Quantitative Easing (QE) is no longer a surprise, but the fact that it's continued for so long is. Like many Miller’s Money readers, I believe the government cannot continue to pay its bills by having the Federal Reserve buy debt with newly created money forever. This has gone on much longer than I'd have ever dreamed possible.
Unemployment numbers dropped in December and the Federal Reserve tapered their money creation from $85 billion to $75 billion per month. Why did the unemployment rate drop? Primarily because people whose benefits have expired are no longer considered unemployed. The government classifies them as merely discouraged, but the fact remains that they don't have jobs.
So, what is the problem? Let's start with the magnitude of money creation. Tim Price sums it up well in an article on Sovereign Man:
"Last year, the US Federal Reserve enjoyed its 100th anniversary, having been founded in a blaze of secrecy in 1913. By 2007, the Fed's balance sheet had grown to $800 billion. Under its current QE program (which may or may not get tapered according to the Fed's current intentions), the Fed is printing $1 trillion a year.
To put it another way, the Fed is printing roughly 100 years' worth of money every 12 months. (Now that's inflation.)"
As Doug Casey likes to remind us: Just because something is inevitable, does not mean it is imminent. Well, sooner or later imminent and inevitable are going to meet. Interest rates are depressed because the Federal Reserve is holding our debt. Eventually those creditors outside the Federal Reserve will demand much higher interest rates.
Currently, 30-year Treasuries are paying 3.59%. If interest rates rose by 2%—still below what was considered "normal" a decade ago—the interest cost to our government would jump by 30% or more. It's hard to imagine the huge budget cuts or tax increases it would take to pay for that.
In the meantime, investors are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. We cannot invest in long- or medium-term, "safe," fixed-income investments because they are no longer safe. They could easily destroy your buying power through inflation.
At the same time, the stock market is not trading on fundamentals. It is on thin ice. Just how thin is that ice? Take a look at what happened when the Federal Reserve stopped propping up the economy with money printing.
Each time they stopped with their stimulus the market dropped. In the summer of 2013, Bernanke made his famous "taper" remark and the market reacted negatively, immediately. The Fed has had to introduce more money into the system to stop the slide.
Investors who need yield know they have virtually no place else to go but the stock market. Most realize it is a huge bubble; they only hope to get out ahead of everyone else when the time comes. And we can't hold cash; inflation would clobber us. So, we've been forced into the market to protect and grow our nest eggs.
It reminds me of playing musical chairs as a kid. The piano player would slow down the tempo. We would all grab the back of a chair and get ready to sit. No one wanted to be the one left standing.
Today the band is playing the "Limbo Rock." Investors are in limbo, knowing the music will stop eventually. We're all going to have to grab a chair quickly—and the stakes are much higher now.
The chart below on margin debt comes courtesy of my friend and colleague at Casey Research, Bud Conrad.
Investors now have a dangerous amount of money invested on margin—meaning they borrowed money from their brokers to buy even more stock. There are strict margin requirements on how much one can borrow as a percentage of their holdings. If the stock price drops, the investor receives a margin call from his broker. That has to take place quickly under SEC requirements. The broker can also sell the holding at market to bring the client's account back into compliance.
Record margin debt, coupled with the thought of traders using computers to read the trend and automatically place orders in fractions of a second, paints an uneasy picture. The unemotional computers will not only sell their holdings, they may well initiate short sales to drive the market down even further.
As the lyrics from the "Limbo Rock" ask, "How low can you go?" When the market limbos down, it will likely be faster and further than we've imagined.
Why is 2014 different? I've been taking stock of 2013 as I prepare our tax filings. Our portfolio did very well last year, thanks in great measure to the analysts at Casey Research. With our Bulletproof Income strategy in place, I am very comfortable with our plans going forward.
At the same time, I am as jittery as a 9-year-old walking slowly around a circle of chairs, knowing that sooner or later the music will stop. The music has played for years now and we are in the game, whether we like it or not. Pundits have gone from saying "this is the year" to more tempered remarks like "this can't go on forever." They place their bets on inevitable, but hedge them on imminent.
What can we do? One of the mantras behind our Bulletproof Income strategy is: "Avoid catastrophic losses." Doug Casey has warned us that in a drastic correction most everyone gets hurt, so our goal is to minimize that damage and its impact on our retirement plans.
Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself.
- Diversify. Not all sectors rise and fall at the same speed. Optimal diversification requires more than just various stock picks across various sectors. Limit your overall stock market exposure according to your age. You don't have to be all in the market. There are still other ways to earn good, safe returns. International diversification will give you an added margin of safety, too, not only from a market downturn but also from inflation.
- Apply strict position limits. No more than 5% of your overall portfolio should be in any single investment. When I look at the record margin debt, I wonder how so many investors can go hog wild on a single investment. Planning for retirement demands a more measured approach.
- Set trailing stop losses. If you set trailing stop losses on your positions at no more than 20%, the most you could lose on any single trade is 1% of your overall portfolio. The beauty of trailing stops is the maximum loss seldom happens. As the stock rises the trailing stop rises with it, which will lock in some additional profits.
Monitor regularly. As part of my regular annual review, I go over each one of my stop-loss positions. I use an online trading platform to keep track of them. Depending on the stock, you may want to place a stop-loss sell order or use an alert service that will notify you if the stock drops below your set point. Other investors prefer to use a third party for notification.
So, why do I check my stop losses? My particular trading platform accepts the orders "GTC," meaning "good 'til cancelled." But GTC really means "Good for 60 days and then you have to re-enter the notification." Just read the small print.
Also, sometimes stop losses need adjusting. As a stock gets closer to the projected target price, you may want to reduce the trailing stop loss to 15%, or maybe even 10%, to lock in more profits.
We all want to enjoy our retirement years and have some fun. I sleep well knowing we have several good circuit breakers in place. We may get stopped out of several positions and stuck temporarily holding more cash than we'd like. But that means we've avoided catastrophic loss and have cash to take advantage of the real bargains that are bound to appear.
And so the band plays on as baby boomers and retirees continue to limbo.
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