Harry Browne and the Permanent Portfolio

For those not familiar with Harry Browne and his “permanent portfolio”, I would recommend that you read his book Fail Safe Investing. The permanent portfolio should really be called the “sleep at night portfolio”. You simply divide up your investments into stocks, long-term government bonds, gold, and cash. If you want to speculate with other money, that is fine, as long as it is money you can afford to lose.

Some say it is out of date. But if you look at the portfolio, or the mutual fund (PRPFX), it has done extraordinarily well. It had a downturn in the fall of 2008 with most everything else, but the downturn was far less dramatic for the permanent portfolio and it quickly turned around.

I remember before Harry Browne passed away, someone called his radio show and asked how anyone could possibly buy bonds. Interest rates were fairly low and the caller was wondering how they could go any lower. I don’t remember exactly what Harry said, but he basically said that you should still hold bonds in your portfolio. There could be a flight to safety and interest rates could go even lower.

I have continued to hear people ask over the last couple of years why anyone on earth would own any bonds. Ironically, bonds have done well in the last few years. Now, I am not advocating that you speculate in bonds, but it still has a place in your permanent portfolio. We could easily see another major downturn in the economy and bonds might be the only thing that does well.

Ultimately, interest rates will probably go up. But it is impossible to say when and how much. If you short the bond market, that should definitely be a speculation with money you can afford to lose. I would not even recommend that right now as a speculation. The economy is bad and there could be a flight to what is perceived as safety. It is possible for interest rates to go lower.

Shorting the Stock Market

There are a lot of good reasons to short the stock market right now. The best reason is the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. The Fed caused an artificial boom in the past and at some point it will go bust. It tried to go bust in 2008, but the Fed and the government pumped in trillions of dollars. The Fed did it by buying assets, particularly bad assets. The government is helping by passing stimulus bills and running trillion dollar deficits. They would not allow the previous bad investments to be cleansed out of the economy. They saw it as too painful.

The Fed created a lot of money out of thin air. Most of this money is being held by commercial banks as excess reserves. That is why we have not seen an explosion in prices. In the last 8 months or so, the Fed has had a more stable money policy, but of course all of the previous money that was created remains, mostly with the banks. At some point, we are either going to get a depression or massive price inflation. We may get both. I think the likelihood is that we’ll start to get a depression and then the government and Fed will pump in more money which will eventually cause massive inflation. Eventually, there will be a choice between a severe depression and hyperinflation. Let’s hope the Fed chooses the depression. I think it will.

In the short-term, a speculation to short the stock market may turn out to be a good play. It should only be a speculation though. This should be money that you can afford to lose. In addition, once it becomes more and more apparent that we are in another downturn, then be prepared to get out of your short positions. Once the Fed turns on the printing press or once the banks start to lend more, then prepare for high inflation. Stocks may go down in real terms, but in nominal terms (not adjusted for inflation), stocks could go significantly higher. At that point, I wouldn’t speculate for or against stocks.

July 4

Happy July 4th, otherwise known as Independence Day. We could also call it Secession Day, since that is what the American colonists did. The ironic thing is that the colonists of 1776 under King George III were, in many ways, more free than Americans of 2010. Certainly there are many differences that are hard to compare, but when it comes to economic matters, there should be little question that the colonists were far more free. Today, government at all levels take about half of our income.

We are certainly much better off than the colonists because of the great gains that have been made. There was more progress in the 1800’s than any other century in the history of the earth. The 1900’s had many great advances too, but most of it was because of the previous capital investment and progress made in the 19th century.

Today, we get to enjoy cell phones and the internet. We get to enjoy flat screen televisions and kindles. We are the richest people ever. Unfortunately, this generation of Americans may be the first generation to live worse than their parents (if you don’t count the 1930’s and early 40’s). Although we enjoy great technology, our basic needs are as expensive now as they were decades ago. Incomes have gone up slowly while the costs of food, shelter, healthcare, and education have risen substantially.

This is what happens when the government takes half of our money. We have a lot of great technology and great wealth created from previous generations, but we are starting to go backwards in some aspects. We must free ourselves from all of the oppressive taxation and regulation as well as the horrible Federal Reserve.

