China is looking increasingly desperate

Paper was first invented in China. So was paper money, and thus runaway inflation. It is interesting to see China return to its historical roots this week with the significant devaluation of its currency, the renminbi.  

China’s actions make it look desperate. The Chinese economy is slowing down, perhaps more rapidly than the communist party in China would like. They have tried spurring stock market growth, and then propping up the stock market to prevent it from falling. Now, they are devaluing the currency to try to get the economy jump-started.

Real economic growth comes from productivity, not from printing currency, redistributing wealth, spurring stock market speculation, or punishing those profiting from stocks falling. All of China’s, or Europe’s, or America’s, or Japan’s attempts to get growth from someplace other than productivity (which isn’t in the government’s wheelhouse) are doomed to failure.

Devaluing the renminbi is an attempt to make Chinese goods cheaper for foreigners to buy. That “works” as long as no other country decides to devalue their currency, too. And, it assumes that market participants are too stupid to adjust prices based on currency manipulation, which history and academic research has been shown not to be the case.

It should come as little surprise that communist dictators misunderstand how a free market works. China is running the risk of not only disrupting the world economy with its actions, but also definitely proving to Chinese people that they don’t know what they are doing. The risks and the results are real, and will be felt worldwide.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

China is looking increasingly desperate

What if inflation isn’t low?

Provocative article in CFA Institute Magazine questioning if inflation isn’t really low. What if inflation stats are misreporting actual inflation? What if central banks are keeping rates low and that is causing the income inequality that so many commentators are braying about?

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

What if inflation isn’t low?

The Inflation Path

To most people, inflation seems quite mysterious.  This is not without good reason.  

First of all, it’s an abstract concept.  Inflation is not when the price of some things go up.  Just because the price of gasoline or wheat increases doesn’t mean inflation is happening.  Inflation is when the price of everything, on average, goes up.  This concept isn’t just abstract, it’s almost impossible to measure over the short run.  Inflation isn’t usually obvious until it’s really climbing.

Another reason inflation seems so mysterious is because so many misunderstand when it is or isn’t happening.  Politicians and economists are notorious for saying inflation isn’t happening when it is, and saying inflation is happening when it isn’t.  Anyone paying attention would think inflation is completely inexplicable.

It’s not.  Inflation is simply when the money supply increases faster than production of goods and services.  That doesn’t mean it’s easy to measure, but we do know what it is.

Inflation is also terribly destructive.  As Keynes said, it is a very easy way for governments to confiscate tremendous amounts of wealth without the populous seeming to notice.  That is, until inflation gets very high.  Then it rips an economy and government apart (starting with the poorest, I might add).  

A quick look at history will reveal that few governments collapse because they have bad policies or default on debt, per se.  The thing that will destroy a country more easily than anything (besides war) is inflation.  The record is quite clear.

The path to inflation is also easily understood.  Many writers have described the process accurately, usually after an exhaustive study of history.  Peter Bernholz perhaps describes it best in Monetary Regimes and Inflation: History, Economic and Political Relationships.  

To start, you have a government conservatively financed with low taxes and limited power.  As the government extends its power over time, it gets to the point where it cannot raise taxes enough to further grow its power (people eventually refuse to pay the higher taxes either direct protest, or indirectly by violating the law).  At that point, a government starts to borrow.  The borrowing starts low and gets higher as time progresses.  At a certain point, the borrowing becomes high enough that those lending to the government demand higher interest rates.  That’s when things start to come apart, and that’s when the government starts creating money much faster than economic growth.  And, that’s when inflation goes ballistic and things finally come apart.

This path is not followed precisely each time, but that’s generally the path to high inflation.  

For example, some governments realize they are creating money too quickly and reign things in.  This is possible not solely because the people or government decide to be more rational, but because the size of government debt and spending is not too large relative to the rest of the economy.  It wasn’t hard for the U.S. to get inflation back under control after the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, and the 1970’s (Vietnam War), because our government debt and spending weren’t yet too high relative to the productive capacity of the economy.  But, it’s not necessarily the case that cooler heads can prevail if the debt is too great.

