Why the Stock Market Is a Horrible Wealth Protection Strategy
Here in the States everyone is keen to see the non-farm payrolls report. It comes out on Friday. Anecdotal evidence (what people say) suggests that the employment situation here is still pretty bad. But government statistics can say pretty much whatever you want them to say.
If you’re looking for the internals of the market, try breadth. That is, if you want to judge how intrinsically strong a rally is, look at how broad it is. Is it just concentrated to a few of the big stocks (banks and basic material, for example). Or are all stocks marching up in lock stop on higher earnings and higher valuations. Is the equity premium visible?
Take a look at the chart below. It’s the advance-decline index on the New York Stock Exchange from early 2007 unto today. The scale of the chart is less important than the trend. The index tracks the difference between advancing and declining issues on any given day. When there are more advancers than decliner, the index is bullish. When there are more decliners than advancers, it’s bearish.
NYSE A/D Ratio Looking Toppy
If you’re trying to use the A/D ratio as a predictor of what’s next (and who isn’t?) then what does it really tell you? The chart above shows you that market breadth started to deteriorate months ahead of the actual high in the Dow Jones (which came later that year in October.) The June-July revelations that two Bear Stearns funds were in trouble accelerated the deterioration.
The March 2009 low in the A/D ratio more or less coincided with the low in the index. There wasn’t any advance warning from the index. That’s likely because the March lows were reversed by the active (and perhaps direct) support of the Federal Reserve via interest rates and a program of Treasury bond buying.
Whether the Fed worked a way, via its primary dealers, to get stocks moving too (another word is ‘manipulation’) is an interesting but ultimately unanswerable question. The important point here is that nothing in the fundamental mechanics of the market indicated a reversal. It was an external event.
And what about now? The A/D ratio is going up, up, and away. It could be that corporate cash positions are solid, the employment market won’t get worse, and that the end is in sight for the U.S. housing market. Some combination of these factors could explain the steady advance of stocks since last March. But maybe not.
Our guess is that this is simply evidence of the Fed’s Great Reflation (see Marc Faber’s March Gloom, Boom, and Doom Report). All the new money created by the Fed, and the new lines off credit made available to U.S. financial institutions, made its way into the stock market by force off habit. It was easy to borrow and there was only one sensible place to put it: stocks.
But is that still the best trade going now?
Your best bet, as we’ve said for a while, is to retire now. Gradually liquidate your stock portfolio and pare it down. People are buying stocks now because it’s what they’ve always done and what they’re still told to do. But as a wealth survival strategy, the stock market is a death trap.
You should, by our reckoning, own a small portfolio of stocks leveraged to positive Black Swans (low probability but high magnitude events that drive a share price higher…like the discovery of a new ore body or the development of a new drug). These are the sort entrepreneurial ventures that will create new wealth. A portfolio of these business experiments is like a call option on the world we’ll live in after governments have gone bankrupt and lost the ability to perpetuate the follies of the previous credit bubble.
But for now, the public sector campaign to bail out the plutocrats in the private sector is in full force. And in the meantime, the public sector in Europe is trying to save itself. Markets in Europe have reacted with contented indifference to the affair in Greece. Has anything important happened there?
Well, the Greek government presented a plan to cut spending by $6.8 billion. If effected, it will reduce the deficit-to-GDP ratio from 12.7% to 8.7% in the next year, which is pretty ambitious. The Greeks plan to do two things: raise revenue and cut spending.
The Greeks will raise taxes on fuel, tobacco, and sales taxes. And if the communist unions don’t derail the plan, bonus payments to public sector servants will be cut by 30% and wages will be frozen for civil servants.
If Greece is having a fiscal crisis, why is anyone in the government getting a bonus payment at all?
The Greeks have $20 billion in sovereign debt maturing in April and May of this year. The negotiations between the Greeks and the rest of Europe are trundling along. But to what end? The Germans refuse to pony up for a bail out. But will the EU sacrifice Greece to save the Euro as a currency?
