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Hoeing the Rough Row with Porter Stansberry
Source: Karen Roche of The Energy Report (9/28/10)
Decades of unbridled borrowing led to oppressive debt for Americans and America. Efforts to spend our way back to prosperity, stumbling at every turn, seem doomed to fail. For more about Stansberry & Associates Investment Research Founder Porter Stansberry's take on the perilous predicament—and his coping strategies—read this exclusive Energy Report interview.
Porter Stansberry: On one hand, I expected the authorities to come out and say everything is getting better at some point, and I also expected that pumping enough money into the economy could stimulate some economic activity. So, I guess in that way, I was expecting it.
Then, in a deeper, more intrinsic way I wasn't expecting any significant improvement to the economy whatsoever. I would argue about the meaning of this conclusion, too, and point to measurements of our national net worth as being the appropriate gauge to measure whether we're experiencing any genuine economic growth. America's net worth continues to fall in terms of the average household net worth, and also, of course, our government's net worth is growing in the red dramatically every quarter.
So while I'm pleased that there is more economic activity, I wish there was more employment, and that we were heading in the right direction in terms of growth of median incomes and net worth. But I'm unfortunately very pessimistic that any real increase to net worth, either measured by the government or by individual households, can be achieved when the government continues to paper over our problems with more credit and more money instead of making our economy more competitive on a global basis.
TER: But measuring net worth as the true driver, hasn't individual net worth really been decreasing over the last decade? Wasn't the perceived net worth really based on debt?
PS: The average household income has really stagnated since 1971. For a while, it continued to increase in terms of statistics, because more and more families had two wage earners. During the '70s, household income looked as if it was still increasing but factoring in the additional wage earner, it didn't change at all. And then it began to decline in the late '90s, and has continued down for the last 10-12 years.
So in terms of household incomes, we've definitely gotten much poorer over the last 30 years, and that's just a measure of income. In terms of net worth, meaning all of our balance sheets—our assets minus our liabilities—America was richest on paper in the spring of 2007 before the start of the mortgage crisis and the real estate bust.
TER: You're talking about individual net worth, not corporate net worth?
PS: Exactly, talking about median household net worth, median household income. So, individual incomes have been stagnant and/or declining for more than 30 years, and individual net worth has fallen precipitously since 2007 and continues to do so.
You can survive your income falling if it's not dramatic. Your income can decrease for a long time before you start living beyond your means. I think what's happened to America, in a cultural sense, is we stopped getting richer as a country in the early 1970s, but we haven't adjusted our consumption patterns in any way, shape or form to meet the realities of the new lower income. As a result, debt has piled up over the last 35 years. And of course as you add debt without increasing income, you're reducing your net worth.
And look at the size of the U.S. federal government debt outstanding today—not the unfunded obligations; just the bonds that are outstanding—and you look at the federal government's annual revenue, the debt is now 356% of the revenue. If the federal government didn't own the world's reserve currency, you can imagine that it would be impossible for that government to get credit anywhere. No one would lend to an entity that's so far in debt as the government already is. And yet it's the government that continues to provide additional stimulus to the economy by adding to its already swollen obligations.
So the government continues to pump money into the economy via expansion of credit and/or straight out printing money (via quantitative easing). That has a diminishing-returns effect, so people would argue now that "cash for clunkers" and TARP, etc., didn't do anything.
In the middle of this train wreck, our currency is gradually being debased and efforts to restart the economy with additional spending aren't working. They probably can't work. How long does this continue? How much debt gets racked up before real, true panic sets in and people simply start to flee the currency at all costs?
TER: How long? How much?
PS: I don't know the answers. But I don't believe the current strategy is feasible. I think the only thing that really can be done—it would be painful, but less painful than the calamity we're heading toward—is to demand that people be responsible for their private obligations. No more bailouts, no more stimulus, no cash for clunkers. You, the American people, have to live within your means starting on this date.
If we then defaulted on the U.S. government bonds, we'd tell our creditors, "We're going to give you a certain percentage of our tax receipts, but we have to renegotiate our debt because we can't pay it back." It would be really bad for six or nine months, but then I think things would be great because you would have washed out all the excesses, people could get back to work and the dollar would fall to a value that would make our economy very competitive on a global basis.
