Category: Business

Market Rallies Don’t Always Make Sense

Market Rally FollyStimulate Economy - Red Button

Can government infrastructure spending, or “fiscal stimulus,” create more wealth? The stock market certainly seems to think so. As financial publications have recently opined, the stock market has been hitting record highs (Dow 20,000!), at least partly because investors believe the new Administration will usher in an era of government spending on things like roads, bridges, telecommunications and defense. While this may give some companies a boost, it will be a drag on long-term economic growth.

The Seen Versus the Unseen

The art of economic thinking is always to consider the seen versus the unseen. In the case of infrastructure spending, what is seen is the widening of highways, the new suspension bridges and the faster internet cables being buried underground. It is easy to see how this spending could be a good thing because the wider highways and faster internet probably enhance productivity.

Furthermore, any government spending – even on bridges to nowhere – is seen as beneficial, due to the Keynesian idea of the “multiplier effect.” This theory posits that governmental spending gives the construction workers more income, who then go and spend the income on other goods and services such as restaurants or new cars.

This in turn gives those restaurant staff and car manufacturers more income, which they then promptly spend. Each dollar the government spends is therefore “multiplied” throughout the economy.  

The Unseen Hand

What is missing from this analysis is the unseen. For government to spend any money, it must first get that money from somewhere; taxes are the most direct method and borrowing is another option, but this only means higher taxes in the future to pay for the borrowing.

While the government technically can’t print money directly to finance spending, it can do so through other means, which cause inflation and which are – you guessed it – just another form of tax.

Therefore, since taxes can only be taken from those who are creating wealth (for example taxes on profits or income), or from the existing base of wealth (such as real estate taxes), then by definition, government spending can only be accomplished through the transfer of wealth.

But Isn’t Infrastructure Useful?

Proponents of government spending may agree there is a transfer of wealth occurring, but that wealth is being employed into productive uses, such as infrastructure. After all, the construction and maintenance of roads allows businesses to ship their goods all over the country more easily.

It is true that things like roads, bridges and electrical grids are useful. But the pertinent question is how useful? If money is taxed away from a business to build a road, that business may no longer be able to build another manufacturing plant and provide an increasing number of products at a lower price, employing more workers in the process.

In other words, infrastructure spending faces a calculation problem. While politicians can hazard a guess that a wider highway or a public transportation project has some value, it is impossible to know (or prove) that the project is more valuable than what the private sector would have spent those tax dollars on.

If this calculation problem were enough to give cause for concern, there is also a problem of incentives. Infrastructure projects that are likely to be funded are those that will create the most jobs or please the most constituents, not the ones that make the most economic sense.

This logic means that the Keynesian “multiplier effect” does not exist, because every dollar spent to begin with does not come out of thin air but must instead be redirected from something productive. In fact, some of the latest rigorous academic research has confirmed the government spending multiplier to be negative, not positive (see a nice summary of this research from Dr. Lacy Hunt of Hoisington Management).

Employee IncentiveWhat this Means for the Stock Market

The stock market is always forward-looking, and it is likely making new highs for a host of reasons on which financial journalists can only speculate. It is also true that increased fiscal spending could give select companies a lot of extra business in the short term.

However, valuation levels for broad market indices such as the S&P 500 are currently at some of the highest levels in history, exceeded only during the dot-com bubble and the brief run-up before the Great Depression. At current levels, the stock market would have to decline by anywhere from 40% to 60% just to return to historical norms!

To be clear, valuation tools are not timing indicators, and anything is possible in the short term, including a continued bull market in the months ahead. However, what valuation models of the stock market can reveal is that, over the longer-term (10-12 years), investors should expect very low returns (low single digits annually) if they invest at these elevated levels.

Diversify across All Asset Classes

The best strategy is to stick with a plan of being diversified across asset classes, including hard assets such as precious metals, other commodities and real estate.

