Investment Update: Recession Fears, Japan Stocks, Crypto Crash

It’s been a year…

November 2021 was when we heard the first whispers of the Federal Reserve reversing course and hiking interest rates. The very smart few realised right then that risk assets were heading for trouble and made their way to the exit. For the rest of us, things weren’t looking so bad. Tech stocks were hitting home runs, Bitcoin was over $56,000. Christmas was coming!

It always looks so clear in hindsight. Risk assets were, of course, swimming in a giant pool of liquidity. Low interest rates, massive covid stimulus, glorious liquidity! And the spectre of inflation, caused by that very excess, was about to prompt the Fed to drain the pool. The onset of war in Ukraine certainly did not help the cause, but those who blame Putin for the economic state we are in are (sometimes deliberately) missing the big picture. If there’s a lesson we can all learn from this year, it’s that liquidity drives markets. When central banks are cutting and keeping rates low, risk assets make money. When they start increasing rates, and draining that liquidity, look out below.

Risk-off assets have not behaved well either thus far. Your typical 60/40 stocks/bonds portfolio is down almost 20% year to date. Even well-diversified investors haven’t really escaped the pain, but that’s how it can go when liquidity is sucked out of the market. One of the few bright spots this year has been energy, and that one does have more to do with President Putin than underlying economic conditions.

When’s the recession?

‘A recession is a significant, widespread, and prolonged downturn in economic activity. A common rule of thumb is that two consecutive quarters of negative gross domestic product (GDP) growth mean recession, although more complex formulas are also used.’Investopedia

Talk of recession has been swirling for some time, with governments even accused of changing the definition above to prevent the mood from getting too dark. The consensus view is that much of the world will be in recession for some part of 2023. It’s more of a when than an if thing, although the severity of the coming downturn is yet unknown. Unsurprisingly, stocks do not fare well during recessions – when income and employment decline, companies struggle to stay profitable.

Recessions are, however, usually accompanied by the cutting of rates and at some point, a trough is formed and both the economy and stock prices begin to recover. There’s that liquidity we’ve been thirsty for!

For those who can afford it, recession offers an opportunity for careful accumulation of growth assets. There is no need to try to catch the absolute bottom, just keep adding to your long-term positions.

What about Japan?

As discussed in previous posts, Japan has avoided the worst of the inflation that has caused so much trouble this year. This, coupled with the Bank of Japan’s commitment to continue providing massive liquidity, has also sheltered the stock market from a lot of damage, albeit at the cost of the yen. I have been buying Japan dividend stocks on dips throughout the year and am pleased to find myself in positive performance territory, with some nice dividend payments to boot. The capital gains can, of course, disappear quite quickly, but the dividends will still be paid.

Warren Buffet clearly sees something in Japan, as Berkshire Hathaway has just raised its stakes in the 5 major trading houses to more than 6%. This is a serious long-term investor who says he may not be done buying yet. (see Reuters article) Who would have thought that Japan would look so attractive in a year like this?

For a foreign resident, trapped in yen due to currency weakness, there are some pretty good options here to outperform inflation over the next few years. See my previous post for ideas.

Crypto really is dead this time, huh?

My thoughts on crypto winter were laid out pretty clearly in my Bitcoin is Dead post. It was always going to be ugly but wow…just wow! I’m not going to dig into the details of the crimes and insolvencies because if you’re interested you already know, and if you’re not you don’t care. Suffice it to say that human greed and leverage will always be a bad mix when liquidity dries up.

So is it all over this time? Of course, it is not. The Bitcoin protocol is no more affected by all the drama than it is by the outcome of the World Cup. Companies have blown up, and people have lost money, but Bitcoin didn’t do it to them. The protocol keeps churning out blocks, the next halving is around April 2024, and things will get interesting again after that.

If you know what you are doing, now is the time to average into BTC. It’s another accumulation game. If you want to study up during the winter, check out Jameson Lopp’s treasure trove of information and resources.

Also, take a look at this incredible chart from CryptoShadow:

And this one from Fidelity:

Lessons in crypto frequently have to be learned through painful experience, but if you are not learning them, you shouldn’t be involved. Here are my main takeaways from recent events:

  • Do not leave your coins on the exchange unless you are actively trading, no matter how high-profile the exchange may be. Learn to self-custody or research multisig solutions. Find what works best for you and use it.
  • Stay away from services offering interest on your crypto – they will make a comeback at some point and they are a massive house of cards. Locking up your coins with a centralised institution for a yield means you cannot move them when the rumours start and you go down with the ship.

Also a word on the other project you should be following. Since its merge and transition to proof of stake, the issuance of Ethereum has dropped significantly. The network that is likely to power the majority of NFTs and DeFi being deflationary, in a market as weak as this, is actually quite remarkable. We all need some hope during crypto winter and if I was going to pin it anywhere it would be on Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

The Weak Yen – Where to Invest in Japan Today

Source: xe.com

The chart says it all. The Yen is toast, brown bread even, if you know your cockney rhyming slang. Talking to people about money, as I do, I keep hearing the same refrain: “With markets down it seems like a good time to invest, but I don’t want to convert yen at this rate.” I feel your pain, I really do. I feel it so strongly that I needed to sit down and bash out some ideas to help us all get through this. Where do you invest if you are holding JPY at a time like this?

First of all, if you are wondering how we got here, please take a peek at my article on The Weak Yen Dilemma from April. In short, America is raising interest rates to fight inflation, Japan does not want to raise rates, so money seeking a “low risk” return goes from JPY to USD and hey presto, 145 yen to the dollar! Secondly, we are really talking about USD strength here rather than Yen weakness. If your base currency is GBP, for example, nothing much has changed for you as the pound has taken, well, for want of a better word, a pounding against the mighty dollar too.