The best defense against inflation is a precious metal standard, usually gold or silver (and gold has been far superior to silver, historically).  

The next best thing is a paper money standard with an independent central bank (independent of political authorities–particularly elected officials).  Unfortunately, this “next best thing” has always and everywhere been an intermediate step on the way to high inflation, usually by way of making the central bank beholden to elected officials.

I mention this because Barney Frank, a Congressman more responsible for the housing crisis than Wall Street and all the banks in the U.S. put together, is currently suggesting we make our central bank, the Federal Reserve, beholden to elected officials.  Like F.D. Roosevelt tried to stack the Supreme Court to force his policies through, Barney Frank wants to make the Federal Reserve more directly swayed by the Congress.

Now, I’d like to step back to put my above comment into context.  The U.S. government has gone from being conservatively financed (we’ve had an income tax for less than half our history), to grabbing more and more power (economically, militarily, socially, etc.).  That power has been expensive, so much so that we had to start issuing larger and larger amounts of debt to finance that growth in power.  As that occurred, the U.S. went off its domestic gold standard in 1933 and off the international gold standard in 1971.  Since then, we’ve had higher and lower inflation (to the degree our independent central bank kept things in check–almost always against the will of politicians!).  With the growth of our welfare state, particularly in the form of Social Security and Medicare, our government has racked up tremendous financial obligations, far out-weighing our military spending or any other spending (including those dreadful bank bailouts).  

Governments get into trouble when debt grows to exceed 90% of the economy.  That’s when the economy slows because of the debt millstone around its neck.  We’re either there, now, or very close.  We also know that governments get into trouble when the deficit of spending versus tax revenues grows to over 20% of spending.  We’re around 30% now.

So, as our government has grown in power, it has gotten into so much debt that it is close to preventing the economy from growing its way out of the problem.  And, it has abandoned the best thing to prevent high inflation–a precious metal standard.  Added to this, there are elected officials who would like to remove our last line of defense–the independence of our central bank.  

Not good.

High inflation doesn’t have to happen here, but we are getting farther and farther out on a limb that can lead us to tumble off into serious trouble.  We can decide to turn around and scramble back toward the tree.  That would require us to keep our central bank independent at a minimum, and then get back on a precious metal standard.  It will also require us to reign in our government’s size relative to our economy (that means spending cuts and the restructuring of our tax system).

The inflation path is clear, and we keep taking steps down it.  Perhaps it’s time to turn around.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

The Inflation Path

Bonds and Gold

David Malpass hit the nail on the head with his editorial Beyond the Gold and Bond Bubbles in the Wall Street Journal today: bonds and gold have done well because people fear both deflation and inflation.

I’ve been surprised to see both gold and bonds do so well over the last decade.  After all, deflation and inflation are opposites: when one performs well the other usually doesn’t.  This makes bonds and gold both doing well a bit of a paradox. 

But in today’s mixed message environment, it makes sense from a certain perspective.  Investors are running scared.  They seek safety in some form–any form. 

They correctly see that bad debt (lending which can’t be repaid) leads to deflation, so they want to own bonds as protection.  Just look at Japan over the last 20 years: bonds performed much better than stocks.  Or, look at America during the Great Depression: bonds did much better than stocks.

But, investors also fear inflation, which is caused by too much currency growth relative to goods and services.  Witness Weimar Germany in the 1920’s or the United States during the 1970’s.  In both cases gold protected wealth better than stocks or bonds.

The problem with this reasoning is that it works…until it doesn’t.  Let’s look at what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” 

Bonds were a lousy investment from the bottom of the Great Depression until the 1970’s.  Bonds will likely be a very poor investment in Japan over the coming 20 years.

Gold was a great investment in Weimar Germany…until hyperinflation ended.  Then it tanked.  Same with 1970’s inflation here in the U.S.: gold was great…until it declined 6% a year for 20 years.

Investing to catch the waves of inflation and deflation require excellent market timing.  It only pays to ride the wave as long as you know exactly when to get off.  Getting the timing wrong–even by a little–will lead to poor results.  But, in case you don’t know, no one is good at consistently timing the market (despite all the time, effort and brainpower devoted to it). 