And don’t let any infrastructure spending plans fool you into thinking it will be a huge boost for the economy and the stock market!

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2017 War on Cash

US dollars and troops2017 War on Cash

Overshadowed by colossal events such as Brexit, the U.S. election and the Dow nudging 20,000, investors may not have noticed an escalating war over the past year: the sinister War on Cash.

We have previously covered the ongoing “currency wars” of central banks that continually try to depreciate their currencies with lower interest rates and quantitative easing. But this goes even further because it is a war on actual, physical, paper cash.

Unprecedented Strikes Against Cash

2016 saw prominent academics and politicians shamelessly writing about the benefits of reducing or even outlawing cash. Former Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers, called for the U.S. to get rid of the $100 bill.

Former Chief Economist for the IMF and Harvard Professor, Ken Rogoff, published a book entitled The Curse of Cash, followed by numerous op-eds and endorsements by the New York Times and Financial Times endorsing a ban on cash. Australia is currently reviewing whether it will ban its $100 note.

India’s Prime Minister, Narenda Modi, announced without warning on November 8 that all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender. Although claiming these were “high-denomination” notes, they actually equate to approximately US$7.50 and US$15 respectively, and they constitute 86% of the country’s cash currently in circulation!

Banning Cash: Rationale versus Reality

One of the biggest reasons cited for banning cash is to cut down on crime. While it is true that criminals prefer cash for the anonymity and the ease of transactions, there is no reason to believe enterprising criminals will stop their activity because transaction costs will be higher.

Criminals will easily substitute other forms of payment: lower denomination bills, other valuables like silver or gold bullion, diamonds, bitcoin, etc. Even Tide detergent has been found used as a common currency for drug trades.

The popular press surmised Tide was used by drug users because it could be stolen easily and traded for a quick fix. Yet this misses the point of why drug dealers would accept Tide as a currency at all.

The reason Tide became a currency was because it fit most of the properties of what makes a currency viable. It is recognizable (given the brand name), homogenous, easily divisible, and it has a (relatively) high value-to-weight ratio, making it portable. Bottom line: criminals are enterprising enough to surmount all kinds of obstacles inherent in illicit trade, so banning cash will not turn them into law-abiding citizens.

The next reason for banning cash is a little closer to the truth; to curb black and grey market transactions and collect all of the taxes the government is currently missing out on. India’s actions are squarely aimed at this because most Indians make virtually all daily business transactions in cash.

Further, the government will be receiving a report on any Indian citizen who deposits more than 250,000 rupees as a result of trying to rid themselves of the now illegal notes. The intention will then be to assess a tax and penalty on any of this money, if viewed by the government as unreported income.

While this may give a little boost to government coffers in the short-run, it is likely to backfire because the overall effect will be to tamp down economic activity in general, leading to even less wealth creation and less tax revenue.

The Real Reason for a Ban on Cash

The biggest reason for banning cash, especially in developed countries, is for governments to have the ability to enact even more extreme negative interest rates. Rogoff and others are actually quite transparent about this, recognizing that if banks charge an ever larger negative interest rate on deposits, savers have the option of withdrawing their money in cash and stuffing it under a mattress or in a vault, costing them less in relative terms than paying the bank to hold their money.

This highlights the ludicrous position in which central banks have put themselves, yet it is obviously the next logical step in their fallacious reasoning. To a central banker, if zero interest rates have not sufficiently spurred an economic boost with increased borrowing and spending, then the next step is to make interest rates negative, something we are already witnessing on a smaller scale.

But if minimally negative interest rates do not work, then their logic is to remove the next barrier to make interest rates even more negative. Thus the wrong intervention of the first action necessitates further interventions that distort the regular function of banks and interest rates even more.

Savers and Investors

The biggest surprise of the recent currency bans and proposals to ban currency in developed countries has been the lack of protest from citizens. Most people already use credit and debit cards for many transactions anyway and don’t seem to see the problem.Many coin bank of yellow and white metal. Cash closeup.

