Is “Stay At Home” Like Retirement?

Well, is it? I think it depends on your circumstances and your mindset. I know, it’s an equivocal answer, but let me explain.

Laid Off

If you are at home because you were laid off and you need to get back to work to support yourself and your family, then our current situation is likely not like early retirement. If you need to work to support yourself, you likely are younger and and not even thinking about retirement, early or otherwise. You are likely not happy about being home now and are working hard to get rehired or at least get back into the workforce. It is likely a stressful time for you.

Happily Laid Off

Perhaps you are happy that you were laid off, or at least not upset about it. You live within your means and you may have needed a mental break. Is this current time away from your job meeting your expectations? Here are some thoughts on how to answer that question:

  • Are you productive outside of work? Do you have a need to accomplish things that was previously satisfied by your job? And, if so, are you currently satisfied with how much you are able to accomplish now that you are not working?
  • Social Interaction: Do you miss the social aspects of your job? More or less than you thought you might? Do you have a family or close social relationships outside of your job that satisfy your social needs without the work part? Some people postpone their retirements not because of the money part but more due to the social aspects of their jobs. Don’t consider yourself “weird” if you don’t miss the money but do miss the people you used to work with.
  • Travel: Did you previously envision that your retirement would involve a lot of travel? And now that you are at home and likely unable to travel, are you disappointed? Do you think that you would be happier if you could travel more? Or do you miss travel less than you thought you would? Being stuck at home can be fun for some but can grow boring for others. Some like a daily routine while others need constant new stimulation. If this Travel issue is a big one for you, then don’t equate your current situation with what it would be like to be retired. And, if you do really miss the travel, then take a second look at your finances to see if you really have enough money saved to indulge your travel urges.

Still Working At Home

If you are still working from your home office, then this experience is not like retirement, but perhaps you can envision retirement from in front of your Zoom camera. You can see what goes on in your home and in your neighborhood while you would otherwise be at the office at work. Do you like what you see? Do you like where you live? If not now, perhaps with some modifications? If any of that is true, then how does that change your retirement plans? Many in the media are projecting that the “work at home” experience will remain with us even after the All Clear is sounded. Building landlords are concerned that their tenants will want to downsize their space or eliminate their real estate needs altogether. Are you enjoying “work at home” as much as the traditional office? Going forward, would you consider a job situation that would entail you working at home? At least your commute would be a lot easier, right? High tech companies seem to be at the forefront of allowing employees to work at home at least some of the time, and we will see how the remainder of traditional companies move to allow their employees also to work from home at least some of the time.

Part Time

I’m guessing that a lot of people would enjoy working from home especially if they could do it on a part-time basis. This may be the best of all worlds: social interaction and a sense of accomplishment through working but without the hassle of the commute; salary and perhaps even benefits such as health insurance; more time for yourself and your family with fewer work hours and no commute; perhaps less need to spend on wardrobe and other things that aren’t as necessary if one is working remotely. The demographics of an aging workforce means that there will likely be a growing component to whom a part time situation will have a lot of appeal. We will see over time to what extent companies adapt to part time employees, if at all. Prior to this shutdown, unemployment in the US was in the mid 3%-range, which indicates that there was a shortage of workers in some areas. With unemployment spiking due to (hopefully) temporary layoffs, the job market has become more of an employer’s market than employee’s market, which doesn’t bode as well for people who now want to work part-time. Nevertheless, as the hoped-for recovery moves forward, look for part-time opportunities to open up because more and more of our aging workforce will want it.

IMO

If nothing else, this economic shutdown is providing all workers whose work lives are affected by it with the opportunity at least to consider more closely what they want their retirement to look like. Given this experience, when you have the chance to do so, you should consider what your retirement budget looked like prior to the shutdown, and how you might change it now that we are in the midst of the shutdown and you have perhaps a better idea of the specifics of what you want your retirement to be like. Do you need help in thinking any or all of this through? Please contact me, and as a CFP® Professional, I can help you develop a retirement plan that meets your needs.

Dividend Cuts

Royal Dutch Shell (RDS-A and RDS-B) and Disney (DIS) are among the most prominent companies to have announced dividend cuts or suspensions due to the Covid-19 economic shutdown. Cash is king during crises such as this and dividend cuts are an effort by companies to conserve cash. Look for more dividend cuts, but think the cuts won’t be as severe as others might think because maintaining dividends is a crucial part of some companies’ missions.

