Adulting & Investing: How To Become An Adult Investor

You’ve heard of “adulting,” right?

If not, it’s essentially the verbification of a noun that represents growing up and behaving less like a dependent child and more like a responsible adult.

Learning to cook your own meals? That’s adulting. Shopping for your own groceries with money you earned all by your big boy self? Also adulting. Covering your own health insurance, auto insurance, and cell phone bill? Adulting, adulting, adulting.

Some people are essentially adulting before they finish high school. Others don’t cut the tether until they’re well into their twenties. But most of us get there in some way, eventually.

When it comes to investing, however, a lot of people never grow up. They just pass their fiscal responsibility from their parents to someone else. I don’t want that to be you, and neither does Dr. Jim Dahle. This piece was originally published on The White Coat Investor.

Adulting & Investing: How To Become An Adult Investor

 

Today I’m borrowing heavily from ideas found in Bernstein’s Deep Risk book. William Bernstein, MD, recently came out with a series of short booklets he calls Investing for Adults. While it might sound pretentious, the truth is that the vast majority of investors never actually reach “adulthood” as defined by Bernstein. The analogy is easily explained.

My children worry and complain about many things that don’t bother me in the least. They have a short-term perspective caused by their lack of experience in life. They lack patience and their behavior is often motivated by their emotions, such as fear and greed. Their ability to use logic is limited, and, at times, apparently non-existent. They have little knowledge, understanding, or appreciation for history.

As an adult, I have learned patience, sometimes in the school of hard knocks, and am better able to guide my decisions using logic and the guideposts of history.

Children Go to School for a Reason

 

There is a certain amount of financial knowledge that must be mastered in order to grow from an “investing child” into an “investing adult.” This includes basic mathematical concepts such as compound interest and the future value of money.

It also includes understanding the basics of the tax code, retirement accounts and financial products such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and insurance products. It also includes understanding the importance of minimizing investment expenses, avoiding active management risks and diversifying a portfolio broadly.

Investing “Children” Worry About the Wrong Risks

 

The biggest problem with being a child when it comes to investing is that you spend all your time worrying about the wrong risks.

In order to more easily study financial history and investing in the pre-computing age, academics were forced to use simplified models that generally equated investment risk with volatility. The problem with doing this is that, in the words of Bernstein, volatility is a “shallow” risk. It is not a risk that investing adults worry about.

Just like adults don’t care what the other people on the bus think about their shoes, they also don’t care that their long-term investments can be very volatile in the short term.

 

Adulting

what, me worry?

 

How Adults Deal with Personal Risks: Death, Disability, Illness and Other Liability

 

There are essentially three categories of risk that investing adults deal with. The first is best described as personal risks. This includes dying, becoming disabled, acquiring an illness or injury that is expensive to treat, or becoming legally liable for physical or financial damage to another person.

Investing adults don’t spend a lot of time worrying about these risks because they are easily dealt with by purchasing appropriate lifedisability, health, malpractice and personal liability insurance policies.

How Adults Deal With Shallow Risks: Asset Loss

 

The second category of risk adults deal with is shallow risk, which most investors think about when they reflect on the stock market. This is the risk that comes from the fact that the prices of assets, such as stocks, bonds, or real estate, can fall precipitously causing a very real loss of hard-earned savings.

Shallow risk may cause an investing adult some heartburn or even a few sleepless nights, but it shouldn’t cause any serious financial damage. The reason why is that shallow risk is a temporary risk.

bankofamericaThe real risk here is that an investor will buy high and sell low in response to a market downturn. If the investor has sufficient discipline and liquidity to ride it out, he’ll be okay in the end. This is easily demonstrated by looking at history. Even in the Great Depression or the recent global financial crisis disciplined investors who stayed the course were rewarded in the end.

An investing adult protects himself against shallow risk quite easily. First, he develops the discipline to stay the course and an understanding of his risk tolerance by “practicing” during the downturns that show up while he is young and his portfolio is small. Second, he diversifies his portfolio widely. Even if a few companies go bankrupt or a few companies or governments default on their bonds, the investor won’t feel a significant loss.

Third, he has a long-term written investing plan that takes into account the fact that market downturns will take place during his years as an investor. [PoF: See my Investor Policy Statement]

Like the wise teenager who decides he isn’t going to do drugs before he is ever tempted by the offer, an investing adult decides what he will do in a market downturn long before he is ever faced with the event. The investor’s written investing plan also should take into account his unique risk tolerance and financial horizon. It simply doesn’t matter what happens over the next three years when you don’t need the money for two decades.

Fourth, the investing adult doesn’t care what the other kids on the bus think of him. He knows his plan is well-designed no matter what the financial media or his co-worker at the water cooler says about current politico-economic events.

Finally, an investing adult has sufficient liquidity to ride out financial downturns. He has enough money invested in safe assets to allow him to live for months or even years without a job or the money invested in the risky portion of his portfolio. For him, a market downturn is an opportunity, not a catastrophe.

