My first article on this website was over 5 years ago, Inflation Destroys Dollars. I certainly did not have any idea that the price inflation would be triggered by the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I certainly didn’t anticipate the lockdowns and supply chain disruptions back in 2016.
I know the fiscal and monetary policy pursued by the United States and virtually all the world: money printing, onerous regulations, taxes and spending, would eventually result in significant price inflation. Government response to COVID-19 has made the situation worse and pulled the day of reckoning forward but it certainly isn’t the largest factor.
Timing is always a challenge and I was quite early.
Price inflation is here and it is happening fast enough where people notice it and are actually talking about it. Depending on who you trust and how you measure it, prices are rising at a rate of 6-10% per year now. I think what is interesting is that the government’s own numbers (the CPI-U) shows inflation at 6%. This is far beyond the 2% the Federal Reserve has been calling for.
Gold and Silver as an Inflation Hedge
In Inflation Destroys Dollars I write about how gold and silver are an inflation hedge. On 16 May 2016 when I wrote that article, gold was trading at $1,252 per ounce. As I write this it is currently up to $1,864.61, an increase of 48.9%. That is an annualized return of roughly 7.5%.
On 16 May 2016 Silver was trading at $17.14. It is now trading at $25.29. That is a 47.5% increase for an annualized return of approximately 7.3%.
So, if you think that inflation has been somewhere between 4% and 8% over the past five and a half year, gold and silver have on just kept up with inflation during this timeframe. Not bad but also not great. Gold and silver remain the boring reliable hedge and that is a good thing.
Value Stocks as an Inflation Hedge
Value stocks are another asset class I mentioned in Inflation Destroys Dollars. I didn’t mention specific funds. I have made some of my own individual value stock picks with some fantastic picks, but also some not so good picks.
Vanguard’s Selected Value fund (VASVX) is a mid-cap fund that could serve as a proxy for “value stocks”. It was trading at $26.41 on 16 May 2016. It is currently at $33.39. This is a return of 26.4% and an annualized return of 4.3%. Not stellar as I would not say this has kept up with inflation.
The Vanguard Value Index is a large cap value fund (VVIAX). It started this period at $32.49 and is up to $56.68. This is a return of about 74.5% and an annualized return of 10.65%.
A final example to look at, Vanguard’s Mid-Cap Index Admiral Shares Fund (VIMAX) started in this timeframe at $150.33 and is now at $320.62. That is a total percent return of 113% and an annualized return of 14.7%. Much better.
Compare those to the Vanguard 500 (VFIAX), which started this timeframe at $184.53 and is now at $432.9. The total return of this fund was 134.6% an an annualized return of 16.77%.
So while value stock fund did beat the rate of inflation and are a good hedge, they didn’t outperform your vanilla S&P 500 index fund.
Bitcoin as an Inflation Hedge
Compared to gold and silver, Cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin has had all the action.
On 16 May of 2016 a Bitcoin was trading at about $454. Today Bitcoin is trading at $64,346. That is an astounding increase of 14,073% or an annualized return of about 146%.
Clearly Bitcoin has outperformed Stocks, Gold and Silver during this timeframe in an astounding way.
I own Bitcoin and I’m not anti-bitcoin. But I’m also not a Bitcoin maximalist. I think it is possible and perhaps even likely that Bitcoin will be replaced with a superior cryptocurrency that has some combination of faster transactions, higher transaction throughput, anonymity and or additional features. In my view Bitcoin in its current state is too slow and transactions are too costly for it to work as a medium of exchange for day to day transactions. These views are very unpopular with Bitcoin maximalists that ignore or downplay Bitcoin’s weaknesses.
However, Bitcoin has provided an incredible return and far outpaces inflation.
The 14,073% return is not just a result of inflation, although it is increasingly being viewed as a safe haven alternative investment.
Bitcoin has had several great tailwinds 1) It is an emergent asset class 2) It is trendy and popular and gets media attention 3) It is viewed as a Federal Reserve / dollar debasement hedge in place of gold.
Protecting one’s wealth and purchasing power from inflation is important. Just keeping up with inflation is not ideal either, if the assets are not tax advantages, the government will tax the “gains”, and so purchasing power is eroded.
