Two safe havens

By Felix Salmon
November 13, 2009
assertion that there's no safe haven for investors these days. Jared Woodard at Condor Options responded with 1,500 words on how investors in an S&P index fund can buy put options to protect their downside: "any hedging at all is better than none," he writes. Meanwhile, maynardGkeynes left a much shorter comment:

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I got two smart responses to my assertion that there’s no safe haven for investors these days. Jared Woodard at Condor Options responded with 1,500 words on how investors in an S&P index fund can buy put options to protect their downside: “any hedging at all is better than none,” he writes. Meanwhile, maynardGkeynes left a much shorter comment:

TIPS are both easy and obvious.

Of the two, I prefer the TIPS. Why gamble in the stock market at all, if you don’t need to? Jared’s options strategy is akin to buying insurance that your bet won’t pay off, without stopping to wonder why you’re making the bet in the first place. The main advantage to the options strategy is that if things really blow up, and there’s a major stock-market crash on the order of 60% or so, you could actually end up making a profit. But I think an investor who was invested in TIPS during such a chaotic time would be perfectly happy with her choice.

There are two small problems with the TIPS strategy. One is that the tax implications of investing in TIPS can be extremely complicated, and taxpayers might want to consider the cost in accountancy fees before going down that road. The second is that it doesn’t scale: the whole point of financial markets is that they turn savings into investments, and we actually want people with savings to be willing to take a little bit of downside risk.

In that sense, Jared’s strategy of buying long-dated puts and selling them six months before expiry is better. It brings with it most of the upside associated with stock-market investments, it helps move money into equities (which, over the long term, is something society prefers to having it create bubbles in the debt market), and it helps the investor sleep at night with regards to black-swan events. What’s more, it involves a little bit of work: that’s a good thing, since investing shouldn’t be brainlessly easy. On the other hand, it also involves a significant transfer of funds from the Main Street investor to Wall Street, which always makes money on options trading.

Still, both strategies are worth considering for people with investments. In general, I’d recommend the TIPS approach to people who are likely to be able to make money the best way, by earning it: in that case TIPS are a safe place to put your hard-earned cash. (Especially if you are very unlikely to move abroad, and aren’t worried about a falling dollar except insofar as it feeds through into inflation.) On the other hand, people who are looking to earn money through capital rather than labor will probably not be happy with the modest return on TIPS and might be happier with Jared’s approach.

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