Why don’t we use the gold standard anymore?

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Today we no longer use a gold-backed currency. Even when the dollar was backed by gold, the U.S. government would adjust the gold-to-dollar ratio with regularity, essentially muting any effect of the currency’s gold backing. So while officially abandoned in 1971, we’ve been off the gold standard for quite a while, since about 1914.

Beginning in and around the 19th century, developed nations almost universally adopted the gold standard. Uncoincidentally, the 2nd half of the 19th century is heralded as one of history’s great economic eras. But, in 1914, at the outset of WW1, developed nations involved in the fighting began moving away from the gold standard. They were faced with two options to finance war operations: 1) increase taxes, 2) leave the gold standard and print money. Option one would have been supremely unpopular, option two would accomplish the same thing as option one just without the national outrage. Taxes are one thing, people understand what’s happening, they’re giving up their money for a government to provide services that the collective majority generally agrees upon. Fiat money is different. Instead of imposing additional taxes, fiat money allows the government power to print money, devaluing the currency and causing citizens to end up with less money via inflation. Imposing taxes and printing money grant the same outcome for governments, they end up with more money, and it also creates the same outcome for citizens, they end up with less money. The issue is that citizens have a measure of control over taxation by voting, complaining, revolting, etc. They have very little control over printing money.

It’s impossible to prove, but nevertheless an interesting thought experiment: what if governments hadn’t abandoned the gold standard in 1914? In all likelihood the war would have endured for a fraction of the time it did in reality. Taxes would have been imposed (the only way for governments to fund the war), they would have been incredibly unpopular (because ordinary people didn’t care about petty monarchical conflicts between nations), governments would have run out of money to fund their war efforts, and the war would have ground to a halt, almost certainly sooner than four years, and more probably within one year. Again, it’s impossible to prove, but certainly possible.

Since 1914 little has changed, fiat (government-issued) money is the currency of the age. Taxation has steadily decreased over the last one hundred years while government spending has steadily increased by borrowing and printing notes. A return to the gold standard at this point is all but impossible. The fact is that gold, while a great purveyor of value, is impractical for day to day use. It’s heavy, it’s hard to divide into smaller bits, and it’s costly to keep secure. These are the reasons why gold was concentrated into central banks and traded via government promissory notes in the first place.

Unfortunately, every example in history involving the utilization of soft money (money that’s easily producible) has eventually resulted in large-scale economic collapse. That’s not to say it’s impossible for fiat money to succeed, the U.S. government, while far from perfect, has not inflated the currency to disastrous levels, and may not for a long time. But no human or human institution has been able to stave off the temptation to over-print currency indefinitely.

So that’s depressing, is there a solution? We know that hard money (money that’s scarce and/or hard to produce) is foundational to thriving economies. Gold is the best example we have of hard money, but it has inherent flaws that make it difficult to use in our modern world. An interesting development in the last decade is the inception and rise of crypto-currencies. I won’t pronounce Bitcoin the ultimate salve of modern economics, but it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. Crypto-currencies offer many of the beneficial characteristics of gold (difficult or impossible to produce, widely accepted), and avoids many of gold’s pitfalls (it’s not heavy, not hard to divide, and inherently secure). The market will ultimately decide if some type of crypto-currency is any type of answer, for now, it’s a fascinating concept. 

There are only two ways to invest (part 2)

 

carolina-pimenta-J8oncaYH6ag-unsplashSo we’ve identified the two basic ways you can invest. That’s great, but how do you know which one to choose? Let’s talk about the active option.

Active investing feels right. We’re active people after all. We shop around for deals, we love sales and Facebook Marketplace. We check weather forecasts on the regular, we set future plans on our calendars. We do research before we buy things (some of us perhaps to a fault), we read reviews, we ask our friends. All of these things are active. So then active investing just seems like the normal way to do things, look for underpriced companies, do some stock research, make a prediction about the future, nothing too out of the ordinary, right?

There’s just one small problem, investing isn’t like normal life. We’ve got really smart people positing that the stock market is efficient, which means there aren’t actually and sales or deals on underpriced companies. Sure, stock prices will generally move upwards, but not because a company is underpriced. New news and information comes into the market and affects stock prices, new things happen that we can’t know for sure beforehand are going to happen. Research into specific stocks is great, professionals are doing it all of the time, but no one person can possibly have a complete understanding of a company, let alone how unknown events in the future will affect the company. There’s just too much data to make picking stocks a long-term viable strategy. Predictions in the stock market are not like weather predictions, we don’t have a radar watching a storm-front move in. And if people believe there is a storm front coming, it’s already priced into the stock prices because again, the market is efficient.

