You Have 3 Choices: Inflation, Deflation, or Stagflation

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There are 3 possible scenarios for the U.S. economy.

Stay alert
Invest accordingly

Deflation

Deflation is the threat dominating headlines. “You’ve got a strong supply of goods and weak demand. That’s a recipe for prolonged deflation,” says A. Gary Shilling, economist and author of Deflation: How to Survive & Thrive in the Coming Wave of Deflation (McGraw-Hill). The problem is deflation’s ripple effect: When banks stop lending, businesses stop expanding and wages fall. Consumers stop spending, which pushes prices lower. Why won’t massive stimulus pull the economy out of the deflationary lane? Shilling fears that the U.S. government’s economic tampering will have a “Big Brother effect,” hurting innovation and permanently curbing growth.

The Signs. The surest sign of deflation is a decline in the consumer price index, which tracks the prices of consumer goods and services. But it’s hard to ignore lower real estate values, which aren’t in the CPI. Home prices fell more than 18% in 2008, according to the S&P/Case-Schiller U.S. National Home Price Index. Another deflation indicator: the higher savings rate, which we’re seeing for the first time in 25 years. Shilling expects the savings rate to rise from 4.2% to 10% in the next decade.

Investment Strategy. “Quality is paramount in deflationary markets,” Shilling says. He thinks most investors should be in short-term certificates of deposit or money-market funds. Those with a 10-year time horizon should also buy tech stocks, such as semiconductors, he says. Companies facing deflation can’t cut prices and must boost productivity through technology.

Inflation

The Argument. Many of the economists and financial advisers polled by BusinessWeek for this story believe the huge amount of money being pumped into banks by the Federal Reserve (chart, right) makes inflation a real threat. Hans Olsen, chief investment officer for JPMorgan Chase (JPM)’s private wealth management business, says the stimulus plan ultimately will lead to higher inflation. However, total inflation is basically nonexistent at -0.4%. The trick is figuring out when it will be a problem. “The nasty thing about inflation is that it’s insidious,” Olsen says. Banishing inflation from the economy once it is “infected” is hard.

The Signs. The leading indicator used to measure inflation is the CPI.

Commodity prices, particularly those of oil and copper, are another bellwether. One indicator Olsen tracks is government debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, which he sees surging from 40% to 80% over the next few years.

Investment Strategy. Mild price inflation is considered healthy for stock investors because it is a sign that the economy is growing. But when inflation spikes, as it did when it hit 13% in the 1970s, interest rates rise and borrowing stops. For bondholders, soaring inflation eats away at asset values over extended periods.

The most direct way to fight this is to buy Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)—government-backed bonds pegged to inflation via the CPI. (TIPS belong in tax-deferred accounts because they are not tax-efficient.) A study by economic consultancy Peter L. Bernstein Inc. found that, for an aggressive investor who is worried about inflation, a 47%/53% proportion of TIPs to stocks (the study tracked broad stock market indexes) provided the best risk-adjusted real returns over a wide range of inflationary environments.

Among mutual funds, advisers favor the Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX), which had an annualized return of 5% for the past three years. Other plays include the iShares Barclays TIPS Bond exchange-traded fund (TIP) and Pimco Real Return Fund (PRTNX).

Commodities are another classic hedge. A well-diversified commodity play is the Pimco Commodity Real Return Fund (CRIX), which combines commodities with TIPS. Many advisers also like the SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD) and the First Eagle Gold Fund.

Stagflation

Stagflation is caused by the combination of slow growth and surging inflation. Slower growth will come from extreme caution by lenders, households, and businesses, while a shortage of production capacity will create inflationary bottlenecks, argues Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at Pimco. “Stagflation will be part of the new normal,” he says.

The Signs. The misery index, which combines the unemployment and inflation rates, is the best gauge of stagflation. In March it was at 8.1%. El-Erian predicts that unemployment will hit 10% by yearend, and 2% inflation could bring the misery index up to 12% by the end of 2010.

