By BRETT ARENDS
In my next life, I'm going to set up a consultancy advising politicians -- especially presidential candidates -- on how to handle their finances.
These days, with so much money sloshing around political campaigns, these people can afford all the help they want. And boy do they need it.
Of course, I'd probably be a terrible consultant because I can't stand stupidity. I'd carry my old cricket bat, like band manager Tony Hendra in This Is Spinal Tap, and I'd thwack the clients every time they did a dumb thing. I'd end up in jail for hitting them so much. I wouldn't care.
So here is my advice -- for free. You're running for office? You're running for president? Here's a simple checklist.
Close your offshore accounts
Like yesterday. When Mitt Romney first disclosed his finances back in January I couldn't believe it. Cayman Islands trusts? Swiss bank accounts? Are you kidding me? Who are you, Jason Bourne?
People tell me how smart Romney is supposed to be. Not from where I'm sitting. The Obama campaign and surrogates are now hitting Romney on the offshore money. Okay, maybe these are cheap shots. But so what? Politics is all about cheap shots. It's a ridiculous and demeaning profession, and it is 90% about image and spin. Don't complain. Play the game or get out.
There is nothing morally wrong, nor illegal, in having offshore accounts so long as they are fully reported to Uncle Sam. But lots of things are legal that you shouldn't do if you are running for president. It's perfectly legal to fly to Amsterdam, walk into one of those cafes that serve marijuana, and get high as a kite. But I wouldn't recommend it either. Why make a rod for your own back?
Sell all your hedge funds
Never invest in them if you are a politician. And if you already have, get out. Now.
Most hedge funds are grossly overrated. The industry, as a whole, adds little value. The fees are huge. The small number of funds that really do add value probably won't take your money. And for a politician they just aren't worth it.
These things are a disaster waiting to happen for any politician. You don't know what your hedge fund manager is doing. His job is to make money in all markets. That means he may do things that are unethical or politically unsound. He may even break the law. You may be blameless, but trust me, someone will find out and they will try to pin it on you.
During the financial crisis, the smart hedge funds made money for their investors by betting against vulnerable U.S. companies, such as automakers and other manufacturers. How will something like that look in an election?
Don't rely on a "blind trust"
Politicians continue to put faith in these things. They put their money into a trust. The trustees handle the investments, and the politician isn't told what they hold. In practice these things are a waste of time and money. The trustees will charge you an absolute fortune in fees every year. The investment performance will probably be subpar. And the voters won't care you have a blind trust anyway. They will still blame you for anything in your portfolio.
Never invest in an individual stock
I am still amazed at what 60 Minutes uncovered about the stock trading on Capitol Hill -- that members of Congress were trading shares based on non-public information. Any journalist would be drummed out of the industry if they did something like that, and quite right, too. Maybe these politicians got away with it, but if I were advising someone going into public life I'd tell them to stay a long way away from any individual stock. Apple, Procter & Gamble, Bank of America, or Amalgamated Widgets: It wouldn't matter. It's not worth the time or effort. Keep this stuff simple.
Put your money in a handful of index funds
Why is this so hard? I am not an index fund junkie. I do not believe markets are perfectly efficient or that all prices are right at all times. But beating markets is extremely hard and if you are running for office can you do yourself a favor and stop trying.
Three index funds will give you an all-weather portfolio that: (a) will never embarrass you; and (b) will look after your money better than most alternatives; and c) will cost you almost nothing in fees. No money management fees. No performance fees. No blind trust or legal fees. Oh, and no extra tax preparation fees either. They're really easy.
Put 60% of your money in the Vanguard Global Equity Fund, 20% in the Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund and 20% in Vanguard Long-Term Treasury Fund. Rebalance once a year. That portfolio would have doubled your money in ten years, with much lower risk than most portfolios. (Even in 2008 the whole thing only fell 29%. Hedge funds alone fell 16%). And voters will love you for it. You may have a thousand times as much money as them, but you'll be invested in the same funds.
Cut up that gold card
Romney spends $12 million fixing up his California beachhouse -- including $55,000 installing a car elevator - while running for president. Michelle Obama goes on a shopping spree in Madrid while the country is in a depression. Just one question: What's wrong with these people? You're running for president, stop splashing out. Cut up the credit cards.
Most politicians are much richer than the average member of the population. America was founded by gentry: men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were the economic elite of their era. But voters don't like to have it rubbed in their faces. Most successful politicians have played up the "man of the people" thing. Think of Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln with their log cabins. If you want to showed in champagne, stay in private life.
Sell most of your homes
How many houses do you have? Four? Then sell two. Eight? Then sell six. If you have to, give them away to your grownup kids -- long before you run for office. Most Americans consider themselves lucky to have one home. They'll forgive you having a second, vacation home. But after that, it starts to really annoy them. No presidential candidate should have more than two homes. The presidency comes with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Camp David as well. How many places do you need?
Stay west of the East River
Mitt Romney holds a fund raiser at the Hamptons. Barack Obama flies into Boston to rattle the cup. Romney jet skis around Lake Winnepausakee. Obama vacations on Martha's Vineyard. John Kerry windsurfs off Nantucket.
What on earth are these people thinking? Thwack! Thwack! Look, I live in New England. I get it. But most of the country doesn't. There are no swing states here. The whole region is politically incorrect. You say "Cape Cod" or "the Hamptons" to a steelworker in Ohio and he doesn't get a warm, fuzzy feeling. It's a place he saw in a movie where everyone wafts from room to room and sips champagne.
Presidential candidates should stay west of New York's East River during a campaign. There is no political reason to come here.
Vacation in flyover country
You're running for president? Say goodbye to fancy vacations on the East Coast, the West Coast, Hawaii, or overseas. You're taking your family fishing in Wyoming. Or rafting in Colorado. Or sailing on the Great Lakes. And how about those swing states? Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) has miles and miles of lakefront coastline. So do Ohio (20 votes) and Pennsylvania (21). And when the weather turns cold there's always Florida (27).
So what are these people doing vacationing in New England? See the point above.
Buy a ranch
George W. Bush was a Yalie from a wealthy Connecticut dynasty, but he bought a ranch in Texas and boy did it help. The visuals were terrific. Every politician should pull this stunt. How much will it cost you? Real estate is dirt cheap these days. You can get a thirty-year mortgage at less than 4%. A ranch out west is a deal. You can do whatever you want there. You can drink chardonnay, eat soft French cheese, hang out with elitists, and watch Ingmar Bergman art-house movies with Woody Allen. All the voters will hear is that you are "vacationing at your ranch," and they'll love it.
Buy a pickup truck
For heaven's sake leave the Cadillacs at home. And certainly don't buy anything foreign. Voters may love the idea of owning a fancy sports car themselves, but they expect their politicians to keep it simple and domestic. The safest option is a Ford F-150. Once again, the visuals are terrific. They start at $24,000, new. And who is ever going to criticize you for driving a Ford pickup truck built in the U.S.A.?
Maybe I won't make any money as a consultant. But I'll run a sideline -- selling ranches and pickups to selected individuals. Discretion guaranteed.