Let’s look at a simplified example. Say you frequently buy a widget or pay a service that costs $100 per year. Say the price goes up 5% per year due to monetary inflation. You also have a $100 investment that also goes up 5% per year. You’re still not keeping up with inflation because of taxes. If your $100 investment goes up 5% to $105, the government is going to want some taxes on that $5 gain. Say you’re on the hook for 15% capital gains taxes, the government is going to take their share and leave you with a $4.25 gain.
So you now have to come up with another $0.75 to pay for the item or service. Scale this up to include all of your expenses for the year and you see that you need to not only keep up with inflation, but exceed inflation so you have the money to pay the taxes on the gains.
In order to keep up with inflation your investment would need to be in a tax advantaged account that would lower or eliminate the tax burden owed or (again assuming a 15% gains tax) you’d need the investment to go up by about 5.9%.
This also shows how insidious inflation is. Not only is money worth less, but the government taxes the gains, even if there was no gain in terms of purchasing power.
One other thing to keep in mind, in the United States at least, realized gold and silver gains are taxed at the generally higher income tax rate rather than capital gains tax rate.
Are Gold and Silver Great Inflation Hedges Anymore
Gold and silver might not be very good inflation hedges anymore. If I owned gold or silver I wouldn’t sell unless I needed to rebalance my portfolio. I would expect these assets to at least keep pace with inflation, but unless the demand for gold and silver increases in excess of new supply, I don’t think gold and silver will beat inflation in the way needed in order to truly hedge for inflation when accounting for taxes. While it has produced a positive return in excess of inflation, it certainly hasn’t been a fantastic play over the last five and half years since I started HowIGrowMyWealth.com.
The world has almost always been pretty crazy. I think there is a bias, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to believe that now is a special time, it’s different. Now is “the best of times” or “the worst of times.” In a very real sense the current time IS the most important because the present is the only time we can directly impact. Also as humans we seem to enjoy superlatives. But it’s important to realize that things have almost always been fairly crazy. The world has almost always been mad.
Supply Chain Breakdown
So what is the crazy du jure? Well, the US and probably other countries are realizing what was obvious to anyone who cared to think about it: if you shut down industries, print money, pay people to stay home and otherwise disrupt and destroy supply chains you get price increases, delays and shortages. As if labor wasn’t tight enough, vaccine mandates are driving more people out of the work force.
One of the scariest phrases is “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” When I heard Biden was going to get involved in the supply chain issues, particularly the ports on the United States left coast I knew it was only going to get worse.
Their brilliant solution? Fine Shipping Companies if their shipping containers remain in the marine terminals for too long. How that will actually enable the shipping containers to get unloaded and moved faster is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the shipping companies weren’t sufficiently motivated before and that was the problem? It makes no sense to me.
But I don’t have the experience in supply chain management that Biden and Harris do. Wait, scratch that, as a kid I worked in a warehouse shipping packages for four summers. Not stellar credentials in supply chain but four more summers experience than these public “servants” have.
Forgive me for repeating myself when I use the phrase government dysfunction. When it became apparent Biden was going to occupy the White House and the blue team was going to have both chambers of congress I thought it was going to be bad. Really bad. I thought it would be bad because I don’t think that taxing, regulating and spending work and that is pretty much all Biden can or would do.
If you do think that taxing, spending and regulating work then we’ve been deprived from the socialist paradise by two moderate Democrats (or if you’re from New York or California, right wing extremists).
I am waiting for the other shoe to drop because Senator Joe Manchin a blue team member from West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema, another blue teamer from Arizona are actually doing things I don’t wholly disapprove of. Or to be more precise they are not doing things.
That is the standard I have for politicians: did they do one or two things I don’t wholly disapprove of? If so they’re doing pretty good relative to their peers.
When his wife was appointed to a federal position that pays some $163,000 per year for public “service” I thought for sure Manchin was bought and paid for and would march to whatever beat Biden (who whomever is actually in charge of the executive branch) drummed.
But so far he hasn’t.
