Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cash becoming a risky asset class because of beast contest

Investing is like a beauty contest. You pick the most beautiful contestant and if the other judges share your opinion, you will make big money. In the stock market, you pick the best stocks with the best potential for capital appreciation and dividend income.

On the other hand, today's currency market is like a beast contest. All the contestants are ugly. Central bankers have disfigured the contestants with their quantitative easing knives and used printed money to bandage their faces. A currency investor tries to pick the least ugly contestant.

My knowledge in currency markets is limited. I do not invest in forex markets because I do not see how an engineer like me with no formal financial training and holding a full-time job can gain an edge over the big financial institutions who can afford to pay smarter minds and provide them with greater resources and time for the job. However, no one can totally ignore the currency markets because it will affect us whether we like it or not. All of us must have cash savings in the form of paper currency. The excessive money printing has render our cash savings increasingly risky as an asset class.

In the short-term, it is uncertain whether deflation or inflation will win out. The financial markets are giving out confusing signals. The gold market suggests that inflation is on the way. The bond market suggests that deflation is coming. In the short term, your guess is as good as mine. However, in the long-term, I will place my bet on inflation.

If deflation rears its ugly head, deflationary forces can be defeated by central bankers through money-printing which is politically acceptable. Alan Greenspan became a celebrated maestro by slashing interest rates to save financial markets whenever Wall Street cries out for help. Paul Volcker was universally hated when he raised interest rates to defeat high inflation in the late 1970s. There is an abundance of regulators who prefer to take the easy, populist route like cutting interest rates and becoming a Wall Street hero (highly rewarding when you join Wall Street later). On the other hand, there is a scarcity of regulators who have the integrity and courage to do what is right, especially if the career risk is not worth it personally.

If inflation rears its ugly head, inflationary forces may not be as easily defeated by central bankers because the country has got to be quite lucky to have another Paul Volcker. Even if the country does have a Paul Volcker reincarnated, he might not have the support of his political master. Debt level today is way much more as compared to the late 1970s. Massive debts have been built up by governments through quantitative easing. By raising interest rates on a huge debt, it is like committing financial suicide when tax revenues eventually cannot service the interest payments. In such a situation, it is politically impossible for the central banker to raise interest rates to kill inflation. What is politically acceptable then and more likely to happen is to allow inflation to kill the burden of debt instead. Besides, much of US debt is held by foreigners. I cannot imagine Obama making a speech to his fellow Americans to tighten their belts so that they can honor their debt to the Chinese. This is political suicide. In a democracy, no politician will antagonize their people who carry votes to appease foreigners with no votes. The easy way out for a politician is to allow inflation and currency debasement to ease the burden of debt to the locals by destroying the value of debt to foreigners. In this event, cash savings in USD will be devastated.

This pessimistic analysis applies for the US situation. However, all countries outside the United States cannot  ignore what happens there. The US dollar is the world's reserve currency. Much of global trade is done in USD. The world's raw materials are priced in USD. Whether they like the USD or not, corporations have to keep a USD bank account because their products or their raw materials are traded in USD. Impact from bad policies by the Federal Reserve will be exported out to the rest of the world.

Inflation is a politically convenient tool to solve sovereign debt problems. This is likelier to happen in highly democratic countries which tends to surrender to the popular vote than in dictatorial countries where politicians simply force unpopular policies down the voters' throats. This is one of the reasons that I think the Singapore dollar looks less ugly than the other beasts at the moment.

2 comments:

  1. This is one of the reasons that I think the Singapore dollar looks less ugly than the other beasts at the moment.

    Very good call and analysis. The Singapore dollar has strengthened 8.8% against the US dollar since your post.

    Bernanke is still intent on printing money. The US dollar still has room to drop further.

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