Invest or Die!
This is the third article in a four-part series.
After laying the foundation for our existing previous economic structure and explaining the potential challenges in new current monetary regime, it's now beneficial to highlight just a few of the most likely and discernable impacts to both and the culture as a result of the COVID pandemic and the government response of 2020. You might be surprised to learn that not all are in an of themselves problematic if investors understand, adapt and respond to them in a prudent and patient fashion. From the "it's-not-what-happens-to-you, it's-how-you-respond" school of thought, they each represent opportunities to the well-informed and dispassionate investor. Investing is simply a game like all others, one that can be won if executed well and with a disciplined strategy and long-term perspective .
Inflation – This is the first, most obvious and most important effect of money printing. Technically defined as “too much money chasing too few products,” but observed by most people as simply rising prices, inflationary environments are generally both uncomfortable and expensive. One need look no further than modern Venezuela for an idea of what could transpire if prices spiral out of control. Or just ask someone who lived through the Jimmy Carter administration.
It’s beneficial to note that there is no guarantee that everything increases in price in an inflationary environment, at least in the beginning. It’s often quipped that “we have DE-flation (lower prices) on the things we want, but IN-flation (higher prices) on the things we need.” For instance shelter, transportation, food and utilities (called the “the four walls") commonly require more currency, and we’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon of late. Conversely, some technology (tablets, flat screen TVs, phone plans) and processed food sometimes requires less - in real terms (i.e. “inflation adjusted.”).
Sadly, Apple device prices seem to only go to the moon! (We’ll come back to them in Part 4.)
The government will tell us that inflation is not a concern and currently quite low. They can bend the reality just enough to not be prosecuted- we all have friends like that (or at least I do). Currently, their economists claim inflation now stands at 1.68%, meaning that what they consider the cost of living has only risen 1.68% in the past year. I can only presume that they are referring to the cost for Americans living on the moon, or some other remote outpost of the country that I'm unaware of. Down here in middle-America, my weekly journeys through the check out line of the the grocery store are humbling. Even I'm eating for more people than I used to, or prices are going up.
When I look at the the teller screen, I'm always surprised. What's going on? It's the same cart of goods every week! In addition, I am (unfortunately) in the midst of a building project, and I'll just say that it's going to cost a lot more than 1.68% compared to a year ago. Unless I decide to build something out of popsicle sticks and glue (which has crossed my mind.)
With lumber having almost tripled in the past few months, building anything from a snowman to a sand castle seems to require increased lines of credit. Some might blame this phenomenon on an timely supply-and-demand abnormality, and that is not wholly inaccurate. Supply has indeed fallen in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions hampering sawmills, and plenty of quarantined Americans began pursuing home renovations and do-it-yourself projects in the past year, creating a unique demand spike for a lot of materials. The double-whammy of low interest rates and tight existing home inventory certainly hasn't helped matters either. And of course, I would be remiss if I ignored the accelerating urban flight to the suburbs by anyone with the means and sense to flee while they still can, thereby compounding the need for new homes and renovated bathrooms and "open-concept kitchens." But this seems to be yet another sector of the economy that has apparently evaded federal agencies that measure inflation like the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 1.68%, you say?... Maybe they've switched to measuring inflation "per week."
Many would be shocked to learn that not unlike the official unemployment numbers (see below), our government's best economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) have modified their reporting methods over the years to downplay inflation. One of their techniques involves a clever technique called hedonic quality adjustment using regression analysis, which is a fancy way of saying 'dubious math on a scale so outrageous that it should be illegal and might be if a person or corporation tried it."
For those turned off by the phrase hedonic adjustment using regression analysis, a.) yeah, that's kinda' the idea (see below) and b.) Investopedia provides an excellent, easily understood contrived example of how .gov economists factor consumer behavior into their measurements. In their example, they propose a hypothetical person in an environment of rising prices (inflation) who typically buys Filet Mignons but is forced to switch over to T-Bone steak because the former becomes too expensive.
Previous inflation methodology would have factored in the increased price of Filet Mignon, of course. Under current measurements, however, they instead hypothesize (and I'm not making this up) that customers are likely to switch their purchasing habits over to buying the same amount of beef, but in the cheaper, lower-quality T-Bone form instead of Filet. If the T-Bone rises to assume the same price that Filets formerly sold for, then the BLS would calculate inflation as unchanged for that product.
If you believe that is a reasonable method of measuring inflation, first- I'm sorry for you. And any children you have conceived... Second, consider the sockeye salmon that is becoming more popular in today's groceries stores and was once only found in cat food. Yet, because of a.) the immense ecological damage we've inflicted on our sea life and b.) government 'flexibility' in their inflation reporting, we Americans now consume what was once considered an inedible garbage fish, while also being told that inflation in seafood costs is flat. My poorly-veiled premise is that if you accept that our government statisticians sometimes "move the goal posts" to achieve a certain outcome, then perhaps we should be more skeptical of- or even outright dismiss- their inflation numbers as well.
You're probably wondering if I should be the czar of inflation, and yes I was also wondering the same thing.
From the BLS website
Labor – Money printing and indiscriminate distribution of it usually diminishes the value of work. Or in the case of the modern America, it accelerates a trend that is already in motion. Simply, if people get paid to not work, they will be less inclined to work. I suspect that makes intuitive sense to most people.
Right now, federal unemployment insurance benefits in the new stimulus bill have been lowered to $300/week (in addition to matching state assistance), with a large chunk of that tax-free. If you factor in both, then it's clear that for some people, new income could exceed their pre-pandemic income. This is in addition to other social assistance (welfare) benefits like childcare credits of between $3,000-3,600 per child. Somewhat laughably, this benefit and the $1,400 stimulus checks will be phased out for couples earning over $150,000. Which is a relief, since we would hate for children in those demographics to scrape by without basic sustenance. Reading the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 bill in it's entirely will make Americans of any political inclination's stomach churn, at this point they're not even trying to hide the ball anymore.
Regardless, the debate over the bill in Congress in March pitted the Democrat's desire to pay $400/week to the unemployed against Republicans insisting on only $300/week- a brave stance indeed with both parties presumably unaware that the difference of $100 is a completely irrelevant and frankly insulting distinction to literate Americans. (The Democrats eventually settled for the reduced $300/month payments.) An extra $100/week rise in benefits for so many Americans would eventually manifest as an increase in the cost of goods and services by a amount approximating $100/week, thereby making the extra $100 a financial "wash." They could have settled on payments of $1000/week or $1M/week, but within a few years the impact would probably be the same.
