Today we review a situation we frequently encounter: a client looking for direction regarding a substantial cash holding either from a recent bonus payment, an inheritance, or simply an accumulation of savings. The client wants to know what to do with it, "Where's the best place to put this cash?". We answer that question below and we also cover the biggest mistake investors make when examing cash alternatives.
As we open this discussion, it's important to keep in mind three primary considerations: liquidity, preservation of capital, and yield. Generally speaking, an investment provides two of these elements at the expense of the third. In deciding the vehicle to put cash into first determine which of the two factors are most important to you:
Liquidity à The ability to turn an investment into cash immediately or in the very near future.
Preservation of Capital à Assurance that the value of the investment cannot go below initial balance.
Yield à The return, or expected return, of the investment.
With these three factors in mind, here we list some common cash alternatives followed by their '2 out of 3 ain't bad' characteristics in parenthesis:
Savings/Checking Account (Liquidity, Preservation of Capital)
Certificate of Deposit (Preservation of Capital, Yield)
Money Market Fund (Liquidity, Yield)
US Treasuries (Liquidity, Yield or Preservation of Capital depending on duration)
Short-Term Bond Fund (Liquidity, Yield)
Here are some real-life examples: If you are looking to buy a house with the cash, liquidity and preservation of capital are tantamount. Liquidity in case the dream house presents itself and you need immediate access to the cash; preservation of capital so you are aware of your position in regards to a down payment. In that case a simple, boring savings account will make the most sense. If the cash is designated for an emergency fund in the event of job loss, then liquidity is less of an issue. In that scenario, CDs are ideal (perhaps ladder a few CD's so they mature throughout the year). In a scenario where you can afford some risk to the principal, a money market fund will offer a higher yield than traditional savings account. Although they are billed as completely safe investments (they always keep a nominal value of $1.00), money market funds do take some investment risk. The Reserve Primary Fund "broke the buck" in 2008 because of investments in Lehman Brothers and a suddenly very illiquid commercial paper market. Investors eventually got back 98 cents on the dollar but only after a long delay. If you have with no defined plan for the cash (a good problem for sure) U.S. Treasuries and short-term bond funds are the likely place to store your money. These holdings offer yield and liquidity but face market risk. In times of rising rates, their market price can go down but over the medium term they tend to retain their value and return some yield.
The biggest mistake when examining cash alternatives is to s t r e t c h for yield. There is a long history of investments that have promised safety of principal and liquidity while sporting relatively high yields. Overwhelmingly those managers are investing your short term money in longer term securities and expose you to potential losses in the event they have to quickly exit those positions. Examples from recent years include the auction-rate securities scandal and Schwab's YieldPlus disaster. Rates are low right now and what follows is often the temptation to invest in a proportedly safe and liquid product that offers a high yield - that magical investment. There is no such product, remember the '2 out of 3' maxim. For more information on this topic we urge you to read this Jason Zweig article from the Wall Street Journal where he looks at the sordid history of these types of investments.
Finally, a quick note on FDIC protection. If you are going to keep meaningful sums of money in an account that is designed to guarentee preservation of capital, make sure the entire amount is insured. If your money is at a bank or another institution that offers FDIC protection the standard deposit insurance amount is $250,000 per depositer, per insured bank, for each account ownership category. It is possible to have have multiple accounts at a bank that have seperate protection but more commonly accounts are aggregated. If you think you might be going over the limit, open an account at a completely different bank. If your cash balance is going to be well in excess of the insurance limit there are ways to get FDIC protection for the entire amount such as through a CDARs account.