The Difficulty of Investing in 2009

Photo by: Mel B.

2009 is a dreadful year to try to invest.  While we have seen a massive rebound in stocks, there are a variety of factors that make long term planning very difficult.

Asset Class Difficulties

The first thing that makes the current economic climate so difficult is the correlation between asset classes.  Under normal circumstances declines in one asset class involve money moving to another asset class.  Thus when stocks go down, bonds or gold or another asset class is usually the beneficiary.

What makes the current economy so difficult is that you see capital essentially being “destroyed” by the deflationary spiral.  Forced liquidation on the part of many funds caused by redemptions and margin calls contribute to this problem as well.  While this problem was particularly pronounced in 2008, you continue to see deflationary pressures affecting all asset classes.

Government Intervention

One of the most obvious difficulties of building a long term plan in 2009 is the frequency and fervor of government intervention.  Policy makers are attempting to walk several fine lines and thus are constantly exerting strong forces upon the market.  In their zeal they make it very difficult to draw long range conclusions about what makes sense.

Take for example the Treasuries market.  One might be inclined to think that prices would drift lower in this market, given the massive amount of debt the government is planning on issuing.  The Federal Reserve however, is actively purchasing some of these treasuries, driving prices up.[1] The dramatic influence of the government on the markets is a serious deterrent to investing in 2009.

Differing Long-Term and Short-Term Dangers

This problem is particularly severe and affects both investors and policy makers.  We are faced with the exact opposite problems in the long term and the short term.  Right now the government is facing deflation and economic slowdown.[2] Under normal circumstances, this suggests increased spending, even at a deficit.  At the same time in the long term we have an incredible debt burden which is just part of a number of reasons to fear inflation.[3]

Thus the government wants to stimulate our consumer driven economy in the short term, but doesn’t want rampant inflation to destroy us in the long term.  At the same time the massive amount of total credit market debt our country has may make inflation unavoidable.  This can affect the ways in which the government interferes with the markets as well as how the markets themselves price assets.

The government can seem to affect the market very capriciously because they are trying to walk a fine line.  Because our economy is highly consumer driven, they want to stimulate spending and consumption.  At the same time we have to get our debt under control before it buries us.  Thus they can appear to make conflicting policy decisions.  As we’ve already discussed, the scope of this interference is vast, so it’s particularly distressing for it to be so difficult to predict.

For an investor it is difficult to price assets, even without government interference.  For example, let’s discuss gold.  Its long term prospects may be fairly good because of the dire threat of inflation.  However with the short term calling for deflation, you have no idea how much your asset might depreciate before the inflation kicks in.  It’s very difficult to tell when that corner will be turned, and markets are erratic accordingly.

How to React

One approach is to simply “go to cash.”  Unfortunately that is not a neutral decision.  If you have the majority of your net worth in cash you are betting against rampant inflation.  What all these competing factors suggest to me is a balanced and conservative approach.  It may be time to add some variety to your portfolio, including both inflation and deflation hedges.  I also think it is pivotal to take a long range view and not try to maximize in the short term.  This is an economy without historical precedent, so it makes sense to take a defensive approach.

It is a good time to start learning about how to hedge your stock market positions.  While you may have only invested in stocks up to this point, the time may have come to learn about other opportunities.  ETFs in particular can offer an easy way to create some balance in your portfolio.

  1. Fed To Buy Long Term U.S. Governmnt Debt – Reuters []
  2. Fed Warns of Global Slowdown That Adds to U.S. Deflation Risk – Bloomberg.com []
  3. US debt sets stage for inflation – MSN Money []

2 Responses to “The Difficulty of Investing in 2009”

  1. What about depositing cash on a savings account? That way you’re protected against both inflation and a tumbling stock market.

  2. Brad says:

    Frank, thanks for the comment.

    The problem with a savings account is that with interest rates as they are now, you’re really not safe from inflation. Even the preferable interest rates you get in CDs may not be sufficient to match inflation, much less overcome it. Now if there’s a deflationary environment, even 0% is profitable, but that’s the dilemma.

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