Is the Retirement grass greener in the United States or Canada?

Depositphotos_40901151_xsOur sister site, the Financial Independence Hub, attempts to be a North American portal running content that may interest readers on either side of the 49th parallel.

This isn’t always easy; sometimes it runs blogs from people like Roger Wohlner, The Chicago Financial Planner and perforce the content (like this blog he adapted for the Hub) will be mostly US-specific: touching on topics like IRAs, 401(k)s, Roth IRAs and all the rest of it.

By the same token, its Canadian contributors often write about things like the TFSA or Tax Free Savings Account, which is the equivalent of America’s Roth IRAs and variants of same.

As fate would have it, the Financial Post (my former employer until 2012), asked me to contribute an article comparing the tax and retirement systems of the two countries. You can find it here under the headline Canada vs. the US: Whose Retirement grass is greener?

Findependence is legitimate cross-border topic

I was happy to take the assignment because I’ve been grappling with US/Canadian tax and retirement issues ever since I wrote the book that spawned this and other web sites. The original edition of my 2008 financial novel, Findependence Day, was meant to be a transborder financial love story, covering the tax and retirement topics of both countries through the eyes of characters residing in both countries.

My feeling was then and remains that when you get right down to it, the main lessons of Financial Independence are pretty similar in the two countries. The Post article addresses the similarities and differences head on.

As I explained when we launched the site, we do not perceive the Hub as being a tactical personal finance site: such sites do need to be specific to one country or the other. Nor is it a Retirement site per se: it covers the entire life cycle of investing starting with Millennials graduating with student-loan and credit-card debt and moving all the way up to Wealth Accumulation, Encore Careers, Decumulation & Downsizing and finally Longevity & Aging. These are universal topics not restricted to being on one side of the border or another. In fact, I play a lot of Internet bridge and most of my partners are Americans: it never occurs to us that the border makes a scrap of difference.

Asymmetry in US and Canadian financial content

However, when it came to marketing the book, I soon realized that while Canadians are happy to read US personal finance books, it doesn’t work in reverse. The US is after all a country with ten times more people and is arguably the most important economy in the world. Most Canadians have significant investments in US stocks and if we loaded up when the loonie was near parity, we’re glad we did: with the loonie now near 80 cents US, our retirement accounts are 20% larger to the extent they hold investments denominated in U.S. dollars.

But on the other side, I find with a few exceptions Americans have little reason to bone up on Canadian investments: Canada makes up only 4% or so of the global stock market, compared to close to half for America.

FindependenceDayBook_Crop1All of which explains why I decided to publish an all-American edition of Findependence Day in 2013. I challenge readers to find a single reference to Canada! Plus, last fall, I released two short Kindle e-books that are summaries of the book, and which cost just US$2.99. I describe A Novel Approach to Financial Independence as a kind of “Cliffs Notes” summary for American readers, and in Canada it’s a “Coles Notes” summary. Again, just like the retirement systems, citizens in both countries grew up with yellow-and-black “cheat” sheets to help us get through school: Cliffs and Coles are almost identical concepts.

When the original book was published, we billed it as a “North American” edition, since it would mention things like RRSPs and IRAs in the same breath. But with the launch of the all-US edition, we now call the original book the Canadian edition. I hope to do an all-Canadian edition on the Kindle sometime the next year or two.

 

What can you buy for 5 bucks? Quite a lot!

fiverrI recently delivered my debut “Ice Breakers” talk at the local (Port Credit) chapter of Toastmasters, an organization I highly recommend for anyone who wants to polish their public speaking and leadership skills.

I began by pulling out a $5 bill and dropping it at my feet. I asked how many audience members would pick one up if they saw a stray fin on the sidewalk. Most would, but also admitted they probably wouldn’t bother to stoop to pick up a penny or a nickel. I also remarked that when you pull a green $20 bill out of your wallet and consider what it can purchase, your attitude to that bill’s value is probably about what it was to a purple $10 bill some two decades earlier. Inflation, it seems, is forever with us.

If this is inflation, bring it on!

But if you ever wanted a concrete demonstration of the value of a lowly blue $5 bill, then go the website fiverr.com. That’s FIVERR, a “fiver” with an extra R. You may even see ads for this site elsewhere here at FindependenceDay.com as well as at MoneySense.ca, where this blog may also appear.

