Donald Trump’s current net worth – as he would be the first to tell you – is estimated to be between $2 and $4 billion, most of which he made through inheritance and real estate investments, along with other business dealings. An article in National Journal recently took a look at what might have happened if he had invested in an S&P 500 index fund back in 1982 when his inherited real estate fortune was estimated to be worth “only” $200 million. According to National Journal’s calculations, if he’d invested carefully in index funds, Trump’s net worth would be a whopping $8 billion today.
Does this mean Donald Trump is a bad investor? Not necessarily: the oldest lesson on Wall Street is that everything is easy in hindsight.
While highly speculative, those numbers do highlight the ongoing debate over which is a better investment – real estate instruments or stocks. Both stocks have and the real estate market have had great runs in recent history and, depending on when you invested, you could make cases for both investments being the better choice.
But the stock market and the real estate market both experience volatility, dips, and extended recovery times so, for the average investor, a portfolio composed of mainly real estate or other fixed assets (like art or collectibles, for instance) poses some risks that should be hedged with proper cash flow planning, a diversified portfolio, and proper tax planning.
Cash Flow Planning
A good financial plan takes into account how much cash you need access to, or may need access to in the future. Cash flow planning should be a key factor in deciding whether real estate investments are part your individualized financial strategy.
As National Journal points out, Trump claims he is willing to spend upwards of $1 billion of his own money to fund his presidential campaign, yet his financial disclosure statements show that he may have less than $200 million in cash, stocks, and bonds. The rest of his fortune is tied up in real estate investments, which could be much harder to liquidate and use for his campaign.
Most of us aren’t running for president but, if something like the 2007 housing collapse were to happen again, any investor who is predominantly invested in real estate could have problems liquidating those – diminished – assets for retirement, college funding, or other non-presidential goals.
A solution: diversification.
Whether you are investing in real estate or the stock market, diversification is always a prudent way to address your own risk tolerance and use proper foresight in creating a winning strategy.
While with real estate funds, diversification can be achieved via many factors, including residential vs commercial investments, differing location focuses, and differing interest rates and financing mechanisms, it is still fundamentally one sector, subject to sentiment and swings.
With the stock market, on the other hand, diversification allows you the opportunity to invest not only in different asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, and money market funds, but in a variety of sectors and industries as well. Over the past 60 years, historically, the stock market has averaged an 8% annual return, so investors with strategically balanced and diversified portfolios, there is the opportunity for steady, while not spectacular gains, with the potential for less risk than investing only in the real estate market.
An investor who is properly diversified through multiple asset classes – including real estate if it makes sense for their own customized strategy – is potentially better protected against the short term results of one asset class experiencing a crash or a prolonged dip.
Another thing to consider is that options for investing in real estate in IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts are complicated and not every custodian will allow you to include real estate investments in a tax-deferred account.
Hindsight vs Foresight
While Donald Trump is an outlier because his high net worth shelters him from some of the issues with primarily being invested in real estate, it’s intriguing to consider “what if.”
In the case of a more typical investor, a little foresight can go a long way in making sure you are on your way to achieving your own financial goals. A sound financial plan should be tailored to individual goals and cash flow needs, with a customized cash flow plan, and diversified across multiple asset classes for the potential for steady and compounded growth over time.
Whether you are a Donald Trump with a large inheritance or a young professional just getting started, a solid plan and strategy puts the benefit of hindsight where it belongs: in a conversation over coffee or cocktails, and not as the basis for a winning investment strategy.