Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is Deflation Back On The Radar?

According to Bloomberg: "Economists surveyed in the past month expect U.S. consumer prices to fall 0.5 percent this year, the first drop in five decades." In terms of assets like real estate and stocks, your money buys more today than it did a year ago. But instead of worrying about deflation or inflation, Chris Weber explains how you can hedge against both in the following post from Daily Wealth.

One year ago, in the October 1, 2008 issue of the Weber Global Opportunities Report, I used as a title "The Immediate Danger is Deflation."

My view was, to put it briefly, that the world's central banks can try to inflate as much as they can, by creating money and supplying it to banks. But if banks are afraid to lend it out, or are rebuilding their capital base, and if businesses and consumers are afraid to borrow – and rebuilding their own balance sheets, meaning saving more and spending less – then there is not much that central banks can do.

One year later, I am sorry to see no real evidence that things have changed. If anything, consumers are even more afraid to borrow and spend now than they were a year ago. The heightened threat of becoming jobless may have a lot to do with this. Those who borrowed madly in the past are now in a kind of hangover. They are now trying to save more.

The markets themselves are bearing witness to this. If they feared inflation, interest rates would be much higher than they were a year ago. Instead, they are lower. A year ago, the US 10 year T-note yielded almost 4%. Today it yields just 3.17%.

The Commodities Index, CRB, has fallen from 325 to 259 in the same year. Though the Dow Jones has risen sharply since last March, remember that last October 1 it was close to 11,000, not the 9,700 area it is now. London's FTSE is up a bit: from 5,000 to 5,100. But that's just 2%. Japan has fallen from over 11,000 to 9,800.

Nearly every piece of real estate can be purchased for less money today than was the case one year ago. In other words, cash has been king this past year. And that is another way of saying that deflation dangers have still not gone away.

But one area has done better than the rest. Let's turn to precious metals.

One year ago, gold was $860. Now it is $1,042. Silver was $12.30 last September 30. Today it is $17.43.

For my readers who have been with me for years, I know I have been repeating the same mantra for all that time: Have the core of your net worth in a mix of cash and precious metals.

For my new readers, I repeat this, and point out that this approach has saved a lot of money that would otherwise have been lost. Both cash and precious metals buy more than they did one year ago, two years ago, and even farther back. I meant it as a cautious method to conserve money in perilous times, but it has turned out to be pretty much the best approach one could have.

There are those who are absolutely certain that the future will be high and even hyperinflation. There are others equally certain that deflation will be our eventual outcome. To me, it seems like nothing has changed in the 35-plus years I've been in this business. Back when I started out, there were the same arguments, the same certainty on both sides. Only the names of the combatants have changed.

For me, let's just say I'm not smart enough to know what the outcome will be. The only thing on earth that I am absolutely certain of is that I will die; that indeed everyone alive today will one day die. Speaking only for myself, I may die tonight or I may live 50 more years.

Beyond that, I am reasonably certain that history shows that paper money not backed by gold or silver loses value over time. One million dollars 50 years ago was a lot of money. It was even more money 100 years ago. Today, well, it's not chicken feed, but let's say it doesn't buy what it did 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

But in terms of assets like stock and property, one million dollars (or euros, etc.) buys more than it did one year ago.

This may just be a temporary development; it may be the start of a new trend. I am not going to bet everything I have on either one or the other. Instead, I've been protecting myself from both. And that's why I have been owning and building cash right along with the precious metals I own.

I have cash in case I am wrong about inflation vaulting the price of gold and silver higher. I have gold and silver in case I am wrong about the value of holding cash. I have tried to protect myself against both inflation and deflation. I own some real estate in case that goes up. It would make sense for me to own some general stocks that would do well if the world economy does well too.

In other words, my watchword has been to protect yourself in case you are wrong: to protect yourself against being hurt by any eventuality. This was my view one year ago, and it remains my view today.

To me, the future is unclear right now. We stand on a kind of knife edge. On one side lies deflation, and on the other inflation. I have tried to hedge myself against both, and yet not be hurt if either happens. The recommended combination of cash and precious metals has not only done well in the past year. It has done well since 2000.

And while I am watching developments every day, I see no reason to change my approach, which has worked so well. Of course, it has worked in the sense that it has given me more money in my net worth than a decade ago. But more important, it has enabled me to sleep well during all that time – a decade which has been very turbulent and disappointing for many if not most. And to me, this gift is priceless.

This post has been republished from Steve Sjuggerud's blog, Daily Wealth.

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