Currently, about 85% of Americans make less than $160,000 (where the checks phase out completely). As such, if you give that many people checks, then it's reasonable to assume a.) that includes "almost everyone," b.) that money will end up being spent, and as a result, c.) prices will rise. While not in exact proportion, certainly a good chance it would be in some close relation to $1,400. Politicians will get credit for "fighting for the American people," but it's really a trick on the math-challenged. Which in America, is also "almost everyone." Especially those that were educated under Common Core or No Child Left Behind curricula.
My advice is to review this chart and be grateful
I recognize that for many people, politics has become their primary religion and as a result, facts and evidence no longer hold much sway. This would resemble telling a Christian that Jesus Christ didn't exist, it's a bridge too far. Sometimes, those that disagree with this get mad at me or suggest I'm being political (I hold no political affiliation). I guess arguing math with a computer engineer with degrees in both economics and finance apparently no longer carries ridicule and shame.
But if facts and evidence are now considered violent political weapons and the Smithsonian deems character and success as racist microaggressions, then I guess anyone can go full retard.
Unfortunately, there are few economists, business owners or STEM graduates in Congress. There is a lot of attorneys, political science graduates and various grifters. While I enjoy attorneys, have several as clients, know they've very smart and have a lot of gratitude for them, I just think we have too many. I know we have way too many law schools. And I think too many occupy power in Washington DC, I wish the makeup was more diverse. Why are so many legal experts attracted to telling everyone else what to do? Or said differently, why is it that everyone else is not?
Apparently, educational diversity is not something Departments of Inclusion and Equity focus on much these days (they also had those in Atlas Shrugged by the way, back when that phrase was considered satire.) As a result, with diminished economic expertise but mastery of redistributing wealth, I fear our country and leaders could face challenges weening a not-insignificant percentage of Unemployment Insurance (UI) recipients off of the free income transferred to them from the labor of those working full-time. (Assuming that is their goal.) It may exacerbate our unemployment rate- not only the questionable numbers that the government publishes but the more accurate numbers that the BLS used to report before it became politically uncomfortable to do so.
You're probably unaware - but unsurprised- that UI methodology has changed greatly over the years, most notably in 1994 when the methodology was adjusted here as well, and you can probably guess in which direction and why. Right now the number the government leads with (the "headline number") is called U-3, currently a little over 6%, or about 10 million people.
I don't believe this number comes close to reflecting the true labor situation, because in order to be counted as unemployed for U-3 purposes, a person only has to have actively searched for a job in the past month. Yes, you read that right, after they stop looking (and start collecting benefits) for 30 days, they are no longer considered unemployed. Which seems perfectly reasonable only if you are a member of Congress.
The less-fallacious number (U-6) gets far less press (depending on the President in office) but is more indicative of the true unemployment situation. Today that number- called "short-term discouraged workers"- hovers around 11% (roughly 20 million). Which is still quite high in a country with roughly 7 million unfilled job openings.
However, even the U-6 number is so highly deceptive as to be almost useless. The number that I believe aligns closest with the pre-Clinton era UI is maintained by a renowned economist and analyst of government reporting, John Williams, on his Shadow Stats page, and includes "long-term discouraged workers" (which- not surprisingly- lacks a cool number from the BLS). He defines those that have given up looking for a job after only 12 months. They disappear from the unemployment rolls altogether, which is convenient for the government- a number no press secretary wants to answer for.
This many able-bodied adults not earning an income is now closer to 25% of the total working population and higher than the Great Depression. There is real fear that after 52 weeks of benefits, some percentage of these UI beneficiaries may find it difficult to ever re-enter the workforce, not to mention the willingness of employers to hire them. And they probably haven't spent 2020 "learning to code." They're more likely to be consumers of code. As in Fortnite and Call of Duty.
One has to ask, when there are 7 millions jobs left unfilled, and as many as forty million that could be working in some capacity (assuming they are not incarcerated or 100% physically disabled), would not the better path be to invest at least a small portion of the stimulus money in job training - even paying "discouraged workers" to study and learn - instead of welfare, so that they can become inspired and encouraged to re-enter the workforce? What strategy is truly the more damaging and which more palliative? Or said differently, which is harder in the short-term versus the long-term? And which option is more likely to be offered by a politician?
Of course, the answer is there is a difference between unfilled jobs and unfilled jobs that many people want. And I would hate to delve too deep into labor dynamics in an article about economics. All I know is that I can drive down any commercial street in Kerrville, TX and see over a dozen For Hire signs. I don't even bother with Fredericksburg because their unemployment rate is actually negative. This is because they have more people working in the county than currently living there. This is because the cost of living has become so expensive as to have priced out a certain percentage of the labor force who cannot afford to own or even rent a home.
The amount of workers forced to commute into the county each day is in turn at least partially due to the massive amount of inflated dollars that have been disproportionately injected into local real estate from wealthy new residents who themselves have benefitted from inflation someplace. I don't bemoan them for making smart investments, once again I blame the monetary regime that incentives it. If you don't believe there's real estate inflation, I encourage you to knock on any door in Gillespie County. And bring me along with you, for giggles.
When money is unearned and handed out freely- instead of being exchanged for labor- evidence suggests that fewer people will work, more people will become sedentary or indolent, and some failing to ever garner the momentum to work at their full capacity and potential. Worthy endeavors like learning a productive skill, working towards a viable degree (like STEM) and building a business may appear less attractive than time spent on social media, video games and smashing up small businesses in response to some perceived injustice (the kind that apparently only happens in warmer months). We’ve all heard the phase about "giving a man a fish," yet we apparently still struggle with extrapolating out the impact of giving him someone else’s fish, every week for a year, as a reward for simply being alive and born in (or migrating to) this country.
