Unfortunately, we may have to accept the reality of living with dead money for a while. The forecasts of lower expected returns in the stock market over the next decade may very well be coming true. As a result, we must adapt and think ahead.
In this post, I’d like to discuss several suboptimal financial scenarios we might find ourselves in and what we should do about it. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure our wealth continues to buy us time so we can do more of what we want.
Dead Money Scenarios To Consider
Here are some difficult financial situations you might find yourself in. Given so much about reaching financial independence is mental, it’s good to talk things through so you can take more appropriate action.
1) Your company’s stock got clobbered
Let’s say you work at a publicly-traded company whose stock has fallen below the level when you first started working. Your Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) are still worth something, but clearly not what the company hinted they might be worth today. What do you do?
In a strong labor market, your main option is to ask for a raise and more RSUs. If you like what you’re doing, provide a lot of value, and still believe in the company, then you must ask for more during your next performance review. Do not wait for meritocracy to recognize your value.
If you no longer believe in your company, then you should look elsewhere. First, search for companies in your field that are outperforming. They might offer better overall compensation packages and more job security. Well-performing companies are always looking to hire more talent.
Second, look for promising companies in your field that seem oversold. Joining a company when it is down could prove to be a shrewd move if there is a turnaround. However, also be aware of a company death spiral. At the end of the day, you need to view the company you join as one of your biggest investments.
2) You retire right before a stock market correction
In general, it’s better to retire near the bottom of the market rather than near the top. If you retire near the bottom of the market, your finances have already been tested. You will likely experience financial upside in retirement as the markets recover.
If you retire near the top of the market, your finances haven’t really been tested. You have likely not properly extrapolated a bear market into your financial forecasts. Given so much about financial independence is psychological, you will likely feel distressed after losing your active income and seeing your net worth decline.
At this point, you should find ways to earn supplemental income until your investments stabilize. The average bear market lasts between three to twenty-five months. However, corrections and bear markets tend to recover much quicker nowadays. Therefore, mentally tell yourself two years is likely the longest you’ll have to wait until your dead money comes alive.
To earn supplemental retirement income, reach out to your old firm to see if they have any part-time consulting work for you. When my wife retired in 2015, her old firm kept asking her back for two years.
If there is no work to be had at your old firm, reach out to competing firms to see if they could use your services. There’s often a tremendous amount of interest hiring previous competitors as consultants, at the very least, for the competitive intelligence they can provide. When I left in 2012, many of my competing firms wanted to at least meet up for a chat.
If you can’t find any consulting work, then you can always become a solopreneur. Surely, there is some skill you have learned in all your years since high school that can generate some value. For me, it’s teaching tennis for $80 an hour. I could also start offering 1X1 personal finance consulting again for much more.
3) You want to retire after a stock market correction, but worry things could get worse
This is the situation I find myself in. When the pandemic began in March 2020, I decided to work hard for two years since there were fewer things to do. Then I would re-retire in 2022 for an unknown period of time.
My assumptions were that by 2022, taxes would be higher, government subsidies had increased, and there was a greater social safety net. Therefore, at the margin, under such a scenario, it would make sense to take things down a notch.
Deciding to retire right after a stock market correction is better than retiring right before a stock market correction. You’ve already seen a 10%+ hit to your investments. If you’re still willing to give up your day job income, then you likely have some pretty realistic assumptions about your finances.
The uncertainty lies in how deep your investments will correct. If your investments start cutting their distributions and dividend payouts, will you still be OK? The realistic worst-case scenario is about a 35% decline in your investments from the peak over a two-year period.
But since you’re deciding to retire after a stock market correction, your realistic worst-case scenario is probably at most a 20% further decline in your investments over a one-year period. Therefore, if you can withstand such a decline, then you should probably go ahead and retire.
Just don’t forget to negotiate a severance if you’ve been at your company for longer than three years. If you don’t have a pension, walking away with a severance package will feel like winning the lottery.
4) You join a startup after it raised a funding round at a high valuation before a crash
Startups raising money at high valuations is a double-edged sword. The higher the valuation, the higher the expectations. If a startup cannot fulfill the high expectations, the startup might have to raise a down round and lay off plenty of employees.
An example of raising at an overly optimistic valuation is WeWork. In January 2019, WeWork raised $2 billion from mostly Softbank at a $47 billion valuation. After a failed IPO in 2020, WeWork had to slash its workforce and sell off assets. Softbank valued its position in 2020 at only $2.9 billion.
If you find yourself at a startup with deeply out-of-the money stock options, you must ask for new stock options at a lower strike price. If you don’t, your stock options will likely be dead money for years, if not forever.
In the unfortunate situation where management does not grant you new stock options with a lower strike price, then you must leave.
Startup employees earn much lower base salaries than established-firm employees. There is no point sticking around at a startup if you have stock options that will never pay out. Sure, learn as much as you can while you’re there. But find another opportunity as fast as you can.
For most people, working at a startup will likely make you poorer than richer. Only a minority of employees hit the lottery where their startups become multi-bagger success stories. It’s just that the media and society mostly focus on the winners, not the losers.
