I’m betting on a recession

The Thinker by Rodin

In a recent post, I suggested leading a logical life. It’s logically the logical thing to do.

Of course, it’s hard to say what is logical, as there is a lot of murkiness in the world. To deal with the murkiness, sometime toward my late forties I hired a financial adviser who gave me all sorts of logical advice about how to manage our finances. It was good advice. He must practice his own advice because after he retired I found another financial adviser so the good times could keep coming.

His advice costs me a few thousand bucks a year, but I figure it’s worth it. I likely wouldn’t be as successful financially on my own, as the ins and outs of markets leave me bewildered. Markets really don’t make a whole lot of sense. One sensible piece of advice that investors will hear from reputable advisers is not to time the market. Find a sound financial strategy and stick to it. Ride the ups and downs in the market. Always think long term.

It’s been good advice. As I noted in previous posts, our wealth is a result of investing regularly, but it was greatly assisted by the collapse of markets in the Great Recession. By accident instead of design, I ended up buying lots of funds when they were grossly undervalued and watched them steadily appreciate over the last decade.

Buy low, sell high is great advice too, but you never really know when a stock or a fund is a good value. Currently the cost of buying into the market is quite high, by historical measures. I don’t trade in individual stocks. Like most Americans, I trade in funds: mutual funds and ETFs for the most part, along with various commercial and government bonds. It makes sense: any individual stock can have huge fluctuations. I find safety in market baskets of similar funds instead.

Every year when I think stock prices can’t get higher, I seem to be proven wrong. 2018 turned out to be a no-growth year because of a selloff in December 2018, but 2019 was phenomenal, with funds up more than twenty percent. It’s crazy but looking at our investments, since we retired in 2014 we’ve nearly doubled the value of our portfolio mostly by doing nothing but periodic rebalancing.

Given all this, it would seem foolish to start cashing in our chips. And yet today, that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t do it with our entire portfolio, just with the part I control. Our financial adviser oversees our assets in TD Ameritrade, but I oversee the funds in my Thrift Saving Plan (TSP), the federal government’s 401K system for its employees when I was one of them. Until now I’ve been mirroring in that fund the plan our adviser has been recommending in our TD Ameritrade account: 60% stocks, 40% bonds. Today I issued an order to the TSP to rebalance these funds to 40% stocks and 60% bonds.

Crazy? It might be. While no one can time the market, for a long time I’ve been queasy about being so highly invested in stocks. Our financial adviser said not to worry because my pension means that we can assume more risk, and thus reap greater rewards. And he’s been right. I keep waiting for this house of financial cards to collapse, but it doesn’t seem to be doing that.

While not an active investor, I do watch a fair amount of financial news and look at trends. Certain mega-trends that have me worried. What I keep seeing is that we’re doing the same stupid stuff that led to the Great Recession. It really looks like we have a credit bubble underway. If this bubble pops pretty soon, I’m going to look smart. If it doesn’t, I’ll look kind of silly. But consider these statistics:

  • Corporate debt is now higher than it was before the Great Recession: 46.5% of GDP in 2019
  • Credit card debt is at an all time high of $930B, which is $60B more than at its peak before the Great Recession
  • Auto loan delinquencies are at an all time high too, past the Great Recession rate. Some 7 million Americans are 90-days or more behind on their payments
  • Overall household debt is at a new high of $14.15T, as of the end of 2019
  • Student loan debt is at $1.4T at the end of 2019, and no one realistically expects most of these loans will be fully repaid
  • Wage growth has been mediocre. One percent real wage growth per year is certainly better than no wage growth, but it’s hardly a shot in the arm to the economy, which is probably why debt is up so much. The real cost of living is much higher than this mediocre wage growth which means most Americans are treading water financially. To the extent lower wage workers are doing better, it’s largely due to raising the minimum wage in more progressive states and localities.

The Fed is keeping the economy primed by injecting cheap money into the economy, which is encouraging the record high debt statistics. Because Trump’s tax cuts benefited largely only the rich, who can’t spend much of this new wealth, the Fed has to prime the economy instead.

On the plus side, mortgage default rates are half what they were before the Great Recession, which is probably because it’s still harder to get a mortgage than it was before the Great Recession, when pretty much anyone could get one with no money down.

All of this strikes me as showing that our economy is fragile and built on large amounts of unsustainable cheap credit. Certain sectors of our economy are in recession. Many nations are already in recession. Then there is the fallout from trade wars and now a coronavirus to worry about. Given all these risks and the huge credit bubble, my gut tells me that things are overdue to fall, perhaps spectacularly again. And when they do, the Fed will have few tools to use.

In general, stock prices strike me as crazily overvalued, pumped up by cheap credit and stock buybacks financed by cheap credit. All this cheap credit is encouraging unhealthy levels of debt by all sectors.