Manchin has put the Kibosh down on ending the filibuster (which is a racist Jim Crowe relic when anyone but the Democrats use it), he’s stopped the IRS from violating the fourth amendment by being able to snoop on anyone’s bank account with more than $600 $10,000 in transactions in a year, which is basically everyone not on welfare. He’s stopped the carbon tax and done some other good stuff. I didn’t realize there were still moderate Democrats but there is Joe Manchin.
Kyrsten Sinema gets some credit too. See? I can say something nice about Democrats.
Politicians always fail us, usually miserably, so I’m sure it is only a matter of time before Manchin and Sinema are brought in line and they click their heels like a good party members and do as they are told. But not so far.
Biden the Lame Duck
President’s who don’t accomplish anything are great. Gridlock in Washington is great for ordinary Americans. If Biden turns out to be a lame duck that would be fantastic. If you’re on the government dole it is a bummer, if you’re connected with the right folks in government you might not make another few million which is a bummer, but I’m convinced that for everyone else government inaction is a real plus.
Biden’s approval rating is pretty bad. I’m glad the US isn’t officially in Afghanistan anymore and I give Biden credit for having actually withdrawn. Obama didn’t make it happen, Trump didn’t make it happen. Biden (or whomever is actually in charge of the executive branch) made it happen. Full credit for that.
But even still it was a disaster. Incompetent leadership is not without its costs, some of which are deadly serious.
I’m not a military man (and neither is Biden) but why wouldn’t you make sure the US civilians (and Afghan allies) were evacuated PRIOR to withdrawing most of the military? I don’t think you need to have gone to West Point or the Naval Academy to have that instinct. What happened over there makes no sense to me.
Seeing desperate Afghanis clinging to airplane landing gear so they would not be left behind to be killed by the Taliban was disturbing and horrifying. But perhaps the worst was when the United States government killed an innocent family of 10 including 7 children.
That combined with how he is “handling” COVID-19 and the economy I think Biden’s prospects at a second term, should he decide to run, are not great. Disclaimer: “In my opinion the President has more power than he should have but less than people realize. The President gets blamed when the economy is doing poor and gets credit when it is doing well. But it’s all unwarranted.” But while not impossible (as we’ve seen with Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Trump in recent decades) it is tough to beat the President in an election.
Regardless I expect the blue teamers to do poorly in the mid-term elections. My political predictions haven’t been stellar, but if history is any guide the party occupying the White House tends to lose ground in the next election cycle, and with Biden being less popular than most things (ok that link is to a satirical news site), I don’t expect 2022 to be any different. At this point in my life, I would be content if no new laws were passed and the government was in deadlock. When either party gets control particularly bad things happen.
Gold Has Failed as an Inflation Hedge
This has been a real bummer because I’ve written about gold a lot. I’ve written about how I think it is an important part of a diversified portfolio. Well inflation is here and gold hasn’t done much of anything. Stocks are up, real estate is up, Bitcoin and Ethereum are up, plywood is up, Costco has reinstated paper towel quotas, even $163,000 a year isn’t enough to buy a US Senator anymore, the CPI for goodness sake, a metric seemingly designed to not measure inflation is up. It seems like the price of everything is up, except gold. Gold is not up. Maybe it is a “barbarous relic”. If you own any I wouldn’t sell it, but it has been a disappointment.
Sure, it had that tease-of-a-run-up in 2020 where it broke over $2,000, but since then it has dwindled and is stuck around $1,800. While it is better than a sharp stick in the eye gold going form $1,500 at the start of 2020 up $300 as of writing this isn’t going to save anyone from inflation. That is about a 20% increase. Meanwhile, the dollar has depreciated some 15% during that time. Not fantastic.
I still think gold is important. It doesn’t have counter-party risk, it’s been subjectively valued for thousands of years. It’s not liable to get replaced by Bettercoin 2.0 like Bitcoin is, but I would have expected it to go up more during COVID times.
The World Has Gone Mad
The world has gone mad, but it didn’t happen in 2020, it happened much, much earlier. Twenty-twenty was certainly crazier than other years but it could have been worse.
