The Gist: You’ll eventually recover from a crash. Not so much from confiscation, inflation, deflation, and devastation.
A review of Deep Risk by William Bernstein.
The easiest ways for our government to dispatch its massive and increasing debt are not especially pleasant for you – Uncle Sam could either take your money through ever more taxation or make it worth less (or worthless) through ever more inflation. If you’re a U.S. bondholder, you could even see a default, which is really just another form of confiscation. Such actions aren’t likely to be salubrious for the economy around you, either.
Worse, these are financial risks that you don’t really recover from. A 90% loss in the Great Depression might have been a disaster for your U.S. stock portfolio but, if you held on, you would have eventually not only completely recovered but also made substantial gains. Far less likely: the government imposes a wealth tax, seizes your assets, and then somehow makes it up to you in the future.
So, how do you insure your personal portfolio against these risks? Paying premiums to the Republican Party only gets you so far – the party’s undying enthusiasm for tax cuts is not appropriately matched with undying enthusiasms for spending cuts and sound money. Even if the GOP’s platform was perfect and vigorously pursued, it does not enjoy the political hegemony of Singapore’s People’s Action Party, which has ruled for six decades without interruption.
William Bernstein gives advice in his brief book “Deep Risk,” which identifies four threats to your portfolio that could result in a “permanent loss of capital” over 30 years: inflation (especially of the hyper variety), deflation (especially if you’re a debtor), confiscation (primarily by your government), and devastation (primarily by someone else’s government).
Bernstein’s book is partially inspired by the Permanent Portfolio created by former Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne and articulated for present audiences by Craig Rowland. The Permanent Portfolio is a conservative, uncorrelated asset allocation recommendation designed to weather a variety of economic conditions. Boldly, Rowland claims that “the four economic conditions (or some combination of them) are the only ones that can exist in a modern economy. In other words, at any point in time, the economy is either expanding (prosperity) or contracting (recession) and the money supply relative to the supply of goods and services is either expanding (inflation) or contracting (deflation).” Browne recommended an even split of assets he thought would do well in each environment – gold to counter inflation, long-term U.S. bonds to take advantage of deflation, an index of U.S. stocks to ride prosperity, and cash or short-term Treasury bills for flexibility in a recession. Bernstein notes “For the 37.5 years between 1976 and June 2013, the PP, rebalanced at year end, returned 8.66%”; further, “the PP shone in [the financial crisis of] 2008, with a nominal loss of just 1.38%.” But while Bernstein is impressed with elements, he believes the allocation is both too conservative (not enough exposure to the real long-term gains available in stocks) and miscalculates the risks (not all four of the economic conditions are equally likely and recessions are recoverable). In particular, inflation is the deep risk our wealth is most likely to face.
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Americans of my generation have no earthly idea what really bad inflation can look like. Millennials might have waited hours for the latest iPhone or Harry Potter book – but none have had to wait for gasoline. But my father’s double-digit interest mortgage payment in the late 1970s was nothing compared to the horrors of living through hyperinflation, infamously captured in the German Weimar years with the image of a man using a wheelbarrow of cash to pay for basic groceries. At the time, industrial workers were given multiple breaks a day – not to smoke or grab coffee – but to run out and buy anything they could before prices multiplied again. Sadly, that’s not our only example. Milton Friedman recalled traveling around Europe right after WWII and people preferring American cigarettes to local cash (Bernstein notes that “The highest denomination banknote ever printed was the Hungarian 100 quintillion pengõ bill, issued in 1946”). And we’ve seen what happens with Venezuela and Zimbabwe in more modern days. So what do you do, stockpile cigarettes?
Figure 4. Do you happen to have 100 billion trillion-pengo bills? I am looking to break 100 quintillion.
