Currency

After hitting a high of $1.51 just six months ago, the euro broke the $1.30 level and is currently trading at $1.28. Greece’s inability to repay its debts has dragged down the euro and proposed austerity measures have led to rioting.

 euro-vs-dollar-may2010

After European Union eventually bails out Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy the euro might trade on parity with the dollar!

I wish I hadn’t been so quick to close my long position on the EUO May $21 calls last week!

With the financial crisis and currency devaluation, the long term prospects for gold are still looking good too.

One of my favorite investors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, founder of Empirica investment management funds and author of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, was recently quoted on Bloomberg advising every single human being to short the US Treasury bonds. While this news is about a week old, I thought I’d still comment on it given the fact that it’s a pretty strong statement and that I recently exited a similar paired-trade.

Taleb said investors should bet on a rise in long-term U.S. Treasury yields, which move inversely to prices, as long as Bernanke and White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers are in office, without being more specific. Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who predicted the credit crisis, also said at the conference that the U.S. dollar will weaken against Asian and “commodity” currencies such as the Brazilian real over the next two or three years.

The Fed and U.S. agencies have lent, spent or guaranteed $9.66 trillion to lift the economy from the worst recession since the Great Depression, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Bernanke, who in December 2008 slashed the central bank’s target rate for overnight loans between banks to virtually zero, flooded the economy with more than $1 trillion in the largest monetary expansion in U.S. history.

President Barack Obama has increased the U.S. marketable debt to a record $7.27 trillion as he tries to sustain the recovery from last year’s recession. The Obama administration projects the U.S. budget deficit will rise to a record $1.6 trillion in the 2011 fiscal year.

“The problem we have in the United States, the level of debt is still very high and being converted to government debt”, Taleb said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We are worse-off today than we were last year. In the United States and in Europe, you have fewer people employed and a larger amount of debt”.

Moody’s Investors Service Inc. said on Feb. 2 that the U.S. government’s Aaa bond rating will come under pressure in the future unless additional measures are taken to reduce budget deficits projected for the next decade.”.

Do I believe him? Absolutely. So why did I exit my highly profitable trade? Several reasons. During times of global economic uncertainity, there has always been a flight to quality. We saw this during the financial meltdown in 2008, where US Treasury prices soared and yields tanked. Right now, there is uncertainity in Europe regarding the debt of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain. People are worried this might have lasting consequences on the Euro as a viable currency. These fears are probably overblown, but until everything settles down and we have more clarity, there will be a flight to quality, which means that people will sell the Euro and flock to US Treasuries.

At least thats my hypothesis and I sold all my positions (except Berkshire Hathaway), shorted the Euro and also the S&P500. The one thing I didn’t do is go long the US Treasuries, since inherently I feel Nassim Nicolas Taleb is correct. At some point, I’ll most likely re-enter my short US Treasury trade, but in the meanwhile I happy to see how the European Union handles the issues of excessive debt.

Here’s an interesting article by Dominic Frisby about Venezuela’s devaluation, the effect on a country’s currency and the relation with gold prices.

Gold bugs are forever telling you to buy gold because it is ‘nobody else’s liability’. It’s become one of those hackneyed phrases that has almost lost its meaning.

But recent events in Venezuela give us a nice illustration of what that phrase really means. And there’s a stark, but important message for savers everywhere.

Inflation is currently running at 27% in Venezuela. That’s just the official figure. You can expect the real number to be considerably higher.

Earlier this month, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, devalued the bolivar by half, from 2.15 per US dollar to 4.30 per dollar. There will be a second peg, subsidised by the government, of 2.60 bolivars per dollar for essential imports such as food, medicine and machinery.

This devaluation has effectively doubled the cost of imported goods and halved the Venezuelan people’s purchasing power in a single stroke. Savers – though I doubt there are that many given the country’s precarious situation – will have had half of their wealth effectively wiped out overnight.

Chavez is doing it, he said on state TV, ‘to boost the productive economy, to reduce imports that aren’t strictly necessary and to stimulate exports.’ But that won’t be the effect. All his actions will do is discourage people from working at all. Leaving aside the moral issue of whether government should have the power to do that (and, largely speaking, with our modern system of money and credit, they do), many Venezuelans will now ask themselves: ‘What is the point of my working at all, if the proceeds are going to be devalued so suddenly?’