However, if negative interest rates are imposed on regular bank accounts, and savers have no way to withdraw their money, they will likely become more a lot more interested in what is really going on here. Fortunately, many alternatives exist to regular currency, and while governments may try to curb an exodus to these alternatives, it will likely be hard for them to do so, given the myriad of substitutes available.

For example, gold and silver will remain popular substitutes, as well as other alternative assets like other commodities and real estate; perhaps Tide detergent will even become more widespread as a common currency! Technology will also enable the ownership of these assets to be transferred and verified more readily.

In any case, investors and savers need to stay properly diversified and remain informed…..

Why are Interest Rates so Low?

Higher Interest RatesWhy are interest rates so low?

Ask most people on the street why interest rates are so low, and they will reply that central banks are
responsible. Okay, perhaps most people have no idea about interest rates or central banks and would likely shrug their shoulders, but regular blog readers are certainly aware of all of the central bank actions to try to keep rates low!

However, academics and economists are increasingly opposing this commonly held notion, countering that interest rates are affected by more powerful market and economic forces than central banks, contending that the decline in productivity is causing rates to be low. Therefore, which theory is correct? The answer may be both – and linked to the same cause.

The ‘natural’ versus ‘market’ rate of interest

To understand what may be going on, we need to go back to the 19th century economist Knut Wicksell, who differentiated between the ‘natural’ rate of interest and the ‘market’ rate.

Interest rates are a type of pricing and, like prices, they signal the relative supply and demand for something; in this case, the supply and demand for loanable funds. The natural rate of interest is the equilibrium rate that balances the amount of money to be loaned and borrowed, or the level of savings and investment. This natural rate therefore coordinates economic activity much like prices coordinate activity.

Like other prices, the equilibrium or natural interest rate that correctly balances economic activity cannot be known by someone. Only the market process can bring it about, and it is constantly changing and adapting to different conditions.

The natural rate of interest is affected by real economic forces; people changing their preference for saving versus taking on debt, or consuming now versus later. But the market rate is the rate that is the prevailing interest rate, influenced by central bank actions as they target various rates to be lower.

Central banks claim they want to set the market rate at where they believe the natural rate to be, in order to bring about a balanced economy. But this is an impossible task. Just as no central planner knows the correct price of steel or milk, so the Federal Reserve does not know the correct interest rate to set in order to coordinate economic activity.

It is this very attempt at setting rates that causes so much economic upheaval. If the Federal Reserve sets rates too low (or too high), misallocation of resources will occur, typically in the form of inflation, bubbles and then subsequent crashes.

Is the Federal Reserve the perpetrator of low rates?

A main criticism to this theory is that interest rates have been low now for quite a long time, and therefore there is something else going on besides the Federal Reserve and other central banks keeping rates low.

In other words, such critics believe the natural rate of interest is actually very low and has been declining, therefore the Federal Reserve is merely setting market rates to be consistent with this low natural rate level.   

One of the reasons cited for the decline in the natural rate is the decline in productivity of American workers and the general sluggishness of the economy. However, this may actually be a symptom of the previous boom and bust caused by erroneous central bank actions, rather than an unrelated factor.

The Fed set rates too low

The Federal Reserve fueled the unsustainable boom prior to 2008, and we are still feeling the negative effects today, such as  lower productivity. Because the Fed set market rates below the natural rate, misallocation of resources occurred. Instead of allowing those resources to reallocate themselves to better uses (such as out of housing and banking), the Fed was intent on keeping the status quo and avoid liquidations and bankruptcies.

The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) suggested this possibility in their recent annual report, noting that low interest rates could actually cause a cycle of lower productivity:

“Alternatively, persistently low yields could end up having pernicious effects on the economy and become to some extent self-validating… They may also distort financial and real economic decisions more generally, for instance by encouraging unproductive firms to maintain capacity or by inflating asset prices, thereby weakening productivity.”