Vulnerable Sectors

I believe some sectors will be more vulnerable to dividend cuts than will others. Among the more vulnerable sectors are the following:

  • Energy Sector: RDS is the biggest example, but Schlumberger (SLB) is another company to have cut its dividend by 75%. With the price of oil having tanked (no pun intended), energy sector revenues are down and energy companies are struggling with their cash flow. Yet, since RDS announced its dividend cut in late April, the other “majors” such as ExxonMobil and Chevron have not followed suit and have maintained their dividends. The price of oil has recovered somewhat from its sub-$20 days and so we will see if companies will continue to maintain their dividends. Perhaps RDS will raise its dividend if the oil price continues to stabilize. Even the “midstream” pipeline companies and such, which have traditionally been stable dividend plays for investors, are potentially at risk if economic activity and therefore energy consumption remains at risk for a longer period of time.
  • Entertainment Sector: With entertainment venues shut down, revenues are really suffering, and dividends from this sector are extremely vulnerable. DIS has plenty of cash and could have paid its dividend but there was so much uncertainty at the time that they chose instead not to pay their 1st half dividend. With their parks worldwide starting to reopen with the new normal of human interaction, but with people starving to have something fun to do, look for Disney to pay its 2nd half dividend later this year. Theater owner AMC Entertainment slashed its dividend by 85% in the 1st quarter 2020 – look for its possible elimination in the 2nd quarter as its venues are closed.
  • REITs: I am looking particularly at office and potentially mortgage REITs. Will workers flock back to traditional offices once the Covid scare is mitigated? Or will companies follow the lead of some its Silicon Valley brethren (such as Twitter) and allow workers to continue to work from home even post-Covid? I don’t see the demand for office space growing in the near future. With mortgage REITs, rates are so low that top-line revenues will likely be diminished, which could put stress on the dividend going forward. Annaly Capital Management (NLY), a company I have followed for years, has maintained its dividend while its stock price has fallen by about 40%, pre-Covid to now.

More Stable Sectors

On the good news side, traditional dividend plays such as the telecoms (AT&T and Verizon) have taken hits in their stock price (T more so than VZ) but have maintained their dividends. I would expect their dividend rates to be maintained. Also, the mega-caps that pay dividends, particularly AAPL and MSFT, will likely continue to do so.

IMO

As the picture brightens somewhat and the economy continues to open up, the dividend story, which looked really bad a month ago, may turn out to be not as bad as feared. Dividend cuts are not treated lightly and investors tend to punish companies that cut dividends. We are right in the middle of the 2nd quarter and financial results will be bad when they are announced in a couple of months or so. More dividend cuts could be announced, but if companies are looking at a brighter future when the time comes for the decision about dividends, perhaps companies will bite the bullet and maintain their current dividends and hope that the brighter future pans out. What to do if you are a dividend investor? Diversify! Don’t have all of your eggs in one basket, either in one company or one sector that might be more vulnerable than another. Alternatively, look at potential sources other than dividends to generate current income within your portfolio. I run a strategy that does so – send me a note to find out more!

Reopening Schools

If and when it happens, and hopefully it will as it does normally in August and September, the reopening of elementary and secondary schools will provide a big emotional boost to our nation. It will also allow more people to go back to work, which in turn will provide a boost to our economy and help to pull it out of the current nosedive. However, there are many issues that need to be overcome. Let’s see if we as a country can make it happen.

Is this what elementary school will look like in the US?

Issues

Covid-19 is the main obstacle to schools and their ability to operate again. Schools are not conducive to social distancing – elementary schools especially. On the other hand, kids don’t seem to be as susceptible to Covid-19. Nevertheless, schools need to make adjustments.

This “Guidance for Social Distancing for Youth and Student Programs” by the Minnesota Department of Health provides a good list of things schools will need to consider and do. I would be other states’ Health or Education departments will put together similar guidance statements. Staggering school opening times, cafeteria availability, and how and when to allow especially kids in lower grades to go to the bathroom and drink from the water fountain are issues that need to be thought through and dealt with.

