Monday, August 22, 2016

Is the Fed Undermining Portfolio Diversification?

A basic investment strategy for investors is to diversify.  Typically, investors put some of their money into stocks, and most of the rest into bonds.  Small portions may go into gold or other commodities, or be held as cash.  Stocks and bonds historically have tended to offset each other.  When stocks rose, bonds would fall, and vice versa.  A diversified portfolio would be hedged, ameliorating the ups and downs of the market and making investing less stressful. 

Today, though, central bank accommodation--in the form of ultra low interest rates, negative interest rates and quantitative easing--has distorted this historical relationship.  As the Fed and other central banks print more and more money, both stocks and bonds rise in value.  They no longer offset, and diversified portfolios are becoming unhedged.  If and when the era of easy money ends, both stocks and bonds could fall, and perhaps precipitously.   

By unhedging diversified portfolios, the central banks are heightening investor risks.  Many wealthy and institutional investors, apparently sensing the danger, have been increasing their levels of cash.  But ordinary mom and pop 401(k) investors may not be able to shift gears so easily.  They may face increasing exposure, and perhaps not know it.  If they sustain losses when they expected to be hedged, they could lose confidence in the markets.  The result could be rapid and ugly.  That's what happened on Black Monday, October 19, 1987, when the stock market crashed and fell 22.61% in a single day because many institutional investors thought they'd be hedged by a financial product called portfolio insurance and found out unexpectedly that portfolio insurance didn't work. 

The central banks could reduce accommodative policies in order to raise rates and normalize the financial markets.  But that process could cause investor losses and trigger selling that leads to a market meltdown.  If, on the other hand, central banks keep printing money, they may worsen the problem.  You could shift more assets to cash (or at least refrain from committing fresh cash to the markets).  Otherwise, understand that diversification, like everything else in the financial markets, is starting to look a little hinky.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Is the Central Banking Bubble Bursting?

America's economy is stuck in first gear, China's economic growth is slowing, Europe's economy is dead in the water, and Japan's economy has been lost in a fog bank for decades.  Corporate profits have been declining on a year-to-year basis.  But stocks keep reaching new highs.  Given the backdrop of pessimistic data from the real world, one must wonder how much longer the delirious jollity of the markets can continue.

It's no secret that the frothiness of stocks stems from the service-minded attitude of the world's major central banks:  they aim to please.  Accommodation is the word of the day.  Money will be printed early and often, and served on a silver platter with a flute of champagne.  The central bankers are not about to take the champagne away, even though some Federal Reserve officials occasionally mutter something or other about raising rates.  The markets know this--the futures market seem to view rate rises as likely as pigs flying.  So the central bank bubble persists.

It's true that the central banks' tools are becoming dull.  Quantitative easing--the purchasing of bonds by central banks--is playing out.  Vast amounts of government bonds have been bought up, and now corporate bonds are being targeted.  Private sector retirement savings are being pummeled by the lack of sources of reliable long term earnings.  Pension fund deficits are like festering sores, annuity payouts are shrinking, long care insurance policies are becoming extortionately expensive, and interest payments on personal savings are going the way of the passenger pigeon.  With shrinking retirement prospects, people are saving more so that they can limit the need for dog food in their retirement diets.  As a result, both current and future consumption are constrained.  Since consumption is 70% of the U.S. economy, the Fed is seeking short gains in aggregate economic statistics by sacrificing long term financial prospects.  We've had eight years of ultra low interest rates with no end in sight, and recovery from the resulting income losses will take many years, if it ever happens.

More recently, the monetary tool that has become au courant among central bankers is the negative interest rate.  Negative rates are a counter-intuitive policy where borrowers are paid to take out loans.  They are supposed to stimulate lending by penalizing commercial banks for holding deposits.  However, despite being all the rage among central banks in Europe and Japan, they haven't worked out. It seems that people, concerned by the weirdness of negative rates, aren't borrowing but instead are saving more.   See http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/09/bonds-and-debt-negative-yields-are-doing-the-opposite-of-what-they-were-intended.html.  Negative interest rates signal that the world is not well.  People are hunkering down and building up financial reserves in case times get worse.  This, too, dampens consumption and current economic growth.

