The Fiscal Cliff Doesn't Matter

So the markets now are driven by the fiscal cliff.  What will happen?  If they don't do something, the markets will plunge.  If they come to some sort of agreement, the Dow would be up 1,000 points. 

Nobody wants to be long on a failure to come up with a solution, and nobody wants to miss the boat on a 1,000 point Dow rally.   OK, 1,000 points is not much.  Maybe I should say 2,000 points.

In any case, this reminds me of a recent Howard Marks interview where he talked about the European situation.  He says there are three things he can say for certain about the situation:

  1. He doesn't know what will happen in Europe
  2. Nobody knows what is going to happen in Europe
  3. If you ask an expert what they think will happen and take their advice, it would be a mistake.

So to apply this to the current situation:

  1. I have no idea what will happen in Washington with the fiscal cliff
  2. Nobody knows what will happen in Washington with the fiscal cliff
  3. If you ask an expert what they think will happen and take their advice, you are making a mistake.

Of course, ths fiscal cliff matters in many ways.  But what I am talking about is within the context of investing for the long term.

If you believe that the U.S. and the world is drowning in debt and the Fed is out of silver bullets and the economy is peaking out and won't recover for years to come, then you shouldn't be invested in the stock market fiscal cliff or not.

If you believe that the U.S. and the world will eventually recover and be fine (maybe not as 'hot' as back in 2007, but some growth and stability), then you should be invested in businesses you like at reasonable prices fiscal cliff or not.

Here are some things you might want to think about:

  • Selling stocks now because you are worried about the fiscal cliff is a mistake.  This is not a rational decision; it is driven by emotion (fear).  And emotions should never drive investment decisions.
  • Buying stocks now because you think the fiscal cliff will be resolved is a mistake.  This is not investing; that's speculating.  Nobody knows what will happen with the fiscal cliff.  Betting on single event outcomes is speculating, not investing.  (One should invest in businesses or situations because they are priced right etc...)  Betting on single outcomes if the odds are reasonably calculable and the stock is priced or mispriced accordingly, that's different.
  • Shorting stocks or hedging against the fiscal cliff is also a mistake as it is not too different from selling your stocks out of fear (although hedging may be tax efficient as you don't have to realize capital gains like you do when you sell out longs).  This may seem 'prudent' and responsible, but it's still speculating.  Nobody ever knows when the markets go up or down.  Hedging or buying puts in anticipation of a sell-off, to me, seems more like speculating than rational investment behavior.  

...which leads me to the something that I thought about that is related to Buffett's frequent comments about not selling a good business you own just because of what is in the headlines. 


Why People Make Money in Real Estate
OK, so this title seems odd given that we are trying to recover from the biggest real estate bubble/collapse in history.  Real estate has a history of big booms and busts, and there have been big real estate bankruptcies (Reichmann, Trump etc...) not to mention the disaster that is Japan and the most recent U.S. real estate bust.

But on the other hand, why is it that so often the biggest gain that many people have ever made in their lives have been in real estate?   (I know tons have been lost in real estate too)

Just thinking about family, relatives and friends (very small sample size, but...), it seems that the biggest winner has been their house or some other property, and not a stock.  I don't live in Omaha so I don't know anyone in person that has owned Berkshire Hathaway since the 1970s.

I have always noticed this and thought about it but never really expressed it out loud. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, of course.  Your primary residence is a big asset; if there is inflation, of course it's going to be your biggest winner.  Tax-incentivized leverage also helps.  Nobody is going to take out a 20% down loan and spend a good portion of their disposable income paying interest/principle on a stock investment.

But for me, what I often thought about was the illiquidity of the house.  This is why individuals were able to do so well in real estate over time while they get clobbered in stocks. 

Check this out. Compared to stocks, in real estate:

  • You can't get a quote on your house every day.  You can't look up the price of your house on Yahoo Finance.  OK, you can Zillow it, but it's not the same as seeing a firm bid and offer that is hittable instantly.
  • The evening news doesn't start by telling you that your house price was marked down by 2% that day due to some event that happened in Europe, or because of what some politician in Washington said.
  • You can't push some buttons on your iPhone and liquidate your house in less than five seconds.
  • Pundits are not on TV, the internet or in magazines telling you every minute of the day to sell your house and buy the one across the street because it will go up more, or tell you to sell your house because it will go down because of some fiscal cliff, canyon, valley or whatever...
  • People don't talk about how much their house went up at cocktail parties (well, this did happen during the housing bubble) and tell you to buy a house next to theirs (unless you are so wealthy that you buy and sell homes like people buy and sell stocks).
  • Financial Advisors don't tell you to sell some of your house and put more in bonds as the economic outlook isn't as good as it was a few months ago.
  • People don't pound the table and tell you to sell your house because it has been raining in your neighborhood for the last five out of seven days.
  • People don't tell you to sell your house because it is worth 10% less than it was last week and it may go down more.  Or because your house value, as of yesterday, is now below the 200-day moving average.
  • You don't have some crazy guy on CNBC every day waving his arms around spitting into the camera telling you to sell your house and buy the one across the street one day and then doing the exact opposite the very next day.  But I already said this in bullet point three, but I thought it's important enough to say it again.
  • Most people can only afford to own one or two houses at a time, so each purchase is done very, very carefully (like the Buffett 20-hole punch card*; only most people have a 2-hole punch card).  They spend days, weeks, months and even years looking and researching their house before they buy as it is a huge commitment (unlike people buying 100 shares "for fun" just in case someone's 'tip' proves correct.  Many people can afford to do this very often; so often as to build up a really crappy portfolio of stocks they know nothing about).

