should only be an advantage for the rational investor and never a drawback.  A market price for a share provides an option that can either be ignored or used.

People fear the feelings of loss and regret they will experience if they buy shares and the market then falls. As a result, they swap the chance of a short term loss with likely long term profits (equities) for the certainty of a long term loss (cash).

The purchasing power of cash is falling every day as a result of inflation and tax.  2% annual inflation halves the real value of £100 in approximately 36 years. 5% annual inflation halves the real value of £100 in approximately 14 years.

With every day that goes by, the real value of your cash is shrinking like an ice sculpture at a party.

Here’s the problem. The return on cash provides insufficient compensation for the risks you are running. Let me put that a simpler, cruder way. If you sit in cash, the government is gonna screw you.

Governments across the West are holding down interest rates and deliberately trying to engineer inflation into the system to erode the real value of their debt burdens.

Please don’t blame governments for this. They are only doing what their masters (us) instructed them to do. We The People elected representatives that spent more on schools, hospitals, guns and paperclips than they raised from taxes.  The government then borrows to make up the difference.  Unfortunately things got a bit out of hand on this front, so governments are now going to have to inflate away the real value of the debt over a period of years.

This is nothing new. In 1945 Britain had accumulated huge debts to fight the second world war.  Government debt to nominal GDP peaked at 240%. Over the next 35 or so years, governments ran policy to engineer inflation. In 1974, retail price inflation peaked at 26%.  Unpleasant as this was, it worked.  Government debt to nominal GDP fell below 30% in the early 2000s.

People think that all cash savings are safe. But are they really? Sure, the face value of the principal may not fluctuate.  But try telling a depositor in a Cyprus or Zimbabwean bank that cash on deposit is safe. I suggest you then stand well back.

If you think cash is safe, your imagination may not be active enough. Imagine annual inflation back over 25% and interest rates held down close to zero.  How safe does your cash look then?  Even if inflation stays in its cage for the foreseeable future, your money is not growing – you are not allowing compounding to work its magic.

Investing is full of paradoxes. One paradox is that safety is an expensive illusion. The flipside of this is that productive risk assets (shares, property) may be safer than they first seem.

The beauty of shares is not that they are 100% safe (there is no such thing). Rather it is that their dangers are obvious to everyone. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen 2 bear markets where shares roughly halved from peak to trough. People fear this volatility. But the good news for us long term investors is that the game loaded in our favour. And we savers should hope for lower equity prices rather than fear them.

Cash is a form of fixed income investment…as are gilts and corporate bonds. Fixed income does what it says on the tin. The income you get (the interest) is fixed and you know what its gonna be in advance (not very much these days).

But there is a problem with fixed income investments, especially higher yielding income investments such as corporate bonds, P2P lending or building society bonds.  These combine an obvious but limited upside with a non-obvious risk of total wipe out. These are the characteristics of a turkey distribution.

To illustrate, imagine you are born a turkey*.

You live on a farm, surrounded by your friends and relatives. In the evening, you sleep in a comfortable barn where the temperature never falls to freezing and where you are protected from foxes, wolves and other predators that plagued your wild ancestors.

You have a fixed “income”. Every day, the farmer puts feed grain into one trough and water into another. Life seems good. Everything seems certain. You don’t need to forage or roam much; everything is laid on in this hotel-like environment.

Financial independenceEach day that goes by, you become more confident about the generosity of the farmer – you see him feed you, work hard for you – he obviously has your best interests at heart, right?

So as time passes you grow more confident in this rosy view of the world – that is, until a few days before Christmas when you experience an unexpected event.*

This can be illustrated graphically – see graph opposite.

Although not always obvious, the turkey distribution can be seen in a variety of investing situations. If you owned Bradford & Bingley or Northern Rock junior debt in the years running up to 2008 or German Marks in the 1920s, you would have experienced the turkey distribution at first hand.

The turkey distribution lies at the heart of many fixed income investments.  It is a very human desire to avoid the uncertainty and natural volatility of markets and life in general. Unfortunately people overpay for the illusory certainty that fixed income promises.