FIVERR is a wonderful example of the global trend to technology-enhanced outsourcing of personal and business services. You search for some task you want performing and a bunch of people from anywhere in the world offer to take on the “gig” for as little as $5. They may want to upsell you, which is perfectly fine, but my experience with the site was it did exactly what I asked for the price offered. The cover of my new e-book released earlier this week, and shown below, was designed for $5 (US dollars, mind you!).

jonchevreau_cover-2

My ebook cover designed by Fiverr.com

The other gig I needed to publish the e-book at Amazon was to format my Microsoft Word manuscript into the format required by the Kindle. This task too was performed for $5. I don’t  know where in the world these people are located. I assume some are in the United States but for all I know — and as in the case with 99 Designs, which we looked at a few weeks ago — it could be half way around the world, where $5 may buy what $100 purchases in North America.

You can offer gigs as well as utilize them

It costs nothing to join fiver.com and of course you’re as free to be the provider of services for $5 a gig as you are to be the purchaser.

In fact, if there are any services out there that readers think I could perform for $5, drop me a line at jonathan@findependenceday.com.

Build TFSA wealth with this free book offer if you subscribe to The Successful Investor

Try The Successful Investor and get Findependence Day free

FindependenceDayBookThe article below is a joint venture between TSI Network and the Financial Independence Hub. TSI Network is making the following Special Offer for Hub Readers:

Try out Pat McKeough’s flagship advisory, The Successful Investor for just $59, and get a free copy of Findependence Day (Canadian edition).

For more details, click link below:

Build Real Wealth With your TFSA.

Below is the jointly written article that ran last week at the Hub:

 

tsi_network_dailyBy TSI Network and Jonathan Chevreau

 

TFSAs let you earn investment income—including interest, dividends and capital gains—tax free.

The federal government first made the Tax-free Savings Account (TFSA) available to Canadian investors in January 2009. These accounts let you earn investment income — including interest, dividends and capital gains — tax free. You could contribute $5,000 in 2009 to start your Tax-free Savings Account.

Every year until 2013, you could contribute an additional $5,000 to your TFSA. If you contribute less than the maximum to your TFSA in any given year, you can carry the difference forward. That means your TFSA contributions for 2009 and 2010 totalled $10,000, rising to $15,000 in 2011, $20,000 in 2012 and so on.

As of January 1, 2013 the annual contribution limit increased to $5,500, in line with the initial promise to adjust limits with rising inflation. It remains at $5,500 for 2015. That means that if you haven’t contributed yet (and were 18 years or older in 2009) you can now contribute up to $36,500. At some point, once the federal books are balanced, the Conservative government is on record that it will boost the annual TFSA limit to $10,000.

Canadian Tax-Free Savings Account concept word cloudHow to shelter your gains with a Tax-free Savings Account

Use your TFSA to complement your RRSP.

Generally speaking, your TFSA can hold the same investments as an RRSP. This includes cash, mutual funds, publicly traded stocks, GICs and bonds.

Contributions are not tax deductible, as they are with an RRSP. However, unlike withdrawals from RRSPs (or withdrawals for RRIFs to which most RRSPs are converted), withdrawals from a TFSA are not taxed. In this respect, RRSPs and TFSAs are mirror images of each other in the way they impact your taxes.

This makes the TFSA a good vehicle for more short-term savings goals, like saving up for a down payment on a first home. If funds are limited, you may need to choose between RRSP and TFSA contributions. RRSPs may be the better choice in years of high income when you’re in the top tax brackets, since RRSP contributions are deductible from your taxable income. In years of low or no income — such as when you’re in school, beginning your career or between jobs — TFSAs may be the better choice.

Investing in a TFSA in low-income years will provide a real benefit in retirement. When you’re retired, you can draw down your TFSA first, incurring zero tax liabilities. After that, you can begin making taxable RRSP withdrawals.

Hold low-risk investments in your TFSA. Read more

Are you ready for The Big Shift?

bigshiftIf you’re intrigued by the kind of content we publish here and on our sister site, you should be fascinated by The Big Shift, a book published originally in 2011 by Marc Freedman.

The subtitle tells it all: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. Freedman is a “social entrepreneur” who founded a firm called Civic Ventures (now Encore.org), and previously published (in 2007) a book called Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. We’ll review that in the next few weeks.

