Against the barbell strategy

by Benquo2 min read20th Sep 201816 comments



Nassim Nicholas Taleb recommends that instead of the balanced portfolio of investments recommended by portfolio theory, we follow a "barbell" strategy of putting most of our assets in a maximally safe, stable investment, and making small, sustainable bets with very high potential upside. If taken literally, this can't work because no such safe asset class exists.

Taleb typically uses US treasury bonds as an example of an extremely safe asset. This can only be true metaphorically. They are extremely safe if your measure of value is denominated in US dollars. But of what use to me are US treasury bonds in a hurricane, or if the US dollar collapses? Of what use if people like me become targets for state persecution, stripped of our financial assets or ability to access them? Of what use if I'm trying to deal with a spiritual or health problem and don't know how to find competent advice? If I'm trying to feed myself and don't know how to distinguish profit-seeking propaganda or engineered taste from genuine information about which foods are healthful?

Risks, and opportunities, are many-dimensional. And along very few dimensions is there anything like the sort of crystalline perfection of a treasury bond. A personal network extending to a variety of fields can do a lot to help you avoid getting scammed, and get access to at least an ordinary standard of competence, such as it is. A friend with different interests and skills from yours will do a lot to expand the access you have, and the skills and knowledge at your disposal. Friends from different cultures or communities can serve as an important hedge if you and people like you become a target of extraction or persecution for some reason, or simply if your way of life becomes unsustaintable.

Land you are used to occupying and know well is easier to robustly possess and develop than a rented apartment (but the upside is often higher in high-density areas, which is why young people often prefer them). A spouse makes it easier to pool assets into a venture diversified between building up a single household and seeking external trade or mercenary opportunities. And children who grow up well-adjusted to the world can be helpful if you need to navigate a changing incentive landscape when you've already committed your assets to a bunch of permanent bets (which you need to do, since time is limited). In addition, they may be a decent consolation prize if cryonics doesn't work to ensure your personal survival. Intergenerational communities of interest protect you a lot more day to day, though they themselves can have trouble reallocating resources in changing circumstances.

Risk cannot be avoided, only managed. The risk-free asset is an illusion. Someday your natural life will end, you need to invest taking that into account, and taking into account that this is true of everything else on this earth that you can put your trust in. If you allocate too much of your portfolio to "safe" assets you're leaving yourself unnecessarily exposed to the risk that this asset will become irrelevant, and failing to take the chances that are actually available to improve your position.

To a large extent, young people do well in the long run by pursuing things that are genuinely fun but not universal. This engages our natural sense of opportunity, which doesn't understand formal systems like money very well, but understands very well how to look for high-upside bets that are actually good for us. I wish someone had explained this to me fifteen years ago. If this advice helps you, then think of me when you're successful, and remember that I didn't charge you for it at the time. And remember to pay it forward.

Or, as Ecclesiastes says:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth. If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be. He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good. Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun: But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.