Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Biggest Lesson from Microsoft’s Recent Battle with the US Government

By Nick Giambruno, Senior Editor, InternationalMan.com

A court ruling involving Microsoft’s offshore data storage offers an instructive lesson on the long reach of the US government—and what you can do to mitigate this political risk.

A federal judge recently agreed with the US government that Microsoft must turn over its customer data that it holds offshore if requested in a search warrant. Microsoft had refused because the digital content being requested physically was located on servers in Ireland.

Microsoft said in a statement that “a US prosecutor cannot obtain a US warrant to search someone’s home located in another country, just as another country’s prosecutor cannot obtain a court order in her home country to conduct a search in the United States.”

The judge disagreed. She ruled that it’s a matter of where the control of that data is being exercised, not of where the data is physically located.

This ruling is not at all surprising. It’s long been crystal clear that the US will aggressively claim jurisdiction if the situation in question has even the slightest, vaguest, or most indirect connection. Worse yet, as we’ve seen with the extraterritorial FATCA law, the US is not afraid to impose its own laws on foreign countries.
One of the favorite pretexts for a US connection is the use of the US dollar. The US government claims that just using the US dollar—which nearly every bank in the world does—gives it jurisdiction, even if there were no other connections to the US. It’s quite obviously a flimsy pretext, but it works.

Recently the US government fined (i.e., extorted) over $8 billion from BNP Paribas for doing business with countries it doesn’t like. The transactions were totally legal under EU and French law, but illegal under US law. The US successfully claimed jurisdiction because the transactions were denominated in US dollars—there was no other US connection.

This is not typical of how most governments conduct themselves. Not because they don’t want to, but because they couldn’t get away with it. The US, on the other hand—as the world’s sole financial and military superpower (for now at least)—can get away with it.

This of course translates into a uniquely acute amount of political risk for anyone who might fall under US jurisdiction somehow, especially American citizens. A prudent person will look to mitigate this risk through international diversification.

So let’s see what kinds of lessons this recent court ruling offers for those formulating their diversification strategies.

The Biggest Lesson


The most important lesson of the Microsoft case is that any connection to the US government —no matter how small—exposes you to big risks.

If there’s anything connected to the US, you can count on the US government using that vulnerability as a pressure point. Microsoft, being a US company with a huge US presence, is of course exposed to having its arms easily twisted by the US government—regardless if the data it stores is physically offshore.

Now let’s assume the company in question was a non-US company, with no US presence whatsoever (not incorporated in the US, no employees in the US, no servers or computer infrastructure in the US, no bank accounts in the US): then the US government would have a much more difficult time accessing the data and putting pressure on the company to comply with its demands.

It’s important to remember that even if a company or person is more immune to traditional pressures, there are plenty of unconventional ways the US can respond.

The US government could always resort to hacking, blackmail, or other acts of subterfuge to access foreign data that is seemingly out of its reach. This is where encryption comes in. We know from the Edward Snowden revelations that when properly executed, encryption works. For all practical purposes as things are today, strong and proper encryption places data beyond the reach of any government or anyone without the encryption keys.

Of course, there is no such thing as 100% protection, and there never will be. But using encryption in combination with a company that—unlike Microsoft—is 100% offshore is the best protection you can currently get for your digital assets.

Once you get the hang of it, encryption is actually easy to use. Be sure to check out the Easy Email Encryption guide; it’s free and located in the Guides and Resources section of the IM site.

How easily the US can access your offshore digital data will also come down to the politics and relationship between the US and the country in question. You can count on the UK, Canada, Australia, and others to easily roll over for anything the US wants. On the other hand, you can bet that a country with frosty relations with the US—like China or Russia—will toss most US requests in the garbage. This political arbitrage is what international diversification is all about.

The lessons of the Microsoft case extend to offshore banking.

It’s much better to do your offshore banking with a bank that has no branch in the US. For example, if you open an HSBC account in Hong Kong, the US government can simply pressure HSBC’s large presence in the US to get at your Hong Kong account—much like how the US government pressured Microsoft’s US presence to get at its data physically stored in Ireland.

Obtaining the Most Diversification Benefits


Most of us know about the benefits of holding uncorrelated assets in an investment portfolio to reduce overall risk. In a similar fashion, you can reduce your political risk—the risk that comes from governments. You do this by spreading various aspects of your life—banking, citizenship, residency, business, digital presence, and tax domicile—across politically uncorrelated countries to obtain the most diversification benefits. The optimal outcome is to totally eliminate your dependence on any one country.

This means you’ll want to diversify into countries that won’t necessarily roll over easily for other countries. This is of course just one consideration, and it needs to be balanced with other factors. For example, Russia isn’t going to be easily pressured by the US government. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to bank there.

Personally, I’m a fan of jurisdictions that are friendly with China—which helps insulate them from US pressure—but have a degree of independence and are competently run, like Hong Kong and Singapore.
Naturally, things can change quickly. New options emerge, while others disappear. This is why it’s so important to have the most up-to-date and accurate information possible. That’s where International Man comes in. Be sure to check out our Going Global publication, where we discuss the latest and best international diversification strategies in great, actionable detail.



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Monday, August 18, 2014

Low and Expanding Risk Premiums Are the Root of Abrupt Market Losses

By John Mauldin


Risk premiums. I don’t know anyone who seriously maintains that risk premiums are anywhere close to normal. They more closely resemble what we see just before a major bear market kicks in. Which doesn’t mean that they can’t become further compressed. My good friend John Hussman certainly wouldn’t argue for such a state of affairs, and this week for our Outside the Box we let John talk about risk premiums.

Hussman is the founder and manager of the eponymous Hussman Funds, at www.Hussmanfunds.com. Let me offer a few cautionary paragraphs from his letter as a way to set the stage. I particularly want to highlight a quote from Raghuram Rajan, who impressed me with his work and his insights when we spent three days speaking together in Scandinavia a few years ago. At the time he was a professor at the University of Chicago, before he moved on to see if he could help ignite a fire in India.

Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India and among the few economists who foresaw the last financial crisis, warned last week that “some of our macroeconomists are not recognizing the overall build-up of risks. We are taking a greater chance of having another crash at a time when the world is less capable of bearing the cost. Investors say ‘we will stay with the trade because central banks are willing to provide easy money and I can see that easy money continuing into the foreseeable future.’ It’s the same old story. They add ‘I will get out before everyone else gets out.’ They put the trades on even though they know what will happen as everyone attempts to exit positions at the same time.”

