Podcast: Scott Migliori — A Professional Investor’s Guide to Early Retirement
Episode 42 of the NewRetirement podcast is an interview with Scott Migliori — the former Chief Investment Officer for U.S. Equities for Allianz Global Investors and a Chartered Financial Analyst. We discuss Scott’s decision to retire early at age 48, the investment landscape, and how he manages his money in a highly volatile market.
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Full Transcript of Steve Chen’s Interview with Scott Migliori
Steve: Welcome to the NewRetirement Podcast. Today we’re going to be talking with Scott Migliori, the former chief investment officer for U.S. Equities for Allianz Global Investors. Scott is a CFA (chartered financial analyst) and retired relatively early at about 48 and has been managing his own money for the past four years. I met Scott through a local school here in Mill Valley, the same place I met Ken Goldberg, who was on our podcast to talk about AI and the future of work. We’ll link to that episode.
Steve: So today, we’re going to dive into Scott’s decision to retire early, the economy and how he manages his money. My sense is that Scott is dealing with more risk in his portfolio. So I thought this would be kind of a good counterpoint to our last episode where I had Glen Nakamoto on who built his own super safe retirement paycheck that has almost no risk in it. We are live in studio and doing this against the backdrop of the Coronavirus, the U.S. shutdown and restart in a year where the S&P has gone from 3,200, back down to 2,200 and now back to 3,200 and today is off 5%. So we’ll talk a little bit about that.
Steve: So with all that preamble, Scott, welcome to our show. It’s great to have you join us.
Scott: Thanks, Steve. Great to be here.
Steve: Yeah, appreciate your time. So as we get into this, I thought first, it’d be great to get a little bit about your background and I saw you had a law degree. I was just kind of curious how you got into portfolio management.
Scott: Yeah, it was a circuitous route to get to investment management. I was a practicing lawyer for two years and there were aspects I liked about it. I liked the intellectual challenge, I liked the analytical part of it, but I couldn’t stand having to build my time in 15 minute increments to some client every day. That got to be old really quick. And I also didn’t feel that I was necessarily adding much value to the long-term success of the people I was serving. As a lawyer, you’re sometimes just pushing paper and it’s not clear, ultimately, what value you’re adding to clients. So the beauty of the investment business is I was able to tap into the same analytical thinking that I was trying to do as a lawyer, but to do it in a way, ultimately, to benefit clients and their pension funds or their endowments.
Steve: Got it. So were you investing on your own before you started doing it professionally?
Scott: I was and I was able to get in the door as an intern for an investment management firm in Pasadena, California that was founded by a couple of ex-lawyers. So it wasn’t a strange thing for them to look for law backgrounds for new employees and they saw the same benefit, I guess, I ultimately did as well, which is it does teach you a way of thinking analytically and separating the forest from the trees, which is an important skill set for successful investing as well.
Steve: That’s interesting. It’s interesting to hear about that background. So one thing that on the technology side that I used to look at is finding people like musicians that tend to be good developers and coders because they think in different languages and they think a different way and there’s very often a correlation that is not obvious when you first see it.
Steve: So in that first stint, so this is before Allianz, were you managing institutional money or retail money?
Scott: Almost exclusively institutional. And I started out as a analyst covering healthcare and health technology, and then ultimately, expanded that into technology and software, in particular, and then ultimately, I became a portfolio manager. This would be back in 2000, which was a fun time to be in-charge of a portfolio as well, with the tech bubble and the collapse of that. So it was trial by fire in my first real portfolio management job. And then I ultimately joined Allianz in 2003 and worked as a portfolio manager there, and then ultimately, as the chief investment officer for U.S. Equity starting in 2010 until the time I left in 2016.
Steve: Wow. And how did you find your way into Allianz? Did you get recruited there?
Scott: I did. My wife and I, before kids, we were living in Southern California at the time, we were up in the Bay Area for a short trip to Napa and got a call from a headhunter recruiter on our way up here and it just so happened that we decided to extend our stay for a day. And as I’m sure a lot of people can relate to, the best time to find a job is when you’re not really looking for one. So I met with the folks at Allianz and just told them the way I looked at the market and looked at running money. I guess they liked what they heard and it was an opportunity to move to a larger opportunity set and a larger firm from the one I was at and we decided to do it. So we moved up here to Mill Valley in 2003 and been here ever since.
Steve: Wow. How much is your scope of control increase? I mean, chief investment officer equities sounds like a pretty massive at Allianz, which is a huge firm. Sounds like a big job.
Scott: It is a big job and it’s one of those roles that you have to be careful with because just because you’re good as a PM, which is a certain skill set in terms of building a portfolio and controlling for risk, being a CIO is a people job as well as an investment job. So you have to deal with personalities and deal with managing people and their portfolios in an indirect manner as opposed to hands-on direct. So that was a learning curve for me initially, but ultimately, I felt comfortable with it. And I looked at myself as mostly a player coach because not only was I managing different investment teams, but I was continuing to manage my own portfolio as well. So I tried to kind of lead by example in terms of how I was running my portfolio and using that as a guide for the folks that were reporting in to me.
Steve: Just for my own education, so when you came in as an analyst, how much money were you influencing? Were you managing anything directly yourself or just kind of like making recommendations?
Scott: I was making recommendations initially for other portfolio managers. Once I became a portfolio manager, obviously, the asset level that I was responsible for increased. From the jump to Allianz, clearly, it increased quite a bit. So I guess the time I was working in the late 2010 to 2016 time period, I was managing about 5 billion directly and responsible for overseeing about 20 billion.
Steve: Wow. And how does that relate to the fixed income side of the house? Because I know that insurance companies have a huge fixed income too.
Scott: Yeah, the U.S Equity piece in 20 billion, I guess, can sound like a large number. But in the overall scheme of things, the firm was managing 200 billion, a lot of that was in Europe and a lot of that was fixed income as well.
Steve: Got it. Yeah. And can you give me a sense for the size of the relative team? Were there hundreds of people on the whole investment group including fixed income?
Scott: Including fixed income, yes. In terms of the folks that I was responsible for, it was roughly 50 people and I didn’t manage all 50. They did not have a direct reporting line into me. I would be managing their head portfolio managers. So it was a manageable job for me because I only have 12 direct reports, even though it was 50 people in the equity department.