Here’s the remarkable thing: if you had had been a German stockholder before Weimar’s hyperinflation – and you managed to hold on to your stocks throughout the crisis “when the nation’s currency inflated by a factor of one trillion” – you would have come out with a real return. In the early stages, there was a large sell-off as people were desperate for cash but as the crisis endured, people realized: high inflation is certainly not ideal for stocks but ultimately you own pieces of businesses that have sustainable value. Now, caution is merited: Americans enjoyed no real return from holding stocks in the 1970s and Bernstein cites one study that found that when inflation breaks 4% in the US, stock valuations fall off. But,
“Interestingly, while severe and persistent inflation seemed to reduce equity returns, it did not always savage them: over the 70 years between 1927 and 1996, Chile experienced 33.16% annualized inflation, enough to produce a 508-million-fold rise in prices. Yet its stock market sported real price-only returns of 2.99% per year, within shouting distance of stocks in the United States. Similarly, over the 40 years between 1957 and 1996, Israel had 33.02% yearly inflation and 3.03% real price-only stock returns.”
But there’s an even better asset allocation decision for Germans in the 1920s and Americans in the 1970s and you today: own a basket of international stocks. When you buy an index of them, you may be warned that there’s a risk that you’ll be exposed to international currencies – but when it comes to protecting yourself against the inflation of the American dollar, that’s a feature, not a bug. (In fact, were I in Zimbabwe I am not sure I’d want any domestic stocks!) Contrary to the popular phrase, Rowland argues “The world is not flat. Each country will have its own unique economy and economic cycles that are not necessarily going to match up with other countries around the world.” Bernstein concludes that hedging the biggest deep risk is both easy and profitable, perhaps not coincidentally echoing precisely what financial theory would suggest you do otherwise: own an index of global stocks, tilted toward value (because cheaper stocks tend to be overleveraged and thus would benefit from the reduced debt burden). If you were especially concerned, you might further tilt your stocks toward companies that produce commodities and profit from natural resources (though those won’t necessarily do as well outside an inflationary environment.)
Simultaneously, you need to be aware that the apparently ultra-safe part of your portfolio is most threatened by inflation’s deep risk: bonds and cash. At its most basic, when someone – government, corporation, or brother-in-law – owes you money, and that money becomes worthless, you’re the loser. Bondholders in the Weimar republic collected a fraction of the original value of their holdings – and only that much because the government bailed them out. Bernstein cites a study that “amalgamated the 2,128 country-year returns and found that the returns for stocks and bonds, unsurprisingly, were negatively correlated with inflation: during the 5% of country-years with the highest inflation, stocks did badly, losing an average 12.0%, but bonds did even worse, losing 23.2%.” Of course, if you are the debtor, then this might be great – just make sure you have a fixed-rate mortgage and the rest of your assets are invested in overseas stocks. You may also benefit from inflation-protected securities, like the TIPS U.S. bonds or even your Social Security payments. Rowland is more skeptical, noting the example of how Argentina understated their consumer price index adjustments and warns “Don’t buy inflation insurance from the people causing the inflation.” Bernstein, for what it’s worth, responds that messing with the adjustments will make new debt much more difficult to issue as the bond market would view such shenanigans as a form of default.
Notably, Bernstein omits two classic inflation hedges from his advice: real estate and gold. Real estate really does go unmentioned – unfairly, in my view, but I may be biased. Gold’s absence is intentional and especially interesting because it is the asset recommended by the Permanent Portfolio to withstand inflation. As Rowland relates,
“Gold doesn’t change over time and a government can’t print more gold when it starts to run low on funds. Gold does not rack up massive debts and unfunded government liabilities. Gold does not care about political speeches or promises about the strength of any particular currency. Gold to a politician is like holy water to a vampire. In terms of purchasing power protection, gold has a long track record of preserving wealth that is unmatched.”
All very well and good. The problem is that, while gold has maintained its value over a very long time, say, a century, it has not been quite as neat a store of value over a shorter term: from 1981 to 2001, gold lost 80% of its real value (even as the U.S. merrily inflated away). Bernstein also happens to think that gold is overvalued by conservatives in the same way that green energy companies are overvalued by liberals – not necessarily always judged rationally. And, of course, gold produces no income and does not magically multiply – Warren Buffett once quipped that gold involved digging a hole to find it then digging another hole to store it with no additional utility. Also notable is the large proportion of the global gold supply owned by governments that could one day flood the market.
