Gary North Says “NO!” To Hyperinflation

In case you missed his previous missive on the subject, entitled “Which Flation Will Get Us?“, Gary North came out today firmly against the idea of a hyperinflationary experience in the US or any other industrialized country with a privately owned central bank. Instead, North is predicting “mass inflation”, which he defines as 15-30% money supply growth per annum.

North bases his conclusion on four premises:

  1. The central banks control inflation, the central banks are owned by the banks, hyperinflation destroys banks who are borrowed short and lent long
  2. There is too much public awareness of the role the Fed plays in promoting inflation nowadays (primarily thanks to Ron Paul), so they will get blamed if something goes wrong
  3. People have become accustomed to the boom-bust cycle and the pattern of recessions following inflations, so the public will be more tolerant and forgiving of a recession and the “return to normalcy” than the destruction and reset of a hyperinflation
  4. Members of the Federal Reserve System participate in a lucrative employee pension system which primarily holds US stocks (53% of plan assets) and bonds (34% of plan assets), which will be made worthless by a hyperinflation, giving the employees of the Federal Reserve System a vested interest in preserving the system and averting hyperinflation

North calls hyperinflation a “policy choice”. He believes the only thing that could change this outcome would be if the Congress nationalized the Fed. Then, all bets are off.

It’s an interesting prediction. It makes a lot of sense. I am not sure how mass inflation will avoid some of the problematic items mentioned above though (particularly #2 and #4).

If North is right, this should be good for gold and not so good for people invested in stocks as consumer price increases will likely outpace increases in stock prices. Stock prices may even get hurt short-term because of increased commodity prices for many businesses.

UPDATE

Robert Wenzel of EconomicPolicyJournal.com fires back:

So don’t put me in the more unemployment camp or the mild inflation camp,or in the non-hyperinflation camp. Long term there are too many unknowns to be in any camp, especially when you have a machine known as the Fed that can shoot out billions trillions of dollars whenever it chooses. I just watch what the Fed is doing and adjust accordingly on a roughly six month basis. The constant adjustments are no way to live, but are necessary because of the fact that we do have a central bank, the Federal Reserve, that manipulates up and down the money supply. Right now, because of the new money accelerated growth that is occurring,  I anticipate that the climb in price inflation is going to escalate dramatically, where this spike in price inflation will stop, I have no idea. I just take it six months at a time.

Will A Future You Be Glad You Bought Some Stocks?

The anonymous author of Hedge Fund News has put out a rather pessimistic, hopeless sounding post in which he asks, “Why invest in stocks?

  1. The game is largely about front running the Federal Reserve or the ECB or the Bank of Japan. It seems that the way to make money is to buy before central bankers announce quantitative easing or some other scheme to juice asset prices.  However, since I don’t have high level contacts at any of these institutions, I will always be the last one to invest based on the liquidity injections.  Of course, there are people who do have contacts at the FED and thus they can essentially front run monetary policy. The question I ask myself is “if I can’t compete with the big boys, does it make any sense to play?” In any other sport, the answer would be a resounding no in order to avoid injury. I don’t think my investing in the stock market is any less dangerous then taking the field with the New England Patriots for training camp. I can get hurt…real bad.
  2. You also can’t compete with big hedge funds. A major hedge fund might have 100 analysts, key contacts at major brokerages. Paying massive trading commissions has it’s benefits and that benefit is information. The stock market is a game of information and most likely the big hedge fund has vastly superior information to you.
  3. I like founder owned and operated businesses.  I generally find “professional management” is too constipated and far too divorced from the risk taking visionary that usually founded the company.  Talk to a corporate middle manager and then talk to hungry entrepreneur working on his baby. You will quickly feel who you would rather back with your precious capital. By the time most companies reach the public markets, the ownership of the company lies in the hands of facelesss financial institutions that are totally divorced from the passion that built the business.
  4. The markets are run by machines. Insanely powerful computers constitute the majority of trading. Again, the hedge funds have a massive technological edge on the rest of us.
  5. the Warren Buffet stock analysis that favors buy and hold investing has not worked in the last decade that has been driven by Central banks and macroeconomics. Stock picking has been killed by the four reasons above.

