Merry Christmas 2018! Thoughts about Socialising, Conformity and the Recent Market Turmoil

This post will go over some of my thoughts that have been on my mind over the Christmas holiday. In true minimalist style, I have not purchased a Christmas tree nor have I purchased any gifts for anyone, and I will not be attending any Christmas parties. I have caught up with some friends and family over the holiday period but little else. Although it is cliche to say this, Christmas is highly commercialised these days, and personally I don’t celebrate Christmas too heavily, but many other people do, and I think my lack of engagement in Christmas activities puts a distance between me and others.

Ultimately the main issue is that often the cost of human connection and intimacy is conformity, but conformity is often costly.

Socialising and conformity

As I have discussed, an idea that has been on my mind recently is the cost of socialising. Many of us like to think that we are independent, that we do what we want regardless of what others think, but going against the grain and being very different is harder than you may think. It is natural and normal to conform. In fact, I would argue that we are hard-wired to conform. It is something that we evolved to do. There is a famous psychology experiment (the Asch conformity experiments) that shows just how powerful conformity is and how susceptible we all are.

Even though I like to think of myself as independent, I do conform to a degree, and conformity is sometimes important because it allows you to fit in to a certain culture with which others are familiar. Taking the example of Christmas, if you do not give gifts or engage in any Christmas activities, this will clearly put a barrier between you and others.

There have been moments in my life when I have been too independent, too much of a freethinker, and this has isolated me from society, which leads to misanthropic feelings, and this can have very negative mental health outcomes and can lead to depression. It is important to find the right balance between independence and conformity. As a man who enjoys independence and freedom as well as systematically minimising all forms of obligations (debt, social norms, customs, tradition, etc) this has been one of the realisations I have come to this year, that there is some value in conforming, but it needs to be controlled and I need to practice conformity in a way that still allows me to be myself and to be authentic. Most importantly, conformity needs to be practiced from a position of independence and freedom. This reminds me of the concept of exit, voice and loyalty. You can be loyal i.e. you can conform to something or someone’s values, but you need to have the freedom to be able to voice your own views or values, and if your values or views conflict too much with those with whom you are loyal, then you need the ability to exit. This is where having huge passive income and minimal obligations helps. For example, if you have a huge mortgage and three children to support, and you work a job you hate, you are trapped in this job. You are forced to conform or be loyal in this arrangement without the freedom to voice or exit. However, if you suddenly hate your job but you live off passive income, have no debt, no children, no mortgage, and no obligation or commitments, then there is nothing stopping you from voicing your displeasure or exiting entirely.

Although I do believe there is some value in conformity, I should say that everyone is different and that I do believe there are many who value nonconformity. We are typically more comfortable when we are in environments that are familiar, that fit in with our own culture. When someone is noncomformist, e.g. to take an extreme example, if someone comes to work wearing clothes that are inappropriate (e.g. wearing underwear), then this creates discomfort. Something just doesn’t seem right. However, conformity can go too far. Too much conformity creates a fakeness that many find unappealing. Although familiarity can put people at ease and build human connection, you can go too far to the point where you are fake and this also creates unease. There is value therefore in conforming in moderation but it is also important to have the courage to be yourself, to reveal your true thoughts, and to be authentic. Usually the ability to be your true self and to be authentic comes when you are financially secure and when you have few obligations.

I should also add that conformity is not just about whether you give gifts or wear certain clothes to work. Most of us conform but aren’t really aware that we conform simply because we feel that what we do is what we are supposed to do. For example, most people drive cars, get married and have children without even thinking about it because this is seen as normal. If you’re a cycling, if you’re single, and if you’re childfree, this is seen as unusual, but I think society nowadays tolerates individual freedom, so even if you are a single childfree cyclist, you will be considered different but you will not necessarily be socially ostricised. In my opinion, it is very important to be aware of how much culture affects you because when individuals conform to most cultures, they usually impose upon themselves large obligations. Among most cultures there is an expectation that a person’s youth is a period of freedom. However, the expectation is that once someone has enjoyed his or her youthful freedom, they need to become adults, they need to accept adult responsibilities, and they need to “settle down.” I argue that you don’t need to ever settle down, that you don’t need to accept large obligations. You can be free forever.

The recent market turmoil

I will change topics now and talk about the markets. The markets have done very poorly over the last few months. In my opinion, we have gone through an eight-year-old bull market without a major correction, which is the longest in history, so we are due for a crash soon. This recent turmoil in stocks may be the start of the next financial crisis but there are many credible institutions (e.g. JP Morgan) predicting the next financial crisis will occur in 2020.