As a market cycle completes and a bull market gives way to a bear market, you’ll notice an increasing tendency for negative day-to-day news stories to be associated with market “reactions” that seem completely out of proportion. The key to understanding these reactions, as I observed at the 2007 peak, is to recognize that abrupt market weakness is generally the result of low risk premiums being pressed higher. Low and expanding risk premiums are at the root of nearly every abrupt market loss. Day-to-day news stories are merely opportunities for depressed risk premiums to shift up toward more normal levels, but the normalization itself is inevitable, and the spike in risk premiums (decline in prices) need not be proportional or “justifiable” by the news at all. Remember this, because when investors see the market plunging on news items that seem like “nothing,” they’re often tempted to buy into what clearly seems to be an overreaction. We saw this throughout the 2000-2002 plunge as well as the 2007-2009 plunge.

Yesterday evening, another astute market observer in the form of my good friend Steve Cucchiaro, founder of Windhaven, joined a few other friends for an entertaining steak dinner; and then we talked long into the night about life and markets. It is difficult to be “running money” at a time like this. The market is clearly getting stretched, but there is also a serious risk that it will run away for another 10 or 15%. If you are a manager, you need to be gut-checking your discipline and risk strategies. If you’re a client, you need to be asking your manager what his or her risk strategy is. It’s not a matter of risk or no risk but how you handle it.

What is your discipline? What non-emotional strategy instructs you to enter markets and to exit markets? Is it all or nothing, or is it by sector? Are you global? If so, do you have appropriate and different risk premiums embedded in your strategies? Just asking…. John’s piece today should at least get you thinking. That’s what Outside the Box is supposed to do.

It’s an interesting week around the Mauldin house. All the kids were over Sunday, and we grilled steaks and later ended up in the pool, shouting and horsing around, all of us knowing that three of the seven would be off to different parts of the country the next day. I know that’s what adult children do, and as responsible parents we all want our children to be independent, but the occasion did offer a few moments for reflection. Sunday night we just told stories of days past and laughed and tried not to think too much about the future.

A friend of mine just came back from California and Oregon complaining about the heat. Dallas has been rather cool, at least for August. If this weather pattern somehow keeps up (and it won’t), I can see lots of tax refugees streaming into Texas from California.

Tomorrow (Thursday) my mother turns 97, and we will have an ambulance bring her to the apartment, where she wants to have her birthday party. She is bedridden but is absolutely insisting on this party, so my brother and I decided to let her have her way. Which isn’t any different from the way it’s always been. Have a great week.

You’re rich in family and friends analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Low and Expanding Risk Premiums Are the Root of Abrupt Market Losses

By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
Through the recurrent bubbles and collapses of recent decades, I’ve often discussed what I call the Iron Law of Finance: Every long-term security is nothing more than a claim on some expected future stream of cash that will be delivered into the hands of investors over time. For a given stream of expected future cash payments, the higher the price investors pay today for that stream of cash, the lower the long-term return they will achieve on their investment over time.

The past several years of quantitative easing and zero interest rate policy have not bent that Iron Law at all. As prices have advanced, prospective future returns have declined, and the “risk premiums” priced into risky securities have become compressed. Based on the valuation measures most strongly correlated with actual subsequent total returns (and those correlations are near or above 90%), we continue to estimate that the S&P 500 will achieve zero or negative nominal total returns over horizons of 8 years or less, and only about 2% annually over the coming decade. See Ockham’s Razor and The Market Cycle to review some of these measures and the associated arithmetic.

What quantitative easing has done is to exploit the discomfort that investors have with earning nothing on safe investments, making them feel forced to extend their risk profile in search of positive expected returns. The problem is that there is little arithmetic involved in that decision. For example, if a “normal” level of short-term interest rates is 4% and investors expect 3-4 more years of zero interest rate policy, it’s reasonable for stock prices to be valued today at levels that are about 12-16% above historically normal valuations (3-4 years x 4%). The higher prices would in turn be associated with equity returns also being about 4% lower than “normal” over that 3-4 year period. This would be a justified response. One can demonstrate the arithmetic quite simply using any discounted cash flow approach, and it holds for stocks, bonds, and other long-term securities. [Geek's Note: The Dornbusch exchange rate model reflects the same considerations.]

However, if investors are so uncomfortable with zero interest rates on safe investments that they drive security prices far higher than 12-16% above historical valuation norms (and at present, stocks are more than double those norms on the most reliable measures), they’re doing something beyond what’s justified by interest rates. Instead, what happens is that the risk premium – the compensation for bearing uncertainty, volatility, and risk of extreme loss – also becomes compressed. We can quantify the impact that zero interest rates should have on stock valuations, and it would take decades of zero interest rate policy to justify current stock valuations on the basis of low interest rates. What we’re seeing here – make no mistake about it – is not a rational, justified, quantifiable response to lower interest rates, but rather a historic compression of risk premiums across every risky asset class, particularly equities, leveraged loans, and junk bonds.

My impression is that today’s near-absence of risk premiums is both unintentional and poorly appreciated. That is, investors have pushed up prices, but they still expect future returns on risky assets to be positive. Indeed, because all of this yield seeking has driven a persistent uptrend in speculative assets in recent years, investors seem to believe that “QE just makes prices go up” in a way that ensures a permanent future of diagonally escalating prices. Meanwhile, though QE has fostered an enormous speculative misallocation of capital, a recent Fed survey finds that the majority of Americans feel no better off compared with 5 years ago.

We increasingly see carry being confused with expected return. Carry is the difference between the annual yield of a security and money market interest rates. For example, in a world where short-term interest rates are zero, Wall Street acts as if a 2% dividend yield on equities, or a 5% junk bond yield is enough to make these securities appropriate even for investors with short horizons, not factoring in any compensation for risk or likely capital losses. This is the same thinking that contributed to the housing bubble and subsequent collapse. Banks, hedge funds, and other financial players borrowed massively to accumulate subprime mortgage-backed securities, attempting to “leverage the spread” between the higher yielding and increasingly risky mortgage debt and the lower yield that they paid to depositors and other funding sources.

We shudder at how much risk is being delivered – knowingly or not – to investors who plan to retire even a year from now. Barron’s published an article on target-term funds last month with this gem (italics mine): “JPMorgan's 2015 target-term fund has a 42% equity allocation, below that of its peers. Its fund holds emerging-market equity and debt, junk bonds, and commodities.”

On the subject of junk debt, in the first two quarters of 2014, European high yield bond issuance outstripped U.S. issuance for the first time in history, with 77% of the total represented by Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. This issuance has been enabled by the “reach for yield” provoked by zero interest rate policy. The discomfort of investors with zero interest rates allows weak borrowers – in the words of the Financial Times – “to harness strong investor demand.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that pension funds, squeezed for sources of safe return, have been abandoning their investment grade policies to invest in higher yielding junk bonds. Rather than thinking in terms of valuation and risk, they are focused on the carry they hope to earn because the default environment seems "benign" at the moment. This is just the housing bubble replicated in a different class of securities. It will end badly.




Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India and among the few economists who foresaw the last financial crisis, warned last week that "some of our macroeconomists are not recognizing the overall build-up of risks. We are taking a greater chance of having another crash at a time when the world is less capable of bearing the cost. Investors say 'we will stay with the trade because central banks are willing to provide easy money and I can see that easy money continuing into the foreseeable future.' It's the same old story. They add 'I will get out before everyone else gets out.' They put the trades on even though they know what will happen as everyone attempts to exit positions at the same time."

While we’re already observing cracks in market internals in the form of breakdowns in small cap stocks, high yield bond prices, market breadth, and other areas, it’s not clear yet whether the risk preferences of investors have shifted durably. As we saw in multiple early sell offs and recoveries near the 2007, 2000, and 1929 bull market peaks (the only peaks that rival the present one), the “buy the dip” mentality can introduce periodic recovery attempts even in markets that are quite precarious from a full cycle perspective. Still, it's helpful to be aware of how compressed risk premiums unwind. They rarely do so in one fell swoop, but they also rarely do so gradually and diagonally. Compressed risk premiums normalize in spikes.

As a market cycle completes and a bull market gives way to a bear market, you’ll notice an increasing tendency for negative day-to-day news stories to be associated with market “reactions” that seem completely out of proportion. The key to understanding these reactions, as I observed at the 2007 peak, is to recognize that abrupt market weakness is generally the result of low risk premiums being pressed higher. Low and expanding risk premiums are at the root of nearly every abrupt market loss. Day-to-day news stories are merely opportunities for depressed risk premiums to shift up toward more normal levels, but the normalization itself is inevitable, and the spike in risk premiums (decline in prices) need not be proportional or “justifiable” by the news at all. Remember this because when investors see the market plunging on news items that seem like “nothing,” they’re often tempted to buy into what clearly seems to be an overreaction. We saw this throughout the 2000-2002 plunge as well as the 2007-2009 plunge.

As I’ve frequently observed, the strongest expected market return/risk profile is associated with a material retreat in valuations that is then joined by an early improvement across a wide range of market internals. These opportunities occur in every market cycle, and we have no doubt that we will observe them over the completion of the present cycle and in those that follow. In contrast, when risk premiums are historically compressed and showing early signs of normalizing even moderately, a great deal of downside damage is likely to follow. Some of it will be on virtually no news at all, because that normalization is baked in the cake, and is independent of interest rates. All that’s required is for investors to begin to remember that risky securities actually involve risk. In that environment, selling begets selling.

Remember: this outcome is baked in the cake because prices are already elevated and risk premiums are already compressed. Every episode of compressed risk premiums in history has been followed by a series of spikes that restore them to normal levels. It may be possible for monetary policy to drag the process out by helping to punctuate the sell offs with renewed speculation, but there’s no way to defer this process permanently. Nor would the effort be constructive, because the only thing that compressed risk premiums do is to misallocate scarce savings to unproductive uses, allowing weak borrowers to harness strong demand. We don’t believe that risk has been permanently removed from risky assets. The belief that it has is itself the greatest risk that investors face here.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Top 7 Reasons I’m Buying Silver Now

By Jeff Clark, Senior Precious Metals Analyst

I remember my first drug high.

No, it wasn’t from a shady deal made with a seedy character in a bad part of town. I was in the hospital, recovering from surgery, and while I wasn’t in a lot of pain, the nurse suggested something to help me sleep better. I didn’t really think I needed it—but within seconds of that needle puncturing my skin, I WAS IN HEAVEN.

The euphoria that struck my brain was indescribable. The fluid coursing through my veins was so powerful I’ve never forgotten it. I can easily see why people get hooked on drugs.

And that’s why I think silver, purchased at current prices, could be a life-changing investment.

The connection? Well, it’s not the metal’s ever-increasing number of industrial uses… or exploding photovoltaic (solar) demand… nor even that the 2014 supply is projected to be stagnant and only reach 2010’s level. No, the connection is….

Financial Heroin

The drugs of choice for governments—money printing, deficit spending, and nonstop debt increases—have proved too addictive for world leaders to break their habits. At this point, the US and other governments around the world have toked, snorted, and mainlined their way into an addictive corner; they are completely hooked. The Fed and their international central-bank peers are the drug pushers, providing the easy money to keep the high going. And despite the Fed’s latest taper of bond purchases, past actions will not be consequence-free.

At first, drug-induced highs feel euphoric, but eventually the body breaks down from the abuse. Similarly, artificial stimuli and sub-rosa manipulations by central banks have delivered their special effects—but addiction always leads to a systemic breakdown.

When government financial heroin addicts are finally forced into cold-turkey withdrawal, the ensuing crisis will spark a rush into precious metals. The situation will be exacerbated when assets perceived as “safe” today—like bonds and the almighty greenback—enter bear markets or crash entirely.

As a result, the rise in silver prices from current levels won’t be 10% or 20%—but a double, triple, or more.

If inflation picks up steam, $100 silver is not a fantasy but a distinct possibility. Gold will benefit, too, of course, but due to silver’s higher volatility, we expect it will hand us a higher percentage return, just as it has many times in the past.

Eventually, all markets correct excesses. The global economy is near a tipping point, and we must prepare our portfolios now, ahead of that chaos, which includes owning a meaningful amount of physical silver along with our gold.

It’s time to build for a big payday.

Why I’m Excited About Silver

When considering the catalysts for silver, let’s first ignore short-term factors such as net short/long positions, fluctuations in weekly ETF holdings, or the latest open interest. Data like these fluctuate regularly and rarely have long-term bearing on the price of silver.

I’m more interested in the big-picture forces that could impact silver over the next several years. The most significant force, of course, is what I stated above: governments’ abuse of “financial heroin” that will inevitably lead to a currency crisis in many countries around the world, pushing silver and gold to record levels.

At no time in history have governments printed this much money.

And not one currency in the world is anchored to gold or any other tangible standard. This unprecedented setup means that whatever fallout results, it will be of historic proportions and affect each of us personally.
Specific to silver itself, here are the data that tell me “something big this way comes”….

1. Inflation-Adjusted Price Has a Long Way to Go

One hint of silver’s potential is its inflation-adjusted price. I asked John Williams of Shadow Stats to calculate the silver price in June 2014 dollars (July data is not yet available).

