What a wild week it was! Last week, the US bumped off Osama bin Laden. Silver collapsed. Unemployment looked terrible on Thursday…and better on Friday.
Stocks looked like they were in trouble…but then seemed to stabilize by week’s end.
And President Obama suddenly became The Decider.
What do you make of it? Or, a more practical question, if you’ve got money to invest, what do you do with it?
On Friday, gold closed at $1,491 – about 5% below its all-time high. Buy it now? Or commodities, when they too seem to be coming off record highs? Oil was down 10% last week. Buy stocks – when all the evidence shows that they are vulnerable to a big downswing…and will probably produce sub-par returns for many years?
What’s the alternative? Hold cash!
But wait. Who wants to hold dollars (or other paper currencies, for that matter) when inflation rates are rising…and the dollar is currently losing ground at the rate of more than 7% a year (according to MIT’s Billion Prices Project)?
A tough situation for investors. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
Here’s our old friend Merryn Somerset-Webb, editor of MoneyWeek, on the subject:
Why you should hold cash
A long-term property bear told me this week that he was going to buy a flat. Why? He can’t bring himself to keep his money in cash when savings rates are 3%, inflation is 5% and income tax is 40%. But he can’t bring himself to buy much else either: most equities look overvalued; commodities could easily be on the edge of another cyclical peak; and there is only so much gold a man can hold. But his money “has to go somewhere”. And at least property offers some kind of yield.
I can see his points – holding cash in an era of negative real interest rates can feel painful. But what if it’s the least bad option? Dylan Grice of Société Générale points out that while it’s true cash “generally has a zero expected real return”, there is at least a “near- certainty around that expected return”. Mostly if you hold cash you know you won’t make money, but you won’t lose much either.
That’s not usually good enough. Most of the time, risk assets return more than 0%. So it makes sense to be biased towards equities, bonds, commodities, houses and wine instead of cash. But there are also occasions when risk assets are unlikely to return more than zero – times when the risk of losing money in non-cash assets is so high that it makes more sense to aim for a zero return than a real return. Now, says Grice, “might just be one of those times”.
Merryn is probably right. At least, that’s what we concluded at the Family Office too. The Bonner family holds an uncomfortably large amount of its portfolio in cash.
It is uncomfortable because we believe cash will soon be the very worst place to keep your money.
And more thoughts…
What’s Bill doing in China? Ah ha! He’s just trying to keep up with things…take a look around…see for himself. Dear Readers are invited to join him for a drink in Beijing or Shanghai. Darius has details: firstname.lastname@example.org
*** Times have changed. When governments sent out hit squads to kill someone, they used to keep quiet about it. But this time, Obama called a national press conference to claim credit. His poll ratings rose.
Rarely has a killing been such a crowd pleaser. There was dancing in the streets. It recalled the happy mob that kicked around Louis 16th’s head or the crowd that spat upon Mussolini’s corpse. Americans were jubilant. The newspapers were universally joyful and upbeat. “Mission accomplished,” said the editorials.
Arms maker Berretta took out a full-page ad in the weekend USA Today to applaud the Navy SEALS who pulled the trigger. Beretta and other handgun makers typically apologize when their products are used to kill unarmed civilians. This time, they were using it to gain market share.
And feeling their oats, US officials decided to try to make it two for two, with a drone attack on a “terror suspect,” in Yemen. The radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi survived, reported the Hong Kong paper.
Asked where in the Constitution the federal government was given the right to murder people, Eric Holder, US Attorney General, replied that this was certainly not murder. And not an assassination either. This was war! Osama bin Laden was an enemy combatant. US forces mounted an operation to kill him, as they might target an opposing general. Fair and square.
But if Osama bin Laden were an enemy general, his was a strange army. How many divisions did he have? Where were his warships? His aircraft carriers? His submarines? Where were his tanks? And his trained legions? He had no army. No navy. No marines. No air force. Not even a few praetorians guarding his headquarters. He was almost alone. No Swiss guards, no home guard; for there was no homeland to guard. And not a single troop carrier, for there were no troops and nowhere to take them. He had no tanks. No fighter planes. No bombers. No artillery. In fact, his most effective weapon was the lowly box cutter.
A fanatic with a box cutter can be dangerous; but he is no Grande Armée…no Wehrmacht…no Japanese Imperial Army. He is not a worthy opponent for the Pentagon, in other words; for there is no glory in picking on someone who’s not your own size.
As the week moved on, glory turned to embarrassment. The terrorist was not armed. He didn’t use his wife as a human shield. He didn’t live in a mansion surrounded by armed guards. Instead, it began to look like the SEALS had gunned down a sick, broken old invalid.
But what an opportunity! Forget the messy court trials. Who knows how they might turn out…or what information they might reveal? The government spends a fortune trying to convict mobsters and drug pushers, for example. Why not just declare war on them, and send in hit squads? And now the SEC is laboring hard to convict a fund manager in the Galleon case. It would be so much simpler to label SEC violators ‘financial terrorists’ – and let drones take care of them.
But wait, we’re missing the biggest opportunity of all. Other countries have done it for years; why shouldn’t we? Instead of defeating political enemies at the polls, why not just say you are at war with them and take them out? Take Donald Trump, for example. Here at The Daily Reckoning, we are warming up to Mr. Trump. He is our kind of politician. Too rich to steal. Too dumb to lie. But he is surely a threat to the Republic. So why not call in a drone attack?
Why waste drones on Osama bin Laden? He posed no real threat to the government of the United States of America. Even in his own backyard, he was a loser. He was unable to take over a single woebegone, Muslim- drenched country in the Mid-East. There was never any question that he would be able to defeat the US.
Nor was he a substantial threat to the American people. For all his box cutters and suicidal followers, statistically – according to The Financial Times – he did less damage to Americans than accidents caused by wild deer. In the 10 years following the announcement of the War on Terror, as far as we know, he was not responsible for a single North American casualty. As a general, he was worse than any we ever heard of; even Sir Douglas Haig was not that bad.
Osama bin Laden didn’t pose a threat to the US or its people; instead, the danger he posed was more like the danger of an interest-only, low- doc, automatically reset mortgage with a teaser rate. Bin Laden, in an early video address, announced his strategy. He could sucker the US into spending an enormous amount of money to combat him. He would not try to defeat the US on the field of battle; instead, he would lure the giant into expenses it could not afford.
And lo, it has come to pass just as the bearded one forecast. According to The Financial Times, the US has spent $2 trillion on the war against terror…or about a million times more than Osama bin Laden spent.
For Daily Reckoning Australia