Steve: Got it. So a little bit more about this. In terms of your goals there, can you describe, were there kind of any special restrictions since you’re working inside of Allianz?
Scott: Well, I’m not sure how to interpret that question. I mean, there were definitely restrictions on my ability to trade my own account. They were fairly restrictive. Essentially, I got to the point where the easiest thing to do was just to put money into my own fund because it avoided any sort of appearance of conflicts of interest. There were specific clients that would have restrictions, no tobacco, no defense, those sorts of things. But otherwise, there were no mandates beyond that.
Steve: Yeah. Well, I guess I’m trying to think of so for retail consumer, some of them develop like an investment policy statement. They’re like, “Hey, this is my goal for my household. This is how I want to invest,” right? Was there a similar kind of charter for Allianz?
Scott: Well, because most of the money we managed was institutional, the expectation for the bulk of those clients was that we were their growth sleeve because most of the money I managed directly was growth and they expected us to be fully invested and to the extent they wanted to hedge or to offset their exposure that was within their purview, not something they were expecting us to do for them.
Steve: Got it. So when you’re doing this, you’re managing money on behalf of Allianz clients then, not Allianz’s balance sheet.
Scott: Correct. Correct. It was Allianz clients, correct.
Steve: Okay. Got it. That’s interesting. Was there a separate group that’s managing Allianz’s balance sheet?
Scott: Most of that was done on the fixed income side and most of that was done out of Europe. But my mandate, my world was third-party clients.
Steve: Okay, got it. I’m just curious why they invest through Allianz versus anything else.
Scott: Well, Allianz is a large insurance company, but they saw the profitability, and the margins and the asset management business, so they went on a buying spree, which included PEMCO, which included another equity manager, Nicholas Applegate, which included RCM, which was a company I joined in 2003. And then all of the equity arms, including Nicholas Applegate and RCM, were rebranded as Allianz Global Investors right around 2010 and that’s the time I took on responsibility for those what used to be independent equity shops.
Steve: Got it. That’s interesting. I didn’t realize that it was kind of like a roll-up in how that happened. Do you know how big it is now?
Scott: I know it’s grown because they’ve done some acquisitions. Their approach, not surprisingly, given the way the markets been going, is to expand their alternatives business. So they’ve made some acquisitions of alternative asset managers, but I don’t know what the AUM is currently.
Steve: Got it. Okay. And before we move on to your own situation, can you just give me a little bit about what a day in the life was like in terms of investing and managing the money at a big institution.
Scott: At Allianz, it was fairly structured. We had a analysts team covering all the major sectors from healthcare to technology to consumer financials, energy. And that analyst’s job was to develop models develop an opinion about the stocks, their coverage and then ultimately make recommendations to the portfolio managers such as myself. So we would have a morning meeting every morning at eight o’clock to essentially go over any new ideas or to do maintenance on existing holdings. And then that individual portfolio management teams would then have further meetings to discuss what trades, if any, they thought were appropriate from those discussions. A lot of my time was involved also client-facing, either pitching new business or maintaining client relationships. And then the third part of my day was what I would call administrative or essentially internal meetings to discuss new products development, headcount needs, et cetera.
Steve: Got it. Can you give me a sense for how quickly you guys turned over the portfolio, like how active you are?
Scott: It depended on the product. We have a global technology fund, which has been managed by the same two individuals for 20 plus years and they’ve had a tremendous track record and they also have very high turnover. So their turnover was typically over a hundred percent. With some of the products I managed directly, the turnover was more in the 30 to 50% range.
Steve: Got it. So basically, active investing.
Steve: And what’s your opinion on that? I mean, active versus passive.
Scott: Well, I think that there are inefficiencies in the market. Clearly, we’ve seen some of that just in the last few months with how extreme some of the moves have been. Capturing those inefficiencies consistently is very challenging and very hard to do. I think it’s easier the further down market cap you go. I think there’s more inefficiency in small cap companies. There’s less investment banks, there’s covering the stocks, there’s less research available. So I do think there are opportunities to capture outperformance versus a passive approach in areas where there is more inefficiency. So small cap, international, those types of areas. I think for large bellwether companies, it’s very difficult to outperform the market consistently versus a passive approach, especially when you take into account fees.
Steve: Got it. Yeah, I think this was part of, I don’t want to miss misconstrue this, but what DFA, Dimensional Fund Advisors, was doing there, when they’re investing, I think they look across, especially small caps, they’re trying to find equivalent companies. They treat them similarly and then try to look for those inefficiencies between “similar” equities in a certain sector. So if one is out of the out of range, they’ll buy that.
Scott: I think that’s right. I think you’ve seen a real rise in quantitative strategies that are designed to capture in hyper speed any sort of dislocation versus where things should be trading according to the quantitative model.
Steve: Yeah, interesting. All right, well, look, appreciate the color on Allianz. It’s pretty interesting. So on to you. When did you actually retire? How old were you?
Scott: You know, you said 48 and that sounded shockingly young, given what’s gone on the last four years, but I guess that’s right. So yeah, it was just about this time, four years ago was when I left the firm.
Steve: Wow. So yeah, I kind of have to imagine you were making a fair amount of money at that time. And so there you had this kind of big opportunity cost. How did you weigh this, decided to walk and did you kind of go cold turkey?
Scott: I don’t know if I’d call it cold turkey. I mean, it’d been something I’ve been thinking about for at least the year prior and it was a confluence of circumstances that got me to make the decision. One thing about the investment business, especially the active management business as we just discussed, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to outperform consistently and we had been fortunate enough, after 2015, to have a very strong runner performance on a one, three, and five-year basis, which was basically how I was graded and how I graded myself in terms of how good of a job I was doing. So I felt very good about where we were at. And I’ve been through enough battle and had enough battle scars to know that it’s not always going to be like that rewarding in terms of performance.
Scott: So I like the idea of being able to leave on a high note on my own terms, which is difficult to do in this business. I had enough money in the bank to feel like I wasn’t going to go into a complete panic or have my wife immediately kick me out of the house if I were to leave. And it had gotten to the point where a lot of my time was being spent on internal meetings and it’s a global firm with offices in London, and Hong Kong, and Frankfurt.