Shown below is the silver price adjusted for both the CPI-U, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the price adjusted using ShadowStats data based on the CPI-U formula from 1980 (the formula has since been adjusted multiple times to keep the inflation number as low as possible).


The $48 peak in April 2011 was less than half the inflation-adjusted price of January 1980, based on the current CPI-U calculation. If we use the 1980 formula to measure inflation, silver would need to top $470 to beat that peak.

I’m not counting on silver going that high (at least I hope not, because I think there will be literal blood in the streets if it does), but clearly, the odds are skewed to the upside—and there’s a lot of room to run.

2. Silver Price vs. Production Costs

Producers have been forced to reduce costs in light of last year’s crash in the silver price. Some have done a better job at this than others, but check out how margins have narrowed.


Relative to the cost of production, the silver price is at its lowest level since 2005. Keep in mind that cash costs are only a portion of all-in expenses, and the silver price has historically traded well above this figure (all-in costs are just now being widely reported). That margins have tightened so dramatically is not sustainable on a long-term basis without affecting the industry. It also makes it likely that prices have bottomed, since producers can only cut expenses so much.

Although roughly 75% of silver is produced as a by-product, prices are determined at the margin; if a mine can’t operate profitably or a new project won’t earn a profit at low prices, the resulting drop in output would serve as a catalyst for higher prices. Further, much of the current costcutting has come from reduced exploration budgets, which will curtail future supply.

3. Low Inventories

Various entities hold inventories of silver bullion, and these levels were high when U.S. coinage contained silver. As all U.S. coins intended for circulation have been minted from base metals for decades, the need for high inventories is thus lower today. But this chart shows how little is available.


You can see how low current inventories are on a historical basis, most of which are held in exchange-traded products. This is important because these investors have been net buyers since 2005 and thus have kept that metal off the market. The remaining amount of inventory is 241 million ounces, only 25% of one year’s supply—whereas in 1990 it represented roughly eight times supply. If demand were to suddenly surge, those needs could not be met by existing inventories. In fact, ETP investors would likely take more metal off the market. (The “implied unreported stocks” refers to private and other unreported depositories around the world, another strikingly smaller number.)

If investment demand were to repeat the surge it saw from 2005 to 2009, this would leave little room for error on the supply side.

4. Conclusion of the Bear Market

This updated snapshot of six decades of bear markets signals that ours is near exhaustion. The black line represents silver’s decline from April 2011 through August 8, 2014.


The historical record suggests that buying silver now is a low-risk investment.

5. Cheap Compared to Other Commodities

Here’s how the silver price compares to other precious metals, along with the most common base metals.

Percent Change From…
1 Year Ago 5 Years Ago 10 Years
Ago
All-Time
High
Gold -2% 38% 234% -31%
Silver -6% 35% 239% -60%
Platinum 3% 20% 83% -35%
Palladium 14% 252% 238% -21%
Copper -4% 37% 146% -32%
Nickel 32% 26% 17% -64%
Zinc 26% 49% 128% -47%


Only nickel is further away from its all-time high than silver.

6. Low Mainstream Participation

Another indicator of silver’s potential is how much it represents of global financial wealth, compared to its percentage when silver hit $50 in 1980.


In spite of ongoing strong demand for physical metal, silver currently represents only 0.01% of the world’s financial wealth. This is one-twenty-fifth its 1980 level. Even that big price spike we saw in 2011 pales in comparison.

There’s an enormous amount of room for silver to become a greater part of mainstream investment portfolios.

7. Watch Out for China!

It’s not just gold that is moving from West to East….


Don’t look now, but the SHFE has overtaken the Comex and become the world’s largest futures silver exchange. In fact, the SHFE accounted for 48.6% of all volume last year. The Comex, meanwhile, is in sharp decline, falling from 93.4% market share as recently as 2001 to less than half that amount today.
And all that trading has led to a sharp decrease in silver inventories at the exchange. While most silver (and gold) contracts are settled in cash at the COMEX, the majority of contracts on the Shanghai exchanges are settled in physical metal. Which has led to a huge drain of silver stocks….


Since January 2013, silver inventories at the Shanghai Futures Exchange have fallen a remarkable 84% to a record low 148 tonnes. If this trend continues, the Chinese exchanges will experience a serious supply crunch in the not-too-distant future.

There’s more….
  • Domestic silver supply in China is expected to hit an all-time high and exceed 250 million ounces this year (between mine production, imports, and scrap). By comparison, it was less than 70 million ounces in 2000. However, virtually none of this is exported and is thus unavailable to the world market.
  • Chinese investors are estimated to have purchased 22 million ounces of silver in 2013, the second-largest amount behind India. It was zero in 1999.
  • The biggest percentage growth in silver applications comes from China. Photography, jewelry, silverware, electronics, batteries, solar panels, brazing alloys, and biocides uses are all growing at a faster clip in China than any other country in the world.
These are my top reasons for buying silver now.

Based on this review of big-picture data, what conclusion would you draw? If you’re like me, you’re forced to acknowledge that the next few years could be a very exciting time for silver investors.

Just like gold, our stash of silver will help us maintain our standard of living—but may be even more practical to use for small purchases. And in a high-inflation/decaying dollar scenario, the silver price is likely to exceed consumer price inflation, giving us further purchasing power protection.

The bottom line is that the current silver price should be seen as a long-term buying opportunity. This may or may not be our last chance to buy at these levels for this cycle, but if you like bargains, silver’s neon “Sale!” sign is flashing like a disco ball.

What am I buying? The silver bullion that’s offered at a discount in the current issue of BIG GOLD. You can even earn a free ounce of silver at another recommended dealer by signing up for their auto accumulation program, an easy way to build your portfolio while prices are low.

Check out the low-cost, no-risk BIG GOLD to capitalize on this opportune time in silver

The article Top 7 Reasons I’m Buying Silver Now was originally published at Casey Research


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Monday, August 11, 2014

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Single Most Important Strategy Most Investors Ignore

Jeff Clark, senior precious metals analyst for Casey Research, explains to skeptics why international diversification is so important.

The Single Most Important Strategy Most Investors Ignore

“If I scare you this morning, and as a result you take action, then I will have accomplished my goal.” That’s what I told the audience at the Sprott Natural Resource Symposium in Vancouver two weeks ago.

But the reality is that I didn’t need to try to scare anyone. The evidence is overwhelming and has already alarmed most investors; our greatest risk is not a bad investment but our political exposure.

And yet most of these same investors do not see any need to stash bullion outside their home countries. They view international diversification as an extreme move. Many don’t even care if capital controls are instituted.