If you are a dollar investor though, there is little doubt: If you hold yen you are pretty much stuck with it until inflation eases and Jay Powell backs off on rate increases. It most likely will take a recession, or at least a short-term panic in markets, before we see this though so there is still a way to go. So what are you going to do with your yen? Leave it sitting in the bank earning nothing with Japan inflation at 3%, and other developed market inflation at 8-10%? Below are a few ideas to get you thinking. For the most part, you will need a Japan brokerage account to access these opportunities. Als0 kindly note, below I am going to name actual investments, stocks, ETFs etc. that I feel are worth investigating in this environment. I have positions in some of these already, and will likely buy others soon. This is not an invitation to jump in blindly, get burned, and blame me for it! If central bankers ditch this jetliner in the ocean, we’re all going to get wet! Do your own research and know your own tolerance for risk. With that said, let’s brainstorm a little.

The Tourists are Coming Back Baby!

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will be aware that Japan finally re-opens to tourists on October 11th. This time it’s for real – no tour group requirement, no daily limit. Put on your mask and get ready for it! So what kind of businesses are going to be happy to see the return of the horde?

Airlines are an obvious one. JAL (9201) and ANA (9202)stock have already pumped in anticipation so I think we’re a little late here. Plus the cost of fuel is a bit of a concern. No reason they won’t continue to do well, but I’m not feeling the airlines.

Hotels are also obvious, but I like them a little more. In case you didn’t know, it’s really easy to get exposure to hotels in a Japan brokerage account. Check out Japan Hotel REIT Investment Corporation (8985), Invincible Investment Corporation (8963), and the Ichigo Hotel REIT Investment Corporation (3463). As business comes back these REITs should start paying a better income, and there’s room for a little growth too.

The winter ski season is shaping up to be a big one, with revenge tourists from Australia and elsewhere itching to get back to Japan’s ski fields. It may not sound like the most exciting company, but Nippon Parking Development Co. Ltd (2353) operates ski resorts and theme parks and is worthy of research.

Holiday-makers in Japan need to get around, and they love to shop, so the likes of Tobu Railway Co. Ltd (9001) and Hankyu Hanshin Holdings Inc (9042) do a great job of covering both. These companies also operate numerous hotels and leisure facilities, so will be looking forward to the reopening. Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings (3099) is another big department store operator.

Whether Chinese tourists will be able to travel freely due to Covid restrictions is still a question, but once they come back you know how much they love tax-free shopping in Japan. They particularly like to stock up on electronics and are also renowned for shopping heavily at drug stores. Bic Camera Inc. (3048) and Laox Co Ltd (8202) cover the former, with Sundrug Co. Ltd (9989) and Tsuruha Holdings (3391) leading the drug store operators. Another big favourite with tourists are the colourful Don Quijote stores, operated by Pan Pacific International Holdings Corp (7532)

Japan boasts some of the best food and drink in the world, but you know the tourists love The Hub! Hub Co. Ltd (3030) has had a torrid time the past two years and will be looking to recover strongly, especially with the opportunity to screen the Football World Cup coming up in November. I have owned Hub stock for much longer than I probably should, and it’s just hovering around my average buy price now, so let’s all hope I’m right about this one!

Mmmmm Dividends

John D. Rockefeller sure did love his dividends, and so should you. If you are stuck in Yen and trying to keep up with inflation, Japanese Government Bonds are not going to do it for you. Get yourself some dividend stocks and hold on to them. If you are looking for the easy way to do this, just find yourself a Japan dividend stock ETF and buy that. Then maybe check out their top ten holdings and see if there is anything there you want to own directly. This is exactly what I did with the Next Funds Nikkei 225 High Dividend Yield stock 50 ETF (1489)

Who Else Benefits?

Put on your thinking cap and consider what other businesses benefit from a weak yen. Exporters are an obvious beneficiary, which in Japan generally means, but is not limited to, automakers. A few months back a friend of mine tipped me off that he was interested in a high-end Tokyo residential property REIT, given that foreign buyers are going to love Tokyo property at 145 yen to the dollar. That made sense to me, especially as it pays over 4% income. Sekisui House REIT Inc. (3309) is the one if you want to take a look, but remember, my friend won’t take responsibility for your decisions any more than I will!

Get Me Out of Fiat!

If you are paying attention to what is going on, you will realise that as the Yen, Pound and Euro are beaten down, eventually the US Dollar will suffer the same fate. This is not likely to end well for Fiat Currency. So buy yourself some insurance. Get an allocation to gold, and if you have the risk tolerance, Bitcoin too.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Hope it provokes some thought. Do your own research, make your own decisions, further disclaimer below blah blah blah!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Japan – Is a Cost of Living Crisis Looming?

Inflation, inflation, inflation. If you have been reading the financial news, or even just the regular news, you will have heard a lot about the rise in the cost of goods and services this year. From the US to Europe, politicians have been desperately trying to shift the blame for the crisis away from their own central bank’s unprecedented money printing to the President of Russia. Whether they get away with such misdirection is yet to be seen, but President Putin himself is having none of it, as you can tell from this excerpt from one of his speeches.

Putin, while clearly not deserving of support, is absolutely right that Europe and the US have created this mess for themselves, and there is no doubt that he is now exploiting this weakness by regulating the flow of gas into Europe, making for a very uncomfortable winter ahead for Germany in particular, and the rest of Europe and the UK also. I didn’t realise until I read this BBC article that “A younger Vladimir Putin did his PhD thesis on the importance of Russian energy exports.” The Germans should have seen this coming a long way out. Having pumped up the money supply, and also made themselves dependent on cheap Russian energy, the EU and UK leadership have some gall to refer to the current situation as a “cost of living” crisis…

However, the goal of this post is not to discuss geopolitics. As a resident of Japan, I am interested in knowing if the inflation monster is lurking in Tokyo Bay, ready to go Godzilla on the Japanese consumer? As fellow Japan residents are well aware, Japan has not seen inflation in decades, and, as noted in Japan Mortgages – Fixed or Floating?, Bank of Japan boss Kuroda-san threw everything but the kitchen sink at the problem in order to reach the magic 2% mark. Now, with inflation at 2.5%, the yen at 25-year lows against the dollar, and the rest of the world facing a food and energy crisis, you can’t help wondering if prices aren’t going much much higher.

