“Never Waste A Good Worry”

I joined a book discussion group and read the following in this week’s book: “As the world’s population reaches seven billion people, the earth is filled. Not only is the earth filled, human population is in danger of overwhelming the earth, and of making life exceedingly difficult for future generations.” The author seems thoughtful and concerned and his point seems reasonable. The only problem is that it’s completely wrong.

The aforementioned population problem (called the “Malthusian Trap”) is the crux of “Malthusian Theory,” which argues that the human population will overwhelm the available resources. These terms are named after Thomas Robert Malthus, who warned about these dangers in…1798. Or, put another way, over 220 years ago. This fear of overpopulation has been around for at least 220+ years and there are still people worrying about it. “Just wait,” they say. 

Another issue people have worried about for centuries is the national debt. Ever since Alexander Hamilton led the federal government’s decision to assume the colonies’ Revolutionary War debts (called “assumption”), Americans have been worrying about the debt. Thomas Jefferson famously opposed assumption, railed against the national debt, and even tried to pay it down while in office (just a couple years after Malthus penned his theory). Yet, like Malthus, Jefferson’s fear has not yet been realized after 200+ years. The national debt has been an issue in nearly every political election for 200 years, often framed as an imminent threat that is out of control. Yet, America grew from 13 rebel colonies to the wealthiest most powerful nation on earth. Of course, these debt worriers also say, “Just wait.”

Perhaps the global population will overwhelm the available resources or the national debt will drive America to ruin. But I wouldn’t bet on those things. I’d bet that agriculture and technology continue to improve as they always have and that we will not run out of resources. I’ll bet that the national debt will not harm the US in my lifetime. I could be wrong on either issue, but other side has been wrong for 200+ years on both issues. 

So, what does this have to do with investing? There are fears based on real risks and there are fears based on perceived risks. I obviously believe the above two issues are way more perceived than real, but there are many other less obvious examples where we tend to fear unnecessarily. Add in that humans are wired to overreact to fear, pessimism often sounds more convincing that optimism, and that we are easily seduced by logic and theories even when reality, history, and empirical evidence doesn’t agree. Clearly, there are times to be cautious and exercise caution, but not always.

To close, I’ll share that I was a worrisome kid (heck, I’m still a worrier). Whenever I shared a worry or fear with my dad, he nearly always gave me the same advice: “Matt, I’ve learned that most of my fears are never realized. Most of my worries never come to pass. I learned to ‘never waste a good worry.'”

The Credit Card Points Game

Photos from 2018 and 2019 trips that have been paid for with points. Clockwise from top left: trekking to Gokyo-Ri in Nepal (Everest in the background), family trip to Osaka in Japan, family trip to the Dolomites in Italy, diving off the coast of Belize. That’s 10 roundtrip tickets that I’ve bought with points in the past 18 months, plus 4 more to Hawaii very soon.

My family of four is headed to Hawaii this summer and our airfare is free. Well, I should clarify that we are technically paying for the airfare, but we are paying with points rather than dollars. I’ve written about my Hawaii strategy in the past, but the reality is that most of the international trips that I’ve taken over the past decade have been paid for with points. Playing the “credit card points game” is a great way to save on travel costs and I’ve certainly benefited from participating.

Without getting into the details of where the points come from, who pays for them, or how to maximize their value (check out thepointsguy.com or flyertalk.com for in-depth knowledge and strategies) below are some general guidelines for playing the credit card points game.

  1. The biggest value is in the sign-up bonuses. Opening a new card and spending some specified dollar amount within a few months typically yields tens of thousands of points. Although there are opportunities to arbitrage the difference in airfares that are denominated in points vs those denominated in dollars, most points are worth 1-3 cents each. Thus, the bonus from opening a new card can easily be worth over $1,000. Points can also be accumulated by spending, but a simple cashback card will often deliver the same value as a card offering points (~2 cents per dollar spent). A common strategy (called “churning”) is to open a new card and spend enough to collect the bonus, before moving on to another card, and repeating this over and over.
  2. Keep a spreadsheet. Many cards charge an annual fee upon account opening or after one year. These fees can offset a portion or even all of the benefit from sign-up bonuses, so it is important to cancel each card before an avoidable fee hits. Tracking multiple cards and when to cancel them can be difficult without a spreadsheet.

