Tuesday, February 13, 2024

$12 Eggs

 $12 Eggs

 
 

Joe Biden has egg on his face. When the cost of a dozen eggs in the grocery store reaches twelve bucks, the economy is broken. Inflation over the past 3 years has ravished the United States far worse than any enemy, foreign or domestic.

This author estimates that we have lost some 50% (that's right, FIFTY percent) of our purchasing power over the past 3 years alone. And it has hit us where it hurts most; housing, food, energy, healthcare, and education. Nobody really cares about the cost of a ton of soybeans, that is literally for bean counters in Washington, D.C.!

The median American has been decimated by rampant inflation in core goods and services. Paying for two wars and absorbing some 5-10% of the existing US population in new migrants has triggered massive price increases across the board. "Free" is probably the most expensive word in existence; trillions in spending adds up, especially if there is not a corresponding increase in productivity. Empty carbs kill.


Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Credit Card Nation

 Credit Card Nation

Increasingly Americans are just saying "charge it!" This has resulted in America becoming a Credit Card Nation racking up $1.13T in credit card debt. The timeline to the run-up in credit card debt overlaps almost perfectly with the run-up in consumer prices. This author has argued for some time that the "truflation" consumers bear is most likely around +50% over the past 5 years.

With prices up so high and wages stagnant as a forest mushroom, the consumer has been forced to put purchases on the proverbial "loan shark in their wallet" to help cover expenses. By-and-large, the greatest costs borne have been in terms of housing, food, and energy...especially over the past 3 years when inflation has spiked sky high.

Given the rate of growth in debt, it is going to be nearly impossible for many people to EVER pay off their credit card debt. Especially when the usury rates are almost at 30%. It becomes a vicious cycle punishing people repeatedly for a purchase made on a credit card. Obviously it also punishes the poorest in our country as well because the rich pay off their balances monthly.

A strong, prudent man from Delaware, where the largest credit card companies are incorporated, sure could make a difference. Perhaps the Consumer Protection Bureau could look into the favorable deals given to credit card companies so they can charge so much interest? Who is on the dole? And why?

Barring some inclusive and diverse help, there will be a greater rate and dollar amount of defaults in the coming months. Ultimately consumers will slow spending or risk having the spigot of cash turned off. The upside? The dollars you owe today are worth less than the dollars you spent yesterday.


Monday, February 5, 2024

Dow 50,000

 Dow 50,000

 
Forty years of Dow Jones Industrial Average performance begs the question "When?" not "If?" the DJIA will reach the 50,000 milestone.
 
As often discussed on this blog, the greatest dangers to the financial farmer are taxation and inflation. In regards to the DJIA, we can clearly see the effects of inflation; the average has a relatively stable linear trajectory from 1984 to 2024. Albeit, there are some SERIOUS instances of volatility cause tremendous slides and spikes. 

With that said, we are about 32% away from Dow 50,000 or just about a third. Over the past forty years the Dow has risen some 37,000 points or 3200%. Is America 32X BETTER than it was in 1984? Doubtful.

As best I can tell, the major "advances" over the past 40 years have largely been in the PRICES. Real wages have fallen after having peaked sometime in the early 1970s. What has increased? The price of nearly everything save perhaps for COMPUTING power. And that is what I argue has been the REAL growth over the past 40 years, indeed perhaps even dating back to the invention of the microprocessor itself.

Nearly every component of the Dow, the the members have changed significantly over the past 40 years, have by definition been industrial companies. Over time though those components have weighted more and more towards technology. The same can be said of the broader S&P 500 Index, whose 505 members are a cross section of the largest companies in the United States.

Today fewer companies make more of the profits, and naturally those companies have higher market capitalizations. It has gotten so extreme that less than a dozen technology companies account for the majority of the capitalization. 

There have been several seminal events over the past 40 years of Dow performance which has driven the market significantly higher. In the early 1980s the taxation structure was significantly changed in the United States under President Reagan. This led to an unprecedented boom.

After the crash in 1987 and recession in the early 1990s I argue the next seminal event was in December 1994 when the Netscape Navigator browser was released. That opened the world to the internet. And even during multiple upheavals during the next 30 years the internet gradually came to dominate global commerce.

