How To Keep Compounding When The Market Won’t

There exists an urban legend about Einstein.  You’ve probably heard it before.  Supposedly Einstein once said that “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”  It sounds pretty cool, and smart — like something Einstein might actually say.  Whether Einstein actually said these words or not is subject to debate.

We’ll probably never know the truth about that Einstein quote, but the important part is the truth within it — Compound interest, or more generically “compounding” is an extremely powerful financial force when it works for you.

Keeping that compounding force working for you is actually the hard part.

If we look at traditional forms of compounding, the most common being interest from savings accounts, CD’s, or bonds — returns are minimal right now.  Banks are paying interest on cash at slightly over 1% here in the U.S.  In other parts of the world interest rates are actually negative.

I don’t know about you, but returns of 1% just aren’t going to cut it.  So, we must look outside of those traditional forms of compound interest to reach financial independence!

In recent decades, investors have relied on stocks to do most of the compounding they’ve needed to build wealth.  This strategy worked-out rather well because of a growing economy, growing population, and improving productivity.

Today, however, the world is in a very different place.  Compounding isn’t going to be so easy…


Hard Times And Cash Hording

As I type this, most of the world is still under a COVID-19 lockdown (of some sort).  Many businesses are closed, and/or have operations that are severely impacted by virus shutdowns.

As you would expect, this has done horrible things to the economy.  Stocks are down, and unemployment is over 10%.  Most experts, and even Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell believes the downturn could go on for an extended amount of time.  Years even.

While nobody really understands the extent of the economic damage happening right now, human behavior is definitely changing.  This changing behavior will reshape the economy in ways we don’t yet understand.

This COVID recession could very well last longer than one or two years.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the two main methods by which public companies compound money (internal compounding) have essentially been halted.

What are the two main internal compounding methods you ask?  Reinvesting cash back into the business (to grow), and buying back shares.

Unfortunately for investors, share buybacks have almost completely stopped at S&P 500 companies, and most have underutilized assets due to lower demand for goods and services.

A quick look at first quarter 10-Q’s shows that most public corporations are hoarding cash right now, just trying to maintain liquidity and survive.  If I was to hazard a guess, at least half of the corporations in the S&P 500 are in survival mode.

It’s only the rare public corporation that’s seeing business improve right now.  Online businesses like Netflix, and tech companies with cloud-sharing platforms would be rare examples of public companies actually thriving.

What this means for investors is that shares in most public companies WILL NOT compound for the foreseeable future.  Yes, the stock market will wiggle up and down during this time period (that’s normal), but it’s not compounding.  The financial activity needed to compound value at public companies isn’t happening.  Earnings per share will not increase beyond what we saw in 2019, and the intrinsic value of the corporation will not grow.

This set of circumstances does not bode well for future returns.  So what can investors do to keep compounding during these difficult times?


Just Keep Compounding

While it might seem like something of a hopeless situation for those who wish to keep building wealth, all is not lost.  There are still a few tried-and-true methods that will allow investors to keep compounding in these troubled times.


1. Pivot To What Works

The world is a constantly changing place; sometimes those changes happen very slowly, and sometimes very quickly.  Good investors will adapt quickly and embrace change.

For example, in this time when all movie theaters are closed, investing in a movie company or a theater chain might not be the best investment.  Instead, we can pivot to find stocks that are still thriving in the current environment — such as those seeing sales increases and a improving ROI.  A online video game company might be one example of an entertainment stock that’s thriving in this environment when other entertainment businesses are suffering.

(Note: I’m not saying a video game company is a good investment here — It’s just an example of an alternative entertainment business that’s thriving.)

Have I pivoted any of my own holdings?  Recently we purchased shares of Home Depot (Symbol: HD) and Amgen (Symbol: AMGN) for our portfolio, and I consider these purchases something of a pivot.  While I have long admired both of these businesses, very high-prices have always kept me from buying shares… until recently.

Then, the world changed, and stock prices dropped by about 35%.  Suddenly those businesses looked like good values even though their shares were not dirt cheap.  Considering the change in environment, these business will be set to thrive when others will struggling.


2. Tighten Your Belt And Externally Compound

When internal compounding isn’t happening, it’s the time to ramp up the external compounding.  External compounding is the cash thrown off by your investments that you plow back into those investment assets.  Typically this cash comes from bonds, interest income, preferred share, stock dividends, rents, and other passive income sources.

As you would expect, putting this cash to work instead of spending it, is the key to external compounding.  Do whatever you can to keep that external compounding going — cut unnecessary expenses and get as frugal as possible.

Now is the time to tighten your belt, and invest as much as you can.  If you have a job or side hustle, spend as little as possible and plow that cash into investments.  It’s going to pay off later when those investments start to internally compound again (someday).

Simple, right?  It sounds easy, but it’s often the simplest solutions that reap the largest rewards.


3. Reinvest Only Into Strong Businesses

As a financially independent blogger, one of my favorite ways of generating passive income is through dividends.  Dividends tend to be a fraction of my overall return, but they provided a big chunk of my spending cash.

