How To Invest For Safety In Turbulent Times
The US economy is running on fumes, and almost everybody knows it. If you’re reading this article, you probably already agree with this on some level. At the very least, I think anyone who has been paying attention for the last decade should have deep concerns about the state of our financial markets and economy. If this is not you – if you’re one of the few who thinks everything is still going gangbusters – then the rest of this advice is probably not going to feel very relevant. However, if you’re wondering how to best prepare for an uncertain future, then I offer some tips and advice from a lifetime of investing and financial planning.
First, a brief background about why I start from the assumption that the economy is in danger. Start with over a trillion dollars a year in deficit spending. Add the fact that the Federal Reserve has been essentially printing money since 2008, by buying up vast amounts of US Treasury bonds. Now that the Fed has started “quantitative tightening,” selling off those bonds, the markets have plunged and whipsawed. If the deficit spending goes away, we will probably enter a severe recession or depression. And if the Fed continues selling bonds we will probably enter a severe recession or depression. But even if they don’t, even if the Fed just keeps buying debt endlessly and the government keeps spending billions it doesn’t have, there’s a natural limit when people and other countries start to lose faith in the dollar and the dollar starts to precipitously lose its value. At that point the Fed may not be able to control interest rates. The US government can barely make its interest payments right now. The real disease here is massive federal, corporate and personal debt. The Fed is just doing symptom management. Creating real sustainable jobs and paying off debt are the only cure.
One final piece of context to consider. The bubble that popped in 2008 has been re-inflated and is bigger than ever. Inflated stock prices and real estate prices are back to pre-recession levels, and the worthless securities that the Federal Reserve bought in their big corporate “Cash for Clunkers” bailout have continued to be bought and sold under different names. The economies of many states have been hollowed out by a mass exodus of jobs, and most towns and communities are strapped, unable to invest in adequate infrastructure repairs. The Great Recession never really left rural America. Times are hard, and the emerging climate crisis will make them harder still.
Clearly, there’s plenty to worry about. But there are also a number of steps that can be taken to prepare for greater market volatility and instability. Let’s look one-by-one at investments, and also consider some outside-the-box risk-reduction strategies.
Number One All-Time Best Investment – Paying Off Credit Cards. If you carry credit card debt, any principal payment is an investment where you get a guaranteed tax-free rate of return equal to whatever rate you are paying on the card. Cut spending and pay off the cards.
Stocks. The stock market is at artificial highs, even now when it has begun to fall and bounce around. Many companies make nothing of long-term value and have no income, but yet a high stock price. The few who are really making money in stocks are the investment banks and brokerages. Additionally, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that many of the firms being traded are actively contributing to the economic crisis, the climate crisis, or both. Many are externalizing pollution costs that will result in more super-fund clean-up sites on the taxpayer’s dime. This adds a dimension of ethical complexity to investing in the stock market, beyond the purely financial risk.
The bottom line, however, is that the stock market is the first thing you should pull back on if you start to anticipate high volatility, like we’re seeing now. Fortunately, stocks get an A+ for liquidity risk. In other words, they are quickly sellable. (Liquidity is valuable because it gives you flexibility to switch strategies.) But in volatile times when the stock market is at record highs, stocks get a D for risk to principal. “Deep Value” stocks of companies with a strong business plan, good earnings and little debt are the least risky stocks. They rise less in boom times and go down much less in recessions, and they generally pay dividends to shareholders.
Bonds. Bonds are loans you make. They can carry both interest rate risk and default risk. The bond market is very troubled by high debt of bond issuers. People have sought higher yields by buying junk bonds, re-packaged as “high yield” bonds. Bonds are called junk bonds because the government or company that issues them is deeply in debt. When governments and companies can’t make the payments on their bonds, they go into default. The US has defaulted before. While bonds get an A for liquidity risk because you can sell them easily, long term bonds get a D for safety of principal from an interest rate perspective.