I’m convinced that this is the most common—and important—strategic investment error made today. So let me share a few key points from my Sprott presentation and let you decide for yourself if you need to reconsider your own strategy. (Bolding for emphasis is mine.)

1: IMF Endorses Capital Controls

Bloomberg reported in December 2012 that the “IMF has endorsed the use of capital controls in certain circumstances.“

This is particularly important because the IMF, arguably an even more prominent institution since the global financial crisis started, has always had an official stance against capital controls. “In a reversal of its historic support for unrestricted flows of money across borders, the IMF said controls can be useful...”

Will individual governments jump on this bandwagon? “It will be tacitly endorsed by a lot of central banks,” says Boston University professor Kevin Gallagher. If so, it could be more than just your home government that will clamp down on storing assets elsewhere.

2: There Is Academic Support for Capital Controls

Many mainstream economists support capital controls. For example, famed Harvard Economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff wrote the following earlier this year:

Governments should consider taking a more eclectic range of economic measures than have been the norm over the past generation or two. The policies put in place so far, such as budgetary austerity, are little match for the size of the problem, and may make things worse. Instead, governments should take stronger action, much as rich economies did in past crises.

Aside from the dangerously foolish idea that reining in excessive government spending is a bad thing, Reinhart and Rogoff are saying that even more massive government intervention should be pursued. This opens the door to all kinds of dubious actions on the part of politicians, including—to my point today—capital controls.

“Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff suggest debt write-downs and ‘financial repression’, meaning the use of a combination of moderate inflation and constraints on the flow of capital to reduce debt burdens.”

The Reinhart and Rogoff report basically signals to politicians that it’s not only acceptable but desirable to reduce their debts by restricting the flow of capital across borders. Such action would keep funds locked inside countries where said politicians can plunder them as they see fit.

3: Confiscation of Savings on the Rise

“So, what’s the big deal?” Some might think. “I live here, work here, shop here, spend here, and invest here. I don’t really need funds outside my country anyway!”

Well, it’s self-evident that putting all of one’s eggs in any single basket, no matter how safe and sound that basket may seem, is risky—extremely risky in today’s financial climate.

In addition, when it comes to capital controls, storing a little gold outside one’s home jurisdiction can help avoid one major calamity, a danger that is growing virtually everywhere in the world: the outright confiscation of people’s savings.

The IMF, in a report entitled “Taxing Times,” published in October of 2013, on page 49, states:

“The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a capital levy—a one-off tax on private wealth—as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability.”

The problem is debt. And now countries with higher debt levels are seeking to justify a tax on the wealth of private citizens.

So, to skeptics regarding the value of international diversification, I would ask: Does the country you live in have a lot of debt? Is it unsustainable?

If debt levels are dangerously high, the IMF says your politicians could repay it by taking some of your wealth.

The following quote sent shivers down my spine…

The appeal is that such a task, if implemented before avoidance is possible and there is a belief that is will never be repeated, does not distort behavior, and may be seen by some as fair. The conditions for success are strong, but also need to be weighed against the risks of the alternatives, which include repudiating public debt or inflating it away.

The IMF has made it clear that invoking a levy on your assets would have to be done before you have time to make other arrangements. There will be no advance notice. It will be fast, cold, and cruel.

Notice also that one option is to simply inflate debt away. Given the amount of indebtedness in much of the world, inflation will certainly be part of the “solution,” with or without outright confiscation of your savings. (So make sure you own enough gold, and avoid government bonds like the plague.)

Further, the IMF has already studied how much the tax would have to be:

The tax rates needed to bring down public debt to pre-crisis levels are sizable: reducing debt ratios to 2007 levels would require, for a sample of 15 euro area countries, a tax rate of about 10% on households with a positive net worth.

Note that the criterion is not billionaire status, nor millionaire, nor even “comfortably well off.” The tax would apply to anyone with a positive net worth. And the 10% wealth-grab would, of course, be on top of regular income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, etc.
4: We Like Pension Funds

Unfortunately, it’s not just savings. Carmen Reinhart (again) and M. BelĂ©n Sbrancia made the following suggestions in a 2011 paper:

Historically, periods of high indebtedness have been associated with a rising incidence of default or restructuring of public and private debts. A subtle type of debt restructuring takes the form of ‘financial repression.’ Financial repression includes directed lending to government by captive domestic audiences (such as pension funds), explicit or implicit caps on interest rates, regulation of cross-border capital movements, and (generally) a tighter connection between government and banks.

Yes, your retirement account is now a “captive domestic audience.” Are you ready to “lend” it to the government? “Directed” means “compulsory” in the above statement, and you may not have a choice if “regulation of cross-border capital movements”—capital controls—are instituted.

5: The Eurozone Sanctions Money-Grabs

Germany’s Bundesbank weighed in on this subject last January:

“Countries about to go bankrupt should draw on the private wealth of their citizens through a one-off capital levy before asking other states for help.”

The context here is that of Germans not wanting to have to pay for the mistakes of Italians, Greeks, Cypriots, or whatnot. Fair enough, but the “capital levy” prescription is still a confiscation of funds from individuals’ banks or brokerage accounts.

Here’s another statement that sent shivers down my spine:

A capital levy corresponds to the principle of national responsibility, according to which tax payers are responsible for their government’s obligations before solidarity of other states is required.

The central bank of the strongest economy in the European Union has explicitly stated that you are responsible for your country’s fiscal obligations—and would be even if you voted against them! No matter how financially reckless politicians have been, it is your duty to meet your country’s financial needs.

This view effectively nullifies all objections. It’s a clear warning.

And it’s not just the Germans. On February 12, 2014, Reuters reported on an EU commission document that states:
The savings of the European Union’s 500 million citizens could be used to fund long-term investments to boost the economy and help plug the gap left by banks since the financial crisis.

Reuters reported that the Commission plans to request a draft law, “to mobilize more personal pension savings for long-term financing.”

EU officials are explicitly telling us that the pensions and savings of its citizens are fair game to meet the union’s financial needs. If you live in Europe, the writing is on the wall.
Actually, it’s already under way… Reuters recently reported that Spain has

…introduced a blanket taxation rate of .03% on all bank account deposits, in a move aimed at… generating revenues for the country’s cash-strapped autonomous communities.

The regulation, which could bring around 400 million euros ($546 million) to the state coffers based on total deposits worth 1.4 trillion euros, had been tipped as a possible sweetener for the regions days after tough deficit limits for this year and next were set by the central government.

Some may counter that since Spain has relatively low tax rates and the bail-in rate is small, this development is no big deal. I disagree: it establishes the principle, sets the precedent, and opens the door for other countries to pursue similar policies.