Both books have crystallized my thinking of what our sister site is all about, so much so that we have renamed the fifth of its six major blog categories Encore Acts, (from the previous Business Ownership). As we noted Saturday in the Hub’s new weekly wrap, an Encore Act may or may not include entrepreneurship but there are many Encore Acts that may not involve launching a new business.

The Longevity Bonus: centenarians galore? Read more

Maybe you just THINK you want to retire?

senior gentleman working on laptop outdoors

My latest MoneySense blog has been posted, titled Maybe you just think you want to retire?

The word “think” needs to be emphasized, since the point is that I’m not so sure baby boomers really want to retire anymore, at least not in their 50s or early 60s. I actually had written this particular blog before reading and reviewing some books about Encore Careers and Second Acts, such as last week’s review of Unretirement.

Of course, this website and sister site Financial Independence Hub are dedicated to the proposition that there is a difference between traditional “full-stop” retirement and Financial Independence, or “Findependence.” To us, Findependence sets the stage for one’s true calling in life, which is why the six blog sections over at the Hub now include one called Encore Acts. From where I sit, it’s a lot easier to launch an Encore Act once you have a modicum of Financial Independence established.

For the full blog, click the blue link above.

For archival purposes and the convenience of one-stop shopping, you can also find the original blog below.

Read more

Baby Boomers embrace Unretirement

BN-ER243_bkrvun_GV_20140923135029Unretirement is a concept not unlike Findependence or Financial Independence; it’s also the title of a recently published book by Chris Farrell, Bloomberg Businessweek columnist and senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s syndicated radio show, Marketplace.

I’ve also seen the term Unretirement used by Sun Life Financial in Canada but that seems to be more a marketing term the company uses to promote its surveys on traditional retirement. That survey has been going for six years now, which certainly predates the publication of Farrell’s Unretirement (it was published in 2014 by New York-based Bloomsbury Publishing plc).

The theme of the book is encapsulated in the title of the opening chapter: Work Long and Prosper. As we’ve noted in the Aging & Longevity section of our sister site, the Financial Independence Hub, advances in life expectancy suggests the Baby Boomers and succeeding generations may work long past the traditional retirement age of 65.

True, many boomers may no longer be employed by giant corporations — either because they choose to leave or are involuntarily parted from such employment — but Farrell sees most of them becoming free agents of some sort: finding new “encore” careers, starting new businesses or contracting their services back to former employers while adding other clients, volunteering and philanthropy, among other activities.

Five pitfalls related to Longevity Read more

More “100% pure” indexers come out of the woodwork

By Jonathan Chevreau

Here’s my latest MoneySense blog, which is a followup to Robb Engen’s article over at sister site The Hub about his conversion from stock-picking to 100% “pure” indexing.

After Robb revealed his “conversion” and I appealed for other readers with similar stories, readers started to come out of the woodwork. In one of the cases, the “confession” appeared first at MoneySense and now here and the Hub.

In addition to the two readers profiled in the MoneySense blog, I’ve already started to receive more emails from other “pure” readers. Please let me know by emailing me at jonathan@findependence.com. Hopefully, we’ll discover that there are a lot more than the half dozen I’m so far aware of.

I’ve republished the original version of the blog below and included photographs of the two readers that were not included in the MoneySense version:

Pure indexers step forward

robb-engen

Boomer & Echo’s Robb Engen

Early in January, popular blogger and fee-only financial planner Robb Engen announced on Twitter and his Boomer & Echo site that he had finally bitten the bullet – he’d liquidated his portfolio of individual dividend-paying stocks in order to become a 100% “pure” indexer.

As he subsequently revealed in a blog at the Financial Independence Hub, he “felt like a part of me died,” but nevertheless manned up and sold off his 24 stocks, $100,000 worth of them. He replaced them with just two Vanguard ETFs that happen to be MoneySense ETF All-stars: the All World ex-Canada ETF (VXC) and Canada All Cap Index ETF (VCN) and “that’s it.”

Click on the link for the full story but the rest of this blog is about two young investors who responded to my request for similar dramatic Damascene conversions. It had seemed to me that Robb’s heroic conversion was unique although the pages of MoneySense’s magazine and books have occasionally been graced by a similar tale from Millionaire Teacher Andrew Hallam.