More Needs but Less Money

Here’s the problem: All of the ideas such as staggering starting times or going to morning and afternoon shifts require more money to be spent on the schools at exactly the time states’ tax revenues are plunging due to the economic shutdown. A school district can’t hire additional instructors if there isn’t money to pay them. Also: if money somehow does appear and schools are able to hire more teachers, will the schools be able to let those teachers go when life returns to normal perhaps 1-2 years from now? The various school systems and teachers’ unions are not set up to be flexible during times of crisis such as this. School funding in many states was a struggle even before this. I can’t imagine how bad it is now.

IMO

For what it’s worth, here is what I think will happen with the opening of school during August and September of this year:

  • Schools will open on time, which will be a big morale boost;
  • Students will have to wear face masks, which they will hate;
  • Teachers will be asked to increase their workload and time they spend with the students, which they will begrudgingly comply with;
  • Sports and other extracurricular activities will be severely curtailed, especially in areas where money is very short;
  • The ability for teachers to teach and students to learn will be negatively impacted, but it still will be better than doing remote learning;
  • Little kids will probably be scared and/or have issues understanding why things are the way they are;
  • Parents will have to maintain flexibility in their own work schedules to accommodate for their kids’ not being at school all day or every day;
  • Which in turn means that employers will need to continue to allow for workers to work from home;
  • Which means that work productivity will not be at a level that it could be without all of this.

Look for schools to provide a boost, but the magnitude of the boost will be dulled by the continuing issues related to and caused by Covid-19.

The Future of Restaurants

Restaurants are among the hardest hit segments of the economy worldwide. Layoffs have been extensive. Some restaurants are making do plugging along with takeout fare, but with the more lucrative bar segment effectively shuttered, profit margins are sinking. In some areas, restaurants were suffering prior to the COVID outbreak due to higher costs including higher wages. The saying “Never invest in anything that eats or needs repainting” is true for a reason: the restaurant business is brutal and it is difficult to make money. More so now.

The Good Old Days

The Future

The future of the restaurant business is open to rampant speculation. Just Google “The future of restaurants Covid” and read some interesting articles. This article from Food and Wine Magazine has some interesting ideas. Here is my take on what we might see in the near future, which is whenever restaurants are allowed to open up again to in-seat dining:

  • Fewer Restaurants: Sadly, many restaurants will not reopen. Some projections: 50% of restaurants in San Francisco will close (Golden Gate Restaurant Association). 110,000 restaurants will close nationally (Business Insider). It’s going to be really bad.
  • Fewer Seats/Lower Capacity: At least for the time being in the restaurants that make it through, seating capacity will be limited due to social distancing guidelines.
  • Higher Prices: If the supply of restaurant seats is cut drastically through closures and reduced capacity while demand or potential demand either remains the same or reduces by a smaller amount, then prices will have to rise, and I think they will by a lot. I’m guessing we will have to pay 30% to 50% more for a nice meal at a quality restaurant. Maybe not so much at fast food places, but those too will have to increase prices, especially if the rumored meat shortage comes to fruition.
  • Takeout Business Will Continue: Just because restaurants are allowed to open up again doesn’t mean that customers will flock back. A lot of people are genuinely afraid to venture out even if the government says it is ok to do so. Also, many people may find that they like ordering in and dining at home as much or more than they do at restaurants. Anecdotally, I believe the takeout/home delivery model was a big hit among younger people even before Covid. The DoorDashes and GrubHubs of the world are here to stay.
  • Tax Deductibility: The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reduced the tax deductibility of dinners out (while reducing the corporate tax rate). President Trump wants to restore full deduction of dinners out. Being a flat tax advocate, I am not in favor of using the tax code to influence taxpayer behavior, including in this case. However, I expect that something will get passed in this regard. Don’t look for it to be a big help.
  • A More “Rare” Experience: I’m not saying here that people will be eating more Rare meat. I am saying that going to restaurants and eating in there will become a less frequent experience in people’s lives. The restaurants that survive will be crowded and will cost a lot more. People won’t be able to afford as much of it. That said, perhaps going to restaurant will become a more valued, savored experience, which is consistent with the way it was 50 to 100 years ago.
  • Effect on Travel: Did you ever think that you won’t be able to travel somewhere because there are no restaurants available at your destination? Combined with the threat of getting sick, the dearth of dining opportunities will further diminish the experience of travel. Hope you like where you live now!