But the deleterious effects of ultra low and negative interest rates are more likely to cause further economic stagnation, not a sudden collapse of stock prices.  The reality is that central banks aren't subject to market forces the way the rest of us are.  They are, however, subject to a lot of political pressure to keep current economic statistics looking good.  They know that the political process is largely dysfunctional, and fiscal proactivity isn't on the agenda. So they keep exchanging small near term benefits for large long term costs without any immediate consequence.  The bubble won't burst simply because they are making a bad long term deal. 

Could the central banking bubble burst?  The breakup of the EU might do the trick.  A return of significant inflation would be a major risk factor.  But it's hard to predict the likelihood of either.  In the meantime, stock prices could remain manically frothy.  Central banks can't defeat market forces when the market works against them, as the Bank of England found out in 1992 when it tried to support an overvalued pound against market forces pushing the pound down.  But right now, the financial markets want the central banks to be accommodative.  They applaud the idea.  Since the central banks face no reality checks, they can keep printing money indefinitely.

So, should you suspend belief and keep buying stocks?  Certainly, seeing stocks go ever higher just about every day is encouragement to drink the Kool-Aid and invest more.  But staying well-diversified, with a healthy dollop of cash, may be the sanest choice in an insane world.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Did Ted Cruz Make Trump More Liberal?

Ted Cruz's up your's speech at the Republican National Convention may end up pushing Trump toward the political left.  By advocating "vote your conscience," Cruz encouraged far right members of the Republican Party to abandon Trump.  To make up for this loss, Trump may shift to the left to win over voters in the political middle.  Indeed, he could be doing so already, with a favorable nod toward the gay community in his acceptance speech last night, and with his daughter Ivanka's promise that he would address the gender gap in pay.

If Trump wins in November, a possibility even though polls indicate that it's Hillary Clinton's election to lose, then as President he may prove to be more liberal than he now seems.  That's because Cruz and other far right members of Congress will probably obstinately refuse to compromise with him, just as Cruz wouldn't compromise at the convention.  Trump is a wheeler and dealer.  If he can't do deals with the far right, he might do deals with moderate Democrats.  This wouldn't be hard, since Trump has been a moderate Democrat at times in his life. 

It's debatable whether Ted Cruz helped or hurt himself by digitally saluting Trump at the convention.  But he may have given Trump more latitude to go more liberal.  And if Trump wins, Cruz may have empowered moderate Democrats. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

How the Libertarian Party Could Win the White House

Polls persistently show that many, if not most voters, reach for one of those little white airline bags every time they think of the two leading Presidential candidates.  Never before have so many voters been so nauseated by so few candidates.

But if you look away from the mainstream press for a moment, you'd find out there are two other parties fielding Presidential candidates.  The Libertarian Party has nominated Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, for President, and William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, for Vice President.  The Green Party has nominated Jill Stein for President and Cheri Honkala for Vice President.  The Green Party has only a tiny presence in national politics.  But the Libertarian Party, seemingly a minor player, might actually have a shot at the White House.  Here's how.

To be elected President, a candidate in the first instance has to win a majority of the electoral votes (i.e., 270 of the 538 total electoral votes).  The Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution provides that if no candidate has a majority, the House of Representatives then selects the President from the top three candidates. 

If the two leading candidates are running neck-and-neck in electoral votes, a third party could deny each of the two top candidates a majority by winning one, two or a few states (and thereby denying the electoral votes from those few states to either of the leading contenders).  Even though the third party might not have anywhere near a majority, it could force the election into the House.

The contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is likely to be close; neither seems to be able to open up much of a lead over the other.  More importantly, Clinton's unremitting tawdriness and Trump's unerring aim at his own feet ensure that many voters will yearn for an alternative.  Johnson and Weld are experienced politicians will real electoral credentials, having respectively served as governors of their home states.  They are polling between 5% and 10% nationally.  But, in some conservative states, they might be able to become real contenders.  The Libertarian agenda of small government and low taxes might resonate strongly in states like Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, all of which gave primary victories to Ted Cruz over Donald Trump.  If Johnson and Weld won one or more of these states, and the electoral breakdown between Clinton and Trump is close, it's possible no candidate would have a majority of the electoral votes and the election would go to the House.