I believe we are at a similar inflection point to December 16th, 1994 the day after Netscape Navigator was released with AI today. Via ChatGPT and distribution via the largest company in the world, Microsoft, I believe the world again is going to pivot higher in terms of real growth.

What does this mean for the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Assuming more of its components harness AI, or are even replaced in the Index BY AI-dominate companies, the Dow itself should see meaningful increases in the year(s) ahead and not just due to inflation, but rather TRUE growth in terms of productivity. If the Netscape theory holds, then we should see Dow 50,000 sooner rather than later.


Sunday, January 28, 2024

How to Buy (& Sell) Gold

 How to Buy (& Sell) Gold

 
Buying gold as a store of value and protection against inflation seems like an easy thing to do, if you know how to do it correctly. Buying gold is only one side of the proverbial coin though, with selling proving to be the challenge many holders face. Thus, it is important to "begin with the end in mind," because it is far easier to buy gold close to spot price than it is to sell it near spot price.

First, it is important to understand some terms in the gold market. Chief amongst them is spot price. Spot price is the price paid for a certain weight of gold on the global exchanges with New York and London being the primary pricing markets. Gold is almost universally quoted in dollars.

Gold generally trades 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The vast majority of this trading is via contracts for future delivery of gold. Spot pricing is for a certain moment in time. The spot price also refers to a certain fineness of gold, typically 24K. 

24K implies 99%+ pure gold. Other common measures of fineness include 22K, 18K, 14K, and 10K. An easy rule of thumb to mentally figure out what those different fineness benchmarks mean is to divide by 24K. So for example, 10K gold would be 10/24 or 41.67% gold.

There are many schemes to swindle the uneducated gold buyer out of their hard-earned cash involving spot price, weight, and purity. That is usually done on the selling side, but buyers need to be aware of what they are really buying.

Generally speaking, retail buyers should attempt to buy physical gold in liquid known instruments. That is a fancy way of saying gold coins and gold bars minted by either governments or the handful of private commercial mints.

To get the best pricing a buyer should shop around on several of the largest exchanges, eBay is a good starting point. There you can find hundreds of different sellers, many of whom have their own stores outside eBay. Companies with thousands of positive transactions with decades of experience are generally a safe bet.

Depending on what state you live in, there may or may not be sales tax on gold. In California for example, purchases UNDER $1500 are taxed, while those OVER are not. This is meaningful when you purchase say a 20 gram gold bar for $1450 and another $120 is tacked on for sales tax. Imagine if you were charged sales tax every time you bought a stock!

If you don't have $1500 or more to buy physical gold, or if you don't want to buy physical gold, there are other good options. Multiple companies have sponsored holdings called Exchange Traded Funds. These ETFs store gold in audited physical vaults with each share of this ETF representing a portion of that gold. 

The advantages of a gold ETF are significant. First they are very easy to buy and sell at close to spot prices. Second, you don't have to worry about storage or security for your gold. Third, the sales tax problem goes away. The downside is you don't physically have your gold in hand. There is an old saying in the gold buying world, "if you don't hold it, you don't own it."

Along with ETFs there are gold mining companies whose common stock can be readily bought and sold on most exchanges. This offers investors the upside of owning companies with gold mines. The downside is you have to be right twice; once on gold itself and second (perhaps more importantly) on management of these companies. In the Gold Rush era, it was extremely common for investors to own "feet," or literally the measured foot of a gold mine and be paid on that holding quantity every Sunday in dividend.

Buying coins, bars, and nuggets are all ways to physically buy gold. And generally the closer you get to the source, the closer you get to spot price. Dealers typically tack on a 2-5% premium ABOVE spot. If you contact a miner directly it is possible to get nuggets at up to 10% below spot. A lot depends on who you buy from and in what quantity.

One of the great conundrums of buying gold is that to get close to spot price on the buy you typically have to purchase larger quantities, unless you decide to go the ETF route. The real danger to an investor who has properly sourced a purchase of gold and perhaps needs to sell a portion down the road is SELLING it.

