Episode 025 - The recession is coming
When you artificially inflate a stock market to record highs for so long, a recession hurts. You can imagine how that will feel for those falling off that cliff. Best you be prepared for this, so we’ll go into details on what you can do now to avoid destruction now and find opportunities.
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I’ve written before that I LOVE recessions. Why? Because these are the times when wealth is shifted from one party to another. Wealth doesn’t disappear, despite what people might think. Real wealth simply changes hands. Those that are exposed to risk will lose wealth, and those that are not will gain it. This is because those that hold cash or some asset that can be liquified in order to buy assets at deep discounts, win. And if you know that cycles are the basis of economics and the universe, then it is really easy to make millions here. But it is very hard to make that without a recession.
I laugh to myself when I hear many boasting about how much money they make and what they have saved, and how well their 401K is doing or their Index fund investments. The reality is that those are the first investments to go in a recession. The truth here is that it doesn’t take a financial whiz to make money in a bull market. You just put your money in the hands of a counterparty and let them play it. That isn’t anything to be proud of. The government, in fact, forces your hand with this when it comes to retirement savings. They penalize you if you take money out of an IRA or 401K before you are eligible - thereby denying you the right to buy bargains when the economy collapses.
And the many who tell you that you want to hold money in the stock market for the long term because historically it goes up - well I don’t subscribe to that. Why? Because the assumption is you never need to access that money. If you do, you have to sell the stock & pay the off-ramp fees. If you are a day trader or a speculator, then I get it. Sure, that’s a cost of doing business. But if you are a career minded worker, putting your money in the stock market with no interest in exiting that market means you will be working until the day you die. To me, that’s not a life and that is the essence of being constrained.
If you do want to make Warren Buffet level money, you have to realize that investing in something means you sell it when the time is right. You don’t hold it indefinitely and stick your head in the sand like an Ostrich doing everything in your power to ignore it. That’s what victims do. You didn’t get into investing to become a victim, right?
It is true that you MAKE MONEY WHEN YOU BUY SOMETHING - not when you sell it. What does this mean? It is simple. The acquisition cost of getting something determines the base of the arbitrage that you will get when you sell it. You can sell something at the highs and feel really good about that, but if you didn’t buy it at the lows, then the spread is going to be minimal. But if you buy something at a deep discount, hold it until the markets show signs of topping out and sell it then - you get the big rewards.
But the assumption here is that you will sell the asset at some point. Unless that asset generates some cashflow dividend (like rental real estate), you would want to sell it at some point. As I’ve said before, Smart income comes from holding assets that generate dividends. That’s the ultimate end point here. But there is nothing wrong with buying other assets that you can make great returns on, but only if you are prepared to sell them at some point. Not some blind faith that you just sock money into a market and hope it will be worth more at some point in the future, because when an opportunity presents itself, what value will the asset be then? And typically when the great deals are around, most assets are devalued substantially because of the knock on effect of a recession, meaning you have less money to participate in the deals. You lose money getting out of an asset to buy into another. That’s not a good business plan.
You want to hold contrary assets that go up when markets collapse, so that if you liquidate those after the dust settles, you can buy the assets you really want at a deep discount.
There are predictable things in the universe that we often choose to ignore. Let’s talk about them and how they form the core of contrarian wealth generation.
The universe has a way to bring things into balance. Sometimes we don’t like it. But we are nothing more than just another species on this planet so we don’t get to have much of a say in this. In fact, the more we try and buck the system by creating artificial realities, the more the universe will kick back and the harder the adjustment.
This is the case in 2020. The old saying, “You can’t argue math” to 100% true. But you could rephrase this as “You can’t argue the language of the universe”. The simplicity of counting and the decimal system (based on the fact we have 10 fingers on our hands) has given us a clear way of measuring things. Unfortunately for a lot of smarty pants academics, they have taken the art of measuring things and turned it into predicting and influencing the future of things. And that’s where this will come crashing down.
Now maybe you can call me a “naysayer” or that I don’t understand math, etc. Sure, I’m someone who respects the past as much as I respect the future. That comes with age. The more past you have to reflect on, the more you understand how it defined today and influences tomorrow. As you cross the mid point in your life expectancy, you get to have as much past to refer to as you have future to look forward to. Without the past, you really are only getting half of the story. But despite that, there is some practical basis for predictions and it isn’t necessarily based on history.