In the Republican-controlled House, Clinton would be toast.  Period.  Trump would have supporters.  But he'd have detractors, too.  The Libertarian platform would appeal to many Tea Party and other right-wing members of Congress.  Both Johnson and Weld were Republicans when they served as governors, and perhaps many members of the House would prefer them to the unpredictable Trump, who in the past was sometimes Democratic and sometimes Independent.  Johnson and Weld would have to demonstrate flexibility and open-mindedness.  The zealotry of many past Libertarian candidates has ensured the party would be marginalized.  But, having had much real-life experience in politics, Johnson and Weld might talk turkey well enough to win over a majority of the House.  And Speaker Paul Ryan's extremely tentative, to say the least, support of Trump would probably not present much of a barrier to a Libertarian victory if most of his Republican colleagues wanted to vote that way.

Of course, many mainstream Republicans in the House might well balk at supporting the Libertarian candidates.  But when they consider the alternative--Mr. Maniacal Mouth--they'd probably give Johnson and Weld a pretty close look.  All this may sound like an overly elaborate speculation on a very long shot.  But, given how weird this election has already been, it just might be the way things turn out.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brexit and the Globalization Bubble

The stock market has returned to pre-Brexit levels.  So the crisis is over and everything is fine.  After all, if you're not losing money, what's the problem?  Let's think about what craft beer to try next.

Actually, Brexit is still very much affecting the financial markets.  The British pound is moribund.  The Euro isn't looking pretty.  And the Yen is strong, much to the unhappiness of the Japanese, who want a weak currency that gives them an advantage in exporting.  The bond market continues to show a flood of financial refugees into U.S. Treasury securities.  The crisis isn't over.

The volatility in stocks was more about short term speculation over the outcome of the Brexit vote, than about Brexit itself.  Shortly before the vote, much of the fast money crowd had placed large bets on the UK voting to remain.  When the vote went the other way, the speculators had to unwind their now stinky positions muy pronto.  But this volatility didn't reflect the impact of Brexit itself.  Brexit will take years, and its impact is largely unknowable at this time since we don't yet know the terms of the UK's decampment.

The EU is talking tough about the terms of divorce.  That's perhaps an understandable emotional reaction.  After all, the EU is afraid that the insurgents in other member nations will engineer more exits.  Taking a tough line, it apparently thinks, discourages further desertions. 

But the EU is missing the point.  What impelled a majority of British voters to choose exfiltration was that globalization and the benefits of the EU were oversold.  Britons were promised a glowing future if they cozied up to continental Europeans, who they haven't really trusted since before the Hundred Years War.  EU membership may have boosted British GDP, but there was a problem with most of the boost going to a small number of people who were doing pretty well to begin with.  And there was a perception that the EU's open borders policy allowed immigration that took jobs away from native-born Britons.  All this occurred under a legal regime in which many Britons felt they had no voice.  They apparently felt that, contrary to the principles of democracy, they, although voters, were being ruled instead of ruling. 

By playing tough with the terms of Britain's exit, the EU fails to address the real, legitimate grievances leading to Britain's vote.  The truth is that globalization is an oversold political bubble and the bubble is bursting.  Those with grievances aren't confined to the UK; they can be found throughout the other 27 member nations.  A punitive approach to the terms of Brexit could leave both the UK and the EU poorer, while the forces of insurgency would continue unabated.

The distribution of wealth isn't merely something for social scientists to study.  It really matters--politically and economically.  The elites who have led the way toward globalization must find ways to improve the lives and fortunes of all, or face much bigger problems than Brexit. 