But gold should not be written off entirely: Bernstein cites a study by researchers from the London Business School who looked at 19 nations over 112 years and found, surprisingly, in “deflationary years, gold returned an average of 12.2% in real terms, and in the 5% of country-years with the highest inflation, its average annual return was actually slightly negative. In other words, although gold bullion provided little protection against inflation, it did superbly with deflation.” Close to home, “During the three-year period between 2007 and 2009, for example, when inflation was nearly nonexistent, gold’s price rose by 71%.” Bernstein summarizes, “gold does best when the public loses faith in the financial system; this happens during panics, which are almost always associated, at some point, with low inflation or deflation.” Rowland echoes the point “Some investors believe that a basket of commodities will work just as well (or better) than holding gold. They won’t.” Specifically he relates that in 2008, “some commodity funds lost more than 45 percent of their value compared to the 5 to 10 percent gain that gold had for the year. When the financial system was teetering on collapse, people wanted gold, not oil futures.” The mining companies that Bernstein himself prefers didn’t do that great either.
Figure 5. The more you contemplate the dastardly plan of Goldfinger’s “crime of the century”, the more you appreciate the genius of his villainy.
All of which brings us to the much less likely second potential deep risk to your wealth: severe, prolonged deflation. Whereas inflation effectively reduces any of your debts, deflation effectively makes your debt bigger. As a result, the Permanent Portfolio’s response is to hold long-term U.S. bonds, trying to take advantage of not only actual deflation but also reductions in inflation because the plan requires you to continuously sell your bonds on the secondary market before they become medium term. Part of the reason the Permanent Portfolio did comparatively well in 2008 is that while the stock market was crashing, its bond portfolio was up 30%. But while 2008 involved brief deflation, the severe and prolonged version is not an experience many Americans are familiar with. Bernstein suggests that the last time it was experienced anywhere was when countries were on the gold standard (including during the early years of the Great Depression) and that a much milder version has been present since 1990 in Japan. There are arguments about whether deflation is good or bad for the economy as a whole – Austrian economists argue that deflation is a correction to the economy’s irrational exuberance or the result of productivity gains, other economists argue that deflation holds back investments as people weigh keeping a dollar that is of increasing value versus spending it.
Regardless, Bernstein argues that deflation isn’t good for your stock holdings – but is it especially bad? Between 1866 and 1896, America’s “price index fell by an astonishing 41%” and over about that same period, “stocks returned 5.4% per year in nominal terms.” After accounting for deflation, stocks returned about the historical average, though Bernstein worries that a large part of that was in dividends that are not as widespread and generous as they once were. If you accept that Japan is subject to this specific problem (where prices fell, but only by about 2%, over 25+ years), then you should be worried that your Japanese stocks lost more than half their value – but is that the only thing going on in Japan? According to Bernstein, the only other incidents of deflation have been in Hong Kong between 1998 and 2004, where 17% deflation came alongside “low but positive real stock returns” and modestly in Ireland after the great financial crisis.
So, deflation’s harms may not be terrible – unless you’re a debtor – and deflation itself is rather unlikely in today’s inflation-happy world of fiat currencies. Still, there’s an easy way to hedge against it: international stock diversification (again, because of the currency differences). If you accept the Permanent Portfolio thesis, long-term bonds will also work (again, with decreasing inflation as well) but most other advisers recommend against going long term with bonds. And, according to Bernstein’s data, gold might perform well as well. Regardless, you might want to hold gold to insure against another deep risk: confiscation.
