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Sunday, September 23, 2007

The big picture (as I see it)

Home economics: making a mint

Most of the people now managing our money - the money that we plan to retire on - are too young to remember the financial world of the 1970s. This hampers their judgement, and a debacle like subprime lending shows how they have underestimated both the likelihood and the impact of Black Swan events.

In one of George Goodman's books, the financial journalist author (aka "Adam Smith") is shown round a dealer's office by a friend, and the young people are all chirping away optimistically about how they're going to make fortunes for the company in this or that opportunity. His friend turns to him and smiles ironically. "See what I mean? Kids!" Of course, in a rising market you want optimists: the scarred old bears will tend to hang back and miss out on the bonanza. Which is why Adam Smith's friend was employing kids.

But the tide is turning.

I called it far too early (but how was I to know that governments would lose their sanity and print money as fast as their presses would work?). Here's what I wrote to a client on 21st October 1999:

As you are now around three years off the maturity date of your personal pension with XXX Life, you should be considering the security of your fund.

I went to a very interesting investment seminar yesterday, at which it was said that the American stockmarket could be as much as 50% too high, and a correction is overdue. It has already slid 20% off its highest point, by degrees, but a bigger drop could happen. If and when it does, this would have consequences for other markets around the world, since the US is the biggest stockmarket of all.

As you know, the XXX Fund is designed specifically as a safe haven for your investment in uncertain times, and I enclose a form for you to sign and forward to XXX Life, if you agree with my suggestion.

To those in the know, the crash of 2000 was not a surprise. What was your adviser telling you then? Yet the tone of that seminar was upbeat - the market's overpriced, so what?

If governments had maintained financial integrity, then following the mad tech boom, the Great Correction would have started in 2000 and the cleansing and healing process would be well under way. Instead, our politicians chose inflation.

If you were earning money in the mid-70s, you'll know what runaway inflation is like. To counter it, we had financially-motivated strikes: strikes for more money to restore real incomes, strikes to maintain pay differentials between different categories of worker, and strikes for pay parity by those who were left behind. Then settlement, paid for by inflating the currency further. Then more price inflation, and more strikes.

In the new globalized economy, strikes aren't going to work. Here in the UK (and Alan Greenspan has recently advocated the same), we simply allow the import of lots of poor people to undercut our indigenous skilled and semi-skilled workers. This keeps down wage rates and improves productivity. But it also earns little tax/National Insurance, and builds up massive obligations for Health, Education and Welfare (present, for those undercut; future, for all).

For a former Chancellor of the Exchequer keen on off-book financing, it's not a big issue: let the future take care of itself. For most of us, who have to move into the future without a bomb-proof PM's pension and lifelong special police protection, those debts will come home to roost.

I've often wondered how middle-class Germans coped when their money was wiped out by hyperinflation; and how the Russians on State pensions survived in the hinterlands, after the economy collapsed some years ago. Today I read (UK's "Mail on Sunday", page 31) an account by one of the few remaining whites in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe:

"The professional generation before me, the doctors and lawyers and the engineers who built Zimbabwe, are all starving to death on their pensions." (If you want to help them, please contact ZANE - they're on the Web. And there's millions of black Zimbabweans who are even worse off.)

But it's to the Sunday Express I have to turn, to get a serious warning about inflation for ourselves. Geraint Jones (page 10) notes that China is hinting at dumping the dollar wholesale; Saudi Arabia has refused to follow the Federal Reserve's interest rate cut; China and India are emerging as this century's budding supereconomies; oil's going up; food is getting pricier; the subprime disaster hasn't finished; mortgages are costing more.

The Express' Financial section wants to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted - much good a reformed Bank of England will do us now. Back in the main paper, Jimmy Young supports the suggestion that UK savers should be given guarantees for the first £100,000 of their deposits - again, too late: it's inflation guarantees we need - in the Germany of late 1923, 100,000 marks wouldn't get you a postage stamp.

The American Jim Puplava, on his excellent Financial Sense Newshour, thinks the latest desperate reflation will buy us a couple of years.

Use them.


Anonymous said...

As overvalued as the stock market may be, I would still rather rely on it for long term wealth preservation than cash or bonds which get inflated away. Germans who owned equities were left with a diminished something rather than nothing.

Sackerson said...

Hi anon: I'm currently reading Benjamin Graham and he says that there appears to be no clear relationship between inflation and returns on equities. His cautious principle is simply not to pay too much for shares in the first place.

On the other hand, you could tackle it like Marc Faber: given that there is a great pool of "excess liquidity", where is it going to go next? His research seems dedicated to predicting that movement. So he's more of a gunslinger, or poker player. But he's been holding back for a while, keeping cash ready to jump in when there's a useful correction. He sees "bubbles everywhere". He has recently been reported as buying gold, traditionally a bear move.

Jim Puplava and some of his colleagues reckon the tide of excess cash is going to inflate commodities next, much more than it has already.

But there are those who think that a system breakdown could lead to a period when credit is withdrawn and "cash is king".

The central banks appear to fear this deflation far more than inflation, so down come the interest rates. But lenders may refuse to re-loosen their lending criteria, so although borrowing may become cheaper, it may become less available. Thus the crunch may come anyway, and the central banks won't be able to stop it - like King Canute trying to command the tide.

I haven't got the answer, but in times of uncertainty, I'm less inclined to borrow and more inclined to diversify. Most people I know have most of their wealth locked up in their houses, so really they spend too much time worrying about cash and investments, which are only a thin sliver of their assets.