debt

Easy Money, Hard Truths

© Can Stock Photo / alexskopje

If you follow market commentary, you may have noticed a lot of attention being placed on Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. After a series of interest rate hikes, the Fed has started pumping the brakes and some market watchers—the President among them—are hoping for interest rates to go back down, or even a return to the Fed’s “quantitative easing” policy.

It is easy to understand the appeal of easy monetary policy. Being able to borrow money cheaply helps fuel economic growth. Corporations, individuals, and governments all benefit from being able to take out lower interest loans.

That growth comes with strings attached. The cheaper it is to borrow money, the more borrowed money accumulates on balance sheets. In moderation, borrowing money allows people and companies to accomplish things their own money could not. But those debts eventually come due, and not all of them always pay off. Too much debt can have catastrophic results.

We do not need to look far into the past to get a glimpse of the consequences that overly easy monetary policy can have. Not even 10 years ago there was widespread panic about the possibility of Greece’s national debt dragging the whole Eurozone down with it.

How did this happen? Greece was a developing country with a growing economy, but Euro monetary policy was dominated by larger countries with slower economies that wanted looser money to fuel their own growth. For Greece, that loose money just wound up inflating their debts into an unsustainable bubble.

We have been concerned for some time about signs that corporate and government debt in the U.S. may be growing into a massive debt bubble, and we are not alone. In our opinion, the last thing that the economy needs is even more debt. We hope that cooler heads prevail and the Fed agrees with us.

Clients, if you have any questions or concerns, please give us a call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The economic forecasts set forth in this material may not develop as predicted and there can be no guarantee that strategies promoted will be successful.

Are You Getting Your Piece of the Pie?

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Elenathewise

The Federal Reserve provides us with a quarterly report of household net worth. The latest number is $89 trillion, up 59% from the financial crisis year of 2008. I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of wealth—and a nice increase.

The distribution of our wealth from person to person is the subject of some political debate, which we will leave to the politicians. It always has made sense to us to focus on the things within our control; let’s see what we can learn from the numbers.

Our $111 trillion of assets includes homes, pensions, stock, money in the bank, mutual funds, small business ownership, and bonds.

We owe $22 trillion, most in the form of mortgage debt but also including consumer debt like auto loans and credit cards.

Net worth is simply the value of our assets minus our liabilities, or what we own minus what we owe. $111 trillion minus $22 trillion is our $89 trillion in net worth.

Here are the pertinent points, as we see them:

1. Having wealth in different forms is a good thing, a form of diversification. We the people have money in the bank, different kinds of investments, homes and businesses.

2. Debt can make sense when it helps us own assets of enduring value that we can afford to pay for over time. $22 trillion is a lot of debt, but it helps us to own $111 trillion worth of homes and businesses and other assets.

3. Since debt or liabilities are subtracted from assets to determine our net worth, it makes sense to minimize debt over time. One who pays off a car loan and then keeps putting the payment amount in savings each month might get by with a smaller loan the next time a vehicle is purchased.

4. Because assets are the starting point for determining net worth, one should seek to invest effectively for growth and income over time. Money does not grow on trees, but it may grow over time.

Our $89 trillion net worth is a very large amount of wealth for us as a society. The decisions we make play a big role in determining whether or not we each get our piece of the pie. We have written about Four Habits for Financial Success which might help, and we encourage you to call or email if we can be of service.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

When the Tide Goes Out

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / RobGooch

A lot of money talk uses words that evoke water: liquidity, a wave of buying or selling, money sloshing around. We have described large sums of money going into a particular sector as a tsunami.

The extreme actions taken by central banks around the world, instead of goosing economic activity, have actually caused people to become more cautious, spend less, and save more money. The primary effect has been a huge increase in demand for supposedly safe bonds and other fixed income investments.

In our lifetimes, there have been several investment manias that featured large sums of money pouring into a single sector or type of asset. The real estate boom of the early 2000’s is fresh in our minds. The technology and growth stock boom of the late 1990’s grew into a classic bubble.

The biggest financial tsunami in history is the one we are in right now: the rush into bonds. Bloomberg recently reported on the International Monetary Fund’s concern over the global $152 trillion debt pile. The key for us is to understand how this happened: people and institutions demanded bonds in unprecedented quantities. Interest rates reached extremely low levels as the tsunami of money flooded the fixed income markets.

The market will supply whatever is demanded. Companies that didn’t need money borrowed, simply to lock up financing for years or decades ahead at the most favorable prices in history. Some consumers are taking on mortgage debt at the lowest interest rates ever just because they can. Governments around the world see little cost to borrow, so finance their deficits.

The global debt pile is like a coin with another side. That other side is the unparalleled tsunami of money into bonds and fixed income. Investors who believed they were being prudent have ramped up their holdings in the supposedly safe kinds of investments.

Some say you cannot spot a bubble when it is happening. We disagree. What cannot be known is when the bubble pops. To get back to our water words, we can’t know when the tide will go back out.

We believe that bonds will be punished severely in price when the tide goes out. There will be collateral damage to bond substitutes and other income investments. And other assets may rise in price, as money returns from the bond bubble and goes back into other, now-neglected sectors. Peril and opportunity go together.

This issue is the key to the investment markets for the next few years. We know that opportunities and threats are always present, and you know we’ll be working hard to sort out which is which. If you have questions about how this applies to your situation, please write or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Bonds are subject to market and interest rate risk if sold prior to maturity. Bond values will decline as interest rates rise and bonds are subject to availability and change in price.

Because of their narrow focus, sector investing will be subject to greater volatility than investing more broadly across many sectors and companies.