I’ve been encouraged by a few friends to spend a bit more time writing blog posts about finance and economics in the real world, as opposed to Farmville. (Hopefully the Zynga fans will allow me brief distraction with the real world.)
An article last week in the Wall Street Journal on investing in gold reminded me of a topic I had meant to cover this past summer:
What is the best hedge for a crisis?
The last two years have validated the fundamental premise of The Black Swan theory. That premise is that, due to incomplete information and faulty statistical assumptions, the market generally underprices risk at the “tails” of the distribution.
In other words, while the outcomes of the market tend to look like a normal distribution, in reality, more “rare” events happen than would be predicted mathematically.
Given a potential fear of crisis, what is the best way to hedge? What’s the best way to have some fundamental security in the face of these events?
For Nassim Taleb, the author, he has made his investment approach well known. He keeps the vast majority of his money in cash, and periodically invests a small percentage in out-of-the-money puts on the market. In 2008, this made for extremely high returns (between 65% and 115%).
Unfortunately, this is such an extreme approach, it’s hard to recommend it as a general practice for anyone but the most stalwart intellectual and contrarian.
If you read any financial press, or listen to AM radio, you likely have heard a much more common refrain about a hedge against crists: Gold.
Gold has historically been pitched as the ultimate hedge against inflation and crisis. You can literally find websites that explain how to not only buy gold bullion, but how to effectively bury it in your yard in such a way that it won’t come up on satellite photos (in case the US Government chooses to confiscate it again, like FDR did in 1933.) I’m not kidding.
Because fascination with gold goes back basically as long as recorded history, it’s rare to find new information on the topic.
This article in Seeking Alpha, however, caught my eye, as a rare piece that had something new to say about investing in Gold.
This article highlights a well known point – that recently, when the market collapsed, gold actually collapsed with it. In fact, if you look at the charts, in the past decade, gold and the market look like their moving together. This makes it a terrible hedge, because good hedges are supposed to be decoupled.
In truth, GLD does appear to be a venerable contender for a portion of a well-diversified portfolio. Yet in a “black swan/perfect storm catastrophe” like the 3 month, systemic breakdown of 2008 (September through November), GLD dropped an astonishing -30%. PowerShares DB U.S. Dollar Bullish (UUP) soared 20%.
What’s interesting, however, is that in these periods, a very surprising asset has done well: The US Dollar. The author goes on to advocate for a split between the US Dollar Bullish ETF and Gold.
The article shows this chart, which tracks gold and the US dollar over the past two years:
The insight here is not that you should split your “crisis” holdings between Gold and the Dollar. Most Americans are already heavily weighted in dollar holdings. The insight is simply that gold actually doesn’t cover you in all crises, despite the protestations of the gold bugs.
Indeed, I would like to see this relationship going back over the past century, to see what possible approaches might make sense:
- A balanced approach?
- A reciprocal trade where you sell into strength of one, and buy the other?
- Relationships between various mixes of gold & dollar to hedge a stock portfolio?
My guess is that a dollar-denominated fixed income allocation (Treasuries) would look similar to dollar bullish, and would fit a more traditional view of asset allocation.