I don’t mean to downplay these past few years for those who have lost loved one or who have had their life dramatically impacted by COVID-19 and the ensuing government response. Almost 5 million people worldwide have passed as a result of COVID-19. If you’ve lost a friend, family member, co-worker, teammate or anyone else due to COVID-19 it is not a statistic it is a very real tragedy. If you’ve lost someone because they couldn’t get preventive care or screening because of the lockdowns, if they committed suicide as a result of the social isolation resultant from social distancing policies and lockdowns, if they’ve lost hope because of job losses these are all real tragedies. Perhaps you yourself are suffering. These are all real and tragic realities that we’ve all been coping with to one extent or another.
Having said that I want to end on a (relatively? kind of?) upbeat note. The last couple years have not as bad as the Bubonic Plague outbreak of the 14th century where perhaps 25 million people (about 2/3 of Europe at that time) perished. It’s not been as bad as the 1918 pandemic where perhaps 50 million people died. It wasn’t as bad as the mid 1940s in Europe during World War II when an estimated 50-70 million people died. Or the 1950s in China under Mao where some 30-40 million people died or were killed. Thankfully, nearly 223 million people worldwide have recovered from COVID-19. It’s not like we’ve had World War 3. And while that is a low standard perhaps that is good enough for now. And God willing, perhaps 2022 will be a little better.
I subscribe to various financial newsletters. I still have a lot to learn. One such newsletter I subscribe to is written by person who has a lot more money and an exponentially bigger following than I do. So obviously he is doing some things right.
But I’m amazed by what I read recently. He posted the following image and wrote: “In other words, if there had been no pandemic, aggregate net worth for each wealth percentile would likely be around where the blue lines are today. But due to the pandemic, we’ve unexpectedly made a whole lot more.”
That is very “unexpected” for someone like me that believes hard work, innovation, capital investment and fiscal discipline are what produce wealth.
What has happened since March of 2020? Many businesses have closed, some permanently, the government has “printed” money and spent it, people have been paid to stay home and not work, and countless people have passed away. I would never have expected shutting down large portions of the economy, printing and spending money would result in wealth creation.
Now I don’t doubt that the upper income brackets have increased their wealth in real terms. However, I can’t believe that in real terms wealth in the United States has increased. Why? Because the dollar buys much less than it did pre-pandemic. Commodity prices have gone up, housing prices have gone up, and food prices have gone up. The wealthy, even accounting for multi-million dollar mansions, private jets, and the finest organic vegan food cooked by a private chef, still don’t pay as much on food, housing as transportation as the poor when viewed as a percentage of their whole net worth.
At best this wealth effect is pulling forward future returns. But I suspect, that given the rising prices, most people are worse off as a result of the pandemic. But it is amazing the attitude it shows. At no point in that newsletter did the author question why closing large portions of the economy, printing and spending money was a recipe for wealth building.
After all, staying home and collecting a check is a lot easier than going to work to produce goods and services. So why bother encouraging businesses or workers.
The tax and spend philosophy, the universal basic income philosophy, the rejection of the basic principle of economic scarcity are consistent with the belief that a government can pay people not to work, run deficients and print in order to create prosperity. It’s all part and parcel with the United States rapidly shifting away from free market enterprise and towards collectivism and state control. This hasn’t worked in the past but maybe this time is different?
I wrote a little bit about the mechanics of shorting stock and naked shorting of stock. Some version of what I described in Scenario C happened to a hedge fund called Melvin Capital. Melvin Capital was heavily short GameStop (GME). The price rose rapidly and it sounds like they didn’t have enough money to close their position. According to the New York Post, “Hedge funds Point72 Asset Management and Citadel gave a $2.75 billion capital infusion to Melvin Capital earlier in the week, enabling it to close out that position with a large loss.”
Remember that name: Citadel. Citadel is a huge client of the trading platform Robinhood. Robinhood sells trading information to Citadel.
The retail traders on Robinhood trade for free. On platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter where you get something for free you are the product.
Citadel is Robinhood’s customer. Without clients like Citadel Robinhood doesn’t make any money. So there is motive for Robinhood to want to keep Citadel happy.