6: Canada Jumps on the Confiscation Bandwagon

You may recall this text from last year’s budget in Canada:

“The Government proposes to implement a bail-in regime for systemically important banks.”

A bail-in is what they call it when a government takes depositors’ money to plug a bank’s financial holes—just as was done in Cyprus last year.

This regime will be designed to ensure that, in the unlikely event a systemically important bank depletes its capital, the bank can be recapitalized and returned to viability through the very rapid conversion of certain bank liabilities into regulatory capital.

What’s a “bank liability”? Your deposits. How quickly could they do such a thing? They just told us: fast enough that you won’t have time to react.

By the way, the Canadian bail-in was approved on a national level just one week after the final decision was made for the Cyprus bail-in.

7: FATCA

Have you considered why the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act was passed into law? It was supposed to crack down on tax evaders and collect unpaid tax revenue. However, it’s estimated that it will only generate $8.7 billion over 10 years, which equates to 0.18% of the current budget deficit. And that’s based on rosy government projections.

FATCA was snuck into the HIRE Act of 2010, with little notice or discussion. Since the law will raise negligible revenue, I think something else must be going on here. If you ask me, it’s about control.

In my opinion, the goal of FATCA is to keep US savers trapped in US banks and in the US dollar, in case the US wants to implement a Cyprus-like bail-in. Given the debt load in the US and given statements made by government officials, this seems like a reasonable conclusion to draw.

This is why I think that the institution of capital controls is a “when” question, not an “if” one. The momentum is clearly gaining steam for some form of capital controls being instituted in the near future. If you don’t internationalize, you must accept the risk that your assets will be confiscated, taxed, regulated, and/or inflated away.

What to Expect Going Forward

  • First, any announcement will probably not use the words “capital controls.” It will be couched positively, for the “greater good,” and words like “patriotic duty” will likely feature prominently in mainstream press and government press releases. If you try to transfer assets outside your country, you could be branded as a traitor or an enemy of the state, even among some in your own social circles.
  • Controls will likely occur suddenly and with no warning. When did Cyprus implement their bail-in scheme? On a Friday night after banks were closed. By the way, prior to the bail-in, citizens were told the Cypriot banks had “government guarantees” and were “well-regulated.” Those assurances were nothing but a cruel joke when lightning-fast confiscation was enacted.
  • Restrictions could last a long time. While many capital controls have been lifted in Cyprus, money transfers outside the country still require approval from the Central Bank—over a year after the bail-in.
  • They’ll probably be retroactive. Actually, remove the word “probably.” Plenty of laws in response to prior financial crises have been enacted retroactively. Any new fiscal or monetary emergency would provide easy justification to do so again. If capital controls or savings confiscations were instituted later this year, for example, they would likely be retroactive to January 1. For those who have not yet taken action, it could already be too late.
  • Social environment will be chaotic. If capital controls are instituted, it will be because we’re in some kind of economic crisis, which implies the social atmosphere will be rocky and perhaps even dangerous. We shouldn’t be surprised to see riots, as there would be great uncertainty and fear. That’s dangerous in its own right, but it’s also not the kind of environment in which to begin making arrangements.
  • Ban vs. levy. Imposing capital controls is a risky move for a government to make; even the most reckless politicians understand this. That won’t stop them, but it could make them act more subtly. For instance, they might not impose actual bans on moving money across borders, but instead place a levy on doing so. Say, a 50% levy? That would “encourage” funds to remain inside a given country. Why not 100%? You could be permitted to transfer $10,000 outside the country—but if the fee for doing so is $10,000, few will do it. Such verbal games allow politicians to claim they have not enacted capital controls and yet achieve the same effect. There are plenty of historical examples of countries doing this very thing.
Keep in mind: Who will you complain to? If the government takes a portion of your assets, legally, who will you sue? You will have no recourse. And don’t expect anyone below your tax bracket to feel sorry for you.

No, once the door is closed, your wealth is trapped inside your country. It cannot move, escape, or flee. Capital controls allow politicians to do anything to your wealth they deem necessary.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a target. Our Going Global report provides all the vital information you need to build a personal financial base outside your home country. It covers gold ownership and storage options, foreign bank accounts, currency diversification, foreign annuities, reporting requirements, and much more. It’s a complete A to Z guide on how to diversify internationally.

Discover what solutions are right for you—whether you’re a big investor or small, novice or veteran, many options are available. I encourage you to pursue what steps are most appropriate for you now, before the door is closed.Learn more here…

The article The Single Most Important Strategy Most Investors Ignore was originally published at caseyresearch.



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

We’re Ready to Profit in the Coming Correction....Are You?

By Laurynas Vegys, Research Analyst

Sometimes I see an important economic or geopolitical event in screaming headlines and think: “That’s bullish for gold.” Or: “That’s bad news for copper.” But then metals prices move in the opposite direction from the one I was expecting. Doug Casey always tells us not to worry about the short term fluctuations, but it’s still frustrating, and I find myself wondering why the price moved the way it did.


As investors we’re all affected by surges and sell offs in the investments that we own, so I want to understand. Take gold, for example. Oftentimes we find that it seems to tease us with a nice run up, only to give a big chunk of the gains back the next week. And so it goes, up and down…..

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The truth is, and it really is this simple, but so obvious that people forget, that there are always rallies and corrections. The timing is rarely predictable, but big market swings within the longer term megatrends we’re speculating on are normal in our sector.

Since 2001, the gold price had 20 surges of 12% or greater, including the one that kick-started 2014. Even with last year’s seemingly endless “devil’s decline,” we got one surge. If we were to lower the threshold to 8%, there’d be a dozen more and an average of three per year, including two this year.


Here at Casey Research, we actually look forward to corrections. Why? We know we’ll pay less for our purchases—they’re great for new subscribers who missed the ground floor opportunities years ago.

This confidence, of course, is the product of decades of cumulative experience and due diligence. We’re as certain as any investor can ever be that today’s data and the facts of history back our speculations on the likely outcomes of government actions, including the future direction of the gold price.

When you keep your eye firmly on the ball of the major trends that guide us, you can see rallies and corrections for what they are: roller-coaster rides that give us opportunities to buy and take profits. This volatility is the engine of “buy low, sell high.” Understanding this empowers the contrarian psychology necessary to buy when prices on valuable assets tank, and to sell when they soar.

There have been plenty of opportunities to buy during the corrections in the current secular gold bull market. The following chart shows every correction of 6% or more since 2001.