Scott: And I was finding myself increasingly spending time in internal meetings and on an airplane with young kids who are just, I have twins, boy and girl, that were just entering first grade at the time, and I wanted to spend more time with them and have the luxury of watching them grow up and be involved as a coach or a teacher as needed, which has been needed more frequently recently with the lockdown. So it was a confluence of various factors. But at the time, it wasn’t with the idea necessarily that this is it. I’m never going to work again. It was more of a long term sabbatical, which, to be honest, is still sort of how I look at it.
Steve: Yeah, I think the idea of taking mini retirements, sabbaticals, mid-career is becoming a more prevalent idea, especially for millennials when they look at their career and they look forward for all of us, right? Because we could be working longer, different kinds of careers. I actually just happened to see something on Next Avenue this morning about how older workers are becoming independent contractors or self-employed more. So if you’re working at 65, there’s a 40% chance that you’re self-employed. If you’re working at 70, it’s like 60% more. If you keep on working, it goes to be like 80%. So basically, we all become self-employed if we keep working in some capacity. So that’s interesting. How was your health? Did your health factor into this at all?
Scott: I was not happy with sitting on my butt most of the day. I wouldn’t say I had any health problems, but when I actually was able to retire four years ago and actually become more active, which was part of the plan, was to have more balance in my life, not only spending time with family, but doing things that I wanted to do and taking up hobbies that I’d put on the back burner. So it was amazing how quickly the pounds came off, at least, for the first years. I guess I didn’t realize how out of shape I was until I actually started getting more physically active.
Steve: Yeah. By the way, I’ve started testing intermittent fasting by cutting out breakfast. I used to be a firm believer in breakfast is the most important meal. I was talking with a friend of ours and he was like, “It’s the easiest meal to skip,” and he’s right. It’s very hard to skip like dinner and then you’re starving by lunch.
Scott: Yeah. I’ve experimented with a variety of different diets over the last four years and I think Do think intermittent fasting, not to get off on a tangent, but I find it helpful. I can’t say I always commit to it, but going 14 hours between meals, between dinner and whenever you breakfast, 14 to 16 hours, I do find that I have more energy throughout the day and also, it’s easier to maintain a certain weight level.
Steve: Yeah. I think it’s definitely been an experiment. It’s affecting my blood sugar and I think that affects my energy level. So in our team it was like, “How much coffee have you had?” I’m like, “One cup of coffee but no food.” All right, last comment on this just on my side. There’s another guy I know that ran a hedge fund and had a great run, but also got super unhealthy and then kind of wounded up, wrapped it up and was much happier after he made that move.
Steve: Okay, cool. So, did you have, just for our audience, a metric that you had for like do I have enough and how did you measure it, by asset level or by like hey, I can create some amount of income? How did you kind of think about that? Because you’re 48 years old, a healthy, maybe with health advances, maybe you’ll live until about 80. That’s 32 years. That’s a long time.
Scott: Yeah. Well, I guess by the time I get 80, if I’m fortunate to make it there, by then the average life expectancy might be even higher. So you have to plan ahead and hope you end up with more than you need. And obviously, everyone has their own ambitions and desires for what they want to leave behind to their children or to their favorite charity or cause, so that’s no different for me. I guess when I left, again, because I was looking at it as more of a extended sabbatical than I have to have all the chips I’m going to need for the next 40 years in place, I did not leave with certainly not with an excessive financial cushion versus what you know our monthly expenses require.
Scott: So it requires that, to your point earlier, I have a certain risk budget and a certain target return in order to maintain this lifestyle. And for me, that’s four to 5% annualized. Obviously, not every year is going to be that, but that’s my target return. I guess the flip side of that is that I look at that as being driven off of my investable assets, not my total assets. Living in this area, obviously, there’s a certain amount of equity in your home that’s significant versus perhaps other areas in the country.
Scott: And I also look at it in terms of what’s been, I guess, roughly defined as the 4% rule in terms of how much can I draw down my AUM and still feel like I have a comfortable retirement and I’m not on total asset basis. I’m not close to that. 4%, so I feel some comfort there. Yeah. But yeah, it’s not for the faint of heart. It does require that I’m actively involved and looking for investment opportunities, but certainly just buying CDs, which are now yielding basically zero, is not going to get me to my four to 5% return.
Steve: Yeah. Right. With that framing, are you happy with your decision? I mean, it sounds like you’ve traded, you’re professionally managing money personally, but you still have risk. You still have some stress around that.
Scott: Oh, yeah. For me, personally, I like having that stress. I mean, when you retire, certainly when you retire early, it’s not sufficient. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient to have enough money in the bank to feel like you can pay your bills for the next however many years. You have to have a social network that you’re comfortable with. You have to have things that get you out of bed in the morning and fire you up, whether it coaching your kids or some other activity that you really are passionate about, because otherwise you can get bored and depressed fairly quickly, I think, if you don’t have basically some things that fire you up. And for me, obviously, I’ve got young kids still, which keep me busy. But I also know that I got to get up in the morning and make some investment decisions that are going to allow me to maintain the lifestyle, otherwise, I got to go start looking for a job
Scott: I’d say I have a comfortable amount of stress. Obviously, when things happen, like happened in March, then my stress level is higher than average. And then there’s other times it’s not as high. But I enjoy it. I kind of thrive on looking for scary opportunities where people are fearful and seeing if I can find a way to make money off of that.
Steve: Yeah, you’re probably pretty busy.
Scott: I was very busy in March, in particular, between what was going on in the market and being told that all the schools were closing down and we had to do essentially a combination of distance learning and homeschooling.
Steve: Yep. Yeah, no, that’s been definitely challenging. So how many hours a day do you spend managing your portfolio?
Scott: Well, in terms of actually trading, I’m not a day trader by any means. I mean, there are certainly times when I’m more active than others. So in terms of actually pulling the trigger and doing things with a portfolio, it’s not that much of my day. But the thing that’s wonderful, I guess, about the investment business and why even as being retired I’m not bored is you can think about the market or you can think about investment opportunities literally 24 hours a day if you are so inclined.
Scott: So I’m thinking about what’s going on in the world as it relates to my portfolio half the day and part of that is by studying up on what’s going on with Coronavirus and part of that’s obviously staying in tune with what’s going on politically, what’s going on in terms of both fiscal and monetary policy. I mean, that’s a lot, but it’s fascinating to me and it does ultimately have a bearing on how I position the portfolio. But, on an average day, I mean, it’s at least four hours and it could be a lot more than that I’m actively spending thinking about what to do with the portfolio.
