Economic Projections from the HotorNot.com Founder

sunday, february 22, 2009

My economic projections

I had breakfast with my friend Jeremy Liew this morning, and he mentioned I don't really blog anymore. It seems to me that services like Facebook and Twitter are growing at the expense of blogs because most things i write in my blog could probably be reduced to 140 characters, and that is just plain easier.

In the interest of blogging something meaningful, I've decided to write about what's been on my mind nonstop since selling HOTorNOT in February 2008.. the economy.

I liquidated the majority of my equity holdings last Summer and have been in a cash position ever since. So as the market continues to tank, I should be feeling good, right? Wrong. I've been worried sick that the American Dollar is going to collapse and that cash may be rendered worthless. My fear has grown to the point where even if I have an opinion on what to do, I'm too scared to do it. Deer-in-headlights mode.

Last December, I tried to encourage myself to man up by writing down my investment thesis on paper and stuck it on the wall. Unfortunately, even going to this length didn't change my behavior, and I'm still all cash. But here is what I wrote:

My theory was that we would experience three stages: Deflation, Transition, (Hyper?)Inflation

Stage 1 – Deflation

The economy is still contracting has deleveraging continues to happen. The entire world starts to feel the full impact of increasingly lost jobs, people tightening up their pocketbooks, and mortgages defaulting (at all price levels and in all locations.. and no, San Francisco City is not "special" or "different", just like real estate is NOT always a good investment in the long run.).

As all of this happens, industry slows, commodity prices fall, energy prices fall, and the pains of recession start to be felt. Basically everything falls with a few exceptions like gold, where people who are pulling out of the market flee to for safety. I was actually wrong on this one, I had gold going sideways because i wasn't sure whether downward pressure from economic slowdown or upward pressure from flight to safety would be stronger. It looks like right now, gold is going up up up. Sure wish I'd bought some.

The rest of the world falls too, as their economies are so linked to Western consumption.

Stage 2 – Transisition

As my theory progresses, it gets more controversial. I call this stage "transition" because this is where the balance of power between first world countries and certain second/third world countries shifts. 

Ever wonder how empires fall and how other's rise? Like how Spain and Portugal used to be the most powerful nations in the western world, and where are they now, relatively? It happens through dislocations like the one we are having now.

My theory is that as stage 1 starts to end, the world economy starts to pick up. consumption starts picking up. The only problem is that it won't happen uniformly. People in China will start buying more stuff (from themselves), and their economy will start growing like crazy as a result.

In other words, the recovery happens, but mostly in other countries, as their economies have decoupled from ours and they start driving their own demand. In this scenario, commodities and energy prices rise (and will surpass previous highs, including oil), Gold also rises. US equities don't drop anymore, and they might even start growing again, but not at the same rate the rest of world is. (keep in mind, china is still growing even now, just not as fast as they were before. in contrast, the US has been contracting like crazy.)

Stage 3 – (hyper?)inflation

Here's where the scary part comes. 

As energy prices jump, but not based on US demand, the cost of energy massively outpaces our ability to afford it. The price of energy is embedded in practically everything you buy, through it's use to process raw goods to powering factories to transporting goods. All of a sudden, things start getting REALLY expensive. The dollar is severely weakened. In order to respond, the government may or may not start printing money like crazy, at levels well beyond what they are doing today. (Despite Monetary and Fiscal policy supposedly being independent in the US, in tough times boundaries tend to break down).

Maybe we don't have Zimbabwean levels of inflation, but maybe we see just a 10x drop in the value of the dollar. In US dollars, things like oil and gold shoot through the roof.

Some people claim that they do not believe it's even possible for the US to experience hyperinflation. Of course, many of them thought the US economy was sound just one year ago. I've been doing a lot of thinking about this, and I haven't really reached any conclusions. 

I don't think it's impossible, the question is just how likely? 

What I do know is this.. I can ignore stage 1 and stage 2, but if stage 3 happens, anyone with significant assets that fails to protect him/herself is going to really regret it. 

I'm very interested to hear what other people's thoughts are.

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