Obviously, I could be wrong on all of this, but reallocating about $100K in our portfolio from stocks and toward bonds lets us reap these inflated stock prices before most catch on that these assets are wildly overvalued. Also, when stocks return to more reasonable prices, we could buy them cheap again.

We’ll see what happens but I’m betting I made a smart move today.

Live a logical life

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of illogical people out there doing a lot of illogical things. It seems large portions of our population are into doing stupid and counterproductive stuff, making things bad if not for just themselves, then for the rest of us too.

It’s easy enough to start with Donald Trump, but you can throw in virtually the whole Republican Party as well as many Democrats. It’s easy to pander to your emotions because emotions are much more powerful than reason. This is being used against us.

For myself, while my decisions are not entirely logical, I strongly believe in trying to act logically instead of emotionally. I look at the world around me, look at my assets and do my best to make logical decisions. If I can’t get others to do the same (it’s not from lack of trying, and in many ways is the theme of this blog), then at least I can do it for myself.

Consequently, when we retired, my wife and I bugged out of town. Our house was paid off but we still bugged out of town. Part of our relocation adventure was simple restlessness; we had lived in the Washington DC area for more than thirty years. But it was also easy to see where things were going to go, as we were living with them even back then.

Life in DC’s burbs was expensive and getting more so. The climate was hot and muggy even thirty years earlier, but was worse now, along with the air quality. So the answer was pretty straightforward: move some place less expensive, more natural, less congested, further north where it’s cooler and somewhere safer in general.

We ended up in western Massachusetts. We endured about two years in a long adventure in retiring, selling a house and relocating, then setting up a newly constructed home. We’re living nowhere near a beach; in fact our new house is on a hill. So rising seas won’t affect us, but even massive flooding it shouldn’t affect us. The water should run downhill, thanks to our new house’s excellent drainage system. Earthquakes are almost unknown around here, along with most natural hazards. We’re starting to see an occasional tornado, but for the most part our lives should be hazard free.

Our big move was basically a once in a lifetime event. We certainly didn’t have this as a viable option during our working years. The good thing about the Washington area though was that despite its high costs and hassles, jobs were easy to find and in general they paid quite well. It was more luck than great planning that we ended up in that region, but once there we were at least smart enough to use the areas resources intelligently. We mostly lived within our means, mostly made sound financial choices and definitely stopped at one child. We ran the numbers and a second child would leave our standard of living significantly impaired.

You don’t have to choose to live life with the blinders on, but it seems to be the default for most of us. Maybe it’s exhaustion from all the other stuff going on in life that makes it hard to focus on longer-range stuff. The thing is though that only you can direct your life, and if you don’t do it intelligently and logically, you life is likely to end pretty messy and full of tremors.

We weren’t perfect. We had no master plan in life and went with common horse sense much of the time. If I couldn’t summon up the energy to create a twenty-year plan, I could summon the energy to redirect any excess money into paying down our mortgage or in getting a home equity loan to cut finance costs for many of life’s major expenses.

I have learned that by paying attention to life and investing time in thinking about your future, you can make your future. There are always unknowns and no guarantees in life, but if most of your actions in life are logical and follow a sound strategy, your odds of ending up where you want to end up someday greatly increase.

It requires time, clear headedness and hopefully some engagement. It also requires curiosity into how others are doing it successfully. Directing your life instead of letting it direct you can be very empowering.

Around 1990, I started tracking our household income and expenses. Simply doing this roused my curiosity in an area that I hadn’t thought much about earlier. I did know I was sick of having bills come due and not having enough cash handy to pay them. Thinking about our income and expenses meant we started planning. It was just a little at first, but as time and interest made possible, it grew into longer-range plans. As I thought about these goals, I had to measure them against what our lives were and think about to achieve them.

It meant some hard choices. For example, there was my decision to go to grad school while maintaining a full time job. For about three years my life was pretty hellish, but fortunately it paid off in promotions and more income. Surmounting this challenge also brought new confidence – I can do this – and led me to find the confidence to take some job risks that paid off.

After September 11, working in downtown D.C. looked simply dangerous. It wasn’t hypothetical, as I was working downtown when that plane hit the Pentagon. Our building was right next to the train tracks. I decided that this fear was telling me to find a job closer to home, without the commute, and I eventually succeeded. Turning my mind to the problem helped me build the future that I wanted. Being three miles from work instead of thirty turned out to be a terrific decision, and the job I landed was also just right for me.

Now I live something of a gilded retirement: financially secure, away from the more obvious threats in life, plus I found a new community that really agreed with me. But it didn’t happen from hoping and wishful thinking. It happened by being logical and by planning and listening to my gut.

I am hoping my country can wake up and do the same. It won’t be easy. It’s much easier to let your right brain run amok.