Steve: So you’re kind of thinking about, okay, here are the larger moves that I think I’m going to make. This hedge fund guy I mentioned earlier, one of the things he did is I think he saw oil tank is like all right, it’s just like it up the floor and he jumped in and quadrupled his money. I have another friend of ours that knows the read space. Those got crashed. He jumped in and he’s five, 10X his money, but he was in and out. He’s actively trading. I mean, obviously, we’re not a proponent of active trading, but if you see inefficiencies or big dislocations, there’s some things that are that obvious or at least you feel are a good risk reward. You’re priced in to some degree.
Scott: Right. Well, market timing or tactical asset allocation has a negative connotation to it for a lot of people. But I do think if you look at your portfolio and you have a certain risk budget, you’re going to want to take up risk when there’s more fear in the marketplace, where there’s more extreme movements in whatever asset class you’re looking at, whether it be commodities or oil or real estate or just equities in general. So there are certain flags that I monitor in terms of put-call ratios, in terms of volatility levels as measured by the VIX and in terms of just overall sentiment indicators.
Scott: When they do get extreme and it does happen from time to time, and it certainly happened in March, that’s when I feel like the risk reward is much more of my favorite and be more aggressive. Now, how aggressive I guess depends on your risk tolerance. For me, I’m never going to bet the ranch, so to speak, given where I’m at with my family and my investment needs. But it certainly makes me feel comfortable being much more exposed to equities when you see those sorts of dislocations than when you’re seeing more of a complacent attitude in the marketplace.
Steve: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you my story, and this is not investment advice. This is on my side, I was long cash. I had felt like the market was inefficient or highly priced. Then the market tanked and so I started dollar-cost averaging into index funds, into S&P, SPY and stuff like that on the way down, and I think in retrospect, that was probably a good move. But now, the markets come roaring back, everyone’s watching this. The economy is crawling back, but the Fed is pumping money out and I think a lot of that’s going into assets.
Steve: I don’t know if we’re done with this whole… I feel like this is largely driven by what’s happening with the pandemic and how that gets resolved. I know the markets for looking, but it definitely… and we get a lot of questions from our users and just in general like, does this make sense? How does this make sense with the stock market right back to where it started at the beginning of the year? But you look around and you’re like, okay, 20% unemployment. 15 to 20 million people unemployed. Businesses largely on hold or some businesses on hold. How do you make that fit in your mind?
Scott: Well, I guess first point is the S&P is not the economy, right? If you look at the composition of The S&P 500, it’s a very healthy allocation to technology in some cases, companies like Amazon, which are benefiting from the lockdown, and from the pandemic, and what has become an accelerating trend towards online shopping. If you add up Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft, which benefits through their cloud business as well, you get 40% of the S&P you could arguably say is benefiting from the pandemic. So that’s, I guess, the first point.
Scott: The second point is, as you referenced, Fed policy has been extremely accommodative. You have interest rates taken to zero quite quickly and you have now a two trillion and counting expansion of the Fed balance sheet, including, for the first time, a willingness, although it’s unclear where they’ve actually pulled the trigger, but at least a willingness to buy not only investment grade, but, to some extent, high yield bonds through ETFs.
Scott: So you had what could have been a massive dislocation in the credit markets remedied quite quickly by that Fed action. So the Fed went to whatever it takes, so to speak, quite quickly. Partly, I think, because we’re not that far removed from the great financial crisis where I think there was a painful lesson learned in going too slowly and waiting for Lehman to go bust before the Fed really went all in. In this case, they went all in quite quickly. So from a Fed policy standpoint, you’re at max bullish in terms of how much accommodation is being pumped in the system.
Scott: The other point I’d make in terms of why I think the markets been more resilient maybe than people expected is typically, in an economic cycle, it’s not obvious that you’re going into recession. It’s a slow gathering of excess inventory, of excess spending and as that starts to unwind, there’s a lot of denial about that usually by market participants. So people dig their heels in, they don’t raise cash until it becomes painfully obvious that there’s a downturn and that typically takes several months, if not quarters, before people accept the economic situation.
Scott: In this case, we had a global lockdown. There was no disputing that we were going into recession. So what typically would take months and quarters in terms of people raising cash took place largely in one month. So to the extent people wanted to sell, most people sold and raised a lot of cash right away. So that’s put a lot of people offsides with what’s going on and you’re seeing a lot of money that was put onto the sidelines is now being, in some cases, forced to be put back into the market. So I’d say positioning, investor positioning is another factor that’s helping the market here.
Scott: And then the final point is obviously profits and what kind of profit outlook are we going to have going forward? The market is forward looking and with interest rates at zero, if you look at market values as essentially discounted cash flows, obviously, we have zero percent interest rates, people are going to look out pretty darn far in terms of what the profits are going to look like not this quarter or next quarter, but next year and the years after that.
Scott: And that’s where I think the risk still lies is how quickly does the economy improve? How quickly do overall profits, especially on the cyclical side of the economy, recover? And I think the jury’s still out on that. So I think you will have volatility, you will have days like today where people start questioning exactly how fast the economic picture is recovering. But I think it would take not only a second wave of infections, but a second wave so severe that the decision was made to shut down the economy again in order for the market to really go back and retest the old lows. I think we’d have to it would be that sort of scenario that would be required to see a real significant drawdown back to the old lows. And I think the bar politically to locking down the economy again is extremely high.
Steve: Yeah, I think Mnuchin was out today saying it’s almost not going to happen. But, no, that’s a great way to look at it. I also think you’re kind of making the argument for being more active because there’s clear winners and losers in that, right? Airlines, cruises, hotels, restaurants, commercial real estate with work from home. There’s certain parts of this economy that are on the ropes and I don’t think coming back anytime soon, conferences, right? And there’s certain parts that are winning like anything digital. eCommerce, stuff like that, Amazon], all that kind of stuff.
Scott: Yeah, I mean, the way I look at it is there’s your steady state portfolio, which is a lot of the companies and themes you just described in terms of more online presence, more cloud-based activity. That’s where the trend was going before this happened and it’s now the trend until the economy bounces back and even then maybe you will have more working from home just as a secular trend going forward. I certainly think it’s possible. So I do think that’s sort of your base portfolio.
