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Perspective Newsletter

Two friends are out camping. They hear a cry for help and rush into a fast-flowing stream to save a drowning child… only to see another struggling child drift by… and then another, and another. As one of the campers starts to run to shore, his incredulous friend demands to know where he is going. Over his shoulder he yells “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who is throwing all these kids in the water.”

I read this story in the new book from Dan Heath (one of my favorite business writers) called Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems before they Happen. I highly recommend the book, by the way.

But it also made me think about what makes for successful wealth holders (like our clients) in a crisis like the one we currently find ourselves in. The answer is to focus on prevention vs. reaction. Here is how to do that.

Quantify your goals

It doesn’t make sense to launch out on a trip without thinking about your desired destination. Investing is the same. You need to know where you are headed and what you want.

Unfortunately, most people invest without knowing or quantifying their goals. One of my favorite cocktail party question is — “What rate of return do you need on your investments to meet all of your objectives?” Virtually no one knows the answer to this question, mostly because they don’t know what their goals are and have certainly not quantified how much they will cost.

One of the causes of stress in families is not knowing if their wealth will last, how much they can spend, and how much they will leave for their children — even for people with a lot of money.

Families who are able to weather the storms (like this one) can identify their goals and can answer these five questions: What is the money for? Who is it for? When will it be needed? How high a priority is the goal? And how much will it cost?

Create a family balance sheet

Just like a company, every family needs a balance sheet. On the left-hand side of the ledger you can start by listing all family assets including cash, securities, real estate, operating companies and the estimated present value of future employment income, business cash flow and inheritances to be received.

On the right-hand side of the balance sheet you list the family liabilities. For many families of wealth, this may not be debt. Liabilities are often, rather, self-imposed, and are more commonly known as family goals. These liabilities must be funded, either by income or by assets.

They typically include (the present value of) expected lifetime spending, potential one-off cash flow requirements, planned gifts to future generations, and charitable donations. The difference between assets and liabilities is family net worth.

But different liabilities or goals have different priority, urgency, and certainty levels attached to them. It’s like air travel (– remember when people used to do that?). The goal of safe arrival requires extremely high certainty; arriving on-time, while important, is a lower priority, and; in-flight comfort is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, at least relative to the other goals.

Similarly, in the management of wealth, some goals are so important or imminent (such as near term monthly family expenses, or funding kids at universities over the next four years) that you can’t risk not meeting them if your portfolio drops or you don’t have the required cash flow. For these goals, you’ll need to invest in assets that offer certainty and usually not much return, like cash and short term bonds.

Other goals that have long time horizons often need higher rates of return (usually associated with riskier assets like equities) to make sure capital lasts a long time and stays ahead of inflation. Examples might include funding long term family expenses, inheritances for children and bequests to charities. The long time horizon also allows the portfolio to handle the inevitable volatility that will occur in risky assets

Here’s the key. When markets drop, families who have taken this planning-oriented approach know that they have non-risky assets to fund near term goals and can wait for a recovery to ensure that long term goals are met.

It always reminds me of the mountain climber I once heard say: “When you get to the top of the mountain, you are only halfway there”. Why? Because you have to “get back”. Life is a movie, not a snap shot. The absolute dollar value of your portfolio at the market peak on February 19th isn’t especially relevant, nor is the amount of your net worth at the recent low on March 23rd. What is relevant is how much cash flow it will produce over your lifetime to meet all of your goals.

Build a bridge and stress test it

“Wealth management isn’t really an art or a science, but a matter of engineering.” This is a great quote from long-time investor Charley Ellis. Many people approach investing as a game of forecasting, timing, outsmarting, and hoping, when in fact it is a lot more like a problem of engineering.

Picture yourself on one side of the river (i.e. “the present” for an investing standpoint) and you need to get to the other side (i.e. some future state, like retirement, end of a long life, or over multiple generations). And you need to do it safely, with a high degree of certainty and as few negative surprises as possible.

The way to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ across an actual river is to build a bridge. To do that you need to take a myriad of factors into account such as:

  • How far is it to the other side? How long will the bridge be?
  • What types of loads might the bridge carry?
  • What natural phenomena might your bridge need to withstand? e.g. winds, hurricanes, snow, earthquakes, rushing river water.

Similarly, if you are building a financial game plan, you need to assess questions like:

  • What specific goals does the portfolio need to fund?
  • Which combination of asset classes are most likely to result in success?
  • How much volatility is the portfolio likely to experience?

Families who are set up to manage effectively through a crisis will have planned out the construction of their financial ‘bridge’ and stress tested the risks.

But, how do you make this kind of thing happen in a world that seems to be so uncontrollable. Is there anything that can actually be controlled or predicted?

As it turns out, there is. Successful families know that tough times are inevitable. They don’t know what will cause them, how severe they will be, or how long they will last. So they take specific steps ahead of time.

  • Many of our clients have 2-3 years cash reserves, so they don’t have to dip into growth capital
  • Their assets are matched to their liabilities
  • They have a reserve built from above-average performance over past years
  • They have limited debt
  • Own high quality investments
  • They have a diversified asset mix of things like cash, bonds, insurance, stocks, real estate, private equity
  • They own a diversified group of investment managers and mandates – by style, geography, industry
  • They have used conservative estimates for returns, risk, and spending
  • And they have taken advantage of all of the integrated financial planning alternatives available to them

Not every family has the resources to do all of these things and it’s not easy to do. But after 35 years of working with families, I have found that these are the most common indicators of success in a crisis. It’s not quite as sexy as trying to catch the bottom of oil prices, timing the next surge in Netflix, or calling a turn in airline stocks – but it is more successful.

In calm seas, every ship has a good captain.

There is an old Swedish expression that says: “In calm seas, every ship has a good captain.” And that is certainly true. Everything’s easy when it is clear sailing. Everybody looks like they know what they are doing and are very confident in their own abilities.

But when the storms come (as they always do), you can see who the good captains are. They are the ones who are prepared. They are not the ones searching around for bailing buckets when the waves start coming over the gunwales. Or in the financial world, they are not the ones who are switching horses, chasing what’s moving, or throwing in the towel. If fact, there is often surprisingly little activity.

Families who we were well prepared for this crisis (and for others to come) have taken the time to prepare with clear goals, the right assets lined up to fund the right liabilities, and a sound, integrated, stress-tested plan that boosts the probability of success on all front.

I’ve also found that just knowing you have a sound plan in place gives you the confidence and wherewithal to keep your head and make good decisions when others are losing theirs. As Warren Buffett says: “A little bit of planning can go a very long way.”

Northwood Family Office

Tom McCullough

Tom McCullough

Tom McCullough is Chairman and CEO of Northwood Family Office, which looks after the investments and integrated financial affairs of wealthy families with $10 million or more. He teaches ‘The Management of Private Wealth’ in the MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and is also co-author of the books, Family Wealth Management and Wealth of Wisdom: The Top 50 Questions Wealthy Families Ask.

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