Things have changed however.  Under the COVID economy, a small dividend may be the entirety of an investors return for the next couple of years.  Unfortunately, like stock buybacks, dividends are also going by the wayside.  Many stocks are choosing to cut dividends in order to conserve cash and maintain liquidity.

It’s a decent strategy to conserve cash, but it’s also a huge warning sign that those stocks might actually be weak businesses.

Personally I wouldn’t put more of my hard-earned cash into a company that had to cut dividends.  It’s a big warning sign for investors that says “Look out!  I have major cash flow problems”, and historically companies that cut dividends have gone on to under-performed other stocks.

Instead of putting cash into these weak businesses, reinvest in stocks that maintain payouts without destroying the corporate balance sheet.


4. Hunt For Safe Bargains In Unloved Industries

Whenever a recession hits, I find there’s always certain industries that get hurt worse than others.  Maybe it’s banks, maybe it’s hotels, or insurance companies.  Every recession is different, yet there’s typically one industry that’s a big loser.

Investors tend to dump these stocks, and for very good reasons!   They might need to recapitalize by issuing shares (which is terrible for shareholders), or issuing debt.  Under most circumstances, investments like these should be avoided.

For the careful investor however, these “garbage” investments can provide incredible returns if you’re careful.  The trick is in discovering how to invest in these survivors safely.

Safe assets tend to be senior to equities (common shares), which means holders of the bonds, convertibles, or preferred shares will see payouts before regular shareholders.  This provides additional safety for investors and may very well prove to be the difference between earning a return and earning no-return.

In the last recession, I bought a bunch of cheap preferred shares and did very well with that strategy.  Convertible debt, and bonds might be other safe options, assuming you know how to identify survivors.

As you might expect, this is a more advanced strategy than just putting cash into an index fund.  All warnings apply.


Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Given all the factors I’ve talked about in this post, this could be one of the hardest time in history to reach financial independence.  Asset returns will almost certainly be lower in the near future.

That’s bad news, but you have to play the hand you’re dealt.  Sometimes life deals you a winner, and sometimes it’s a stinker.

I won’t beat around the bush — 2020 and probably even 2021 are going to be real stinkers for investors.  But don’t let that stop you, compounding can still continue!  It’s just going to take a bit more work (and sacrifice) than during the boom times.

Enterprising investors will always find a way to succeed and keep compounding during difficult times.  Maybe they have a powerful cash-flow engine to fuel asset purchases, or the ability to hunt for bargains under difficult times.

Whatever the case, I wish everyone the best of luck in 2020.  Stay healthy, safe, and always keep compounding.


[Image Credit: Flickr]

20 thoughts on “How To Keep Compounding When The Market Won’t

  • May 17, 2020 at 11:31 PM

    We plan to tighten our belts and invest as much as we can while the market remains volatile. In 10 years I think we will thank ourselves for doing that.

    • May 18, 2020 at 1:37 PM

      I think you will as well. The COVID recession is going to kill off a lot of small businesses. This could eventually drive growth at the larger businesses that survive… i.e. where most people invest.

  • May 18, 2020 at 3:17 AM

    Being that I don’t pick stocks I’m just sticking to my strategy – index funds with a good chunk of bonds, REITs, and cash. My allocation got a bit out of whack after the market decline but to be honest since I’m already well past my FI number I should probably lean a little more toward a protection than I was before. So my bonds and cash allocations are a tad higher but I’m okay with that. I’m still investing new money with my 401k contributions at work so all is good.

    • May 18, 2020 at 1:38 PM

      It’s a fine strategy, just don’t expect much in returns for a few years. 😉

    • December 15, 2020 at 6:58 PM

      Hi Dave & Mr Tako, do you guys think it’s wise to buy REITs under my Roth or HSA due to it being taxed under my self-directed brokerage acct as non-qualified dividends. I understand you guys aren’t fin. advisors but just wanted both of your opinions as I will take it w/ a grain of salt. Thank you.
      – marcthelifesaver

      • December 17, 2020 at 2:40 AM

        Totally depends upon the REIT, but generally Roths are awesome. If you have a long time horizon for compounding, then it may be totally worth it. If your time horizon is shorter it may not be worth the trouble. Check the REIT taxable distribution breakdown. Some REITs are very low-tax.

  • May 18, 2020 at 3:39 AM

    While I am taking external measures such as lowering my expenses, I’m not sure anyone knows what the stock market holds for the future. Who knows if the world will rise up again within 1,2 ,10 years or even at all. This is all speculation. However my bet is on humanity pushing forward full force after this is over and I want to be there when it happens. My investing strategy has not changed even the slightest. Staying the course and loving it 🙂

    • May 18, 2020 at 1:47 PM

      Well, nobody can predict the future, that’s true… but I’m not doing that here. There’s accounting data and math that supports what I’m saying. I’m not predicting what the market is going to do at all (other than it will wiggle up and down).