This is true in America as well as across the pond.  Donald Trump hopes to emulate the Leave campaign.  Hillary Clinton has gotten a certain amount of mileage  from running as not-Donald-Trump.  But she is one of the elites who has pushed globalization.  She now purports to have changed her mind, but only after severe pressure exerted by Bernie Sanders.  It's not hard to wonder if she's really changed her stripes.  The widespread perception of her untrustworthiness will hinder her ability to convince the blue collar voters in swing states that she's really on their side.  She doesn't inspire or excite hardly anyone.  If she doesn't acknowledge the overselling of globalization in a clear and convincing way, and offer real relief for the distressed, Trump may yet strut to the tune of Hail to the Chief.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Put Britain at the Front of the Queue

The British electorate has voted to exit the EU.  Whether we agree or disagree with their reasons, or see the wisdom of exiting, the democratic process has spoken.   We in America, the land where modern democracy began, should respect the decision of Britain's voters.  Now is not the time for America, or Americans, to take partisan positions.  Europe is splintering, and potentially weakening.  Continental Europe will probably react badly, and set harsh terms for Britain's exit.  With Continental Europe beset by popular insurgencies, more instability is likely and other nations may leave the EU.    Bad actors, ranging from Russia to Iran to Islamic radicals, will attempt to take advantage of Europe's divisiveness.  America is the one nation in the world that can play the role of honest broker and bridge the gaps that will now emerge.

Britain will need to negotiate a new trade pact with the United States.  President Obama imprudently threatened that, if Britain voted to exit the EU, America would put Britain at the end of the queue for the negotiation of such a pact.  That ill-advised threat should now be disregarded.  Britain is America's staunchest ally in Europe, and America benefits greatly from a stable and prosperous Britain.  British troops have fought side-by-side with American troops in numerous conflicts since World War I, and America and Britain have one of the best intelligence sharing arrangements in the world. Britain is now headed for independence, and America can only lose by being punitive. Put Britain at the front of the queue.

America should also work with the EU to reduce, as much as possible, the friction likely to result from Britain's exit.  A wounded and angry EU can be detrimental to the world's economy and international security.  America may be the only nation that can calm things down.

Brexit gives America the opportunity to expand its international role, this time without having to send  troops overseas.  For those who think America is in decline, think again.  As much as ever, America is needed in Europe, and should now step forward and play the role of superpower.

Monday, May 30, 2016

We're All Temporary Workers

According to data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, middle aged Americans are, on average, likely to have held 11 or 12 jobs by the age of 48.  See http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsfaqs.htm#anch4.  The same group will have, on average, experienced 5 or 6 periods of unemployment by the age of 48. See http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsfaqs.htm#anch42.  Only about 10 percent of these workers will have had between 0 and 4 jobs by age 48.  In other words, the long lasting, stable employment that we anticipate for adulthood is mostly a mirage.  Few of us enjoy that kind of certainty.  Indeed, it's fair to say just about all of us are temporary workers.

Of course, there are differences among workers.  Some are considered full time, others part time.  Some are permanent--either full time or part time--and others are temporary--either full time or part time.  But the average American, with about 12 jobs by the age of 50, is realistically a temporary employee, just with better benefits if he or she is considered "permanent" and is working full time.

The impermanence of employment means fewer employees qualify for defined benefit pensions, even in the few jobs that still offer pensions.  It also means that in the real world, workers have trouble building up their 401(k) and IRA accounts, because they're periodically hit with a spell of unemployment or have to rebuild benefits at a new employer.  Many workers draw down their retirement accounts during episodes of joblessness.  When they resume working, they have less time to build up their balances again.  The only ways to counteract the temporariness of employment is to save furiously, or, if you're lucky enough to have a job offering a pension, to somehow stay put long enough to qualify for the pension, no matter how boring the job or overbearing the boss.

The wobbly, and sometimes turbulent, work lives of most people place this year's politics in sharp focus.  The debates over Social Security, health insurance, trade policy, jobs programs and wage stagnation become all the more crucial when we consider that, in the end, we're almost all temporary workers. Proprosals that enhance stability for workers, like protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare will be popular.  Measures like free trade agreements are likely to be losers.