Warren Buffet doesn’t time the market.  Neither did Peter Lynch.  Look at the Forbes 400 some time and scout out the market timers–you won’t find a single one.  Trying to time the market doesn’t lead to permanent wealth–it leads either to temporary or decreasing wealth.

Which is why most investors shouldn’t focus on bonds and gold.  If you can time the market perfectly–and good luck on that–you can ride bond/deflation or gold/inflation.  If you are a mere mortal, then don’t try juggling nitroglycerin. 

If you want to build permanent wealth, you should do what Warren Buffett and a herd of other smart investors do–buy productive assets at cheap prices, which is when everyone hates them.  Productive assets are things that generate cash.  Gold doesn’t.  Bonds do, but the cash they generate isn’t protected against inflation (except for TIPS, but they have their own problems).  You have to own productive assets to really be protected against both inflation and deflation.

Examples include real estate, stocks, businesses, rental equipment, employment, education, etc.  These are assets you put money into and get back over time.  They can adjust to both inflation and deflation. 

Does that mean they do well in all markets?  NO!  Investing is not about what does well over a week, month, quarter, year, or even 5 years.  You invest for the long term, not for a short term kick-back–that’s speculation!

But, producing assets work like a charm during both inflation and deflation.  Look at the record of stocks, real estate, owning a business, rental equipment, education, or any employment during periods of inflation and deflation.  They do poorly initially, but work very well over time.  That’s because they can adjust to inflation and deflation, whereas bonds and gold cannot (gold will maintain, but not grow, value over the full cycle).

Investors flooding into bonds and gold are likely to look brilliant for a while…until they get slaughtered.  The cycle on bonds and gold tend to turn very quickly.  It will only be obvious in hindsight that the tide has turned–and by then it will be too late.

Investors patient enough to invest in producing assets at cheap prices will do well–over the long run–regardless of whether we experience inflation or deflation.  That’s how I’m betting.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Bonds and Gold

Gold is money, but that doesn’t make it a sound investment

“Gold is money.  Everything else is credit.” – John Pierpont Morgan

I must admit, I’m a bit of a gold bug. 

After studying economic and financial history for over 16 years, it’s quite clear to me that wealth is not pieces of paper, but economic goods.  And money–as a store of value or medium of exchange–is not pieces of paper, either, but an objective equivalent of wealth freely chosen by economic participants. 

Over thousands of years of human history, economic actors chose first rocks and cattle, then base metals like copper, and finally precious metals like silver and gold as mediums of exchange. 

Governments, starting with Croesus in Greece, started minting coins of precious metal not because they arbitrarily decided what money should be, but because market participants were already using it and they grabbed the market for themselves (not for the first or last time, I might add).

After seizing that market, every government has proceeded to debase money by reducing the amount of precious metal in coins, and every time economic participants have adjusted their actions accordingly, revealing the debasement for what it really is–inflation.

Every time, inflation got out of hand and led to price controls that, as always, caused shortages instead of reducing inflation.  And each and every time, this led to a slowing and contraction in economic growth that eventually led people to demand money backed by specie–metal or metal-backed currency.

Both the Chinese and French boldly tried paper currency only to find it yielded the same disastrous result as metal coin debasement–but faster.  Since the 1930’s, U.S. currency has not been redeemable in specie.  Since the early 1970’s, U.S. currency has not been backed by specie at all.  Want to guess why the 1970’s witnessed a huge spike in inflation?

Look at a dollar bill some time and you’ll see written across the top “Federal Reserve Note.”  A note, for those of you who don’t live on planet economica perpetua (I do!), is a debt instrument–in other words, credit.  As Mr. Morgan put it, gold is money and everything else is credit.

With that overlong introduction, you get an idea of why I believe gold is money.  But, let me be clear, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good investment.