If we ever have American 19th century economic freedom combined with today’s technologies, the results will be unbelievable. We will have things that we can’t imagine. Let us remember on July 4 that although we are blessed to be living in these times, times could be much better if we shake off the government.


The price of gold (in terms of U.S. dollars) went down about 40 dollars today. That is a big move and many, even in the mainstream, are talking about a double-dip recession. It’s hard to call it a double-dip for me, since I’m not sure we ever came out of the first one, but regardless, it looks like the economy is continuing to head down.

The price of gold has been up as of late, but it is hard to blame inflation fears as the primary reason. If that were the case, interest rates on longer term bonds would be showing some sign of going up instead of down. There is a lot of fear in the world and gold is being used as a crisis hedge. But the point of all of this is that the gold price may take a hit in the near-term. If the stock market tanks and people get really scared, U.S. dollars will be in high demand. Gold will go down. However, it seems that foreign central banks are putting a floor on the price of gold. If gold goes down enough, don’t be surprised if the Chinese central bank makes a big purchase.

Looking a little further out, I don’t see how gold cannot go up. Nothing is ever a sure thing, but if gold takes a hit in the near-term, it will create a great buying opportunity. There is massive government debt with no end in sight and the government and Fed will continue to make things worse if we hit another major downturn. The Fed will print more money (figuratively speaking) and we may see another massive “stimulus” package come out of the government. The Fed could also take measures to force the banks to lend their excess reserves. If this happens, prepare for massive inflation (at least double digit price increases).

To sum up, don’t be surprised if the price of gold goes down in the near-term with the stock market and the rest of the economy. But it probably won’t take long for it to go back up. If the Federal Reserve continues with its destructive policies, look for the gold price to skyrocket, along with your grocery bills.

Bonds and Interest Rates

Mortgage rates are near an all-time low. They haven’t been this low in at least 39 years. It is amazing that someone will loan me money for 30 years with a fixed interest rate of 4.5% and I can pay it back in depreciating money. With such a low rate, it is telling me that the market is not scared of inflation right now. It is just scared. People are willing to accept really low rates for the safety of their principal.

The bond market is probably a bubble. I would be surprised if rates did not rise dramatically in the coming years. But who knows for sure? Maybe we will end up like Japan. Japan has a debt-to-GDP ratio in the neighborhood of 200%. This makes Greece look fiscally responsible. But Japan’s rates have remained low for 2 decades. I don’t expect this to happen in the U.S., but I’m just pointing out that it’s possible. In other words, don’t short the bond market right now. If you have a mortgage and can refinance it at a really low fixed rate, do it if you aren’t planning to sell anytime soon.

My Experts

I don’t usually “listen” to the so-called experts on tv. Sometimes I pay attention to what they say. I am always curious to hear what Cramer (of Mad Money) will say on CNBC after a bad day for the stock market. You can even sometimes pick up good pieces of advice. But I would not model your portfolio around what any of them have to say.

I pay attention to people that understand economics. There aren’t many of them. Even some who understand economics get investment advice wrong. Remember what Austrian economics is all about. Just think of Mises’ most famous book. The name is Human Action. That is what Austrian economics is all about. Humans act freely. You should take this into account when making investment decisions. You may think of all of the reasons in the world why gold should go up or stocks should go down or whatever, but it all depends on the individual decisions of millions of people. You may think than interest rates should go up tomorrow, but if enough people make a decision to buy bonds on that day, your opinion doesn’t really matter.

With all of that said, the people that I trust most in economics and investments, all seem to come to one opinion. The economy is going to get much worse before it gets better. I couldn’t agree more. I just can’t believe the consensus. The opinions are more mixed in the mainstream media (although there is even some pessimism there), but the people that I read and listen to who know their economics all seem to agree that the economy is going to get really bad. There are some varying opinions (hyperinflation, massive inflation, depression), but they are all bad. Of course, it will depend on certain things, like what the Fed and the government decide to do. But with all of the previous malinvestment, there is little doubt that there has to be a severe correction. It is just a question of how much the government allows it to happen.