IMO

None of this is either good or bad, except if you own or work in a restaurant that has or will close. Then it is bad. But basically it will be another situation that citizens worldwide will have to adapt to. Restaurants will close, but soon entrepreneurs with short memories and big dreams will start new ones. Forests that burn start to regenerate soon thereafter. I don’t know how soon the restaurant industry will start to regenerate but it will, albeit in a different way. As for investing, I wouldn’t touch a restaurant stock or private restaurant investment with a ten foot pole. Don’t look for deep values here because there will be further bad news. Leave the investing to the professionals. Meanwhile, while you are still at home, support your local restaurants now by ordering takeout. It might help to keep your favorite restaurants in business through this godawful period.

Inflation and Gold

In the US in the past, major economic intervention by the Fed and the US Treasury and a spike in the money supply such as we are having now have led to inflation. For example, the “Guns and Butter” policies of the 1960s resulted in increased inflation in the 1970s. Will this $4 to $5-Trillion expansion we are seeing now lead to inflation down the road? Gold buyers seem to believe so. The spot price of gold in the futures market has risen from about $1,500 per ounce in late March to over $1,700 currently, and the Gold ETF (Ticker symbol GLD) has risen from under $140 to over $160. What do I think?

The Financial Crisis

When was the last time the Fed intervened in a major way and what happened with inflation then? You need to look back only a scant 12-13 years to the “Great Recession” caused by the MBS unraveling in 2007-2008. As a result of that crisis, the Fed expanded its balance sheet by over $3 Trillion and kept it there until it started slowly to reduce its balance sheet during the past couple of years. Did inflation result? Not at all. In fact, Deflation may have been a larger issue. Inflation remained in check because, at the same time the Fed was adding to its balance sheet, the global supply chain was in expansion mode and more and the supply of goods to consumers remained inexpensive. In addition, microprocessor power continued to expand and so people and companies could purchase more power for less cost. Today’s iPhone has 1 to 7 million times more memory than did the computer on Apollo 11. The growth in international trade as well as in computer power is deflationary and so the segments of the economy that drove the recovery from the Great Recession kept inflation in check.

This Time It’s Different?

Will this time be different such that we will have inflation where there was none after the Great Recession? Let’s look at the aspects that I outlined above that kept inflation down the last time. The growth in computing power doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Not-too-distant future trends are projected to include 5G WiFi access and quantum computing, both of which will speed up and improve our ability to access information on the internet. True, iPhone prices go up but the capabilities of smart phones continue to improve. I believe that the growth in technology will continue to be a headwind that will work to keep inflation low.

However, I do think that the global supply chain is in the process of at least a big hiccup. The reputation of China is at least a big loser in this COVID pandemic. Companies have been and will continue to look for alternative sources of manufacturing, and there could be a period of disruption as this adjustment takes place. In addition and related to supply chain issues, we have meat shortages projected due to the closing down of some meat processing plants and also due to the shift from supplying to restaurants vs. supplying to grocery retailers. If the supply of restaurants diminishes through the closure of some restaurants and the reduction in the number of seats available in the restaurants that remain open, what do you think might happen to the cost of going out to eat? There is a good chance that it will cost significantly more.

IMO

So I do think there is some validity to the inflation argument this time, at least for the short term, meaning the next few years. Then again, if it is harder to get a dinner reservation and it costs more to eat out, perhaps people will adjust and eat at home more, thereby keeping prices lower. Don’t forget, we have 14% unemployment which could be headed higher, and so there may not be the disposable income available out there to pay for higher restaurant prices even if and when they do open up again. I think this is a more disruptive and deeper recession than we had after 2008 and we could see higher inflation at least for a short period. Don’t bet the farm on it, but it is always good to have a portion of your portfolio invested in inflation hedges such as Gold or even real estate (particularly residential real estate this time). Perhaps there is some merit to the rise in the price of Gold.

