Thursday, June 09, 2011

3 Investments to Protect Your Portfolio From Inflation

Whether you think we'll see inflation or deflation in the short term, even the most ardent deflationists will admit that inflation is likely, eventually, once the bad credit outstanding has retired to money heaven.

So when inflation does return - whether it's next year, or longer, what are the best ways to shelter cold hard cash?  Inflation expert Terry Coxon explores here (fellow Harry Browne fans will recognize Terry's name - they did a lot of work together).  Coxon's Open Opportunity IRA is an especially attractive idea, for those of us who want more flexibility from our retirement plans (and/or are worried that the government may eventually try to lock them up in "Patriot bonds"!)

3 Ways to Shelter Your Cash from Inflation

By Terry Coxon, The Casey Report

The high rate of inflation most of us believe is waiting not too far down the road will be an earthquake for investment markets. The likely winners (gold, silver, precious metals stocks) and the likely losers (long-term bonds and most stocks) aren’t too hard to identify. But separating the sheep from the goats is only one element for financial success in an environment of rapidly rising consumer prices.

Higher rates of price inflation will bring greater volatility to all financial markets. The higher you expect inflation and hence gold to go, the more volatility you should expect to see for assets of every type. Even if in fact the dollar is on the road to perdition, there will be detours and backtracking along the way.

Inflation doesn't operate smoothly; it is a disrupter for both the economy and for the political system. From time to time over the next five to ten years, the Federal Reserve will come to see inflation as its most urgent problem. And every time that happens, the Fed will slow the creation of fresh dollars or even put up a big INTERMISSION sign and stop printing altogether for a while.

Such seizures of monetary virtue won’t last long, but while they do last, they will hammer most investment markets, including the market for the yellow stuff and for stocks of companies that produce or look for it. You could be absolutely correct about where the dollar is headed in the long run and still have a scary ride.

2008 was just a preview of the downdrafts you will need to survive. There will be even uglier smash-ups, and you don’t want to be among the hard-money investors who get carried off on a stretcher. To avoid being one of them, you’ll need to include cash as a constant, permanent element of your portfolio. Cash is a courage booster. Having a substantial cash reserve makes it easier to hold on to your other investments when they are getting battered and you are tempted to bail out. And cash gives you the wherewithal to buy on dips – and on the big dumps.

The Twins

Of course, cash will be the asset whose value is shrinking. But the rate at which the purchasing power of your cash declines will depend very much on how you hold it.

Interest rates on money market instruments, such as Treasury bills and large CDs, track the rate of inflation fairly closely. By creating money fast enough, the Federal Reserve can keep rates on money market instruments one or two percentage points below the inflation rate, but not indefinitely. And any such effort to suppress short-term interest rates succeeds at the cost of producing even higher inflation later. Similarly, the Fed can keep money market rates one or two points above the inflation rate for a while, with the likely eventual result of a slowing in inflation. But over long periods, the average yield on money market instruments about matches the average rate of inflation.

Given that money market yields travel the same path as inflation rates, holding cash doesn’t seem to be terribly painful. The loss in purchasing power about gets made up for by the yield. That’s a nice thought – until you think about taxes. Even though the yield is merely replacing the purchasing power being lost, the yield is subject to income tax, unless you do something about it.

Doing nothing about it is, in a subtle way, risky for your portfolio. When price inflation gets to, say, 10% and money market yields are near the same level, if you are in a 40% tax bracket, you’ll be losing purchasing power on your cash at a rate of 4% per year. The situation will get worse as inflation moves higher, and you’ll be tempted to cut back on cash in order to cut back on the leakage. And that will leave you dangerously ill-prepared for the next INTERMISSION sign.

Logically, then, to make holding cash cheap or even free, you need to hold the cash in an environment where the yield is protected from taxes. Let’s look at the possibilities, some of which, you should be warned, may make you say “Yuk.”

Deferred Annuities

A straight annuity is a contract with an insurance company that pays you a certain amount per year for the rest of your life. A deferred annuity begins with an accumulation period, during which the contract earns interest or some other investment return. You can end the accumulation period whenever you want and then either start receiving a lifetime of payments or simply withdraw the contract's accumulated value.

