Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cross-Talk: Thoughts on Financial Planning in a Challenging Economy

Reader Tim offers a perceptive reply to my recent post:

It's difficult for me to balance what we know about the major theme of government fiscal irresponsibility with short to medium term trends. As you've mentioned, it's one thing to be a successful trader, producing income and another to be financially successful and responsible over the long term. A trader should be able to produce income but what of retirement and all those baby boomers that are going to pull their stock investments at the same time and start looking for income streams? With inflation including public monetization of bad bank loans (private debt) where can you go to get a hedge and protect assets for the future?

That's really the challenge of the investor, as opposed to the short-term trader: to, as best as possible, identify scenarios for the future, position oneself to profit from those (or at least to not lose money), and to be sufficiently hedged in the event one is wrong. Many times this will mean acting on scenarios that differ from what you see in the short-to-medium term, which--as Tim notes--can be difficult to balance.

A poor person is one who worries about how to pay the bills. A middle income person is one who worries about funding retirement. A wealthy person is one who worries about leaving enough for the next generation. More assets do not necessarily bring fewer worries, only different ones. When you don't have money, you are worried about making it; when you have excess capital, you're concerned about keeping it.

"Hope for the best, plan for the worst" is advice that has served me well as a short-term trader. By placing your stop-out level, you plan for the worst outcome and ensure you can survive it. Similarly, through diversification and hedges you can plan for the worst as an investor and balance your various risk exposures.

In the last year I've traveled in the U.S. from Miami, FL to Bellevue, WA and quite a few places in between. The common element has been cranes on the skyline. Building continues apace, even amidst indications of a housing oversupply. New luxury developments line the major Naperville street that passes our neighborhood; the houses are not moving, but more are being built.

In one area I visited recently, an entire condominium complex is going under. The developer could not sell enough units and thus could not raise sufficient association fees to properly maintain the development. This led to higher fees for existing tenants and cutbacks in services, including lighting in hallways. Caught in a death spiral, current residents find they cannot sell their properties for even bargain-basement prices: no one wants the liability of paying fees for a deteriorating facility.

Suppose the housing crises winds up much deeper and broader than expected. How would this affect the economy? How would this affect the income of municipalities and their ability to pay off debts? How would this impact banks holding mortgage debt--and how would that affect monetary policy at a Fed fearful of disintermediation?

It's not difficult to imagine a perfect storm for baby boomer retirees, in which interest rates kept low by an accommodative Fed restrain savings income, even as residential and stock market holdings are falling in value and employment opportunities (along with the economy) are contracting.

For those concerned about retirement and estate planning, the issue is not so much the specific odds that this scenario will unfold, but rather how one would stay in the game *if* it unfolds. For those distant from their financial goals, the temptation is to become aggressive and jump in to buy housing bargains, battered financial stocks, and juicy high-yield debt. I remember, too, when plenty of investors jumped in to buy bruised technology shares after their big drop early in 2000. They seemed like bargains when they were 25% off their highs...but wound up more like 75% off their highs over the next two years.

I believe Tim is asking the right question about finding hedges. The tricky part here is identifying whether the ultimate threat is inflation (and soaring interest rates and commodity prices) or deflation (and collapsing rates and financial asset values). For me personally, it's the prospect of a housing collapse, attendant bank crises, and an irresistible push toward quantitative easing at a Fed dominated by appointees from the next administration that leads me to seek protection from a possible perfect storm. As a result, locking in high quality yields and hedging against stock market and dollar weakness has been a dominant part of my increasingly fluid financial planning.