We see this when we examine so-called zombie banks that continue to hold bad loans on their books in order to avoid the charge-offs. We also see factories and retail stores that continue to operate because the Fed has incentivized consumers to continue to spend, rather than cut back on spending, repay debt and save.

Central banks should stop meddlingRate Hike Calculator Words Increased Interest Cost Borrow Money

In conclusion, there are certainly other factors and forces that determine interest rates, besides the central banks. But lower productivity may actually be a logical outcome of previous low rates set by central banks. This is precisely why central banks should get out of the business of trying to set the correct interest rate, just as Soviet central planners had no business trying to set the price of eggs.

What does this all mean for your investment portfolio? As long as central banks try to guess at what interest rates “should be”, they will fail. This will cause continued misallocation of resources, and therefore investors need to be aware of continued instability such as inflation, bubbles and crashes.

Inflation is the 24 Hour Tax on Everything

Wallet and stethoscopeInflation is the 24-Hour Tax on Everything

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that inflation, after “being given up for dead,” is coming back to life. While that may appear to be the case on the surface, inflation has been alive and well – hiding out beneath the official government statistics for years.

The WSJ is referring to the data released last Friday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, known as Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), which measures the change in actual spending and prices and is the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation.

More specifically, the article was referring to Core PCE, which is PCE excluding food and energy, and is currently at a two year high of 1.7% on a year-over-year basis. The other measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which has also been markedly higher, coming in at a 1.5% annual increase as of this past September.

Inflation is NOT a Good Thing

With inflation getting closer to the Fed’s 2% target, WSJ’s columnist Greg Ip casually comments that “This isn’t bad news. To the contrary, markets and central bankers alike will be relieved the world is no longer skirting a deflationary abyss.” But while central bankers might welcome this news, consumers will not.

Sustained inflation in consumer prices is never a positive for any economy, and is also not necessarily an indicator of a growing one. Prices may rise due to changes in supply and demand, and therefore help to reallocate resources and signal those changes; but an overall and sustained increase in prices is different.

If the price of an item rises for consumers, they will then stop buying it or switch to a cheaper item or cut back on another category in order to accommodate the household budget. Therefore, the only way for all prices to rise indefinitely and consistently is for new money to be constantly created and injected into the economy.

This of course is merely a tax on consumers because the new money and consistent increase in prices makes the consumer poorer. Contrary to popular economic theory today, there is no threat of a“deflationary abyss”. During the nearly 100 year history of the classical gold standard, prices gradually declined an average of 2% to 3% per year as technology and productivity increased, giving consumers the benefit of these advancements in the form of lower prices.

Inflation is Worse Than Reported

This week, Visual Capitalist made a stunning infographic using AEI’s Mark Perry’s (equally as interesting) inflation observations. Over the past 20 years, from 1996 to 2016, total inflation has been 55% as measured by the CPI.

However, digging into the Bureau of Labor’s data and then channeling down to the various items that make up the CPI basket of goods, you can see that inflation varies greatly from one type of good to the next.

For example, things that have increased more than the average 55% include tuition (up almost 200%), childcare (122%), medical (105%), food and beverage (64%) and housing (61%) – in other words, virtually all of the living essentials needed to survive or raise a family.

Counteracting this, items that fell in price included TV’s (96% decline!), toys (67% decline), and software and cell phone service (66% and 45% respectively). Clothing and furniture declined slightly, while new cars increased only slightly.

Obviously the dramatic decline in electronics, software and toy prices has brought wonderful benefits, but these are still largely discretionary items, and they take up a much smaller portion of most household budgets. The average family is therefore likely facing more than the average 55% increase in prices over the last 20 years.

Indeed, in his latest book, David Stockman has modified the CPI to put heavier and therefore more realistic weights on the four essential items of everyday life: food, energy, shelter and medical care. Using this measure, he finds the actual inflation rate over the past 29 years (when Greenspan became Fed Chairman) has been 3.1% per annum, rather than the official CPI rate of 1.7% per annum.

