Sunday, February 22, 2009

Good luck, right action

Reportedly, George Soros doesn't see the bottom of the market yet. We judge by recent experience and think ourselves hard done by, yet look at the following chart, which takes the Dow and adjusts it for inflation:

All that has happened is that the illusory gains of the last 12 years, more than accounted for by extra debt taken on in that time, have now unwound. Yet we're still nowhere near where we were in 1987, which (if you were around then) we thought of as an exciting time for investment. To get back to that peaklet in real terms, the Dow would have to drop below 5,000 points.

But to return to the low point of the recession that preceded it - around July 1982 - the Dow would have to break down below 1,800. Even then, that miserable score is a big advance on the low of 50 years before that (July 1932: CPI-adjusted Dow would equate to c. 833 points).

Karl Denninger has said recently that he sees 2,000 points as a possibility; I've suggested a low of c. 4,000, because in these 40-year cycles, each peak and each low has been higher than in the previous cycle.

However, seeing how unbelievably high the Dow went in recent years (way above anything that could have been extrapolated from the highs of 1929 and 1965!), maybe a correspondingly low low is not out of the question.

So why am I planning to set up a new brokerage on my own? Why don't I send a copy of this blog to all my clients, together with news of my retirement from the industry and a valedictory "Good luck, because you're going to need it"? (Actually, I have repeatedly advertised this blog to clients; I only wish the viewing stats could show me that they all read it.)

The Mogambo Guru has taken to signing off his rants with a sarcastic "Wheee! This investing stuff is easy!" - he recommends gold, silver and oil. Over on Financial Sense a couple of days ago, Martin Goldberg opines, "The important question for most investors is whether to be in cash or gold" (cash for now, he thinks). Marc Faber has long been saying that we are entering a long bull market in commodities, and has just said he thinks an ounce of gold will one day be worth more than the Dow.

What they're really talking about is inflation. Debt, which is fixed in nominal terms, becomes cruelly heavier as the assets pledged against it become worth less and less. The pain will get so bad that the government will crack, as it always does, and debauch the currency. Holding cash just now is great, for those lucky enough to have it; but if Robin Hood can't confiscate it through taxation, he'll bleed it white by printing lots more fiat currency for himself (and the people who keep voting for him), so sucking real value out of your money. If you can't face investing, be prepared to spend like a sailor on shore leave when inflation hits town.

My clients generally aren't traders. In the same interview cited above, Faber said:

Recently I bought some U.S. stocks for the first time in a long time. If you buy Intel , Cisco , Yahoo! , Oracle and Microsoft , you will do much better in the next 10 years than you would with Treasuries. These stocks will double and even triple -- before going to zero.

That's not for my clients - they like the idea of the double and triple (who doesn't?), but not enough to risk the "going to zero".

That said, investment - including in commodities - is going to be part of their fight back against the attempt to take away everything they've saved. Inflationary periods do sap the real value of shares, they hit cash even worse. Look at the position of the man who invested in the (dollar-denominated) Dow from the start of 2008 up till last Friday's seeming debacle, compared with the poor chap who "played safe" and held good old British pounds:

The picture will change when the dollar dives, of course; though maybe the pound will dive along with it. To hold what you have, you'll have to keep on your feet, balancing the relative merits of currencies and asset classes. For me and most of my clients, it won't be about getting rich; it'll be about not getting robbed.

I'd have been happier with a world where money kept its value, and I'm not alone. The blogosphere is now crowded with people who have their own schemes for a fair and just economic world. But none of these ideal arrangements will enter into reality. There's too much to be made out of destroying it, by a handful of traders, and the politicians - and the bankers who will eventually employ the politicians when they leave office. We must take, not the right action, but the appropriate action.

Good luck, because you're going to need it.

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