I mention this post because I’ve shared the sentiment myself at times, and especially recently.

Stocks are not just forward-looking instruments, they are forward bets. If you buy stocks, you are making the assumption that, at least for the companies’ whose stocks you buy, things will be better in the future and therefore the prices will be higher. In that sense, Warren Buffett’s “bullish on America” rhetoric matches his investment action. He truly believes America as an idea, as a system, as an investment platform, can not fail because it has not failed, so he wants to buy stocks every time most other people are selling him because he believes his long-term prospects for capital appreciation are good.

And so far, that has worked– wonderfully!

But people like Buffett seem to be ignorant of certain economic truths and inevitabilities, especially with regards to the current problems facing investors, and so some of his optimism comes across as willful naivety.

This isn’t an anti-Warren post, however, so back to the point– what if the future is bleak? What if America is Japan? Some have made comparisons (Mish) and some of those comparisons are compelling. What if America isn’t Japan, but something worse and far more complex altogether?

What if we’re looking at an ongoing or a return to severe recession? What if this is followed by more inflationary antics which, by driving up commodity prices, serve to kill margins in many businesses and beat down earnings, even as general price increases rage on? What if stocks don’t even go up in nominal terms for awhile and then, by the time they do, they’ve lost so much in real terms that there’s no point in investing in them?

What if, what if, what if? A lot could go wrong. And knowing this, a value investor seeks a margin of safety in his investments. If he’s concerned about a depression, he tries to calculate what that might look like and price it in, raise his hurdle rate that much higher. Then, if it’s a good business and he can get it at a significant discount to his calculated value even when considering a rather hopeless scenario as a possible outcome, he buys. If it goes down, he buys some more.

If that worst case scenario plays out, and the world looks like it’s ending, if he’s got any more money left he throws it in the pot and then he goes off to war, or he goes fishing, or whatever and he doesn’t think about it anymore.

Right?

Why invest in stocks? Because tomorrow is always another day. Stocks are for the future and there’s always a future, so if you can buy them cheaply, you buy them and you stop worrying about everything else.

The only trouble, the thing that keeps me worrying, is what if the future is going to happen someplace else, not America? A lot of places that were once the future are now the past. It could happen. Invest accordingly.

Personal Dilemmas Of The Immoral Economy

The WSJ.com has just posted an article, “Buy, Sell, Fret: Retail Traders Swing Into Action“, that is ripe for commentary from the twin perspectives of value investing and Austrian economics. With any luck, we may even venture into the philosophic territory by the end of this episode. Let’s get started:

In a throwback to the day-trading era, the market’s stomach-churning gyrations are creating a new class of stock obsessives hanging on every dip and rebound.

Average investors are scrambling to stay ahead of the massive swings—often via mobile devices like iPads and smart-phones, leading to sharp spikes in trading volumes at many brokerages.

“I am distracted and frankly unnerved,” says Andy Lavin, a public-relations executive in Port Washington, N.Y., who manages about $800,000 of his own money.

Mr. Lavin says he has been checking his iPad regularly during meetings and on his way to work. On Monday, he bought $15,000 in futures on the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index. After President Barack Obama addressed the decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade long-term U.S. debt, Mr. Lavin dashed to monitor the market reaction.

“If you look away for a second, you lose,” Mr. Lavin says.

One of the themes I’d like to explore here is perception versus reality. For example, Mr. Lavin’s perception is that it is his inability to keep up with the markets, tick by tick, that expose him to potential ruination. The reality is that it is his decision to split his attention and capabilities between his professional job and daytrading which exposes him to ruination.

