How does an investor assess risk? How does an investor identify potential problems with the stocks of the firms in one's portfolio? For instance, is there exposure to Greece, Spain, Ireland or Turkey? Will the company experience parts shortages from Japan or Myanmar? What are the currency implications of an appreciating or depreciating US Dollar on corporate profits? Can the record profits be repeated year after year, after year, to justify the P/E that reflects that same growth? Labor problems in China, union problems in Europe, and fluctuating transportation and commodity costs exasperate attempts at research. Most of these issues are outside of the average investor’s ability to foresee or control. Furthermore, the stock market's movements seem to be faster going down than going up; months of steady improvement can be destroyed in the matter of a few days, causing extreme angst.
Relative tickers: SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average (NYSE: DIA), SPDR S&P 500 (NYSE: SPY), PowerShares QQQ Trust (Nasdaq: QQQ), ProShares Short Dow 30 (NYSE: DOG), ProShares Ultra Short S&P 500 (NYSE: SDS), ProShares Ultra QQQ (NYSE: QLD), NYSE Euronext (NYSE: NYX), The NASDAQ OMX Group (Nasdaq: NDAQ), Intercontinental Exchange (NYSE: ICE), E*Trade Financial (Nasdaq: ETFC), Charles Schwab (Nasdaq: SCHW), Asset Acceptance Capital (Nasdaq: AACC), Affiliated Managers (NYSE: AMG), Ameriprise Financial (NYSE: AMP), TD Ameritrade (Nasdaq: AMTD) and Calamos Asset Management (Nasdaq: CLMS).
Real Estate or Stocks?
With the possibility of a global recession and a European depression, the prospects for stocks seem to be limited. Opinions range from a mild downturn to an economic collapse; however, there are very few forecasting an immediate return to global growth. The financial and social burden caused by debt is escalating as additional debt is used to service existing debt, compounding the problem. Tax revenue is being diverted from essential social services and fiscal incentives used to promote employment to totally non-productive interest payments. As more debt is added, the portion of the revenue collected and allocated to debt service is expanding exponentially.
The world’s governments are essentially borrowing at 0%, but when the repression of rates comes to an end, rates will rise to their true market level and the debt service will overwhelm the economies of the globe. Rates have been artificially lowered to force conservative cash into the economy in search of a riskier return, but eventually true market forces will prevail and the ensuing result will be explosive. Holders of Treasury Bonds have enjoyed extraordinary returns, receiving both interest payments and capital gains as rates have been driven down by the Federal Reserve's “Operation Twist”. Holders of Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian bonds felt very comfortable just a mere 24 months ago, but now things are radically different for them. Understandably, Treasury Bonds offer protection from a deflating environment, and while backed by the world's reserve currency their safety should be assured. The key word here is “should”. There exist two possibilities of which neither is pretty!
Currently, the 30-year Treasury Bond rate is 3%. The Federal Reserve has been pushing the rate down; a slight rise to 4% would significantly reduce the value of the bond. Should the rates rise to 5% or 6%, which is a more normal rate historically speaking, the ensuing capital loss could be as high as 50%. If inflation or even inflationary expectations started to brew, the losses could be staggering. Events across Europe could force weaker nations to seek “bankruptcy protection,” and default on their debt. Chaos would ensue, but eventually order would be restored and a pathway to recovery established.
The calamity of a default might be considered the lesser of two evils. Default and nine months of chaos may be preferable over 10 to 20 years of austerity. Should default become an acceptable option, then a cascade of nations, provinces, states, municipalities, localities, councils, and corporations could default. It is then not totally unthinkable that our great reserve currency might also default to preserve its integrity. As unthinkable as a global default might be, it is a possibility that needs to be considered, as it would allow for recovery.
Accompanying recovery would be inflation, as everything would be adjusting to new currency values and things would be in demand. Perhaps the rise of gold and silver over the last decade in an obviously deflating economy is forecasting turmoil in fiat currency and government obligations. Commodities would eventually recover: gas, oil, minerals, lumber, farms, food, water, shelter, etc., causing inflation and further pressuring debt instruments. The silver lining of a default would be the balancing of budgets worldwide with a path to recovery unveiled. This recession that has started in Europe is different from past downturns; it is not controlled by the Federal Reserve regulating rates and money supply. This is a potential cyclic event to correct global excesses.
Long-term treasuries still offer protection of capital in a very uncertain world. They still provide a small income stream to supplement other revenue sources. A portfolio of bonds needs to be risk managed and an “exit strategy” needs to be in place. Should the U.S. slide into recession, interest rates on 30-year bonds could slide even further producing capital gains. However, there will be a time to take profits and not look back. Another advantage of the repression of rates caused by the Federal Reserve is the opportunity to lock in long-term money and leverage cash flowing rentals.
Ironically, the Real Estate Market may be the asset class that preserves and grows wealth. Real estate as an asset class has been devastated and much of the risk of decline has been mitigated by the severe market correction of the past few years. Population pressure will eventually absorb all of the excess and pockets of shortages that are starting to appear most notably in my home market of Phoenix, AZ, one of the most affected markets in the nation. The strategy to employ would be to accumulate rentals in second and third move-up properties in discounted markets with good forward growth prospects, and use current low interest 30-year fixed rate mortgages finance them. The possibility of rising rates and/or market turmoil will curtail new construction and positively enhance the existing housing market. Furthermore, Cap Rates of 5-7% are available increasing to 8-10% cash on cash with use of a simple Fixed Rate Mortgage. This cash flow will be exceptionally important in any economic slowdown as rates will continue to compress and yield will become elusive.
A key component of a 5-year holding horizon is the inflation protection afforded by the “real” in real estate, as well as the growth in revenue potential as scarcities develop. The revenue stream may become of utmost importance as other traditional sources of revenue and paid benefits are curtailed or jeopardized: CD's, money markets, insurance guaranteed annuities funded by sovereign debt, state and municipal pensions may also be at risk if defaults occur. Cuts in Social Security and Medicare may be needed to reduce entitlement costs. Distressed properties discounted below replacement cost are still available, but financial institutes are working hard to clear the properties and take the losses this year. Any “underwater” residence or non-cash flowing investment property needs to be reviewed for liquidation via the “short sale” process while the market is still viable. Looking forward, costs are to be cut, debt is to be reduced, and reserves accumulated.
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