5) Your private business takes a hit
During a downturn, public growth companies with weak balance sheets, low profit margins, or no profits tend to get hit the most. If you own a private business, take note and adjust accordingly. Depending on how much you own of your private business, you have a greater luxury to make drastic changes without public scrutiny.
As a private business owner, your goal is to survive until the good times return. The leaner you can get in terms of operating costs, the greater your chance of survival. List out all extraneous expenditures and ruthlessly cut them. Work on areas of your business that can help boost your brand without costing much money, e.g., social media, connecting more with your clients through e-mail, etc.
If your private business is in a healthy financial situation during a downturn, now might be the best time to expand and take marketshare. Input costs are usually lower during a downturn. You may also consider acquiring beaten down, but promising companies.
The one thing we know since the pandemic began is this: a business that cannot be shut down is more valuable. Therefore, move more of your business online where possible. Don’t be at the mercy of local governments that will unilaterally force your business to close for an indefinite period of time.
Dead Money Takes Away Time
Mentally, we should all prepare for at least two years where our money goes down or nowhere. Yes, there are certainly circumstances where we could experience a lost decade of dead money, like the NASDAQ experienced after the 2000 Dotcom bust. However, expecting to make no financial progress for 10 years is unrealistic.
The reason why we think so deeply about a proper asset allocation of stocks and bonds and an appropriate net worth allocation is to save ourselves time. Even if we are properly allocated, losing money will still be disheartening. However, we will fare much better than the average person who disregarded proper risk parameters.
The investor who went all-in on margin to buy a hot growth stock that corrects by 80% is now broke. They will have to extend their employment time period for an indefinite period of time.
The real estate investor who took out a home equity line of credit to buy another house with debt will not fair well during the next housing downturn. Yes, taking on maximum leverage during recent years has worked. However, stretching too far beyond my 30/30/3 home buying rule may have serious mental and financial consequences.
Losing money on your investments is already tough enough. Having to then spend many more years making up for your losses might get depressing real quick. Please don’t get to the point of no return, where you completely give up.
If you find yourself hurting more than you thought you would during a downturn, it’s imperative you reassess your asset allocation. What’s done is done. Just make sure you learn from your mistakes so they don’t set you back as much again.
A Mental Hack To Overcome Dead Money
When certain types of investments are no longer performing, you may gain a mental boost by mentally writing them off. In other words, once you assign zero value to the portion of your net worth that is struggling, you will have faced your worse fears. From there, it’s easier to move on.
Focus your attention on the assets that are currently working. Do your best to optimize these investments while also protecting them from downside risk. Over time, risk assets like stocks tend to recover.
About 32% of my net worth is in stocks, which are now doing poorly. It feels bad to lose money, but I also feel fine about my stock exposure. Corrections are to be expected. The realistic worst case scenario is that my stock holdings lose about 35% of its value, hitting my net worth by about 10%.
By mentally writing down 10% of my net worth, I actually feel more at peace. If you track your net worth using a free software like Personal Capital, try deleting a good portion of your net worth.
For example, you might want to delink your 401(k) or one of your taxable brokerage accounts. By removing a portfolio, you not only no longer see it lose value, you also tend to forget about it as well. You’ll get used to living with a lower perceived net worth. Then one day, you might remember you had this account all along.
This upside surprise is one of the reasons why I enjoy investing in private funds. It’s hard to remember how much or what you invested in years ago. But surprise distributions 5-10 years later always feel like a gift because you weren’t expecting it.
Focus On The Good Parts Of Your Net Worth
As I wait for stocks to eventually recover, I will focus more of my attention on real estate, which now makes up about 55% of my net worth. Real estate has always been my favorite asset class to build wealth given it is less volatile, generates income, and provides utility.
This year, I fixed a window leak and repainted one rental, which feels great! I’m also finalizing a two-year-long remodel of another rental property. I’m expanding the livable square footage by about 300 square feet. Once the expansion is done, I will look to find a tenant to boost rental income.
I can always spend more time trying to make more money online. However, after two years of doing just that, I’m not inspired to continue at the previous pace. I mostly just want to have fun. Whatever income that comes from my online endeavors will mostly be reinvested to generate more passive income.
The Best Solution To Dealing With Dead Money
Finally, if you can afford to do so, the best revenge against dead money is to live your life the way you want. If you don’t let a decline in your investments affect your lifestyle, then you win, no matter the economic environment.
Still going on vacation after losing 20% in your stock portfolio? You win! Still getting married to the love of your life during a financial crisis? Rock on! Baby still coming during a pandemic? Whoo hoo!
Put your financial losses into perspective. Your net worth is likely much higher than it was two, five, and ten years ago. Celebrate how far you’ve come!
Remember to enjoy your money along the way. And most importantly, please enjoy more time with your friends and family. They are the ones that matter most.
Readers, what are you doing about your dead money? What parts of your net worth are doing well? How do you plan to adapt to a potential bear market?
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