I should note that the credit card points game is not for everyone as the benefits can be more than offset in the following cases:

  1. Someone who cannot keep a spreadsheet and cancel cards as needed. Fees could wipe out the potential benefits.
  2. Someone who has trouble regulating their spending. Accumulating points could become an incentive to spend more than one would otherwise and could more than offset the benefit.
  3. Someone who needs the very best credit score. Churning is not typically impactful to someone’s credit score in the long-term, but I would not recommend opening multiple cards in quick succession immediately before applying for a mortgage as the lower score and resulting higher mortgage rate could more than offset the benefits from points.

Also, a final word of caution: the credit card points game can become a hobby in and of itself, similar to investing, sports, or politics. Just ask my wife, who instagrammed the below from a recent wedding:

Why I Don’t Post Specific Investment Recommendations

A good question that’s come up is, “Why don’t you post specific investment recommendations on the blog?”

Investment advice is personal and recommendations should be made within the context of an investor’s situation. To make a good recommendation, I’d need to know someone’s ability to take risk, willingness to take risk, time horizon, liquidity needs, tax situation, net worth, account details, and a lot more. I do not know everyone who reads this blog nor their financial details, so how can I make a recommendation? 

To illustrate the above, consider that I will often make different recommendations to the exact same client! Suppose a client has four accounts, but wants to invest all of them identically. I may recommend a specific index fund for one account, a different share class of the same fund for the second account, a different fund targeting the same index for a third account because it is taxed differently than the first two, and a separately managed account targeting the same index for the fourth account due to tax considerations. The client may be purchasing the same underlying holdings in all four accounts, but there are four different recommendations.

If I were to make a specific recommendation on this blog, I’d have to list out all of the nuances, caveats, exceptions, and so on. So I will leave the specific recommendations to the talking heads on CNBC and the writers who contribute to Seeking Alpha. Publishing specific recommendations for the general public is not something I want to do, nor do I believe it is especially helpful to individual investors.

Before You Open a 529…

Many of my friends are having kids these days, which means I’m being asked about 529s more than anything else. Below are just a few of the common questions:

  • “Should I open a 529?”
  • “Which company should I use?”
  • “How much should I contribute?”

Ready for the answers? My answer is:

  • Are you properly insured?
  • Is your estate plan in order?

If not, my advice is generally “Go get properly insured and engage an estate planning attorney. Before investing money for an uncertain future, invest to protect your family should anything unexpected happen.” The baby books don’t cover this, but this is Parenting 101.

Currency Issuers vs Currency Users

I’ve heard a lot of tax policy debates lately, perhaps due to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act or perhaps due to growing concerns about inequality. Of course, debating taxes is something of a national pastime (going back to British tax policies preceding the American Revolution) and I live in California (a state known for high income taxes).

An important foundational concept that is almost always overlooked in these debates is that there are two types of taxing authorities. There are currency issuers and there are currency users.

Countries like the US, the UK, Japan, China, Switzerland, and so on create their own currency. They are currency issuers. They do not need to collect taxes in order to spend or operate.

Cities, US states, and members of currency unions (like Eurozone members) use currency, but do not create their own. They are currency users. They cannot operate without tax revenue (unless they have credit and can borrow). 

Failure to distinguish between currency issuers and currency users or speaking about their respective policies synonymously is to misunderstand the nature of taxes.

MSCI World vs MSCI ACWI

Source: Bloomberg

When comparing the MSCI World Index vs the MSCI All-Country World Index the other day, I was surprised by how closely they’ve tracked each other over the past 30+ years. Since their inception in 1988, cumulative returns differ by just 5% while the annualized difference is .02%!

The MSCI World Index only includes stocks of “developed” markets (think the US, Western Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, etc), while MSCI ACWI includes stocks in both developed and emerging markets (think China, India, Brazil, etc). Since emerging markets have bounced around between 10-15% of global market cap in the past decade (and were much smaller prior to that), the risk and returns of the MSCI World and MSCI ACWI indices have been nearly identical.