But don't count on the government to bail you out.  You're not a major financial institution, so assume that there will be no bailout for you.  Save as much as you can--and then save some more.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Big Trouble For the Establishment

America's political Establishment is in big trouble.  The Democratic Establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, is steadily sinking in the polls compared to Donald Trump, and is now barely ahead of him, after many months of double digit leads, (see http://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/22/clintons-lead-over-trump-shrinks-to-3-points-new-nbc-newswsj-poll.html).  Or else, she marginally trails Trump (see http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/22/politics/hillary-clinton-donald-trump-polls/index.html).  At the same time, Bernie Sanders has a clear lead over Trump (see the NBC/WSJ poll).  Because of the Clinton power politics machine, Hillary will almost surely be nominated.  The Democratic Establishment apparently cannot believe that an insurgent like Trump could defeat Hillary.  But an insurgent Democrat did beat her in 2008, and another insurgent Democrat has come darn close in 2016 (and isn't entirely out of the picture yet).  Even worse, polls now indicate the insurgent on the Republican side may defeat her.  If she loses, which seems a possibility, the Democratic Establishment will have undermined itself by supporting her.

The Republican Establishment is faced with a different, but also existential, challenge.  Donald Trump isn't an Establishment guy.  If he wins in November, the Republican Party's power structure will be recreated as he dictates.  Trump skeptics and professional scoffers who have pooh-poohed his candidacy may hear Trump's memorable words, "You're fired."  While many in the Republican power structure are now negotiating with Trump for some kind of entente, there are probably not a small number who won't support The Donald.   

The political Establishment in both parties wins if Clinton wins.  They both lose if Trump wins.  With the polls moving toward a dead heat between Clinton and Trump, one wonders whether some establishment Republicans might not find quiet ways to support Hillary.  With a Republican controlled House (and maybe Senate), she couldn't change things much--and that's what the Establishment wants.  But if Trump wins, a lot of things could change (although many would say not in a good way). 

If Bernie Sanders improbably gets the Democratic nomination, he might well defeat Trump and the Democratic Party would have to change.  But that would be in ways that he's already begun forcing it to change.  Bernie, however, isn't an Establishment guy, and the Democratic power brokers have moved to repel his assault on their ramparts.  We have an odd election cycle--the Democrats indulge in machine politics, where might makes right.  The Republicans, much to their consternation, have become democratic, with voters imposing their will on the power structure.  The establishments of both parties should be reflecting on their shortcomings.  But don't expect them to instigate change on their own.  That will have to be forced on them by the electorate.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

In Choosing Clinton, Will the Democrats Take the Harder Road?

With Ted Cruz dropping out of the Republican primaries after losing in Indiana, it really does matter whether the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.  A recent Reuters poll shows Clinton leading Trump by almost 9%:  http://polling.reuters.com/#!poll/TM651Y15_13.  However, in another Reuters poll, Sanders leads Trump by 16%:  http://polling.reuters.com/#!poll/TM651Y15_14. Polls taken two months ago show that Sanders was comparably stronger against Trump than Clinton:  http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2016/03/bernie-sanders-is-most-electable.html.

Donald Trump will now surely be the Republican nominee.  He has displayed remarkable political talent, and has blasted his way through a vast field of experienced, well-funded and strongly supported career Republican politicians.  Hillary Clinton's negatives and baggage offer Trump big, fat, juicy targets.  With his skill at handling the media, he may well close the 8-9% gap between himself and Clinton and force her into an extremely tight race.  Bernie Sanders, by contrast, with his humble background, modest finances, and rumpled clothes, presents a harder target to hit.  There aren't that many cheap shots Trump could take at him.  Trump would have to attack Sanders' policy proposals and platform--and that's exactly where Sanders would like the debate to be.  By relentlessly pushing his ideas, Sanders closed an enormous gap between himself and Clinton.  He's won with his ideas and his victory today in Indiana shows his continued appeal to voters.