But any Venezuelan who happened to have converted some of their wealth into gold would be protected from these government foibles – at least, as much as is possible under the circumstances. [LOD”s note: Not only gold and silver, but even real estate would hold its price in an event like this. Over the long term, real estate matches inflation, and to some degree population growth]. Chavez cannot suddenly devalue gold by half to ‘boost the productive economy’. So the proceeds of that individual’s labour would have been preserved. The purchasing power of gold against essential goods such as food, energy and shelter remains unchanged – in fact it’s probably risen.

I remember backpacking across South America in the early ’90s. Venezuela was one of the wealthiest, most advanced nations on the continent. It’s such a shame to now see the country on Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, or, worse still, to Zimbabwe.

“Chavez”, writes Daniel Cancel on Bloomberg, “is trying to maintain spending for his 21st century socialist revolution as South America’s largest oil exporter fails to emerge from its first recession in six years. The government is seeking to stem its falling popularity and the highest inflation rate among 78 economies tracked by Bloomberg, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September.”

Well, isn’t our own government doing the same thing? Haven’t they boosted spending over the last three years in an attempt to stem falling popularity ahead of an election? Isn’t quantitative easing an elaborate form of currency devaluation? The effect of their actions has been that sterling has been losing its purchasing power. It buys us considerably less food, energy, medicine, industrial goods and anything else you care to mention (except mass manufactured goods from Asia) than it did five years ago.

It even buys us less foreign currency, as the chart below – which shows sterling against a basket of foreign currencies – shows. (I’ve drawn on that white line highlight the market direction) The only reason sterling has not fallen further is that other foreign central banks have been doing the same things to their own money. It is a race to the bottom.

british-pound-against-basket-of-currencies.ashx

Our currency has devalued many times before. Anyone who remembers 1976 can tell you about the sterling crisis then. Financial markets were losing confidence in the pound. (I believe that loss of confidence is coming again. If sterling drops below $1.57 against the dollar, look out below).

The UK Treasury could not balance its books, while Labour’s strategy emphasized high public spending. The newly-elected prime minister, Jim Callaghan, was told there were three possible outcomes: a disastrous free fall in sterling, an internationally unacceptable siege economy, or a deal with key allies to prop up the pound while painful economic reforms were put in place. What will David Cameron be told should he win in the summer? The parallels to today are uncanny.

In more recent memory, we have had the sterling lows of March 1985 (when we almost hit parity with the dollar), then another crisis with ‘Black Wednesday’ in October 1990, when we were forced to drop out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

What is worrying is that our current deficits, debts and spending are all at far greater levels than during any of the previous crises. So many toxic assets have been transferred from the balance sheets of banks to governments, that sovereign debt default – not just here, but throughout the Anglo-Saxon economies – is now a major risk.

You can read the entire article on moneyweek.

So Why should you care?
If you invest in US companies that do business with Venezuela, then your portfolio returns will definitely be adversely impacted. US companies that do business with Venezuela like Haliburton are likely to feel the impact of this currency devaluation. Haliburton CEO just announced that they may face a $30 million loss in the 1st quarter because of this.

While I liquidated almost my entire stock portfolio at the market open this morning (including Harvest Natural Resources which does business in Venezuela), I’m still keeping my gold and silver coins!  Talking the about market, its risen 50% since the March lows of last year. I might even go short some weaker stocks on any market bounces too.

Gold just broke the previous intraday record and touched $1,043 per ounce. It’s currently trading around $1,038.

 gold-hits-record-high

This spike may have been caused by a news report that appeared in the Independent today. It states that the Arab States in the Gulf have made secret plans with China, Russia, Brazil and France to stop using the US dollar for oil trading. While this isn’t immediate and it calls for a transition to occur by 2018, it seems to have set the stage for a pretty bad precedent – that gold will jump on these sort of rumors! Lets see if we get any official confirmation of this “news”.

So is this the beginning of the end for the US Dollar? I hope not, but I’m buying some silver and maybe some more gold, just to be safe!

According to Robert Zoellick, World Bank President  and former Goldman Sachs head and US Secretary of State, you shouldn’t take the US Dollar’s reserve currency status for granted. Swelling government deficits and the strength of emerging countries is weakening the demand for the dollar. Time to head for the exits?

So how should you diversify out of the dollar?