Donald Trump’s policies do not help, especially the tariffs between the US and China. Importers will need to pay the tariff and pass it on to customers, which creates inflation as the cost of living rises. Furthermore, corporate tax cuts and higher government spending increases money supply in the economy. All these factors increase inflation, which necessitates the central bank increasing interest rates. Higher interest rates means corporate profits fall as companies need to pay higher interest to service their debt. Furthermore, tariffs don’t just mean importing products into America become more expensive. Once tariffs are applied to Chinese goods coming into America, the Chinese will apply retailiatory tariffs, which block American exports going to China, which in turn hurt sales. Because Chinese companies cannot export to the US as much, this impacts on Australia as we export a significant amount of raw material to Chinese companies who then transform these raw materials into consumer goods to be exported to the US. History has shown that protectionism benefits no one. Both parties lose out.

In my opinion, throughout a market collapse it is important to stick with your investment plan rather than sell in a panic. In an earlier post I spoke about “age in bonds” or owning your age in government bonds e.g. if you are 30, own 30% bonds. This rule is a guide and can be modified to fit your risk appetite e.g. if you can tolerate more risk then consider putting 50% of your age in bonds (e.g. if you are 30, you own 15% bonds).

The problem most people have is they cannot predict their risk appetite. When markets are going up, they think they can tolerate high levels of risk, but once markets actually collapse and they are confronted with large and sudden declines in wealth, they realise that they cannot stomach volatility, and they panic sell and crystallise their losses. Therefore, in my opinion, if the recent bull market has lulled you into complacency and now you are feeling nervous, it is a good idea to reflect on what your true risk appetite is, and in the future you can buy more (or less) defensive safe-haven assets (such as bonds, gold or cash) in order to align the asset allocation in your investment portfolio to your actual risk appetite. Over time, as you live through more market crashes, you start to get a feel for what your actual risk appetite is. It is not something that is easy to predict. It is something you need to adjust as you experience it in real life. One of the biggest mistakes in financial planning is when the financial planner hands you a form and you fill how much risk you are willing to take. In my opinion, no one really knows how much volatility they are able to withstand until they actually expereince it in person. Until someone feels $100k of their wealth being wiped out in one day can they truly appreciate how much volatility they can stomach.

It is also important to keep in mind why you are investing. For me, investing in stocks is mostly about generating dividends, passive income, and thereby providing freedom. Therefore capital gains do not matter much because my intention is to hold these stocks or ETFs forever. The recent market correction therefore can be seen as an opportunity to load up on more high-dividend ETFs. For example, with the market collapse, the iShares S&P/ASX Dividend Opportunities ETF (ASX: IHD) currently has a dividend yield of 13% according to Bloomberg. Of course, even if you are a dividend investor, there are benefits in diversifying into bond or hybrid ETFs. Although high-dividend ETFs such as IHD currently have a yield of 13% whereas government bond ETFs such as BOND have yield of 2.3% and HBRD, a bank hybrid ETF, has yield of 3.7% it is important to remember that although dividend yields are higher than bond yields, dividends can be cut.

If the market correction we are currently experiencing gets really bad, I will not be surprised if companies start announcing dividend cuts. It happened after the GFC, and it can happen again. This is where bonds can be useful because bonds are more likely to be paid to investors. If a company faces distress, bondholders by law are paid before stockholders. Bonds or hybrids then can be useful for income investors seeking passive income because they provide not only stability in price but also stability in income. Even though yields are lower for bonds or hybrids, this reflects the lower risk, the fact that these payments are less likely to be cut in the event of economic distress.

Disclosure: I own IHD and HBRD.

How to Prepare for Upcoming Stagflation

Recently markets have been shook by rising interest rates in the US. Interest rates around the world are somewhat correlated because of globalization. Australian banks often borrow from overseas (even from the US), so if interest rates rise overseas, this affects the cost that Australian banks pay to borrow money. The ASX200 chart below shows the correction in recent weeks.

the beginning of an xjo crash september 2018
Source: Bloomberg

How may the stock market crash?

Even though it is not wise to try to predict markets, my hunch is that a very large correction is near, but it may be delayed until around 2020. During the 2009 GFC, the threat was deflation i.e. prices going down, which means prices of e.g. property and shares went down as well. The solution to this was unprecedented money printing around the world. The printed money was used to purchase government bonds (in the US) or even stocks or ETFs directly (in Japan). When there is deflation, money printing is an easy fix because money printing puts more money into the economy, generating inflation, which cancels out deflation.