Of course, when it comes to the big questions of economics, the only correct answer is that no one knows. Financial journalists and macro gurus generally have a bleak outlook for Japan. With the US Federal Reserve still intent on raising rates to fight inflation there, the yen looks anything but safe at the 140 level, and a weaker yen could mean higher imported inflation. Another spike in energy prices due to the Russia / Ukraine situation and things could get expensive quickly.

Interestingly though, there is an optimist in our midst. Jesper Koll, according to his profile, is an economist, strategist, angel investor, patron, producer, and yes, a Japan optimist. A resident of Japan since 1986, and with experience at two major US investment banks, he has a new substack titled, of course, Japan Optimist. And it was there I found his July post titled: Who’s afraid of inflation? Not Japan

I encourage you to read the post yourself, but here’s a short summary:

There are two reasons that Japan is less impacted by inflation than other developed countries, for example, the United States:

  1. The government here is not afraid to intervene in markets to preserve the purchasing power of the people. About one-quarter of goods and services are subject to government regulation, which effectively means price controls. This goes for health care, education, transport, and staple foods. This year surging gasoline prices have been kept under control by government intervention
  2. At the same time, Japan’s domestic industrial structure is much more cut-throat competitive. In the US, the big players control twice as large a share of the manufacturing and service industries. Japan is more fragmented and competitive, and that competition keeps prices low.

Jesper notes that the Japanese government not only considers it important to protect citizens from economic shocks, but it also has the necessary parliamentary majority to act far more quickly than the US government is able to. So unlike in the US, where the Federal Reserve is having to fight inflation on its own, the Bank of Japan gets plenty of backing from the government.

Japan’s government and economic system comes in for so much bashing in the media that it’s almost shocking to hear from someone as positive as Jesper. And once more I’ll remind you that no one really knows how the global inflation issue will play out, here or abroad. However, the lack of polarization over every issue certainly puts Japan in a better position to take action than much of the western world.

From a financial planning perspective, inflation is something you should always be concerned about. I would argue that the whole point of investing is to at least keep pace with, and preferably outperform, the rise in the cost of goods and services over time. To put it another way, it’s all about preserving and increasing spending power. Remember, it’s not the cost of things that is going up, it’s the value of money that is going down. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, beating inflation in your base currency is the name of the game. Whether inflation in Japan gets worse or not, if you are going to spend the money in Australia, saving and investing in JPY does not really help you.

If you are planning to stay in Japan long term and JPY is your base currency, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself against inflation:

  1. Keep an emergency cash reserve – make sure you have a buffer in case prices increase more than expected.
  2. Invest – anything surplus to your cash reserve can be invested for the medium to long term, whether it’s NISA, iDeCo, a brokerage account, ETFs, dividend stocks, REITS, gold. You are not going to preserve your spending power sitting in JPY cash.
  3. Expect volatility – you need to be mentally prepared that your investments are unlikely to just go up in a straight line in this environment. Remember you are trying to beat inflation over time, not in the next 6 months.

Finally, if you enjoyed a bit of optimism for a change I recommend checking out Human Progress. Their Twitter account is here. With all the doom-scrolling it’s sometimes nice to be reminded how much progress we have made as a species!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

The Yen and the Dollar Milkshake Theory

Back in April I wrote about the weakness in the Japanese Yen and how it can affect life and the economy here. Since then, I’ve noticed that in relation to the Pound and the Euro, the yen really hasn’t moved quite so much. In fact, both of those currencies have also dropped significantly against one other currency: the mighty US Dollar.

This reminded me of a term that keeps cropping up in my reading, and led me to take a closer look at the Dollar Milkshake Theory. Developed by Brent Johnson, AKA Santiago Capital, the theory envisages a scenario that appears to be playing out before our very eyes, whereby rapid USD appreciation sucks liquidity into the US and destabilizes world markets

This 6 minute Video provides a brilliantly simple explainer on what the Dollar Milkshake is and how it could play out.

A huge “milkshake” of liquidity has been created by global central banks, who have injected some $20 trillion in various currencies into the global economy since 2008. And everyone needs dollars. Whether it is to trade in commodities, shore up currency reserves, or to pay interest on USD debt: China needs dollars, Europe needs dollars, and Japan needs dollars. Despite significant money printing in America in the last decade there is still a shortage of dollars. Other countries have also been printing their own currencies in similar amounts. The demand for dollars is, quite simply, outstripping the supply.

More important even than the availability of dollars, is the rate of change in the level of the dollar. If that level rises too fast, then problems start popping up all over the world. That’s when countries like Sri Lanka and El Salvador start showing up in the news. When things get bad and the dollar rises rapidly, the rest of the world needs to print more and more of its own currency to convert to dollars to pay for goods and service its dollar debt. This means the dollar keeps on rising, forcing other countries to devalue their own currencies, which in turn makes the dollar rise further. And because in this environment the US looks like a safe haven, capital is sucked into the country which again pushes the dollar higher. Sooner or later we end up with a full on sovereign bond and currency crisis, which is bad news for the whole world, the US included.

Long periods of dollar strength have often ended with major financial dislocations, like the Asian crisis of 1997, so if the dollar continues to rise we could see some extreme volatility in markets.

So what does this mean for the Yen? Well, having just broken through a 40 year support line, things are looking pretty treacherous for JPY. We are probably near a point where, if the yen continues to fall against the dollar, we may see the first Japanese intervention in the currency markets in over a decade. You have to go back even further to find the last time Japan sold USD/JPY in order to support a weak yen, and guess what? It was in 1998 during the Asian Financial Crisis, when the USD/JPY was trading at 145. Note, we’re at 138 today…

As the title suggests, the Dollar Milkshake is just a theory. There is no guarantee that things actually play out this way, but there is a reasonable probability that we will witness what Raoul Pal calls a “dollar wrecking ball” scenario either now, or in the next few years. So how do you invest in an environment like this?