The FAANGs Lead Again

The S&P 500 Index fell about 35% from late February 2020 to March 23, 2020, when it reached its recent low point. The Index has since recovered such that it is currently down about 15% from the late February high. The Nasdaq 100 index has fared somewhat better, losing 28% during March and since recovering to be down only about 6%. As of yesterday’s close, the Nasdaq 100 index is actually positive for 2020, despite the roller coaster ride it has been on during these 4+ months. Why the disparity between the performance of these two major indexes? Because the Nasdaq 100 is much more heavily weighted toward the mega-cap FAANG stocks plus Microsoft. While most other sectors are getting killed with shuttered demand, personnel layoffs, and even bankruptcies, the high-tech FAANG stocks are still rolling down the highways at top speed with only light traffic in the way.

I add Microsoft to this list.

FAANG Components

Here is the performance of the individual FAANG components (plus Microsoft), which, together, comprise about $6.5 Trillion of market cap and 47% of the capitalization of the entire index:

  • Facebook: 5% off of highs and even YTD.
  • Apple: 6% off of highs and up about 1% YTD.
  • Amazon: Up almost 25% YTD and just off last week’s all time high.
  • Netflix: Up 34% YTD.
  • Google (Alphabet): 10% off highs but up slightly YTD.
  • Microsoft: 4% off of highs but up 14% YTD.

Based on these results, one probably would not conclude that we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic wherein perhaps a quarter of the world’s population has been and/or remains on lockdown in their homes. Most of these companies have commercial applications (especially Microsoft) and rely on ad revenue and therefore need businesses and the economy to be open in order to generate revenue and profits. How is it that these companies have seemed to absorb the gut-punch of the shutdown only to move forward and prosper?

Working At Home

The FAANG companies have a number of things in common that have allowed them to prosper and lead through the shutdown:

  • All were well-capitalized prior to the shutdown with oodles of cash on their balance sheets. None of them have had to seek new financing.
  • All are somewhat oriented toward people either working at home or in their personal or family lives.
  • Some, and I am thinking about Netflix and Amazon, which are the best YTD performers percentage-wise, have been able to take market share away from competitors as a direct result of people’s fear of getting sick. People are increasing their percentage of shopping on Amazon because they don’t want to risk sickness at the grocery store and/or traditional retail stores are completely closed, and people are watching Netflix because, well, what else is there to do?

Fallback After Reopening?

Will these high-flying stocks fall back as states and other segments of the economy reopen for business? We will see, but just because some states reopen doesn’t mean citizens will revert to pre-Covid habits. People will remain fearful of getting sick, and that’s the main reason why I think the US economic recovery will take several months or years.

IMO

Earlier this year I wrote that stock indexes have become too concentrated on these few stocks. If I thought so then, I believe it even more now. 47% of the Nasdaq 100 Index’s market cap contained in 7 stocks (including 2 Alphabets) is an unprecedented (in modern times) level of concentration. It is undoubtedly a risk that investors face. That said, all of these companies are on a strong financial footing, and it could be argued that some (especially Microsoft and Apple) are not outrageously expensive on a Price to Earnings basis. I guess my conclusion is that I had better learn to love this paradigm and the level of market cap concentration that we have because it doesn’t look to be abating any time soon.

Moving to the Sweden Model

Though I am not hearing anyone explicitly state so, with some US states starting to reopen for business, on a macro level, the US is moving to the Sweden model of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Sweden never totally closed their country for business and never enacted a stay at home order. Instead, Sweden allowed businesses, including retail such as restaurants, cafes, and bars, to remain open at reduced capacity, and allowed their citizens to maintain “life as usual” with some restrictions. Thus, Sweden has so far avoided a lot of the economic pain and layoffs associated with the economic shutdown here in the US and most other developed countries.

No Lockdown in Sweden

Flatten the Curve

The purpose of the economic shutdown in the US was to “flatten the curve” of the rate of Covid-19 infection so as not to overwhelm our health care system. Part of the shutdown included postponing “elective” medical procedures including surgeries so as to free up hospital capacity for the projected flood of Covid patients.

The shutdown so far has achieved its purpose and then some. The flood of Covid patients has not yet materialized and the postponement of elective procedures has resulted in many empty hospital beds. In addition, it appears that “run of the mill” stroke and heart attack victims are not going to the hospital as admissions for those afflictions are down significantly. As a result, many hospitals, particularly those in rural areas, are suffering financially and are faced with layoffs of medical personnel.