I think Warren Buffett put things clearly when asked a question about inflation protected assets at his most recent annual meeting.  He noted that there were three types of assets: 1) assets backed by currency, like dollars, euros, bonds, savings accounts, 2) assets backed by something tangible, like gold, art, antique cars, diamonds, land, and 3) producing assets, like stocks, farm land, rental real estate. 

In an inflationary scenario, you can expect the first type to lose value (perhaps badly), you can expect the second to maintain value, and you can expect the third to grow in value.

I place gold firmly in the second category, which makes sense.  You expect gold to maintain value regardless of inflation, but you don’t expect it to grow in value relative to the value of other things.  Gold is money, so it is a store or protector of value, not a grower of value. 

You do, however, expect the third category to continue growing regardless of inflation, because it throws off economic value.  Instead of being debased, like currency denominated assets, or maintaining value, like tangible assets, you would expect producing assets to continue producing. 

A farm continues producing corn, regardless of how corn is priced.  Stocks are priced in terms of earnings, where revenues and costs adjust to changing prices over time.  Rental real estate rates adjust to underlying currency, whether dollars, dinars, or drachma.  You get the idea. 

I know gold is money, but that doesn’t make it a great investment.  Gold may preserve value, it may provide insurance against negative outcomes, but gold is not a producing asset.  You may speculate in gold prices, but that’s not investing.  For my money, I want growth, not standing still or speculation.

Gold is money, no doubt, but that doesn’t make it a sound investment.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Gold is money, but that doesn’t make it a sound investment

Capital preservation

Investing is not as complex as most in the field like to make it out to be.  Economists, financial planners, market strategists, professors of finance and economics, etc. like to make the field seem more difficult to grasp than it is.  Not surprisingly, this serves their interests.

In the Middle Ages, when hardly anyone could read or understand Latin, men of the church had a stranglehold on religious doctrine.  If you wanted to understand or get guidance on the most important issues of the time, you had to go through the men of the church.  This served the church’s interests well.

And, so it is now with investing.  Today’s clergymen of finance work hard to cloak the simplicity of investing in higher math, floating abstractions, mindless charts, confusing terms.  Their efforts are not to clarify, but to obfuscate; for, if you’re completely confused, then you’ll need their help! 

(As an amusing aside: a former investing boss of mine, in criticizing my writing ability, complained that I wasn’t writing in a sufficiently high-minded way.  He told me that magazines and newspapers were written at an 8th grade level, and so was my writing, but he wanted it at an 11th or 12th grade level.  When I commented that it might make the writing unintelligible to many of his clients, he said that was okay because his clients would prefer someone who sounded smart over actually understanding!) 

So, why do I claim that investing is simple?  I read a description of investing 16 years ago that made perfect sense and was simple, and I’ve used it ever since.  This description, from Benjamin Graham and David Dodd’s Security Analysis, 1934:

“An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return.  Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.”

No mention of alpha, beta, standard deviation, diversification, macro-economic forecasting, the efficient frontier, small cap blend, negative correlation, optimized portfolios.  You’re investing if you 1) do thorough analysis, and 2) invest in securities that promise a) safety of principal and b) a satisfactory return. 

If you don’t do thorough analysis or hire someone who doesn’t, it’s not investing, it’s speculation.  No stock tips, no hunches, no astrology, no gut feel, no “I just know…”, no buying lots of everything–just thorough analysis.

If you invest in securities that don’t promise–first–safety of principal and–second–a  satisfactory return, then you’re not investing, you’re speculating.  A lot of investors focus on that second part, the satisfactory return part, but few put the emphasis necessary on the first part (which Graham and Dodd correctly made primary).

Many financial planners and investment advisors give lip service to safety of principal, or capital preservation, but few give it the attention it needs.  This lip service to capital preservation is frequently waved away with the magic of diversification.  If you put your eggs in many baskets, they say, then there’s no way all your eggs will break at once.

2008, or any other financial crisis in history for that matter, should put that notion to rest.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t.  Putting your eggs in poorly built baskets, no matter how many of them, is unwise.

Capital preservation is also framed in terms of volatility.  If the basket goes up and down a lot, they say, you’ll get scared.  Fear is a relevant issue, but it’s not the same as capital preservation.  Capital preservation is whether the eggs break or remain whole, not whether they are jostled or swung about.