First and foremost, as I stressed in the Weak Yen Dilemma, know your base currency. Being in the wrong currency can sometimes hurt you more than a fall in investment value. On the other hand, if you hold dollars, but you are planning to spend the money in yen, you are looking at a golden opportunity to bring some money into Japan.

Secondly, remain diversified. With inflation still on the rise, this is not a good time to be sitting in cash, but it’s not a time for excessive risk either. If things get crazy that little bit of gold and silver (and maybe even Bitcoin) in your portfolio could come in handy.

If you want to be a little tactical, one area to avoid is emerging market debt. These are the countries that often issue dollar denominated debt, and are going to struggle to meet interest payments in a rising dollar environment. So maybe stay away from emerging market debt ETFs / funds for the time being.

Lastly, I think it’s key to stay patient. Extremes in markets do not last forever and reversion to the mean occurs eventually, milkshake or no milkshake.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Japan Mortgages – Fixed or Floating?

I know….

Things are heating up in Japan in more ways than one. Scrolling through Twitter I have recently seen a lot of chatter about what is happening to the yen and the Japanese economy, so I tried a little sentiment check and ran a Twitter poll as follows:

I was genuinely surprised to see fixed win this one so easily. Of course there is no wrong answer, and your choice depends a lot on your attitude to risk and overall financial confidence. However, there is also an element of prediction involved. Will mortgage rates increase in the years to come? If so, by how much? If rates pop up over 1.5%, you’re suddenly going to wish you had taken that fixed rate deal. A variable rate mortgage in the US is around 5.2% now and rising. Imagine that in Japan! Seven years ago, when we bought our house, my wife and I bit the bank’s hand off for a floating rate loan. No way were rates going up in our lifetime! I’m fairly sure we would still make the same choice now, but we would certainly think about it a little more…

So why the hesitation? Everyone knows that interest rates in Japan have been near zero for a quarter of a century, and raising them, even a little, would lead to financial chaos. Well, as the US and Europe are raising rates in order to fight inflation, suddenly all eyes are on the one country that hasn’t blinked yet. And right there in the spotlight is Haruhiko Kuroda, Governor of the Bank of Japan. Since his nomination in 2013, Kuroda has spearheaded the BOJ’s loose monetary policy and, despite accusations from the west of deliberately weakening the yen to favor Japanese exporters, he has always maintained that his policy goal is the break out of deflation by targeting the magic 2% inflation level. In pursuit of this target the Bank of Japan has employed both quantitive and qualitative easing, meaning it has not only purchased vast quantities of government bonds, but also stocks and REITs. 2016 saw the start of yield curve control and negative interest rates. Yes everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown at the deflation problem and guess what? It finally worked!

You would think that reaching the holy grail of 2% inflation (actually it stands at 2.5% right now) would be greeted with celebrations, however over the past 25 years the Japanese populace has gotten rather used to things staying much the same price. Wages have also remained stagnant, making people rather sensitive to price hikes, as Kuroda himself found recently after remarking that households were “becoming more accepting of price rises”. The rebuke from the public was swift and clear: times are tough in the households of Japan.

And so the global media has begun to speculate over what comes next. The rise in rates in the US in particular has made the yen less attractive and it has quickly slid as far as 136 yen to the dollar, a 24 year low. What’s more, Japanese bond yields have been surging, with the Bank of Japan deploying vast amounts of money to defend its 0.25% yield curve control target. It appears that Kuroda-san can save the bond market or the yen, but not both. Given the massive JGB holdings held in pensions alone, you can bet it will be the bond market.

Now it’s being reported that a $127 billion hedge fund called BlueBay is attempting to pull a Soros by attacking the BOJ’s yield curve control position in an effort to force it to adjust its monetary policy.

It all sounds a little scary, doesn’t it?

It is not, however, the BOJ’s first rodeo. Betting against the central bank has long been known as the widowmaker trade. And many widows have been made in the last 20 years. It turns out that bringing a knife to a bazooka fight is not a smart move.

Japan’s debt to GDP is estimated to be around 248%, the highest in the world. Proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) will argue that as long as the fiscal deficit spending leads to an increase in the share of GDP retained by households, the funding of the debt is not an issue. However, who trusts the government to make sure the money ends up in the right places? After all, this is the country that just spent 1.42 trillion yen on the Olympics. How many households felt the benefit of that I wonder? And what is the the next sector up for a big spending spree in Japan? Defense…

So can you really just keep printing more money to pay back the debt? It looks like we are going to find out at some point, but we may be surprised how long this seemingly unsustainable status-quo can be maintained. Fresh after making a killing betting on the European debt crisis a decade or so ago, Kyle Bass turned his attention to the widowmaker trade, memorably declaring investing in Japanese stocks as “picking up dimes in front of a bulldozer”. However the bulldozer still hasn’t rumbled into town and Kyle has moved on to other trades. Inflation at 2.5% hardly calls for drastic action when the US is at 8.5%, but that can change.

So if you have a floating rate mortgage can you relax for now? Most likely yes, you have nothing to worry about in the near future. The BOJ is clearly ready to do whatever it takes to keep rates where they are. At some point further down the line though, that could lead to a continued weakening of the yen, which in turn would bring a rise in “imported inflation” as the cost of foreign goods would continue to grow in yen terms. If that gets bad enough then something drastic will have to be done…

In the short term, a drop in inflation later this year would certainly take the pressure off Kuroda-san somewhat, and Jerome Powell too for that matter!