Of all the years I have been active in the gold market I have successfully only sold gold ONCE for above spot price, and that was for a gold bar still inside its protective plastic case. Barring that, you can expect to get a significant haircut SELLING gold; anything from 5-10% (or more!) depending on who you sell to. Seller beware!

Who you sell to is important. There are all types of schemes to lighten your load. They include trying to confuse you with different weights (pennyweights, grams, troy ounces, etc.) Then there is the old acid test where a piece of your gold is scraped against stone and different acids are applied to determine the fineness of the gold. Of course fineness is then called into question.

To help avoid these situations, physical gold like 1 Oz U.S. Gold Eagles, 100 Gram Gold Bars, and similar well-known instruments are best. For scrap gold or unknowns, it is almost always best to work with a smelter, but identify ahead of time what your estimated gold content is before a melt. Know the value before you sell!

This obviously is where ETFs have a significant advantage over physical gold. Liquidity is as easy as hitting "Sell" on the computer screen. The ETF shares are sold and funds deposited into your account immediately. Another advantage is that since ETFs trade as stocks rather than actual commodities any taxable implications are also treated favorably. 

As Johnny Cash said, "This world is rough, and if a man's gonna make it he's gotta be tough." The same can be said of the gold market. There still is tremendous friction in buying (and especially selling) gold. Scams and cheats abound, a little of the Wild West remains in every gold transaction. But if you know what you want to buy, can identify it precisely, and "buy smart" adding gold to your portfolio can be a smart move.

 



Saturday, January 27, 2024

Taxflation

Taxflation

 
It is hard to believe there was a time in the United States, nay the world, where there as NO income tax! Indeed, for the first glorious 137 years of our Republic there was no income tax. Save for a brief period of fundraising for the Civil War, 3% for incomes over $800 from 1861 to 1872, there was no Federal Income tax. 
 
In 1913, however, the Democrat Party along with Progressive Republicans helped usher in the age of taxation with passage of The 16th Amendment which provided that "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."

The initial 1913 shakedown was minimal; less than 1% of the population paid income taxes at the then 1% rate. Oh how things have changed. The passage of the 16th Amendment quickly led to nearly every State then implementing an income tax. Not to be outdone, many local municipalities jumped on the bandwagon and passed legislation implementing THEIR own taxes.

Over time the RATE of income taxation has gone up in percentage terms considerably, where for many high earners the net take-home pay is less than half the amount earned. For some 110 years the trend has been for the Governments (yes plural; Federal, State, Local) to take MORE.

This is obviously a serious concern for an investor, and especially a financial farmer because we know how much effort and labor it takes to create capital, grow it, and even harvest it. That entire process is now steeped in taxation. But it gets worse.

America has long been involved in many conflicts, obviously the Civil War, World War I and World War II immediately come to mind. There have been numerous other large scale conflicts such the Korean War, Vietnam War, Cold War, Iraq Wars, Afghanistan, and also day-to-day funding of parawars in Central America, South America, Africa, Ukraine, and Israel to name but a few. Wars are expensive, very expensive.

In nearly every single one of the example illustrated above, this country needed to raise funds. This was accomplished by either increasing (starting) taxation or printing more money. Productivity gains, winning wars, and general population growth developing Western States generally took care of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. We saw taxation rates stabilize and fall. Inflation spiked, but then cooled. The straw that broke the proverbial camel's back, however, was Vietnam.

To pay for Vietnam a combination of increased taxation and more spending wasn't enough. Ultimately Nixon needed to take the United States off of the Gold Standard in 1971. This allowed the government to print virtually unlimited money to pay for the war and inflate our way out of the financial situation. At least for a time, because we never went back on the gold standard. And the results have been disastrous.
 
So what is a financial farmer to do regarding taxflation? The most important thing to do first is realize the danger taxflation poses to your economic well-being. It is in your best interest to make the best tax-advantaged moves you can make. A lot of that has to do with WHERE physically you generate income. Another concern is HOW MUCH income your generate, and it there are ways to reduce that number. Finally, if we are all using the fiat dollar, the one must put serious thought in how to squeeze immediate value from the currency.
 