Investment Strategy. Insulating your portfolio from stagflation is tough. Equity investors need to take a very conservative stance, focusing on high-quality growth stocks such as Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and PepsiCo (PEP), says John Boland, financial adviser at Maple Capital Management. Gold, as well as TIPS, will help mitigate some of the inflation risk. El-Erian considers TIPS a bargain because 10-year TIPS are pricing in inflation of less than 1.5% for the next decade, and he sees inflation jumping as high as 6% by 2011.

yahoo-finance Young is a Personal Business editor for BusinessWeek with Tara Kalwarski in New York
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A Good Financial Lesson For All

cashstackLesson:

A man is getting into the shower just as his wife is finishing up her shower, when the doorbell rings. The wife quickly wraps herself in a towel and runs downstairs.

When she opens the door, there stands Bob, the next-door neighbor. Before she says a word, Bob says, “I’ll give you $800 to drop that towel.” After thinking for a moment, the woman drops her towel and stands naked in front of Bob After a few seconds, Bob hands her $800 and leaves.

The woman wraps back up in the towel and goes back upstairs. When she gets to the bathroom, her husband asks, “Who was that?” “It was Bob the next door neighbor,” she replies. “Great!” the husband says, “did he say anything about the $800 he owes me?”

Moral of the story :

If you share critical information pertaining to credit and risk with your shareholders in time, you may be in a position to prevent avoidable exposure.

Jim Rogers – Buy Commodities, Short the Dollar and Long Bond

by John Kimelman
Monday, April 20, 2009
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The legendary investor is sticking for now with the two Cs: China and commodities.

Well, bank executives and investors can breathe a sigh of relief: Jim Rogers has covered the short positions on financial stocks he put in place ahead of last year’s massive meltdown.

But just because this influential investor isn’t betting that big banks will fall much further doesn’t mean he’s confident they will stage a lasting rally either. He feels similarly about U.S. stocks in general.

“I am skeptical about the rally, and the world economy for the next year or two or three,” he says. “But if stocks go down, I can make money with commodities.”

Rogers, now 66, gained fame as George Soros’ hedge-fund partner in the 1970s and 1980s. After retiring from professional money manager in his late 30s, the Alabama native tooled around Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America visiting emerging markets, one by one. His resulting book, Investment Biker, helped to popularize emerging market investing at the outset of a bull market for the sector.

He also helped to popularize commodity investing, which for decades was the province of niche investors. In the 1990s, he developed commodity indexes based on futures contracts that in recent years have been turned into exchange-traded funds available to all investors. His 2004 book, Hot Commodities, came ahead of a surge prices for energy, metals, and agriculture.

Since its inception in July 1998, the Rogers International Commodities Index has gained 158%, while the S&P 500 has fallen 23%. And that gain for the commodities index comes despite the fact that it’s lost more than half of its value since last July. At these levels, Rogers has been a buyer.

These days, Rogers, now 66, is sticking close to home in Singapore with his wife, Paige Parker, and two small daughters. He’s about to release his latest book, A Gift to My Children: A Father’s Lessons for Life and Investing (Random House), in which he encourages other people’s children to travel widely and learn Mandarin so they can reap the rewards of China’s economic boom.

Recently, Rogers talked to Barrons.com by phone from his Singapore home.

Q: When you last did a lengthy interview with Barron’s magazine a year ago (see “Light Years Ahead of the Crowd,” April 14, 2008) you were lightening up on emerging markets investments. Well, you called that one right. But now that many of those markets have fallen from their highs of recent years, are you more optimistic?

A: No. I’ve sold all emerging markets stock except the ones in China. I bought more Chinese shares in October and November during the panic, but I have not bought China or any other stock markets including the U.S. since then. I’m not buying anything in China right now because the Chinese market ran up maybe 50% since last November. It’s been the strongest market in the world in the past six months and I don’t like jumping into something that has been that run up. Still, I’m not thinking of selling these stocks either. I think if it goes down I’ll buy more. I think you will find that it’s the single strongest market in the world since last fall.

Q: In your latest book, you talk of China as the great investment opportunity of the 21st century, just as the U.S. was in the 20th century. What percentage of a typical American investor’s portfolio should be in China?