For example, consider the way that nature grows things. They happen in cycles. There is a planting season, and there is a harvesting season. Growth goes up to a point and then dies, allowing new growth to take over. These cycles are just normal. Same with the cycles of the moon. Or the weather systems as we go from winter to summer. Yes, there are some things that influence this and make summers hotter than normal or winters colder than normal, but regardless as we cycle around the sun and the other planets, the balance is restored through the cycles. Without the cycles, nothing would survive.
And those cycles which are part of our very existence and the miracle that defines how we were born into this universe and how we die in this universe, is no different to how plants are grown and harvested. Cycles are, by their very definition, the essence of life in the universe.
Man that sounds really hippy. But ask any pragmatic thinker in this world about how things grow and die, and you’ll get the same observation. The thing is that we think that certain things that we create are artificial and shouldn’t be subjected to the same cycles. Like some MMORPG video game universe where we make up the world and live in it. Unfortunately though, we don’t make up the universe. We might want to think we are gods, but we are not. At least, not yet.
When you look purely at economics, it is driven by human perception. If people think that the times are good, the markets go up. If people think that a winter is coming, the markets go down. The markets are no more than a general measurement of human “feelings”. People spend money when they think it is safe to do so. And like an ancestors thousands of years before us, then will stockpile their food in the cave for the long winter. Again - cycles.
Where are we today?
In 2008, we saw an economic crash like no other I’ve seen in my life. The destruction was like a wild fire going through people’s lives. The banks pretty much turned off the lending tap, which meant that those who had extended themselves into debt that was expected to be refinanced into better debt contracts were left without a chair when the music stopped playing. And that represented a massive number of those that were allowed to get access to money with “liar loans” or “no income, no assets” loans, etc. They would never normally be allowed to participate in borrowing, but the Bush administration provided every level of direction, incentive and motivation for them to do it. “Everyone deserves to own their own home” they said. Bullshit, I say. Everyone deserves the opportunity to generate money to buy their own home - sure, I get that. But not everyone can be a winner. In this case, they common saying around town at that time was, “Every child wins a prize”. The “participation trophy” decade. How’d that work out?
Well not good. Again, there are always apex predators and lunch. Again, another cycle of the universe here. You can’t pretend that away and no, every child doesn’t deserve a prize and those kids with no skills who were rewarded with a mortgage for their home, came face to face with the fact that the banks had set them up. They signed them into these uber-low interest rate products that would expire after a couple of years and turn into “normal” mortgages, assuming that the equity in the property went up and they could refinance themselves into something affordable. They tried to predict the future, and it failed.
And we all paid. They knew they could insure themselves away from the risk, so they included insurance premiums in the mortgage payments. PMI as they call it. So who ended up holding the hot potato here? The insurance industry, but wait.... Insurance and banking are basically one in the same, so in order to shield themselves further, they would package up these toxic deals into “collateralized debt obligations” and sell it off to pension funds in other countries. Some countries like Iceland almost went completely bankrupt over these deals, as they sold the retirement promises they made to their own citizens into these supposedly high performing investments, that were nothing more than hiding the bad loans with the good ones. Basic game of ball in the cup. And they fell for it, because well government public servants aren’t great investors. If they were, they wouldn’t work for the government and be constrained.
OK, enough of history. You know the drill here. 2008 through 2010 was horrible. High unemployment, low returns on investments, DJIA went from about 16,000 to 8,000 and then had to recover. The US government under a new administration had to bail out industry after industry. Yet no bankers went to jail despite year long protests in New York City, with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. How’d that work out? No impact other than banks stopped lending.
That was over 10 years ago. Many of my friends were not old enough to vote at that time. But the banking industry continued to want their profits, so they turned to other forms of lending. Forms that were done with government backing. Student loans were the best ones because students could never discharge the debt. The banks had one weakness with the 2008 global financial crisis - bankruptcies. Although they were insured to the hilt against this, a debtor could always declare bankruptcy and with the US government as their shield, they could shed their skin and lose their debts. Over the next few years, they’d lick their wounds but could eventually return back to the economy again once the dust settled. And since there were so many of them, it was hard to ignore them as “bad actors” in the banks perspective. Sure, their credit scores were in the toilet, but landlords still need tenants and banks still need to write loans, so over time the lending standards relaxed.