Earnings in a deferred annuity are tax-deferred until they are withdrawn. So if the return on a deferred annuity tracks money market yields, then the real value of the annuity will hold approximately steady, even at high rates of inflation.

Deferred annuities are now an almost forgotten topic. They were, for the first time ever, a very big topic in the high-inflation years of the 1970s and 1980s. The reason was simple – sky-high interest rates. But in more recent experience, interest rates have been so low that the advantage of tax-deferred compounding has hardly been worth the trouble. It's when interest rates are high that tax-deferred compounding brings a big payoff.

When price inflation heats up and puts money market rates on a boil, expect to see ads for deferred annuities on every financial street corner. The right annuity contract will certainly be better than leaving cash in a bank account, but it still won't be the most attractive medium for holding cash through a period of rapid inflation. There are one, or perhaps two, limitations on an annuity's appeal.

The first is that the protection from being taxed on a fictitious return only goes so far. Even though the money inside the annuity may be holding its purchasing power (with interest continuously replacing what is being lost to inflation), eventually you'll cash the annuity in. At that point, all the interest will be taxable. After, say, a decade of high inflation, most of what comes out of the annuity will be accumulated interest – which will be taxable as ordinary income. So you'd have a one-time loss of nearly 40% of your purchasing power, assuming you're in a 40% tax bracket. (I know that sounds awful, but it would be a far better result than paying tax on interest income year by year during a decade of rapid inflation.)

The second limitation is that, so far as I have been able to determine, no insurance company offers a program that would let you switch the value of an annuity between money investments and something related to precious metals. That may change as inflation and the public's interest in gold picks up. But until it does, there would be no tax-efficient way to tap the purchasing power your annuity had been protecting to buy something gold-related during the downdrafts we're trying to prepare for.

Cash Value Life Insurance

As with a deferred annuity, the earnings on a cash value life insurance policy can accumulate and compound free of current tax. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Unlike the earnings on a deferred annuity, the earnings on cash value life insurance can come out of the policy tax free. The tidiest way is for you to die at just the moment that is most convenient for your financial plan. An alternative, if you don’t have such an accommodating attitude, is to borrow the earnings from the policy. You can do so tax free if the policy satisfies the “7-pay” rule: pay for the  policy no more rapidly than with seven equal annual premiums.

Being able to borrow from the policy tax free would allow you to tap its value whenever gold and other hard investments have had a sizeable setback. Convenient. But, depending on your circumstances, that convenience may or may not be available to you for free.

Between the Internal Revenue Code's requirements for a contract to qualify as “life insurance” and the perversely characterized “consumer protection” rules of the various states, it is not possible to buy a life insurance policy in the U.S. that does not have a face value far above the amount you’ve invested in the policy. The difference represents the insurance company’s risk – mortality risk – that you may stop breathing ahead of schedule. The insurance company, of course, will charge for that risk. There are a lot of variables, but think of the charge as amounting to something on the order of 1% per year of the capital you want to wrap inside the policy to protect the return from taxes.

Whether a cash value insurance policy (a 7-pay policy, so that you can borrow tax free) is a good place to shelter cash from the winds of inflation depends in large part on whether paying for mortality risk is or is not a wasted cost for you. If you now have a reason to own term life insurance, you are paying purely for mortality risk. In that case, it would make sense for you to convert to a cash value policy that could be invested in money market instruments as a way to prepare for high inflation. There wouldn’t be any additional mortality cost, and you would get the tax advantages of life insurance.

On the other hand, if you have no use for pure life insurance coverage, using a cash value policy for its tax advantages would require you to become a regular bettor in the actuarial casino, which you probably would not want to do.

Retirement Accounts

If it is available to you, by far the best way to hold cash through an inflationary storm is in an Individual Retirement Account. Without any of the costs that come with a deferred annuity or a life insurance policy, you can invest in T-bills, insured jumbo CDs and other money market instruments and in near-cash assets such as very short-term bonds. You can have a free hand to tap the cash at opportune times to purchase precious metals and precious metal stocks. The whole arrangement is protected from current taxes, and with a Roth IRA the proceeds eventually can come out tax free.

You can do exactly the same with a solo 401(k) plan. And if you have a 401(k) plan that's sponsored by your employer, you may be able to do about the same, depending on the investment options the plan allows.