A: If they can’t even find China on a map, I don’t think they should have anything in China. They should know something about China before they invest there. If they have the same convictions that I do then they should probably have a lot. If you asked me that question in 1909 about the U.S. stock market, I would have said to put 100% of your money in the U.S.

Q: Might it make sense to have a greater weighting in a diversified mix of Chinese stocks than in U.S. stocks?

A: Well yes. Just as in 1909, if you were German or Chinese, you should have had the largest percentage of your money in the United States. The idea of investing is to make money, not to have some sort of political agenda.

Q: That being said, you currently think Chinese stocks are bid-up now, so you’re not buying at these levels. So what have you been buying lately?

A: I have been buying commodities through the Rogers commodity indexes I developed because my lawyer won’t let me buy individual commodities. I recently bought the all four Rogers indexes — the ElementsRogers International Commodities Index (ticker: RJI) as well as the three specialty indexes, the International Metals (RJZ), the International Energy (RJN), and the International Agriculture (RJA.) That’s how I invest in commodities and that’s what I bought last week. I have been buying these shares since last fall and up to last week.

Q: Though you got out of emerging markets last year before they fell hard, you seemed be caught by surprise by the fall-off in commodity prices last year. Is that right?

A: Yes, I was surprised. I did not expect commodities to go down that much and in retrospect it was a period of forced liquidation for many (professional) investors. You know AIG went bankrupt, which was huge in commodities. Lehman Brothers was big in commodities.

But at least I was shorting the investment banks at the time and other financials such as Citigroup and Fannie Mae. So I was hedged by being long commodities and short the other things such as financials and as you know most of them were down from 80% to 100%, so I more than made up on my shorts than I lost on my longs. So thank God for (the stock decline in) Citigroup and thank God (for the decline) in Fannie Mae.

Q: Now despite the recent stock-market rally that started in March, many U.S. stocks are trading well off their 2007 highs. How come you see no value to this market?

A: I am not buying U.S. companies mainly because I think we may have seen a bottom but I don’t think we have seen the bottom. I am skeptical about the rally, the world economy for the next year or two or three. But if stocks go down, I can make money with commodities. In the 1970s, commodities went through the roof even though stocks were a disaster. In the 1930s, commodities rallied first and went up the most long before stocks pulled it together.

Q: Can you summarize the reasons for your bullishness about commodities?

A: It depends on the supply and demand. And we have had a dearth of supply. Nobody has invested in productive capacity for 25 or 30 years now. The inventories of food are the lowest they have been in 50 years and you have a shortage of farmers even right now because most farmers are old men because it has been such a horrible business for 30 years. And as for metals, nobody can get a loan to open a mine as you know. Who is going to give you money to open a zinc mine? It takes at least 10 years to open a mine so it’s going to be 15 or 20 years before we see new mines come on. Nobody has been opening mines for 30 years and they are not going to. And in the meantime reserves are declining. As for oil, the International Energy Agency came out recently with a study showing that oil reserves worldwide were declining at the rate of 6% or 7% a year.

That does not mean that if suddenly the U.S. goes bankrupt that everything won’t collapse in price. But I would rather be in commodities because it’s the only thing I know where the fundamentals are improving. They are not improving for Citibank or General Motors but the supply situation in commodities is such that when demand comes back, then commodities are going to be the best place to be in my view.

Q: What do you think of bonds?

A: I am anticipating shorting bonds — the U.S. long bond. It’s about the only real bubble around that I can see right now — other than the U.S. dollar. I am not shorting bonds at this moment because I’ve shorted plenty of bubbles in my day, and I have learned that you better wait because they go up higher than any rational person can anticipate. But my plan is to short the long bond in the U.S. sometime in the foreseeable future.

Q: I’ve read that you think the penchant of the last two presidential administrations for bailing out failing U.S. companies is a big mistake and will contribute to prolonging this recession. You argue that it’s best to let these companies all go bankrupt. How bad can the economy get?

A: Yes, politicians are making mistakes. In Japan, the problem has lasted for 19 years. I hope that it doesn’t last 19 years in the U.S. The approach that works is to let them (U.S. banks and automakers) collapse and clean out the system. The idea that phony accounting is the solution (through changes in mark-to-market rules) is ludicrous. And the idea that a debt problem and an excessive spending problem can be cured with more debt and more spending is ludicrous.

It’s laughable on its face, but politicians think they’ve got to do something. Unfortunately, they are doing the wrong things and they are going to make it worse.

Q: Thanks for your time.

PAUL KRUGMAN says, “Things are still getting worse”

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Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, sees “green shoots.” President Obama sees “glimmers of hope.” And the stock market has been on a tear.

So is it time to sound the all clear? Here are four reasons to be cautious about the economic outlook.

1. Things are still getting worse. Industrial production just hit a 10-year low. Housing starts remain incredibly weak. Foreclosures, which dipped as mortgage companies waited for details of the Obama administration’s housing plans, are surging again.

The most you can say is that there are scattered signs that things are getting worse more slowly — that the economy isn’t plunging quite as fast as it was. And I do mean scattered: the latest edition of the Beige Book, the Fed’s periodic survey of business conditions, reports that “five of the twelve Districts noted a moderation in the pace of decline.” Whoopee.

2. Some of the good news isn’t convincing. The biggest positive news in recent days has come from banks, which have been announcing surprisingly good earnings. But some of those earnings reports look a little … funny.

Wells Fargo, for example, announced its best quarterly earnings ever. But a bank’s reported earnings aren’t a hard number, like sales; for example, they depend a lot on the amount the bank sets aside to cover expected future losses on its loans. And some analysts expressed considerable doubt about Wells Fargo’s assumptions, as well as other accounting issues.

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs announced a huge jump in profits from fourth-quarter 2008 to first-quarter 2009. But as analysts quickly noticed, Goldman changed its definition of “quarter” (in response to a change in its legal status), so that — I kid you not — the month of December, which happened to be a bad one for the bank, disappeared from this comparison.

I don’t want to go overboard here. Maybe the banks really have swung from deep losses to hefty profits in record time. But skepticism comes naturally in this age of Madoff.

Oh, and for those expecting the Treasury Department’s “stress tests” to make everything clear: the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, says that “you will see in a systematic and coordinated way the transparency of determining and showing to all involved some of the results of these stress tests.” No, I don’t know what that means, either.

3. There may be other shoes yet to drop. Even in the Great Depression, things didn’t head straight down. There was, in particular, a pause in the plunge about a year and a half in — roughly where we are now. But then came a series of bank failures on both sides of the Atlantic, combined with some disastrous policy moves as countries tried to defend the dying gold standard, and the world economy fell off another cliff.

Can this happen again? Well, commercial real estate is coming apart at the seams, credit card losses are surging and nobody knows yet just how bad things will get in Japan or Eastern Europe. We probably won’t repeat the disaster of 1931, but it’s far from certain that the worst is over.

4. Even when it’s over, it won’t be over. The 2001 recession officially lasted only eight months, ending in November of that year. But unemployment kept rising for another year and a half. The same thing happened after the 1990-91 recession. And there’s every reason to believe that it will happen this time too. Don’t be surprised if unemployment keeps rising right through 2010.

Why? “V-shaped” recoveries, in which employment comes roaring back, take place only when there’s a lot of pent-up demand. In 1982, for example, housing was crushed by high interest rates, so when the Fed eased up, home sales surged. That’s not what’s going on this time: today, the economy is depressed, loosely speaking, because we ran up too much debt and built too many shopping malls, and nobody is in the mood for a new burst of spending.

Employment will eventually recover — it always does. But it probably won’t happen fast.

So now that I’ve got everyone depressed, what’s the answer? Persistence.

History shows that one of the great policy dangers, in the face of a severe economic slump, is premature optimism. F.D.R. responded to signs of recovery by cutting the Works Progress Administration in half and raising taxes; the Great Depression promptly returned in full force. Japan slackened its efforts halfway through its lost decade, ensuring another five years of stagnation.

The Obama administration’s economists understand this. They say all the right things about staying the course. But there’s a real risk that all the talk of green shoots and glimmers will breed a dangerous complacency.

So here’s my advice, to the public and policy makers alike: Don’t count your recoveries before they’re hatched.

Published: April 16, 2009