TER: Demanding people live up to their private obligations on a par with the defaulting on U.S. government bonds strikes me as curious. On one side, I see individuals who have benefited least from any stimulus—in fact, many of them are unemployed, losing their homes and going into bankruptcy. The banks are the ones getting bailed out.
PS: When I say that people have to be responsible for their private obligations, I'm talking about the big banks, right? If a bank actually had to be accountable to its depositors, there's probably not a major bank in the United States that would be open tomorrow. I mean we're all comfortable with the banks because we know that the printing press stands behind them. But that's no way to run an economy. For the economy to work, there has to be winners and losers and people have to be responsible for their obligations. We're living in a socialist dream right now, and it's going to end up becoming a socialist nightmare. These dreams always do.
Creditors of people cannot continue to expect the government to guarantee every obligation. It simply isn't feasible. It can't be done. You can't guarantee every mortgage in the United States. You can't do it. Likewise, the U.S. government's creditors have to understand that there is such a thing as government default on debt. It happens all the time. If you make a loan to a government that is in as far over its head as our government, you're making a bad bet.
TER: In terms of stagnant individual income, enormous obligations and declining net worth, is what you've described unique to the U.S. or would you also put other leading countries in that same bucket?
PS: In scale, I'd say it's unique to America. The scope that we have continued to consume above our level of income is oppressive, and it was enabled by the fact that our paper currency is the world's standard. So we had no barriers to credit, which meant that we could borrow a heck of a lot more than anybody else and end up with a lot more debt than anybody else.
The macroeconomic problem of stagnant-to-falling median household income is common throughout the developed world. That has only one cause, which is poor competitiveness. We don't work as hard as our Asian competitors, to put it in plain terms. But in America, unlimited access to credit exacerbated the problem.
TER: To what extent has government debt increased to cover the increased credit provided to individuals?
PS: Over the last three years, what's happened is a huge transfer of obligations from private balance sheets to public balance sheets, right? The biggest and most important example—which isn't even discussed in Congress or in Washington as being a problem, which is truly amazing—was shifting $10 trillion of obligations owed by two private corporations, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We shifted responsibility for all those credits onto the U.S. Treasury. That had the impact at the time of doubling—doubling!—our entire national debt in one swipe of the pen. That's just an incredible transformation that took place when the government decided to guarantee all of Fannie's and Freddie's creditors, when you know what Fannie and Freddie really own with all that money they borrowed is pretty much every mortgage in the United States.
You can see that we as a nation have decided that the government ought to be responsible for our mortgages. In a way, that's us saying we believe the government ought to be responsible for all of our private debts.
TER: And where does that lead?
PS: It's interesting isn't it? That was the goal of every socialist regime in history, right? And yet, here we are in America living in the new socialist utopia where no private citizen is really responsible for their private debts. It all becomes a matter of social obligation.
You know, I don't think it's any real great surprise to any thinking person when I say I doubt this experiment has a happy ending. I don't think you can socialize everyone's private obligations and end up with a good economic result.
TER: Is the only outcome some big train wreck?
PS: I'd argue that we're in the midst of the train wreck. We're going to see a continual increase in sovereign debt around the world, even though, according to any standard model of repayment all the leading sovereign debtors are already bankrupt.
I got a report in my inbox last week from Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) in London, basically going over all the different sovereign debt problems. It's really amazing because this is sort of a mainstream investment bank, and they had reached all the conclusions I had reached independently, which is that all these Western countries are completely upside down. Their economies aren't growing, their populations are aging and there's no way that they can generate enough revenue to begin to repay their debts, which continue to grow every year. And all the evidence out there says that risks of a major, major financial catastrophe in the Western economies continue to grow.
TER: Won't all the equity markets crash in that kind of catastrophe?
PS: No, not necessarily. As I mentioned, I'm not particularly bullish, but in some situations equities offer better value than bonds, and in some situations stocks will do well, at least in the short term, because of exposure to Asia.