Nobody knows. But our main point today is that you should not think Greece has gone away. It’s true that since February, the cost of insuring sovereign governments against default has fallen. According to the folks at Bespoke Investment Group, only Vietnam, Argentina, and Egypt have seen wider credit default swap spreads in the last two months.
So we have a pause in the crisis-think. Markets rally on reflationary monetary and fiscal policy. But the underlying structure of the fiscal welfare/warfare state is badly damaged. This is still an excellent time to reduce your exposure to stocks and add, on the dips, your exposure to precious metals and precious metals equities (in full knowledge that even gold stocks are going to decline on another general decline in stocks).
It’s probably not just stocks you should re-think, though. Last week we mentioned that fund manager Colonial First State (owned by the Commonwealth Bank) has told investors in its Mortgage Income Fund that it could be as long as four years before they get their money back. The average age of the 17,000 investors in the fund is 74 years old.
Redemptions in the $850 million fund were frozen not long after the Federal government guaranteed bank deposits. High-yield mortgage trusts are not bank accounts. Investors and pensioners who treated them like high-yield bank accounts — because that’s how they were sold — were suddenly not generating needed income on precious savings. And now the savings are locked up.
But it wasn’t just the government guarantee that pummeled the mortgage and property funds. It was the underlying securities. On February 9th, Colonial announced it would wind down the Mortgage Income Fund because the bad debts on some of the underlying property loans were, “too big to manage.” It has another $1 billion of pensioner savings locked up in similar funds.
Now without knowing the composition of assets in the other funds, it would be hasty to say that mortgage funds in general are lousy investments. However we’re inclined to think just that. But more importantly, there’s a point here about having your money locked up in large pools of capital these days.
These large pools of capital — mortgage funds, property funds, super funds, 401(k) plans in the States — are extremely attractive to people who need capital. Call it “captive capital.” Banks covet it because it keeps them cashed up when facing declining asset values in commercial and residential property.
Governments covet the capital even more. It’s a ready source of funding for government deficits. If you can compel banks to buy government bonds (via credit requirements), or if you can compel savers to own government bonds for “safety” and “annuity” reasons, then you can force people to fund your deficits. That means you may not have to cut spending so deeply that you lose an election because of it.
So what should you expect and what should you prepare for? Higher taxes are a given. “Nutter expected to tax sugary drinks, set trash fee,” reports a Philadelphia newspaper. The Nutter in this case, quite appropriately, refers to the Mayor. He’s taxing fizzy drinks and garbage to raise extra money for the city. At the city and state level, you can expect a lot more of these creative ways to finance spending — along with cuts in services.
This is part and parcel of the over-reach of the Welfare state. If the U.S. Warfare State has over-reached in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been over-reaching domestically for years with programs paid for out of an empty pocket. The same is true in Europe, Japan, and increasingly, in Australia.
Some places are better off than others. Australia has a relatively smaller public sector debt burden. But the country overall, if you look at the net foreign debt, owes its prosperity to foreign lenders. You can expect the strain on public sector finances to only increase in the coming years.
All of that suggests, to us anyway, that you should re-think your reliance on traditional income and savings vehicles. Look for changes to be made that make it harder for you to get at your money. Or, if you can withdraw it from certain accounts and schemes, you will do so at a massive penalty. Governments need capital. And when they can’t compel you to use yours to finance their spending, they are going to get at least a pound of flesh if you choose to remove your money from the system.
What should you do instead?
As we said above, a small portfolio of stocks — business projects leveraged to very high returns — is nearly the only good reason to stay in stocks. The other good reason is that as governments monetize debts and confidence in paper money fails, stocks may beat inflation a lot better than cash. The rally of the last year is evidence of that.
Next week, when we get back to Australia, we’ll take on the main objection to all of this: deflation. That argument is simple. As the global debt burden becomes too heavy, it will crush asset values, leading to falling asset prices across the board, including precious metals. We have too many objections to this to list here. But stay tuned next week. Until then!
March 5, 2010