[This piece is intended for those who are new to PeakProsperity.com or to our general perspective. Feel free to share with anyone whom you think might benefit from the central question it raises: Which side do you choose?]
Whether you're aware of it or not, a great battle is being waged around us.
It is a war of two opposing narratives. Regarding the future of our economy and our standard of living.
The dominant story, championed by flotillas of press releases and parading talking heads, tells an inspiring tale of recovery and return to growth.
The other side, less visible but with a full armament of high-caliber data, tells a very different story. One of growing instability, downside risk, and inequality.
As different as they are in substance, they both share one fundamental prediction – and this is why you should care: This battle is about to break. And when it does, one side will turn out to be much more 'right' than the other. The time for action has arrived. To position yourself in the direction of the break you think is most likely to happen.
It's time to choose a side.
The Case for Playing Offense
The past several months have seen a surge in positive stories celebrating the U.S. emergence out of recession and back to solid economic health.
1) Tapping into shale oil and gas deposits is ushering in a new energy boom. Domestic energy production is on the rise, creating jobs and increasing exports, while reducing our dependency on foreign suppliers:
The United States may be close to self-sufficiency in energy by 2030 because of a "shale revolution" in the country, said BP's chief executive officer.
2) The stock market is thriving, with several indices at record highs. Corporate earnings and investor confidence are booming, and the expectation of a Great Rotation of massive amounts of capital from low-yielding bonds into the stock market is high:
The big theme of 2013 – according to investment strategists at shops across Wall Street – will be the "Great Rotation," a massive move out of bonds and into stocks.
Economic growth in the U.S. is expected to accelerate, facilitating the shift.
3) The global economy has made it out of the woods and is increasingly robust. In the US, the unemployment rate is down several percent from its recession high. The fiscal cliff was averted. The 2013 deficit has been reduced below $1 trillion for the first time in five years. The crisis in Europe has been successfully managed.
There is no official declaration, or even a formal survey. But the chatter at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is about the end of the financial crisis that began in 2008 and dragged on through last summer’s spike in Spanish and Italian government bond yields. “There’s a crystallization of thought that the financial crisis is over,” says Scott Minerd, managing partner and chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, a Santa Monica (Calif.) firm with about $160 billion under management.
4) Housing, the engine of consumer wealth, is in recovery. Home prices are on the rise after years of punishing declines. And a rebound in consumer spending is visible across a wide spectrum of home-related services:
The housing rebound is broadening to other parts of the U.S. economy and will likely lend impetus to growth through 2013 and beyond.
Climbing home prices are lifting household wealth and boosting the purchasing power of consumers. Declining mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures are buttressing bank balance sheets, giving them greater leeway to lend. And rising property- tax revenue is fortifying the finances of state and local governments, alleviating pressure on them to cut budgets.
“The housing recovery will kick into a higher gear as the year progresses,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist in West Chester, Pennsylvania, for Moody’s Analytics Inc. “We’re going to get a lot of juice from the channels” through which it affects other parts of the economy.
5) Jobs are being created and consumer income is on the rise. U.S. personal income recently experienced its biggest increase in eight years. Non-farm payrolls have increased every month for the past two years. There are increasing examples of local job markets experiencing a true employment "boom":
"Employment growth in Silicon Valley is impressive, very impressive," said Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. "Some might even say the job growth is cause for euphoria."
Last year, the nine-county Bay Area added about 92,000 jobs, according to the study. Of that total, Silicon Valley — defined as Santa Clara and San Mateo counties — accounted for 46 percent, or 42,000 jobs.
"This is prodigious job creation," Hancock said. "The growth is crazy and it's getting crazier."
A Rosy Picture
Taken collectively, it's hard not to feel optimistic – even strongly so – about our future prospects. With these messages constantly being delivered and reinforced, it's little wonder that the status quo is not under attack. That the energy behind the Occupy movement has dissipated. Because a better tomorrow lies ahead, right?
The Case for Defense
As alluring as the offensive narrative sounds, it contradicts starkly with the preponderance of underlying data. Data that requires some – but not too much – digging beneath the headlines.
In counterpoint to the above narrative, a sampling of this data reveals the following:
1) Expensive oil is here to stay and will handicap economic growth for decades to come. Peak Oil is alive and well, despite the "shale miracle". The four major global oil producers, including BP, continue to report declining total production numbers despite more than doubling well drilling activity since 2007. Gas prices this February are the highest they've been in history:
Consumers have been spending more on gasoline than they have in nearly three decades.