Gambling and speculation – Unless you’ve been trapped underneath a large rock the past year (some of us feel like we have!), you’re probably somewhat familiar with the GameStop phenomenon. Books will someday be written with the Reddit-fueled drama of early 2021 as the first chapter. The saga is still ongoing, so I will mercifully refrain from rehashing what you probably already know (and wish you didn’t!) It’s critical, however, to recognize how this all started: millions of newly un- and under-employed Americans, flush with government cash, with their student loans and rent in 'temporary' forbearance, with internet access and day trading apps like Robinhood, excess time on their hands and in many cases, dysfunctional upbringings and deficient parenting.
Many of these Redditors are highly educated and shrewd minds. But Pareto distribution suggests the vast majority are simply damaged, idle and bored humans, which is always a hazardous combination. Instead of unpacking their dysfunction with their parents and/or a therapist, and with their hated political nemesis no longer in office, many of these young “investors” became desperate to identify or invent new villains in their lives. And there are plenty of outlets willing to propose new ones- a big reason I suspect cancel culture has suddenly kicked into overdrive in 2021.
This isn't by accident. Throughout human history, the necessary presence of opponents and adversaries could be critical in uniting a culture, or at least distracting them from more important domestic problems. This has been true of many people, organizations and countries. In a nation of children, this phenomenon feels especially acute, and soft minds especially fertile territory. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990's, and with no major geopolitical threats on the horizon (we thought), many suddenly turned their ire toward opposing political parties, largely at the bidding of media (i.e. cable news).
To me, the Clinton impeachment hearings were a pivot point, where vengeance went mainstream. Suddenly, basic differences of opinion and political policy became an existential battle between right and wrong, and that dynamic has only exacerbated over the ensuing decades. With no immediate external threats in sight, we turned on ourselves.
With political fatigue subsiding briefly and somewhat tenuously in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, our weakest and most easily malleable minds are now been conditioned to see their fellow Americans as the enemy. For many, the safety, security and anonymity of social media and technology have become the preferred new battlefield for the least educated and most opinionated (high correlation) to attack others that might previously have been perceived as at least being on the same Team USA. Differing skin pigmentation and genitals are no longer promoted as competitive national advantages, but instead the new dividing lines for those seeking to redesign the country, as they recruit and segregate useful idiots into opposing campaigns of hate, victimization and cancel culture.
As a result, we are now forced to endure the tragic cries of multimillionaire Millennial victims like Megan Markle and Megan Rapinoe as they stand in front of microphones on the world's biggest stages alongside the world's most powerful people to tell us about how mean their countries treat them. Our news now resembles one uninterrupted SNL skit.
It's no coincidence that much of today's most toxic social media applications are started, funded or supported by some of our biggest geo-political adversaries. It's one of Silicon Valley's worst-kept secrets that Snapchat and Tik Tok exist not to elevate American culture but instead to destroy it. Our young people revel in their incompetence. Far from frivolous recreation, social media for a growing contingent now functions as a mechanism for exchanging soft (or hard) pornography and directing some of our young Americans towards a soft form of digital prostitution.
Some will argue these applications are just harmless outlets for dancing, self-expression and other inanity. To which I remind them that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If adults don't step in soon, it promises to get much worse- at least until the media, entertainment and the political class identify more lucrative applications. If we're attacking each other, we possess neither the energy nor focus to address the true source of our country's problems.
Now, trust me when I admit that I side neither with the Reddit Wall Street Bets (WSB) crowd nor Wall St. hedge funds. Both are two sides of the same coin- composed of many lonely and depressed individuals probably unhugged and unloved enough by their parents - and the world would almost certainly benefit if they were each doing something more productive with their lives that could benefit humanity, rather than betting on the price of a worthless commodity. I've personally witnessed Chicken Sh*t Bingo with more legitimacy.
The key commonality between both parties is the injection of free or cheap money from the government, and not surprisingly certain parties in both camps both possess and behave with very little appreciation for its value. This always reminds me of a small subset of buyers of Range Rovers, which seems almost exclusively composed of those who marry into, born into or inherit money (and some very successful realtors.) I always wonder, "Who would spend $100K+ on a vehicle that has terrible quality scores, look ridiculous and costs a fortune to maintain? My guess is few who would have to count the hours it took them to earn that money. More and more, I perceive that many of today's new investors have adopted the same mentality.
This isn’t a bull market or a bear market. It’s a know-nothing market. Bragging rights used to go to those investors who worked the hardest at learning the most. Now the glory often goes to those who know the least and don’t even care. That has turned the traditional investing hierarchy upside down, although it probably won’t last.
I firmly believe that most of us recognize deep down that the core fuel of the GameStop mania- as with segments of crypto-currency, NFTs, social media, cancel culture, and many other undiagnosed clinical pathologies - is uneducated, delusional, lonely, often-malnourished, spoiled overgrown children in adult bodies, largely lacking in any real life purpose, angry at the real world, and controlled by their emotions, corporations, Hollywood and cable news. They claim to be driven by their “deep and extensive research” (their words, but composed largely of a few Google searches that support and align with their pre-existing beliefs and opinions) but I wonder if they actually had to work for this money, would they spend it differently (if they had time to spend it at all).
It never ceases to amaze me how many people with, shall we say 'unimpressive' financial track records or academic achievement, have suddenly become such fervent and outspoken proponents of these alternative investment scheme of the last few years. The only consistent theme I observe – and a big red flag – is a desire to get rich quick, a conviction that they are smarter than everyone else and with a subtle sense of entitlement that they deserve it- presumably due to their unique vision and early-mover advantage. Their conviction and condescension seem inextricably linked to the price of their favorite new investment.
I suppose when you give out participation trophies for two generations, this is the logical end result. I have no doubt it will end as all other fad investments have- in tears, government handouts, billboards promoting class action lawsuits and empathetic politicians "here to help." I do also worry about the collateral fallout that could ensue for our markets and country. But more than anything, I just wish the NFL would start up again and the casinos would reopen in full so these innovative 'investors' could redirect their predilections towards something that puts the global financial system at less risk.
On message boards like Reddit’s WallStreetBets, I observe curious GameStop speculators operating under some sort of investing vigilantism, lashing out at a world that refuses to bend to their childish desires, as their parents presumably have for their first 26 years of existence. Previous generations might have traversed this child-adult threshold in a few months before adapting to reality in order to enter adulthood. (Mine transition took longer, but I really, really enjoyed college.) But that pace seems a relic of a bygone era, no longer enforced and perhaps the topic for (yet!) another article. I know you wait with bated breath.
