I’m raising a little cash

why not to do this

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a portfolio manager is not to raise cash. How so?

–it’s much harder to figure out whether stock A or stock B is cheap or expensive in absolute terms than it is to figure out that A is cheaper than B. This means the easiest way to beat the stock market is to keep fully invested and spend all of your time trying to find more As and eliminate any Bs

–the penalty for having a large cash balance and being wrong can be severe. One of my former work colleagues, running a high-profile value-oriented portfolio for pension clients, decided one day that the stock market was overvalued and that he would be a hero to clients by raising 40% cash. This is like professional suicide. He did it anyway. For the following two years the market went straight up. Nothing he did could offset the negative effect of that dead-weight cash. And after a short while he was so deep in the hole that he felt he couldn’t admit his mistake and reinvest the cash. It took a huge market downturn to give him an opportunity to buy in again. But all that did was more or less recoup the performance losses he had sustained by raising cash in the first place. Then he was fired.

–personally, I’m very bad at judging market tops. I’m pretty good at bottoms, I think. But I tend to think that the good times can go on longer than they actually can

why I’m doing it anyway

To be clear, I’m only selling about 10% of my portfolio, mostly paring back individual positions by that amount. That’s not enough to fundamentally change my portfolio composition–in other words, the gains/losses from this move may end up only as a rounding error in performance attribution. So it’s more security blanket than anything else.

What’s causing me to act is something I usually don’t like to talk about: performance.

performance

One of my early mentors told me he thought a good securities analyst could find a way to make a 20% yearly gain in almost any economic circumstances. In less folksy style, I’ve come to think of a good year as the market return (S&P 500) plus 5 – 8 percentage points; if the S&P 500 is up by 10%, I’d like to end up in the +15% – 20% range.

So far this year, however, my “capital flight” idea, envisioning the US today as like Mexico in the 1980s, has worked much better than I would have thought. That’s, unfortunately, because the Trump administration has been much more toxic than I could have dreamed. The result is that my portfolio is already many times ahead of my yearend relative performance target (I really dislike writing this last sentence. My experience is the minute you begin to pat yourself on the back, your performance begins to fall apart).

Still, I don’t think the epic wave I’ve been riding can go much farther. That’s probably my strongest belief right now. The only way I can see for present conditions to continue would be if we knew that Trump would be reelected. I don’t want to replace names I know with new ones that are basically the same thing. That’s just the anti-US pro-Trump bet all over again. But I don’t have a firm idea of where to go next.

Hence, 10% cash.

to raise cash or not

raising cash

I find myself raising 10%-15% cash in the taxable joint brokerage account my wife and I use to pay for much of our living expenses.  No change in our fully invested stance in our IRAs or 401ks, just the taxable account.

Thirty years of professional training and experience tell me this is always a mistake.  But I’m doing it anyway.

why pros don’t do this

The easy answer is that pros typically can’t.  Their contracts with pension funds routinely require that the managers they hire remain fully invested.  The idea is that the pension fund and its consultants control the asset allocation (thereby justifying paying themselves the big bucks) and parcel out various pieces of the overall portfolio to specialists.  If managers stray from the asset classes where they’re experts they risk mucking up the overall asset allocation strategy.

Although mutual fund charters usually offer much more leeway, the manager will be pilloried if he raises a large amount of cash and the market goes up.

More importantly:

–to make a significant difference in performance, you have to raise a ton of cash–30%-40% of the portfolio at least.  This turns the portfolio into a Las Vegas-like all-or-nothing bet.

–I’ve never met an equity professional who’s any good at timing the market.  People tend to either understand either market bottoms very well–when to invest aggressively–or market tops–when to become defensive–but not both.  So they either raise cash much too early, or they get that timing right and never put the money back to work.  In either case, the cash-raising exercise tends to backfire.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any successful market timers.  I just don’t know, or know of, any.  And I’ve seen lots of managers punch big holes in the bottom of their performance boats by trying their hand.

–the desire to raise cash invariably comes at times of stress and high emotion.  Emotional decisions in investing are almost always bad ones.

what pros do (or should do) instead

Make the portfolio less aggressive, so it will perform better in a downturn.  Eliminate speculative, smaller-cap, or highly economically sensitive names.

Look harder for new names.  If everything in the industries you feel most comfortable in looks too expensive, broaden your scope to include other sectors.

Go on vacation.

If you absolutely have to sell something (for your own emotional well-being), do it in small enough size that it won’t do much damage.

why I’m ignoring my own advice

Several reasons:

–low interest rates have forced me into a very high equity allocation

–in this account, I’m more interested in having money on hand to pay bills than in beating the S&P.  So I’m willing to accept underperformance.

–history says that stocks go sideways to up during periods when the Fed is removing emergency money stimulus from the economy.  I think this should hold true again.  On the other hand, while stocks appear reasonably priced to me, the size of the interest rate raise now underway is about double the normal size.  So there is an uncharted waters aspect to this Fed move.

Also, the tone of the market seems to me to be increasingly set by short-term traders who don’t have the skill or temperament needed to analyze economic fundamentals.  Their behavior is harder to predict with confidence–just look at what’s going on in Japan.