It’s really tough to be a good active investor. Even professionals fail to outperform the market at an extraordinary rate (over the last 15 years, 92% of active funds trading in the S&P 500 have underperformed the S&P 500), and even those who seem to be good at it tend not to repeat their performance. So maybe you’ve guessed by now, I don’t advocate active investing. If you really believe that the market is not efficient and that you or someone you know has a special ability to buy and sell the right stocks at the right time then active investing is the way to test your belief. Unfortunately, the odds are not in your favor.

In part 3, we’ll talk about the alternative option.

Index bubble

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This passive investing/index bubble idea from a Michael Burry interview continues to circulate. The idea has appeal, not the idea that another recession is imminent, but the idea that we could accurately predict one coming, and that the cause could actually make sense to us. The argument is fairly simple. A larger percentage of people are buying index funds, especially the S&P 500, than ever before. Index fund investors tend not to analyze each company in the S&P 500, they simply buy the index which owns all of them. So Burry worries that since fewer and fewer people are conducting analysis on company fundamentals, the prices of these companies are going to be inflated by virtue of the simple fact that they’re included in an index, not because they’re good companies that people believe in. That makes sense. The question then, is how much analysis and trading do we need in order to maintain a decent level of price discovery in the market? If index funds stifle price discovery, how do we avoid a bubble? Here are a few responses:

  • Even a small amount of price discovery (studying fundamentals, making trades, supply and demand) makes a huge difference for prices to reflect value. We don’t need large swaths of the market conducting analysis.
  • If 100% of invested assets were in index funds the price discovery argument might hold some weight. You would have to assume that there would be almost no company fundamental analysis happening, not an unreasonable jump but still an assumption. However, the truth is that only about 45% of invested assets are in index funds, and there’s still a host of investors and dollars outside of passive index funds working to set prices.
  • Index investing actually adds data to the market, it contributes to price discovery. Instead of contributing data on specific stocks, it contributes to larger market sector data as people commit dollars to different indexes across the world, which is helpful market data.
  • Despite the growth of index fund investing, global stock trading volume has actually remained about the same over the last ten years. People use passive vehicles to actively trade. Many index fund dollars are in ETFs among the most traded funds on the market. Just because money is in index funds does not mean that it’s passive. The activity all contributes to price discovery.
  • Some passive investors (like us!) actually do use some fundamental analysis in constructing portfolios (structured funds). And even our passive investors occasionally make trades; in order to rebalance, when they make contributions or withdrawals, etc. Even the most passive investors contribute to price discovery.
  • If the market was losing efficiency and price discovery as a result of growing index fund investors, we would expect to see an uptick in active money manager performance. Active managers would find the mispriced companies in the index and reap corresponding rewards. But the data shows no improvement, active managers have performed slightly worse over the last three years than before.

Despite the uptick in index and passive investing, price discovery is as strong as it ever has been in the stock market. Michael Burry’s comments on the index bubble are interesting and even sound plausible, but upon close inspection look misguided. Passive investing is still the way to go, though you do have permission to dump those index funds.

What does ‘efficient market’ mean?

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‘Efficient market’ is one of the most important terms to understand when it comes to investing. It’s important because what you think about the efficiency of the market will dictate how you practically invest your money, which will shape your retirement and legacy.
So first, what does it mean? If the market is efficient it means that stock prices react to news and information really fast. For instance, news breaks that a company has committed fraud, and the stock price of that company falls immediately. It also extends to any small bit of news or public sentiment regarding the market or specific companies. Market prices are always moving based on new information and perceptions, and they move almost immediately upon receiving that new information. Those are signs of an efficient market. The speed at which information travels today has only made the market more efficient.
So why does that matter? Well, if the market really is super efficient, it means that picking stocks is futile. Think about it, if the market prices react and update immediately upon receiving new information, the only thing you can do to beat the market is to guess right. Unfortunately market guesses are less like investing and more like gambling. So if the market is efficient, the entire way you’ve previously thought about investing is not only impractical, it’s basically a roll of the dice. Instead of trying to beat the market, an efficient market would suggest you own the whole thing as efficiently as you can. You would diversify and hold stocks instead of research and pick stocks.
There is another important thing to recognize about investing in relation to the efficient market: people do beat the market sometimes, they sometimes pick the right stocks and get better returns than the market as a whole. It’s not often, somewhere around 90% of stock pickers underperform the market every year, but that leaves around 10% who seem to be doing something right. That 10% either figured something out, found some inefficiency in the market, or they got lucky. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter if they’re smart or lucky, and there’s not really any way to empirically test it anyways. Because the market is efficient, if a smart person does find an inefficiency it will close up before long, and if a lucky person gets lucky, they’ll also get unlucky at some point. Either way, by the time you’ve heard about their success, it’s too late. People who have beat the market in the past are much more likely to underperform the market in the future than to beat it again. In fact, they’re more likely to underperform even their contemporaries in the future. Any way you cut it, in an efficient market it simply doesn’t make sense to try to find or profit from market inefficiencies, regardless of whether or not they really exist, or to what extent.
So if the market is efficient, to whatever degree you agree, don’t try to beat it. Instead, own the efficient market as efficiently as possible.