As you can see, there have been 28 such corrections over the past 13 years—two per year, on average. Note that the corrections only outnumber surges because we used a lower threshold (6%). At the 12% threshold we used for surges, there wouldn’t be enough to show the somewhat periodic pattern we can see above. It’s also worth noting that our recent corrections fall well short of the sharp sell off in the crash of 2008.

Of course, there are periods when the gold price is flat, but the point is that these kinds of surges and corrections are common.

Now the question becomes: what exactly drives these fluctuations (and the price of gold in general)?
In tackling this, we need to recognize the fact that not all “drivers” are created equal. Some transient events, such as military conflicts, political crises, quarterly GDP reports, etc., trigger short-lived upswings or downturns (like some of those illustrated in the charts above). Others relate to the underlying trends that determine the direction of prices long term. Hint: the latter are much more predictable and reliable. Major financial, economic, and political trends don’t occur in a vacuum, so when they seem to become apparent overnight, it’s the people watching the fundamentals who tend to be least surprised.

Here are some of the essential trends we are tracking…...

The Demise of the US Dollar

Gold is priced around the world in United States dollars, so a stronger US dollar tends to push gold lower and a weaker US dollar usually drives gold higher. With the Fed’s money-printing machine (“quantitative easing”) having been left on full throttle for years, a weaker dollar ahead is a virtual certainty.

At the same time, the U.S. dollar’s status as reserve currency of the world is being pushed ever closer to the brink by the likes of Russia and China. Both have been making moves that threaten to dethrone the already precarious USD. In fact, a yuan-ruble swap facility that excludes the greenback as well as a joint ratings agency have already been set up between China and Russia.

The end of the USD’s reign as reserve currency of the world won’t end overnight, but the process has been set in motion. Its days are all but numbered.

The consequences are not favorable for the US and those living there, but they can be mitigated, or even turned into opportunities to profit, for those who see what’s coming. Specifically, this big league trend is extremely bullish for real, tangible assets, especially gold.

Out-of-Control Government Debt and Deficits

Readers who’ve been with us for a while know that another major trend destined for some sort of cataclysmic endgame can be seen in government fiscal policy: profligate spending, debt crises, currency crises, and ultimately currency regime change. This covers more than the demise of the USD as reserve currency of the world (as mentioned above); it also covers a loss of viability of the euro, and hyperinflationary outcomes for smaller currencies around the world as well.

It’s worth noting that government debt was practically nonexistent, by modern standards, halfway through the 20th century. It has seen a dramatic increase with the expansion of government spending, worldwide. The U.S. government has never been as deep in debt as it is today, with the exception of the periods of World War II and its immediate aftermath, having recently surpassed a 100% debt to GDP ratio.

Such an unmanageable debt load has made deficits even worse. Interest payments on debt compound, so in time, interest rates will come to dominate government spending. Neither the dollar nor the economy can survive such a massive imbalance so something is bound to break long before the government gets to the point where interest gobbles up 80%+ of the budget.

Gold Flowing from West to East

The most powerful trend specifically in gold during the past few years has been the tidal shift in the flow of gold from West to East. China and India are the names of the game with the former having officially overtaken the latter as the world’s largest buyer of gold in 2013. Last year alone, China imported over 1,000 tonnes of gold through Hong Kong and mined some 430 tonnes more.

China hasn’t updated its government holdings of gold since it announced it had 1,054 tonnes in 2009, but it’s plain to see that by now there is far more gold than that, whether in central bank vaults or private hands. Just adding together the known sources, China should have over 4,000 tonnes of monetary gold, and that’s a very conservative estimate. That would put China in second place in the world rankings of official gold holdings, trailing only the United States. The Chinese government supports this accumulation of gold, so this can be seen as a step toward making the Chinese renminbi a world currency, which would have a lot more behind it than U.S. T-bills.

India presents just as strong a bullish case, if only slightly tainted with Indian government’s relentless crusade to rein in the country’s current account deficit by maintaining the outrageously high (i.e., 10%) import duty on gold and silver. Of course, this just means more gold smuggling, which casts official Indian stats into question, as more and more of the industry moves into the black and grey markets. World Gold Council research estimates that 75% of Indian households would either continue or increase their gold buying in 2014. Even without gold-friendly policies in place, this figure is extremely bullish for gold and in line with the big picture we’re betting on.

So What?

Nobody can predict when the next rally will occur nor the depth of the next sell-off. I can promise you this: as an investor you’ll be much happier about those surges if you stick to buying during the corrections. But it has to be for the right reasons, i.e., buying when prices drop below reasonable (if not objective) valuation, and selling when they rise above it. Focusing on the above fundamental trends and not worrying about short-term triggers can help.

Profiting from these trends is what we dedicate ourselves to here. Under current market conditions, that means speculating on the best mining stocks that offer leverage to the price of gold.

Here’s what I suggest: test drive the International Speculator for 3 months with a full money back guarantee, and if it’s not everything you expected, just cancel for a prompt, courteous refund of every penny you paid. Click Here to get Started Now.



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Saturday, July 26, 2014

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When All You Have Left Is the Cost of Breakfast at McDonald’s

By Dennis Miller

When I was 20 years old, I sat through my first day of a business law course at Northwestern University. The professor began by writing two words on the blackboard (in the prehistoric days of blackboards and chalk): Caveat emptor. He raised his voice and said, “Let the buyer beware!” I’m here to echo his warning, but this time it’s about annuities.


Annuities are at the top of the list of complicated products that often profit insurance companies without adequately compensating the buyer in return. Put plainly, sometimes you don’t get what you thought you paid for.

And, while annuities are often described as a “transfer of risk,” which is basically correct, owning an annuity will not transfer the risk of one of the greatest hazard’s to a retiree’s financial security: inflation. Inflation isn’t the only risk to worry about—lack of liquidity and insurance company default should also top your list of concerns—but it can be the most treacherous for someone with an annuity heavy portfolio.

Will an annuity protect your lifestyle? In the short term, it might. If you believe the Federal Reserve when it says it will keep inflation at 2% or less, perhaps it will for a period of time. Even then, inflation will eat away at the buying power of your annuity payout fairly quickly. You are contractually guaranteed income; however, that does not guarantee your lifestyle.

To see the effect, my analysts and I charted the purchasing power of a single premium immediate lifetime annuity with installment refund, which pays $583.33 per month. We’ve compared several inflation scenarios: the currently tame 2% inflation rate; the long run average of about 3%; and the possibility of things getting considerably worse at 7% inflation. We’re not even talking about hyperinflation—just reasonable estimates.


Even at the low 2% inflation rate, your $583.33 benefit would only have the purchasing power of $392.56 after 20 years. In the 7% inflation scenario, the purchasing power would be down to $150.74. Let’s put this into context.