Capital preservation means you get back what you put in.  Not volatility, not fear, but whether you get back what you put in.  The price of an investment may go up and down and all over, but it’s still capital preservation if you get back what you put in. 

Risk, as Graham defined it, is the permanent loss of capital.  Not the temporary loss of capital, not the fear of the loss of capital, but the permanent loss of capital.  Not eggs jostled or raised and lowered, but eggs BROKEN.

If your investment returns the capital you put in, then capital has been preserved.  If not, or if the safety of that capital, upon thorough analysis, is suspect, then it’s not investing.

This raises an important issue which many overlook: capital preservation is preservation of the spending power of the capital.  Not the capital quoted in dollars, drachma, cows, or shells, but the real, sustainable purchasing power of that capital.  If you put in 6 large eggs and get back 6 small ones, or if even 1 is missing, then it’s not capital preservation. 

Many incorrectly think of cash or bonds as being the soundest means of capital preservation.  In most cases it is, but not if inflation occurs.  If inflation is a real threat over the time-frame that capital must be used, then capital preservation must necessarily include inflation protection.  Cash and bonds, by themselves, don’t cut it.

Most investing experts focus too much on secondary, tertiary, etc., issues.  They focus on diversification, statistical “guarantees,” unexamined impressions, recent history.  But, investing just isn’t that complex. 

You need to do thorough analysis (examine that basket in-depth), you need to preserve capital primarily (will I get back the same number of actual eggs I put in the basket, unbroken), and you’d like to get a satisfactory return secondarily (given that the number and size of eggs is safe, can I get back more eggs than I put in). 

It’s not rocket science or brain surgery–it’s quite simple.

But, as Warren Buffett put it, investing is simple, but not easy.  Which means: knowing how to invest is not complex, but doing it well is difficult.  Losing weight requires you to consumer more calories than you put in–that’s simple.  But doing it isn’t easy–it’s very difficult (especially around Christmas!).

Perhaps Buffett’s investment success should lead investors to focus on his methodology (including very little of what financial clergymen sell), which starts with: capital preservation.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Capital preservation

The Fed wants MORE (?!) inflation

I know, everyone is taking pot-shots at the Federal Reserve (the YouTube video is hilarious!).  I, however, feel especially privileged to do so not because I read a lot of finance, investing and economics, but because I’ve always been critical of the Fed.

The Fed was originally created in 1913 after the financial panic of 1907 to prevent banking crises.  Bankers and the government had decided that banking crises could be prevented with a lender of last resort, and many judged that a government agency would be better for this purpose than the ad hoc committee of New York bankers, led by J.P. Morgan, who had previously and successfully dealt with banking crises in the past.  The original goal of the Fed was to be this lender of last resort.

Fast forward to the present, and the Fed’s mandate is to maintain price stability and full employment (never mind that the Fed has a lot of control over the former and none over the latter).  As you may have quickly surmised, this has nothing to do with its original mandate.

The people at the Fed long ago decided that deflation (declining prices) was the bane of human existence after the experience of the Great Depression and watching Japan’s last 20 years.  They seem to have forgotten, however, that both of those experiences were due to bad loans and not an inadequate supply of money. 

With this background, those at the Fed would much rather experience inflation than deflation.  In their infinite wisdom, they are now working hard to create inflation to fight off the boogie-man of deflation  They want to increase inflation to boost employment (never mind that inflation won’t boost employment). 

But, to normal people, declining prices seem like a good thing.  In fact, during a deep recession and recovery with 10% unemployment, most people think declining prices might be a very good thing.

That’s because most people haven’t been lobotomized by a PhD in economics to believe that declining prices (deflation) or stable prices (gold standard) are a bad thing. 

Most people, too, understand that printing money to create inflation won’t create prosperity, but will lead to extremely negative economic consequences (Zimbabwe or Weimar Germany, anyone?). 

Why don’t the people at the Fed possess such common sense?

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

The Fed wants MORE (?!) inflation