Was there any hanky-panky between Citadel and Robinhood? Did Citadel tell Robinhood to halt trading so a hedge fund they sank billions into could close their positions? I don’t know. I don’t have evidence that this happened. But the motive is definitely there. Motive by itself isn’t sufficient though.
Should someone look into what happened? Don’t worry: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is on it! She is the first female Treasury Secretary and she is on the case.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen
Former Fed Chair and now Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen did very well for herself while between jobs. She has made at least $7.2 million in speaking fees. This number includes some $800,000 paid to her by Citadel. The same Citadel who is a huge client of Robinhood and bailed out Melvin Capital.
But guess what, despite what I think is a clear conflict of interest. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen will be presiding over a regulatory hearing regarding the GameStop saga. So what are the chances that the Hedge Funds come out the loser in all this? I don’t think they are very good.
I don’t think regulations help that much anyway. Many do more harm than good. But let’s say you believe we need strong financial regulation. How is that supposed to happen when the regulators are getting millions from the people they are supposed to be regulating?
If anything happens, I suspect some of the more prominent “redditors” will be accused of something and trotted out as the scapegoats and the hedge funds will get away free. Even though the hedge funds were the ones who lost money due to them having poor risk management and being incredibly short a stock.
I’m not an attorney but from an ethical perspective I don’t see how the redditors buying the stock did anything wrong in seeing hedge funds were over-short a stock and taking advantage of what Melvin Capital were doing.
So what is the Lesson Here?
This is just one example of how the foxes are guarding the hen house.
Going back to the GameStop drama: some people probably made money buying GME but as of writing this it is back under $55. I suspect most redditors lost money on GME. GME peaked at around $483. I’d like to know how many people knew to buy GME at say $20 or less and then decided to sell at $400 or even $300.
Maybe some of the folks who lost money on the GME trade believe it was worth it just for the chance to stick it to a hedge fund. As for myself I’m not in favor of cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It is really hard to bet against the house at their own game and win. The hedge funds are too powerful and they pay the regulators’ speaking fees. Even the folks in the “big short” of 2008-2009 were gutsy insiders.
That is one of the reasons why I like a 10-20% allocation to physical gold and silver. Despite manipulation in the futures markets for these commodities, you are still opting out of the tradition financial system.
stonk: A term to express a financial decision that resulted in financial gain. Mostly used ironically.
For those of you not familiar GameStop is a brick and mortal video game retailer. Its stock had been heavily shorted by hedge funds. I heard that hedge funds were at one point short 150% of the GME stock in existence. How that is legal or possible is beyond me. That was the background. If the hedge funds had not been so short GME, this would not have happened.
But that is just the scene. Enter the main actors: a group of people on the reddit forums decided, for various reasons, to buy GME. The result triggered a massive short squeeze and stock price melt-up. In the course of 10 trading days GME went from around $30 to as high as $513 per share. It has cost hedge funds a lot of money as they’ve been forced to cover their short positions and buy the stock at the higher prices.
Several brokers halted GME trading or placed restrictions on the types of trades that could be made, angering (rightfully so) their “customers”.
I don’t know the reason reason why trading was halted by some of these brokers. It could have been for very innocent and good reasons on the part of the brokers to limit their risk. Other theories alleging nefarious intent abound. Did some of these hedge funds call in a favor? Was trading halted to tank the price so the hedge funds could cover their shorts? Who knows?
The volatility seems to have spilled into other markets as well. Major indices were down on the week–seemingly because hedge funds had to liquidate other holdings to cover their short positions.
It’s been a crazy week.
Here is an anecdote: I was in a company meeting (at my day job which has nothing to do with finance or investing) and the CEO was talking about GameStop. One employee mentioned a friend who was up over $100,000 in GME gains.
I hope they know when to sell.
Is the GME situation an extreme example of the broader trend?
While the GME stock melt-up, and even the other “reddit stocks” like AMC are extreme examples, I think they are indicative of the times: a lot of unemployed people at home, bored, angry, frustrated, armed with stimulus checks, low interest rates, and margin accounts buying up stocks. I think that is a bad sign. The rampant speculation devoid of fundamentals isn’t a good thing. A large number of unemployed people isn’t a good thing. Rampant speculation isn’t a good thing.