It should be clear by now that one of America’s more serious long-term problems is the aiding and abetting large segments within several generations who aspire for a world that adheres to their delusional narrative, instead of the other way around. Decades ago, we all assumed that reality would eventually mold and enlighten them as they entered adulthood (relationships, first job, first paycheck, first failures, first mugging, etc.). Sadly, it seems the opposite has occurred- with little wisdom and few grown-ups in our government, corporations or communities to stand in the way of their growing influence.
Now, our young resistance lash out in the streets during the warmer months and on their preferred online forums in the winter. This honestly saddens me because a generation with so many legitimate gripes and the genuine ability to improve so many corrupt and outdated institutions is numbed by technology and distracted by matters of inconsequential inanity. They are almost destined to quit if answers and rewards don't come fast enough to satisfy their existential need for instant gratification.
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
I fear we're at real risk of raising a generation of sociopaths. Dopamine addicts walking around with an unlimited digital narcotic in our hands. Remove it for a few days, observe the effects and compare, and then tell me I'm wrong. So many are now choosing to stimulate their ‘happy chemicals’ with copious quantities of food, alcohol, gambling, dating apps, online gaming, social media, technology, professional sports ball, pornography and hyper-consumption. COVID hasn't helped either.
Unfortunately, each of these methods eventually surrenders it's efficacy, primarily because they're all poor substitutes for the real thing. If we fail to find replacements for this stimulus-addicted segment of our society, a few have demonstrated an affection for breaking other people's stuff. The government anticipates these mass social temper tantrums as predictable expressions of angst in response to true economic injustice that they pander to every few years (i.e. OWS and BLM), with law enforcement are frequently forced to observe with silent non-enforcement, observing from a distance on overtime pay. Fueling it all, government’s "free money 2020 tour" opened up a new outlet to the frustrated revolutionaries - seed capital to begin day trading careers through gamified apps like Robinhood and Coinbase. At least until their Instagram or (L)OnlyFans careers take off.
It’s clear that speculating in the stock market has become a
not so novel national pastime for many of the "idle (momentarily) rich," currently filling a widening gap in our collective soul that was formerly filled by reliable anchors such as meaningful work, intimate relationships, human interaction, patriotism, family, church and a commitment to contribute towards and defend the country that had given so much to us. If prodded, most of us can rationalize (and even identify with) the behavior of the GameStop vigilantes. The initial narrative was one of finally 'fighting back' against Wall St. hedge funds, and there is little doubt that Wall St money managers have been exploiting corners of the market for decades, enjoying massive gains but with little societal benefit.
I have always believed (and lamented) that former President Obama had such a remarkable opportunity in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis to make significant and lasting generational change to the financial services industry- one that always seems to "privatize their profits but socialize their losses." But he instead fatefully doubled-down with all of his political capital (and complete control in all three branches of government ) towards health care, which I believe may have cost him both of the other two branches as well as the many state houses and governorships. Historians will no doubt debate, but for now, those banks too big to fail have gotten even bigger and even more dangerous. In the GameStop drama, it was interesting to see individuals attempt to do what politicians never w/could.
Like all revolutionary moments, GameStop had the potential to serve as a watershed moment in the annals of financial history. But at its core, the WSB short squeeze was unbridled, aimless and ultimately ineffective. Like this past summer's protests and riots, as well as those that have preceded it (Occupy Wall Street, etc.), the social justice moment was allowed to last only as long as the powerful interests controlling the strings deemed their puppets useful. Once the pressure-value of 'first world Millennial angst' was released, and these young folks become distracted by their next big injustice (squirrel!), they retreat back to their $2,000 MacBook's, $1,000 leased iPhones, and parents basements or apartments currently in rent forbearance. They cash their monthly checks, and wait to resume their fight when the weather gets warm again.
Ironically, the dynamic of childish behavior closely mimics the hedge funds that ran kicking and screaming to their gatekeepers at Robinhood and the regulatory agencies, begging for relief so they could resume their own childish antics, composed of a lot of activities lacking in much social redemptive value and with little adverse consequence. Initially, they got the market suppression they needed, but something tells me this war isn't quite over yet.
‘I don’t know what the f— I’m doing,’ a young man said in a TikTok video in January. ‘I just know I’m making money.’ He added that he’d been trading stocks for only three days, but ‘just like that, made $300 for the day.’ In the next few weeks that young man, Danny Tran, racked up roughly 500,000 followers on TikTok.”
Now, in certainly the most bizarre twist of all, these two opposing sides have united in the sport of crypto-currency trading (who's foundational units rise in prices not on any social utility but only on increased demand, pushing digital tokens to dizzying heights overnight like some sort of grotesque video game where you don't even have to work your fingers on a game controller. You just put your money in, apply no effort, no one else applies any effort, you just sit back and watch our money multiply. Their defenders ask, "How is this any different than what the federal government is doing?"
Touché. Maybe these guys are on to something.
Still, you do have to wonder about the prudence of putting a new currency with unknown and sketchy origins, unregulated, directly exchangeable for almost nothing in the real world (yet), which can fluctuate in value more than 25% in a single week, effectively backed by an algorithm and that by it's design and inherent nature can only rise in 'value' (and I use the term loosely) based on increasing popularity. It's worth examining the credibility of some of their evangelists who only survive if they successfully recruit exponentially more people into the system to continue driving it up. If that feels eerily similar to multi-level marketing (MLM) for the digital financial age, then you might be on to something.
Besides, if anyone thinks that wealth can be produced this quickly and easily, then I have some great ideas I want to pitch to you.
It amazes me that so many believe the central banks (the most powerful financial entities in the universe), the most at risk from a parallel unregulated and clandestine banking and finance system- would allow cryptocurrency to survive and thrive unopposed and without any oversight. Many are unaware that from their perches in the ivory towers of Manhattan and the Eccles Building, crypto is achieving something incredible: purely (and perfectly) draining as much of the new cash liquidity out of the system as possible, as fast as possible... after the various intermediaries (Coinbase, Bitcoin.com, etc.) take their cut, of course.