But the truth of the matter is that equity offers you a hedge against inflation as well because the company's earnings and the company's assets will continue to grow in price along with inflation. In theory, dividends also should increase to match inflation. The case study here is the share price of The Hershey Company (NYSE:HSY). I have studied the price of chocolate and Hershey's bars over the last 70–80 years. Hershey went public in 1926; so, it offers a really nice template to see how changing rates of inflation and even periods of financial catastrophe such as The Great Depression affect a blue chip stock. The answer was really fun; it turns out that chocolate is a slightly better hedge against inflation than even gold. So, the world's leading branded maker of chocolate did quite well, thank you, and there are plenty of other examples from businesses of all stripes. Companies that have a good competitive position can typically raise prices as much as inflation, or more.
Equities should do well even in hyperinflation. The downside is that during periods of hyperinflation, the earnings multiples on equities disappears. So, even really good companies like Hershey and Wal-Mart and Johnson & Johnson will be trading at four, five or six times earnings, maybe even less. And that's really tough for investors if you happen to buy the stock at 12 times earnings or—heaven forbid!—at 18 times earnings. That reduction in the earnings multiple can wipe you out.
So that's why I've been telling my readers to be extremely, extremely, extremely conservative. Buy the very best companies only when they're trading at absurdly cheap prices and offering you a nice yield to protect you. And if you're not willing to short stocks as well, don't buy stocks at all; stay in cash and gold. If you had been in cash and gold this year, you would have been just fine. If you had been following my portfolio, you would have done very well, too, not because we did great with the stocks we bought, although they did okay, but we did great with the stocks we shorted.
TER: So, looking through to the end of 2010, will you maintain an aggressive shorting strategy?
PS: I have pulled back the reins on new shorts; I haven't added to my short position in the last two months due to the return of quantitative easing. I expect we'll probably end up covering most of our short book before the end of the year. After that, it depends on whether we find good opportunities to short on an individual company basis, and it depends on how the markets and the asset prices react to the quantitative easing. I can't make any prediction about what exactly our strategy will be in 2011 because we're not there yet. I'm still trying to survive 2010.
TER: The default discussion has been going on for quite a while, and with elections coming up, it seems that we can expect either additional stimulus or quantitative easing. What's the straw that finally breaks the camel's back?
PS: I can only tell you that no one really cares about a creditor's debt load up until the moment that everyone cares. The Greek bond yields didn't move at all until the market went into a panic six months ago over them, and yet the creditors all had the data on the way the Greek economy was working for years. I vividly remember reading commentary in the late 1990s of well-known economists saying there's no way Greece should ever be part of the EU because they have a kleptocracy, basically a government of thieves. But they still were able to borrow money on ridiculous terms up until the moment people decided not to lend them any more.
TER: Well, they're actually still lending them money.
PS: Yes, but only with that $185 billion bailout fund standing behind the Greek credit. Otherwise, no one would have lent them any more money. Greek bonds that are denominated in euros are not going to default. Rightly or wrongly, creditors believe that they can get an extra 200 basis points at yield by buying Greek debt instead of German bunds, because to the creditor it's the same thing. Now that the Germans have not allowed the Greeks to default, in reality the credit risk of the Greek bond is no more or less than the German bund. So you're giving speculators all the basis point difference for free. That's the way they see it.
Even more interesting than the fact the Greeks were bailed out, the stock market has picked up noticeably in the last several weeks, which coincides exactly with the beginning of the latest European quantitative easing. The same thing happened in the spring of 2009 in the U.S.—asset markets and asset prices of all types start going higher every time there's more quantitative easing. It's not because those assets are becoming more valuable, but because people are fleeing the currency every time the printing presses come on.
TER: And how likely is more quantitative easing in the cards in the U.S.?
PS: The answer is absolutely, 100%, for sure, yes, there will be. And I think it will cause asset prices to rise. I don't think it will cause our economy to have any real benefit.
Of course, it's not just the federal government that's in big trouble. If there were a real rating agency, California's rating would be lower than Greece's. I read somewhere that something like 300 separate agencies have the power to issue bonds under State credit in California. And there are going to be bankrupt municipalities all over the United States; Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, declared bankruptcy this month.