A retirement plan would be the ideal vehicle, but there is a size constraint. While the size of a deferred annuity or of a cash value life insurance policy is limited only by the size of your checkbook, IRAs are not so easily scalable. However, if you have a traditional IRA and would like to move a chunk of non-IRA money into it, there is a way to effectively do so.

Take a close look at your traditional IRA. How much of it is building tax-deferred wealth foryou? Less than meets the eye.

If you are in, say, a 40% tax bracket, then no matter how large your IRA gets to be, when it comes time to take a distribution, 40% will go to the government. Your ability to postpone that event won't change the nature of it. In effect, the government now owns 40% of your IRA, and you own only 60%. If there is, for the sake of round numbers, $100,000 in your IRA, only $60,000 is working for you.

Fortunately, there is a way to buy out the government's share. It's a Roth conversion. You pay the tax now, so that eventually your withdrawals will be tax free. The result: the assets you own directly decline by $40,000 (the money you spend to pay the tax bill on the conversion); and the amount in the IRA that is working exclusively for you increases by $40,000.

That's a big improvement, because the net effect is to move capital out of a tax-paying environment and into a tax-free environment where all of the earnings get reinvested. To continue the example, the effective size of your IRA increases by two-thirds ($40,000/$60,000). That's two-thirds more money doing the happy work of tax-free compounding for your benefit.

You can do the same with a solo 401(k) – effectively plump it up through a Roth conversion.

The financial logic of a Roth conversion is compelling. The case is even stronger if you first restructure your IRA as an Open Opportunity IRA. The Open Opportunity structure starts out as a big idea – radically greater investment freedom – and then gets bigger.

Instead of being restricted to the menu of investments allowed by your existing IRA custodian, your IRA would own a single asset – a limited liability company that you manage. Then you would roll over the investments from your existing IRA into the new IRA and then into the LLC. As Manager of the LLC, you would have the choice of keeping the existing investments or switching to real estate, gold coins, equipment leasing or almost anything else.

That's the investment freedom. In addition, by designing the LLC appropriately, significant savings on the cost of your Roth conversion may be possible..

You can learn more about the Open Opportunity IRA in "The Year of the Roth," in the June 2010 edition of The Casey Report.

Time to Plan

Deferred annuities, cash value life insurance and retirement plans – these are the ready vehicles for protecting the purchasing power of the cash you need for portfolio safety during times of rapid inflation. They do the job by reinvesting money market yields, which tend strongly to track inflation rates, without loss to current tax.

Of course, the three alternatives aren't exclusive; you can use more than one. Which of them would be best for you depends not just on their characteristics but on your individual circumstances. Now, before CPI inflation starts making double-digit headlines, is a good time to start weighing your choices. Even if you don't like any of the choices, any of them will be better than letting your cash rot.

Contributing Editor Terry Coxon is president of Passport Financial, Inc., and for over 30 years has advised clients on legal ways to internationalize their assets to optimize tax, wealth protection and estate planning goals.

[For a very limited time, you can now profit from the investment advice of both the Casey Research team and 35 big-name experts… like ShadowStats’ John Williams, James G. Rickards, Chris Whalen, Mike Maloney and many others. Get your Double-Dip Crisis Bundle today – for one low price. More info here.]

Sunday, June 05, 2011

2011 Chinese Demand for Gold Overtakes Developed West (Combined!)

Here are some charts on China's demand for gold that'll make your jaw drop.  Courtesy of Frank Holmes, writing for
The World Gold Council (WGC) released its quarterly “Gold Demand Trends” report last week and, as always, it was filled with fascinating data on the strength of the global gold market. Gold demand grew 11 percent to 981.3 tons during the first quarter of 2011, worth $43.7 billion at quarter-end’s price levels.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in China. From 2007 to 2010, investment demand grew at a compounded annual growth rate of 68 percent, according to the CPM Group. The firm forecasted Chinese investment demand to increase 34.7 percent during 2011 but based on this new data, it may need to adjust its forecast.