The average U.S. electricity bill is around $103.67. The average cellphone bill is $111. According to the USDA, an elderly household of two that’s being extremely thrifty could get its monthly grocery bill down to as low as $357.30 per month. In total, that’s $571.97 – leaving just enough for a McDonald’s breakfast.

Right off the bat, that isn’t so bad. The annuity takes care of the cellphones, the electricity, the groceries, and leaves a little extra. However, after 20 years at 2% inflation and a purchasing power of $392.56, the benefit would only be enough to pay for the thrifty grocery budget, leaving only $35.26 left over. Though your annuity benefits are the same, prices have risen, so now you have less purchasing power.

After 20 years of 3% inflation, it gets even worse. With $219.85 in purchasing power, you’ll have to weigh either purchasing 2/3 of your usual groceries against paying the electricity and phones. You won’t be able to do it all. By the third year, you will need to add funds to your annuity payment to cover those expenses.

And under the 7% scenario, you’ll only be able to pay for the electricity bill with less than $50 in purchasing power left over. That’s hardly the lifetime income most annuity buyers had in mind.

Furthermore, consider that our assumptions are a little optimistic. In all likelihood, your electricity and grocery bills will probably rise faster than the rate of inflation. If that’s the case, then you’d be in real trouble.
So, while annuities promise guaranteed income, they certainly do not guarantee what that income will afford you in the future.

Annuity policies can be structured with inflation protection, but those options are expensive in terms of the lower initial payments. With benefits starting so much lower, you would have to live an exceptionally long time to make them work out.

Depending on your circumstances, an annuity might play a useful role in your long-term financial plans. There is much to be said for transferring some risk to a quality insurance company. However, transfering one risk without planning for another could be catastrophic. Even something like a 5% inflation rider might not protect you if higher inflation rates become a reality. If a considerable portion of your portfolio is in annuities, then another portion needs to be balanced to fight inflation, with holdings such as precious metals.

While it’s impossible to make the risk of inflation go away, there are a few simple things you can do to minimize it:
  • Never hold a very large portion of your portfolio in annuities. If high inflation picks up you could be entirely cleaned out.
  • If you’re holding annuities, make sure that another part of your portfolio is geared to hedge against inflation.
Now, I’m not shouting caveat emptor just for the heck of it. As a retirement advocate and senior editor at Miller’s Money Forever my mandate is transparent financial education for seniors, conservative investors and anyone serious about building a rich retirement. That’s why my team of analysts and I have put together a free, comprehensive special report called Annuities De-Mystified—Three Simple Tools for Choosing the Right Annuity.

Get the full truth on annuities by downloading your complimentary copy of Annuities De-Mystified today.


Another must read from Adam J. Crawford....The Rise of Africa… and How To Play It
 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Beware of Flashy Stock Repurchases When The Market Is on The Rise

By Andrey Dashkov

Retail giant Bed Bath & Beyond just announced plans to buy back another $2 billion in shares, which the company will start doing after it completes its current share repurchase program. You’ve seen it before: Press releases emphasize that buybacks return value to shareholders, analysts sometimes rely on repurchases to spot a stock to write up next, and management likes to tout their focus on shareholder returns. But what’s the real story? Why would a company buy its own shares?


There are but a few situations when returning cash to shareholders instead of paying dividends or investing in new projects is prudent:
  • The company has largely exhausted investment opportunities that would generate a positive net present value (NPV).
  • The stock is trading below its intrinsic value; or
  • The tax on dividends is so high compared to the capital gains tax that it makes sense to boost the share price and let shareholders enjoy the extra return instead of receiving heavily taxed dividends.
When these situations happen we support repurchases. In the reality, however, managers often have their own reasons to buy back shares; let’s look at the more popular ones.

First, management’s compensation is often based on share price performance or earnings based metrics like earnings per share (EPS), which buybacks are designed to boost.

Second, higher share price increases the value of a company’s options. Managers are often shareholders, too, but unlike you and me, they have direct access to the Treasury. When managers own a lot of their own company’s stock, they may have too much skin in the game. This may skew their preferences toward increasing the share price at the expense of long term business growth.

Third, share buybacks became a standard (and often abused) signal to the market that: a) the company’s stock is undervalued, and b) that management takes care of the shareholders. Both of these statements may be correct in isolation, based on the company’s fundamentals and management practices. Nonetheless, a buyback should not convince you that either is true.

One additional reason is often overlooked. Many a CEO has been fired for an acquisition that did not work out. When the decision is made to dump the acquisition, it is accompanied by a write off against earnings, sometimes worth billions of dollars. Wall Street armchair quarterbacks are quick to point out how much better off shareholders would have been if they had just paid out what they lost in dividends. Buying back company shares, with all the accompanied hoopla, is less likely to be a career threatening move.

Linking the two subjects together makes for nice copy; however, keep it in perspective. For example, a technology company that realizes their product line is becoming obsolete will often make acquisitions to increase their product line market share, or move them into a new business with long term potential. Buying back company stock, then having to go into the market and borrow at high interest rates, might be the exact wrong move. The key is making the right acquisitions for the company to continue to grow and pay dividends for the next generation.

In fact, managers have proven to be pretty bad stock pickers even when they have only one stock to pick. As my colleague Chris Wood showed in A Look at Stock Buybacks, managements have bought shares of their own companies at pretty bad times in the past. Moreover, the expectations of higher valuation based on higher EPS did not always materialize. Even though a lot of investors use P/E as their main gauge of value (which they shouldn’t), there is no convincing evidence that buybacks can support high valuation multiples in the long term.

Your Bottom Line

 

History has shown that the only value-creating buybacks were the ones carried out when stocks were deeply undervalued. In those instances, the repurchases helped companies outperform the market. But overall the optimism and confidence inducing press releases that accompany buybacks should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

As a rule of thumb, beware of increased buybacks when the market is on the rise (everybody is an investment guru when everything is going up) or when management compensation is closely tied to the share price performance or earnings based metrics. Companies with better corporate governance may fare better when it comes to managing conflicts of interest, but there is a significant vested interest there that investors should be aware of. Don’t mistake noise for a sign is all.

When it comes to returning value to shareholders, we appreciate companies that invest in long term projects—or pay dividends. Despite the potential tax implications, the yield strapped investors may be better served with a special dividend these days than with a promise of a better price in the future.

Learn more ways to cut through press rhetoric by signing up for our free weekly e-letter, Miller’s Money Weekly, where my colleagues and I share timely financial insight tailored for seniors and conservative investors alike.

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