Jason_St-Hilaire

Jason St-Hilaire

Embracing the Global Couch Potato

Jason St. Hilaire (@TcommeFinance on Twitter) is 31 and lives in Quebec City. The medical physicist started to invest seriously in December of 2011, when he put the ING Direct Balanced Fund in his TFSA and ING Growth Equity Fund in his RRSP. His early research made the case for index investing, so he put four TD e-Series funds in his TFSA (the Global Couch Potato portfolio).

“At some point I even bought some Bitcoins. You can see that I was all over the place.” Then, like Robb Engen before his dramatic turnaround, in the summer of 2012 St. Hilaire discovered the Canadian Drip Primer and the DRiP Investing Resource Center.

“I figured I could try my hand with good dividend stocks with nice yields …I built myself a 10-stock portfolio with no real investing plan whatsoever. I would buy what I would feel like buying.” By 2013, he and his partner were raising cash to buy a home, liquidated the index funds and transferred the stocks to their brokerage account. They still have three stocks: “I see the stock market going down and can’t help but tell myself to wait until my positions recover. Can you say ‘behavioral bias?’ “

Unable to stay completely out of the market, early in 2015 he restarted his Global Couch Potato portfolio in his TFSA, adding $200 every other week. “The dividend stock experiment was fun, but I don’t want to spend so much time researching companies and trying to find bargains. In my situation, going with market returns with a simple portfolio is appropriate. I just need to get over my own non-sense to finally become a pure, 100% index investor. And now that I just confessed this to someone, I might just do that.”

“Pure” since 2011

patmciver

Pat McIver

Another young investor who contacted me was Pat McIver (@mrpatmciver on Twitter.) After a brief fling picking individual stocks, he and his wife became “100% pure indexers” in 2011. They use only index-tracking ETFs for their RRSPs and TFSAs, and even for their toddlers’ RESPs.

“I had a professor at Carleton University tell me back in 2003 in his 3rd-year finance class that I shouldn’t bother trying to pick stocks, market time, or waste energy on trying to beat the market. He said the smartest thing we could ever do as investors was buy index funds (ETFs or mutual funds), and hold them.”

Despite this, after graduating, he dabbled in Nortel, RIMM, BMO, and CP but held them for only short periods and neither made or lost money. “I realized early on I was somewhat a risk-averse investor when it came to picking individual securities, and never had the confidence that I was able to identify the ‘winner’ fund or the ‘loser’ stock.”

Fortuitous timing

With prescient timing, they withdrew funds from their RRSPs in August 2008 to buy their first home, and started to reestablish their RRSPs in January 2009 (also great timing!). They owned Altamira Canadian Index, TD International Equity Index Currency-Hedged and US Index and the actively managed TD Canadian Bond. They departed from this only to buy a few shares of Canadian Pacific.

In January 2011, after reading various blogs, including MoneySense, he switched his wife’s RRSP into iShares ETFs (25% XBB, 25% XIU, 10% XCS, 20% XSP, 15% XIN and 5% XEM.) Then Pat ditched the CP shares and a few mutual funds to go “all-in with index ETFs: 20% XBB, 35% XIU, 25% XSP and 20% XIN.  “This past summer, I reduced the holdings in my wife’s RRSP from six to four.”

Pat says the blended annual cost is 0.31%. “We also switched our XSP for VUN and switched XIU for XIC to broaden our diversification in the US and Canadian markets, respectively.” They rebalance once a year.

“When we started investing again in early 2009, I decided we would go with a mostly-index-based portfolio. In 2011, I decided we might as well go on in and once our allocation weightings were set, just leave it and let it ride until we retire in 2036 (the earliest date we can retire as federal government civil servants).

As a busy family man with a two-hour daily commute, Pat is happy “knowing I have a broad-based diversified portfolio that is low-cost and contains minimal funds gives me great comfort (and no sleepless nights) that I don’t have to worry about whether I am “winning” or “losing” vis-a-vis the market. I doubt I would ever go back to being an active investor ever again.”

So, counting Hallam and a handful of advisors I know, I’m aware of half a dozen truly pure indexers. Anyone else out there? Email me at jonathan@findependenceday.com.

 

 

How Ernie Zelinski retired Happy, Wild & Free

How-to-Retire-Happy-Cover-3D-2-2-AI have a lot of books about Retirement and Financial Independence in my personal library, but I seldom go through any one twice. Today’s review is an exception because of a lunch I had with a friend we’ll call Albert (not his actual name).