 

How Adults Deal With the Risks That Are Worth Worrying About

 

Since investing adults have insured against personal risks, and developed their discipline and portfolio to easily deal with shallow risk, they are left with the third category of risk, “Deep Risk.”

These are divided by Bernstein into four categories:

  • Inflation
  • Deflation
  • Confiscation
  • Devastation

 

Even a superficial review of financial history demonstrates that these are the real risks that investors face, and that they have little to do with the standard deviation of the S&P 500. Inflation, such as that seen in Zimbabwe, Latin America, post-war Germany, or even the U.S. in the 1970s, is the most likely of these four risks, but also the easiest to deal with.

 

Inflation and Deflation

 

Inflation-linked bonds, equities and real estate, especially if held with a fixed-rate mortgage, hedge against this risk well. Deflation is rarer, especially since the end of the hard-money era, and the true risk is the economic stagnation that usually accompanies it. This risk can be hedged with long-term Treasuries, cash and, surprisingly, precious metals.

 

Confiscation

 

Confiscation can be best demonstrated by the loss of all privately held assets in Communist Russia, China and Cuba at the time of their revolutions. More recently, portions of bank accounts in economically-troubled Cyprus were seized.

More common, though less dramatic, is a gradual or partial government seizure of assets through increased investment-related taxes, estate taxes, and even income taxes. It is expensive, and at times even illegal, to move significant assets off-shore to avoid government confiscation, but some limited hedging can be done by understanding tax laws, minimizing taxable income and acquiring “tax diversification” by using both tax-deferred and tax-exempt retirement accounts.

 

Devastation

 

Finally, military devastation is difficult to hedge against. Locating assets offshore (and ensuring your ability to get there) may work well in the event of localized military conflict, but in any type of Armageddon scenario, the health of your portfolio is likely to be of very minor concern to you.

Each of these “deep risks” has a different probability of occurrence and cost to insure against. There is no magic portfolio to protect against every risk, but an understanding of the true risks an adult investor faces can help guide you in designing and maintaining a portfolio highly likely to meet your financial goals.

Becoming an investing adult is a process, but one that you must go through, either on your own or with the assistance of a good adviser, if you wish to meet your financial goals.

 


Track your investments for free with Personal Capital. That's how I track the PoF portfolio.  

 

What do you think? How have you dealt with investing risk? Are their other considerations for becoming an investing adult? Comment below!

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7 comments

  • I’m an adult!

    This childhood to adulthood transition in investing concept is very important. The first step is to make a plan like you said by creating your investment policy.

    The fact that you are willing to invest already starts you on your course to adulthood as you are choosing delayed gratification over immediate gratification most children succumb to.

    It took me a bit but I would be overly concerned with how the markets did on short term basis mainly because of the impact on my net worth (never sold fortunately in a downturn).

    As I propped up my portfolio with other assets (mainly real estate) I didn’t see my net worth swing as wildly due to market changes and psychologically it was much better for me.

    I know the market in the long run should continue to go up and this is decades play not a daily one. That’s when I graduated to full adulthood

    • Congratulations, graduate! I think one criteria for investing adulthood could actually be paying less attention to your balances from day to day and the markets from hour to hour. Investing is a long-term play.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

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  • Ali

    Would you consider placing the ads at the end of your articles? I was initially deterred from reading your articles because of all of the adds. After listening to your podcasts I realized that your content was very good and started subscribing to your newsletter. The content is good as well but th ads are distracting.

  • It’s hard to ignore short-term volatility. I’ve been investing for over 20 years now and I still worry about a stock market crash. Hopefully, I’ll grow out of it someday.
    The 4 deep risks aren’t that stressful for me.
    Inflation and deflation can be overcome by investing in equity and bonds.
    Confiscation and devastation are low risks for US citizens. Do we really need to worry about that?

    • Lynne

      I felt his discussion on confiscation via taxation was noteworthy. It’s definitely a risk for those of us in the US. Quite frequently I’ll read another reputable news story about a politician who’s floating around an idea for legislation to change tax rules that apply to those with retirement savings. One I heard of was to force taxation on tax deferred savings prior to withdrawal, and earlier than current RMDs. That can really throw a wrench into one’s plans, and result in higher taxes owed than would be required otherwise.

  • Larry

    Ok, this may be a stretch, but regarding the inflation and deflation risk, I have a question about your 457b withdrawal strategy. Ok, stop laughing. Here is the link. You currently have the 457b in equities, but you plan to draw it down first over five years or so in your withdrawal phase (soon). You have said (in your ISP and elsewhere) that you plan to shift the funds in the 457b to bonds as part your withdrawal strategy. But will you keep some in equities to overcome inflation risk? And when will you make the transition to bonds relative to the first year of withdrawals. All a once? One, two, or three years before hand?

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