Let’s all hope “This is fine”…

My Twitter poll, of course, only offered two options and, as people rightly pointed out in the comments, you can mix fixed and floating rate mortgages. 10 years fixed and floating after that is quite typical in Japan. If you do have a floating rate, it is always a good idea to save up money separately so you have the option to pay the loan off quicker if rates were to rise. For fixed rate mortgages you can also check if you are eligible for Flat 35.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Bitcoin is Dead!

Finally, it’s over. For the 449th time, Bitcoin has been pronounced dead. You can forget about it now. If you sold yours last year, well done. If you were a sceptic all along and never owned any, congratulations. You have been proven correct! RIP BTC…

If bear markets in stocks are not depressing enough, crypto winters are a dank, cold graveyard. You don’t want to be there at night, shivering and hearing strange noises. Unless you are me and have cheerfully been nosing around Bitcoin Obituaries and Bitcoinisdead.org in search of proof of capitulation. Personally, I’ve only experienced one crypto winter to date, that of 2018/19, but it all looks very familiar around here at the moment.

First a disclaimer: I am not a “Bitcoiner”. In fact, I find the majority of Bitcoin cheerleaders mildly annoying at best. I’m not an OG, a cypherpunk, or a crypto bro. I’m a financial planner by trade and an investor learning on the job. I’m interested in markets and money, which involves a fair amount of poking around and peering into the future. I don’t believe Bitcoin is going to fix the world’s problems, but I think it will change some things. And right now, I think it is on sale.

Imagine being an investor and not having even one dollar invested in an asset that looks like this:

Now imagine being a financial journalist tasked with writing about an asset that looks like this:

Source: @cryptohayes

When the Director of Global Macro at Fidelity is posting charts like the first one, it is hard for me not to be quietly bullish. And with the regular dramatic drawdowns illustrated in the second chart, it’s hard for the financial media not to declare Bitcoin dead over and over again.

So should you really care about Bitcoin? Not unless you want to. There are far more important things in the world to devote your energy to. How about if you are an investor, trying to increase the value of your savings in the face of mounting inflation? Well, probably then yes, you should care, at least a little.

Bitcoin not crypto

Crypto is full of get-rich-quick schemes. Bitcoin, on the other hand, is a don’t get poor slowly scheme. Few understand this. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who have said something along the lines of “I’m just getting into crypto, but Bitcoin seems a bit expensive already so I bought some (enter name of soon-to-be-dead sh*tcoin).” If we’re keeping things simple, which I generally prefer to do, Bitcoin is digital gold, Ethereum is programmable money, and everything else is a software startup staring into the abyss of its first global recession. It’s not that there aren’t other protocols out there with incredible potential, but only about 1% of them are ever going to survive and thrive, and you have to chuck a lot of darts at the board to pick the right one.

If you want to educate yourself about Bitcoin, then start with the Bitcoin Whitepaper. It’s only 8 pages long, and most of what you need to know is covered in the first 5 pages. Then you need to get your head around the 4-year halving cycle. And for good measure, read up on Metcalfe’s Law on network effects. In short, if we have a fixed supply, and increasing demand, number go up.

Size Matters!

Of course, the increasing demand part is not a certainty and herein lurks the risk. If nobody participates and buys or uses Bitcoin, then it will, of course, be worthless. That’s clearly not the direction it is going at the moment, but that risk is why you don’t go all in. You need to organise your balance sheet so you are never in a position where you have no choice but to sell. That means holding an emergency cash reserve and keeping your investment size at a level where you can sleep at night. I’ve said it before: allocate according to your level of knowledge. Start small, and increase as your understanding grows. And be ready to adjust if circumstances change.

Four More Years!

The four-year cycle is your guidebook and bible to investing in Bitcoin. 2013 and 2017 were bull market years. 2017 featured a (now) obvious blow-off top at $20k, so many of us believed the 2021 bull market would also come with an easily identifiable exit point. Instead, it totally tricked us by topping once at $62k, going all the way back to $30k, then pushing back to $69k and looking like it was about to levitate to $100k before crashing right back to $30k again. So timing the market perfectly is extremely tricky, however, catching the meat of the big moves is actually relatively straightforward. Remember, the idea is to buy low and sell high.

The 1-2 years after the bull market is the graveyard. All the news is negative. People who lost money in the crash are openly mocked. Even good news is met with a steady grind down in price. The occasional bear market rally leads to heavy selling by traders trying to make something back. This is the accumulation period. You will hate it, but this is when you dollar cost average and don’t pay much attention to where the price is headed.

Then comes the year of the halving. The grind-down turns into a grind-up. It’s not up only, and sudden drawdowns like March 2020 are entirely possible, but things are looking rosier. This comes in 2024 and you have two years to get ready for it.

2025 is when things get fun. It’s also musical chairs time. You don’t want to sell too early, but you better be quick if the music stops. The best way is to scale out just like you scaled in, selling a little at a time.

Can it really be so simple? Well, why not? This is how Bitcoin was programmed. Of course there are many variables and adoption rate, regulation, and the macro environment will all be important factors. A US spot ETF approval could speed up the exit from the bear market. More big corporates and nation states adding Bitcoin to their balance sheets could also be catalysts. Hey, China might even ban Bitcoin again! When you get into the game theory of the space things get very interesting.

What about Alts?

If you must sh*tcoin, then sh*tcoin responsibly! The time to buy Alts is at the early stages of the next bull run, and you need to buy a broad spread of them as you don’t know which ones will take off. Also, you need to be merciless about selling them when they pump, because when they crash they will crash 80% and then, just when you think the pain is over, they will drop another 50%. Sure, if there’s a particular Layer 1 protocol that you have studied and you’re convinced it’s a winner, feel free to accumulate through the winter, but remember what happened to Luna just recently. Are you really sure you have found the one coin to beat them all?