Albert is a former client with whom I’ve kept in touch. He’s now 70 and just begun to retire. Because of various circumstances, he was unable to engage in most of the basic practices described here or at our sister site, the Financial Independence Hub:  so no taxable or tax-sheltered savings for Albert.

Fortunately for him, he bought a house in Toronto at something like a third of what’s it’s worth now, and it’s that home equity that has allowed him to finally stop working. He has no dependents and after going over the pros and cons took out a reverse mortgage.

The Joy of Not Working

But that’s not what this blog is about. Over our lunch, Albert told me he’d been at the public library to check out books about Retirement. Two were by a Canadian writer who has achieved massive international success through self publishing: Ernie Zelinski. He’s written 15 books but the two best-known were the ones Albert got from the library: The Joy of Not Working and How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free. I told him I’d read both a long time ago and likely reviewed them when they first came out.

Retrieving Wild & Free from my office shelves, I noticed I had read it in November 2003, when I was 50 and (as it turned out), still more than a decade from my Findependence Day. I started to flip the pages and noted I had underlined many passages, some of which I reproduce below.

It holds up well. Note the subtitle of Wild & Free: “Retirement Wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”

Connoisseur of Leisure is now 65

Photo of Ernie Zelinski

Ernie Zelinski

Zelinski is an interesting character. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta and opted for semi-retirement when he was 30, despite having a net worth of minus $30,000 at the time. Born in 1949, he turned 65 last summer. Zelinksi, who is unmarried, has long described himself as a “connoisseur of leisure” who used to work just two or three hours a day.

That work was mostly writing his books, generally in various Edmonton coffee shops. He religiously adhered to a daily writing regime that clearly worked for him: as of 2015, The Joy of Not Working has sold 280,000 copies, Zelinski told me this week.

Zelinski self-published Joy between 1991 and 1997, at which point he handed it to Ten Speed Press, later acquired by Random House. While it has slightly outsold Wild & Free, he makes more from the latter because it’s self published. He says it was rejected by 35 British and American publishers and sent me three rejection letters to confirm it. One New York giant publishing house told him in 2003 that “the retirement shelf” is quite crowded but “we hope you prove us wrong.”

I’d say he did: He has since negotiated 111 book deals with publishers in 29 countries. The two big titles continue to sell, so much so he says he can’t qualify for Old Age Security. “I’m making the best money ever in my life. Only 1% get it clawed back … I guess I’m a 1 percenter among 65-year olds.” He now works about half an hour a day. How he spends the other 23-and-half hours you can divine from his books.

Do we focus too much on the financial side of retirement?

As I perused the pages of Wild & Free once again, I was struck by how little the book dealt with the usual financial matters that the personal finance press tends to focus on. Here’s one passage I had underlined 12 years ago:

“… the biggest mistake you can make with your retirement planning is to concentrate only on the financial aspects.”

Some of the points in the chapter summaries include “You are never too young to retire,” “Retiring too late means you don’t get another chance to do it right”, “Life is short — and so is money,” and “It’s better to live rich than die rich.”

The book nicely touches on the dilemma debated just last week in a MoneySense blog I wrote that was repurposed here at our sister site (aka “The Hub”) under the headline, “Retirement Planning would be so much easier if we knew (exactly) when we were going to die.”

I have to admit that once I re-read the passages I had underlined in 2003, and much more that I hadn’t the first time around, I thought to myself: “Why am I working so hard when I really don’t have to?”

It’s not about loafing but about staying active

Zelinski’s list of things you can do in Retirement takes multiple pages to list and it got me thinking about my own oft-postponed semi-retirement. When I put the book down for the second time, I was even inspired to go back to a hobby that had obsessed me between 2004 and 2011 or so: Internet bridge. Over those years, I had encountered many cyber personalities from around the world and was pleased to reencounter several of them once I did.

While Zelinski doesn’t use the term Findependence, his vision of Semi-Retirement is certainly consistent with this website’s insistence that our last few decades need to have purpose:

“This I can assure you: You won’t find genuine joy and satisfaction by spending all your time sleeping, relaxing, loafing, and watching TV, hoping to live up to the ideal of a true idler … To retire happy, wild, and free, you must stay active.”

