Discovering the Correct Path in Investing

January 4, 2013 7:21 am 16 comments

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I made a New Year’s resolution to try writing more, both on my blog and in my newsletter. To be honest, sometimes I wondered why I should write. I used to get in the most ridiculous arguments with people who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, and it used to piss me off.  I also know that things are going to get so volatile that I am likely to get a lot of flack for no reason. But I’m a little older now and have a little more capital to play with. Now I just put my capital into investments, take my profits, and shrug my shoulders if people tell me my investment thesis is wrong. The one good thing about talking to my readers is that I know there are people out there with a genuine thirst for learning who see things through a child’s eyes, which is the beginning of knowledge. I am willing to help these people navigate through the disastrous debt crisis that is unfolding in slow motion.

Anyway, the hardest aspect of investing is seeing ALL possible scenarios and finding the probable solution to a problem. This is a form of divergent thinking, and an exercise to see if you have this skill is to write down as many novel uses for something like a blanket or knife as you can in 10 minutes. There are people with sky-high “genius” IQ’s that literally can only come up with “something to keep warm with” and “a tent”, so don’t expect our “genius” leaders (aka economists and politicians), to figure this crisis out. This is the problem we generally face today. Our leaders only see the economy through the traditional view and don’t realize so much has changed over the years and that this is a dynamic system. And sadly, most people (from psychological studies), only think an idea is valid if it comes from an expert source; in other words, most people can’t see the validity of an “out of the box” idea if it doesn’t come from an expert.

If you take humanity as a whole, you will always find extreme elements on both sides that can not see any other alternative. This is called being a stubborn bastard in colloquial terms. If everyone were unbiased and could (gasp) see things for what they are, we wouldn’t see these great wipeouts of capital. We would not see booms and busts. It would be impossible because stubbornness on both sides creates extreme trends. Anyway, because there always has been an element that has faith in government, there always has been massive destruction of capital when government bonds implode. And governments default on their debt without fail historically. The chart below is courtesy of Economist John Taylor and is based on CBO assumptions. The timeline should be pushed forward because the interest rate assumptions of the CBO are flawed, especially in an environment where interest rate spikes will result in asymmetric increases in debt servicing based on total debt. Also keep in mind that revenue as a percentage of GDP hovers around 18%.

Revenue as % of GDP

It is just crazy to me because Treasury bonds, and by extension the Fed’s balance sheet, CAN’T WITHSTAND even a minor uptick in interest rates. Both Republicans and Democrats are misreading this crisis so bad that you wonder what they are doing with their free time. Republicans, if you eliminated every single social program, we still would pay interest on our debt. Democrats, if we taxed everyone at 100%, we still would pay interest on our debt. So even if either faction got 100% of what they wanted, we would still reach a point where our entire tax revenue is consumed by interest payments. Time for Plan B, anyone?

This is the best chart I could find, although it’s a little misleading. The effective interest rate is actually lower and shouldn’t be based on the 30-year; in other words, the uptick in effective interest rates need not be all that dramatic in absolute terms for huge dislocations to occur. The current effective interest rate is more in the 1% range because the Fed is purchasing shorter maturity debt, so an increase to the 4% or 5% range is actually pretty disastrous. And for some historical perspective, the 3-month T-bill was 5% in 2007; now it is 0.08%.

But anyway, the chart adequately demonstrates how this historically anomalous interest rate environment is affecting debt servicing costs. In 2009, our interest expenditures expressed as a percentage of revenue would have roughly tripled simply by assuming historically normal interest rates. Considering that we have added about $4 trillion in debt since then, at historically average interest rates, we are now talking about almost $1 trillion in debt servicing costs annually. So basically you are adding 2 deficits per year that compound, simply from normal interest rates. This is the dynamic nature of debt. Unfortunately, interest rates climb dramatically in a debt crisis, so the day of reckoning is a lot closer than people suspect. Debt servicing costs can and will rise from $300 billion to $1 trillion in the blink of an eye.

The Nuanced Difference Between Crises

I don’t know what it is about human nature, but people see the future in broad terms, and they will defend that point of view in the face of all evidence. So you have the “Great Depression” crowd that has been predicting a stock market collapse for years now. People always assume I think stocks are going to crash because I’m a bear, but regular readers know I’ve said stocks are going to explode, as they have. These stock market bears fail to account for the change in our monetary system from a gold standard to the floating exchange rate system. They fail to account for our good friend Helicopter Ben who has been balancing out the natural deflation that occurred in real estate with new money. From a social perspective, people in general don’t account for the fact that all these entitlements are a product of the Great Depression- they did not precede it. So in terms of civil unrest, it will be a lot worse than the Great Depression because if people are promised something and don’t get it, they get pissed off.

The “we will grow our way out of this crowd” is arguably worse. Debt at this point is interconnected, and since banks are getting nationalized, the situation will ironically get worse. Basically all the failed investments that went on in the private sector ends up on the government balance sheet. The whole point of getting interest on a bond is to hedge against the risk that the bond will default. If the government makes everyone whole, bankers are the only ones celebrating. The average person is the one who suffers under the weight of higher taxes and austerity. So trust me, if you talk to anyone in the investment community, they will have blinders on, especially if they are a low-level employee (people my age). The people who actually invest successfully in all environments understand a lot better how things are interconnected, and they will just ride whatever wave the government creates.

