During the market crash that began in June 2008 and ended in March of 2009, the TSX lost 50% of its peak value; the US indexes (cf. S&P 500; NASDAQ) experienced similar losses. Other asset classes such as gold and the loonie suffered similar losses against the mighty US dollar, as investors took a flight to “safety”. Arguably this was a period of deflation, when most asset classes plummeted in value while the US dollar itself benefited. It was also deflation caused by a shrinkage of credit, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, which had the effect of reducing the quantity of money.
Since the beginning of this deflationary crisis, the US Federal Reserve has taken measures to reflate the US dollar through quantitative easing–which is the creation of new fiat currency. Yesterday, Bernanke’s Federal Reserve promised to create another 600 billion greenbacks out of thin air, a spelling out of a promise that occurred already a couple weeks ago, causing the dollar to dive against gold, oil and foreign currencies. This is probably only the beginning of the woes. Some writers, such as Gonzalo Lira (see e.g., “How The Fed Gave Away $1.5 Trillion Through Stealth Monetization“), are predicting serious hyperinflation beginning in the first quarter of the new year.
Yet surprisingly, there remains a large number experts who believe that our biggest fear today is still deflation. David Rosenberg issued another warning which appeared at the Business Insider on November 1: “All This Talk Of Inflation Is Madness, DEFLATION Is Still The Big Threat“.
Clearly the investor needs a flexible strategy that hedges against inflation and deflation at the same time. I personally believe that inflation is the way its going to go down; it is possible to create too much money and the Federal Reserve in its fear of another Great Depression is creating money to prevent it. In my view, it does nothing helpful except to reduce debt by debasing the dollar. All my life inflation has been the major threat and I’ve seen the dollar lose buying power consistently through the decades. So I don’t really believe in deflation, particularly when Bernake has the creation of inflation as his goal. He has no power to improve the economy, but he can destroy the dollar.
Yet because of Rosenberg’s (et al.) warning, I think it prudent to have a plan for deflation. But how does an investor have a working strategy to beat inflation and deflation at the same time? I’m not leaving my money in cash–that’s what you do when you believe that deflation is the only credible threat. If you believe that inflation is the only credible threat, then you put everything into concrete assets like oil companies or real estate. Debt is a marvelous asset class–provided that the debt is invested in a rental real estate (a mortgage) or dividend bearing stocks so that the interest can be paid. So in fighting inflation I’m doing the following:
1. I maintain mortgage debt on a rental property.
2. I maintain a stock portfolio which is 100% invested in Canadian oil and gas or gold-mining companies.
3. I maintain a positive Canadian cash balance and negative US dollar balance in my margin accounts. As a Canadian investor, my total margin is calculated as a composite of the Canadian and US accounts. I may hold Canadian equities in my US account.
4. I occasionally move assets from US dollar account into Canadian funds.
In order to protect against deflation:
1. I maintain ample margins in my margin accounts.
2. I have my lines of credit which protect against a margin call. In case of a Rosenberg-predicted double dip, I have to have something to fall back on, and that’s where the HELOCs come in (both on the rental property and on the primary residence). Yesterday, I was able to obtain 30% increase in these lines.
3. I will take profits on gains and increase cash positions as market improves (in loonies not greenbacks).
4. In case of market depression, I will use the unused lines of credit to average down on equities.
In many cases, after the 2008 crash, I was able to pick up stocks at well below shareholder’s equity. For example, I was picking up shares of Midway Energy, which had a book value of $3.40, as low as $0.39, which is an astounding .115 price to book ratio. In market downturns, the stocks will be oversold, and bargains will be available. Thus, at least half of the lines of credit must be reserved for purpose of averaging down during a market crash. The other half, of course, is reserved to meet a margin call. No debt or obligation (such as a possible assignment on put option) is covered by the margin alone but by cash or an outside line of credit as well.
This is an unconventional strategy. But these are not conventional times. Most of the investment strategies that I’ve seen continue to call for a balanced portfolio–balanced between stocks and fixed income investments (bonds, savings accounts, treasury notes, gics, etc.). Those who were burned by stocks twice in less than a decade are now being told to ease back into “risky” assets because of the fear of inflation (see for example, Rob Carrick). But I worry that most financial columnists and advisers are not taking the risk of hyperinflation seriously enough, and their readers or clients will be burnt as a result.