As I have noted in other blogs about Extreme Early Retirement, Zelinski is certainly no loafer: he was smart enough to get out of the corporate jungle early in life so he could become an entrepreneur: in addition to his publishing empire he still speaks a bit. Sounds corny but it’s another case of “do what you love and the money will follow.”

I could go on at length but if you want more, go ahead and buy the book, or for $2.99 you could buy this summary e-book by Bob Matthews. It certainly made me think and I’d love to hear from Zelinski fans who have implemented his ideas over the years.

Just drop me a line at jonathan@findependenceday.com. In fact, Ernie himself supplied me with a few letters from readers who achieved an even more happy, wild and free retirement than the author himself.

We’ll revisit them in a few weeks.

An ominous trend in Millennials’ growing use of credit cards

Here’s my latest MoneySense blog, which looks at what I perceive to be a developing problem in the abuse of credit cards by a few Millennials with whom I am acquainted. I name no names but the guilty know who they are! More’s the pity, because the book Findependence Day starts with an opening scene built around a young couple’s similar credit-card problem!

For one-stop shopping purposes and convenience, here’s the original version:

Young Woman on a Shopping SpreeBy Jonathan Chevreau

With some reluctance, I feel compelled to return to the age-old topic of excessive credit-card debt. I do so because lately I’ve had chats with some of my nephews and nieces, all in the age range of 23 to 24. These kids have now all graduated from university or community college, have made a first stab at being in the workforce, and have already racked up what I consider to be excessive credit-card debt.

In one case, this is combined with a hefty student loan. The (single) parent in question may not be loaded but I was nevertheless surprised by the extent of the debt. Same with the young person on the other side of the family, where the parents are doing quite well financially. When I learned he had this debt and was paying only the minimum monthly amount, you can imagine the discussion that ensued.

In fact, I dug into the personal archives to confess that when I was their age (well, late 20s), I too was that close to insolvency. Unlike the situation today, when I was freelance in the 1980s I was single, rented an apartment and had no financial assets to speak of. My debts were minimal but I did tend to run a credit-card balance of $500 or $1,000 and until I woke from my stupor, did as my nephew is now doing and paid just the monthly minimum.

My own credit-card epiphany

As I related to my young relative, part of the reason for my indebtedness back then was that I was in the habit of buying Compact Discs, which then ran at about $20 each. My credit-card epiphany was when I realized that in a typical month, I was paying $40 in interest payments. One day I thought to myself, “My goodness. I could be buying two CDs every month with that money!” So I stopped buying them for awhile (I may even have done what I do today, and frequented a library) and whittled the balance down to zero. At that point, I reasoned, I was free to pay $40 a month in cash to buy two CDs.

And I think that’s the way young people should approach this problem. Think of a good or service you value, then imagine it going down the drain to the credit-card company just because of your poor spending and debt repayment discipline. For example, my nephew is a big hockey fan: perhaps visualizing the purchase price of a junior hockey game going up in smoke each month might be enough to get him to change his ways.

One way around the problem

On his Boomer & Echo blog, fee-only financial planner Robb Engen once described his personal strategy for getting out from under the burden of credit-card debt. He was tackling the question of whether to pay off the balance in full the moment each expense is incurred, or waiting until the end of the 21-30 day grace period that amounts to an interest-free loan. As he relates, the risk of maximizing the grace period is that sometimes you miscalculate and end up paying out interest you hadn’t reckoned on paying.

But the point remains. The credit-card companies love it if you leave balances unpaid and choose to do what my nephew did and pay just the minimum monthly amount. With interest rates still near 20%, that way lies madness: most card statements should say somewhere just how long it will take to pay off a debt if all you do is pay the minimum. It’s several years in most cases, and you’d be shocked to find out just how much interest you’re shelling out with this strategy (and I use that term loosely!).

Far better to be on the receiving end of interest, either by collecting interest on GICs or fixed-income investments like bonds, or better yet, by owning the shares of big U.S. credit-card giants like Visa or Mastercharge. Early buyers of either stock have made out like bandits, which is exactly what they are: bandits!

Don’t let them hold you up!

The Crash of 2016?

crash2016As a rule, I avoid reading too many financial books based either on Greed or Fear. Still, when you have a good chunk of your net worth invested in the stock market, it’s hard not to have a twinge of doubt when you encounter books like Thom Hartmann’s The Crash of 2016.

I paid no attention to this book when it was published late in 2013 but now it’s 2015, well, 2016 isn’t so far away now, is it?