Not everyone can move to Florida or Texas, control their income generation, and buy gold, real estate or stocks with whatever dollars they do generate. But for many of us, there are other salient options available such as reducing "friction," ie triggering gains unnecessarily, frequent moves, consuming rather than saving more resources than needed, or wasteful behavior. Those all have meaningful long-term impacts.
 
Ultimately, growth in real terms springs from increase in productivity. Stores of value, like gold and real estate, help protect against inflation because gold talks toil to obtain while real estate is a need universal good. But growth in a function of productivity...doing something in a new way; faster, cheaper, smarter than we are currently doing it. And that is what we are looking for as financial farmers.

 

Friday, January 26, 2024

Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity

 
"Escape velocity is the speed that an object needs to be traveling to break free of a planet or moon's gravity well and leave it without further propulsion." - Northwestern University
 
As financial farmers striving to build, grow, and ultimately subsist off of our portfolio it behooves us to understand this aerodynamic concept.

As we have discussed many times, the greatest threats to the investor are taxation and inflation. Generally speaking, a financial metric like the S&P 500 will continue to increase in value over time because it is composed of survivors; ie only companies who remain prosperous remain in the index, while losers are dropped or go bankrupt. But even the S&P 500 fights a tough battle against inflation. 

The question investors need to ask themselves is whether real growth is occurring are we simply seeing an increase in prices? Inflation often disguises itself as growth. A superb example is M2, or money supply. Does increasing the supply of money increase its true value? Not if it isn't backed by productivity gains.

Knowing that every dollar is worth less tomorrow than today due to inflation, an investor should seek to capture the value of that dollar sooner rather than later. Over the past 5 years the 3 assets classes which have been able to do that are gold, real estate, and stocks (S&P 500 as the preferred benchmark.)

For the worker who has been saving cash the past 5 years it has been brutal. And for those who have been steadily socking it away for decades even worse. The traditional saver has been inflated out of a good portion of their buying power, some 50% in the past 3 years alone!

In the example above, a spaceship needs enough velocity to escape a planet's gravity well. Velocity in our situation are resources, whether gold, real estate, or stocks. Assets that not only hold their value, but perhaps offer growth potential as well. The "gravity well" can be considered that suffocating burden of taxation and inflation which erodes true value and stifles growth.

The reason we Invest Like A Farmer is to achieve sustained growth over time. That rarely happens by chance. An investor needs to understand the value of their paper money and how best to deploy it quickly as fiat currency apparently has a half life in the current environment of about 3 years.

 

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Why You Can't Buy a House

 Why You Can't Buy a House

 
You can't afford to buy a house because the Home Price to Median Household Income Ratio is at the highest level ever at 7.56. Historically that ratio has been around 4. Things are even worse, much worse, if you are in California.
 
Many of the small, medium and large cities in California are into the double digits. Are you a young family considering moving to Santa Barbara, CA? Good luck. With a median household income of $89,000 relocating to this beautiful city with a median home price of $2.4M results in a HP2MHIR of 27!
 
California is so bad because of the effects of Proposition 13 which has allowed a singular generation to capitalize on the real estate market by essentially capping their taxes while simultaneously allowing for unlimited upside potential. This law has kneecapped future generations. 

Historically real estate has been an IDEAL investment (Income, DEpreciation, Appreciation, Leverage), but with a HP2MHIR at 7.56 (or worse) what is a young, ambitious gainfully employed American family to do?

Well, first it helps to have 2 incomes. Ever since more women have entered the workforce rather than raise families the HP2MHIR has steadily risen. This makes sense. Money will chase good housing, and only those who have more money can get into better housing.

This brings up the next point; it is far better (from a housing standpoint) to have no children. Children are expensive, and the cost of childcare, either directly or indirectly, is tantamount to LOSING one income. Good housing incentivizes childless couples, while penalizing families with children.
 
All of these factors has lead many young families to be "trapped" in a never-ending renting loop that shows zero signs of abating. These families can afford to rent in a area that has good schools perhaps, but there is little to zero chance of them ever being able to purchase in these very areas.
 
As the population grows there hasn't necessarily been in a growth of good places to live, or housing for that matter; demand is increasing, but supply is not. By definition, prices will continue to march higher as demand outstrips supply. Naturally the demographics will also change. Santa Barbara is a good example.
 
