Tony Robbins: From Life Guru to Markets Master

Growing up, I watched get-rich-quick infomercials, from selling vitamins through tiny classified ads in thousands of newspapers ($50,000 per week!) to flipping real estate (buy a home with nothing down and walk away from the closing with a $30,000 check!).

Although Tony Robbins didn’t sell get-rich-quick schemes, he sold something even more enticing: how to unleash the power already within you to live an extraordinary life – achieving your ultimate goals and experiencing true fulfillment.

Now, with the publication of his new book, Money: Master the Game, Robbins is entering the world of financial advice.

I haven’t read the book so I don’t know exactly what he says, but I’ve seen him interviewed a couple of times and read a few book reviews and, at this point, I have mixed feelings about what he has to say.

On the one hand, when you boil down his message, it’s very simple and agreeable: develop a financial plan, rely on asset allocation, avoid high cost investments, and work with a fiduciary – you know, the kind of things that we say.

On the other hand, that simple message is delivered in a highly exaggerated way. For example, he says that he did ‘exhaustive research and unprecedented interviews with 50 of the world’s most brilliant financial minds, from self-made billionaires to Nobel Prize winners.’

I realize he’s a natural promoter selling his new book, but it seems to me that he’s vastly overstating the power of what he’s selling.

For example, he talked about his interview with Ray Dalio, founder of the largest hedge fund in the world (Robbins preaches index funds but deifies hedge fund managers).

Robbins describes Dalio’s ‘All Seasons’ approach to investing, which basically advocates allocating money by the expected volatility of an asset class. For example, stocks are four times more volatile than bonds, so investors should own four times more bonds than stocks. That way, stocks and bonds both contribute equally to the volatility of the overall portfolio.

This strategy, called ‘risk parity,’ is well known and not unique to Dalio, although he is definitely a pioneer in the area as a practitioner. The theory has been around since the 1950s, but it’s very difficult to do because it requires a lot of leverage if you want a decent return.

Think about it like this: if you are going to have a portfolio that is 80 percent bonds and 20 percent stocks, the expected return will be around three percent today with bonds yielding two percent and assuming that stocks earn eight percent. Managers like Dalio leverage the portfolio 2x or 3x to get the expected return to six or nine percent.

Robbins asked Dalio for an all-seasons portfolio that doesn’t require leverage and Dalio said that 30 percent should go to the S&P 500, 40 percent should be used for long-term Treasury bonds, 15 percent towards intermediate term bonds, 7.5 percent held in commodities and 7.5 percent in gold.

In an interview with Yahoo! Finance, Robbins says: ‘When my own investment team showed me the back-tested performance numbers on the All Seasons portfolio, I was astonished. I will never forget it. … Unbelievable!’

Robbins reports that between 1984 and 2013, the all-seasons portfolio earned 9.72 percent, made money 86 percent of the time, enjoyed really low volatility and the worst year was -3.93 percent.

I took that allocation and created my own backtest to test the results. My numbers were slightly different, but close enough to say that the backtest is legitimate.

So what’s my problem? This allocation depended heavily on long-term bonds and the backtest covers the best possible environment for long-term bonds. The yield on a 30-year bond in 1984 was 11.5 percent and today it’s 2.8 percent.

Remember that when yields fall, prices rise, and over this period, yields fell by 8.7 percent. It’s mathematically not possible for that to repeat itself so that backtest doesn’t tell you much, other than owning long-term bonds over this 29-year period was a good move.

Although it isn’t for us, I think risk parity is a perfectly fine strategy. That said, it won’t solve your financial problems. Investing like a billionaire, as Robbins proposes, isn’t that helpful in my view.

But, if Robbins gets the message out about asset allocation, diversification, low-cost investing, financial planning and the other mundane but essential elements of successful investing, more power to him.