The Sweden Curve

Sweden, on the other hand, decided that it would flatten its curve at a higher level. This meant accepting more Covid-related sickness and even deaths, but few enough such that it would not overwhelm their hospitals. They did so while at the same time trying to spread the misery around to the rest of its economy. The result? According to PolitiFact, Sweden’s Covid infection rate is about the same as neighboring Denmark and Norway, but its economy is still open, whereas Denmark and Norway are closed. Sweden’s pre-Covid unemployment rate of about 7% is projected to jump to 10% in 2020 – not good for those unemployed workers but not bad compared with US projections of 20% or higher unemployed.

States Re-Opening

Some US states are now starting to reopen with differing restrictions. Among the first restrictions to be lifted in many states are those on elective medical procedures. (“Elective” doesn’t mean the patient can choose not to have them. It just means the patient can select the date of the procedure.) That they are doing so doesn’t mean the Covid-19 threat is over; on the contrary, US Covid daily deaths are at their high point right now. Rather, it means that the medical systems in these states are able to take on the marginal Covid cases that the reopening will cause as well as to deal with “normal” medical business.

IMO

While it is not explicitly stated, the US, particularly some US states that are starting to reopen, are beginning to follow the Sweden model. We have flattened the curve a little too well, and so now we will attempt to flatten the curve at a little higher level if necessary so as to allow some people to get back to work while allowing citizens to have a more normal life. This means we citizens should take even more precautions now than before, especially if you don’t want to get sick with Covid-19. The stock market will like it that there will be an uptick in economic activity but won’t like it as Covid-19 infections and even deaths will continue to rise. My thought is that market volatility will remain high as all of these phenomena play out. Short-term volatility-based trading is a loser’s game, but a disciplined dollar cost average-based approach to buying into this volatility could be a good way to build your portfolio.

PPP Loans

According to the SBA.gov website, the Paycheck Protection Program loan program has been re-funded and is open for business again as of April 27. The process is the same as the first tranche of funding:

  • Loans are up to $10 million;
  • Meant for small businesses with under 500 employees;
  • 75% of the funds are for payroll;
  • The loan doesn’t have to be repaid if you don’t lay off employees;
  • Interest rate is low – in the 1% neighborhood; and
  • Apply through an SBA Lender.

Apply Soon

This being Friday, May 1, if you haven’t yet applied for a PPP loan and want one, you had better get moving soon. The first tranche was quickly depleted and likely this second tranche will as well. How might you do that and even perhaps make up some time on others who are ahead of you:

  • Use a Smaller Community Bank or even an Online SBA Lender: Anecdotal evidence from the first tranche is that the smaller SBA Lender banks had much better success in processing these loans through the SBA system, and borrower got their money sooner. Perhaps this is because smaller banks are more aware of the nuances of the SBA system and/or because smaller banks might have more motivation to complete these loans and hence may pay more attention to borrowers applying through them. The larger banks – the Bank of Americas, Wells Fargos, and JP Morgan Chases – were so overwhelmed with PPP loan applications that they prioritized helping existing profitable borrower relationships first before any one-off PPP loan applicants. I’m guessing that these PPP loans are not a high-profit center for large banks but they are more so for smaller banks.
  • Go to sba.gov, click a few icons, and find yourself a smaller SBA lender. The lender doesn’t have to be domiciled in your region or in your state. The SBA is a national program and so any SBA lender can handle your application. Once you identify an SBA lender or five that might work for you, ask them how well they fared during the initial funding tranche. Another option is to Google “best SBA lender for PPP” and see what pops up. On this, make sure it displays the best lender in terms of performance, not just the most prolific PPP program lender.
  • Before applying, make sure you aren’t already a publicly-traded company, a venture- or hedge fund-backed company, or a business that might otherwise take some political heat for accepting US Government loan proceeds. If you are any of these, don’t bother to apply. The PPP program was designed for privately-owned mom and pop businesses – think about local one-off restaurants, salons, and any other business that has been directly affected and forced to close by Covid-related restrictions. That publicly-traded and venture-backed companies, as well as apparently the Los Angeles Lakers, qualified under the stated restrictions doesn’t matter because these companies have been publicly shamed in the press and have in many cases returned the funds that they qualified for and received.
  • The initial application is relatively easy to complete, and then there are stages in the application process that applicants need to complete. Hopefully, you will have a good SBA lender contact that can hold your hand through the process. I recommend that you have the mindset of, “This is a government lending program. What could go wrong?”, then your approach should work. Expect the worst but hope for the best with respect to the process.