Why am I writing about it now? I wasn’t responding to a belated PR campaign by the publisher (Hachette Book Group) but stumbled on it while searching for other books on Kindle. The Kindle sample on offer didn’t enlighten me much about the author’s thesis (that should have been a clue!) so I ordered it from the local library, not feeling any urgency to get my hands on it.

Indeed, the last time I read such a book was Harry Dent Jr’s The Great Crash Ahead and of course so far that prediction has yet to manifest. Read my 2011 review of the book, at which time Dent predicted the Dow might fall as low as 3,000. So far,  no cigar: to the contrary, the market spent much of 2014 besting itself, racking up all-time-high after all-time-high. As I write the Dow is still hanging in above 17,000.

Still, as the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. See also Barron’s piece at the time titled “Harry’s Dented Prophecies.

No doubt, Hartmann – a prolific author with New York Times bestseller status – would view the current level of the market as the proverbial selling opportunity. For those unfamiliar with the former DJ turned entrepreneur and political commentator, here is his Wikipedia entry.

Hartmann’s focus is US economy, not stocks

Actually, somewhat strangely, Hartmann’s book is not chiefly about the stock market. It’s more about a general breakdown in the American economy and social safety net, and the reader is left to infer that part of that will involve some (or a lot) of air escaping from the still-elevated stock market. His theory is that these things go in cycles and every 80 years or so, civilization is doomed to repeat the last economic debacle once the previous generation passes away. This he calls “the great forgetting.”

“We are standing today at the edge of the Fourth Great Crash and war in American history. The previous three — each about eighty years apart — were gut-wrenching in their horror and bloodshed, but they ultimately transformed America in ways that made this a greater and more egalatarian nation.”

Hartmann’s “crash” consists of a combination of economic meltdown, war, environmental crisis, radical social transformation and the “gridlock of dysfunctional government.” He adds that “for some Americans, the crash is already well under way.” (Presumably he is talking about the unemployed or failed businesses).

Since there’s very little about the stock market in the book, there is likewise little or nothing about how one would go about protecting against a crash were one convinced that such a catastrophe truly was around the corner. Nothing on put options or reverse ETFs or ETNs, nothing on asset allocation, hedge funds, real estate, commodities and gold or alternative assets.

How Tax Cuts for the rich hurt the middle class

Hartmann’s beef is chiefly with what he terms the rich “Economic Royalists,” and particularly billionaires, who he believes should have all their wealth taxed away after their first billion. In practice, he’s referring to the Republican party and its allies, such as Fox News, and their joint success in watering down Obama’s agenda. Since Ronald Reagan, the “Royalists” have succeeded in rolling back the system of graduated income tax, with the result that the middle class is being squeezed. Hartmann has mined this terrain before, with books like Rebooting the American Dream and Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class.

When the wealthy bore fairly high taxes in the years before Reagan, Hartmann theorizes that business owners chose mostly to reinvest in their businesses, plant and workers, so as to avoid taking income out of the business and being taxed at high rates personally. But with the Reagan tax cuts and those under subsequent administrations, rich business owners have been more inclined to pull more money out of their enterprises to be enjoyed personally.

Why late 2016?

So why the timing of 2016? Again, it’s about politics. As Hartmann explains, by late 2016 Barack Obama’s second term in office will be winding down, and politicians always do what they can to keep things rosy until they step down, don’t they?

“The Obama administration will do the same thing the Bush administration did when confronted with the forces of the ongoing of the oncoming Great Crash in 2007-2008. It will tinker around the edges, inflate as many bubbles as possible, and try desperately to hold things off until the November 2016 elections are safely in the bag. If it doesn’t all come apart before then, that will be the time of maximum vulnerability.”

So what to do about all this? If you agree with most financial advisers that timing the market is futile, then you should do little or nothing. On the other hand, if you agree with Hartmann’s thesis you might want to closely monitor things a year from now, perhaps lightening up by the summer of 2016. Of course, with the oil-related volatility we’ve been seeing of late, the wheels could come off long before 2016.

Ironically, back when he was writing the book in 2013, Hartmann was describing the perils not of falling oil prices, but of rising ones.

This book and the November 2016 elections may turn out to be so much noise; then again, remember the quip about forecasting pundits and stopped clocks. Once in a blue moon — or even twice a day — they are correct.

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