TER: Earlier this year you advised your readers to not be upset to be sitting in cash and be really careful about the markets because there's tremendous volatility. For those who didn't want to truly hedge themselves in equities, you recommended short-term Treasuries and gold. If asset classes are going to increase in value in every quantitative easing, why wouldn't you recommend equities?
PS: When the quantitative easing started in March of 2009, I was wildly bullish, the most bullish I've probably been in my entire career. I told people straight out that equities are much cheaper than precious metals; they're cheaper than bonds. I did put my readers into a lot of stocks in 2009, and we made a lot of money.
This year, the Fed had promised to stop its quantitative easing, which made me very cautious because I believe as soon as the quantitative easing stopped, asset prices would fall again. And so I've recommended more individual short positions this year than I ever recommended before.
TER: How's that working for you?
PS: I think I recommended at least eight new short positions, and so far, not surprisingly, all of them have been profitable, some wildly so. Now that the quantitative easing is beginning again with the Europeans, I think that will be seconded at some point by the U.S. and, therefore, I think it is time to consider buying stocks again. But I'm simply not as wildly bullish as I was before because on an overall basis, stocks in general aren't as cheap as they were in March of 2009.
Having said that, I think there are some uniquely good values out there—most notably global blue chip companies that are exposed to growth in Asia. You don't have to be a stock analyst to know these companies because you're familiar with their brands—Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT), Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC) and Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT). You'll find a lot of situations where you can buy global blue chip businesses that have big exposure to Asian growth where your dividends in the stock are going to pay you more money than buying the bonds! That's an incredible anomaly.
TER: Do bonds currently represent more risk or is this purely a yield calculation?
PS: I don't want to scare people out of high-quality bonds. I am not expecting any sort of corporate bond market catastrophe in the near term, and as long as you're dealing with relatively short duration stuff you will be fine. If you're buying a bond that matures in five years, you're taking some inflation risk, but not really all that much. But still. . .why would you take any inflation risk in a bond when you can buy stock in the same entity that is yielding more? You wouldn't. And yet, some people are doing exactly that. . .
TER: Point taken. Are you shorting U.S. Treasuries?
PS: Not any more. I got out of that trade a couple of months ago because it started to go against me, and I didn't want to have a loss, but I think you're completely out of your mind if you buy U.S. Treasuries that are yielding—what are they yielding now?—less than 3%? It's mind-boggling; I can't begin to understand it. I really can't. People holding long-term—i.e., 20-year—U.S. paper are sitting on a ticking time bomb. The losses in this asset class will be epic, of historic proportions.
TER: In our last conversation, you predicted something that was extremely contrarian at the time, when you said that the total environmental impact from the Gulf spill would not be as draconian as was being published. You also suggested at that time to buy BP Plc (NYSE:BP; LSE:BP) and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE:APC) because they were undervalued, and indeed, both BP and Anadarko have had some pretty nice increases since July. Is there any continuing upside on these types of oil stocks or will an overhang of negativity restrict these stocks from reaching their former highs?
PS: Well, full disclosure, I ended up buying both equities this summer. That I own them both personally should tell you a little bit about what I expect. Obviously, I must believe there's more upside to each stock or I wouldn't own them. But we have a policy as newsletter publishers; I don't write about any position that I am in and I don't buy the stocks that I cover in my newsletter. I understand the argument about having skin in the game, but as an independent publisher, it's very important to analyze each situation and each company completely objectively without giving any thought to whether I am in the stock personally.
TER: When we had that conversation, the issue of increasing regulations on offshore oil drilling was constantly in the news. It isn't getting much attention now, but do you feel there will be any significant regulatory changes as a result of the spill?
PS: No. Any regulatory effort will be captured by the industry and would be used to protect the incumbents against new competitors, and I am sure that will happen. As a nation, we need onshore and national oil and gas production, and I am sure we're going to continue to have lots of it. So I am not at all concerned about the regulatory burden for any of the oil companies in the country.