If the newly printed money is quickly deposited into this new crypto-casino of global finance, they figure, then that money is not flooding Main Street and driving up prices on all products and services. (If you don't quite understand how this dynamic works, bid on a reasonable home in the Hill Country under $300,000. Unless the home was previously (and recently) a meth lab, it will almost certainly sell in a few days or less (often same), over asking price and at the end of a bidding war between all-cash buyers, many from outside of the area, in a frenzied environment in which my lender friends will take several calls from their clients to increase loan limits. Several traditional buyer conditions (inspection, etc.) will be waived and some of the buyers will have never seen the house in person.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of inflation- too much money chasing too little inventory. After losing multiple deals, home buyers are frequently becoming desperate, while mere financers (those submitting all-cash offers) are becoming despondent, FOMO-mentality is short-circuiting all our brains and someone ends up "winning" and likely massively over-extended. And of course, because the quality is almost guaranteed to be lower than what they could have obtained a year ago, or what they wanted, signing the contract will only be the first inning of months of upgrades, renovations, surprise repairs they missed during waived inspections and brief 'walk-throughs' (I've confirmed many that occurred in less than 15 minutes before an offer was extended). There's also need for new furniture, as home buying inflation spills into related subsectors, and before long everyone in the process- from lender to realtor to borrower has literally becomes numb to the dollars being thrown around.
Think I'm being dramatic. LOL. You tell me if you think these dots are normal, sustainable and healthy.
Once the stimulus money has spread far and wide enough and it becomes beneficial to begin removing the money out of the real economy, I fear there is a very realistic possibility that we will suddenly observe cyber-currencies begin to experience "unexplained" outflows- and in some case, collapse- as regular investors are slowly prodded by the invisible hands of the market (in this case, the primary banks) that control the global economy.
Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe "Fighting the Fed" will finally become a prosperous endeavor for the first time ever. I would not necessarily be opposed, mind you. I just think it's a low-probability gamble.
It’s my conviction that if many in GameStop's newest ownership class were forced to acquire gainful employment, they would lack both the time and energy to participate in games they don't understand. This is akin to the huge (weekday) crowds of people attending presidential inaugurations that both parties like to brag about but really should be ashamed of in any intelligent, logical society. Like, why aren't these people at work?
I doubt any GME shareholder holds any illusions that the company (as it is presently structured) will see anything but a bankruptcy court in 2022 or is worth anymore than a $1. None could explain price/earnings, price/book or any other meaningful measurement of a company. Without unearned cash, I believe WSB aficionados would be disinclined to gamble in such speculative endeavors. For most of these Robinhood-ers, their dalliance in modern markets will likely end as most do.. as bag holders.
With so much money being removed from the 'real' financial system, this lunacy is a central bank's dream. Money that has been distributed for free by the government and therefore unearned is at risk of recycling through the system via an ecosystem of technology racketeers before returning back into the same hands it originally left. The GME short squeeze may continue for some time, but the end game seems all but certain.
"If you took all the money in the world and divided it equally among everybody, it would soon be back in the same pockets it was before."
- Jim Rohn, famous author, speaker and business lecturer
If mental disability masquerading as day trading was the fire, and free trading apps the match, then the government’s financial repression campaign- i.e. manipulating markets to a.) keep rates artificially low at the bank while b.) simultaneously printing money- served as the lighter fluid. The free cash was the kindling thrown on to the fire, burning bright and extinguishing fast. As with the late-90’s dotcom and 2008 housing crises (both abetted by actions within the Federal Reserve and Congress), “ultra-accommodative” (translation: cheap money) policies sometimes appear to be enacted for no other purpose than to exploit gullible Americans. Which you may have noticed are hardly in short supply these days. I truly wish there were a more noble purpose, but alas I can find none. And no one asks me what I think. (I wonder why?!?)
Rising wages – Inflation typically results in increased wages. Or at least it used to. The problem is that many promised future payments, especially those from the government- pensions, health benefits and social security, to name a few – are contractually tied to the rate of inflation. We call that indexing. And we've already touched upon their questionable math above. Indexing is an important concept because it creates a tremendous incentive for the government to under-report true inflation – much like Gross National Product (GNP) and the unemployment rates. If forced to acknowledge the true extent of inflation, they would then have to increase benefits and payments to beneficiaries of "transfer payments" (basically anyone who gets a check from the US Treasury). If they had to direct their scarce tax revenues to those categories, then there would be less money to dole out to favored corporations, unions and other reliable voting bases. But that would entail consequences, and those are like so 20th century.
Most Baby Boomers are painfully aware of the concept of COLAs (cost of living adjustments). When inflation rages- as it did during the late 70s and early 80s- corporations are often forced to increase salaries to capture or keep the best employees. When there is a lot of money sloshing around in the system, this is relatively easy to do. Unfortunately, that's not what we're seeing in many sectors of the economy today. There is a plethora of reasons for this, of which I lack both the time and expertise to expand upon- but most people understand intuitively that outsourcing jobs overseas, unbridled illegal immigration policy and aggressive minimum wage laws act as enormous drags on American employment and wages, at least for the middle/lower-income classes, low-skilled and the young.
Many will try to argue that these policies are a long-term net benefit, but if they were, then wouldn't we have observed that by now? Instead, we've experienced only the opposite- shrinking middle class, stalled or shrinking wages for all but the highest earners and depressed or hollowed-out communities. Delusional convictions surrounding many of these policies are not based on logic nor fact, but some sort of idealistic fantasy and usually isolated to college campuses, the halls of Congress, mental facilities and Twitter forums. If you're really lucky, when you cite evidence to these believers, they are liable to resort to emotion and personal attack. Their defense is to point at what someone else is doing. They've become masters of DARVO.
Suffice to say that if the government is involved, the net result for American is reduced wages and a shrinking middle class, both masked by inflation. Their proponents are rarely economists and their knowledge often comes from the dubious theoretical research on the internet, usually cited by news websites with clear agendas. Studies show that incomes are barely increasing for many households, and they are not keeping up with inflation. More and more, it appears that printed money ultimately flows from labor to capital, leading to our next consequence..
Notice that median (red) and average (gray) incomes are not keeping up with the top 1/5/10%. And this is also based on government inflation numbers, which we've shown are dubious at best
Wealth inequality – This is one of the most important impacts, the most troubling to me and one of the major points of this series. (Yes, there is a point buried in here somewhere!) When diluted currency is distributed from
Rome Washington DC, it’s rarely done fairly nor squarely. The closer you are to the action (Treasury and printing presses), the more of it you will generally have access to and the better off you will be, literally like pigs in a trough.
