When investors feel especially anxious, they may be tempted to move all their wealth into cash, bonds, gold, or some other “conservative” investment. But over the long run, the best way to protect your life savings is through diversification, not concentration. Every asset class—even cash—has its own vulnerabilities, and could be risky under certain conditions. Fixating on a single version of the future, and holding your wealth in a single investment, generally reduces your financial security.
Here is why: The biggest threat to your portfolio is an unexpected crisis. The crisis you already anticipate—the one some pundit is warning against, and the one that has you looking for safety—probably won't matter much in investment terms. Remember the Y2K bug? Computer programs contained an error in date handling as we approached the millennium 15 years ago. Some observers predicted widespread catastrophe, with computerized systems failing in unison. But governments, companies, and markets had ample warning. The bug was fixed. Investors who went overboard preparing for the worst, wasted time and money.
As for those unexpected market eruptions, history tells us that investments generally bounce back. If you avoid panic, you can prosper anyway. I retired at 50, because I held on to investments through the late 1990’s dot-com bust and the 2008-2009 Great Recession. It didn’t matter that my financial path had steep ups and downs: It still led me to the summit.
And this is where where owning a diverse set of assets really helps you out: It keeps you from panicking, since you'll likely have some assets doing well or at least holding up while others are falling.
Another problem with building your portfolio around the possibility of a crisis is that you may ignore other less dramatic, but far more likely, risks. Among them:
You could pay too much in taxes. We all lose a portion of our assets to the government regularly, via the tax system. The essence of legally avoiding taxation is to reduce your taxable income. The best approach while still working is to maximize tax-sheltered savings plans and associated employer matching. And, since nobody can predict the future tax environment, tax diversification — holding a mix of taxable, Traditional retirement, and Roth accounts — is a wise strategy. Once retired, you can live frugally in a low tax bracket, and enjoy a zero percent long-term capital gains tax rate.
You could take a hit to your income. Recessions are an inevitable part of the business cycle. The best preparation is to have plenty of cash on hand, and live frugally. An emergency fund gives you flexibility and protection during any kind of economic hardship. Fixed income from bonds or annuities provides cash flow and peace of mind. Avoiding debt is always advisable, and can be critical to your financial survival during a recession: Loss of job or income can threaten your ability to make payments.
Inflation could erode the value of your cash. Inflation of some sort is "baked in" to the modern monetary system. Policymakers target about 2% annually. That means the playing field for cash, which most investors assume is “safe,” is tilted against you. Many argue that higher future inflation will be the only way to dispose of our massive public debt. But, for all the fear and loathing it inspires, many forms of inflation are relatively easy to defend against. By definition, almost any asset other than cash or fixed income will increase in value with inflation: stocks, real estate, commodities, Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). Owning low-cost stock-based index funds and maximizing Social Security are the best inflation hedges available to most of us.
Financial security means surviving and prospering under any scenario. Proven behaviors will help: live frugally, exercise patience, maintain liquidity, and remain flexible. But one principle trumps them all: Diversification is your single most powerful tool against widespread risk.
Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com.