A Bond-Free Portfolio: Why Cash Should Replace Bonds To Reduce Risk And Improve Returns by Kendall J. Anderson, CFA, Anderson Griggs Investments

In a recent interview, Howard Marks, the great investor and co-chairman of Oaktree Capital, quoted the original Dr. Doom, Henry Kaufman, who once said “There are two kinds of people who lose money: those who know nothing and those who know everything.”  Those of us who are selling investment services, whether portfolio management or investment products, have a tremendous ability to locate or create research that rationalizes our approach to building and maintaining a portfolio.

Because we spend so much time and effort in this process we can become one of “those” who think they know everything, and as a result, disregard our primary purpose, which is to help people preserve and grow their wealth.

This month, I want to share with you some thoughts on asset allocation. These views are contrary to the conventional approach that has been used quite successfully for decades; the basic stock, bond, and cash mix.  The question we will try to answer is why cash is held in lesser amounts and only used to meet current needs or as an opportunistic buying reserve for stocks and bonds.

Welcome New Members

Before we begin, I want to take a moment to welcome all the new and returning members into the largest investment club in the world, the “Buy High, Sell Low Club.”  Given the horrendous market returns beginning in August and running wild through the end of September, the club’s membership has grown so much that it can only hold meetings in cyberspace, as there is no location in the world that could accommodate all of the members.

In my early years, I was a card carrying member of the club.  I first joined in the seventies and rejoined again early in the eighties.  I am happy to say that since I have again let my membership expire, I have been able to resist the urge to renew.  I am just as happy to say that you have also been able to resist this club’s temptations.  And if you haven’t noticed, since the end of September the markets have been recovering quite nicely.

Some of you may think that resisting the club’s pull is easy.  However, regret and the ever-present destructive forces of “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” can be more agonizing than watching your portfolio value decline.  For me, even though I have been rewarded with a very attractive long-term return on my capital, during those times when markets acted badly, I did not know when or if my portfolio would recover its value.  I had to rely on my training, experience, and yes, faith that the businesses we own would find a way to grow their profits and dividends.  If you feel at any time that the sirens’ call of the club is hard to resist, please let us know.  We will do all we can to help, and together we will work towards finding a solution that we hope will be best for you.

Asset Allocation

I would venture to say that the majority of financial professionals believe asset allocation, not security selection, is the primary driver of portfolio returns.  There are also just as many who think stocks are risky, bonds are safe, and cash has little use in a portfolio.  Because of this, the majority of conservative investors think that bonds should hold the largest position in their investment portfolio.  This belief is reinforced through the use of target date funds, which are held by so many individual investors in their 401K plans.  Most target date fund investors take the time to read the literature which says the fund will be less risky as they get closer to their retirement date. This is accomplished by holding less stocks and more bonds.

This belief is also reinforced by Jack Bogle, the well-known founder of the Vanguard Funds, who has over the years told individuals that their basic allocation to bonds should be equal to their age.  If you are fifty years old, your portfolio should be invested 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds.  At age seventy, it should be 30% in stocks and 70% in bonds.  At age 25, you should have 75% of your money in common stocks and just 25% in bonds.

This belief has also been reinforced by academics whose financial research influences the asset allocation of large pension plans, endowments, foundations and trusts.  For a majority of institutional investors, a portfolio with 60% in common stocks and 40% in bonds is the norm.  Variations from this norm are not taken lightly, and most are done only under the guidance of professional advisors who place bets on multiple alternative investments in hopes of earning superior returns.

The greatest reinforcement of all has been bonds themselves.  For the past thirty-five years, they have performed admirably, producing results that reassure investors they are safe.  They have not lost money, and depending on when they were purchased could have increased capital, all while providing a respectable rate of return as readily spendable interest payments.

With all of the good things bonds have done for investors, how could I have the audacity to suggest that a bond-free portfolio for individuals is appropriate, and that cash should replace bonds to reduce portfolio risk and increase returns?

My thoughts on asset allocation were highly influenced by two individuals.  The first I have written about many times, the great Benjamin Graham.  Through his work I learned that the safety of capital is directly related to the price paid relative to the intrinsic value of both stocks and bonds.  The second was Peter L. Bernstein, whose writings gave me some basic training in understanding the nature of risk and the primary place it holds in asset allocation.

Benjamin Graham and Portfolio Policy

Prior to reading Benjamin Graham’s Intelligent Investor, I thought very little about asset allocation, as I was far more concerned with the problem of feeding my family.  This conflict caused me to do what many in our industry continue to do today: “sell what you can.”  Armed with little training and having faith in the wisdom of the firm, I sold whatever product they happened to recommend at the time.  I think all of you will agree that this is not the most intellectual approach to financial advice.

In Chapter 4 of The Intelligent Investor, titled “General Portfolio Policy:  The Defensive Investor” Graham writes this:

We have already outlined in briefest form the portfolio policy of the defensive investor.  He should divide his funds between high-grade bonds and high-grade common stocks.

We have suggested as a fundamental guiding rule that the investor should never have less than 25% or more than 75% of his funds in common stocks, with a consequent inverse range of between 75% and 25% in bonds.  There is an implication here that the standard division should be an equal one, or 50-50, between the two major investment mediums.  According to tradition the sound reason for increasing the percentage in common stocks would be the appearance of the “bargain price” levels created in a protracted bear market.  Conversely, sound procedure would call for reducing the common-stock component below 50% when in the judgment of the investor

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