Song Qing, director of Shanghai-based Lion Fund Management, told Bloomberg news that, “Gold has taken on a new role in China amid concern about inflation…Just imagine the total wealth in China and even a small percentage of that choosing to buy gold. This demand is going to be enormous.”
Full article: Asian Tiger Sinks Teeth Into Gold

And this chart here says it all:
China Demand for Gold 2011 Chart
I was scratching my head, along with my friend here in the US, wondering who the heck was buying all of this gold during its recent run up.  Then I went over to Asia, and saw with my own eyes - the West is not driving this market any longer.  And this chart certainly says it all.

Interestingly, I learned that the same phenomenon has been taking place - to an even more dramatic degree - with rare, Chinese collectibles.  My wife's friend's father is an extremely wealthy Taiwanese businessman.  He's been collecting rare Chinese artifacts for the past 20-30 years.  Now that he's retired, he's starting to sell off some of his collection - and is doing so at astounding multiples of what he paid for the items (100x-1000x in some cases).

Now that the Chinese are minting new millionaires and billionaires, the supply/demand balance for rare historical artifacts is resulting in dramatic price increases.  And the same appears to be happening in gold, which is a trend the middle class can play themselves.

After all, what are they supposed to buy, other than renminbi, to store their wealth?  US dollars?  Euros?

This trend should remain in place, I'd guess, as long as real interest rates remain near zero, or negative, there (in theory real rates are about 1% today - if you believe that inflation is really running at 5%).

Hat tip to The Daily Crux for the tip on this link.

CLSA's Russell Napier on QE2's Failure, and His Outlook on Inflation - Deflation

A Scottish financial historian with an S&P target price of 400?  Be still, our beating hearts!

CLSA's Russell Napier is my new favorite - take a listen to his interview with Financial Sense's Jim Puplava.
He believes that QE2 has failed in terms of reigniting credit growth - at least here in the US.  But we are now exporting inflation to our emerging market creditors.  So if the US turns to a policy of "QE Infinite" there could be significant pushback.

(By the way, I agree 100% with his take on "Deflation in the Old West (US, Europe... and Japan), Inflation in Asia and Emerging Markets" - we're seeing that today).

I also appreciate his take that the US treasury and stock markets are both quite overvalued by any measure, thanks in large part to the Fed's QE events.  I've been arguing that we're still in a secular bear market, and we'd be fine forgetting US stocks until they are sporting P/E's of 8 and yields of 5-6%.

Napier cites the Singapore dollar as a potential "new Swiss franc" - as the Singaporeans have been allowing their currency to rise, to combat the aforementioned forced import of inflation from the West.

Finally he thinks the developed world could slump into a deflationary depression environment, while yields simultaneously rise (a la 1931).  Maximum pain for all!

Again, here's the link to the full interview.

Hat tip JL for sending this along!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

What's Really Happening in Iraq - and Why it Matters to Investors

Soldiering on: Why Our Military Adventures Matter to Investors

By David Galland, The Casey Report

Recently, I read a book titled The Good Soldiers that also serves as an object lesson in the disconnect between what’s going on in Washington D.C. and reality. It was written by David Finkel, a Pulitzer-winning author, and it came to me via a friend who is going through a stage where she feels drawn to books about war, mostly about World War II. Showing flexibility, her interest has expanded to the ongoing conflict in Iraq – the theater of operations that serves as backdrop for The Good Soldiers.

Despite it going solidly against my literary preferences, I dragged the book along during a quick trip to Florida – a spur-of-the-moment thing to attend a golf school (I figured it was either that or get thrown off the local course for energetic exclamations of elaborate expletives resulting from my golf shots constantly flying off in unexpected and unwelcomed directions). Out of courtesy if nothing else, I figured I’d read a few pages of the book before putting it down – and so was surprised when it sucked me in, and kept me in, pretty much until I was finished.

The background story is that the author of the book traveled to Iraq with a battalion of U.S. soldiers sent as part of the “surge,” then lived with them for the 14 months of their deployment. As far as I can tell, he approached his topic with no overt political intentions – rather, he just wanted to document the war as experienced by a battalion operating from a small base in one of the worst corners of Baghdad.

As one might expect, as they departed from the United States for Baghdad, the soldiers and their brigade commander, Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, were full of fight, patriotism, and the confidence that only a chosen people can possess. It was, in their view, a just war and they deeply believed that in no time at all they'd use their superior war-making capabilities – supported by the sure knowledge that they held the moral high ground – to clean the bad guys out of Dodge and get the whole mess straightened out pronto.