Bernstein argues that “the confiscation scenario is very unlikely, but if you think it’s impossible, you haven’t read enough history.” At its most benign, the government will tax 20-50% of your income, estate, capital gains, or whatever else they can. Bernstein “tend[s] to view taxes more as the dues [he] pay[s] for membership in a club with a billion person waiting list.” At its most severe, Marxists seize 100% of your assets. Shareholders in the once-thriving St. Petersburg stock exchange, sugar plantation owners across Cuba, export-importers in China never recovered. There are in-betweens: in 2001, Argentina froze all bank accounts, converted any held in foreign currencies into the local peso, then devalued the peso by 2/3. Citizens weren’t even allowed to collect what was left for a year. In the 1930s, the United States government demanded citizens turn in all their gold at a discount. Bernstein argues that “even Bernie Sanders supporters cannot doubt that their retirement savings are at risk from a federal government hungry for revenue. During the 1980s congress arbitrarily imposed a 15% tax surcharge on retirement plan distributions of over $150,000, an unexpected penalty on those who chose to save rather than consume; it was quietly repealed in the mid-1990s.”
Your only solution is to situate assets outside your country that plausibly might resist confiscation by your government. You also, naturally, need the ability to escape and actually access said assets if things go really south. Under our current regime, citizens “are saddled with onerous taxes” on foreign investment accounts and have to fill out gobs of paperwork or risk felony prosecution. Bernstein warns, “over the past few years, the United States government has made life so miserable for foreign banks and brokerage houses that most are loath to take on American clients.” There may also be motivations beyond taxing every dollar they can: “Think of it as a form of ‘soft capital controls,’ or perhaps a subtle attempt by United States banks, which generally provide a much lower level of service than their foreign competitors, to keep their business at home.” If you wanted to bid farewell to the land of the free, “United States citizens are, in any case, liable for substantial ‘expatriation taxes’ on personal and retirement assets on renunciation of citizenship.”
As a practical matter, what all this means is that your options are to buy foreign real estate or store physical gold bullion abroad – with the idea that they are both difficult to seize and produce no taxable income unless you sell them. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin might also be of interest in that they are accessible worldwide but their intrinsic value is so hard to gauge (and their resulting volatility is so high) that they may not serve your needs. And, indeed, you have to gauge for yourself how likely confiscation is, how inconvenient international dealings are, and how much you can really afford to put somewhere else (is it enough, for example, to start over if your domestic assets are seized by the new Red Guard?).
On gold, Craig Rowland has some rules of thumb:
1. Only deal with first-world countries with stable governments and legal systems that provide strong protections of private property.
2. Avoid dealing with institutions where accountability rules are opaque or unclear.
3. Try to do business in legal jurisdictions that support financial privacy.
4. Always follow all legal disclosure requirements.”
Specifically, “the first choice” for your holdings should be “physical gold bullion stored in a safe location and insured against loss.” Think Gringotts. When Harry Browne was writing, Switzerland was the natural home for foreign assets, where apparently the Swiss treat financial privacy as seriously as we treat free speech. But that all changed during the Obama administration, which cracked down so hard on Swiss banks that they now are actively disinterested in US consumers. Instead, Rowland suggests buying and storing standard gold coins – such as the delightfully named Australian Kangaroo – at the New Zealand Mint (a private group insured by Lloyd’s of London), the Perth Mint (founded in 1899, backed by the government of Western Australia, advertised as akin to Texas), or Das Bank (an Austrian safe deposit box company with robust anonymity protections, including cameras that monitor but don’t record). Amidst this, don’t forget: acquiring and maintaining gold does have costs, is not terribly convenient, and, just like what happened with Switzerland, conditions can change that affect the security of your assets.
Figure 6. Scrooge McDuck proved you either die a villain or live long enough to be a hero. As befitting his name, Scrooge was originally intended to be an antihero but proved so popular that he was given a rags-to-riches backstory as he dispensed advice on thrift. Today, the New Zealand Mint will sell you an actual gold coin featuring him but it is unclear whether they allow you to swim through your collection.