      Educated guesses (using data) are possible. That’s exactly what the fed does at those fed meetings. You should read the notes sometime — it’s very enlightening.

      It’s a bit like predicting the weather. Trying to predict weather a year out from now is impossible (and silly), yet weather can still be fairly accurately predicted 2 days out using mathematical models.

  • May 18, 2020 at 8:54 AM

    If you have extra cash, now is the time to invest. It will pay off later.
    This is especially true for retirement savings. Most of us don’t need that money yet so save as much as we can now. We want to remodel our kitchen and bathroom, but we’ll wait a couple of years.
    By then, stocks should come back and we can spend money without worrying too much.

    • May 18, 2020 at 1:49 PM

      Couldn’t agree more. Put off bathroom remodels and expensive purchases (like a new car). It will pay off later once we’re out of this thing.

  • May 18, 2020 at 12:16 PM

    With QE, ZIRP, and talk of negative interest rates, the cards are about as stacked against investors as possible. It would not surprise me if talks of a wealth tax or means testing pop up, once the growth of national debt becomes unsustainable and forces balancing the budget. States are clamoring for bailouts and their pensions are going to be the first casualty. Of course, with the current political regime, the current unsustainable course might continue on for a little longer… until it doesn’t.

    May you live in interesting times, indeed.

    • May 18, 2020 at 1:51 PM

      I haven’t seen the latest money supply figures, but I agree that it’s concerning. I also agree that the worries will probably get kicked down the road for ‘later’.

    • May 22, 2020 at 9:11 AM

      I disagree with the advice to avoid companies that cut dividends. A lot of these dividend payers are increasing their leverage year after year just so they can remain on somebody’s “aristocrat” list (looking at you, XOM). As their reinvestment into the business declines, and their leverage and riskiness increase, the odds of a GE scenario increase. These companies are not safe investments. If dividends exceed free cash flow to equity, it’s a value trap.

      With the pandemic and recession, a lot of these companies will fail to execute the narrow plans which would have allowed them to cover dividends and interest. Then come the downgrades. They are also vulnerable if there is a financial crisis that cuts off their access to cheap debt. When a company has boxed itself into a choice between self liquidation or a downgrade to junk status, they’ve already lost.

      The rational move is to cut dividends the moment they cannot be supported by FCF instead of increasing leverage and dependence on cheap debt while cutting reinvestment. Yet companies are reluctant to do that with dividends. Luckily buybacks can be cut back more easily.

  • May 18, 2020 at 12:53 PM

    Definitely going to be an unusual year. Our strategy isn’t anything outstanding – we’re just buying as the market drops and then working on the other side of the equation… cutting spending. Even if we can’t make a ton of money investing, we can keep expenses from eating away at our portfolio. Without even trying, this lockdown has chipped away at some of our regular spending. I’d imagine this will keep up as bigger plans like vacations become less feasible. Even if we can’t grow the pot dramatically right now, at least we can keep it as intact as possible.

    • May 18, 2020 at 1:57 PM

      “Even if we can’t make a ton of money investing, we can keep expenses from eating away at our portfolio.”

      Well said Jim. At least you’re realizing it now, early enough to make a difference.

      Once people figure out that interest rates are rock bottom, and many of their investments aren’t earning anything, they might start singing the frugal tune.

      One thing I’m thinking about right now — I doubt most people will see raises in the next year or two, but what if inflation starts to rise above 2%? I think it makes a true recovery even harder.

  • May 20, 2020 at 3:31 PM

    Well looking on the bright side. The nasdaq is up 4.5%, gold is up 15%, bonds are up 4.5%, bitcoin is up 32%, all aprox. of course. Not a complete stinker of a year.

    • May 20, 2020 at 4:18 PM

      We are talking about two different things here. I’m talking compounding, you’re talking price wiggles.

      While many may confuse the two, they are not the same.

  • May 23, 2020 at 7:50 AM

    Mr. Tako –

    Spot on. That’s what my watch lists have been focused on and where my cash is going when I invest – into businesses that are doing well during this time period, as well as continue to increase their dividend.

    COVID definitely has taken us even more frugal, as our savings rate easily has come up 5-10%, at a minimum.

    Time to keep investing into fundamentally sound and profitable businesses, that will stand strong during the pandemic.


  • May 23, 2020 at 1:50 PM

    Agreed, it’s very important to figure out the survivability of the companies. Some investors just got burnt buying preferred shares chasing yield, and the company has just announced it’ll be converting the prefs into ordinary equity after not paying the preferred dividend. Lots of pensioners losing lots of capital. Unfortunately the company in question was quite a good business beforehand, but then switched to private equity models, kept offering preferred shares till November last year. Probably fraud cases coming up, but I wouldn’t want to be in a line to queue for a settlement payment when there isn’t any money.

    Watch out for the balance sheet destroyers, the charlatans and anyone Buffett refers to as swimming naked. Oh and it goes without saying, dont speculate! Protection of capital more important than higher yield in these times for a while.


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