What has historically been a sleepy surf town just two hours from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara has now become a large open air retirement enclave with many East Coast urban transplants along with many from the Chicago area whose politics fit neatly in their new home. The result of this migration has been the establishment of the owner class and the servant class. This scenario is playing out daily throughout coastal California.
 
What is a young family that wants to have children to do? Immediately, probably the best course of action is to prioritize the best schools for your kid(s) even if that means renting. Alternatively, you could also look to a 2nd or 3rd tier area to live which may not have everything you want, but it may have everything you NEED.
 
The United States is vast, so there really should be no housing shortage. Over the longer term, the best way to absorb the excess demand is to create more housing. There is plenty of room for multiple entire cities to spring up across the country. Creating more housing will lower the HP2MIHR.

The most obvious, and impactful, solution would be to increase productivity in the United States with a combination of monetary and fiscal policy that is pro-growth; the impact of this would be to significantly REDUCE inflation.

Inflation has bee the true scourge on the economy, causing prices to rise over 50% in the past 3 years alone. Couple that with dilution in the value of American Citizenship and we have some serious problems. The road ahead for potential home buyers is a slog. Unless there is a meaningful drop in prices, an increase in income, or both we have a polarized future of owners and renters who can never own.


Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Wage Collapse

 Wage Collapse

 
One of the greatest challenges Americans have faced over the past 3 years is the collapse in real wages caused by poor fiscal and monetary policy. 

As an investor, one of the primary goals is to increase the value of your portfolio over time. Value is typically associated with a dollar sign, ie the more your portfolio is worth in dollars over time, then logically one would assume that it is more valuable as well. That assumption would be a serious mistake.

M2, or money supply, generally increases over time for a variety of reasons. Ideally that increase is stable, predictable, and backed by productivity gains. Since the US Dollar is a fiat currency (ie not backed by anything but "the full faith and credit" of the United States government), an investor should keep a close eye on the M2. Why?

As M2 increases without a corresponding increase in productivity or physical commodity backing, it DILUTES the value of every other dollar. So say you're a guy named Dollar Bill just minding your own business looking to make a purchase of a good or service. And out of nowhere a hundred, perhaps thousands of NEW Dollar Bills appear out of nowhere and want the SAME good or service that you do!

The net effect of too many Dollar Bills is dilution in purchasing power. Value has decreased. The illusion created by flooding the country with dollars is one of prosperity and wealth, the reality is just the opposite. Wage earners feel the bite of this con worse than anyone else because wages are typically fixed, whereas the monetary supply, stock market, and gold market react immediately and exactly to the con.

Consider the charts below representing 5-year snapshots. The M2 increased by some $7,000,000,000,000 ($7 Trillion) over the past five years in nominal terms or roughly 50% MORE U.S. Dollars were created out of thin air. Not surprisingly, the stock market, as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, also "gained" some 50%. As did the price of gold. Did your wage increase by 50%? Probably not.


As a proactive investor, it behooves you to understand the greatest challenge you face is probably inflation, especially if you are a wage earner. And broadly speaking, probably 80%+ of all Americans are wage earners; whether you are a blue collar worker on an assembly line with an hourly salary or a white collar worker behind a desk or in an office with a fixed salary or even a "no collar" worker on the gig economy with a hybrid salary, the vast majority of us are all subject to a recurring price paid for labor. Typically the wage lags, or never catches up, the price charged by the manufacturer or service lead.

What does this all mean? Vigilance coupled without action is useless. So the prudent financial farmer needs to have what I call an "Argentine Mindset." Americans can learn a lot from socialist countries that are corrupt and face raging inflation. Namely, what do their citizens do with cash when they get it from their jobs?
 
Answer: They dump local currency ASAP and turn it into (pick one or more): a more stable currency, gold, real estate, stocks and/or physical goods or tools. They literally cannot spend it fast enough because it depreciates so rapidly. Indeed, it has been recounted frequently that inflation was so bad in the Weimar Republic (pre-WW2 Germany) that a cart full of banknotes was left outside a bakery. When the owner returned, the cart was stolen.

If the goal is to increase the value of a portfolio over time, one should understand the true value of their country's money and deploy it accordingly.