Scott: But there are times when, whether it be cruise lines or commercial real estate place, when they get to the point where they’re so oversold, people are just assuming that they’re going to zero, then I think it makes some sense to have a bit of a barbell to the portfolio where you have your safe havens or your secular winters, if you will, but you do find some capital available to put to work and in some of these downtrodden names, especially when the sentiment on those areas are quite negative because if and when we do get a vaccine, obviously, that’s going to be great for the biotech company that helps to come up with that vaccine. But it’s also going to mean a lot more people are going to feel comfortable going back on a cruise line or going back on an airplane if they feel like we’re at the point where there is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a cure for their COVID.
Steve: Right. Do you have any point of view on the odds that we’ll see a vaccine?
Scott: Well, we’re all amateur epidemiologists now. I would say that if we do develop a vaccine in the next 12 months, it would be a first. These types of diseases whether it be smallpox or other Coronavirus type disease states are not easily decoded and it would be a historic first if we have a vaccine in the next 12 to 18 months.
Steve: Yeah. Quick sidebar on this. One of the things I’m seeing on Twitter is there’s jokes going around about all these Robinhood investors. So you’ve got young investors, you got zero trading fees, and then he’s saying things like Hertz. So Hertz declares bankruptcy, goes to the floor, and then it’s up like 12X or something. Any lessons there?
Scott: Well, it’s interesting. You also have another startup, a fuel cell truck company that has no factory and no product and just basically came public a few days ago or a couple weeks ago that’s already got a larger market cap than Ford or GM. So I think the answer to what you pointed out with Robinhood Traders as well as these pockets of just pure speculation are the byproducts and the perhaps unintended consequence of having zero interest rates and also zero trading costs, is you’re still going to have these pockets of speculation in various aspects of not just the stock market, but I’m sure in other asset classes as well and that’s the danger of having zero percent interest rates for too long.
Steve: Yeah, I mean, I read once, and I think this was right, that behind every bubble is loose credit, the wide availability of credit. And that kind of feels that way right now, right? There’s money being pushed. Well, there’s PPP loans, there’s, low interest rates, so you can get cash and start deploying it in crazy ways. How do you think this unfolds over time?
Scott: Well, I think right now, as I said, it’s pockets, it’s small pieces of the market that aren’t enough to cause any sort of economic impact as far as I can tell. So I think we’re a long way from that. The question is going to be now that the Fed has basically committed to not raising rates for the next two years, if not longer, the longer they stay at zero, then the more speculative excess could ultimately build. Now with 13% unemployment and no inflation anywhere to be seen and a lot of what I think will be excess capacity, I think we’re long ways away. But the risk will be further out one, two, three years down the road. If they stay accommodative for too long, then you could end up with a bigger problem in terms of asset bubbles.
Steve: Yeah. I mean, everyone’s been afraid of inflation for a long time with this stuff, but we don’t see it. Is the bigger risk deflation?
Scott: Well, that’s what they’re fighting against. When I say they, I mean policymakers in the Fed in particular. I think they realize that they have a lot of history in terms of how to handle inflation in terms of raising interest rates and other policy maneuvers. No one has figured out yet really how to handle deflation and everyone’s worried about being the next Japan in terms of just being at a point where you’re pushing on a string. And even when you cut rates, it doesn’t really have an impact on stimulating economic activity or creating inflation. And I think that’s part of why they went to zero as quickly as they did is the lessons they’ve learned in terms of how to manage deflation is to be very aggressive very quickly.
Steve: Got it. So just real quick back to your own point of view on this, so you feel like okay, unlikely we’re going to shut down the economy again. Hopefully we get a vaccine, so we’re unlikely to retest the low. So does that mean for you, yourself, as you look at what’s happening today, are you risk on, you’re going to be in Investing if the market goes down or are you raising cash at this point because we’re thinking it’ll draw down a little and then you’ll get back again?
Scott: I’m not that good to be that nimble. Like you, when the market was in a freefall in March, I was putting money to work into equities. I did take some profits along the way. So now I’m what I would call at a fairly neutral allocation versus what I target and we can certainly get into that in terms of what a target asset allocation is for someone like myself. But the mode I’m in right now is to buy on weakness. So on days like today, yeah, I’ve put a little money to work, but it would require a more significant drawdown to be significantly more aggressive.
Steve: Got it. Can you share a little bit about what your target asset allocation is and how much that moves and also how you decide what to draw out because you actually have to take money off the table every year to pay for this.
Scott: Yep. So there’s no perfect answer. I think it depends on everyone’s circumstances. I guess the starting point for me is another old adage is that your equity allocation should be a hundred minus your current age and of course, now everyone’s living longer, I think that’s probably not sufficient in terms of equity exposure, so my equity allocation is higher than that would imply. But my target equity allocation for where I’m at currently is roughly 63%. That’s what I benchmark myself against. That does change with each passing year in terms of what my target allocation is to equities. I do bring it down each year as I get older.
Scott: I guess what a lot of Financial websites would tell me is that I should have about 25% in fixed income. But given where interest rates are currently, I can’t get comfortable allocating that much to fixed income. So I have significantly less than that in fixed income. So a decent portion of my allocation is into alternative asset classes and within that I would include commodities, real estate, and private equities/venture capital investments, and that’s roughly about 10% of my overall portfolio.
Scott: And then I keep maybe too much, but for my risk tolerance, it’s an amount that I comfortable with in terms of the amount of cash I hold, I hold a significant amount of cash relative to I guess what most people would recommend. So 10% cash is typically what I’m holding on to and that’s in part an answer to your question to make sure that I can pay the bills for a year or longer if the market were to go into protracted downturn and it’s also to be in a position to put money to work in times like we had in March without having to sell anything to fund those investments.
Steve: Got it. And in terms of your assets, what’s the split between taxable and qualified money?
Scott: Unfortunately, I guess, in terms from a tax perspective is most of my assets are in taxable accounts.
Steve: Do you ever consider using debt, like leveraging home equity or margin accounts or anything like that?
Scott: Now, I guess I never say never, but that’s a road I am not comfortable traveling down for now, what I would consider to be a moderate risk-taking profile like myself.
Steve: Right. I mean, you could see holding maybe a little bit less cash and then hitting that if you needed to. One of our other guests who’s in real estate, he’ll leverage up his debt to fund his real estate investing, which he knows really well and he feels comfortable doing that.
Scott: Yeah. Certainly, the way I’m handling things, it is not what I would call a high risk way of managing money.