This is sometimes referred to as “reaching for yield” where investors naively focus on the promised interest rate but ignore the default risk. How well do we understand the default risk on high yield bonds, P2P lending or Greek government bonds? Behavioural finance research shows that we don’t properly assess low probability risks*.  Out of sight, out of mind is a powerful truth.

So ask yourself whether an investment has the characteristics of the turkey distribution. If so, ask yourself whether you could be the turkey here?

If you’re sat on surplus cash, the rational move is to invest it. On average, the sooner it gets invested, the better. If you’re waiting for a market fall, that’s a form of market timing.  When it comes to market timing, there are 2 types of people: those that can’t do it and those that don’t know they can’t do it.

If you can’t face investing 100% of your surplus cash now and then seeing the market go down, there is a simple compromise.  Commit to a simple plan to scale in over time – e.g. you could invest 1/12 each month to scale in over a year. The exact details don’t matter.

What matters is that you get unstuck and get invested over time.

*See “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Black Swan” by Taleb. 

19 comments

  1. So do I sell my shares and buy a “buy-to-let” property with a mortgage. Do I use my surplus cash to buy more shares or do I use my surplus cash, sell my shares and buy another property with a lower mortgage…

    Can’t work out if I am a turkey or a farmer ….. probably a farmer waiting for the rain to stop and corn prices to rise ….

    Thank you for making my life more confusing !!!!

    1. hmmmwhatnext – You know how some people are cat people and some are dog people? Both are valid choices. Well, in the Financial Independence community, some people are property people and some are shares people. And some lucky people have both! Is that straightforward enough?!?

  2. What about the 75/25% split you mention in other articles? Isn’t it a bad idea to be 100% in equities?

    1. Wiggers – apologies for delayed response, your comment got caught in the filter. I’m not suggesting in the article that everyone should be 100% equity invested. I am saying that cash sitting in a taxable account without inflation proofing is eroding over time.

  3. Hmm, yes and no here, though I do love the turkey distribution 🙂

    Someone who has no income, or who has an income derived largely from equities needs to hold a large cash buffer in reserve so they don’t become a forced seller into a down market. That buffer is probably at least one year’s essentials though I have gone for three years (mostly in NS&I so the turkey tail risk would probably be associated with serious other crap going down)

    I know that cash is dying on its feet. But there are times when only instant liquidity will do. They are hopefully few and far between, but they do happen…

    I agree with the thrust of the article though. Far too many people confuse saving, that doesn’t pay a return IMO, with investing, which should when integrated over several years. But everybody who doesn’t draw a regular salary needs liquidity, and that means savings, even at the cost of depreciation

    1. Ermine – yes, I agree. My objective is never to be a forced seller of equities in a bear market.

      I also hold (inflation protected) bonds from NS&I. They provide liquidity if I need it but I don’t consider these as idle cash because they are earning a real return and are not being scalped by tax or inflation. As you rightly say, we are taking minimal default risk with these so will hopefully avoid the fate of the turkey.

  4. Interesting stuff as usual.

    I am half way through Fooled by randomness and so far it seems to me to be making a case not only to avoid fund managers (obvious to most who’ve read any kind of blog such as yours, mmm, jlcollins etc) but also to avoid following the crowd in general. I would certainly say that index investing is following the crowd so would you agree that one of the conclusions of the book would also be to avoid this investing practice?

    As I say I haven’t read the whole thing so maybe there are different points made later on which clarify (don’t worry about spoiling anything for me if you reply by the way, just interested to hear your thoughts!)

    1. I don’t think Fooled by Randomness is saying that you should always do the opposite of everyone else. There are many occasions when its makes sense to do the same thing as everyone around you. Everyone in a crowd is breathing but scepticism doesn’t mean you should stop breathing. Taleb advocates scepticism but not automatic contrarianism.

      Index tracking is not necessarily following the crowd. For example, when Emerging Markets are out of favour and offer value, it might make sense to buy an EM index tracking fund. For my part, I try to avoid investing in tracker funds that track indices which seem over-valued.

  5. whoa. only just found your blog. can’t believe I didn’t know about it before. Fooled by Randomness is also a book I was thinking about reading soon… although I’ve got 6+ other books in my list that I need to get through first!