Rowland also recommends holding at least some of your gold holdings instantly accessible:
“Gold can be an asset of last resort. Which means that gold is an asset that you need to be able to access when there may be significant disruptions occurring within the economic or political system. In order to have ready access… you should aim to have as few pieces of paper and people between you and your gold possible.”
This is, of course, part of gold’s appeal – a “benefit of gold is that it is a compact and universally recognized form of wealth. Gold can be owned directly by an investor and is not a paper promise as other investments are.” For the purposes of the Permanent Portfolio’s rebalancing, this also makes it easier to sell off over-allocated gold. Notably, there are various reports of people using their gold to get out of a country – or sewing it into their clothes to have it when they get out.
Figure 7. Discreetly bury your precious metals in a national park and, if you get bored, invite everyone to participate in a treasure hunt.
But there may be one other consideration when it comes to gold: how expensive is it relative to its historic price? That answer is what prevented the person who wrote the otherwise kind introduction to the Permanent Portfolio from diving full in. Rowland insists, “A common question about the Permanent Portfolio is whether it is better to buy all of the assets at once or wait and move in slowly over time. Go all in. Waiting is a euphemism for market timing.” And that may be true for the specific benefits of the Permanent Portfolio. But as an insurance policy, you have to weigh the risks of confiscation versus the risk that gold is going to have only 20% of the value that you bought it at. It’s also debatable how much value gold would have in various scenarios involved in our final deep risk: devastation.
My parents are in their seventies and have lived through about 30% of American history since 1776 – it’s been a spell, but it has not been too long since Atlanta was burned (or certainly not since New Orleans was flooded). Bernstein sensibly notes that this is of much greater concern to South Koreans and Israelis – were the United States to be devastated in this nuclear age, the world might have ended. But just for historical context, let’s revisit the losers of World War II as we again think about how deep risk affects our “safe” assets:
“Japanese and German bondholders saw losses of more than 95% during and immediately after the Second World War; stocks in both nations fell by about 90%. Whereas the bondholders held what was, in most cases, nearly worthless pieces of paper that never regained their real value, the stockholders owned claims on the assets of the likes of Siemens, Daimler, Bayer, and Mitsubishi, which when recapitalized and rebuilt regained their real prewar value in less than a decade in Germany, and in about a decade and a half in Japan.”
Figure 8. Bernstein recounts “During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when apocalypse seemed more than possible, an apocryphal story has a young derivatives trader asking an older one whether to go long or short equity options. The immediate reply, ‘Long, of course. If things turn out all right, we’ll make a ton of money.’ Quavered the younger trader, ‘And if they don’t?’ To which the older trader cheerfully replied, ‘Well then, there won’t be anyone on the other side of the trade to collect from us!’”
Ultimately, Bernstein suggests you insure against local devastation in similar ways to previous descriptions: if only your hometown is destroyed, your global stock index is probably fine. If you’re Israeli and your country is destroyed, you need assets situated outside your country just as if you were ensuring against confiscation. The only scenario Bernstein doesn’t really discuss is if we’re in more Mad Max post-civilization territory where gold is of really debatable value (will it still be treasured by whatever traders remain?) If you’re inclined to prepping for the apocalypse, do your best to rationally calculate the odds but, if you remain afraid, bullets may be your best bet!
Inflation, deflation, confiscation, and devastation are the four deep risks Bernstein says threaten your portfolio. Figure out what you should fear and plan accordingly. Bernstein recommends that “Capital managed for near-term liabilities should be guided by shallow risk, while capital managed for very long-term liabilities should be guided by deep risk; the stickiest problems occur in the no-man’s land, very roughly between 10 years and 30 years, where both have to be considered, as well as in those rare situations where shallow risk evolves into deep risk.” And in fact, for the rare “25 year old saver” reading this, “not only should you protect against deep risks, you should actively seek shallow risk, since it will enable you to buy at lower prices.” Bernstein insists: “Younger investors should navigate by the deep-risk lighthouse.”
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