Value Investor (part 1)

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Value investing sounds really cool. It sounds savvy, it sounds smart, it sounds responsible, it sounds like it makes a lot of money. I mean, Warren Buffet is a value investor!

So what is a value investor? Well, a value investor is someone who invests in value companies. So what’s a value company? I’m glad you asked. Essentially, a value company is one whose stock price is about the same (could be a little higher or lower) than its intrinsic, or book, value. A lot of words there but stick with me. The intrinsic value of a company is what you get when you add up all the company’s assets, its land, warehouses, products (which can include patents), equipment, cash, etc. It might seem a little odd that a company’s stock price wouldn’t always be close to its intrinsic value, but the stock market prices of growth companies (the opposite of value companies) can actually trade multiples of 8 times higher than its intrinsic value. This happens because the market expects the growth company to continue growing. Value companies aren’t typically expected to grow much, they’re often characterized as distressed. So value investors are analyzing these value companies and deciding which ones they think are actually undervalued and which ones could bounce back. Again, it sounds great, they’re the brilliant nerdy guys reading all of the fine print and finding the deals in the stock market, the companies that are underpriced. All you have to do is hitch up to their wagon and ride those value companies up when everyone else figures out how valuable they actually are. Sounds pretty responsible, right?

A semi-famous value investor, Michael Burry, featured in the Big Short (as Christian Bale) crushed the growth stock market from 2001-2005. In the middle of 2005, he was up 242% when the U.S. large growth market (S&P500) was down 6.84%. Michael Burry is the quintessential weird genius that we love to fall in love with, and hand our money over to. He did things differently, he didn’t take normal massive fees, he was incredibly awkward with people in person, he kept to himself, he obsessively studied the interworkings of the companies he invested in, just about everything you would expect from the next market genius. He’s most famous for predicting, and attempting to short, the housing crash in 2007. And now’s he’s rich, and semi-famous, and still investing. He recently stated that passive investing is a bubble, that he’s concentrated on water (you get it), that GameStop is undervalued, and that Asia is where it’s at. While these investment tips might accord with the laws of value investing, they hardly seem prudent.

Michael Burry is definitely smarter than I am, but here’s what I know:

1) Ken French, a professor of finance at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, who has spent much of his adult life researching and publishing in the sphere of economics and investing, conducted a study of mutual-fund managers (Luck versus Skill in the Cross-Section of Mutual Fund Returns) and found that only the top 2% to 3% had enough skill to even cover their own costs. Eugene Fama, another father of economic and investing academia, who co-wrote the paper with Ken French, summarizes their findings this way: “Looking at funds over their entire lifetimes, only 3% demonstrate skill after accounting for their fees, and that’s what you would expect purely based on chance.” Of the managers who do exhibit enough skill to cover their own costs, it’s hard to determine whether an actual skill is at work or it’s simply a facet of luck; most free-market scholars lean towards luck.

2) Fama continues: “Even the active funds that have generated extraordinary returns are unlikely to do better than a low-cost passive fund in the future.” Some managers do well enough to cover their own costs and beat the market in a given year. Unfortunately, their success languishes quickly and they regress to the same plane that active managers on the whole occupy, which is underperforming the market.

So is Michael Burry, or any value investor, the weird, brilliant savant that we desperately want to attach our life-savings to, or is he one of the 3% of managers who have done well enough to cover their own fees, but who the data says is more likely to regress to market underperformance mean than to do it again? I know which side I’m playing.