And I'll go a little bit further. There's been a lot of talk about the risks of fracking and these gas reservoirs. Someone made a movie suggesting that an oil company in the area was responsible for people having natural gas in their water wells. While I'm certainly not denying that oil and gas reservoirs sometimes leak into water reservoirs, it goes on all the time as a consequence of natural geography much more so than drilling pipes, which are usually less than four feet across. It's much ado about nothing, and the oil industry has always had its critics, going back to Rockefeller and Ida Tarbell. People making claims against oil and gas companies are as old as the oil and gas business.
TER: As you've noted before, the world will continue to rely on oil because it's such an efficient form of energy, relatively easy to find and extract, dense and portable. Considering the growth in Asia you alluded to earlier, do you buy into the peak oil argument?
PS: No, peak oil is one of the greatest promotional ideas ever created to the benefit of oil and gas speculators and investment bankers. To me it represents such bad thinking and it's so intellectually bankrupt that I get frustrated just commenting on it. It just doesn't make any sense because if peak oil were a real phenomena, if it were truly possible to exhaust the world's reservoirs of hydrocarbons in the earth's crust, how come every single prediction of when hydrocarbon production will cease has been wrong, every single time in every single region?
One of the graphs that the peak oil guys would pull out in early 2000 showed onshore natural gas production has been declining since 1974, and that chart was accurate up until 2001, when we discovered a new way of extracting natural gas. Ever since then, natural gas production has gone up, and is now approaching a new all-time high.
The point is that our ability to produce hydrocarbon energy—oil and natural gas—is not limited by the supply of hydrocarbon energy, it's limited by our knowledge and technology for extracting it. Human beings are remarkably adaptable and resourceful and creative, and we will continue to discover new and more efficient ways of creating, extracting and using hydrocarbons. The idea that we will run out of hydrocarbons is mostly used to scare people who probably shouldn't be investing their own money.
TER: Given that and what a barrel of oil trades for, is oil a good investment at this point or will it really just be going sideways?
PS: Is oil a good investment? Oil is really a good investment over the long term because it is remarkably useful to such a degree that the lower the price goes, the more people will use it, which tends to put a floor under its price. If you study the history of oil, you know it certainly goes down a lot sometimes when people start using less of it because of economic declines. But it doesn't stay down very long, and it always comes back and goes higher.
So oil is a great investment, but that said, I am very conservative about buying oil today due to the economic problems I expect in a lot in the major developed countries. With those problems, I don't think global demand for oil is going to go anywhere for a while, and I know the supply is increasing dramatically because of new technologies and new discoveries.
So I am not particularly bullish on oil right now, and I don't expect to become bullish on oil for a long time. But that doesn't mean that oil is a bad investment, and it doesn't mean that you can't do very well buying lots of different aspects of the oil complex.
TER: Are you still bullish on nuclear energy? Do you still see undervalued companies in the sector?
PS: Yes, I'm still relatively bullish on nuclear energy on a global basis, but when we talked last I was particularly bullish on both Exelon Corp. (NYSE:EXC) and Duke Energy Corp. (NYSE:DUK) because they were really, really cheap. They were trading for four or five times cash flow, and yielding more than 5%, which seems like a fantastic opportunity in an era of less than 1% government bond yields and all the other uncertainties.
Both of these companies remain undervalued. They're both well run, regulated utilities. I would favor Exelon a little bit over Duke just because they have more of a nuclear plant, and I am still very wary of cap and trade. I don't know if cap and trade will pass this year as I once anticipated, but unfortunately the global warming madness is not going away. Efforts to retard the consumption of coal here will be continual. If you want cheap, reliable electricity in the United States, you're not going to do it with paddle fans and mirrors on top of buildings. If you want to get off of hydrocarbons, the only option that's even reasonably affordable is nuclear energy.
TER: You've been really savvy at picking out opportunistic investments themes. You've shared some today with the global blue chips. Are you looking at any new investment opportunities that you can share with us?
PS: Just to reiterate, I really think that the highest quality blue chip companies in America that have good global businesses are really cheap. Most people don't realize that Wal-Mart does more than $100 billion—$100 billion, with a B—a year in sales in emerging markets. They're just now really getting going in China, and just opened their first couple of stores in India. So I think Wal-Mart has an enormous amount of growth ahead in those markets.
