Let’s settle one thing up front. We’re clearly witnessing a speculative bubble in the financial markets. This time is no different. This mania will end the same way they all do: in tears.
I started banging the gong in mid-2020 about the imminent risk of financial crisis stemming from three potential causes: a severe market correction, a deteriorating U.S. fiscal position from unsustainable growth in deficits and debt, and the inflation that was likely to follow.
At that time, this viewpoint was greeted with a heavy dose of skepticism. Inflationary views were considered fringe. Respected economists were quick to point out the lack of demand for money relative to rapidly expanding supply, slack in the lockdown economy, and prevailing expectations for deflation based on recent history. Wall Street has little incentive to call a market bubble. Fees are made and bonuses paid when optimism, activity and volatility are high, not by predictions of impending doom. The euphorias of bubbles are like the best narcotics—stimulative and somewhat hypnotic. But the bigger the high, the worse the comedown.
These contrarian views of inflation and market correction have now become mainstream. The warning signs of market mania are evident in Bitcoin (up 300% in a year), the deluge of SPAC IPOs (always a signal of a top), exorbitant P/E ratios, and rapidly rising real estate prices. These, along with retail-driven short squeezes and mini-bubbles, are symptoms of underlying conditions set in motion long ago by a flood of liquidity unleashed by the Federal Reserve. This time is different, however, in one important way. When this bubble bursts, the Fed can no longer prop up the market by lowering interest rates. Real rates, which were about 4% before the global financial crisis, are now below zero almost everywhere.
The Biden administration is expected to unleash a blue wave of stimulus and other spending. This comes at a time when the revenue base is eroding, and the U.S. is no longer in a sound fiscal position. It is only a matter of time until government struggles to efficiently borrow against a gaping deficit and compounding debt. In 2020 alone, the U.S. government spent $3 trillion on pandemic relief while suffering a $2.1 trillion decline in national income from crippling lockdowns in our most economically important states, many of which continue today. By the end of fiscal 2020, total U.S. government debt was $27 trillion, up 20% from 2019 and triple the amount prior to the financial crisis. The Fed has absorbed a lot of this increase. Bond investors are rightly nervous.
It is no surprise that the Fed has since adopted a pro-inflation stance. An unspoken objective is to erode the topsoil from the mountain of U.S. debt at the expense of Americans. Inflation is a hidden tax that will eat away our purchasing power.
remind us in This Time is Different that throughout history, “the main device for defaulting on government obligations was… debasing the content of coinage. Modern currency presses are just a technologically advanced and more efficient approach to achieving the same end.” They note, “government debt is… often the unifying problem across the wide range of financial crises.”
Prices are now rising in inflation bellwethers such as industrial metals, energy, and food commodities. The dollar has lost 85% of its purchasing power since 1970. While a majority of this can be attributed to high inflation in the 1970s, even the supposedly deflationary 21st century has witnessed the erosion of one-third of the value of the dollar since 2000.
Rising inflation expectations go a long way in explaining the vertiginous ascent of the equity markets in the face of a partially closed economy with muted growth. As lockdowns and travel restrictions ease, pent-up demand will pressure global supply chains and thus prices. We can expect to see a further acceleration of inflation as early as this spring as economies reopen.
Where can one thrive, or at least hide, in this environment? U.S. equity markets are vastly overvalued by any historic measure, but bonds and cash are both danger zones in inflation. While conventional wisdom says to stay invested, it may be a good time to take some chips off of the table. Resist “FOMO,” the fear of missing out. If one has to stay invested, avoid the temptation of high-flying tech and growth equities, which are the most overvalued, in favor of diversifying among recently abandoned dividend-paying value stocks and emerging markets. Inflation-sensitive commodity (food, metals, and energy) producers should perform going forward. Gold has a millennia-long history of serving as a store of value and inflationary hedge, but pays no dividends along the way.
Bitcoin similarly earns no yield. Cryptocurrencies have no intrinsic value, and, like fiat currencies, are worth whatever the market happens to believe. When the euphoria wears off, they may be hit hard. Besides, Bitcoin is a stacked game easily manipulated given the high concentration of ownership by whales.
Watch out for gearing in investments, whether in securities or real estate. If markets collapse, leverage will rapidly eat into the remaining value. Look for hidden exposure to risk (including inflation) in retirement accounts. Invest in hard assets not correlated to the markets. Stay liquid to exploit the inevitable correction.
We need to increase the pressure on our elected officials to cut the pork and reopen our economies. Americans want to get back to work. So-called stimulus funding is not getting into the hands of those who need it most. Ultimately, it’s the real economy, not financial markets, that drive growth and prosperity. That requires local businesses open, workers re-engaged, and productive capital investments made.
This is not doom and gloom. Since the problem is not a banking-sector credit crisis, and the underlying economy remains healthy (albeit weakened), postcorrection recovery may come more quickly and easily than following the financial crisis. While persistent inflation can create a host of problems, it usually supports fuller employment, and both producers and consumers will adapt to a changing price environment. In the meantime, it may be best to stay liquid and wait this one out. As spring follows even the darkest winter, the opportune time will come again.
Michael Wilkerson is executive vice chairman of Helios Fairfax Partners, an African-focused investment firm and author of Stormwall: Observations on America in Peril.