Money started to take on a different form. Economies started to realize that people had more debt than they had assets. Debt became its own currency. We’d see some countries that might have been less effected by the GFC, like Australia, allow their citizens to borrow like crazy. They’d show statistics of 100:1 Debt to Income ratios. That is you are 100x more indebted than you have the means to pay for it. If all the banks came calling for their money at the same time, you’d be broke. But in a country that didn’t have as liberal bankruptcy protection than the USA, the government had to step in and try and stop the collapse. They did, but never shone a light on the basic problem that if you have too much debt, you are enslaved to it, and with that you are constrained.
Along comes the US Federal Reserve
Debt can be a good thing. If you are a new enterprise and you have a valid purpose, you may need capital in order to build equipment, buildings, etc. in order to begin trading. You calculate that if you can include the cost of paying off that capital investment in your income, you can eventually be clear of it and then you own the asset. This is how we do rental real estate investing. You borrow against the physical asset (the property & building), you rent it to a tenant who pays you for the use of the asset, and you use that income to pay off the cost of the debt. If you do this in a reasonable time, with a certain amount of your own down payment in there, you can have the tenant pay off the hot potato.
And with the risk that there is an increasing population of people, and that those burdened with student loan debt can’t afford to buy their own home, you have a solid marketplace of customers who allow you to have some supply/demand power.
There is still some risk here - I mean if you have no tenants, you pay. But there is no progress without risk, so you measure it and you manage it. That’s how I do it. That’s how I am unconstrained.
The money is out there. Banks have a lot of it. Why? Because it can be created with no backing. Like you just enter some numbers into a computer and voila - instant liquidity. Then you lend it out at a rate that the market can bear, and you are generating profits. Pretty cool business if you ask me.
The one thing that comes into play here is math. There is a cost of those funds (interest rate) and that becomes one of the expenses that your business model needs. If you can afford the interest payments, plus you are actively paying down the debt itself, and that (along with the on-costs like insurance, property taxes, maintenance, etc.) is less than your tenant rents, this works. Really simple math. If you have a contract with your lender that locks in the rate of interest so that it can’t change over time, but you can float the rents so that they typically will go up in small increments over time, then you are in a pretty good position. That’s how those that practice the art of financial sustainability do it.
But what if the interest rate changes? What if it goes up? Isn’t that what got us into the mess in 2008?
Yes and no. Borrowers took on really bad legal contracts with banks over the debt. They allowed the banks to raise interest beyond reasonable levels, and that’s where the problem was. The banks started to act more like hard money lenders over time than responsible lenders, and that meant that many just abandoned their homes and left it up to the rest of us to clean up the mess.
After you get those toxic assets, clean then up and put them back on the market, you realize you bought someone else’s headache super cheap because the banks didn’t need the money - they had insurance and were bailed out anyway. So you got this really low priced asset, then you cleaned it up and now it is worth 10x what you paid for it. Nice. Good job.
That stimulates the “real” economy. When you win the lottery like that, you can put a lot of money back into the general economy. It is like the artificial high markets of 2006 or so had a long way to fall in 2008. Real property valuations back then were so high, but when the fell they dropped 50%. I saw this with my own house - it was valued in the millions but by 2009, it was valued at $500K. About a 60% drop. No one is selling because they can’t afford the upside down payout that they would have to do, and the economy stalled.
Meanwhile you need to keep it flowing. Because without income from jobs, profits, etc. you can’t service the debt load at all. So the US Federal Reserve starts to drop the base interest rates that then banks get their money at, so that they will then in turn drop the borrowing costs. And they start to flood the market with more liquidity. Quantitative Easing (QE) as they call it.
But the banks still haven’t relaxed lending standards. So there is all this money flowing around now, but no home owners can get access to it. They are not offering refinancing options - or at least if they are, it is to someone who has equity still in the property or just doesn’t need the money.
So who got the money? Well students for student loan debt because the banks were secured from bankruptcy discharge there, so they started to incent universities with a lot of money knowing that they can service it from this windfall of customers.