So do not despair this winter. Wrap up warm, and allocate slowly. If we drop to anywhere near the 2017 all-time high it’s time to get a little greedy, but never put yourself in a position where you could become a forced seller. And make sure you buy a little extra every time Bloomberg tells you Bitcoin is dead.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Living With the Bear Market

We humans are a complex bunch. I have heard that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With covid, entire countries seem to have gone through their own version of this, which may or may not have included these stages: zero covid, flattening the curve, lockdowns, mass vaccination, and finally living with covid. In the end, it seems, we have to accept and live with whatever pains us.

So are we in a bear market yet? Some would argue not – the S&P 500 is down some 18% from its January peak, and bear markets are defined as falls of 20%. So they are correct, but the NASDAQ has already passed 20%, so it sure does sound a lot like denial, don’t you think? I’m generally an optimist, but I’ve come to appreciate the value of time as I get older, and therefore think we can all save some of this valuable commodity by skipping past anger, bargaining and depression and moving to accept the bear! Grrrr…

Spotted in Marunouchi recently.

So what is it like living with a bear? Well, let’s take a look at some of the qualities of this charming beast: Historically bear markets occur every 3-5 years, and on average they last about a year. The S&P 500 typically falls around 33% during bear markets, although a third of these delightful periods have seen drops of over 40%. Bear markets typically end, and bull markets begin, when investor confidence is at a low point. In terms of character, although they may start with a crash, bear markets tend to be a slow grind down, peppered with the odd burst of optimism. Yes, bear market rallies are very much a thing, usually spurred by some piece of good news. However, the rallies are generally short-lived, and then the grind downwards resumes.

As you have probably already guessed, trading the bear is not as easy as you may think. Sure, we would all like to sell the top and then go to the beach, only to return to buy the beginning of the next bull run, but trying to do that can seriously damage your wealth if the market turns around quicker than expected. This is from a post of mine back in 2017:

In the years 1980 to 2015, the S&P 500 experienced an average intra-year decline of 14.2%. However, the market ended up achieving a positive return in 27 of those 36 years. That’s 75% of the time. You cannot afford to be sitting on the sidelines while this is happening. In fact, the opportunity cost of doing nothing will cost you far more than any of the corrections, bear markets, and flash crashes:

“From 1996 through 2015, the S&P 500 returned an average of 8.2% a year. But if you missed out on the top 10 trading days during those 20 years, your returns dwindled to just 4.5% a year. Can you believe it? Your returns would have been cut almost in half just by missing the 10 best trading days in 20 years! It gets worse! If you missed out on the top 20 trading days, your returns dropped from 8.2% a year to a paltry 2.1%. And if you missed out on the top 30 trading days? Your returns vanished into thin air, falling all the way to zero!” (from Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook by Tony Robbins)

So how do you make the most of the slow grind downwards without trying to be too clever and missing out on the best trading days? First of all you need to stay calm. Bear markets are not the time for panic and dumping investments out of hand. If you are taking the time to read this blog you likely have a long term plan and there’s no need to deviate from that. Know your risk profile, stay diversified, and take this as an opportunity to accumulate assets at lower prices. Dollar cost averaging is your friend in the bear market. Rather than trying to catch the absolute bottom, keep investing little by little at regular intervals and build up your holdings at a nice average cost. Buy quality, buy what you believe in – this is not the time for speculation on penny stocks.

As to how this particular bear will play out, my thoughts, for what they are worth, are as follows:

  • The Ukraine situation is obviously a factor in inflation, but the main driver here is the Federal Reserve and other central banks.
  • Stocks in general, and tech stocks in particular, did well in the low interest rate environment during covid – lots of stimulus!
  • Now inflation is 8.3% and the Fed funds rate is 0.75%, and it’s a similar story elsewhere in developed markets ex-Japan.
  • The Fed has to close that gap – they will keep raising rates until they close it / inflation cools down, or until something breaks…
  • Means pain for stocks while this goes on – we could still go lower and there will be a plenty of volatility. I don’t see capitulation yet.
  • I think it will be later in the second half of the year before things start to look better – there are already signs that inflation is cooling off a little. We either get out of this because inflation eases off, allowing the Fed some breathing space, or something breaks and the Fed starts cutting rates again to head off the crisis.

How about crypto?

Crypto bear markets are a rare beast, in that they are programmed into the code of the leading crypto asset and arrive with the regularity of a Japanese train. If you don’t understand the Bitcoin 4 year halving cycle, you will constantly be bombarded with narratives to explain the pain, from the Mt Gox hack to the Quadriga scandal, to the Luna / UST debacle of late, there will always be a narrative to explain something that is actually pre-programmed. 2014 was a bear market, 2018 was a bear market, and so here we are in 2022. As with stocks, in crypto bear markets you accumulate quality. That means Bitcoin and Ethereum. Keep your hands off those alts unless you are really confident in their long term value proposition. Even then, prepare to be burned as the LUNAtics have been this week. Bad things happen to alts in bear markets… Bitcoin is down some 60% from its high so far this time around. Keep in mind that peak to trough 80% is the norm. BTC fell from $20,00 to around $3,000 in 2018. In the 2021 bull market it reached $69,000. If you have the nerve, now is the time to accumulate, and 2025 is the when the next bull market train comes along. Act accordingly and embrace the bear.

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

The Weak Yen Dilemma

If you watch Japanese news you will have noticed a new topic that is featured in almost every broadcast. Along with Ukraine and Covid, no news program is complete without discussion of 円安 or the weak yen. JPY has indeed taken a battering this last few weeks, slipping from the 112 range vs. USD to as low as 129. I also noticed a lot of discussion on Twitter as to the reasons for the drop and what to do about it, so let’s take a look.

Why has this happened? There is no limit to how deep you can go into exploring the reason for the yen’s fall, but the simple explanation is always best: Currently the US is raising interest rates, and Japan is not. That makes the USD a more attractive currency than JPY. It’s simply supply and demand at work.