Steve: Yeah. Got it. So 63% equities. That’s a pretty targeted number. Roughly.
Scott: Yeah. I guess I should’ve said 60 to 65. But where I’m at right now, it’s roughly 63.
Steve: Awesome. Okay, and then anything you do like to hedge risk yourself? I mean, it’s really portfolio allocation is what it is and then cash.
Scott: Yeah. Well, cash, obviously, is a risk mitigator. Some of my fixed income holdings, trade, at least some short-term time timeframes counter to equity moves. So I have some exposure to long-term treasuries, for example, not a lot, but some exposure which are great. Hedging vehicles on days like today, I do own some gold, which I would say is fairly uncorrelated with equities, usually. And then I do short individual securities when I feel like there’s a complete dislocation from the fundamentals. Those would be my primary hedging vehicles.
Scott: The scary thing about companies that declare bankruptcy is it doesn’t keep their stocks from going up or down 30 or 40% a day. So no, I’d stay far away from those sorts of situations.
Steve: Okay. Does anything keep you up at night?
Scott: Well, we talked about risk. The way I look at risk now in the seat I’m sitting in is somewhat different when I was managing against the benchmark for clients, then any sort of volatility or standard deviation around that benchmark was one way of looking at risk. For me now, what keeps me up at night, the general risk is that I screw up and I can’t pay the bills because I’m on the wrong side of the market for too long a period. But again, that’s why they have cash, that’s why they have a diversified portfolio. Yeah, so what keeps me up at night is not that different to what used to keep me up when I was doing it professionally. It was just making sure that I’m on the right side of the market, especially when we’re at extreme situations.
Steve: Do you think there’s a way for normal people to do this? One of the things that… and we’ll talk to you. So you’re the former chief investment officer at Allianz, right? You can do this. You know how this works. You’re comfortable with risk and quantitative side of this. And it’s not trivial what you’re doing. And then last time, you probably didn’t listen to this, but we had Glen Nakamoto on, he’s a former analyst he’s a cyber security person, pretty sophisticated person, just got really into it. He built the super safe paycheck with optimizing social security. He’s also older. He’s probably approaching… I think he’s at 70 now. But he bought and he just kind of guaranteed himself enough income, for income and he’s like okay, but that’s still also wasn’t simple what he did. Do you think that there’s any simple way for people to kind of do what you’re doing or do you have to be this super sophisticated person?
Scott: I think if you feel comfortable, you have sufficient assets to retire, it’s not that hard and there’s a lot of companies, including yours, that are capable of recommending a asset allocation, a static asset allocation specific to your circumstances that would include equities, fixed income, alternatives, et cetera, and just to leave it as a passive way of investing, that’s something a lot of people could certainly take advantage of.
Scott: I think the tricky part comes when you want to be active and you want to try to add value above and beyond what that static portfolio would deliver, which is what I’m trying to do. Then you have to be comfortable with a higher level of risk and you have to be comfortable buying risk assets at a time when everyone you were listening to on the TV or on the telephone is telling you you’re crazy to be doing it because those are the best opportunities.
Steve: So I also imagine you’re shooting for, exceeding, you’re taking out four to 5% a year but you’re trying to beat that.
Scott: I’m not taking out four to five. I’m still targeting building wealth, so I’m taking out less than four 4% a year in terms of paying the bills and I’m so far generating with obviously some tail winds from the market. Until recently, I’m generating more than 5% per year in terms of investment return. So yes, I’m looking at what I think my target allocation should deliver and then I’m trying to add one to 2% per year above and beyond that.
Steve: Yeah. So the proponents of index investing will say, “Okay, well, if you look back at the market long-term and if you’re broadly invested, you might see a 6% nominal rate of return, you’ll see 2% inflation, so you get a 4% real rate of return if you just throw it into a passive portfolio, which is hard to beat.
Steve: And so you’re trying to beat that by 1%, but that’s actually 20% more than the markets returning, which is not insignificant.
Scott: Compounded over time that would be pretty helpful.
Steve: Yeah, totally. By the way, that’s one of the arguments we make for why I want to look at your fees because you’re rolling them out with a financial advisor, they’re saying, “Oh, it’s just 1%.” Yeah, well, if you take 1% and compound it over like in a 30-year time frame, it ends up beating 30 to 40% of your potential total returns because you lose the fees every year, you lose the compounding on those fees. So it’s massive and that’s the whole argument for Vanguard driving their fund fees down and then also people taking a hard look at like, what am I paying, and advice fees and stuff like that.
Scott: Yeah. I have a lot of friends that are financial advisors and I don’t want to speak ill of their business model, but I do think it’s not as hard as most people probably think to build your own well-balanced portfolio given your specific circumstances using low fee ETFs.
Steve: Right. Our belief is that asset allocation has been commoditized. The robos have done it. Certain robos, like personal capital, they’re building a business model based on 90 basis points. I know they have fantastic tools, but I just wonder long term if that’s going to be a winner. And then you got Vanguard on the other side of this that’s like, hey, how low can we get our fund fees, and Kellogg, we make our services and groups like ours that are trying to automate a lot of this stuff.
Steve: Okay, this is great. So we have a couple questions from our users when we put this out in our Facebook group. Here we go. Ready? From Scott B., he wants to know how you’re handling the collapse bond rates and where your projections for your own plan using long term historical rates of return. We kind of touched on this a little bit, but your current projections, have you changed them, I guess, in light of what’s happening with super low interest rates?
Scott: I haven’t changed any projections but it has made fixed income a less attractive investment vehicle have in most cases, certainly traditional diversified bond vehicles. So I do think there’s still opportunities. If you believe as I do that we’re going to be in a deflationary type environment with protracted level of low long-term interest rates, then there are ETFs that you can invest in investment grade long-term bonds. They can still capture 3% plus returns with, in my mind, not a huge amount of risk.
Scott: So there are ways of shifting within fixed income to still generate a decent return without taking on inordinate risk. Or there’s also, as I’ve done, just other opportunities outside of fixed income, whether it be real estate or other alternatives, that perhaps do increase your risk level but if they’re done in a educated fashion, I think can generate commensurate return. So that’s the way I’ve handled the collapse in interest rates is just to allocate away from fixed income and find other opportunities for the most part. I don’t know if that answers the question.
