Portfolio Stability

February 14, 2016

Disturbed by the recent volatility in the stock market, some investors may be tempted to trade in some of their stock holdings for the price stability of a CD or savings account.  After a year of relatively little change, stock prices have oscillated wildly since China began to devalue the yuan at the beginning of the year.

Just this week, the price of JPMorgan Chase (JPM), one of the largest banks in the world, fell almost 5% one day then rose 7% the next.  Such abrupt price moves in a large multi-national company are driven less by fundamentals and more by fear.  As the price of oil fell below $30, hedge fund and investment managers began to doubt the safety of bank loans to energy companies, particularly those smaller companies whose fortunes have risen recently during the fracking boom.  Even if these types of loans were a miniscule portion of JPM’s total loan portfolio, investors remember that the financial crash began in 2007 with growing defaults of home loans that started a financial chain reaction of derivatives that blew up.  Sell, sell, sell, then buy, buy, buy.

Price stability is a term usually associated with measurements of inflation like the Consumer Price Index (CPI). A basket of typical goods is priced each month by the BLS and the changes in those prices are charted.  Each of us has a basket of investment goods that have varying degrees of price stability.  Stock prices vary a lot;  bond prices less so; house prices even less.  Cash type instruments like savings accounts and CDs have no nominal variation.

Each of us desires some degree of stability as we chug through the waters of our lives.  Like a ship we must make a tradeoff between speed and stability.  A stable ship must compromise between the depth and breadth of its keel, that part of the ship which is below water.  A deep keel provides stability but puts the ship at the risk of running aground in shallow water.  A broad keel is stable but increases the water’s drag, slowing the ship. (Cool stuff about ships)

It is no surprise that stocks provide the power to drive our investment ship.  Few investors realize that housing assets provide more power and stability than bonds.  We judge stability by the rate with which the price of an asset changes.  The slower the price change, the more stable the asset.  Over decades, residential housing has better returns and steadier pricing than bonds, although that might surprise readers who remember the housing bubble and its aftermath.

Many investors include the value of their home in their net worth but not necessarily in their investment portfolio and may underestimate the stability of their portfolio. Let’s imagine an investor with $750,000 in stocks, bonds, CDs, savings accounts and the cash value of a life insurance policy.  Let’s say that $375K is invested in stocks, $375K in bonds and cash equivalents.  That appears to be a middle of the road allocation of 50/50 stocks/bonds.  I will use bonds as a stand in for less volatile investments.

Let’s also assume that this investor has a house valued at $215K with no mortgage.  If we add in the $215K value of the house, we have a total portfolio of $965K and a conservative allocation closer to 40/60 stocks/bonds, not the 50/50 allocation using a more standard model.

We arrive at a conservative estimate of a house value based on the income or rental value that the house can generate, not the current market value of the house, which can be more volatile.  In previous posts, I have noted that houses have historically averaged 16x their annual net operating income, which is their gross annual rental income less their non-mortgage operating expenses. For real estate geeks, this multiplier is 1 divided by the cap rate.

Let’s use an example to see how this multiplier works.  Let’s say that the going rent for a modest sized house is $1600 per month and we guesstimate an average 30% operating expense, leaving a net monthly income of $1120.  Multiplying that amount by 12 months = $13,440 annual net operating income.  Multiply that by our 16x multiplier and we get a valuation of $215K.  Depending on location, this house might have a market value of $260K but we use  historic income multiples to calculate a conservative evaluation.

Our revised portfolio provides a more comprehensive perpective on our investment allocation and the stability of our “buckets.” During the past year, we may have seen a 5 – 10% increase in the value of our home, offsetting some of the apparent riskiness of a 10% or 20% move in the stock market.  Adjusting our portfolio assessment to allow for a home’s value might reveal that our stock allocation is actually a bit on the low side after the recent market decline and – quelle horreur! – we should be selling safer assets and buying stocks to maintain our target portfolio balance.  But OMG, what if stocks fall further?!  Then we might have to buy even more stocks to meet our target allocation percentages!  This is the essential strategy of buying low and selling high, yet it is so counterintuitive to our natural impulses.  We buy some assets when we are fearful of them.  We sell other assets when we think they are doing well.

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For anyone interested in housing as a business, the Wall St. Journal published a comprehensive guide, Wall St. Journal Complete Real Estate Investing Guidebook by David Crook in 2006. Recently, Moody’s noted that apartment building cap rates had declined to 5.5%, resulting in a multiplier of 18x that is above historical norms.

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