With pump prices at their highest level on record for this time of year, the stage is set for an even greater climb in gasoline prices and expenditures than in 2012. Retail gasoline prices have surged 17 cents in a week to top $3.50 a gallon on average, posting the highest prices on record for the beginning of February.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported Monday that gasoline expenditures in 2012 for the average U.S. household reached $2,912, or just under 4 percent of income before taxes. This was the highest estimated percentage of household income spent on gasoline in nearly three decades, with the exception of 2008, when the average household spent a similar amount.
2) Financial security valuations are dislocated from the fundamentals of the underlying companies. The trillions of dollars of liquidity pumped into the market by the Fed is, yet again, blowing asset bubbles in stocks and bonds. Respectable veteran investors from Bill Gross, to Jeremy Grantham, to Jim Rogers, to Bob Janjuah, to John Hussman are warning of a coming calamitous correction. Corporate insiders, despite their proclamations of record profitability, are voting with their feet and selling over 9 times more of their company stock than they are buying:
Insiders have been pulling out of stocks just as small investors are getting in.
There have been more than nine insider sales for every one buy over the past week among NYSE stocks, according to Vickers. The last time executives sold their company's stock this aggressively was in early 2012, just before the S&P 500 went on to correct by 10 percent to its low for the year.
"Insiders know more than the vast majority of market participants," said Enis Taner, global macro editor for RiskReversal.com. "And they're usually right over a long period of time."
3) The economic "recovery" is anemic at best, and skewed heavily to the top few percent. December saw negative GDP growth and last week saw the persistently-high unemployment rate creep back up. December's reported personal income increases was primarily a one-time event, as companies sought to pay out excess income and dividends in advance of anticipated 2013 income tax increases. Payroll taxes will rise on all employees, but carried interest and capital gains rates (how the wealthy earn their income) remain unchanged at historically low levels. Nearly two-thirds of Americans now expect anemic economic growth to define our "new normal" way of life:
More Americans believe today than they did two years ago that their country will never fully recover from the Great Recession.
Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in August 2010 said they believed the Great Recession would permanently change the economy. In a January follow-up survey, 60 percent of respondents agreed with that sentiment.
"Five years of economic misery have profoundly diminished Americans' confidence in the economy and their outlook for the next generation," Rutgers professor and survey co-author Carl Van Horn said in a statement.
Most survey respondents — 73 percent — had either lost their jobs or knew somebody who had. More than half said they have less money than they did before the recession, and 61 percent believe they will never fully recover.
4) The housing market will not return to its former glory. With no real wage growth and further de-leveraging still needed, the consumer is not driving the modest price growth seen in many housing markets; instead, hedge funds are – they are buying up huge tracts of foreclosed homes, renting them out, and securitizing those rental streams. This will not result in the competitive bidding by multiple parties that drove the appreciation pre-bubble collapse. In fact, the entire concept of looking at a house as a financial investment is eschewed by the founder of the Case-Shiller Housing Index:
"Housing traditionally is not viewed as a great investment. It takes maintenance, it depreciates, it goes out of style. All of those are problems. And there's technical progress in housing. So, new ones are better."
"So, why was it considered an investment? That was a fad. That was an idea that took hold in the early 2000's. And I don't expect it to come back. Not with the same force. So people might just decide, "Yeah, I'll diversify my portfolio. I'll live in a rental." That is a very sensible thing for many people to do."
5) Our trading partners are as bad off, or worse, than we are. Global markets have rallied in recent months as the news from Europe grew quiet – despite no real resolution to the core problems occurring. And in recent days, fresh concerns about forex rates hurting competitiveness, crushing unemployment, and excessive debt have erupted. Meanwhile, Japan is everyone's leading candidate for the first developed nation of the 21st century to implode under its debts. And China, whether it is able to avoid a hard landing or not in the short term, is staring at a mid-term food and water crisis that it has no solution to.
International bankers and finance ministers warned on Saturday that Europe's crisis was not over even though the euro currency is now stabilized, it will take years to overcome economic malaise and mass unemployment in Europe.
After a private meeting of leading commercial bankers, government officials, central bankers and trade union officials, Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg told Reuters: "There is a clear divide between the financial markets, who think a lot of this is fixed, and the people in the real economy and particularly from our side as the governments."