According to Zoellick, the Euro and the Chinese Yuan are good alternatives (source: BusinessWeek). But a lot of people think that investing in a basket of currencies is a better approach. In the short-term, currency volatility is unpredictable since exchange rates are more likely to be impacted by government policy than fundamentals. In the long term, all fiat currencies devalue and buying gold and silver is probably a better bet. But if you really want to park your savings in cash, consider a currency that has stronger fundamentals the the US dollar, the British pound and euro.

Until 2000, the Swiss Central Bank had a legal requirement to hold 40% of its reserves in gold. This requirement has been relaxed to around 20%, but in terms of volatility the Swiss franc is still one of the most stable currencies. You can purchase the Swiss franc via the Currencyshares ETF (FXF) quite easily.

The Canadian dollar (FXC) and the Australian dollar (FXA) are two more strong currencies. The governments are both fiscally conservative and have, until recently, been running surpluses instead of multi-trillion dollar deficits. They’re also commodity based economies, rich in natural resources with strong ties to the rest of the world. In a situation of high inflation, commodity-based currencies should hold up better than the US dollar.

With China being Jim Rogers’ favorite place, the Chinese yuan (or remnimbi) is a another alternative. As their internal economy grows, maintaining a stronger currency will make imports of raw materials cheaper. Of course, this is probably several years in to the future but with millions of Chinese rising out of poverty, its a likely scenario. Also, China has publicly said that they’re looking to diversify out of the dollar and are considering buying gold as one option. You can invest in Chinese yuan through Everbank.

Disclosures: I own gold, silver, Australian CurrencyShares ETF (FXA),  and a basket of currencies CD with Everbank.

According to a quote in the Telegraph, HSBC has issued a new report stating that the Federal Reserve’s ultra-loose monetary policy is forcing China and other emerging countries to create a new global currency “order”. According to David Bloom, HSBC’s currency chief, the dollar looks like the sterling did after World War I.

For those a little dusty on their history, the British pound sterling (so called because it’s value was backed by sterling silver) was the world reserve currency until the 1930’s. After that, the sun set on the British Empire and the sterling was replaced by the US dollar. Now it seems the dollars time in the sun has come to end as well. The Telegraph article states:

Crucially, China and rising Asia have reached the point where they can no longer keep holding down their currencies to boost exports because this is causing mayhem to their own economies, stoking asset bubbles. Asia’s “mercantilist mindset” of recent decades is about to be broken by the spectre of an inflation spiral.

A monetary policy of near zero rates – further juiced by quantitative easing – is completely incompatible with circumstances in most of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. Divorce is inevitable. The US is expected to hold rates near zero through 2010 to tackle its own crisis.

Mr Bloom said regional currencies would emerge as the anchor for their smaller trading partners, with China, Brazil, or South Africa substituting the role of the US. Australia is already linking its fortunes to China through commodity ties.

This is nothing new, but it is the first time a major bank has openly stated this. But the important question hasn’t been answered.

What does it mean to the average American?

In order to obtain the necessary financing to fund the multi-trillion dollar stimulus/bailout package the government needs to sell bonds. Traditionally, the Chinese and other foreign governments have used their excess reserves of US dollars to purchase these bonds. If we switch to some other currency (or mixture of different currencies), the amount of US dollars held by foreign governments will decrease and the demand for US treasuries that yield next to nothing will decrease substantially. In order to entice the buying of these treasuries, the interest rates will have to jump substantially higher. And when this happens, the cost of the US government’s debt will start to rise. As will the cost of borrowing for US citizens and businesses. The government already pays nearly a billion dollars a day in interest payments (hat tip: Silver Bars Direct: Why $1,000 gold is now significant). If this cost were to double, and we add in the additional $9 trillion in debt the white house has admitted it is likely to borrow, we’re looking at over a trillion dollars a year in debt payments.

In order to repay this interest (and maybe the original principle too), do you think the government is likely to raise taxes or just print more money? If it prints more more, its just fueling the debt spiral which will lead to Zimbabwe-type hyper-inflation.

So what should you do?

Invest in hard assets that have been proven to keep their buying power during inflationary times.  Along with gold and silver bullion, buy some cheap land to either farm, hunt or bury your precious metals! And if you’re one of those people who think buying gold and silver is useless then hold on to your dollars and watch them become even more worthless. Since 1900, when the dollar coin actually contained silver, the dollar’s purchasing power has dropped to only4 cents. This trend is only like to get worse.

