The Role of Cash in Investor Portfolios

There’s global-volatility-roller-coasternothing like a little reprise of global market volatility to remind us that stocks don’t always go up.  That’s no reason to panic, of course, but sometimes it’s good to take a moment to reflect on portfolio theory and appreciate why most advisors don’t advocate a 100% allocation to equities.

Here at Max, we are not financial advisors, nor do we offer financial advice. Our goal is simply to help individual investors earn as much as possible on whatever portion of their portfolio that they — or their advisors — have chosen to hold in cash, while keeping it safe.  Today, our members are earning approximately 1.00% yield on their liquid cash, with FDIC insurance of up to $5 million per couple.  This works out to roughly 10x more interest income than paid in most savings or brokerage accounts and 20x more than most money market funds (which, it’s worth noting, are not insured.)

According to the most recent Capgemini/RBC Wealth Management World Wealth Report, 4.7 million high net worth households in North America — defined as those with more than $1 million of investable assets beyond their primary residence — are holding a collective $3.8 trillion dollars in cash & cash equivalents.  That works out to 23.7% of their portfolios.  Yet most financial advisors think that their clients are holding closer to 10% of their portfolios in cash. What accounts for the difference?  It seems as if Americans are more conservative than their financial advisors would seem to believe or advise.  They must be holding cash in other pockets — bank accounts, CDs, and money market funds outside the view of their advisors.

Why so much cash? There are several reasons. Some have to do with timing differences. A law firm partner might, for instance, receive monthly draws from the partnership, but pay estimated taxes quarterly. This results in a build up of cash that must be set aside to pay taxes. But if that cash is sitting in a regular checking or savings or brokerage account, it is likely dramatically under-earning its potential. Other households may be saving for a major purchase, such as a first or second home, or reserving funds against commitments made to invest in private equity funds. Again, cash set aside earning next to nothing creates a drag on the portfolio and represents a lost opportunity to earn on those funds.

Other investors are more strategic about their cash allocation. For some, it’s a hedge (amidst market volatility, where the values of stocks and bonds gyrate, it’s nice to have the comfort of an asset class that acts as a store of value.) For others, cash is an even more strategic asset – a form of dry powder, ready to be deployed when market opportunities present themselves.

For all the talk of cash being a zero return asset class, excess cash in a portfolio can also facilitate outsized gains. Looking back on the financial crisis of 2008-2009, an investor with cash on the sidelines, who was able to bravely dip a toe into the market while others were fearful, could have tripled her money simply by buying the S&P 500. Had that same investor been fully invested, she would have missed one of the greatest investment opportunities of our lifetimes. This past week’s market volatility again reminds us that having cash at the ready can mean the difference between fretting over falling share prices vs. capitalizing on opportunity.

Financial advisors should pay close attention to these statistics. Astute advisors know that they can deliver better financial advice if they have a truer picture of their clients’ assets, objectives, and risk tolerance. Bringing more of a client’s cash into view can help inform this discussion and lead to better investment outcomes. is one such tool that can be deployed to generate better returns for clients, both directly by way of higher yield, and indirectly, by assembling a pool of cash that’s ready to be deployed when volatility emerges.

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