We are living through one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the financial markets. It is rattling even the most steadfast and optimistic of investors. For better or for worse, we can only look with misty memory to the halcyon, golden, go-go market and investment days of the 1980's and 1990's. We are truly in a brave new world - one where the old assumptions and dogmas are truly on the dustbin of history.
A few takeaways:
Big is Not Safer Than Small. Whatever the results of the government mortgage bailout, both in terms of the House vote and its market impact, for equity holders of the big banks and mortgage and insurance players caught up in the mess (Bear Stearns, Fannie, Freddie, Lehman, AIG, WaMu, Wachovia, and to a lesser but still painful extent, Merrrill, Goldman, and Morgan), it is misery. For the big financials, if there wasn't horrendous news these last few weeks, there would have been no news at all. It is absolutely astounding – though not necessarily surprising when viewed through the prism of the dysfunctional and way over-blown incentive systems of key executives and traders at these firms – that so much value could be wiped out so quickly. Investors for a long time will have serious hangovers and reservations regarding investing in these entities in any form – stock, debt, and/or derivatives. Quite simply, the whole sector is tainted.
Cash Is Not Safe. Never in U.S. economic history have there been as many question marks as there are now around the security of cash – passbook savings, checking accounts, money markets, certificates of deposits and other cash-like instruments.
The question marks are threefold:
- The underlying entities holding cash are more sick than not, and, as such, their liabilities (i.e. your deposits) are exposed.
- The FDIC backstop/guarantee – as it gets stretched by Congress in terms of amount and type of cash instrument – is getting spread thin across an unprecedented number of defaults and in too tight a time frame.
- Inflation. The old truism is that governments never actually “default” on their debts. Rather, as expenditures for bailouts, wars, transfer payments between generations, and bridges to nowhere mushroom the budget deficit aside the enormous trade deficit the inevitable outcome has to be the government simply printing more and more money. Thus inflation.
So cash, our old friend – whether in the bank or under our mattress – is both under parking risk of default (a low risk for sure but much more so than just a few weeks ago) and under systemic, significant inflation risk. .
Executives Good, Traders Bad. In 2007, venture capital firms invested approximately $26 billion in startup and emerging companies. These companies were the best of the brightest stars in dynamic new industries like green/alternative energy, medical technology, digital media, and Internet software. In Washington, the nation's political leaders are committing more than 25 times this amount, effectively, in bailing out the residential mortgage market.
Now don't get me wrong, the housing and foreclosure crisis is real and painful in this country. But let's take a step back and think about priorities for a second:
- Would it be better to have more non-fossil fuel startups and technologies and fewer McMansions?Would we rather have more medical researchers and scientists or Wall Street derivatives traders?
- Who should be rewarded: the executives and visionaries working to build real operating companies, or the Wall Street whiz kids that made billions trading leveraged “house of cards” sub-prime mortgage portfolios?
- Quite simply, do we want to be a nation and a society that rewards entrepreneurship and business-building or one that rewards financial instrument manipulation?
Thinking about it for only a minute, the answer is obvious. It is even more obvious to the biggest investors in this toxic debt: the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, the Russians, and the Arabs. Certainly, owning U.S. mortgage-backed securities now looks like a losing hand for these folks and far more disturbingly, owning U.S. treasury securities is far from being, as they say in the finance textbooks, a "riskless" investment.
So where is this foreign capital now going to go? Well, most of it will now in all likelihood stay home, or be invested in emerging/developing economies. But here is the key point: while the U.S. investment climate looks very, very unattractive compared to what it once was it is still by far the best place in the world to invest in startups, to invest in entrepreneurs, and to invest in operating companies. And it is not even close.
While most Americans – terrified by the hysterical financial media that the end of days are near – are increasingly blind to this fact, the more detached foreign investment players know the real deal. There are both uniquely and insanely great American operating companies all in our midst. Some are publicly traded, most are not. In the coming years, watch for a return to this kind of back-to-basics business-building/value creation investing. It can’t come soon enough.