Here’s how that works. When you own a $100 bond that pays a coupon of 3% per year, and then interest rates go up to 6%, no one will buy your old bond from you for $100, because they can buy a new $100 bond that pays 6%. To sell your old bond you would have to discount the sticker price to $50 in order for the buyer to make the same return ($3) that they would make by spending $50 on a new bond at 6%. Big loss of principal. That’s currently a serious risk because if printing too much money causes interest rates to spike, a government or company will have to issue new bonds with a much higher interest coupon. That will cause the old long-term bonds to quickly lose value. That’s principal risk.
A short-term US treasury note or a short-term company note doesn’t carry that interest rate risk like 30-year bonds do. The notes don’t pay very much but you’ll get your money back soon at their maturity date even if interest rates go up. Also the bonds of companies with a strong balance sheet and good earnings are at lower risk of default.
Bank CDs (Certificates of Deposit) and Cash. CDs have paid next to nothing for a long time. But in the short term they may have a place in some portfolios. They get an A+ for safety of principal if they are short term CD’s (not 5 year ones). Longer term CD’s have an inflation risk. If inflation spikes you can’t get out without a penalty to re-invest your principal. I recommend credit unions and locally-owned banks, not Wall Street. I also advise keeping some cash in a local credit union, and, if you have a safe place to park it, keeping some tens and twenties so you can still function if the ATM’s go dark for a while.
Real Estate. Buying at the top of the market is risky in that the value may plunge in a recession. C for liquidity risk, may be hard to sell. On the other hand, if you can buy a place where you can do some sheltering in place, it might be a good option. Analyze it. Can you hang onto it if you lose one of your jobs? Is it a sustainable place to live? (Not three feet above sea level, for instance, or surrounded by a million people who have no food or water stored for tough times). Farmland is pricy but maybe you can move to where land and houses are much cheaper. Is your source of income portable, or could it become portable, so you could move?
Precious metals Gold and silver are also an option for a portion of your reserves. I assess them as A+ on long-term risk of principal & liquidity but they earn no income. They are valuable if very high inflation comes along. A safe place to keep them requires careful planning.
Thinking Outside the Box. What if you don’t have much to invest or save? Your #1 investment is still to cut spending and get rid of credit card debt. You’ll be glad later even if it’s hard now. Develop some sidelines or new sources of income, based on what you like to do anyway, or what you have a passion for. Develop a business that can start small and doesn’t require you to go deeply in debt. Stress test your ideas and get advice from retired business people. Groups of retired advisors exist in many communities and they can help you refine your business plan.
Invest in Safety and Preparedness. Develop plans for how to cook with a rocket stove in the back yard. Invest in stored food and water, and in water filters. Make plans for how to stay warm, and where to go if you need to shelter with friends when a fire or other disaster comes along. Develop as big a garden as you have room for and get used to always growing some food. Build your skill base and learn how to grow plants, fix things, and keep motors and bicycles running. Learn about herbal medicines and how to grow them to make tinctures, teas and salves. These skillsets require time and perseverance to learn but it can make a great difference in hard times.
Invest in People. Build your network of friends, neighbors and family. Spend time nourishing the relationships in your life. Build deeper friendships and alliances. Our country and our communities are divided but we have more in common than we know. Get good at building bridges across differences in our communities. We have a much better chance of surviving harder times when we have strong connections in our community.
Invest in your own health, passion & safety. Whether it’s yoga, fitness, spiritual deepening, cleaning your diet – whatever you can do to improve your life, is a good investment. Learn to recognize when you feel safe and when you don’t. Stay aware and practice staying safe and teach that to all the children you know. Seek passion. Volunteer in the community. Get involved in repairing our climate. If you start to feel overwhelmed with fear, anger or sadness, email me for a copy of my short article on Working with Big Feelings & Grief and I’ll email it to you at no charge. Keep your spirits up.
I wish each of you the best in this coming year. May your life be filled with loving relationships, good times, good food, music, meaning, purpose, preparedness and safety.
With thanks to my editor, Gordon Allen, who improves the way I write.