What are the effects of a weak yen? The Japanese government and the Bank of Japan have been perfectly happy with a weaker yen for some time. It’s a big boost to Japanese exporters as it makes Japanese products cheaper overseas. However, you can have too much of a good thing. The current yen level is certainly doing more damage than good to the Japanese economy as businesses are hit with the double whammy of rising energy prices and a weaker currency. For the Japanese consumer, who is already facing rising prices, it means the cost of imported goods are going to rise even further. In a country with stagnant wages that means less money in the pockets of the populace, who in turn are cutting back on the little luxuries. This leads to a vicious circle where businesses must keep the cost of their products low, because low wages mean people won’t buy them otherwise, so those businesses make less profit and are therefore unable to raise wages… It’s not a pretty picture.

For the foreign resident in Japan a weak yen can bring either joy or pain, depending on your situation. Paid in dollars? Life is good! Paid in yen with expenses / debt overseas? Times are hard. Trips back home are certainly going to be more expensive. There are probably things you wish you had thought about earlier, which is why this financial planning thing is kind of important.

How long will this last? The simple answer to this is nobody knows. The last time the yen was anywhere near these levels was 2015. However in 2012 it was 76 yen to the dollar. So it’s unlikely it will go on forever – things move in cycles. That said, we are in a precarious place at the moment. Usually if the US is raising interest rates it is to keep pace with inflation. However inflation in the US is already almost 8% and the federal funds rate is only 0.25%. The Fed is well behind the curve, but is sharply aware that raising rates too rapidly will crash the economy. So expect the US interest rate to keep rising through this year, which means more pain for Japan. Also, as noted in this thread by Santiago Capital, what is happening now is the Bank of Japan is sacrificing its currency to save its bond market. Other nations should take note as they may end up doing the same thing further down the line…

What could reverse it? Firstly, what won’t reverse the current position is Japan raising rates, because that is not going to happen. That would sink the whole ship. The thing most likely to bring things back into balance is inflation starting to ease in the second half of the year, meaning the Fed is under less pressure to raise rates. So if you are looking for a ray of hope, keep an eye on that.

What can I do? Here is the crux of the matter. Obviously what you should do depends on your own situation, but now is as good a time as ever to make sure you understand what your base currency is. Your base currency is the currency you are planning to spend your savings in. If your BC is JPY, you don’t really have a big issue. Real inflation in Japan is probably running at around 2% so you should look at investing in some dividend paying Japanese stocks to beat that. (see my previous post) If you have money overseas that you would like to bring to Japan, now is a great time to do it!

If your BC is something other than JPY and your money is in yen, you have a dilemma: It’s not a good time to exchange your JPY for your base currency right now, but if you don’t you are losing purchasing power in your BC to inflation. I’ll use the US as an example: inflation in the US is 8% – if you have money in the bank in Japan you are losing 8% per year to inflation. If you switch that money to USD cash you are still losing 7.75%! So ideally you want to have that money invested in USD in something that will, on the average, generate an 8% p.a. return, which pretty much means US stocks. So you have to weigh the trade off – is it worth taking the currency hit to get into the correct currency and get the money invested? If that was me, I have to say I would be inclined to wait for now and see how things develop in the coming months, but I wouldn’t want to do nothing for too long.

If you have debt overseas, such as a student loan, which you are paying interest on, I would probably say you should bite the bullet and keep paying it, despite the poor exchange rate. That debt isn’t going to get any smaller if you leave it.

Finally, if you understand, or are learning Japanese I came across this video by Nakata Atsuhiko, which is both a wonderfully simple explanation of the current weak yen situation, and an excellent Japanese comprehension exercise where you will likely learn some new financial terms.

Hang in there everyone!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

2022 Q1 Roundup

It’s been almost two months since my last post. Apologies for the silence but we have been busy at home with a new baby girl, born in early February! I must say that, despite the massive disruption caused by covid, working mostly at home has been a blessing this last couple of months. Some things really do only happen once or twice in a lifetime and it’s important to be present for them.

So I thought I would do a general roundup on things I have been thinking about during working hours, and how I am investing in this somewhat turbulent environment.

In my 2020 Investment Outlook post in December I wrote about having a view that guides your investment plan, and being prepared to change it if necessary. My focus for the year was on inflation and how Central Bank’s efforts to fight it would affect the investment environment. This, of course, has been somewhat overshadowed by the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. I have no experience in international conflict, so little of value to add in terms of how things may play out there, but obviously we all hope that peace is restored as soon as possible.

The war has, of course, had a huge impact on the inflation narrative, as anyone who has visited a gas station recently will know. I actually accumulated a satellite holding in energy stocks during 2021 based on 2022 being a year of re-opening / reflation, with business getting back to normal, more travel, and therefore higher consumption of energy. It actually looks like energy prices could have some way to go, but I am out of those positions now and have rotated into tech stocks, which took a pretty good hit this quarter, and Japanese dividend stocks – largely inspired by @CacheThatCheque, who I interviewed in December. (that post is here)

My core holdings are unchanged, as they only require rebalancing once a year.

So what can we expect for the rest of the year? Well, the Federal Reserve went ahead and ended bond purchases on schedule, and then proceeded with a clearly telegraphed rate hike of .25% this month, and the market has reacted surprisingly favourably. It is said that stocks climb a wall or worry, and that’s exactly what they are doing at the moment. With more rate hikes to come I still expect plenty of volatility, but I don’t see any reason for big changes in allocation. Another dip in Q2 and a strong second half of the year is my working hypothesis.

Inflation means sitting in cash is a losing trade. Your spending power is being eroded day by day. And if you hold JPY cash, but are planning on spending the money in the US, for example, you are losing almost 8% per year and taking currency risk. However, investing overseas has been somewhat complicated by exactly that risk, as we have seen a sharp weakening of the yen – the Bank of Japan is by no means ready to taper and just announced they would purchase an unlimited amount of 10 year government bonds at 0.25%. If Japan is your home for the long term, I would estimate the real inflation rate, taking into account recent energy prices, at around 2% per year. This is why I think Japan dividend stocks are interesting as there are plenty of opportunities to earn more than 2% if you are willing to take a little risk. If you don’t have the time to research individual stocks, take a look at something like this Japan high dividend ETF:

As readers know, I also invest in crypto, and things have gotten interesting there again recently. A few weeks ago, Terra founder Do Kwon announced that they would be buying some $10 billion worth of Bitcoin to back their UST stablecoin over the coming weeks. And true to his word, Terra set about buying some $125,000,000 in BTC per day last week. If you are wondering if $125 mill per day is a lot, it is. And if you are wondering how you go about buying this much BTC, the answer is TWAP, or Time-Weighted Average Price strategy.

