The Last Shall Be First
The yen is falling. It’s down 5% against the dollar since November. Investors are finally noticing. With a deficit of 50% of GDP, the Japanese government walks where angels fear to tread. Americans aren’t far behind. To make a long story short, our money is on the angels.
Only an economist would dare to look 10 years ahead. Only a fool would put money on it. Today, we do both. But our new “Trade of the Decade,” is not so much a look into the future as it is a look at the past.
Ten years ago, your humble correspondent offered his first ‘Trade of the Decade.’ He should have stopped there, for the trade was a big success. It was a simpleton’s trade: Sell US stocks/buy gold. That was in the year 2000. At that time, US stocks had been going up for the previous 18 years, multiplying investors’ money 11 times. By then, stocks had been going up for so long that the memory of man ranneth not to the contrary. Investors’ imaginations saw no alternative. Stocks for the Long Run was the title of a popular book. It was also an investment formula that seemed unbeatable.
Alas, the formula proved beatable. It was time for stocks to go the other way. The first decade of the 21st century proved to be the worst time to hold stocks since the ’30s. Net returns were negative – especially when adjusted for inflation. Adjusted to the CPI, the Dow ended the decade down 40%.
The other side of the trade – the buy side – was just as simpleminded. Gold hit a high over $800 in 1980. Then, it slipped for the next 20 years. It didn’t come to rest until September 1999 at $260. That was the famous “Brown Bottom” in the yellow metal…when the then chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, sold Britain’s gold at the lowest price in two decades. (To bring readers up to date, now Mr. Brown applies his vision and energy to Britain’s economic recovery efforts.)
Gold is real money. But in the years when gold was being beaten down, other forms of money were running wild. Financial assets mushroomed all over the globe. A whole new ‘shadow banking’ system emerged…with new financial instruments, representing trillions…no, hundreds of trillions…of dollars. Prices on everything were soaring – equity, debt, real property. It did not take a genius to see that gold would have to catch up, sooner or later. As it turned out, no major asset class did better. Gold finished every single year higher than the year before. It doubled. Then, it doubled again.
What made the trade a success was neither clairvoyance nor omniscience; it was merely an observation known as ‘regression to the mean.’ The word ‘normal’ has been in the dictionary for a long time. It must be there for a reason. What it describes is where things tend to go when they’ve gotten out of whack. Regression to the mean is so powerful, no one escapes it. For every decade of walking around time, a person spends a million years dead. Over a century, practically every human regresses to the grave. So, what is so abnormal now that regression to the mean is as certain as death?
Almost all investments are expensive by most historical measures. But if all go down, what will they go down against? Money! That’s why real money – gold – is likely to go up again in the next 10 years. But gold is not cheap. It rose nearly 400% over the last 10 years and now is fairly priced. Gold in the treasure trove found in England last year is worth today about the same thing it was when it was buried 12 centuries ago. It cannot regress to the mean; it is already there.
On the buy side, we are looking for an investment that is despised…not one that is admired. And so, back to Japan, where equities peaked out in 1990 and have been going down ever since. While the Japanese government wanders among the stars, the private sector has dropped back to the ground. Or beneath it. Tokyo-listed stocks have lost 75% of their value, wiping out an entire generation worth of growth. Many Japanese companies sell for less than the value of their current net assets.
And now, after twenty years, Japan’s private businesses are finally benefiting from the stimulus programs. The government will go broke, but by destroying its own credit, Japan cuts the value of the yen and boosts profits for its exporters. Toyota’s local labor costs – in dollar terms – fell 5% in the last three months. And by the time the catastrophe is complete, Japan’s businesses could be the most competitive in the world. One way or another, 10 years from now, we’ll wager that Japanese stocks will be higher…if only relative to the rest of the world’s equities.
But of all the whack that investments might be out of, US Treasury debt stands above them all. For the last 27 years, the US government’s cost of borrowing has gone down. But while bond yields declined, the quantity of US debt exploded. Official, on-the-books debt trebled. Include off the books, unfunded financial obligations and the total reaches $118 trillion – 8 times GDP. And now the explosions come every month. As the depression continues, US deficit-financing needs could rise to $150 billion every 30 days. So far, the bond market has absorbed the shocks with good grace. But sometime in the next 10 years, the angels are bound to be proven right.
Sell US Treasury bonds. Buy Japanese stocks.
for The Daily Reckoning