Imagine my surprise over the weekend when I discovered President Obama’s portfolio holdings. Although I’m crafty, I didn’t sneak into the West Wing; the President is required to file tax returns and investment documentation. Most investment strategies show up on these forms.
The biggest surprise?
The President can pick fights with Wall Street because he largely doesn’t rely on them for investment returns. Less than 10% of his portfolio is in equity investments, far less than is recommended for most people his age.
After fighting in the trenches as a financial advisor for well over a decade, I can see the method behind his madness. Don’t try to invest like he does. It probably won’t improve your retirement.
The President’s Portfolio
– Around $500k in cash
– Between $50k and $100k in Vanguard S&P 500 Fund
– Over $1M in Treasury Bills and Notes
– 529 College Savings Plans
Here are the top five take aways:
1) His version of “safety” and yours probably aren’t the same. The President’s massive investment in Treasury Bills suggests that he’s looking to preserve capital, not grow his nest egg. Treasuries are among the lowest risk/lowest reward investments available.
Why he’s different than you:
You probably can’t afford to keep such a large percentage of your portfolio in low-earning investments. A President stands to make millions in the future on book deals, speaking engagements and consulting. His future investment plan can easily include some HUGE assumptions for future cash infusions.
If you’ve calculated your personal returns based on future income, are you sure that your numbers are realistic? I often see plans showing individuals working well into their 70s. Even if you’re healthy enough to work that late in life, do you want to include it in your plan? My clients working in their 70s largely did so because they enjoyed it, not because they needed some benjamins to pay the electric bill.
2) You can tweak your returns without adding much risk. He helps his anemic rate of return by moving some of his huge government bond exposure to Treasury Notes. The difference between treasury bill and treasury note gives him an extra 0.5% in this climate because of the longer duration.
How this applies to you:
For you and I, an extra 0.5% doesn’t help, but we can take similar steps. I wrote this spring about how adding high yield bonds can boost returns while not appreciably increasing risk. Look for investments where the perceived risk is higher than the actual risk and find greater returns. (I’d also put GNMA bonds in this category. They garner a much higher return than Treasuries and the actual risk, while greater than Treasuries, isn’t appreciably higher for the average investor).
3) Watch your fees. The President bets on the US economy by investing in the S&P 500. Instead of relying on investment managers for a return, he uses the Vanguard S&P 500 Index mutual fund.
Here’s a better method than the President uses:
In some cases, an exchange traded fund can lower fees even further. The iShares ETF version of the S&P 500, IVV, features an incredibly low 0.09% cost ratio, while the Vanguard fund the President uses has a still-low internal expense of 0.17%. The only difference? You’ll probably pay trading costs to buy the iShares ETF, while the Vanguard fund is free to purchase in most brokerage accounts. If you’re buying over only a few trades and plan to hold the fund for a long period of time, IVV might be a more cost-effective option.
4) He keeps a large cash reserve. $500k in cash is clearly too large for the average person, but that would be nice, wouldn’t it? Conservative investors should keep enough money to endure a long layoff in money market accounts.
Check out Don’t Be the Emperor With No Emergency Fund for more details on why this is important.
5) Invest in what you know. The President is betting big on future income streams, not on investment returns. As it sits, his portfolio isn’t huge for a man of his office, but I’m sure he knows that it will be in the future. Speaking engagements, consulting and book deals should allow him access to plenty of money without risking his investments in the stock, real estate, or commodities markets.
An example that might be closer to home:
I had clients once who herded cattle. They earned a 10% return year-over-year on their herd, without a ton of variation. We kept that the centerpiece of their portfolio, while creating a diverse mix of other investments to round out their returns. They were surprised I wanted them to continue buying cows. “Investment advisors want you to only use stocks,” Bryan said. I agreed with him. “I’m a fee-based advisor. You paid me money to give you the right direction. I don’t need to make money on convincing you to invest through my firm. If I were you, I’d stick with cattle because it earns a great return and it’s what you know.”
My last takeaway (and I won’t number this one):
The President appears to need a good investment advisor. He either isn’t comfortable with a suitably well-rounded portfolio or just doesn’t have the time. Either way, he’s lost considerable money to either not being educated in investments or to being too busy to care. The right advisor can help him boost returns, tweak his tax strategy and still focus on his “day job” so he doesn’t feel like a Wall Street trader. Investment advisors aren’t for everyone, but in this case, I think it’s warranted and a great idea.
Mr. President, although I’m no longer practicing, I’m ready if you need help. I’m sure the Secret Service can figure out my phone number.
That’s my story, now it’s your turn: What investments could you improve in your portfolio?