Steve: Yeah, no, it’s super helpful. One thing that was interesting for me when I was looking at low and then negative interest rates, so bonds themselves can pay a terrible interest rate, but the bond price can keep rising as long as interest rates keep going. So you can have a zero percent bond, but if the next bond is paying negative 1%, the zero percent on price goes up.
Scott: If you look in, and I’ve owned and I still own a 20-year treasury bond ETF, it’s TLT. It’s fairly well-traded, and to your point, it’s exactly that. I mean, as long as there’s downward pressure on long-term interest rates, you can make a decent amount of money and those types of vehicles at this point. You do eventually get to agree or full theory where you’re really betting on interest rates going below zero in order to make any significant return.
Steve: Well, I think that’s another large question. I mean, we have negative interest rates in Europe, we have in Asia. I think it’s finally going to happen or starting to happen here, right? They’re worth looking at that.
Scott: Well, if you believe the Fed, that’s certainly not top of their list of tools they want to use. And I think there’s more chance and it’s more likely what we’re going to see is what’s called yield curve control or rate caps where they basically, instead of targeting a certain amount of assets they’re going to purchase, they’re actually going to target an interest rate level, perhaps the five-year as well as the 10-year bond, which would be new, but I think that’s more likely to happen before you’re going to see any appetite for going below zero.
Steve: Do you think what the Fed is doing is kind of messing up price discovery or making the market inefficient because they’re just pushing things up?
Scott: I think short-term, certainly, there was a change in the dynamics in both investment grade and high yield bonds when they talked about entering into those markets and purchasing securities. You had a collapse and credit spreads despite, as you mentioned, 20% or 18% unemployment, which you wouldn’t typically see. So they’ve had an impact. And to your point on price discovery, if they do go towards rate caps, which I think is very possible later this year, that will alter the message you normally would get from bond prices. So I am concerned about that in terms of using fixed income as a guide for where the equity market should be. I think that’s going to become more difficult to extent the Fed engages in capping interest rates.
Steve: Got it. Thanks. All right, well, another question from Tommy V. What are some of the reasons that you feel confident you’ll be emotionally fulfilled during the sabbatical and mini retirement without the structure from work?
Scott: It’s a great question and I touched on this earlier in terms of having sufficient funds to retire is not enough. I think to enjoy retirement, you have to have, for me at least, some organization to your day, some things that get you excited about getting up and getting out there. And for me, it’s a lot of involvement with my children’s sports activities, in terms of helping to coach either baseball or basketball, et cetera. It’s pursuing some things I’m passionate about, including tennis, which I put a lot of time into with very little progress, I have to say, but it’s still something that I get excited about and just investing. I mean, the beauty about retiring into a role of investing my own money is I’m still doing what I consider the best part of my job when I was working, which is staying current on what’s going on in the world and applying that to investment decisions.
Scott: So that to me is fulfilling. Will it still be fulfilling in five years when the kids are older and either no longer want or no longer need me to be as involved in their day to day lives? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the time I would go back in consulting, part-time, independent contractor, you name it. But for now, it is pretty satisfying.
Steve: Do you get calls from headhunters?
Scott: The phone doesn’t ring as much as it did a couple years ago. I mean, I realized that there’s a longevity issue in terms of the longer you’re out of the workforce, the harder it’s going to be to go back in at least in the type of role I was in before. So for me, part of the reason I keep track of my performance as closely as I do to the extent I went back to “work”, it would probably be expanding beyond this running family money, but including some friends and others and managing money for them as well.
Steve: Got it. Yeah, maybe we should start a fund. Yeah. Okay, so last question here from Thomas W. Have you thought about doing things like an annuity to kind of generate income and build a floor income and do you think about social security? I mean, you’re still 10 years out from when you could claim this though.
Scott: On the social security side, I don’t include that in my thought process because it is far out and, to be honest, I haven’t done the math on what that check is going to look like given how old I was when I retired or how young I was, I guess, when I retired. And on the annuity side, no, especially given my current age, I I’m willing to take risk and I like to stick to my knitting in terms of asset classes that I’m familiar with and have done well for me in the past. So I’m comfortable with the investment vehicles that I have in front of me in terms of deploying risk capital.
Steve: Got it? All right, I’m going to ask you a couple more investing questions and then we’ll wrap it up. Just as you look forward, we talked a little about the recovery, do you have a point of view about what this might look like in the U.S. and worldwide?
Scott: I have a base guesstimate, which I think all you can do right now. I guess maybe the caveat or the point I should make before projecting is just I tried to increase my equity exposure, increase my risk exposure when, again, like we had in March and other periods of the last few years, when people seem panicked when there’s more extremes because then I don’t feel like I have to necessarily be right on what my baseline projection is for the economy or earnings a year or two out because the odds are in my favor that I’m going to make money regardless when things are in a panic mode.
Scott: Now that things are a little more steady state, it’s more challenging and you do have to give your best shot at looking out. My best guess based on what I’m seeing and what I’ve read and learned about the virus and the likelihood that you probably will see some sort of second wave I guess, you might argue we’re already seeing in some cases in terms of a pickup in cases in areas like Texas, for example. But my sense is that we’ll get probably a stronger second wave in the fall, right around the time we typically have a seasonal flu, which could result in a fairly scary time period where you’re having people anytime they get a cold or the sniffles or any sort of fever panic that they have COVID, rushing to the hospital when maybe what they have is just a seasonal flu. So you could see concern about hospital capacity reemerge in, say, October. So I do think that’s something we have to deal with.
Scott: This is also an election year, which usually, putting pandemic aside, usually there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of concern, given the policy differences between Republicans and Democrats, which probably grown even larger over the last few years that typically creates a cloud of uncertainty around the market, which makes headway in progress difficult. So I do think those are two things near term that could put a cap on the equity market performance as well as economic recovery.
Scott: My hope and expectation is once we get past the end of this year that you look out next year, you’d see continued recovery. Yes, maybe the unemployment rates not going back to three and a half or 4% anytime soon, but the market tends to react to positive change and we’ll likely see continued improvement in employment situation next year. What pace that occurs that is really hard to say. But I think the same trends you’re going to see here in the U.S. you’re going to see globally because we are basically following the same playbook for better worse than just about every other country out there in terms of reopening economies. So what we experienced here I think will be not just the U.S. but a global phenomenon.
