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Investing: Bad News, Good News, and What's Next

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The manic depressive market wildly swings up and down on each new news story: The Fed is meeting at Jackson Hole on August 27 possibly to discuss QE3 (or not), and that news may pump up the stock market. But China's banks seem to be using Enron's accounting manual, Europe's banks need liquidity and are loaded with bad debt, and U.S. banks only temporarily TARPed over trouble. Gaddafi's regime in Libya appears over, but Libya's oil output may not fully recover for years. Venezuela wants banks to open their vaults and send back its gold, but Wells Fargo says gold is a bubble. Pundits say gold is a barbarous relic, but exchanges and banks are now using gold as money. The U.S. is headed for hyperinflation with skyrocketing stock prices, but on the other hand, we seem to be deflating like Japan and doomed to a deflating stock market for another decade. Whom do you trust and what should you do?

No one knows where the stock market or U.S. Treasury bonds are headed tomorrow, but in my opinion, here are some fundamentals to consider.

The Bad News Isn't Going Away

Until we have real global financial reform and restrain the banks, we won't have sustained growth. The stock market hasn't hit bottom. There's a crisis of confidence in banks and all currencies. We haven't taken effective steps to tackle the U.S. deficit through productivity. We haven't examined spending to eliminate fraud and waste, and we haven't addressed our need for more tax revenues by eliminating the Bush tax cuts (for starters).

Savers are punished by "stranguflation:" negative real returns on "safe" assets, declining housing prices, and rising costs of food, energy and health care. The Fed touts the falling cost of I-Pads, but how often do you buy one of those, and how often do you eat?

Good News (for Now)

The USD is still the world's reserve currency. Even though we devalued the USD, there has been a global flight to U.S. Treasuries pushing down our borrowing costs (yields). No one in the global financial community feels the U.S. has done its best to correct our problems, but severe problems in Europe, China's inflation, and Middle East unrest has money running to the U.S. Since we've devalued the dollar, we appear to be a bargain for foreign investors, even though they are terrified by our money printing presses and the potential for inflating commodity prices in the long run.

How did I play this? My own portfolio is currently more than 20% gold with some silver, and I bought out-of-the-money call options on the VIX when it was in the teens with maturities of 4-6 months. This is "short" stock market strategy, one could have also done well buying puts on the S&P a few months ago. In the first big stock market downdraft in August, I sold the options when the VIX hit the high 30's, and I'll buy more options again if the VIX falls again. Many investors are not comfortable with options, and this strategy isn't appropriate for everyone. The rest of my portfolio is chiefly in cash or deep value opportunities.

What Happens Next?

No one knows for sure, and anyone who tells you he or she does is selling snake oil. The situation is fluid. We tried to reflate our deflating economy. Our massive dollar devaluation may encourage investment, because it's protectionist. It reduces our cost of labor, among a few other "benefits." The problem is that the Fed has printed money, and we haven't done anything to position the U.S. for greater productivity. We're trying to inflate our way out of a problem without investing in productivity. This is a very dangerous way of attacking this problem. Even more "stimulus" would just be an attempt to inflate our way out of our long-standing deep recession. That's the foolish and unsuccessful strategy we've adopted so far. That could lead to runaway budget deficits (our deficit already looks intractable) and bring us to double-digit inflation. Even the European flight to US Treasuries may not save us from a deeper recession in that scenario.

If we don't overreact -- and we may have already overreacted -- our dollar devaluation results in our foreign trade situation first getting worse (as it has now) before it gets better. Now is the time (actually, we should have started years ago) to spend capital to increase U.S. productivity. The dollar's plunge relative to other currencies will eventually make us more competitive. This will be good for blue chip companies, in particular those that own real assets and manufacture items. The Fed and Washington may do anything, however, so one must watch the news.

What does this mean for the U.S. stock market? In my opinion, it is currently not good value and feels like the 1970s when we experienced a recession followed by inflation. One should consider staying mostly in cash and expect stocks become cheaper. One might miss an interim rally, especially if the Fed announces QE3 (more "stimulus" and money printing) or more bank bailouts, but that is like using Kleenex laced with sneezing powder. We will see stock prices even lower than they are today. The old paradigm dictated that stocks were a buy when P/E ratios were 13 or less (and many are well above that), dividends at 4%, and book values at 1.3 or less. (This excludes oil companies, which tend to trade at lower P/E ratios in general.) I believe we'll see much better deals in coming months. In 1978/79 P/E ratios sank below 7 for blue chip companies.

Should one buy U.S. Treasuries with long maturities? The long end of the bond market doesn't reward investors due to the potential of rising interest rates. If interest rates spike to double digits, then one can reassess the situation.

Long term investors should consider buying commodities or companies that own physical commodities. We're running out of key commodities especially related to agriculture and fertilizer. Washington's brand of the latter isn't the type we need.