Reality, however, turned out to be significantly different, starting with the fact that rather than being welcoming, the population was overtly hostile – so much so that almost every time the soldiers drove off the base (which was part of the daily routine), the locals would try to maim and kill them. And they had considerable success at it.

In addition to trying to kill them, the community’s leaders seemed uninterested in the outreach efforts the colonel was instructed to make, including an initiative to rebuild the sewers and fix the power and water delivery systems in the area around his command. Of course, it didn’t help that it was the blunt-force approach used by the U.S. military in capturing Baghdad that destroyed so much of the infrastructure in the first place. Regardless, all attempts at doing “good works” were stalled and disappointed at every turn, with billions of dollars wasted in the process.

As the book progresses, the author juxtaposes President Bush's and General Petraeus' rosy comments about how well the surge is working with the on-the-ground realities. And those realities are presented as raw and graphic as they are – with the tops of soldiers’ heads being taken off by IEDs, or burning to death in Humvees while friends watch helplessly.

So successful was the military and political leadership in convincing Congress and the media that the surge was a winning strategy that, to this day, its acceptance as a fact has become a meme throughout the body politic. Back on the ground in Iraq, however, the daily grinding down of the front-line forces continues apace.

During the period of time covered in The Good Soldiers, the Iraqi insurgent attacks lightened up only slightly – but only because the ruling mullah in the battalion’s area of operation unilaterally called a cease-fire. The resulting dialing-back of attacks on U.S. forces was immediately pounced upon by the military leadership and the Bush administration as proof that the surge was working.

That that wasn’t the case became clear the day the same mullah called off his cease-fire and hell opened up. One minute the area was relatively quiet – the next, the streets were filled with armed gunmen and snipers, and bombs were going off on what seemed like every corner.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the war, an aspect that largely goes unreported, was just how sophisticated the Iraqi opposition became in their attacks against the occupying forces. Not only did their roadside bombs become murderously powerful – so powerful that they could almost evaporate a fully armored Humvee – but the Iraqis began attacking the U.S. bases using everything from mortars to rockets and even homemade missiles.

The lob bomb, for example, was created out of propane tanks, filled with ball bearings and shrapnel, with a triggering device welded to the nose, and a rocket on the rear. In one instance, two large dump trucks drove near the base; after tilting up their backs to drop their loads, they revealed rails which were then used to guide a barrage of lob bombs, resulting in millions of dollars of damage to the American base.

By the end of the battalion’s stay, the soldiers were mentally and, in many cases, physically ruined. One chapter near the end of the book, which recounted Col. Kauzlarich’s visits to some of his wounded soldiers back in the States – soldiers who suffered truly catastrophic injuries – I had to skip after just a couple of pages. It was just too painful to read.

Lessons from The Good Soldiers

There are a number of important lessons that can be derived from The Good Soldiers, including:
  • The on-the-ground commanders and soldiers being sent into places like Iraq and Afghanistan have only the best of intentions. Though their reasons for joining up may vary, as they head off for war, most believe their leaders wouldn’t deploy them unless there was good reason to do so. Thus when it becomes clear to them just how ill-used they have been – that they have lost friends and limbs for no discernable purpose – it creates a deep sense of disillusionment. The odds of another Timothy McVeigh emerging from the crowd of returning vets are very high.
  • Despite the U.S. government spending tens of millions of dollars a day in Iraq – with the total spent now approaching $1 trillion – the mission has accomplished nothing other than antagonizing the Iraqis whose doors the U.S. troops kick down regularly. When I say “accomplished nothing,” that is actually an overstatement. In fact, other than toppling Saddam, the outcome of the mission has been to create an everlasting antipathy between many Iraqis and the United States, blowing wind into the sails of the most radical elements of Iraqi society. What a mess.
  • The U.S. occupation has turned into a very effective laboratory for the insurgents. At the beginning of the conflict, the resistance fighters were relatively weak – but as time has gone by, the natural ability of humans to adapt and improvise has led to the development of an array of inexpensive but seriously lethal antipersonnel weaponry. That these technologies are now spreading throughout the region can be seen in the recent death of eight U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, in a single blast.
  • Short of staging a scorched-earth form of warfare – turning these cities into parking lots – the U.S. cannot possibly ever win one of these conflicts. There is no fixed enemy that the U.S. can target with its superior weapons. And it’s unrealistic that the military can hunt down all of the opposition by going door to door.
  • The U.S. political and military leadership is straight out lying to its troops and to the public at large. It is hard to comprehend why, but I dare you to read The Good Soldiers and come away with any other conclusion. Maybe they continue the tragic farce because to cut and run – as we ultimately did in Vietnam – is just too embarrassing. Maybe it’s because they are so effectively lobbied by the war profiteers – may they eventually rot in the hottest corner of hell. Maybe it’s because they are allowed to wage war from a safe distance (no politicians visited the forward operating base where Kauzlarich and his battalion were based during their stay there, and Petraeus only made a single, quick stopover).

    Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to bleed billions in these misguided wars, while the soldiers just bleed.
Someone, and probably a lot of people, should be held accountable for this travesty – as in being brought up on serious charges and, if found to have propagated lies resulting in the loss of lives and the wasting of hundreds of billions of dollars, sent to jail for a very, very long time. Or, better still, turned over to the Iraqis to punish. I’m sure they’d figure out something appropriately medieval.

Why This Is Important to Us as Investors

Given the urgency of addressing the U.S. debt and deficits, the bloated U.S. military budget is clearly the most obvious place to start making cuts that will actually matter. Yet Congress made no such cuts when passing the $690 billion budget requested by the Defense Department – doing so last week by an overwhelming margin.

That budget includes another $119 billion to flush down the toilets of Iraq and Afghanistan. Showing that it has learned no lessons, the Obama administration – encouraged no doubt by new friends in the military-industrial complex – has already managed to spend $750 million in the undeclared war on Libya.

There is a way to use this understanding that the bankrupt U.S. and its allies are doing little more than breaking furniture and making enemies in the Middle East to one’s advantage. Simply, unless and until the U.S. politicians muster enough spine to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan and slash the military budget, the government’s massive budget deficits will continue.

And if the budget deficits continue, then the trend for the U.S. dollar is sharply downward (though I remain convinced we’ll see a rally in the near term, a topic we’ll be tackling in greater detail in the upcoming edition of The Casey Report).

That is not conjecture, but the unavoidable conclusion uncovered by a number of objective analyses done on past sovereign debt crises by folks such as Kenneth Rogoff and Casey’s Chief Economist Bud Conrad.

To those readers who think that cutting the military budget, or pulling out wholesale from the Middle East, will increase threats to the continental United States, we will have to agree to disagree. In my view, destroying our economy to wage war – in the process squandering the huge commercial advantage of providing the world its reserve currency – is far more destabilizing. As is making yet more enemies by continuing to lob bombs and kick in doors here, there, and everywhere.

Unfortunately, the U.S. leadership and, I guess, some significant swath of the voting public who supports that leadership are suffering from some sort of mass psychosis (or maybe it’s paranoia), that actually has them thinking that it is somehow in the country’s interest to continue flinging billions of dollars and the lives of its good soldiers into lost causes overseas.

But don’t take my word on the topic – do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Good Soldiers today. As I can’t know where you stand on these wars, I can’t say whether or not reading the book will change your mind. But I can guarantee you that its on-the-ground perspective will enlighten you as to the true and disturbing nature of what’s really going on, and the futility of it all. It is anything but entertaining, but is very well written and very illuminating.

Meanwhile, use the military budget as a proxy for the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the government’s intent to reduce its spending by any significant amount. And, absent any serious cuts in that spending, continue to take measures to protect yourself against wholesale debasement of the currency.

Every month, David Galland and his co-editors – among them Doug Casey – of The Casey Report research and analyze significant events in the U.S. and global economy, as well as in politics and the markets. Their goal is to recognize the trends in the making that will directly or indirectly affect investors… and to provide the best profit opportunities, even in a time of crisis. Learn how you can outpace rampant inflation by crisis-investing like the pros in this free report.

Ed. note: I am a Casey Report subscriber and affiliate.

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