All this twapping appears to have been the catalyst for a rally in BTC to around $47,000, which is close to the year open price. L1 alts have also picked up significantly as a result.

One thing I am watching with interest is the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC). The trust, which simply buys and holds BTC with a 2% p.a. custody fee is still trading at almost a 28% discount to the value of the assets it holds. At $30.8 bill in assets under management it is major contender for conversion to an ETF, if it receives approval from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. So GBTC, which can be bought through US brokerage accounts and retirement plans, offers the opportunity to invest in BTC at a 28% discount to current price, with a strong possibility that it will be converted to an ETF, whereby that discount will disappear. If you believe in BTC long term, it actually looks like a better buy than the asset itself. Obviously investing in crypto is high risk, but food for thought…

Best wishes to everyone. I hope you are enjoying the warmer weather and the cherry blossom!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

Embracing Volatility – How to Buy Low and Sell High

It was not even a month ago that I wrote a 2022 Investment Outlook predicting there was some volatility coming our way, and following the US Federal Reserve’s commitment to tackle inflation, the markets did not disappoint. The S&P 500 is down some 10% from its peak, the NASDAQ 15%, and Bitcoin, being Bitcoin, dumped over 50% in a matter of weeks. Welcome to 2022!

The last time I heard the term “indiscriminate selling” was March 2020, as stock markets were actually being closed early for falling to their limits for several days running. Risk happened fast as investors dumped everything: stocks, bonds, gold, crypto, you name it. Everything went to cash. There wasn’t a lot of thinking going on, just a mad rush for the exits.

We haven’t reached that level of panic so far this year, but in the US the steady pulse of easy monetary policy is fading, and as I write this the Nikkei 225 index is down over 3% on the day. There is clearly more volatility to come. So how do you invest in this environment? Selling indiscriminately along with the herd is clearly not the smart way.

As usual the strategy needs to be broken down into core and satellite. The core being the 70-80% of your portfolio that is broadly diversified, and satellite being the 20-30% you may have in something a little more sexy.

Core holdings – I have already written about how to buy low and sell high in your core allocation here. In short, you establish a strategic asset allocation that meets your risk profile and then rebalance it once per year. The rebalance in effect sells part of holdings that have gone up in value and reallocates them to the holdings that have gone down. That’s it, no further action required!

Satellite Holdings – Now for the fun part. Satellite holdings are generally invested in assets that add a little more spice to your overall portfolio. They usually have a higher risk / return profile and may change over time depending on market conditions and what is hot. So they could include an allocation to smaller companies, emerging markets, emerging technology, commodities, private equity, and of course crypto. I would note here that for someone who is retired, satellite holdings may actually be lower risk, alternative income-focussed assets, but for today we are talking about the racy stuff!

Higher risk plays tend to exhibit bigger swings, and are therefore more tempting to try and time the entry / exit. So, the first thing you need to do is make an honest assessment of your temperament and ability to manage more risk. I’m no trader and I know it, but I do have the stomach for volatility for part of my portfolio.

Scale in / Scale out: The simplest way to buy something volatile is a little at a time. Dollar cost averaging is probably the most effective way to do this. Buy a little every week, every month, or every quarter until you build your position into the size you want. As you get better at this you will learn to add a little more in months when the asset is cheap, and a little less when it is more expensive. Looking back at the chart above, it’s clear that the panic of March 2020 was a golden opportunity to acquire risk assets, but it takes some guts to be buying when everyone else is selling. That said, buying the asset is generally easier than selling it, and you don’t make money until you sell! Waiting for that perfect top is a recipe for disaster for all but the best market-timers. You need to set yourself a target price, and be prepared to adjust it if conditions change. Once you reach your target, sell half. If you think it might have more to run, don’t get too carried away. Average back out of the asset little by little, the same way you got in. You may end up feeling like you left some money on the table, but that money doesn’t exist if you go over the precipice and tumble down the other side.

If the asset is traded on an open market, learn how to set a stop loss. If it’s trading above your target price and you have already sold half, you can set the stop loss at your target price to make sure you get out if the market takes a turn.

All of this sounds great in practice, but I have personally screwed up trying to time markets more often than I have got it right. This is why position size is important. If you are in something volatile like bitcoin, which frequently dumps 50% just when you think it’s going to the moon, you are going to get it wrong sometimes. You shouldn’t have half your net worth in there! I would also say that you should be invested in assets that, although they may be hot at the moment, you don’t mind holding for the next 10 years. It takes a lot of pressure off if you get stuck in something you understand and believe in during a bear market.

Cutting your losers quickly is good advice, but many people struggle with it as they get attached to the trade and don’t want to lose money. If it’s an asset you believe has great long term prospects, then you can ride out a few bumps in the road, but if the fundamentals change and you realise you were wrong, it’s time to take the hit. Psychologically, people are conditioned to try to be right all the time, but it simply isn’t possible in investing. Accept that you will be wrong sometimes and move on.

Experience is, of course, the best teacher. Keep your positions small enough that you can learn from your mistakes without blowing up your balance sheet. Keep an eye on what smart people are doing, but make your own assessment before entering something risky. One thing you can be sure of: taking a little risk helps you to get to know yourself better!

Disclaimer: This should go without saying, but the information contained in this blog is not investment advice, or an incentive to invest, and should not be considered as such. This is for information only.

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