Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Now the Time to Buy Commodities?

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. ©

Commodities are hot! When is the best time to buy?

Most of us are inclined to try to figure out the best time to buy an investment. However, studies by academicians, pension funds, and other objective sources, however, have shown that market timing never works. It is useful to know the three rationales for market timing to better understand why it is futile: the Past, the Present, and the Future. We also explain the alternative to market timing.

The Future: Doomsday scenarios are generally based on some ‘inevitable’ future event which is unprecedented although it may have some basis in truth. Buy commodities because the world is running out of oil! Buy gold because China has too much of our debt! Inflation will cause worldwide financial collapse…so buy commodities! Timing systems based on outlandish possible scenarios sell investment newsletters, and get headlines.

Sometimes a prediction will actually come true, e.g. in the early 90’s globalization and computerization were predicted to dramatically drive the stock market up. That did happen, but the Dow never got to 36,000 as some predicted. There are too many countervailing forces in the economy to predict the future, and exaggerated claims don’t come true because they are offset by other economic changes.

Real estate was supposed to crash by the end of the 1990’s because of demographic trends, e.g. the end of the baby boomer house-buying era. Instead, real estate boomed because more boomers bought 2nd homes, households became smaller, people live longer, immigration swells our population, etc. These other factors offset the expected drop in demand for housing. When housing did crash about 10 years later, it was totally unexpected by the experts – and caused by artificially low interest rates!

The Present; The ‘recency effect’ occurs when you expect that what ever is happening now, or has been happening, will continue to happen. When the stock market is falling, people generally believe it will continue dropping and run for the exits. When it is rising, people become convinced it will always keep rising and pile investment dollars on just as the market peaks.

The market seeks balance by testing extremes. If anything, it is likely that whatever is happening now will not continue, certainly not indefinitely. Again, other economic factors come into play that offset existing trends. Relying on current trends to continue is a financial recipe for heartburn.

The Past: Our whole investment industry is predicated on analyzing past performance of a stock, or group of stocks, or a money manager to determine future performance. As you probably know the tagline on every investment recommendation is: ”Past performance is no guarantee of future returns!”

There are long-term 15-20 year trends in the markets that are remarkably consistent over any 15-20 year period. For example, a portfolio of 50% stocks and 50% bonds over the past 80 years has averaged 8.2%. Interestingly, most of the 15-20 year periods during that time frame show an annual return in that range.

That is no guarantee that this long-term historical trend will continue, but it is useful for long-term planning purposes. Most importantly, a 15-20 year trend offers no clues about how you should invest your money now.

The Alternative: So if market timing based any of these three rationales is unreliable, how do you know whether you should invest in commodities now? We espouse an approach based on balancing your portfolio according to your particular situation. We do not predict or rely on timing of any exogenous factors such as oil prices, the likelihood of war, the possibility of a California earthquake, etc.

What is important is that your portfolio takes into account the endogenous factors in your life. This includes job stability, how many kids you have to send to college, the amount of risk you take outside the portfolio (e.g. owning a business, real estate investments, etc.). A key factor is: “How much risk do you need to take to reach your goals?” If you are comfortably retired, it is ridiculous to measure your portfolio’s suitability based on your rate of return…it’s more important to make sure you don’t lose what you’ve got!

Our approach is known as ‘Functional Asset Allocation.’ It addresses the reality that there are only three possibilities that your portfolio has to deal with: Deflation (what we are experiencing now); Inflation (which we may have to deal with next); and prosperity (which hopefully will return soon).

Treasury bonds are the absolute best protection against deflation. Yes, they always have a very low yield, but when deflation hits – ‘safety trumps yield.’ A good mixture of large cap, small cap and international stocks has proven to be the best approach in times of prosperity. Inflation is hedged by having sufficient cash reserves (since short term interest rate increase during inflation), having a long-term fixed rate mortgage, as well as unhedged foreign mutual funds or gold which protect against a drop in the dollar.

With these simple investments in your portfolio, you don’t have to guess what will happen next. Whatever happens, your portfolio will be able to handle and grow. This approach runs counter to the advice you get from the media and most investment advisors because they base their theories on the assumption that you want to get the best rate of return you can…and only they can help you time the markets. Maybe that is true of billion dollar pension funds, but for real people it is nonsense because you have a finite lifespan. Your portfolio has to reflect the realities in your life.

So what exactly is the function of investing in commodities? For ordinary people, investing in commodities is actually dysfunctional – it doesn’t reliably protect against inflation, deflation, or necessarily rise during prosperity. It is a gamble, pure and simple. I suggest that it is preferable to take the $25,000 you have been told to invest in commodities and take it to the craps table in Las Vegas. At least there when you lose it, they give you a really nice room and free dinners. Charles Schwab never does that…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.