I would also point to Intel, which is also in my newsletter as a recommended buy for the same reasons—super cheap, great global business, the absolute leader in its field—as with Wal-Mart, as with Johnson & Johnson, as with Microsoft. I like all those kinds of blue chip stories, and I really think it's an exceptional opportunity when you can get these stocks that have a great global business and are paying you more in dividends than you'd get from coupons on their bonds.
But let me be perfectly clear about this: I am not expecting any home runs, you know? If you can make 10% to 15% a year in these stocks over the next 10 years, count yourself lucky.
TER: At the beginning of our conversation, you were talking about how household net worth has been deteriorating. How does one build wealth at that rate?
PS: Those are actually very, very good returns—exceptional returns.
TER: Assuming inflation doesn't take it away.
PS: Right, assuming that. But of more than 21,000 mutual funds in the U.S., do you know how many did better than 10% a year for the last 10 years? Not even 250 of them. And you know what else? All of those funds that did better than 10% a year specialized in either precious metals or emerging markets—all of them. You're not going to get rich just by buying domestic U.S. stocks. I just don't think it's going to happen. If you want to do well in this period of global turmoil, in this period of very, very poor competitiveness in the U.S. and in the developed economies compared to the emerging economies, you have to really pick your spots like I did when I bought BP and Anadarko. You can make money on a crisis like that, or you need some real specialty in finding the right kind of resource situations. That entails taking on enormous risk, which isn't appropriate for most retirees.
But a typical individual investor, someone over the age of 50 with net worth of less than $1 million, really the only thing you can expect to do for the next 10 years is just survive. The best way to do that is to buy these really good global blue chip companies when they're paying reasonable dividends. If you're making 5% a year on the dividend on something like an Exelon, the stock doesn't have to go up all that much for you to get to that double-digit return.
TER: That's encouraging.
PS: It is. If you're getting a double-digit return on U.S. stocks, you're doing a great job.
TER: Very good. Would you expect better than double-digits in U.S. stocks that focus exclusively on emerging markets?
PS: I would, but I also would caution anybody against getting involved as a direct resource play investor or a direct emerging markets investor if they don't have a lot of financial experience and expertise. Those markets are very difficult. This is what I do full time and it's not easy for me, so I just don't think that's appropriate for most people. That's why I've told my readers if they're not willing to short stocks, go to cash and gold and just sit on it, because it isn't going to be a great year in stocks. It's not going to be worth the risk.
So far, fortunately, that's been the right advice.
You have to realize the enormity of the problems our governments have gotten us into and you can’t forget about them. There was a $185 billion bailout in Europe? Well, Europe's governments are $3 trillion in debt. That little bailout that kept Greece will not solve their problem. Likewise, $1.7 trillion of quantitative easing in the U.S. is tiny in contrast to $15 trillion in debt. In other words, we're at the very beginning of these problems. They haven't gone away.
If you try to get really aggressive under these circumstances, if you try to go after growth stocks or start buying whatever the latest commodity is, you'll end up taking a beating. In this environment, it's going to pay to be cautious.
TER: Very good perspective. Thank you, Porter.
After serving a stint as the first American editor of the Fleet Street Letter, the oldest English-language financial newsletter, Porter Stansberry put out his shingle at Stansberry & Associates Investment Research, a private publishing company. Celebrating its 10th anniversary last year, S&A has subscribers in more than 130 countries and employs some 60 research analysts, investment experts and assistants at its headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as satellite offices in Florida, Oregon and California. They've come to S&A from positions as stockbrokers, professional traders, mutual fund executives, hedge fund managers and equity analysts at some of the most influential money-management and financial firms in the world. Porter and his team do exhaustive amounts of real world, independent research and cover the gamut from value investing to insider trading to short selling. Porter's monthly newsletter, Porter Stansberry's Investment Advisory, deals with safe value investments poised to give subscribers years of exceptional returns, while his weekly trading service, Porter Stansberry's Put Strategy Report, shows readers the smartest way to book big gains during the ongoing financial crisis.
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1) Karen Roche of The Energy Report conducted this interview. She personally and/or her family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Energy Report: None.
3) Porter Stansberry: I personally and/or my family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: BP and Anadarko. I personally and/or my family am paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.