Debt is also growing globally at a much faster rate than revenue, implying the end is near, so this is just a matter of timing at this point. Our leaders decided to raise taxes on everyone more or less (payroll taxes anyone?), and this is going to stall real growth rates. When revenues fall, our leaders will believe it’s because they didn’t tax enough, so they will raise taxes on everyone again. As usual, they are bringing on their own demise and don’t even know it. It would actually be amusing if their actions didn’t literally affect billions of people.

Real Estate or Gold?

I know people are going to misunderstand what I’m saying about real estate because it is nuanced. After all, I made the move to Las Vegas, so I’m supposed to be an eternal optimist on the real estate market, right? Wrong! And part of the reason is that I see homes I bought for $29,000 going for $45,000-$50,000 in less than a year. I see about 10 all-cash offers above list within a day of a home coming on the market. I talk to real estate agents (who admit to me they got crushed by the crash) who only see perpetually rising prices in Vegas, even though the investment environment just got a lot worse because of our idiot leaders. And most of all, I see publication after publication calling the bottom in real estate. So what does this add up to? Real estate being a hold, unless you purchase with a 30-year fixed mortgage and unless you buy in the right areas. The bigger cities most susceptible to a muni crisis do not apply.

Luckily I don’t get engulfed by any one investment and I am open-minded. And amidst all this, gold has been setting up beautifully for a rocket launch of the ages.

We are talking about the ultimate hedge against government stupidity, and the year-long correction is exactly what gold needed. The perpetual gold bears are going to point at gold and say “see, you doom and gloomers were wrong!” At their maximum point of self-satisfaction, gold is going to shoot right past $1800, then $2000 and never look back. Then when gold hits $3,000, they will say “I always knew gold would rise, duh!”, but of course, they didn’t have a position. Let these people live in their self-imposed dreamland. As for the true investors out there, put your capital in play with gold in the early part of 2013. You will thank me later.

  • hooverdamsel

    Interesting take on things Moses. I always enjoy your blogs as I think you have a pretty good grasp on what is going on. I too think Gold will explode (for a short time) but I do believe that there will come a time when Europe will go down (was just looking at the post-tranche spreadsheet of how Greece’s debt is going – not a hope that they can elude default) and America will be rocked by that.

    Have a look at the food crisis that is looming. Think about it. If there are problems with food then farming land is actually a good investment. Land on the edges of the cities with hobby farm potential is the way to go. Also, once Europe goes down, which it will, do you really think the US can ride out that tsunami of economic turmoil. I think not. You know yourself from the stats above that they are sitting on the precipice waiting for one big hit and whoosh down you go. Doom and gloom you say. Maybe, happy to be wrong but I am guessing around April will be a time when Europe are looking at the next Greek Review in a month or two and the realities will hit. Not long after Europe goes down, America will be on the same slide. Everyone will be affected though.

    • http://www.expectedreturnsblog.com Moses

      Yup, agree that food/farming land is a good investment. The U.S. is in very big trouble, so we should be seeing rising unemployment and rising inflation, aka the worst possible combination. Farming land should be hedged to inflation better than residential real estate and A LOT better than commercial real estate (Obama’s tax hikes hit this sector harder).

      We are surely on the precipice of something major. People are ignoring the elephant in the room (public debt) in the same way that they were ignoring the housing crisis. The end result should be similar: a massive crisis that “no one” saw coming.

  • Robert

    Hello Moses

    I very much appreciate your thinking : lucid , relevant, far away from politically correct
    and oriented statements designed to get people stay quiet and to get them vote the “right way” in a wonderful world where there is no problems …

    As for gold , I agree with you that undoubtedly it will rise , but not before a few years.
    Indeed, China is likely to increase its gold until they reach the level of the United States gold stock. That is to say something not far from 7000 tons. Russia and other countries are also committed to have large stock of gold. Seems to me that there is no interest for these countries to let the price of gold go up as long as they have not achieved their goals.. I think we will stay in the actual range until that date. It is difficult to say when because China give no or little data on this matter.

    I dont think Europe will go down, every conceivable measure will be done to avoid that : BCE, the FED, BOJ IMF and even Bank of China will have secret and urgent consultations to treat the problem. We have already witnessed this in July 2012 when Mario Draghi rescued a falling Euro that everyone was expecting to explode.
    it is worth buying physical gold now whenever price go down.

    • http://www.expectedreturnsblog.com Moses

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for the comment. As for gold, we are probably approaching an inflection point in my opinion. I don’t read other blogs and I don’t watch financial TV in general, but I did watch CNBC and Bloomberg the other day, and I heard a lot of negative comments on gold. From a sentiment perspective, we know this is a good thing.