    I don’t like to have surplus cash lying around. Apart from a 6 month emergency fund, I try to divert everything else into the stockmarket or p2p lending.

  6. dawnmartyne · · Reply

    hi there. just left a note on your asset allocation section. great site!
    im a’ too much cash person’. just as your blog describes. good a saving but had no idea about investing .was going to go buy to let but i reckon im more a shares girl.
    invested half my cash savings last year in to blue chips and trackers . come May get my hands on the other half of my cash. from a fixed rate isa. dont want to touch bonds after what ive read .intrest rates a joke so thought about going all in equities . but this 75/25 split thing would mean id have about £24,000 cash sat about doing nothing. got £19,000 in ns&I inflation linked bonds which happy with but as u can’t get these anymore what do i do with the £24,000? its taxed sheltered in an isa so peer to peer lending might not be possible .10 years from possible withdrawel phase.

    1. Thanks! I think we can reinvest NS&I inflation linked bonds for another 3 yr term but this will probably be at much lower interest rate over RPI. If people have a cash reserve, they might be comfortable with up to 100% equities if they wont be touching the capital for, say, 10 years…but this has risk and is not for anyone who will panic sell when the market falls.

      1. dawnmartyne · ·

        thanks for getting back
        yes. i intend to reinvest the NS@I bonds when they mature have been doing that for 6 years with them.
        i fully intend to not panic sell because once that happens youve lost bigtime!
        buy and hold and ride the ups and downs as hard as that might be because most stocks come back up again to newer heights.
        love the site.

  7. […] BTL is popular because it’s lucrative – Britain’s army of 1.6million BTL landlords have collectively outperformed Warren Buffet with an annual return of 16% But remember this is still a highly leveraged market. Any leveraged asset carries a latent risk of a turkey distribution. […]

  8. […] 5k) with Zopa, but unlike most PF writers I view Zopa as stupendously high risk, higher inherent turkey distribution risk than a stock market index fund. The risk becomes obvious when you take a look at what Zopa […]

  9. Hi. I’ve just discovered your great blog and spending some enjoyable hours reading the back-posts. I’m new to a lot of this FIRE stuff and finding it all fascinating, and energising.

    But I have a question…. So you (I) keep some cash in order to pay living expenses for a period of time if required. For some people that may be six months, for others three years, or somewhere in between – depending on your personal circumstances. So setting that aside you’re then left with a pot of money that makes up your core income/growth generating investments, e.g. shares, property – again, whatever suits you personally. But if you stick all your pot in to the market (whichever market that is) then your not left with anything when the markets tank – the “buying opportunity of the decade/century/millennium” isn’t an opportunity for you because you were all-in already. You’ve just seen your portfolio halve in value and you can’t take advantage of the cheap prices because you have nothing left to buy with other than your emergency money which is allocated to buying food for the next three years while you ride out the storm

    So, surely, you have to leave some money out of that market and somewhere else – cash or govt bonds – so that you can rebalance and buy the market when it’s cheap. And this cash/bond pot needs to be seen as being part of your investment portfolio and not expenses/emergency money. So surely you shouldn’t ever be 100% in the market. You need to keep something in reserve. And the cash you have can’t really play two roles at the same time – emergency cash and portfolio/investment reserve.

    Should I be looking at this another way?

  10. Hi. Yes I agree with you but the problem is knowing when the markets are going to crash no one’s knows this for sure. It could be a long time off in which case your cash. Not emergency fund cash. But the cash is sat making nothing and your missing out on market growth and dividends that can be reinvested and compound over time.

  11. Jonathan · · Reply

    It’s good to see reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s FBR, but let’s not overlook that his more recently published “Antifragile” makes a case for having “$50,000 in the bank, or even better, under the mattress”.

    NNT’s point is, of course, that holding a fad wad of cash is a superb hedge against market volatility and the unexpected. The inflationary loss on holding cash or government-issued fixed interest is merely the insurance premium one pays for being close to unbankruptable.

    The goal is not to get rich; the goal is to avoid becoming poor.

    1. Thanks, the goal IS to get rich but I agree that, once there, the goal is to avoid going back to being poor!

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