Trading Desk: There Are Finally Alternatives

For years, anyone with money to invest had a stark choice: you could put it in the stock market and take your chances, or you could park in some combination of bonds and bank products. As we said on Wall Street at the time “there is no alternative.”

There is an alternative now. That’s what’s hurting the banks. People are finally getting decent yields in money market funds and the bond market, so common sense is driving them to move cash out of savings and checking accounts.

You can lock in 4-5% a year now. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not awful, especially when you consider it a form of insurance. Money in those instruments is safe from stock market volatility. It won’t accumulate any faster than the coupon rate or advertised yield, but it won’t disappear either.

Sooner or later, you’ll be able to withdraw your principal intact. There’s no risk. And finally, there’s a decent return. The only threat is that the Fed will fail in the long term to get inflation back below your income rate . . . and then you will truly lose purchasing power.

But a lot of banks are still paying 0.25% . . . as though the Fed’s relentless rate cycle never happened. They can’t raise the rates they pay because the bonds that support their balance sheets were purchased during the long zero-rate era. Some earn as much as 1.5% or even 1.75% . . . others, like the ones that brought down Silicon Valley Bank, are underwater.

These banks had no choice but to buy Treasury products and housing agency debt. We weren’t so unlucky. I told you years ago to avoid bonds. “Treasury is trash,” remember that?

Now bonds and money markets make sense again. You don’t have to pile into growth stocks and pray. This is not the end of the world. It’s the new normal . . . a return to conditions that dominated life on Wall Street for generations.

People can park some of their wealth in assets that will probably keep up with inflation and earn a little real income. In return, they have pretty good odds that they’ll be able to cash out and get their entire investment back.

Maybe this reflects 20-30% of a healthy portfolio. If you’re especially tired of risk and volatility, maybe it’s a bigger slice of your overall assets. The important thing is not so much the return profile as the reliability.

You want a cushion so you can pay the bills without selling stocks at a loss. The stocks are for long-term growth. The bonds are for short-term income.

And this applies to dividend stocks as well. If you can’t lock in at least 4-5% in quarterly payments, that’s not an income stock any more. This rules out a lot of utilities, Big Pharma and yes, the banks.

Those stocks need to be able to compete with risk-free Treasury debt. If they can’t do that, don’t buy. Only hold on when the company is growing fast enough to keep raising its dividends from year to year.

It’s good to have alternatives. The past decade was the aberration. Now we can have fun . . . AND protect ourselves when volatility turns against us.