However, this time the fear is that when the market crashes, it is not a deflationary crash. Rather, we have a downturn while there is inflation at the same time. Why would there be inflation at the same time as a downturn? For example, take the US-China trade war. If US companies and consumers cannot import cheap goods from overseas, consumers and US businesses face higher costs. Higher costs cut into margins, which reduce profits, which reduce stock prices. If the trade wars heat up, US equities should decline futher as inflation increases. Usually when there is inflation, the central bank can combat inflation by raising interest rates. However, US businesses are already highly indebted. If the US central bank (the Federal Reserve) increases interest rates to combat inflation, businesses face higher interest expenses, which cuts into their profit margins and reduces stock price.

This dilemma that the Fed faces, in my opinion, will present a problem in the future and may usher in a 1970s-style stagflationary recession.

What can be done to protect against a downturn?

In a previous post, I spoke about the importance of the “age in bonds” rule. The “age in bonds” rule is just a guide. It doesn’t literally mean you must hold your age in bonds (e.g. if you are 30 then you hold 30% bonds).  “Age in bonds” is a rule of thumb. The complication comes from the fact that some bonds are risky (e.g. emerging market bonds, corporate bonds, etc) whereas some shares are arguably safe (e.g. utilities, gold mining stocks, etc). The basic principle behind “age in bonds” is to reduce risk or volatility in your portfolio as you are nearing retirement so that you are not exposed to e.g. a 50% decline in your wealth just before you retire.

“My personal, non-retirement accounts are about 80 percent bonds and 20 percent stocks, reflecting my old rule of thumb that your bond allocation should roughly equal your age. It’s spread across different bond funds, like the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt (VWITX). I’m a pretty conservative guy.”

~Jack Bogle, Vanguard Group Founder

Given that I live off dividends, consider myself somewhat semi-retired, and don’t really have a fixed retirement date, I feel it is wise for me to reduce risk in my portfolio much moreso than the average person. For the average person in their 20s or 30s, they may feel that they don’t need to worry about a huge market correction because they can simply make up for the lost wealth by working longer. However, I don’t like the idea of being forced to work when I don’t need to.

Furthermore, even though many people feel as if they can withstand a huge market crash, if a 70% decline eventually does occurs and the reality hits that they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars without any guarantee that the market will recover in the long run (remember that in the recovery may be many decades away and may be in the next century), I feel that many people would succumb to panic.

Which ETFs perform best in a bear market?

During the recent market correction, I was observing the reaction of different ETFs. What I found interesting is that MNRS, a gold mining ETF, shot up as the XJO went down. See the Bloomberg chart below, which shows MNRS (in yellow) shooting up as the XJO (in black) heads down.

xjo MNRS HBRD QAU and BOND during september 2018 correction
Source: Bloomberg

The large increase in gold mining stocks contrasts with the price of gold, which is represented above by the QAU ETF (in red), which holds physical gold. This makes sense since holding pure gold only provides you with access to gold whereas gold miners usually hold debt, which means they are leveraged to gold. The blue and aqua above show hybrid and bond ETFs, which both remain very stable.

Looking at the last six months, we can see how these ETFs perform not only during a bear market but also during a bull market. We can see that as the XJO goes up, the gold mining ETF and physical gold ETFs go down, which is not ideal. The bond and hybrid ETFs are stable as expected.

Gold miners and bonds vs stocks
Source: Bloomberg

What does this tell us? If you were shaken up by the recent market correction and feel that more risk is coming, a quick way to reduce risk in your portfolio is to buy physical gold and gold mining ETFs. This can be ideal if you don’t want sell shares and trigger capital gains tax. Gold miners are also legitimate companies in their own right. However, the problem with physical gold is that it pays zero passive income, and gold miners historically pay little in dividends. In contrast, the government bond ETF (BOND) pays about 2% in yield whereas the bank hybrid ETF (HBRD) pays about 3% to 4% in monthly distributions, so if you feel you have far too much risk in your portfolio, you can correct it fast by buying gold, but once you have derisked your portfolio sufficiently but still want to tread cautiously, you can take advantage of passive income with bond and hybrids, as well as some high dividend ETFs as well (e.g. IHD, VHY, EINC, etc).