As promised in my last article, this week I'll explain why deflation will severely punish the upper middle class. These are the people who think they're rich because their houses and stocks have gone up in value -- that is, because of inflation.
What Goes Up...
People concerned about inflation today tend to buy big houses and nice cars. They believe that the purchasing power of the dollar is going down. But what happens if cash becomes king?
This cash squeeze is already affecting many people who thought they were rich. My wife, Kim, has a friend who's a successful architect. Her husband was a manager of a good sized advertising agency. They have three children, the oldest in high school, and earn about $350,000 a year in combined income.
Because they were flush with cash, this couple purchased two high-end vacation homes, one in the mountains and one at the beach. They live most of the year in a McMansion in Phoenix.
Things were going along fine until the husband lost his biggest client. Then he lost his job, and in less than three months their savings was depleted. They then tried to sell their vacation homes, but the values had dropped below the mortgage amount. Today, they continue to pay the mortgages on their houses and hope the price of real estate will go back up. They sold one of their BMWs at a loss.
In 2005, they were net-worth millionaires. In 2007, they're facing bankruptcy.
Follow the Arrows
People like this couple aren't concerned enough about is the credit bubble bursting, which could lead to deflation. Today, nationwide savings are low and debt per household is up. Most of us know the following equation from Economics 101:
cash + credit = the economy
Ever since 2000, there's been an oversupply of credit. When the Y2K threat loomed, the Federal Reserve flooded the market with credit. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the stock market downturn in 2002, the market was again flooded with easy credit. Excessive credit and lower interest rates kept the economy afloat.
It was a smart move at the time. In the first five years of his presidency, President Bush borrowed nearly a trillion dollars, more money than all of our previous 43 presidents combined, and the resulting credit bubble helped keep the stock market from collapsing entirely and led to a boom in real estate.
The problem is that this debt must be repaid. So the trillion-dollar question is, can the government, businesses, and consumers keep the credit bubble inflated? Here's that equation:
↑cash + ↑credit = ↑ the economy (inflationary)
If credit is cut off or the debt can't be repaid, the equation changes to this:
cash + ↓ credit ↓ = the economy (deflationary) ↓
If the credit bubble bursts, it could trigger a short squeeze.
"Short squeeze," a trader term, is when a stock's price is high and many traders short the stock. Shorting a stock means borrowing shares from an investment house, selling them, and hoping the price of the stock drops. When the price drops, a trader buys the stock back and returns it to the investment house he borrowed it from.
For example, say XYZ stock is selling for $100 a share. A trader borrows 10 shares from the investment house and sells them for $1,000. The stock drops to $60. Now the trader buys back 10 shares from the market for $600 and returns the 10 shares to the investment house. He now has a gross profit of $400 before paying interest and fees to the investment house.
A short squeeze occurs when the market goes the other way. In this example, instead of XYZ stock dropping to $60 a share, it rises from $100 to $150. The investment house issues a margin call, which means the trader needs to return the 10 shares he borrowed.
Suddenly, all the other traders who shorted the stock need to buy shares of XYZ in order to return them. As more short traders begin buying XYZ, the price of the stock goes up and up -- from $150 to $160 to $170, for instance. This is a short squeeze in stocks. The traders who thought the price of the stock would go down are squeezed into becoming the ones who drive the price up.
Putting the Squeeze on the Economy
A short squeeze could happen with the U.S. dollar if lenders suddenly forced debtors to pay in cash.
The couple I mentioned above is technically caught in a short squeeze, since they're short of cash and long on debt. They had to sell their luxury car at a huge loss because they were desperate. As time goes on and their savings dwindles, they may become desperate enough to sell their vacation homes at huge losses.
If the credit markets bust, there could be millions of couples just like this who seemed rich but are suddenly poor. This could send the lending rate of the dollar higher, making the value of the dollar higher as well -- essentially causing a deflation.
I don't want the U.S. economy to go into a short squeeze, and I hope the credit bubble doesn't burst. Deflation isn't good, and inflation is easier to cure than deflation.
Invest in Money Smarts
My concern about deflation is best represented by the following equation:
cash + ↓ credit ↓ = the economy (recession)↓
If the credit bubble bursts, not only will credit disappear, but people will stop spending and start hoarding cash, and savings will increase. Money is fuel for the economy, so when credit is gone and money is in hiding, the economy slows and a recession -- or worse, a depression -- can occur. In this case, prices go down, not up, and cash becomes king.
I certainly don't want this to happen. Nonetheless, given the lack of a clear direction in markets today, a good investment for 2007 may be to pay off some high-interest debt, put a little extra cash aside, and wait for bargains. If there's a short squeeze on cash, I believe it will be short lived. Once the Fed pumps more money into the system, the dollar will continue its fall.
In conclusion, your best investment today may be in time, not money. That is, invest your time in studying, reading books, and going to seminars. I recommend you study the asset class that's high-priced today, and could be low-priced tomorrow. For example, if you want to acquire real estate, study real estate while prices are high.
And if and when the market crashes, be ready to buy.