6) The risk of external shocks is under-appreciated and unplanned for. Currently financial markets and our just-in-time national distribution systems are geared for clear sailing ahead. Unexpected developments like superstorm Sandy, a Fukushima-like event, or an oil price spike could easily send prices – and availability of goods – swiftly awry. For instance, the global drought continues, engulfing nearly 100% of Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma in extremely dry conditions. The UN warns that prices worldwide could easily spike this year, as world grain stocks are near historic lows:
World food prices stabilized in January after falling in the previous three months, the United Nations food agency said on Thursday, but it warned that adverse crop weather could cause violent price spikes due to tight grains stocks.
Global food prices surged in mid-2012 following the worst U.S. drought in more than half a century and dry weather in other key grains exporters, raising fears of a food crisis similar to the one in 2008.
"The weather could turn negative, and because we are in a tight situation, prices could react violently and rise," FAO senior economist Abdolreza Abbassian said.
FAO raised its estimate for world cereal use in 2012/13 by 0.6 percent to 2.326 billion metric tons, up nearly 13 million metric tons from the 2011/12 season.
A weaker dollar is boosting demand for dollar-denominated commodities, Abbassian said, and rising oil prices will underpin food prices in coming months, he said. Higher energy prices increase transport costs which farmers pass on to consumers.
Sadly, this list could stretch longer if I didn't feel the need to end it here to avoid overloading the reader. But suffice it to say that there is certainly enough evidence to at least dispel a material amount of the sanguine outlook of those cheerleading for an offensive stance at this time.
Picking Your Side
Those taking the optimistic view here argue that our economic engine has been running hard to pull us out of the hole we've been in for the past five years. And now that we're back on level track, the engine's built-up head of steam is going to move us forward quickly.
Expect better GDP growth, lower unemployment, higher income, high stock prices, higher housing prices, more innovation, and lower energy prices.
If this future comes to pass, you won't want to be left in the dust as the party roars past. Get on the train – go long, perhaps with some leverage, and bet on America's grit and ingenuity.
To be frank, this has been the winning side for the past year and a half. Those who have sided with the bulls have been rewarded with sizable stock gains and stabilized (or growing) housing prices.
But if, on the other hand, you – like me – find enough reason in the data for doubting the optimistic case, you need to determine what your defensive plan should be.
The degree of defense you adopt should be based upon your own exploration of the data. Dig further than the samples I could only cursorily provide above. Come up with your own personal assessment of the probability and severity of the downside risks.
If you find you assess the risks at or above the 'moderate' level (which I do), then consider strongly the following guidance:
- Exchange paper assets for tangible ones. Acquire exposure to the precious metals; we recommend having at least 10% of your net worth in gold and silver (for those new to owning precious metals, you may want to read our buyer's guide). Above that, if possible, invest in productive hard assets. Holdings like farmland, timberland, energy deposits, and mineral/water rights are assets that will produce units that will generate an income for you.
- Find a sympatico adviser to manage any remaining paper wealth. For many reasons, most of us will still keep a percentage of our wealth in the stock and bond markets (in retirement/pension accounts, 529 plans, etc). If you're in the defensive camp, make sure the adviser managing your money is, too. There are several we endorse, but we're impartial about whether you work with them or not. The important point here is to work with the adviser whose outlook is most closely aligned with yours.
- Cultivate resiliency. Most Peak Prosperity readers are well-aware of our recommendations here. Start at the individual level to prepare both physically and emotionally so that whatever the future brings, your quality of life is as least impacted as possible.
- Cultivate community. Whatever your plans, a support network will help you achieve them better, and likely faster, too. Plus, it gives you the added insurance of assistance should your best-laid plans not play out as you expect them to (which happens frequently). Invest in fostering collaborative relationships in your neighborhood, or join existing communities relevant to your location or interests.
- Defend your income stream(s). Assess your employment situation – how vulnerable is your income? Explore ways to make yourself more valuable to your employer, add additional source(s) of income, and/or create your own business. Steady income makes challenging times much easier to bear by giving you the flexibility to explore different approaches that may work better for the new reality. Without that ability to absorb failure, your options are often much more limited.
If you take the above steps, regardless of what happens, you'll be able to sleep at night knowing that you've acted conscientiously according to your convictions. And in the event the bulls turn out to be 'right', few of these steps will serve you poorly. In a secular bull market, hard assets should still appreciate measurably. And personal and community resiliency is always a net positive, regardless of the economic environment.
But if the bulls turn out to be the ones in error, the value of these actions could be priceless.
So get to it. Do your own personal calculus of the risks. Determine where you need to be positioned. And take the necessary steps to get well-situated where you assess you need to be.
It's time to choose a side.