Much dismay was voiced in regards to the Pakistan gender studies and Sri Lankan boat refurbishment programs granted millions of dollars in the COVID stimulus bill in Fall 2020, but these folks are pikers compared to the far more numerous and lucrative beneficiaries residing within a short drive or train ride from the US Capitol. Virtually unaffected agencies such as The Kennedy Center, NASA, National Archives, Energy Department, Forest Service, Migrant and Refugee Assistance, Humanities Foundation, Department of Education and many other well-connected agencies- none with any particular nexus to the virus problem- received lavish COVID 'grants,' yet to this day I still cannot ascertain their exposure to COVID. As far as I can understand, those folks kept getting paid last year.
Most of us are used to this by now. It’s no accident that the Beltway has one of the highest costs of living in the country. Of course, geographic largesse is a staple of all empires and we're hardly alone. Furthermore, large subsidies of cash also tend to find there way to poorly run governments in order to compensate them for past profligacy: namely the loss of productive residents (like California and New York) and not “to combat the effects of the pandemic.”
Who can find the Beltway in this map- Maryland/Virginia/Washington DC? (Sadly, probably not many.)
The most glaring aspect of stimulus money directed to non-COVID problems is that, despite the massive quantity of money doled out to favorable districts and unions "to combat the effects of the pandemic," it won't be near enough to bail out these poorly-run cities, states and organizations for very long. If anything, this only forestalls the inevitable and guarantees that the eventual reckoning will only be more severe for the (not so) innocent beneficiaries of this largesse.
Diverting funds badly needed by those Americans who are struggling the most actually weakens the strength of these organizations who don't and impairs the value of dollars that will be need in future 'emergency crises." As I have shown, money printing often hurts those whom it intends to help the most. Although it can eventually end up as fodder for ridicule by those standing on the outside, I find the schadenfreude short-lived and the collateral damage an immense burden for all Americans.
In stark contrast to how the private sector operates, the government (primarily at the federal level) chronically incentives poor behavior instead of punishing it, thus producing more of it. This in turn results in the need for more government action, and so on and so forth. No matter how many times the cycle repeats, this seems to always arrive as a surprise to many, resulting in predicable outrage at the wrong people. This outrage transforms into fear, which metastasizes into demands for additional government intervention. How many times do we have to watch this sequel before we realize that it's the same script every time?
If you are income- or asset-restrained (like most Americans), printing more dollars actually hurts you. Whereas most wealthy Americans put their checks into savings or investments to grow, the 3-4 weeks of expenses for lower income recipients will ultimately be a “wash” as it goes to cover the increased costs of goods and services. If you’re unfamiliar or disagree with how that concept works, just visit your local grocery store. I am often loathe to inform clients that the increase in their grocery bills this year will likely exceed the amount the government sent them in cash. This surprises some because it's not easy to link the rising costs of food (or shrinking packages!) to the money printing. H-E-B or Exxon are simply the middlemen in a national financial shell game.
If you are skeptical, try it yourself: download and identify your grocery and fuel bills from this month last year and compare them to this month. Multiple that difference by twelve and then let me know what you come up with. Depending on the quality of your diet, I can virtually guarantee that you will discover that free money is one of the great frauds in America. And that's saying something, when you consider airlines surcharges for checked bags, rental car concession fees and hotel 'resort fees.' This overt deceit is why I suspect our ancestors would have never allowed it- they were too street smart. They learned math with slide rulers, and used them to put a man on the moon. Our generation considers math racist because of it's "focus on getting the right answer."
All too many Americans blame the grocery store or the producers for rising prices. Or greedy capitalists. Or people with different skin pigment or genitals. Or sometimes even Russia and other weak and dying countries with smaller GDPs than Houston. I suspect this is because so many of us have been brainwashed in government facilities for the first two decades of our lives and our history textbooks somehow left out critical aspects of the 20th century that would cast light on where we are heading.. Before reading this post, many readers could probably name more Kardashians than Supreme Court justices, yet we still feel emboldened to espouse political and economic concepts and opinions online and out-loud. And that’s not an accident, that’s by design.
Just as Apple and Microsoft slowly and purposely debilitate their devices with each new operating system 'update' in a perpetual campaign of forced-obsolescence, one is left to wonder whether our leaders are the same thing to us through connections in the media and entertainment industries. This feels especially true of certain cable news outlets, themselves little more than quasi-political action committees (PACs) accepting advertising dollars as unregulated and indirect political donations.
When the times comes for our next round of money-printing- and there will be more- I fear the populace may be so crippled from decades of social conditioning, distracted by bread and circus (money, sports and other mindless pursuits), and nonplussed by the sheer volume of cash, that they will be too numb to object. "I've paid in enough, and he got some... I deserve to get some back."
Social and Generational Unrest
No one likes to make fun of Millennials more than me, it's practically a sport. While some of the best people I know were born after 1980, the truth is that forty years of virtually uninterrupted affluenza have resulted in some seriously flawed and misguided humans. (Is that politically correct enough?) Because this is a fairly politically-neutral comment (unless we're comparing voting demographics), it's not hard to attain a broad consensus on this unfortunate state of affairs with our youth. If you're unsure whether this is true, I encourage you to spend some time with any local small business owner you know to inquire about their difficulties in finding talent younger than 40. In fact, invite me along with you because I always enjoy a good laugh and LOVE crazy anecdotes.
But this isn't (implicitly) a series about picking on young people, nor the imperfect trees from which these shiny apples fall. In fact, this dynamic is preordained and predictable. Yet sometimes the sheer magnitude of human carnage that is America's young adults takes my breath away. However, I've arrived at the realization that while one never gets too old to troll other age demographics; it's ultimately an unproductive endeavor to fight, joke or complain about it at this point- I just feel like that ship has already sailed. It's gone from being comical to just plain sad, like our Presidents.
What is apparent to me is, however, is that our youngest generations have been dealt a very unfortunate hand. I recognize that few exit the womb as fully damaged humans, and most inherit their most crippling flaws from their upbringing, their parents, the environment and the times in which they are born. In some ways, it's not their fault, they are just playing with the cards they were dealt. But within the most privileged generation in human history resides the cruelest ironies. Many young people I interact with are saddled with substantial debt, student loans being just the gateway drug to expansive future leverage. I do wonder if that's the point.