Purchasing-Power-of-the-US-Dollar-1900-2005

Disclosure: I own gold & silver bullion, numismatic coins and mining stocks.

In the last post we saw that China was slowly diversifying away from it’s usual investments in US Treasury Bonds and investing in hard assets, natural resources and maybe other currencies.

There probably a very good reason why the world’s second largest holder of US Dollars is weaning itself away from bonds issued by the world’s largest debtor nation.  If you believe the Chinese know what they are doing, it might make sense to imitate their investment strategy.

While you don’t need to buy $80 Billion worth of gold, you might do well buying gold equal to at least 5% of your net worth. Gold is not an investment in itself but a historic store of value. Regardless what anyone tells you, the US Dollar is not a store of value. During times when governments print money hand-over-fist, gold typically does well. In fact, over the past 10 years, gold has appreciated against every single currency.

You can either buy the physical gold, gold ETF(GLD) & gold mining stock ETF (GDX), gold certificates or a custodial account. You can also buy silver and silver ETFs in a similar fashion. There was a recent Chinese news report recommending Chinese investors buy silver since its a better value than gold!

You can also exchange your US dollars directly for foreign currencies. Everbank currently has a Marketsafe BRIC CD, which invests in a basket of Brazilian Real, Russian Ruble, Indian Rupee and Chinese Remnimbi.  This CD doesn’t pay any interest but the principle is protected against loss! But if you’d rather take a risk and earn some interest, Everbank has a slew of CD products in several European and Asian currencies.

Another option are the CurrencyShare ETFs for Australian Dollars(FXA), British Pounds(FXB), Swiss Francs(FXF), Japanese Yen(FXY) and Euros(FXE).  Another ETF worth considering is UDN, an inverse US Dollar ETF, which is a basket of the above mentioned currencies. (However, inverse ETFs may not accurately follow the downward movement so you’re cautioned to do some research).

I do not recommend forex-trading as a means of hedging yourself against Dollar devaluation. Forex trading is a highly leveraged, zero-sum speculation. In a zero-sum game, a participant can only win at the expense of another participant. In fact, it may be considerably less than zero-sum becauase your brokerage can run your stops (which it can see) and effectively trade against you.

If you are thinking of investing in currencies, definitely check out Everbank’s free newsletter, the Daily Pfenning. It provides a very informative (and entertaining) look at global economics and investing. Actually, you should subscribe if you do any sort of investing! Everbank also has a low-cost custodial account for gold and from time to time (whenever the price of gold drops dramatically) they offer a MarketSafe (which means principle-protected) Gold CD. Sign up for the newsletter and they’ll inform you whenver they come out with new products.

If you have a penchant for natural resources, you should look into Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) like Tortoise Energy (TYY) or Kinder Morgan (KMP). Both pay a juicy dividend that is considered a return of principle and thus non-taxable (although it does alter cost-basis). However both have appreciated significantly this year. Canadian Royalty Trusts like Enerplus Resources (ERF)  are also an option.

You can also buy natural resource stocks like Rio Tinto (RTP) or BHP Biliton(BHP). China has been trying to buy multi-billion dollar stakes in companies like these and is currently unsuccesful. If you think that a day may come where Chinalco will be successful, you might want to get in before that happens.

IRSA International (IRS) is an Argentinian company that trades on the ADRs.  It owns farm land, resorts, hotels and shopping malls in prime locations.  After decades of “quantitative easing” (another word for printing money) wreaked havoc on their economy and standard of living, Argentinians don’t trust banks or central bankers. They trust gold and farmland. The way the US economy is going, we too may come to that same conclusion. Just to be safe, I bought some of the stock. On the other hand, you might be better off buying farmland or a ranch for hunting. I’m pretty sure, buying farmland is next on China’s list!

Disclosure: I own ERF, TYY,FXA, IRS, Everbank MarketSafe Japanese REIT CD, GDX and physical gold/silver.

The market has been defying gravity this summer, with the S&P500 up 49% since March. But most of the appreciation has been in what I consider lower quality stocks. Many homebuilders with doubtful prospects have doubled from their recent lows, while stocks that are somewhat recession proof like McDonalds, Walmart, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble have bounced a mere 15-20%.