And second, they allowed the Fortune 500 corporations to take out more debt with the blessing of the US government. The govt thought they would use that money to hire more workers, build more factories, invest in R&D, etc. Nope, that didn’t happen. What they did was to borrow money and use it to buy out their competitors. M&A as they call it. Or in order for them to reduce the risk of them being bought out, they’d buy back their own stock from the market. And with that, their share price went up because in the world of supply & demand, there is less stock out there so naturally the price per share is higher.
Shareholders loved this. What a great thing! Remember what I say, “The rich don’t have jobs”. Yep, those rich. The 1% that don’t have jobs, don’t have mortgages and just own a lot of stock. They made out like bandits. Again, since the markets had dropped to such sub-atomic lows, traders and investors could buy up the shares of companies at 50c on the dollar and then watch them rise up and up and up. And this is exactly what happened. The rich got exceedingly richer.
Good for them, I say. I mean if you can buy someone else’s problem, fix it up and flip it, you are cleaning up the neighborhood so to speak. It is what we landlords do all the time.
The problem is that many got a free ride on the tail of this activity. Out of this, new workers who had little debt load (yet) and worked in high paying fields like software developers, engineers, etc. got access to a lot of money in salaries and worked out that if they were to invest the money in high performing index funds that were tied to Wall Street, they could save millions and with that they could retire early. Mind you, most had not yet experienced anything in life to retire from, but still it sounded good. And with that the FIRE movement was born.
So where are we today?
It is now 2020. This bull market has been going on now for over 10 years. Normal market cycles are 6-8 years. The universe would tell you that we are way overdue for a correction. I mean the DJIA is now over 29,000 and it was 8,000 only 10 years ago. If you had bought Apple, Amazon, Google, etc. back in 2010, you’d be wealthy beyond belief.
But many couldn’t participate. They were being foreclosed from their homes and forced to service student loans, or were unemployed because the factory laid off all the workers as they outsourced their jobs to China. Not everyone became a software engineer and made north of $100K annual salaries. Not everyone was able to buy into this market.
In fact, a very small percentage could. But they would do it on the backs of Vanguard, Charles Schwabb, etc. who were their brokers for that unspent savings. They’d use government supported vehicles like 401K, IRA, HSA, etc. to avoid taxes. But in doing this, they’d lock their money up until the page of 59 1/2, or pay some penalty for using it. One way or another, the government would get their taxes or they would be relieved of their obligation to pay social security for those in their golden years by incenting them to lock away their treasure now.
Some used ROTH IRAs to pay the taxes now, so they wouldn’t have to later. Nice, but the government still got their taxes. At least they could have a taxless future with this. And those products were shielded from bankruptcy or creditors so it was a safe bet.
Here’s the problem though....
The gains here were artificial, brought on by the US Federal Reserve and their monetary policy. Low interest rates, injecting massive amounts of money into the liquid money supply, etc. results in every child winning a prize (again). Eventually banks relaxed their lending standards to all comers and now the housing market is on the up again.
Now that debt has become a currency, banks can trade it and you can have more of it. Just ask. Just sign your future away for it on the dotted line and it is yours. Nothing to worry about. Go buy that new car, that new house, have that vacation, etc. Just remember, you have to pay the interest on it, but when interest rates are so low, who cares, right? Let the good times roll as they say. Re-elect your government leaders who are the custodians of this bright future. Nothing could go wrong.
Except the universe. Remember, there are cycles. And the universe will do things to ensure balance. Things you may never expect. Like weather events, natural disasters. And disease. If the apex predator on planet earth (humans) is consuming all of the natural resource, then maybe the universe might have something to say about that. Maybe it is time to bring balance back and wipe out at least a large portion of that species.
And like the natural cycles of balance, there’s still math. Remember, you can’t argue math. Math works. Math, if properly implemented, is a cleansing agent with numbers. And economies are all about numbers.
The one enemy to the “good times” is inflation. Inflation simply means that the buying power of $1 is lower, so you need more $1 bills to pay for the same things. Interest rates are the balancing of inflation. If inflation starts to rise, you reduce borrowing by raising interest rates and you slow down the economy so that inflation can be brought into check. At least that is how it has been done in the past. The other lever that the US Federal Reserve has is the amount of money in the supply. Since they can make that up with no backing, they can reduce the efficacy of $1 artificially. And they have been doing that on steroids.
