May You Live in Interesting Times

May You Live In Interesting Times

Risk is higher. Markets are more unpredictable, and valuations more volatile. So, when anyone says “this time it’s different” it usually makes good sense to stop listening. However, these days the markets have given us more frequent and intense volatility. The NASDAQ is down almost 30% so far this year, and shocks from the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, massive central bank interest-rate maneuvers, and China’s zero-covid policy, are all ongoing inputs for turmoil that will continue for some time. Persistent uncertainty creates higher costs of capital and less affordability, weakening business investment, slowing GDP growth, and reducing investment returns. Hyperbolic “this time it’s different” statements are turning out to be true. This time days look darker, uncertainty greater, economic growth lower, vulnerability to additional shocks higher, and investors fear many more dark days to come. More frequent and intense volatility will not be calmed anytime soon. It really may be different this time.


Folly and the Fed

The average prices of food and fuel rose more than 16% in February from a year earlier and are expected to rise further by the war in Ukraine. Consumers are paying much more for meat, bread, milk, shelter, gas, and utilities. Only a small amount of food consumed in the U.S. is imported, and most of that is from Mexico and Canada. But Russia provides 15% of the world’s fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals that are now in short supply as planting season approaches. Wheat futures are up 29% since Feb. 25 and corn is up 15%. There is no shortage of wheat in the U.S., but global supply was the tightest in 14 years before the conflict, and dramatic shortages and price spikes are expected. What data is the Fed looking at, and how is it assessing inflationary risks? It’s hard to feel confident that the right hands are on the wheel because the combination of extraordinary factors, such as extremely tight labor markets and wage inflation (at over 6% annually and accelerating) showed inflation was already a significant risk. Yet interest rates were left unaltered. This is even before the crisis in Ukraine. The Fed should do whatever is necessary with interest rates to bring down inflation, including movements of more than a quarter-point, and a rapid reduction of its balance sheet. It also means recognizing that unemployment is likely to rise over the next couple of years. Paul Volcker would not have had to take extraordinary steps, driving the economy into a recession to crush runaway inflation, if his predecessors had not lost their focus on inflation. To avoid stagflation and the associated loss of public confidence in our economy today, the Fed has to do more than merely adjust its policy dials — it will have to head in a dramatically different direction.

The Thucydides Trap

China, the US, and the Thucydides Trap

The “Thucydides trap” is where a rising nation-state – for Thucydides it was Athens – must eventually have a violent confrontation with the existing dominant nation-state – Sparta in his time. It is a zero-sum game where there can be only one dominant nation-state as the eventual winner – and it is usually assumed to be the rising nation-state outdoing the dominant nation-state.

Today, many “experts” (and I have great disdain for self-proclaimed experts) believe this is the circumstance between the US and China. We are headed toward violent confrontation where there can be only one winner. I read the book by Thucydides about the conflict between Athens and Sparta (I cannot be dispassionate here about that outcome because my family is from Sparta on my father’s side). But I fundamentally disagree with Thucydides’s historical descriptions being used as analysis by anyone to describe global events, especially those between the US and China.

The superficial and the real

Our political system is binary, and both sides are more extreme than reasonable. There seems little patience for the “reasonable middle” where ideas can be nuanced, refined, and complexity of public policy understood. Instead, our leaders are superficial and guide policy with slogans, not thought. People like AOC and Sanders are caricatures, influential yet ignorant and superficial, forming policies while clueless about what it takes to realistically solve even their most critical issues.

They have great ideas on how to distribute wealth but no ideas on how wealth is actually created. Their perspective is to take existing wealth and distribute it to others instead of developing an engine to help more people create wealth. An example of this kind of dysfunctional policy can be found in resource rich African nations. Instead of building industries using the abundant natural resources present as inputs generating real businesses, those resources are simply gathered and distributed – either to efficient businesses in other countries or among governmental cronies to their Swiss bank accounts. Either way, this attitude is disastrous for an economy ultimately. Wealth is created, and policies should free up the ability to create wealth within appropriate legal restrictions.

Portfolio Strategy

The government is providing a backstop for all government-backed securities. The Fed is also going to be extremely active in the markets, buying not only fixed-income securities but also stock index funds. They are working very hard to keep the market aloft and preventing it from cratering (they still may not be successful). This is an election year and this administration will do everything it can to make sure things look as good as possible through November.
I understand there is riskiness, but I expect economic activity and fed support to continue to increase. Even if we have an increase in coronavirus cases, people will remain optimistic – justifiably or not.
There will be extreme volatility. Economic activity will waiver, increase suddenly, pull back, and the pattern will continue for some time to come.
Market volatility is our friend because we have a stable source of cash flow that protects our capital base. On top of that, the speculative strategy will profit from volatility while the equity investment strategy will play for the long term – it is a multi-year long-term perspective.

Although there are a handful of investments where confidence in the five-year curve is justified, and now is a great time to make these long-term investments, it is still very unpredictable.
The short- and long-term state of the economy, how this massive amount of debt gets repaid, how we reopen businesses, etc. is unknown, volatile, and any attempt to predict seems fruitless. But, understanding how to adjust for risk, accept, and ultimately take advantage of volatility, will be powerful. Along with a long-term perspective, this will be the most effective investment strategy. The Fed is printing more money. We’re going to see a lot of capital injected into the global economy. But the presence of money is not the important factor. It’s the velocity of money – how people are spending it and is that money chasing after other goods. That will drive inflation. We didn’t see it in the past even though we had a massive capital injection. Deflation and recession are much bigger concerns. Inflation is not on the horizon. The Fed’s enhanced bond-buying, which includes high-yield bonds and other fixed-income securities is unprecedented and has boosted the value of debt portfolios. However, these portfolios (mostly just above or just below investment grade) still yield attractive disproportionate risk-adjusted returns.