Contrary to what many self-satisfied Democratic insiders believed this morning, the Republicans will not tear their party apart.  Trump has the rest of the Spring and the Summer to stitch together a united Republican front.  Sanders, having just won Indiana and likely to win more upcoming primaries, isn't stepping out of the race.  The Democrats face a dilemma:  whether to nominate Clinton, the candidate with the most power within the party, or nominate Sanders, the candidate most likely to beat Trump.  Power politics will probably prevail.  But in choosing Clinton, the Democrats may be taking the harder road to the White House.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Generation of Stagnation; Retirement Walks the Plank

We are now looking at a generation of stagnation.  The recovery from the 2008 financial crisis still wobbles like a drunk.  Even though we now have full employment, wages barely keep up with inflation (if at all).  And recent statistics indicate that inflation is growing as fast as a parched lawn.

Regardless of what this Federal Reserve official or that says, the central bank will raise rates as often as humans walk on Mars.  If you're wondering when rates will return to historical norms, the answer is never.  At least, this is the only rational assumption you can make.  With Asia's growth slowing, Europe's growth nonexistent, South America in free fall, Russia going negative in numerous ways, and the Middle East becoming more unstable with each passing day, and no drivers of growth in America except the Fed money printing presses running 24/7, the only future forecast that seems sensible is to expect stagnation for--well, the rest of your life.

With stagnation instead of brisk economic growth, the government's ability to support retirees will be limited.  While Social Security and Medicare won't disappear, they will likely be parsimonious.  If you drop your porridge bowl, they won't refill it.  And pension fund and personal investment returns are being decimated by low interest rates on bonds and bank accounts.  Your retirement is starting to walk the plank.  What to do, then, about your future?

Spend less, save more.  This is a no brainer.  It's not what the Fed wants, because hesitant consumer demand constrains economic growth.  But the Fed be damned.  Your long term well-being requires the thriftiness of Ben Franklin, and if that results in lower economic growth that makes the Fed look bad, well who cares?  (Or, you can substitute more lively terminology if you wish).  With interest rates so low, you can't use the financial magic of compounding to build much of a retirement (see http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2009/09/if-you-love-compounding-compounding.html). You have to set aside more principal, and hope that the few crumbs of interest income you get will elevate your retirement diet above dog food.

Put some money in stocks.  The inequality of wealth in America has increased because the Fed's easy money policies tend to inflate asset values.  Since the rich own most assets, their wealth  has increased disproportionately from central bank policies.  Realistically, with stagnant wages and a Republican controlled Congress, you can't expect the inequality of wealth to diminish.  (Maybe things would be different if Bernie Sanders is elected President, but both the Democratic and Republican establishments are using all their smoke-filled back room influence and power to prevent that.)  So you might as well join 'em if you can't beat 'em.  Owning stocks can be gut wrenching in times of market turmoil.  But so is a retirement spent eating dog food.  Learn to live with the market's turbulence, and collect the rates of return that the 1% are getting from equities.

Work longer.  This increases your lifetime earnings, which allows you to save more and build up your Social Security benefits.  If you're lucky enough to have a pension, it will likely increase your pension benefits.  Okay, so working longer means a shorter retirement.  But, like we said, retirement is walking the plank.  Just try to avoid having to live in a cardboard box on the sidewalk with a couple of cans of cat food in your raggedy backpack.

Avoid debt.  You can't go bankrupt if you don't borrow.  If you do borrow, some of your future income will go to banks and other lenders in the form of interest payments, instead of enhancing your future lifestyle.  Granted, you may need to borrow for big ticket items like college, cars and a house.  But otherwise, avoid debt.  And pay down the debt you have as you approach retirement.  Especially, lose the mortgage.  Financial advisers may tell you it's okay to have a mortgage in retirement.  But guess what?  If you have a mortgage, that means you may have more financial assets to invest in ways that pay fees and commissions to the financial advisers.  Meanwhile, you have to pay interest on the mortgage debt.  Who's better off?

For more on ways to yank your retirement back off the plank, read http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2009/11/techniques-for-retirement-saving.htmlhttp://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2009/07/simplest-financial-plan-of-all.html, and http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2011/01/hope-for-financially-lost.html.  Good luck.