Friday, October 5, 2012

Would You Invest in Government?

Investors have an unusual problem today:  should they invest in government?  No, that's not political rhetoric.  It's perhaps the biggest question facing anyone with cash to allocate.  Asset prices have been manipulated upward by central banks and other government policies.  Stocks and bonds would not be trading at today's prices had it not been for all of the merry money printing by the major central banks during the past few years.  Indeed, the Federal Reserve takes credit for over half the rise in stock prices since 1994.  See  If you buy stocks or bonds now, you're betting that central banks can continue this juggling act. Is that possible?  Let's look at real estate.

Real estate prices for decades received government support on a massive scale.  Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, various government lending and finance programs (think Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Ginnie Mae, FHA, etc.), along with tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes, plus more specialized programs like federal flood insurance, have combined to create a vast support network for real estate, worth trillions of dollars.  Add Federal Reserve easy money policies starting in the 1990s going forward, and real estate prices were boosted leaps and bounds by government largess.  We know, however, how this story ends.  Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and all the government's programs and bailouts since the financial crisis of 2007-08 haven't put Humpty together again.  To be sure, a great deal of private avarice and stupidity played central roles in the real estate catastrophe.  But the presence of the government, lending a helping hand at every turn, made it easy to believe that real estate prices would never drop. 

Stock and bond prices now seem similarly invincible.  Even though Europe is sliding into recession, China's growth is slowing, and America's economy sputters and coughs just above recession level, stocks keep bubbling up.  Any positive economic statistics add to the ecstasy.  Negative ones slip from short term memory.  Many investors skittish about stocks have no qualms about diving into bonds, even though bond values have been driven to extreme heights.  Central bankers worldwide issue virtual carbon copies of each other's press releases declaring their unswerving commitment to keep printing money until . . . well, until . . . well, it's not clear where the process will end because the printing presses are now set to run ad infinitum.

To invest today, you have to pay the government prescribed price. To assess the risks of financial assets, you have to give heavy weight to political considerations--and those ain't pretty.  Buying financial assets like stocks and bonds is essentially an act of faith--faith in governments, and especially in central banks.  But faithfulness in this respect may not get you through the Pearly Gates.

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