You’d think that by now the market cycles would have changed. However there is one thing that has kept the cost of things super low.
China. China has provided the world with access to its 1.3 billion person workforce and with that, the cost of manufacturing of anything from toilet paper to iPhones is way low. I mean 25% of what it would normally be if that product was made in the western world. By keeping the costs of things so low, it meant that the power of $1 doesn’t matter. Well it does with things that are not made in China, but we outsource so much of our world to keep up the charade of inflation, that it doesn’t matter.
Well sometimes it does. Take health care insurance premiums for example. You can’t outsource that to China. So you pay what it costs for healthcare in your local region. In the past 5 years, healthcare insurance premiums have risen 45%. What used to be a $500 a month cost for a family, is now $1,000 a month. That’s what inflation looks like.
As we find more ways to try and produce what we humans need for less, ie. food production, water, energy, etc., we can keep inflation down. But if there is any disruption to this process, it will hurt. And things will naturally fall back into balance again.
It is the power of our inventions, and our tethering of our economy with China, that has kept inflation down, yet the reality is that the measurements for it are flawed and not holistic, so banks continue to get access to cheap money, and push it upon us either by incentive or by setup. We become more constrained the more we use it. And we become more constrained by participating in a world based on tethering our economic future to a communist country or by trying to invent ourselves out of disaster. If we never stop trying to invent the next big thing, we’ll be ok. We are selling humanity’s future out to our ability to invent the next mousetrap, colonize other planets, generate energy for free, have robots service our every need at little or no cost to us, etc. Yes, these things will keep inflation at bay.
But did we ever ask the universe about this? Is it not natural that at some point, things will come into balance again? That this is a marathon - not a sprint. And those that got a free ride on the manipulation of economics, might want to start to hedge their gains a bit. Because no matter what great future we might want to create, and what great trade deals we might want to engage in, the reality is that the universe will eventually balance things out.
And that’s where I am right now.
If you believe that there is more upwards momentum in the immediate future, you won’t want to do what I am doing. And that’s ok - you do you. But if you have found yourself chained to a cubicle because you sold out your future to some bank or mythical dream of “retirement”, then you probably don’t have much standing. Don’t worry though. You are in the majority. The 99% of society. Remember them? Remember how well they are doing?
The unconstrained are in the 1% and we hedge our bets on everything. Risk is well managed and you take your winnings off the table before someone takes them from you.
Those that can’t because they locked up their savings in 401Ks, IRAs, HSAs, etc. because some government incentivized you to do that - sorry, I can’t help you here. But those that were more “hands on” with their money might have a chance.
If we learned anything from 2008, it is that when cycles reverse and balance out, they come fast. Like those waves on the ocean that I keep talking about. You get out there, get prepared, and paddle well before the wave comes. You learn to read the horizon. You look for tell-tale signs of the waves. I’m seeing them now. The Coronavirus is a pretty good indicator to me.
But how about you at least have a bet each way? Maybe you want to take a percentage of your treasure and put them into assets that do really well when economies are in recession. For me, that’s Gold. I’d love to say it was crypto-currencies, but despite all the evangelism in that world, it is a monetary asset that is yet to prove itself in an economic collapse. Remember the Bitcoin white paper was written in 2009, so it hasn’t seen how well the asset class does in economic collapse yet. If you believe it will do very well, then you do you. I’m still not sure I know, so I’ll hedge my position there. Note that this is coming from someone who bought a LOT of BTC in 2011, when it was $7 each, and I held it out until 2017/18 when I sold. So I have standing. I’m not some whack job who just found their new messiah here - I’m a real person who has done really well with BTC.
I do, however, know that when trillions of dollars in the economy looks to find safe haven, it goes to Gold. And so I began doing that a year or so ago. And I continue to buy physical gold & silver today as well. At least 25% of my asset holdings in Gold. And also if I remember back to the 2001 Dot Com Crash in the stock market, money fled equities and went into real estate. Sure, that is tied to interest rates, etc. but there is some historical precedence that we could see a bull market in real estate if we see a bear market in equities.
When? I don’t know. I look for signs on the horizon. I see the Coronavirus as a possible sign. I also see the end of an election year as another. I’m not sure that if government is providing incentive or threat to the US Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low before the election, that it can sustain that or wants to sustain that afterwards. That gives me about 9 months lead time to prepare for the aftermath.
