If your mother asked you where to invest her money, what would you tell her? This was the question posed to Jim O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, on Friday.
After rambling something about India perhaps doing a little better than expected Mr. O’Neill said that he is still in the camp that America’s “choppy” markets will probably recover toward the end of this year.
Not very confidence-inspiring from the chief investment strategist at one of America’s most prestigious banks.
But this is the state of the world today. Nothing is safe, and even the brightest financial minds don’t have answers to our most pressing problems.
America’s saving grace is that much of the world’s focus is still on the problems in Europe. While that lasts, attention is distracted from America’s equally precarious financial condition. But Europe is at least dealing with its financial issues. All America’s leaders can seem to do is kick the can down the road.
So where is the best place to put your money?
Not betting on American consumers, according to O’Neill. Even though Europe is making the headlines, America’s weak employment picture poses a bigger threat to global markets than the European debt crisis, according to O’Neill. There is a “lack of self confidence” in corporate America, he said.
For those who missed it, weekly jobless claims for the most recent reporting period stood at 377,000, which is uncomfortably close to the 400,000 mark that is often considered the red line for an “improving economy.” The jobless rate rose to 8.2 percent.
With employment down, it is hard to count on consumers to save the economy. “If people don’t have cash and they have limited access to credit, than there’s just so much that they can run up in terms of bills,” says Jerry Webman, chief economist at Oppenheimer Funds.
Webman believes that people just have too much debt and it will take years to fix. “There’s a long-term unwind (of household debt paying) … and until we’re through that, we’re not going to see a rapid expansion of consumption,” he says.
But unless people spend more, why would America’s debt-based, consumption-oriented economy create more jobs? Who are businesses going to sell more stuff too? Americans already have too much stuff—and have the credit card bills to prove it.
So what about investing in commodities?
What about oil? Currently, Brent crude (oil sold to Europe) trades at $90 per barrel. It has fallen a whopping 30 percent from a $128 peak earlier this year. Traders say there is a glut and that demand destruction from a slowing global economy is outpacing the constraints of “peak oil” geology. There is talk of ocean supertankers lining up off Britain’s coast as giant floating storage facilities. In America, new horizontal drilling and fracking techniques are boosting domestic production. Plus, Canadian oil sands crude is currently trapped in North America with Texas refineries their only option. Barring an outbreak of war in the Middle East, oil doesn’t look like a good short-term investment.
What about investing in industrial metals like copper, zinc, lead and aluminum? Probably not a great idea either. China uses 42 percent of the world’s production of these commodities. If China slows, demand will plummet, and prices will crater.
And China appears to be headed for a hard landing.
Famous economic analyst Marc Faber says people need to prepare for a global recession, probably hitting late this year or early 2013. It is “100 percent” certain, he said in a recent interview. There is a “meaningful slowdown in India and China” that many investors are missing due to all the focus on Greece and Spain. But it will be global, he said.
What about investing in food? Beyond what it takes to fill up your pantry, stockpiling food may not be a good investment either. Coffee, orange juice, sugar: When people are focused on paying down debt—or worse, just trying to keep the electricity and water turned on—these treats get cut. Even staples such as wheat and corn may fall in price.
How about investing in precious metals?
Gold has been a roller coaster. In 2011 it hit an all-time high of $1,895 per ounce. It started 2012 back down at $1,600 per ounce before shooting back up to $1,772 in February, then back down to $1,548 in May, and then back up to around $1,583 where it is today.
The Aden Forecast has two of the best gold market analysts out there. And they seem to be cautious about gold—at least over the short term. “Increasingly, the similarities to 2008 are becoming almost eerie. We may be wrong, but the markets are poised for this and while we don’t know what the trigger will be, it could be almost anything,” they wrote in a recent letter.
“Currently, our gut feel is that if an accident is coming, it’ll likely happen this year,” they warn (emphasis added).
When the markets crashed in 2008, gold and silver fell hard too, even though they also were among the first to recover.
“Again, it could be a wild card. One example is the explosion of the derivatives markets. … The popularity of derivatives has skyrocketed within the financial industry. In the past 12 years, derivatives have grown 10 times faster than world gdp to the tune of $200 trillion for U.S. banks, which is three times the world’s gdp! This is a reckless accident waiting to happen and JP Morgan’s $2 billion loss this month may have been the tip of the iceberg” (ibid).
As the Aden Forecast brings out, America’s financial sector is no place to invest money either. After four years and trillions in taxpayer loans, many banks have still not been able to clean up their balance sheets. On Thursday, Standard & Poor’s ratings agency downgraded JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Citigroup—America’s five biggest investment banks.
Two of them, Citigroup and Bank of America, got cut to Baa2—which is just two notches above “junk” status. Four years ago, few people would have suggested that Bank of America was “junk”—but four years ago, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Wachovia were still alive and prospering. That is how broken America’s banking system is.
The downgrades will cost the banks billions in higher borrowing costs, which will make them less profitable, which could lead to further downgrades. Not a pretty cycle.
Plus, the bank’s business model is broken. It relies on giving out loans to consumers. But in this crummy economy, the only people who want to borrow money are the people you don’t want to lend money to.
So scratch the banking sector as a good investment.
How about a house? With more and more students graduating with gargantuan debt, with an aging baby boomer demographic retiring with most of their money tied up in their houses, and with banks overloaded with foreclosed homes to dispose of—real estate is a dud too. Plus, interest rates are at historic lows. Although this lets more people buy houses now, when rates rise, the supply of buyers will shrink—and house prices will fall. Many people buying houses now may be buying ball-and-chains. The banks know this, and the only reason they are even giving out mortgages is because they sell them on to government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
So, scratch investing in anything related to consumer products, stocks, commodities, many foodstuffs, precious metals, the banking sector and real estate.
Not much left.
But what about government bonds and the dollar?
Many analysts say this is the only safe investment left. They have plenty of company. The dollar has firmed in value and interest rates have plunged as investors have piled into government treasuries. And investing in the dollar might temporarily be a safer investment. But as was mentioned above, America’s biggest asset is currently that it is not Europe—even though strangely, by several measures, it is worse off financially.
At some point soon, Europe’s issues will be resolved (read this article to see how). At that point, the dollar and U.S. treasuries will be the worst investment ever—and it will be the one that will cost investors the most money ever.
America’s economy is hanging together by duct tape and silicon. Politicians fight over cutting billions and overspend by trillions. Politicians borrow from Japan and China and the Federal Reserve makes up the rest by printing money. The debt just grows and grows.
There really is only one safe investment that can never lose money. In today’s climate of economic catastrophe management, now more than ever you need to read Chapter Three of Why ‘Natural’ Disasters? It is titled: “Are You Ready for the End of the World?” ▪