As a value investor, daytrading is obviously an intellectually bankrupt strategy detached from an understanding of fundamental reality because the economic value of companies do not change as often, rapidly or dramatically as their security prices might. So, anyone who becomes obsessive about the frequent changing of security prices without any regard to the underlying economic value of the company the securities belong to is engaging in a speculative gamble, not trying to keep up with an investment portfolio. Daytrading while at work is as absurd as playing online poker at work, or visiting a virtual blackjack table on your iPad while sitting in a meeting. The illusion (delusion?) of control is precisely the same, as is the inappropriateness of the simultaneity.

As an Austrian economist, this appears to be an outstanding example of some of the many unintended consequences of Federal Reserve monetary policies as well as federal government interventionist policies.

In terms of monetary policy, Ben Bernanke’s reckless inflationary mandate creates new malinvestment in the economy by distorting entrepreneurs’ and other economic actors’ view of the true supply of savings in the economy. Interest rates are driven down below their free market equilibrium levels providing the illusion of wealth that doesn’t actually exist. Entrepreneurs (and daytraders are entrepreneurs, though they’re a variety more ephemeral than a butterfly) usually end up in grossly speculative activities because with the new supply of money in their hands and the lowered cost of borrowing at their backs it pays to do so, or so they think.

Similarly we can see the broad effects of an interventionist, regulatory political framework. Such a superstructure creates so many obstacles and added costs for “normal” economic activity that the productively-eager are pushed into enterprises with the lowest cost of entry and the least number of hoops to jump through before one can nominally start making money. Does it get any easier than opening up an electronic brokerage account and ACHing a large deposit?

At the nexus of these two philosophies, economics and investing, we see another tragedy unfolding– where is the comparative advantage (economist) or the analytical edge (investor) in a public relations professional-turned-daytrader? Why has this man, who appears to be quite successful at his chosen career given the size of his gambling stake — I mean, accumulated personal savings — which amounts to $800,000, investing this money on his own in the financial markets?

Why isn’t he putting that $800,000 of capital to work in his own business, where he seems to be demonstrating an ability to earn outsize returns on capital? Assuming this individual is reasonable and not merely gambling, what might this say about the condition of the economy as a whole that he has not chosen this seemingly obvious alternative?

Continuing:

The high-stakes drama is also making once-calm investors jittery. Richard Chaifetz, chief executive of Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., which provides mental-health counseling for 13,000 companies, says his firm has seen a 15% increase in calls from stressed out employees who are watching the stock markets from their desks.

This is another unintended consequence of inflationary monetary policies and, as a certain French economist of the 19th century might say, “that which is unseen”.

The Federal Reserve and its army of statisticians can only (attempt to) calculate that which is priced in units of money. But that which is not priced in money (until it ends up as a psychotherapist or pharmaceutical bill, anyway) can not be calculated.

What kind of effect on national productivity must this be having with so many people so distracted and made anxious by volatility in the financial markets?

Even some 401(k) investors are getting more active. Before this week, Ryan Jones rarely monitored his investment accounts. Now the 30-year old advertising strategist checks his phone several times a day for market reports and devotes his lunch time to rejiggering his portfolio.

“I’m just a regular guy who started the month with a 401(K) balance, and am trying to make sure it’s still there next month,” he says.

I look at quotes like the one above as proof positive that the 401(K) is not as good a tax-reduced deal as it is marketed as, and especially not for all the “regular guys” trying to manage them on their own with limited allocation options, to boot.

There’s just no way for these people to manage their money intelligently in a 401(K). And yet again, it transforms every saver into a part-time stock analyst and investor. This is not where the average person’s comparative advantage is located. Seeing how widespread the 401(K)-miracle wealth thesis is, I’d even call it something of a mania. Rather than taking their savings and investing in something local, tangible and familiar, many people have learned to wish upon a stock market star, cast their savings into a 401(K) like a penny into a fountain and then attempt to patiently wait the duration of their professional career until they can all cash out easy millionaires and retire to Florida or wherever.