The other thing is to look to regions that might not be as exposed to monetary policy manipulation. The one thing that I was very interested to see in my travels is that countries that have an abundance of beauty & natural resources, but are not pegged to individual high debt levels, might be a safe haven. For me, that is Mexico. In Mexico, you can’t get a mortgage to buy a house. I mean, you might be able to if you want to pay market interest rates on the money (ie. 15%) but the reality is that you pay cash for everything. As a result, the value of things are not based on future speculation. I see that investing in real assets in regions like that would be safer than in regions where valuations are subject to monetary policy rather than real human demand.
Yet with all of this, I’m still willing to expose myself to some parts of other asset classes. I’m still buying crypto-currencies. But only currencies that are not tied to China. For example, the vast majority of Bitcoin mining is done in China or is done with Chinese made products that have a history of being manipulated in favor of those that make the hardware. The ASIC chip fiasco of 2016/2017 should have told us something here - if you buy hardware from China and find that it has code embedded in it that favor Chinese miners, who generate vast rewards by being able to mine blocks before everyone else because of this manipulation, and yet you continue to buy or use their hardware, well you only have yourself to blame here. So I’m looking to currencies that can be mined in a more decentralized manner, have actual properties that expand network effect and can be really used by those in commerce. There are a few that fall into those categories, and I’m not going to disclose them here. Suffice to say that you might want to apply the same critical thinking to your choices here.
Being unconstrained is about being ahead of the curve and positioning yourself to benefit. It is about being a contrarian. It is about risk management. It is about responsibility for your own actions. It is about finding a financially sustainable path for you and your family where you can generate your won income without selling your time to someone else. And it is about reclaiming and protecting your own future - whether that be your time, your energy or your health. Everything in balance, but the one common theme here is that YOU take control back.
If you are walking a tightrope based on monetary policies you have no control over, or you are putting all your faith & trust into government to be there when you need them, only to find they are either not there, or there are strings attached, then you are not in control. It is time for all of us to seize back the control in our own lives. Sorry, but the talking heads on CNBC are not going to help you. They represent the banking class or are paid for by the banking class, and the banking class want you to be constrained. Not a free thinker, contrarian or heaven forbid - do what they are doing.
When the market & universe cycles rebalance again, everyone will be looking for solutions. I’m giving you solutions now. In history you can look back to this advice and determine if it was some crazy prepper with his financial conspiracy theories, or if it was sound advice. I’m just putting it out there.
Human psychology is an interesting animal. Remember back to 2009? What would you have done then if you could? Would you have bought real estate? Or Gold? If the rest of society are licking their wounds then, but you were not, why were you not embracing the polar opposite of their actions and seizing the moment? Was it because you didn’t have the cash on hand to take advantage of opportunities, or was it that you feared going into the marketplace there because you were listening to all the victims whining about their own failures? Doesn’t 10 years of historical reflection mean anything here?
Don’t be caught out with your pants down when this economic recession hits. Step 1 - Protect your assets. Step 2 - Be ready to capitalize on the millions that didn’t protect their assets and will make you rich with their stupidity. Remember this...
Baron Rothschild, an 18th-century British nobleman and member of the Rothschild banking family, is credited with saying that "the time to buy is when there's blood in the streets." ... The original quote is believed to be "Buy when there's blood in the streets, even if the blood is your own."
Now who would like a bit of Rothschild wealth in their portfolio?
I’m a contrarian and proud of it. I’ve made 100x more money by betting against the herd than just participating in group think and following the herd over the cliff. That takes courage and discipline. And a willingness to be called stupid, a fool, etc. To be laughed out. To be ostracized. I accept that as a cost of doing business here. But my business is flourishing.
Just remember that 99% of those that will criticize a contrarian are dead broke with little or no hope of getting out of that rut. They don’t have any actual money, they work pay check to pay check, no sign of quitting their jobs and yet they have the right to criticize those that don’t subscribe to being constrained? Well that comes with the territory. You have to wear the unconstrained hat with pride because you will get criticized for doing the opposite of what the herd is doing. Group think has a way to try and defend and justify itself.
We’ll see you on the next episode.