To make matters worse, the older generations - Boomers, mostly- are in my observation seen as too valuable to their employers (and terrified about life after work) to retire. Most are too healthy (relatively) to die off anytime soon (thankfully). In an increasingly competitive global economy- which looks nothing like the 20th century they enjoyed- a plethora of good jobs just aren't there anymore. Furthermore, some Millennials and Zoomers have experienced as many as three massive financial crises in their lifetimes: The dotcom bust and 9/11, the Great Financial Crisis and now COVID.
Young Americans have seen more sex, violence, drugs and debauchery in adolescence than most humans before them saw in a lifetime. As a result, even copulation feels like a waste of time. The fluidity of gender roles, norms, pronouns and lifestyles leaves them confused even when they think they aren't. This can lead to some serious bizarre self-identification trends. Many are medicated at a young age, I suspect in no small part due to absentee parents, lack of daily physical activity and a educational system designed for the 20th century- minus the PE, recess and other outlets- which has led their parents to believe (incorrectly) that their children were unfit to handle the modern classroom, when it was really the other way around. The fact that government-run education hasn't changed much in a hundred years might be the problem, just a guess..
It's easy (for me) to ridicule graduates of non-STEM and other soft majors with limited employment prospects, but student loans are compounding the problem and must feel like life sentences for many of these young scholars. In an effort to secure the votes of academia, once again government steps in to enslave those it professes to help, and yet they still keep voting for them. Education reform never discusses the true source of the racket- despite being painfully obvious to anyone without a vested interested in defrauding both customer and financer.
Most colleges appear to have become glorified welfare fiefdoms composed of layers of politician-shielded and tax-payer funded jobs that adhere to reliable voting expectations. The political response to this is almost always framed to what (more) the taxpayer can do to help them, even when our 'involuntary financial assistance' (through government loans backed by the taxpayer) is what led to hyper-inflation in academia in the first place.
It's clear the higher education machine needs to consolidate by at least 80%, and in a free market it would have by now. You can't allow costs to continue rising beyond rates of normal inflation while the ROI continues to plummet. But until some sort of Reset or Awakening happens in the hearts and minds of today's college consumers- and my prediction is perhaps 5-7 years more before it collapses in on it's own corpulence- many of our young graduates will be constrained in their ability to enjoy popular anchors adulthood, including owning a home, marriage and professional mobility. This could perpetuate a shocking percentage of them living at home with their parents, and happy to do so. None of this could be possible in a world of unlimited money.
Many of the emerging scholars I have the pleasure to meet with are finding themselves thrust prematurely into suboptimal two-income arrangements and yet still struggle with a strained budget (purchasing 'starter homes' nicer than their parent's current home is certainly a contributing factor). Some jump into home ownership way prematurely, lured in by miniscule down payments (3%) and often a little help from dad and mom, presumably to a.) get them out of the house and b.) avoid being left behind ("FOMO"), oblivious to the reality that with so little equity to start and large mortgage balances, most are just renting the first several years anyways.
An increasing percentage of my young adult clients express frustration that can't afford to get married, in contrast to a large segment of the demographic who might prefer their smartphone apps over a partner anyways. The main roadblock in this this plan is a persistent desire to someday have a family. Hollywood and Corporate America are all-too-willing to push them to wait until they're older to settle down, presumably once they've earned and spent themselves into serious consumer debt and need a second income to get them out. However evolutionary biology suggest, "oh no, you can't."
Far too many circumvent this pernicious predicament by conceiving children out of wedlock, thereby inviting the state to assume the role of the father (setting off a high likelihood of dysfunctional humans in their wake). We now know this leads many to violate the three simple rules of avoiding poverty:
- Graduate high school
- Get a full-time job
- Don't have children out of wedlock or before age 21
Studies prove that if you do those four things, your odds of experiencing poverty drop from 76% to 2%. Yet despite the simplicity of this formula and overwhelming evidence, large segments of our society continues to blame other, largely irrelevant factors: namely, the patriarchy, oppression and systemic racism, even though these statistics hold steady across all genders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Nevertheless, despite living in the most prosperous country and in the safest era in history, this cohort sometimes feels they've been royally screwed. And most importantly, they're witnessing a disproportionate amount of the wealth generated in the last decade flow to their elders in the Gen X and especially Baby Boomer Generation, at a far more unequitable rate than any generation before them. As the government printed and disbursed helicopter money through their various Quantitative Easing schemes of the past decade, they did so in a far different fashion than what we've seen in 2020. So subtle you were probably unaware.
From the GFC to now, the government was filtering new money through the banks in the hope that it would organically trickle down from Wall Street onto Main Street. Unfortunately, that's not what happened. Once again, the private sector took advantage of government incompetence and lack of understanding of how the real world actually works outside of K-Street think-tanks and universities. Instead of loaning this free money out to people, many financial institutions instead injected it into what they perceived to be safer (and vastly more profitable) bets in the FIRE markets (finance, insurance and real estate)- land and stocks. Both the banks and those fortunate to have exposure to these sectors got wealthier. National wealth appeared to be improving but we were looking at an average (the mean) and not the median. And if you don't know what that means or why that's important, that's my point.
As you can see in the graph below, imbalances in assets aren't yet as apparent between Millennials and GenX but it's safe to assume that neither will ever match the Baby Boomers, whom had so many of the critical components of a successful financial life- affordable higher education; little or no debt to enslave them in early years; little global competition; low home prices (and subsequent decades of falling mortgage loan rates to refinance them like a piggy bank); an explosion in 80-90's productivity brought about through the information, technology and PC revolutions; and two decades of unprecedented and almost unimpeded stock market growth.
A combined of less-tangible factors like a (relatively) strong middle class; stable homes, neighborhoods and marriages; upward mobility and loyal companies willing to train new employees - all produced enormous tailwinds for the Boomers. With so much opportunity, and such strong innate work ethic, one could be forgiven for being less in awe of successful Boomers than suspicious of those who were not.