Steve: Right. So basically, you think there’s kind of a floor like we’ll have some volatility going forward, but if you look out one to two years, which is where you think the market’s looking, we’ll solve this problem, the long-term trends on productivity and profitability will continue.
Scott: And you’ll have extremely low rates. So again, from a discounted cash flow perspective, it argues for higher multiples, all things considered. So yeah, looking at a year or two, I think the market is higher than it is today, certainly.
Steve: Great. All right. So this is super helpful. Anyone that you follow that you think is good? One of the first people I was thinking about was Jim O’Shaughnessy, O’Shaughnessy Asset Management. His main thesis, in my view, is humans don’t change their behavior. Like what you’re saying, humans are emotional creatures, they overreact and that’s what creates opportunities.
Scott: I agree, and the person that I use to gauge where we’re at from an investor positioning standpoint, because he has good data through the Merrill Lynch or B of A Merrill Lynch network is the global strategist for B of A Merrill, which is the guy by the name of Michael Hartnett. So for anyone who has brokerage accounts through Merrill, his research is available and I would strongly encourage anyone that likes to look at things from a tactical asset allocation standpoint. I find his weekly research on that regard quite helpful and with the same thought in mind, which is there’s still a fear and greed component to behavior that hasn’t changed despite all the other changes we’ve seen in the economy and the investment landscape. There’s still tendencies in human nature that haven’t changed and you can capitalize on those if you’re willing to be contrarian at the right time.
Steve: Any tools that you use? I mean, I know you’re a Personal Capital user and obviously, they’re one of our competitors.
Scott: I don’t feel like I have any loyalty there, so it may not be a long-term commitment. But I do find they’re what I use is just because I have accounts. I have a fidelity account, I have a Merrill Lynch account, I have Schwab account and in order to aggregate all those from a asset allocation and performance calculation perspective, I do find that the Personal Capital dashboard is adequate in that regard.
Steve: Side note, we just put linked accounts into beta, so you can now do it on our platform.
Steve: But we’re not at the depth that Personal Capital is yet. When you use these different custodians, how do you feel about their fee structure? Do you feel a allegiance to any of these companies?
Scott: I find, for the most part, the user interface and just the overall customer experience is probably best with Fidelity.
Steve: Yeah. I think one of our points of view is like we feel like in the future, a lot of our users, they’re like you. They have money in different places. They don’t necessarily want to move it, they want to get visibility into it and manage it in a cohesive way. And I think they’re also becoming more fee aware. Do you think about the fees? Or I guess you do think about it just at a fun level. You’re kind of looking at what are my investment fees on the particular funds that I’m learning and hoping that there’s no layer on. Is there a layer at Merrill are no layer fees?
Scott: No. No layer fees and I largely traffic in low fee ETFs with I’d say 80 to 90% of my equity investments at this point.
Steve: Yeah. And you’re directly managing it. What’s interesting is how these companies are evolving their business models. So I used to work at Schwab and the metric was daily average trades, retail trades because they made eight bucks or whatever it was. Now trading fees are zero. So they’ve shifted to okay, we’re going to make money in an AUM, we have a bank. And their robo does stuff like throws you into 10% cash or potentially more and then they put that in their bank and then they lend against it and they’re making whatever, 200 basis points over there. But effectively, it’s a stealth fee on these robos that they got to pay the bill somehow. Do you have any point of view about how this is going to evolve and what these companies are doing to make money?
Scott: Yeah, I think the business model is challenged in a lot of cases and they’re being forced to do exactly what you’re describing. And I also think it’s going to lead and has led to increased consolidation within that space in order to make it economical. But from a user standpoint, I mean, it’s great, right? It’s all deflationary. I mean, yeah, they’re going to try to nickel and dime you where they can, but what you’re paying now to have a brokerage account is significantly less than it was even five years ago.
Steve: Yeah, I think this is happening with banks too. I mean, it’s happening across the board. I’m a Wells customer, a Chase customer, First Republic. Well, I like some of them. But sometimes I walk around and look at these branches, I’m like, This is ridiculous. Why are all these branches here? Do we need these people sitting right here that are largely empty branches? And there’s pressure coming in all these places.
Steve: When we think about our business, part of it’s also like, hey, an advantage is it’s a ground up build, super low cost. Part of it is going to be competing on cost, right? Can you deliver these services at scale with technology and do it in a way… Personal Capital, Betterment, these guys have raised 200 million bucks each and they got to sell these things for a billion dollars. We’re building, relatively, hopefully, competitive services having raised five million bucks so far total, which most of them is in the bank. It’ll be kind of interesting to see how it unfolds.
Steve: All right. Well, this is great. So any last comments for our users who are also trying to figure out retirement?
Scott: Well, I think for most people, talking to an investment advisor or looking at what’s available online, which there’s a ton out there in terms of helping to determine what the right portfolio allocation is to various class asset classes is something that everyone’s capable of doing and I would encourage people to educate themselves because it’s not that hard and there are ways of building a portfolio that don’t require the fees that a lot of people end up paying to ultimately just have someone there to hold their hand.
Steve: What’s your target fee structure when you look at your total fees on your investments?
Scott: That’s a great question. It’s something I should know offhand. It does vary depending on what ETFs I decide to put money into. There are times when I, for example, looking at some of the ETFs to have exposure to long-term bonds or higher fees than just buying BND or TLT are some of the more generic and more popular ETFs. So my fees go up and down on the margin, but it’s so de minimis at this point, it’s not something I spend a lot of time worrying about.
Steve: Five to 20 basis points, I’m assuming.
Steve: Yeah, exactly. Okay, great. Well, look, thanks, Scott, for being on our show. Thanks, Davorin Robison, for being our sound engineer. Anyone listening, thanks for listening. Hopefully you found this useful. Our goal at NewRetirement is to help anyone plan and manage their retirement so they can make the most of their money and time.
Steve: And if you’ve made it this far, I encourage you to join our private Facebook group where we have discussions and take questions on this podcast and many other topics and kind of learn from each other. You can follow us on Twitter at NewRetirement. And also please check out our site and planning tool at newretirement.com. It is evolving very quickly. We now have linked accounts and beta Monte Carlo. There’s other good stuff happening. We’re going to simplify the UX. And then finally, we’re trying to build the audience for this podcast, so if you could leave us a review on iTunes or Stitcher or anywhere, we’d appreciate it and sharing is greatly welcome. And so, thanks again and have a great day.