What does this mean for investors? Firstly, I think its safe to say that selecting a vehicle and cost structure is more important than deciding between these two indices. A large index fund may have the edge with MSCI ACWI since it will likely have access to local exchanges in emerging markets, while an index-based SMA may hold an edge in MSCI World. Every investor and situation is different and these differences are likely larger than any difference between these two indices.

Secondly, if all else is equal, I would personally opt for MSCI ACWI due to its inclusion of emerging markets. If EM declines as a percentage of global market cap, then MSCI ACWI will likely match MSCI World. If it outperforms and increases as a percent of market cap from 10-15% to 20% or 25%, then there is some relative upside without much relative downside. Of course, all else is rarely equal.

RIP: Jack Bogle

Jack Bogle’s impact on investing is difficult to overstate. Although best known for founding Vanguard and launching the first retail index fund, Bogle’s largest impact may have been saving investors more money than anyone else in history. It still amazes me that someone would willingly turn down the opportunity for millions and billions for no reason other than to give it to others. Bogle was a rare breed and we are lucky to have his example (especially those of us working in the financial services). 

Rather than keeping ownership of Vanguard to himself, he structured the firm as a mutual company effectively owned by its funds’ investors. Bogle could have assured himself a much higher income and would have almost certainly become a billionaire many times over had he owned Vanguard outright. Instead, those billions and billions of potential profits subsidized the expenses of Vanguard’s funds and drove investor costs down. Of course, Vanguard has also driven costs down across the entire money management industry. It is difficult to say what the world would look like without Bogle or Vanguard, but I suspect we would all be paying a lot more expenses. So where does this extreme generosity come from?

Despite growing up in difficult circumstances during and after The Great Depression, Bogle always felt he had enough (he even wrote a book on the topic titled “Enough”). One of Bogle’s favorite stories to share was this one: 

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, the late Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, the author Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.” 

Bogle shared that Kurt Vonnegut had also taught him that:

“we should catch young people before they become CEOs, investment bankers, consultants, and money managers (and especially hedge fund managers), and do our best to poison their minds with humanity.”

Bogle had enough and he spent a lot of time imploring others to think and reflect on their professional responsibilities (as opposed to their business interests) and recognize the “true treasures” of life (rather than money). 

History is filled with “philosopher” kings and many billionaires grace us with their opinions that we should all adopt a mindset of enough. Yet, Bogle lived it until the very end. Just a few weeks ago, Bogle shared this in an interview:

Jane Wollman Rusoff: Any regrets?

Jack Bogle: No regrets. I’m not a “trillionaire” like Abby Johnson [Fidelity chairwoman], who is supposed to be worth [$15.4 billion]. I wouldn’t even know what to do with a number like that. We have a nice, small house. We have shelter when it rains, snows or is windy. The kids and grandkids are well. I have the Armstrong Foundation, which has now reached a decent size — and I feel like it could do some good for others.

RIP Jack.

World Population Cartogram

I’m continually amazed by the work that Max Roser, of Our World in Data, creates. I feel like I know population sizes fairly well, but I still learn something every time that I look at one of these maps. Click the image for the ginormous hi-res image.

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-cartogram

Inflation Rates vs Interest Rates

While recent posts have myth-busted the narratives that money printing causes inflation and money printing drives up rates, even a quick glance at the same data shows that there is a stronger relationship between inflation and interest rates. The conventional view is that long-term rates move in response to inflation, although it is worth noting that long-term rates are less volatile than the inflation rates that drive them. Thus, the R² (or goodness of fit) is not that high, but there is a visible correlation nonetheless.

We’ll start with the world’s largest economy, the US:

And the Euro Area:

China:

Japan:

And finally, the UK:

808 Years of Inflation Data!

I was recently looking up some UK inflation data and noticed that the Bank of England publishes inflation data going back to 1210!

Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

Since this is a a very short post and the inception of this UK data set slightly predates the life of William Wallace (a resident of the UK’s current borders), I feel compelled to share my favorite Braveheart meme (from the Scottish independence referendum of 2014).