Anyway, we can go on and on with this list.  Surely, there are some negatives too.

But my point is that many people have done really well in real estate over a long period of time, but it's not so common to hear the same about stocks.  And that's because of the curse of liquidity.  I think liquidity is actually a good thing, of course.  But it can have it's drawbacks.  When it's right there at your fingertips, it's hard not to want to do something. And everyone around you including the professionals are constantly telling you to do something!

I was stunned when a "professional" investor on CNBC was telling people with a straight face that you can't ignore this stuff (fiscal cliff); this stuff is very important and it will move markets.   Well, if you are a professional fund manager being evaluated on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, I guess he is right; you can't ignore this stuff.  But if he thinks people can trade in and out based on what is going on in Washington, I think he's nuts.

Anyway, with the fiscal cliff approaching, everybody talks about what to do with the stock portfolios, but nobody ever talks about what to do with their houses (OK, I admit some people must be thinking about it and I'm sure personal finance magazines, websites and blogs probably do consider that too as they would make good 'filler' content).

But no real rational person is going to buy or sell their house on this issue.  And that's what Buffett keeps saying about stocks.  You have to look at it like a business (or a house).

What businesses are thinking about selling out because of fears of the fiscal cliff?  If you own and run a profitable restaurant at a great location, why would you sell just because of this near term issue?   If you love your house, why would you sell just because of this?

So What's Going to Happen?
Well, I said I have no idea and nobody really knows.  Anyone who claims to know has something to sell you.

Having said that, this is a blog and we are allowed to say anything we want.  So if I had to guess, my guess is that they go to the very end of the line, the market plunges, people freak out and they come to some sort of kick-the-can-down-the-road agreement.

You know at the end of the day they will come to some agreement.  The only question is when it will happen and how far the market has to go down to convince Washington that something has to happen.

It's just like what happened with TARP.  First, they said "no", the market plunged 700+ points (or whatever it was) and they all suddenly rushed in, "where do I sign?!".

This doesn't mean that's the way it's going to go this time around.  It's just my guess.

To do anything based on that scenario (buy puts, sell out with the intent of getting back in cheaper later etc...) is pure speculation so don't do it. 

Ignore all this noise.

*Buffett's 20-hole Punch Card
Value investors know what this is, but I realize this blog is read by a wide range of people.  For those who don't know what the 20-hole punch card idea is, it's Buffett's way of telling students to choose investments carefully.  In a lifetime, people will find only very few really good ideas. And having just a few very good ideas is going to be enough to get very rich.

So instead of just buying stocks left and right promiscuously (as many novices tend to do), do solid research, look hard and look for only the best ideas.  When that is found, then invest big in the idea and try to go on to the next one.   And invest as if you only have 20 times you are allowed to invest.  Once you invest in one thing, one hole in the punchcard will be punched out. 

This will make you think very carefully about what you buy as you can't afford to make too many mistakes.

This also reminds me of Peter Lynch's comment that he is baffled that people spend more time researching and shopping for a refrigerator or car than they do a stock even when their stock investment is much larger than their fridge or car.

Going back to my house argument, if people did as much work on stocks they buy as they did shopping for a house, more people would do better.

Even if they did, though, since this is not Lake Wobegan, we can't all become better than average investors.

[Reprinted from the Brooklyn Investor Blog - post from kk.]


Note from Da Badger - I considered writing a blog covering the same material, but found this recently.  He/she said it better than I ever could.  Badger out.....

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  • well given that the last crisis was caused (amplified) by congress no initially passing the stimulus can see why its easy for people to be afraid they arent going to do anything--again.

    it wont be the end of the world but it will change things. one should be vigilant as to the markets reaction to whatever they do.  not the initial day reaction, but over several weeks. we are going into a 5th year of a bull market...

  • Admin

    Personally I think the media is looking to boost ratings and maybe try to twist some political arms at the same time.  I've heard the CNBC's viewership has been dropping, although I have nothing specific to back that up but I've already read that even if the "cliff" expires, the debt ceiling itself has been raised temporary to March so the gov't can and will operate after Jan. 1st.  Additionally, more and more saying if we go off of the cliff, any impact will be felt minimally - certainly not what using the word "cliff" implies. So why the hype and the little buttons?  To draw in the viewers........and boost those ratings.   fwiw here's a Texan who also feels the fiscal cliff is a scam......and why.

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