According to Bloomberg, “companies with the worst earnings led the 45 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index since it fell to a 12-year low five months ago”. It might be a good time to sell some of your winners that have exceptionally well and either wait for a pull-back, or if you’re trigger happy, buy solid investment-grade companies.

Given the current economic environment with the US Dollar likely to devalue against foreign currencies and the high probability of inflation, you want to invest in a company with exposure to foreign markets, a stable business model that is non-cyclical and a history of growing dividends. You also want to avoid luxury brands or businesses that sell expensive goods.

Here are a few of the companies that I would consider looking at, along with their dividend yields.

  • Verizon Communications (VZ): 5.87%
  • Johnson & Johnson (JNJ): 3.21%
  • Procter & Gamble (PG): 3.28%
  • Colgate-Palmolive (CL): 2.41%
  • Unilever (UL): 4.39%
  • Altria Group (MO): 7.10%
  • Philip Morris International (PM): 4.61%
  • McDonalds (MCD): 3.55%
  • Walmart (WMT): 2.51%
  • Enerplus Resources Fund (ERF): 9.56%

While I don’t own any of these yet (except ERF), I do own some ETFs that hedge against dollar devaluation and inflation:

  • CurrencyShares Australian Dollar Trust (FXA): 2.04%
  • Morgan Stanley Emerging Markets Domestic Debt Fund (EDD): 7.45%
  • Market Vectors TR Gold Miners (GDX): 1.90%

If you are going to buy currency ETFs or currencies you might want to also check out some of the risk-free currency CDs offered by Everbank. At the very least, definitely subscribe to their free newsletter, the Daily Pfennig. It’s quite informative and very interesting.

ETFconnect.com is a great site to find out more information about ETFs.  Having some exposure to foreign currency and gold miners isn’t a bad idea. I’ve been worrying about the effects of the Federal Reserve printing money like its going out of style and the CEO of Coeur d’Alene (CDE), a silver mining company that I happen to own, predicts that Silver will jump 29% by the end of the year because of this.

Demand from investors seeking a store of wealth accounts for more than half of silver’s 23 percent price jump this year before today, Wheeler said in an interview in New York. The metal will reach $18 an ounce with supplies little changed and demand buoyed by purchases from exchange-traded funds, he said.

“We have this crushing new debt and dollar weakness,” Wheeler said today. “The outlook for precious metals is very positive, and silver will be No. 1.”

The U.S. government has pledged $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches U.S. gross domestic product, in a bid to stem the longest recession since the 1930s. The spending will erode the value of the dollar and boost the appeal of silver and gold as alternative assets, Wheeler said.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out there over this debt,” Wheeler said. “Around the world, there are a growing number of investors who want protection. They’re going to want silver as part of their portfolio.”

If you believe any of this, you might want to increase your exposure to silver miners like CDE, SSRI or SLW, although these don’t pay any dividends.

Disclosure: I own ERF, CDE, FXA, GDX, EDD, physical gold and silver.

I just finished reading John Mauldin’s weekly newsletter. He has a very interesting graph that I’m reproducing below.

5-trillion-in-sovereign-debt-issuance

This year there’s an expected $5.3 Trillion dollars in new sovereign debt issuance!  He asks a great question – where is this money going to come from? Most of this money is going to bank bailouts and increased government spending.  The resulting decrease in imports and increase in government spending will of course make our GDP look rosier than it actually is. So there’s a good chance we’ll hear news reports of the economy improving even though there’s absolutely no improvement whatsoever!

So even though I’m concerned that the US is printing money hand over fist, it seems everyone is just doing the same thing. Unfortunately, we’re “winning”.   I still think we’ll see hyperinflation during this cycle and even though the USD may not weaken against foreign currencies, it should depreciate against real assets like gold and silver, and towards the tail-end of the cycle maybe real estate too.  I strongly doubt we’ll see any sort of quick recovery any time soon.  And if you want to read an entertaining article on why you should short the US, proceed on to Ahlgren Multiverse.

I’m a fan of Jim Rogers. He wrote a book ten years predicting a run in commodities. He also wrote one of my favorite books, Adventure Capitalist, a fascinating story of his journey around the world where he talks about the macro-economy of each place he visits.

Here’s a recent video on Bloomberg. He thinks US stocks suck and the US Bond market is the last bubble left and mentions TBT. Here’s my post on my short bond trade. There may even be a currency crisis in the US and other countries. I still think its a good time to buy gold!