The Permanent Portfolio and Your 401k

Yesterday I received a nice comment and was asked about setting up a permanent portfolio via a 401k plan.  As a side note, I don't always respond to comments as I don't want to get bogged down in debates and get sidetracked, but if someone asks an interesting question, I will post a response if I think I can contribute something insightful (I'll have another response to another comment tomorrow).

For a 401k plan, it is hard to set up a permanent portfolio (as described by Harry Browne in his book Fail Safe Investing).  It is even harder to recommend something because every company is different in what they offer.  Some companies offer plans that limit you to just a few mutual funds, while other plans may offer hundreds of funds.

If your 401k plan is limited and only offers a few funds, then it will be impossible to set up anything close to the permanent portfolio.  My best advice in this situation is to split up your money between stocks, long-term bonds, and a money market fund.  Hopefully your plan at least includes these options.  The problem here is that you don't have anything in gold or even related to gold.  This leaves your portfolio vulnerable to inflation and if you are going to be short on something right now, an inflation hedge is the last thing you want to leave out of your investments.

In this circumstance, take any non-emergency money that you have saved up and invest it in gold or gold related investments to make up for the shortfall in your retirement plan, if this is possible.

If your 401k plan offers a lot of choices, then you may be able to work with it.  I have seen plans that offer all of the Fidelity mutual funds and Fidelity offers a lot of select funds.  The stocks, bonds, and cash portions should be easy.  For your inflation hedge, you can at least invest in a precious metals mutual fund. Now understand that this is not the same as owning the metal.  Gold stocks are actually much more volatile than the price of the metal.  So if you can't invest in gold directly, you should go lower with a mutual fund of gold stocks.  In this case, it might be good to put 10% in a gold mutual fund.  For more inflation protection, you could also add in 5% for an energy mutual fund.  If you were to put a full 25% in a gold mutual fund (made up of gold stocks), your portfolio would get hammered if something happened like the fall of 2008.

In some Fidelity plans (and I suspect others offer similar options), you can use "brokerage link", which allows you to invest in most mutual funds and maybe more depending on your plan.  If this is an option, you can take most of your 401k money and put it into the permanent portfolio mutual fund (PRPFX).  If your plan allows you to buy exchange traded funds (ETFs), then you can buy TLT (bonds), GLD (gold), and an ETF of the broad market like the S&P 500.  The cash portion is always easy to find something.  In addition, you could always take your gold percentage down to 20% and put the other 5% in SLV (silver).  Silver is more volatile, but can be very profitable in a commodity bull market.

Explore your choices with your 401k plan and adapt as necessary.  Just make sure you find some protection against inflation.  The Fed is creating new money like crazy and having all of your money sitting in cash is actually a huge risk right now.