Cash Security Blanket Turns Into Tourniquet

by: Wade Slome, CFA

This article is an excerpt from Sidoxia Capital Management’s April 2012 newsletter.

That warm safety blanket of cash that millions of Americans have clutched on to during the 2008-09 financial crisis; the 2010 “Flash Crash”; and the 2011 U.S. credit downgrade felt cozy during the bumpy ride we experienced over the last three years. Now with domestic stocks (S&P 500) up +12% in the first quarter of 2012, that same comfy blanket of CDs, Money Market, and Checking accounts is switching into a painful tourniquet, cutting off the lucrative blood and oxygen supply to millions of Americans’ future retirement plans.

Earning next to nothing by stuffing your money under the mattress (0.7% average CD rate – isn’t going to make many financial dreams a reality. The truth of the matter is that due to inflation (running +2% to +3% per year), blanket holders are losing about -2% per year in the true value of their savings.

Your Choice: 3 Years or 107 years?

If you like to accumulate money, would you prefer doubling your money in 3 years or 107 years? Although the S&P 500 has more than doubled over the last three years, based on fund flows data and cash balances at the banks, apparently more individuals prefer waiting until the year 2119 (107 years from now) for their money to double – see chart below.

Click to enlarge

Obviously the massive underperformance of CDs cherry picks the time-period a bit, given the superb performance of stocks from 2009 – 2012 year-to-date. Over 1999-2012 stock performance hasn’t been as spectacular, but what we do know is that despite the lackluster performance of stocks over the last 12 years, corporate profits have about doubled in a similar timeframe, making equity prices that much more attractive relative to 1999.

With the economy and employment picture improving, some doomsday scenarios have temporarily been put on the backburner. As the recovery has gained some steam, many people are opening their bank statements with the painful realization, “I just made $31.49 on my checking maximizer account last year! Wow, how incredible…I can now go out and buy a half-tank of gas.” Never mind that healthcare premiums are exploding, food costs are skyrocketing, and that vacation you were planning is now out of reach. If you’re a mega-millionaire, perhaps you can make these stingy rates work for you, but for most of the other people, successful retirements will require more efficient use of their investment dollars. Or of course you can always work at Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) as a greeter in your 80s.

Rationalizing with a Teen

Some people get it and some don’t. Trying to time the market, by getting in and out at the right times is a losing battle (see Getting Off the Market Timing Treadmill). Even the smartest professionals in the industry have little accuracy and cannot consistently predict the direction of the markets. Rationalizing the ups and downs of the financial markets is equivalent to rationalizing the actions of a teenager. Sometimes the outcomes are explainable, but most of the times they are not.

What an astute investor does know is that higher long-term returns come with higher volatility. So while the last four years have been a bumpy ride for investors, this is nothing new for an experienced investor who has studied the history of financial markets. There have been a dozen or so recessions since World War II, and we’ll have dozen or so more over the next 50-60 years. Wars, banking crises, currency crises, and political turmoil have been a constant over history. Despite all these setbacks, the equity markets have climbed over +1,300% over the last 30 years or so. The smartest financial minds on the planet (e.g., the Ben Bernankes and Alan Greenspans of the world) haven’t been able to figure it out, so if they couldn’t do it, how is an average Joe supposed to be able to time the market? The answer is nobody can predict the direction of the market reliably.

As my clients and Investing Caffeine followers know, for those individuals with adequate savings and shorter time horizons, much of this conversation is irrelevant. However, based on our country’s low savings rate and the demographics of longer Baby Boomer life expectancies, most individuals can’t afford to stuff all their money under the mattress. As famous investor Sir John Templeton stated, “The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.” Earning 0.7% on your nest egg is difficult to call investing.

Ignoring the Experts

Why is the investing game so difficult? For starters, individuals are constantly bombarded by so-called experts through television, radio, and newspapers. Not only did Federal Reserve Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke get the economy, financial markets, and housing markets wrong, the most powerful and smart financial institution CEOs were dead wrong as well. Look no further than Lehman Brothers (Dick Fuld), Citigroup Inc. (Chuck Prince), and American International Group (Martin Sullivan), which were believed to house some of the shrewdest executives – they too completely missed the financial crisis.

Rather than listening to shoddy predictions from pundits who have little to no investing experience, it makes more sense to listen to successful long-term investors that have survived multiple investment cycles and lived to tell the tale. Those people include the great fund manager Peter Lynch who said it is better to “assume the market is going nowhere and invest accordingly,” rather than try to time the market.

What You Hear

As the market has more than doubled over the last 37 months, here are some clouds of pessimism that these same shoddy economists, strategists, and analysts have described for investors:

* Europe and Greece’s impending fiscal domino collapse

* Excessive money printing at the Federal Reserve through quantitative easing and other programs

* Imminent government disintegration due to unresolved structural debts and deficits

* Elevated unemployment rates and pathetic job creation statistics

* Rigged high frequency trading and “Flash Crash”

* Credit downgrade and political turmoil in Washington

* Looming Chinese real estate bubble and subsequent hard economic landing

Unfortunately, many investors got sucked up in these ominous warnings and missed most, if not all, of the recent doubling in equity markets.

What You Don’t Hear

What you haven’t heard from the popular press are the following headlines:

* 10 consecutive quarters of GDP growth

* Record corporate profits and profit margins

* Equity valuations attractively priced below 50-year average (14.4 < 16.6 via Calafia Beach Pundit)

* Rising dividends with yields approaching 3%, if you consider recent bank announcements

* Record low interest rates and moderate inflation make earnings streams and dividends that much more valuable

* Four million new jobs created over the last three years

* S&P Smallcap near all-time highs (21 years); S&P Midcap index near all-time highs (20 years); NASDAQ is at 11-year highs; Dow Jones Industrials and S&P 500 near 4-year-highs.

* Record retail sales with a consumer that has reduced household debt

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

Given the massive upward run in the stock market over the last few years (and a complacent short-term VIX reading of 15), stocks are ripe for a breather. With that said, I would advise any blanket holders to not get too comfy with that money decaying away in a CD, money market, or savings account. Waiting too long may turn that security blanket into a tourniquet – forcing investors to amputate a portion of their future retirement savings.

Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (NYSE:SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in C, AIG, RATE, Lehman Brothers, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.