Of course it isn’t just retail investors. Institutional investors have low interest rates, are seeking returns, and have driven up asset prices beyond what I think the fundamentals would otherwise warrant. Sure, the institutional investors are supposed to be the “smartest folks in the room”. But they were also behind the dot com bubble and the housing bubble. So don’t tell me they don’t chase returns or make irrational decisions.
I have many reasons for believing assets are overvalued. I’ll just share one at this time, the Shiller PE ratio for the S&P 500 (shown below). The only time it has been higher is at the peak of the dot-com bubble in 2000.
I do think this short squeeze is a healthy thing. Some of these hedge funds are getting beat at their own game and getting taught an important lesson in risk management. It’s also got to be humbling for these hedge fund types to get beaten by the retail investors that they seem, in general, to have a lot of contempt for.
The GME Price Rocket is Still Absurd
On the flip side it is absurd. As of writing this GameStop now has a market capitalization of $22.6 billion. The market cap was just $1.3 billion on December 31, 2020.
The rapid increase in market cap has nothing to do with GameStop as a company. As billionaire hypocrite Warren Buffet once said: “In the short-run, the stock market is a voting machine. Yet, in the long-run, it is a weighing machine.” So what we’re seeing right now is many people voting for GameStop. But the “weight” of the stock has not changed.
Maybe people start buying more video games at GameStop. Maybe GameStop issues more shares at these high prices to raise capital, revamp their business model and they become a company whose fundamentals support a $22 billion or more valuation. I think this is unlikely.
But maybe none of that matters. People can subjectively value whatever they want. I don’t think that Bitcoin’s market cap of $645 billion makes sense but the market disagrees with me. Those buying into bitcoin back when it was just a few bucks and held to this point are sitting on tremendous profits. Bitcoin means a lot of different things to different people and as long as there is demand for BTC the price will be what it will be. If there was a special kind of dollar bill, people might be willing to pay $2 for it. Maybe GameStop will represent sticking it to the man and people will buy it just to participate in that movement. Maybe people will just buy it “for the lulz”.
As long as people value GameStop it can stay high.
What Does it All Mean?
In the short term fundamentals don’t matter. GME is exhibit A. People can subjectively value whatever they want. But in the long term I believe fundamentals do matter. What we are seeing, and have seen, is a lot of price action devoid of fundamentals. GameStop is an extreme example of this price action, but I think the same principle applies in a variety of markets and assets.
But for someone blessed enough to have assets to invest, what can you do?
Cash and even bonds are going to get destroyed by inflation over the long term. I like gold and silver as an asset and I think having a 10-20% allocation to these assets makes sense but they don’t provide growth or income in the way stocks do. Real estate, particularly residential and farmland, could be a good play, but there is a high cost of entry. There are REITs, but a lot of the tax benefits from investing in real estate come from directly owning the property and you can’t buy $10,000 worth of an apartment complex. (Although if there is a way with WITH the tax benefits please let me know!)
I think there is a place for cryptocurrencies although it is still a very young and volatile market segment.
The “big three”: S&P 500, Nasdaq and Dow Joes are all negative for 2021. There is reason for caution. But I’m looking for opportunities to buy into stocks. I think stocks are overvalued. But I don’t think avoiding stocks is a viable option. If stocks do tank, I believe the Federal Reserve will print as much money as possible to prop up prices, even if it means it destroys the value of the dollar.
Although it might sound trite, the best investment might be in yourself and those around you. There is a lot an individual can’t control but you can do a lot to learn, grow, and take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health.
With several states considering reopening in May, at least in some capacity this trend will certainly be disrupted and the rate of active case growth will probably rise again.
Not surprisingly, the major US indices bottomed a few days later on 23 March.
A popular theory is that this rapid selloff and equally rapid rebound is a V-shaped recovery.
While this certainly is the case right now, I believe that the fallout from COVID-19 will continue for many months and US stocks will make new lows. We’ll see which organizations and governments have been swimming naked as the tide is going out and the results will probably be ugly.
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