Social Security and Medicare

If you are under the age of 50, you are going to get the shaft. If you are over 50, it is not quite as clear, but you will probably get the shaft too. There are estimates that the unfunded liabilities of the U.S. government (primarily Medicare and Social Security) are over $100 trillion. That is over 6 times the annual GDP. The number is staggering. While it is important, you may as well ignore it. The government can’t make good on it. It can’t even make good on half of it. There will be changes down the road. The only question is when and what those changes will be.

There will be “benefit” cuts. This could come in various forms. One way is to raise the retirement age. This is likely. Another way is to decrease benefits (less Medicare coverage, higher deductibles, and smaller checks from Social Security). Still another way is through inflation. This will be like decreasing benefits, but in a more devious way. But if the problem is “resolved” through inflation, then the government will have to change how it calculates its cost of living increases or it will have to lie about inflation by understating the CPI. Both are possible.

Perhaps it will be a combination of all of these things. But for senior citizens already collecting Social Security, you should worry about inflation more than anything. If you are a senior citizen, you should be advocating for the Fed to raise rates and put on the monetary brakes. If you are a senior, you want deflation. Deflation means that prices will go down and you will be able to buy more with the money you have. You would rather have a deflationary depression than inflation.

The same goes for younger people, but to a lesser extent. One way or another, we will eventually get a depression to cleanse out all of the malinvestment that the government has caused. It is better to do it now than do more damage still. But for a younger person, if we have a period of high price inflation, at least the younger person can eventually recover by earning more money. It is much harder for someone in retirement on a fixed income.

If you are younger than 50 (maybe this should even be 60), then don’t plan on getting anything out of Social Security. If you are over 60, pray for a depression quickly. Better now than later when your money is nearly worthless.

China and the Yuan

The Chinese government announced that it will drop the yuan’s peg to the dollar. Overall, I think this is good. This shows further liberalization of markets by the Chinese. At the same time, I haven’t understood for the longest time why nearly everyone thinks the yuan will rise rapidly against the dollar. While I have a lot of positive things to say about the Chinese economy for the long run, the Chinese central bank has been inflating like crazy. China’s monetary inflation has exceeded the Fed’s inflation of the last few years.

Regardless of what happens to the yuan, the Chinese people are going to experience a deep recession/depression. This will be its first, since I guess you can’t really have a recession when you are living in total poverty as most of the people were before. The Chinese have made great progress over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, some of what seems to be progress in the last few years has been artificial. There will be a real estate crash. China has a lot going for it, but don’t invest your money there in the short-term.

Gold and Silver

Gold has been setting record highs (in nominal terms) this past week. Gold and silver tend to move in the same direction. Silver also tends to be more volatile than gold. When there is a bear market in metals, silver usually does worse than gold. But in a bull market, silver often goes higher in percentage terms than gold.

This has not been the case lately. Silver has done well, but not as well as gold. While silver does have a history of being used as money, gold does even more so. Central banks around the world store gold, but not silver (at least that we are aware). The U.S. dollar has been strong lately compared to other currencies, particularly the Euro. But gold in terms of U.S. dollars has still done well. With uncertainty in the world, with massive debts, and with all of the other problems created by governments, some people are turning to gold. Central banks are also putting a floor under it. While there may be a pullback in the short-term, gold and gold related investments are still a good bet even at current prices.

House Hunters

There is a show on HGTV called House Hunters. Sometimes this show does another version called House Hunters International where someone shops for a house outside of the U.S. This may be where the person(s) lives or it may be a second home they are shopping for. The person or family will look at 3 homes and at the end of the show it is revealed which house they choose to buy.

It is always interesting to look at the real estate and the prices outside of the U.S. When someone is looking at beachfront property in the Caribbean, it is understandably expensive. But it is really amazing when they look in places like Western Europe. I’ve seen shows where they show places in Japan, Israel, and several countries in Western Europe. The prices are astronomical. This makes a couple of points for me. First, the standard of living is far lower in other places of the world. Of course we expect this in third world countries, but it is surprising looking at Europe. You will see these apartment/condos that are about 1,000 square feet going for 400,000 or 500,000 American dollars. It would be sub-standard living to most Americans.

The other relevant point is how expensive real estate is in a welfare state. If the U.S. is headed towards being a welfare state like much of Europe, then perhaps we can expect real estate prices to go up drastically in the long-term too.

Combining Free Market Economics with Investing