Black Swans are events that come as a surprise but have a major and disproportionately huge effect. In his book, “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that in today’s increasingly winner-takes-all world, Black Swans are becoming more frequent. Though not always bad, some Black Swans can lead to severe market crashes (most notably the Global Financial Crisis and the Covid-19 Pandemic). Somewhat related to my previous article on change and uncertainty, in this article, I will cover how investors can remain resilient in the face of volatility and uncertainty which is characteristic of our world today.
1. Respect uncertainty
While it is impossible to reliably predict recessions and market crashes, we can prepare for them by removing our vulnerabilities. As Charlie Munger once said “all I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there”. By reflecting on our potential pitfalls, we can become more financially resilient to crises. This applies not just to our portfolio but to almost all areas of life.
The most straightforward way to respect uncertainty is to have enough cash in reserve to act as a cushion because we never know what the future may hold. This is a point that I often repeat because having an adequate emergency fund is crucial. Having sufficient cash will help tide us over in the event of a prolonged downturn. For instance, if we did not have an adequate emergency fund during the Covid-19 Pandemic and were one of the unfortunate people who were furloughed, we would be forced to dip into our portfolio to tide us over. However, that period also coincided with a severe market downturn. Thus, we would have wound up selling some stocks at a significant loss. This highlights the importance of having sufficient cushion to avoid such a precarious situation which will require us to liquidate our portfolio at a loss. While this will mean that we will have idle cash on hand, this is the price to pay to be resilient, and one that we should be willing to pay.
2. Never depend on the kindness of strangers
Next, as resilient investors, we should never depend on the kindness of strangers. This means that we should avoid being in a spot where we are at the mercy of someone or something that is completely out of our control. A good example of this is to avoid excessive borrowing. While leverage can boost our returns in the short term, it diminishes our ability to stay afloat when disaster strikes. In other words, debt erodes our “staying power”. This is because when we take on debt, we are essentially promising the bank, or whoever we borrowed from, that we will consistently make a series of payments no matter whether times are good or bad. Thus, during periods of downturn when we may not have a stable source of income and our portfolio will likely be performing poorly, we will still be obligated to make payments. This is one scenario where we will be at the mercy of the creditor. More often than not, one will be forced to liquidate his assets at a loss just to meet the obligations. Thus, during the good times, take the opportunity to reduce and eliminate bad debt and avoid excessive leverage.
A corollary to this is that we should also avoid investing in businesses that take on excessive debt and/or are capital intensive. Such businesses have high fixed costs that need to be paid no matter whether times are good or bad. For instance, airlines consistently incur high fixed costs in terms of aircraft maintenance and typically have a debt-laden balance sheet. This means that even during periods where few planes are being flown (such as the past year and a half), cash is continuously being burnt. A company with high fixed costs will require a constant cash flow just for survival, making them more risky as they are more likely to go bankrupt during a severe crisis.
3. Instead of fixating on short-term gains or beating benchmarks, we should place greater emphasis on becoming shock resistant, avoiding ruin and staying in the game
As previously covered in my article on diversification, a certain degree of diversification can reduce the risk of our portfolios as the complete failure of a single holding will not lead to financial ruin. Indeed, doing so will incur an opportunity cost in terms of potential returns forgone. For instance, instead of having a hundred percent of our portfolio in cryptocurrencies that can potentially return 2x, 3x, or even 10x our money, we may be holding blue-chip stocks or making contributions to CPF that have lower returns. While I agree that diversification will mean that we will not be maximising our returns, I would argue that a sufficiently diversified portfolio is necessary to avoid financial ruin.
In fact, maximising returns should not be the goal if you are looking to create long-term wealth for your family and retirement. The goal should be wealth preservation and growing your savings at an adequate rate so that you can enjoy your golden years. If you are looking to create long-term, resilient wealth, you cannot operate like a heat seeking missile. Always be wary of greed.
This will also mean that there will undoubtedly be times when you may lag the market, but you must have the resilience to stay the course and trust in your framework.
4. Beware of overconfidence and complacency
During a bull market such as the one we are in the midst of now, we may be seduced by a false sense of safety. With every stock taking off to the moon, we may fall into a state of complacency and be overconfident of our ability to pick individual stocks. During such instances when the entire market seems to be defying gravity, we as investors should be keenly aware that this may signify excessive optimism in the market.
This quote from Warren Buffet can provide insight into how we should behave, “be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” When the market seems to be obsessed with chasing high returns, driving the valuations of companies sky high, all the more should we be wary of chasing fads.
This is not to say that we should attempt to time the market. We should stay the course and continue to dollar cost average. At the same time, abide by the timeless laws of the stock market which act like the laws of gravity. Continue to follow sound principles and invest in great businesses at a cheap prices. This will protect us from permanent loss when disaster strikes.
5. Always require a margin of safety and be keenly aware of your exposure to risk
Last but most definitely not least, the fifth method of being resilient is to always demand a margin of safety. A margin of safety in terms of investing can be seen as the percentage difference between the stock price and what each share is actually worth. A company selling at a price significantly below the intrinsic value of the company is said to provide a margin of safety. As resilient investors, we should demand an adequate margin of safety which acts as an insurance against mistakes, which are bound to happen. It is said that we should expect to be wrong a third of the time. Having a margin of safety means that even when we are wrong, we will not be severely wrong such that we will incur devastating losses. Shoot for the stars and land on the moon. On a similar note, we should focus on our exposure to risk. Always ask yourself “what could go wrong?” and “what is the consequence going to be?”. A margin of safety will help reduce the consequences of mistakes on our portfolio.
Similarly, the concept of a margin of safety applies to life as well. When we are making plans, we should also factor in a margin of safety. For instance, if we want to retire with a million dollars at 65, aim to hit a million by 55 and everything else will be icing on the cake. This way, even if we suffer a setback such as getting retrenched or falling severely ill, we have sufficient cushion and may still be on track to hit our goal. Shoot for the stars and land on the moon.
I find this quote from Jeffrey Gundlach, a successful investor and businessman, apt to sum up this article on how to remain financially resilient: “Make your mistakes nonfatal. It’s fundamental to longevity. And ultimately, that’s what success is in this business: longevity.” In essence, limiting our downside is key to building long-term wealth.