Many of these unearned and fortunate blessings are completely foreign to young Americans, who are left competing in a ruthless global job market, with fewer and fewer strong middle-class ("blue-collar") jobs, few pensions or other guaranteed benefits outside of (wait for it) the government and education sectors (largely because years of corruption within existing pensions have 'crowded out' so many other priorities). Three successive recessions in twenty years as they were approaching and entering the job market adversely impacted their ability to lock down a career in a market where they were often the last-in and first-out.
As a result of these challenges, generational resentment and social unrest are severe and building ("OK, Boomer") at a level unseen since the 60s. manifesting indirectly as "resistance" to police brutality, social injustice, systematic racism, an almost-entirely Boomer political leadership that refuses to yield power. And yes, mean tweets are micro-aggressions that can be triggering to some. A cascade of misfortunate coalesce around the far more serious condition: a widening wealth gap that can only be partially explained by superficial, simplistic and largely unrelated matter of skin color, genitalia and geography. This is generational warfare and it's being stocked and manipulated by those with much to gain from perpetuating a false narrative. The causes and narrative are just incoherent enough to be easily digested by a naïve and mercurial generation, disoriented just enough and desperate to blame someone else for the seeming lack of disconnect between their virtual social-media-distorted perception of the world and the cold hard reality.
The GameStop drama of 2021 appears to have tapped into the same exposed nerve as the protests and violence of 2020. Ours is a generation desperate to be offended and oppressed, because victimization is the highest status and outrage the most addictive drug of all. One does have to question why none of our leaders or public figures address generational inequality, instead focusing on intersectionality that is both trite and uncouth. They leave it to those most aggrieved- young people starting to realize how unfair the playing field is in a historical context, but lacking the intelligence or emotionally maturity to formulate and effective strategy- to perceive the world accurately and act accordingly.
While it is once again beyond the scope of this series (at this point you have to wonder what actually is!) to delve into this sensitive matter with any nuance, I would argue that the disbursement of money is - through purposely design or incidental circumstance - being misallocated to the wrong people and for the wrong things. As a result, free money is likely to benefit older Americans of means and allow them to accumulate even more assets in their savings and investments, at the expense of lower-income Americans, whom are disproportionately younger. Soon their miniscule checks will be spent and only the wealth inequality will remain in the wake of a decade of reckless money printing that will only aggravate a growing generational divide that threatens to unravel in unforeseen and potentially socially and financially disruptive ways.
Savers vs. borrowers - In the next and final part IV of this series, we will explore this topic in greater depth, but it should become abundantly clear that when a government, in collusion with it's central bank (the Federal Reserve), engages in financial repression (money printing and rate suppression), it hurts savers and rewards borrowers. This seems obvious with a simply anecdote: grandma used to make 5% on her jumbo CD and used that to pay her property taxes and utilities. Now her bills have doubled and instead of making 5% on her CD, she's making .5%. She's being squeezed and some people think that's being purposeful. She's frustrated with the bank and the grocery store, and yet continues to vote reliably every two years. On the other hand, borrowers are able to pay back their debts in dollars worth less and less, and we all know who is the biggest borrower in the history of the world.
People who live within their means and choose to live a frugal lifestyle with no or minimal debt, watch those who are highly-leveraged use cheap money for consumption and investment. It appears on the surface that there are few places left to earn "safe money" (presumably, but not necessarily the case- stay tuned!) in what is being called the TINA (there is no alternative) market- stocks and real estate. But is that the truth?
There's no free lunch, and property taxes are rising. Those living on fixed income are feeling a familiar strain on their budgets. Those who prefer to stay in cash are losing massive purchasing power by the day, bond holder feel compelled into stocks, stock holders into riskier holdings. Aggressive investors are branching into alternatives like cyber-currency, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), other stupidity, shorted stocks, SPACs, very dubious IPOs and other speculative ventures.
These markets seem unprecedented and dangerous to some, exiting and opportunistic to others. No doubt, 2021 offers up a new playing field with new rules. Few recognize that the game has changed, while others are still paralyzed and agitated. To succeed in this market means to reevaluate what you thought you knew about money and investing and accepting these new rules, or risk having to take your ball and go home.
Most of us don't have that luxury, however. We need to play the game because we have goals left unmet. To sit in cash while the dollar is being debased may be the only guaranteed loser of 2021, but no one is certain. It's at this point in time that we must step back, look at the environment with fresh perspective, phlegmatic demeanor, stoic wisdom and move forward in a manner that might be unfamiliar and unpredictable to many, but necessary in order to plot a new path forward that offers opportunity for growth, while still valuing principal protection.
You might think with all this literary and clinical angst, I would - or should be - depressed or anxious about the future. Actually, it's just the opposite. I find that to be a common misconception and major limitation for many investors. We're so often anchored to the real world that we forget markets rarely behave predictably or rationally. That's also why I believe so many highly intelligent people operate at such a disadvantage compare to those more temerarious and less encumbered by rules and ego. Succeeding in modern markets frequently compels one to condition themselves to think differently in order to stand out from the crowd, to see opportunity where others see risk, profit where others only see danger. To look at a landscape seemingly devoid of hope, and yet still move forward. Plenty of investors require multiple data points in order to reinforce their conviction, but the truth is that it's a terrain lacking in certainty where some of the best investments lie.
In my next article (yes the last one, I promise!), I will explore some of the opportunities available to investors today and offer gentle guidance on their merit. This represents months of research by our team and considers current economic trends, past market behavior (none of which are guarantees of future performance!), new tools and a practical outlook on modern market dynamics. I know this article was a brutal audit of the impacts of pandemic, lockdowns and stimulus. I doubt anyone is ready to give me a high-five. Regardless, I encourage you to keep an open mind in our fourth and final article of the Cash Is Trash series.
The assumption that spending more of the taxpayers' money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse.
- Thomas Sowell
In Part I of this series, we discussed the background of out current situation
In this Part II, we covered the COVID pandemic and the actions taken in the immediate aftermath.
In Part III, we explain the impacts we've already felt and could soon experience in the aftermath of the crisis.
In Part IV, we will cover how to protect your assets and thrive in an increasingly inflationary environment. If you’ve thus far avoided the temptation to sell all of your investments and put it in Beanie Babies, Crocs, Dogecoin and highly-shorted stocks, then hang in there. It gets better. You will discover that the stock market is still the best game in town and dismissing it would likely be an enormous mistake. As it has for the last 300 years.