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What the F*#k Should Investors Do? (Part 1)

“What the fuck do I do now?” This was the actual subject line of an e-mail I received that really summed up most of the correspondence I got in response to an article I published last summer. To be fair, I painted a fairly negative macro picture of the world, throwing around a lot of fancy words, like “fragile” and “constrained system.” I guess I finally figured out the three keys to successful storytelling: One, never say more than is necessary; two, leave the audience wanting more; and three ...

Well, never mind No. 3, but here is more. Before I go further, if you believe the global economy is doing great and stocks are cheap, stop reading now; this column is not for you. I promise to write one for you at some point when stocks are cheap and the global economy is breathing well on its own — I just don’t know when that will be. But if you believe that stocks are expensive — even after the recent sell-off — and that a global economic time bomb is ticking because of unprecedented intervention by governments and central banks, then keep reading.

Today, after the stock market has gone straight up for five years, investors are faced with two extremes: Go into cash and wait for the market crash or a correction and then go all in at the bottom, or else ride this bull with both feet in the stirrups, but try to jump off before it rolls over on you, no matter how quickly that happens.

Of course, both options are really nonoptions. Tops and bottoms are only obvious in the rearview mirror. You may feel you can time the market, but I honestly don’t know anyone who has done it more than once and turned it into a process. Psychology — those little gears spinning but not quite meshing in your so-called mind — will drive you insane.

It is incredibly difficult to sit on cash while everyone around you is making money. After all, no one knows how much energy this steroid-maddened bull has left in him. This is not a naturally raised farm animal but a by-product of a Frankenstein-like experiment by the Fed. This cyclical market (note: not secular; short-term, not long-term) may end tomorrow or in five years.

Riding this bull is difficult because if you believe the market is overvalued and if you own a lot of overpriced stocks, then you are just hoping that greater fools will keep hopping on the bull, driving stock prices higher. More important, you have to believe that you are smarter than the other fools and will be able to hop off before them (very few manage this). Good luck with that — after all, the one looking for a greater fool will eventually find that fool by looking in the mirror.

As I wrote in an article last spring, “As an investor you want to pay serious attention to ‘climate change’ — significant shifts in the global economy that can impact your portfolio.”

There are plenty of climate-changing risks around us — starting with the prospect of higher, maybe even much higher, interest rates — which might be triggered in any number of ways: the Fed withdrawing quantitative easing, the Fed losing control of interest rates and seeing them rise without its permission, Japanese debt blowing up. Then we have the mother of all bubbles: the Chinese overconsumption of natural and financial resources bubble. Of course, Europe is relatively calm right now, but its structural problems are far from fixed. One way or another, the confluence of these factors will likely lead to slower economic growth and lower stock prices.

So “what the fuck” is our strategy? If you want to find out, you’ll have to come back on Monday for the second article in this series. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait.