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The meaning of life and real estate portfolio construction

When constructing a real estate portfolio, you will frequently be confronted with the tricky question: which property should I acquire (or dispose of) next? What I’ve discovered over the course of my investment career is that this is not so much a tricky question as it is a trick question. It’s akin to someone asking you: “What is the meaning of life?”

What started as a straightforward question didn’t seem so straightforward after all …

Chess and complexity

Allow me to digress. Recently my son has taken an interest in chess, so in trying to avoid the embarrassment of regular defeat to a seven-year-old, I’ve begun to immerse myself in a game I know little about.

There are about 10^50 potential combinations on a chess board, a number so astronomical that it’s equal to about 60% of the sum total of atoms in the known universe. So, chess combinations are a plausible proxy for the complexity of the real world, though the latter is indubitably more complex still.

Fitting therefore that Victor Frankl, a Viennese Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, makes use of the chess analogy in his brief but brilliant book: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl argues that asking someone “What is the meaning of life?” is akin to asking a chess grand master “What is the best move I can make in chess?” This is self-evidently a nonsensical question: the grand master will respond by asking for the position of the various pieces on the chess board.

And since every human life is a unique combination of genetics and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”, the question should be, “What is the meaning of life for me in this situation?”

The answer will vary considerably from one person to the next. Which is why awe-inspiring meaning for one person may seem redundant, distasteful or outrageous to another.

The fanatics among us will no doubt be dismayed. For them, there is always one right answer and it conveniently applies to all, no exceptions. Black and white answers for a world of infinite shades. “The whole problem with the world”, Bertrand Russell once observed, “is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”

Enough digression. What does all this have to do with the arcane art of real estate portfolio construction? Answer: it’s far less interesting than the meaning of life but the principles are the same.

Recently, I was asked by a cashed-up overseas private investor what I would recommend as a real estate investment strategy in the current market. I responded by saying that anyone who provided an immediate and authoritative answer to that question should be treated with extreme suspicion. They were likely either a fanatic or a fraud.

Ask some fundamental questions

First, I needed to know where all the pieces were on his chess board. I said I would need to ask him some fundamental questions before I could even begin to answer his question (11 questions overall, but who’s counting?):

  1. What is the quantum he is looking to invest and how quickly?
  2. What is the term of investment? Are there any hard limits on the term or is there some flexibility?
  3. What is the target rate of return? Is there a minimum return requirement?
  4. What is the tolerance to annual volatility in returns or to negative returns?
  5. What are the likely liquidity requirements over the term of investment? Is there a minimum annual distribution requirement?
  6. Does he currently own any real estate in Australia or overseas? If so, what is the current and historic performance of that portfolio?
  7. Does he have any preference or expertise or contacts in a particular sector of the real estate market, such as logistics or office or shopping centres?

A zealot will peddle the same deal to all regardless of circumstance, but the right answer is unique to each investor.

Next time someone asks you what real estate deal you would recommend they invest in – smile, lean in and whisper with a hint of irony: “So, pray tell me, what is the meaning of life?”


Adam Geha is CEO and Founding Director of real estate fund manager EG. The original article is here. This article is for general information only and does not consider the circumstances of any individual.


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