The New Normal — What’s To Be Done?

I had an interesting discussion today with the excellent libertarian blogger David Friedman prompted by a USA Today interview with Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of Pimco. El-Erian was stressing his idea of the New Normal, “which predicts a post-financial-crisis world of lower investment returns, slower economic growth and higher odds of another out-of-the-blue financial shock. In short, a world in which the range of financial outcomes — and risk — is much wider than normal.”

David on Facebook commented: “Pimco’s CEO echoes what I have been saying for a while now: (1) cash is king; (2) asset returns will be negligible for the foreseeable future. You’ve been listening to me, right? You’ve liquidated your real estate holdings and are now renting, right? Right?”

And the edited exchange between us went thus:

Jamie Dettmer: “Actually, David, my old Cambridge contemporary doesn’t say anything of the sort. He does say there is too much home bias but it makes no sense to sell your property now in the troughs of the markets. Sure if you had investment property you should have sold long ago. Otherwise you sit tight — you have to live somewhere. Or rent your property out, if you are in a high-rent area and can go to a low-rent area for your needs. One thing that ordinary people make a mistake on is taking the advice of gurus like Mohamed. His clients are big corporations and high net-worth individuals. But I think he is right about the New Normal and that ordinary investors in particular should be careful of equities and look to emerging markets and foreign currency holdings. But should they sit on a lot of cash — more than, say, a year’s need? I am not so sure. In savings accounts and fixed bonds they are losing money when inflation and tax is taken into account — it maybe better, depending on personal circumstances, to pay the mortgage off or down. They would secure a better return.”

David Friedman: “Admittedly, his phrase “a lot of home bias” is ambiguous. I can see it being interpreted either as meaning too much money in one’s home or too much money invested in one’s home country. Which, in essence, is a distinction without a difference. So, I don’t see why you say he doesn’t say anything about home ownership.

But, generally, yes, the more equity one has in one’s home the more able one is to ride out rough economic storms. But, many people don’t have sufficient equity in their homes and so are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Better to liquidate one’s expensive, illiquid, and leveraged “investment” than to suffer the caprices of economic growth.

Finally, it’s not true that housing is a hedge against inflation.”

Jamie Dettmer: “No, my point about paying off or down on the mortgage wasn’t as a hedge against inflation as such. It was more that they are paying interest on their mortgage and by keeping lots of cash they are not getting a return on their savings to match or compensate what they are paying for their mortgage — at least over the long or even medium term. I agree that if someone is struggling and is over-leveraged on their home and they can get a sale, them they are better advised to escape. His comment about home bias is highly ambiguous — does he mean investing at home or being invested in a home? Even if it is the latter, then personal circumstances kick in. Last, it also comes down to where your property is. The US has a national housing market but with significant variations. I am reasonably content with having property in the DC-Baltimore metro area — but I would not be sitting comfortably if my property was in Enid,OK, say. But as I get older there are two things I am fairly sure about — taxes and death! Wow, that’s a bit depressing — think I need another espresso.”

David Friedman: “But, if we assume that he means US investors are over-invested in their home country, and we further make the assumption that most people’s largest investment is in their house, then it follows that most people would be better off liquidating their real estate investment and investing that cash abroad….”

Jamie Dettmer: “That might be. But he also notes that you should avoid big risks with equities and that things are going to be topsy-turvy and that people should invest in what they know. Further, I do have most of my cash in foreign currencies but I can find no really worthwhile fixed bond or savings account that would not have me losing when tax is taken into account. Standard Chartered offers an offshore fixed bond of 4.5 percent over a year. Others at the 4 percent mark require the bond to run for three to five years.”

David Friedman: ‘Well, it seems to me that what he’s really talking about here is that one should diversify across asset classes, and make that diversification international. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but as you say, that’s not practical for the average investor. So, the average investor, who more likely than not, has most of his net worth concentrated in his house, is sort of screwed.

On the other hand, when financial crises hit, all correlations go to 1, as we saw in 2009.

I think the lesson here is that volatility is inherent to financial markets, and that no government can mitigate that volatility. Better, then, to make peace with volatility, than to try to defeat it. Admittedly, that’s a fatalistic view of finance, but there you have it.”

Jamie Dettmer: “Yea, I think that’s right. We are mere corks floating on the water.”

David Friedman: “The first person who figures out how to properly hedge portfolios 100% of the time is going to make trillions.”

Jamie Dettmer: “Well, several big investment banks thought they were doing just that — great while it lasted, for them. And they were encouraged by Brown (the end of boom and bust) and Greenspan.”

I ought to point out that the David Friedman in this exchange is not David D. Friedman.