Assets are called “safe” when they’re free of default risk. But that doesn’t mean their prices can’t drop, or that the financial system is safe if systemically important institutions buy them on margin.
What appears to be a liquidity issue will ultimately become a financial stability issue as investors discover their “safe assets” are not safe.
It’s a little hard for me to settle on a start date for my personal social distancing. The formal stay-at-home order from the governor didn’t go into effect until March 21st, but the last thing I did that was really inconstant with proper distancing was on March 12th when I attended an aikido class (you really can’t remain distant and practice aikido). So, I’m calling it a month-ish of distancing.
I think of myself as semi-retired (because I am still writing and was still teaching my taiji class), but as a practical matter, I’m really actually retired. I’ve been drawing my pension for something like 5 years now, and Jackie has started drawing her social security.
So our financial circumstances as far as income goes are pretty much just as they were. (It may be that I won’t get paid for the last session of teaching taiji, since I only taught two of the planned eight weeks, but the actual dollar amount in question is pretty small.)
I assume my stock investments got crushed in the early reaction to the pandemic and have since recovered some, but to be honest I’ve not paid much attention. I had lightened up on stocks a couple of times in the past couple of years, and am pretty comfortable with my asset allocation. (I actually checked with Wise Bread to see if they wanted me to pitch them an article on “Investing in Plague Time,” but they said they’d completely shut down commissioning articles due to how the pandemic was hitting their income. I’ll recast the article as a blog post and put it up here pretty soon.)
As far as spending goes, we’re spending quite a bit less. We’re still trying to support local businesses—we’ve been buying groceries during geezer hour at Schnucks, and we restocked our liquor cabinet at Friar Tuck’s, taking advantage of their curb-side pickup scheme—but I’ve stuck to my new policy of only buying prepared food or drinks from businesses that provide paid sick time to everyone who might come into contact with my food, and so far I haven’t heard of any local restaurants or bars that do that. (If you know of any, let me know!) The upshot is that 100% of the food we’ve eaten this month has been prepared by Jackie or by me, which means it’s been both delicious and healthy.
I don’t have many pictures of the great dishes that Jackie has cooked—most recently khema made with grass-fed beef and served with chapatis—and it seems that I failed to get a picture of the lingcod seasoned after the fashion of Kerala roadside chicken (garlic, ginger, fennel, garam masala, turmeric) that I fried in coconut oil in my big cast iron skillet. However, here’s a few recent dishes:
Besides all the great food, we’re also enjoying (perhaps a little too much) our daily cocktail hour—often on-line with my brother and our mom. The folks I meet for coffee on Tuesday morning have been keeping things going by doing that on-line as well.
I do my workouts outdoors to the greatest extent possible—runs around the neighborhood, setting the rings up in Winfield Village’s basketball court, jumping rope and swinging the kettlebell in our little patio. Our neighbors all seem to be pretty good about respecting proper distancing practices, so it’s working okay so far.
While I’m on the subject of exercise, I wanted to mention in passing this hilarious tweet:
Just to say that, although getting ripped is perhaps not in the cards, I’m having a great time making the attempt.
Finally, I’m meaning to get back to getting some writing done, and to that end I spent all morning tidying up my desk:
At this moment (a couple of hours later), it is still just about that tidy, and I’ve used it to write this blog post. This afternoon I’ll use it to write a letter to my congressman and senators, urging them to support the post office. And then, I’ll see if I can’t get to work on some fiction.
There’s a whole genre of collapse-oriented investment writing. I’m something of a connoisseur of the form. But one really needs to treat that sort of literature as pornography—interesting to read, if you’re into that sort of thing, but almost nothing in it is stuff you’d actually want to do.
There are two ways most collapse writers go wrong. One is to assume that keen insight into the nature of the problems we face will allow one to make a bunch of smart investment moves in advance—as if there were some advantage to being the richest guy standing in a post-apocalyptic world.
Looking for a safe asset class today, is like a Soviet bureaucrat in 1989, sensing trouble ahead, looking for the directorate with the safest job.
The other is to assume that there will be a collapse event. Those writers seem to suggest that you can spend your time until collapse behaving much as you do now (with some occasional time off to stock your shelter and practice your marksmanship), and then spend the end times hiding out in your shelter. That’s wrong, because there’s no reason to assume that there will be a collapse event. It’s at least as likely that things’ll go on much as they have been, with occasional points where a bunch of people lose their jobs, yet another class of investments suddenly becomes worthless, and various things (such as food or fuel) spike up in price.
John Robb does pretty well avoiding that trap as well. He understands that the only sensible response is to find a lifestyle that works now, and that will continue to work as collapse proceeds.
Just as he indicates, the right responses to problems like peak oil, peak debt, climate change, environmental degradation, habitat loss, and so forth are going to be community-level responses. With that in mind, he’s putting his money into supporting efforts to create that community response and those communities.
Having said all that, four decades of reading collapse literature have convinced me that collapse happens slowly. Very slowly. Slowly enough that we’re going to need to go on investing in ordinary investments for quite some time to come.
It seems like it would make sense to want those investments to be informed by the societal problems that we face, but my experience has been that an understanding of the sources of impending collapse doesn’t lead to useful investment insights.
There are a lot of reasons. First, as I said, collapse happens slowly, meaning that shorter-term trends will end up dominating. Second, a lot of governmental power will be brought to bear in support of pre-collapse norms, meaning the sort of large profits that might be produced if your investments do align with the large trends are prone to being seized or taxed away. Third, the situation is intractably complex, meaning that even a clear understanding of several of the problems may yield predictions that end up being trumped by other problems—no one can say whether peak debt or peak oil will influence the course of the economy more strongly or more suddenly.
The upshot is that investing for collapse is as pointless as Robb points out; I merely disagree with his analogy. Rather than being like a Soviet bureaucrat in 1989, I figure it’s more like being CEO of a department store chain in 1969. There are still opportunities to get ahead following the old arrangements, but all the most powerful forces of society, human nature, and nature itself are arrayed against you. You’d be much better off charting an entirely new course—and Robb’s suggestions are good ones.