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).

Why the Crypto Market Is Not a Bubble #Podcast

With the rapid rise in value of the crypto market to more US$500 billion as of December 2017, many are calling cryptocurrencies a bubble simply by looking at the chart that shows prices rising substantially. However, it is important to understand that a bubble cannot be determined with reference to a steep rise in price. Rather, there is a bubble if the price is greater than the intrinsic value of the asset, and cryptos, I will argue, do have very high potential intrinsic value.

The Benefits of Market Timing

I am mostly a dividend investor who invests in ETFs that pay high dividends. However, lately I have been setting aside a portion of money to try time the market. I see the main benefit of market timing to be capital protection. If the markets go down, you want to deleverage and derisk your portfolio as fast as possible.

Basically I can detect a lot of euphoria in the market right now, and it looks like there is a bubble (in my opinion). All this reminds me of a quote from the great George Soros:

“When I see a bubble forming, I rush in to buy, adding fuel to the fire.” ~ George Soros

When a bubble forms, it is best to stay invested because this is when demand is strong, and if you are invested and highly leveraged, you will make a lot of money. The key is to monitor the markets carefully so you sell just before the market crashes. In my opinion, this is why direct property is the worst investment.

If the 2009 property crash happens again, it may takes months to sell a property, which is too late when the market is dropping. Liquidity is very important. The benefit of using shares and ETFs is that they can be sold instantly with your smartphone. You can get out quickly and cleanly.

For me market timing is about downside protection. When there is a bull market, it is best to be able to capture all the gains, so being leveraged is best. However, markets go up and down, and given all the money printing and stimulus, I feel we are highly likely to hit a massive market crash soon. I have been looking at the PE ratio of the S&P 500 throughout history and how it goes in cycles. We are reaching a stage now when the PE ratio for the S&P 500 is at historic highs.

However, you don’t know when a bubble will pop, if ever, so it’s best to be long and leveraged to capture all the profit while everyone is exuberant, but when the market goes down significantly, you need to get out before others who are leveraged start to get their margin calls, and then the losses will be transferred to the buy and holders and permabulls. It may be the case that, rather than a crash, there is massive money printing, which will lead to inflation, which may prop up the bubble but hurt the average man through higher cost of living. Because of this, it is a good idea to be invested in stocks, including gold mining and commodity stocks.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with market timing. Even if you make less money because you are not fully invested when the market rallies, I see market timing as an insurance policy against a massive crash that could wipe out everything. Imagine working your whole life to amass a massive portfolio of stocks and property and then when you’re old and about to retire suddenly the stock and property markets crash and you lose 70% of your wealth. Simply monitoring the markets and selling when things start to go down can prevent all that. The markets may rally right after you sell, but the opportunity cost of that, I think, is nothing compared to what you could have lost.