How to Protect Yourselfdates falling dollar

Unfortunately, inflation will continue to be a problem for any person living in a country whose money is a fiat currency that is being debased by their government – which includes nearly all modern economies today.

Thankfully, there is nothing stopping you from converting some of that fiat paper money directly into your own store of hard currency: physical gold and silver. During the past twenty years, while the official CPI increased 55%, gold has increased in value 235% and silver 282%.

Time to buy gold and silver, perhaps?

Brexit Fears Fade, But Gold Does Not

british gold reservesSome of the dust is starting to settle from the Brexit vote when British citizens surprised the world by voting to exit the European Union. The initial uncertainty caused stocks to sell off sharply and the British pound to plummet while gold rose in price.

Stock markets in the United States have now largely rebounded as fears have subsided, but instead of similarly reversing course, gold has stayed high and has even pushed higher. This recent market action highlights the fragility of political constructs, while underscoring the fact that gold does not depend on such political alliances.

United Kingdom withdrawal from the European UnionWhy Brexit Is A Big Deal

In a sense, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is not such a major disruption. After all, Britain was never part of the Euro currency, so there will be no changes to its currency system. Further, the process will take at least two years or more while the terms are negotiated; - plenty of time for British citizens and the markets to adjust and plan ahead for any changes.

Yet in another way, it is a very big deal. First, it is an important event because Britain is the first nation to exit the relatively youthful European Union. Imagine if a state of the United States were to exit the union. The first U.S. state to leave would constitute a landmark historical event, even if it was a state that has talked about wanting to exit for a while (I’m looking at you, Texas).

Once one nation has shown that it is possible to leave with a peaceful vote, many other E.U. citizens may want to follow suit. This would be especially powerful if it were a country that was not only part of the Euro currency, but one that was financially healthy, such as Germany.

Britain exiting the European Union and sending the markets into turmoil shows the fragility of political institutions and the tenuous nature of alliances made between high-level politicians and political bodies.

There is nothing inherently strong about such alliances because these agreements depend on the word and bond of each country, backed up by the contracts they each sign. These in turn are only as good as the rule of law governing them, which is also a political arrangement.

Government Currencies Are Mere Political Promises

The Brexit vote gave citizens and investors around the world a harsh wake-up call, reminding them that entities like political unions and countries are merely political constructs, devised by politicians.

While these political institutions can be helpful, citizens can also come to feel they are doing more harm than good, and once they recognize this, they may choose to reject them.

Currencies are no different. There is nothing inherently stable about today’s government fiat currencies, because there is nothing backing them beyond the faith, credit and political promises behind those flimsy pieces of paper.

A national currency – or a multi-national currency like the Euro – may provide some benefit to citizens in terms of facilitating trade. But if citizens begin to perceive that the costs of the political monetary system (such as inflation or value instability) start to outweigh the benefits, they will reject them and look for a better alternative.   Composition with 50 gram gold bar, banknotes and coins

Fortunately, gold is an alternative currency to which one can turn. Rather than a metallic commodity, gold should really be considered as another currency or form of money, but with one major difference: it does not depend on political constructs, promises, or faith in a political system in order to work as a currency.

In fact, gold usually functions as the exact opposite, representing a loss of faith in central banks and governments. This is why it is essential to hold a portion of your wealth and investment portfolio in physical gold.

Here at Anthem Vault, we offer solutions to easily acquire and own physical gold, the best way to quickly and securely diversify a portfolio. We believe a reasonable allocation to gold is 10-20% of your investment portfolio, depending on your level of risk acceptance and other factors. Contrary to the opinion of some, and in-line with historical data and modern portfolio theory, this allocation can greatly lower your portfolio’s risk without sacrificing returns.

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Gold’s Role In Today’s Modern Investment Portfolio

What Role Should Gold Play In Today’s Portfolios?