      Europe can not avoid destruction because this isn’t a problem easily fixed by monetization; the core structure of the Euro is flawed. In the U.S., we aren’t getting the complete picture on Europe, but it is very bad out there with an underground economy developing. I suspect in 2013 we should be hearing some very bad news on the Euro front because capital is fleeing, taxes are rising, and those are 2 things you can’t paper over.

  • Doug

    I was on APMEX today considering buy my first 1 oz of Gold. (AE)..The price was $1,734 plus 24 bucks shipping! Anyway, I have been condering buying some gold and Silver for over a year but, I haven’t pulled the trigger yet.. I am a uneducated blue collar guy. I have manged to get close to million dollar invested in real estate. Just by working hard,saving money and buying Town houses ever chance I get. I own four Townhomes that have a total market of about 1 million dollars. I owe about 500k in fixed loans on all four.. So that gives me about 500k of net worth.. I have about 50k in cash and I just don’t know where to go from here. Should I start buying gold and silver now slowly and then buy more if prices drop?

    • http://www.expectedreturnsblog.com Moses

      Hi Doug,

      Impressed to hear about your real estate portfolio. You sound pretty educated to me!

      There’s a story about gold I like to tell. There was someone I talked to regularly about gold in 2008, and it took months to convince him to buy. Finally, near the absolute bottom in that cycle (I believe around $800), he finally worked up the courage to buy. But he ended up not buying because of commissions. I believe gold went up about 50% in the next year. Since he missed buying at the bottom, he of course refused to buy on the way up. His psychology got in the way of doing the “right” thing.

      I always say that if you have no position, just buy a little now. Then you can start timing dips and corrections. But the key is to have a correction if you believe in the investment.

      • Doug

        Moses, I guess I will go ahead and buy my first 1oz gold american eagle in the morning… Then going forward I was planning on buy more evertime the price drops by 100 bucks… If the spot prices gets to 1200 in gold and/or 25 in silver I will try and buy as much as I can… Then I planning on holding for a long time just in case we get a huge price jump in the future. …
        I could see something in the future happening where a large percentage of people decide I have to have gold. Then there becomes a shortage of supply at the coin shops, Online, etc and prices jump like crazy..
        I just hate buying right now because when you see everyone on TV trying to sell gold and saying buy gold now.. That is usually when you want to invest in sometime eles. I bought home #3 in 2009 just outside DC and everyone was telling me it was a awful idea. Well, I payed 80k cash for it and it is now worth 130k.. Anyway, I just feel like I might be alittle late to the party in Gold. I guess I will just jump in with two feet and hope for the best. I am sure it will be way up in 30 years so, I guess I have nothing to lose except, for some cash that is drooping like a rock.
        BTW- I am glad I found your blog. It is really good. Keep the post comming

  • Moark

    Hi Moses,

    I think you are too pessimistic and gold will continue it bearish downtrend and will still decline more.All problems step by step are being solved by Obama and there is no excuse for gold to increase.

    • Doug

      Moark, So how is having a 20 trillion dollar debt in 2016 going to be a good thing?

      • moark

        Doug, but no one cares the debt.

        • Doug

          Moark, I remember when Dick Cheney said, “deficits don’t matter.”. I thought it was one of the dumbest comments I had ever heard. But, I guess you agree with Dick Cheney?

          If deficits don’t matter then I guess you think we are well on our way to utopia…

          I sure hope you are right. Maybe I can quit my job and the government can just print cash by raising the debt. Then they can just hand out the cash to we the people and everyone can live happily ever after without having to work at all… Man! I can’t wait. It is going to be great.

          No one cares the debt!!! YES! Finally, we our well on are way to utopia.

        • http://www.expectedreturnsblog.com Moses

          Don’t really have a response to this since debt so obviously matters, and people do care about debt..

          • moark

            Hi Moses, you are right, but if people do care about debt, why is gold declining ? I couldn’t find answer to the question !!

          • http://www.expectedreturnsblog.com Moses

            There’s no use in trying to figure out why something is happening, because humans are naturally going to rationalize a move to fit their preconceived notions.

            But I can tell you this much. Before stocks crashed in 2008, they rallied to all-time highs in 2007. Before the Nasdaq crashed, it doubled in a matter of months. Before gold rallied in late 2008, it crashed. And before governments crash, they always say debt is not a problem.

            Markets will move where they move, and the market is never wrong in the long run. Gold is consolidating, and it’s really no big deal: we’ve had 50% corrections in gold bull markets before, so what’s a 15% correction in the grand scheme of things?

  • moark

    Event though interest rate is at lowest level and America, Japan, China are printing money, but gold can not increase, after a while interest rate will increase, gold will decline dramatically again. In two options gold is declining. I can not see any way for gold to increase.

  • Andrew

    Now that I read your article in June, after the historic gold price correction, your prediction about gold hits it right on the nail. Given the current situation, investors are hardly left with too many alternatives. The bond yield is low. Stocks are vacillating between extremes and are on steroids called quantitative easing. Real estate is yet to recover and is out of reach for most investors. Gold bullion is among the few options investors can cling to hedge their wealth against the inevitable economic disaster.

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