But for that reality to become a reality, someone has to do a lot of work in the meantime because, contrary to what people might’ve thought [amazon text=George S. Clayson was adovcating in his book&asin=1897384343], the money doesn’t multiply itself unaided. Do people really believe that they can unintelligently, haphazardly and especially as in present times, anxiously invest their money in the stock markets and thereby wind up rich by retirement?

Another confused “investor”:

Andrew Schrage, a 24-year-old website editor, shifted the allocations in his $50,000 portfolio, away from equities and further into bonds, selling some of his technology stocks on Tuesday after announcements by the Federal Reserve that the central bank planed to keep interest rates near zero.

Mr. Schrage, who lives in Chicago, says he is planning to plow the money back into stocks, but is waiting for the right opportunity.

“This volatility has forced me to adopt a day-trading mentality,” Mr. Schrage says.

Wrong. The volatility hasn’t forced you to do anything, Mr. Schrage. It is your adoption of the fallacious belief that volatility is risk that has forced you into an uncomfortable position where you suddenly find yourself daytrading to try to avoid it.

The language of this article is curious. This 24-year-old website editor has $50,000 of capital in a financial market portfolio. Does he have $50,000 of capital in his website business? It almost sounds like he is a 24-year-old financial trader, who does some website editing on the side.

I don’t mean to heap scorn on age but it is fascinating that this young man has managed, in only 24 years on this earth so far, to not only find time to educate himself on how to edit websites but also on how to watch the Fed and trade accordingly. And this is, yet again, demonstration of the principle that this activity is pseudo-economic. It is not connected to real economic activity and any derivatives thereof but rather is driven by the moves and anticipation of moves by the central bank.

This is a centrally-planned economy, with centrally-planned financial markets. The trouble for most people is that the central planning aspect is too subtle for them to notice, being obscured under numerous layers of propagandistic “this is free market capitalism” rhetoric.

Nearly finished:

Dan Nainan, a 30-year-old comedian, spent Tuesday in his New York office fixated by the market fluctuations, refreshing the screen on his online brokerage account every couple of minutes throughout the day. About a half-hour before the close of trading, Mr. Nanian sold $120,000 worth of his Apple stock. “I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” he says, “and I’m not buying again.”

In a choppy market like this one, a single lunch meeting or conference call that results in missed trading opportunities can translate into thousands of dollars in losses. Andrew Clark, a 30-year old, real-estate consultant in Birmingham, Ala., sold about half of his Apple Inc. stock on Monday morning after it opened 3.2% down. During a client meeting, he missed a brief rally when the stock went up 1.7%.

“I would have bought those back at that point,” Mr. Clark says. “If you aren’t glued to these movements, you miss so much.”

What other times and places have seen 30-year-old comedians with $120,000+ stock portfolios? These are interesting and unusual times.

Andrew Clark’s comment is instructive because he believes he knows what he has missed when he really hasn’t got a clue. He’s missed Ben Graham. He’s missed out on observing the impact of frequent trading commissions on his bottom line. He’s missed out on the fact that his whole investment strategy revolves, admittedly, around the sure-fire failure of selling low and buying high.

Millions of people like this are born in every generation. They have no way to learn their lessons except by experience. Even then, if their experiences aren’t severe and near-death enough, they’re prone to forget them. They drift idly around during their blissfully ignorant existences like gnats above the highway. If the macroeconomic conditions are just right and they’re presented with the opportunity, they’ll launch themselves straight into the windshield of a market panic and spend the rest of the cruise down the motorway of life wondering how they got there and bemoaning the loss of their more innocent days.

These are people who would probably do just fine managing their personal affairs in more humble, honest economic settings. That’s part of the true villainy of the Bernanke-ite economy, to tempt all these people with fleeting prosperity at the risk of utter ruin, and to do it all at the point of a gun.

After all, who would play these games and take this farcical economic structure seriously if they were free to leave at any time without threat of going to jail, or worse?

Here we arrive at the moral, and the conclusion.