To some people, suggesting that gold should be part of a balanced investment portfolio is like suggesting leeches are a way to cure ailments. Many investment advisors consider gold to Investment Managementbe a ‘barbarous relic’ that has no place in today’s modern portfolio, given our current financial innovations and instruments.

Yet when examined carefully, it is clear that gold is another asset that has the potential to add non-correlated returns to a portfolio. In this manner, it actually fits very well with modern portfolio theory, and gold should be incorporated by all investors and responsible financial advisors.

Why gold gets a bad rap as an investment

One of the biggest misunderstandings about gold as an investment is an unfair comparison to other financial assets. Gold is not an ‘investment’ in the sense that it brings the expectation of a positive return or cash flow, like stocks or bonds that pay interest or dividends.

An ounce of gold in your portfolio today will be an ounce of gold 100 years from now. It will not magically grow, expand or compound. It will not pay anything in return, and will likely cost a very small amount in storage fees or insurance. This is why gold is sometimes referred to as a non-productive financial asset.

As a financial asset, it is also criticized as something that only keeps up with inflation over the long-term, usually underperforming stocks and bonds, while exhibiting price volatility. But this is unfair and a misrepresentation of the essence of gold and the purpose it serves in a portfolio. Gold should never be considered as a stand-alone investment, but always as a part of a portfolio.

How to evaluate gold

Gold EvaluationThe main function of gold is to protect purchasing power, both locally in terms of inflation as well as globally in terms of currency fluctuations, and to mitigate risk. Gold performs well in times of stress or domestic/international crisis, as well as serving as one of the most liquid of all assets and commodities.

In other words, it doesn’t make sense to evaluate something based on criteria that do not apply. After all, you wouldn’t evaluate a bus by how fast it can go and then compare it to a Ferrari. A bus is not designed for speed and high performance, but for transporting a large number of people.

Similarly, some people inappropriately evaluate the nominal returns on gold and compare this to the performance of stocks. But the purpose of holding gold is not capital appreciation, but capital preservation.

Those familiar with modern portfolio theory understand that the holy grail of investing and asset allocation is to obtain more return and less risk. An asset will be added to a portfolio if it can significantly reduce risk without giving up much in terms of return. This is akin to the concept of correlation, or how much two assets move together: either in step with each other (correlated) or out of step (non-correlated).

Physical gold has either very low correlation or even negative correlation to almost all other asset classes, including stocks, bonds, cash, real estate and even other commodities. Therefore, even though gold can be quite volatile in price, those swings are usually going the opposite way of other major asset classes like stocks.

Therefore since gold is such a good diversifier, reducing risk without giving up much reward, the question is: how much of your portfolio should be in gold?Gold Investment

In a white paper, Merk Investments ran a few portfolio simulations that reverse-engineered the proper amount of gold. In other words, the study found what percentage of a portfolio should be invested in physical gold in order to achieve the highest return for a given amount of risk, something financial practitioners refer to as the efficient frontier.

The study found that from 1971 through February of 2014, a whopping 29% allocation to gold would have achieved the best risk-reward profile for a portfolio, compared to 100% in stocks; this, despite gold being more volatile than stocks during this period.

To be clear, the study does not state this as investment advice; it is simply finding the percentage number that fits the historical data. However, the study clearly drives home the point that a surprisingly high percentage allocation to physical gold would actually improve the risk-reward balance of a portfolio.

Of course, portfolios are not merely divided between stocks and gold. Other non-correlated assets can also be added, such as real estate or other commodities. Previous studies over the years have found that a 5-15% allocation to physical gold is therefore reasonable.

Here at Anthem Vault, we believe a reasonable allocation to gold is 10-20% of your investment portfolio, depending on your level of risk acceptance and other factors. Contrary to the opinion of some, and in-line with historical data and modern portfolio theory, this allocation can greatly lower your portfolio’s risk without sacrificing returns.

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