IMO

If you want or need a PPP loan and think you qualify and should avoid political heat and/or public shaming, then get to it. Time’s a wastin’. The SBA lending window is open now, so it is in your best interest to focus and complete the task. Hopefully, you will get your needed money in due time. Also, hopefully, the “2 months of payroll” concept of the PPP program is indicative of how long the government believes the shutdown will last, especially now that we are 1 month into it. We can only hope there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Black Swan or Antifragile?

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is topical again due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Taleb is the author of several books. The best known among his books are “The Black Swan”, published in 2007, and “Antifragile”, published in 2012 as an extension and culmination of his thought processes that included those outlined in “The Black Swan”. I have read both books. Both are pertinent to the Covid-19 pandemic, but which book has more to offer as we sit here now with the pandemic having hit and as we are debating the merits of reopening various states’ and ultimately the national economy? I argue that we should look to “Antifragile” as a guidepost for reopening.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan

The Covid-19 is being described in the media as a Black Swan, meaning a once-in-a-century or so event that nobody could have predicted. This is convenient because the pandemic that Covid is being compared to is the Spanish Flu, which was just over 100 years ago, right after the end of World War I. I disagree. There have been several diseases, including many that originated, as Covid has, in China, in the years since the Spanish Flu. What sets Covid-19 apart is that it seems to be more communicable than the previous flus, and also that someone infected can remain asymptomatic for several days while they are out there infecting other people. A bad flu epidemic doesn’t seem to be that unusual. What is unusual is the economic shutdown that we have forced ourselves into. I agree with Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins on this point. It would have been very difficult to predict that the governments of the US and many other developed countries would have voluntarily shut down their economies.

Taleb’s lesson in The Black Swan is that Black Swan events aren’t really that rare, and that while you might not be able to predict the specific details of a Black Swan event prior to its happening, you can predict and should be prepared that a plus or minus 3 standard deviation event will occur, perhaps when we least expect it.

Antifragile

Taleb’s lessons in The Black Swan may have been useful prior to the onset of the pandemic (say 6 months ago?), but now that we are here and “already pregnant”, so to speak, I think we need to look to Taleb’s magnum opus “Antifragile” for how we should proceed henceforward. “Antifragile” gets to the heart of the debate about the economic shutdowns, the shelter in place orders, “flatten the curve”, and how quickly or slowly we should reopen restaurants, entertainment venues, stores, and the remainder of the economy.

In “Antifragile”, Taleb argues that attempting to shelter people and other organisms from the daily phenomena of the outside world results in them becoming more fragile and less able to adapt once they are set free and launched into every day life. Think about a child who stays with their mother and close family for 5 years before going to Kindergarten. Do you think that child will be more able or less able to adapt to their Kindergarten classmates than will another child who has had a lot of prior interaction with other children their own age? Taleb argues that isolation makes one more fragile, not stronger.

Instead, Taleb writes, the way to strengthen a person over time is to launch them and expose them to all that the outside world has to offer, diseases included. A person builds up immunity to diseases they are exposed to at school or work so that the next time they encounter the disease, they will have some natural resistance to it and are able to avoid getting sick. A child who plays and interacts with a variety of other children will not only gain immunity to disease but will (hopefully) learn how these other people act and think and (hopefully again) learn some social skills. Exposure and interaction is the way one gains strength, not isolation and sheltering inside. Taleb couldn’t find an antonym for fragile so he made one up and called it Antifragile.

Shelter or Open?

Given this very general overview of Taleb’s two most famous books, how do you think Taleb feels about the debate as to how much longer to shelter in place? I think he would say “Antifragile” should be the blueprint and that the economy should open up sooner rather than later so as to allow people to acquire some level of immunity to this new virus. “Flatten the Curve” is saying a similar thing in a different way. “Flatten the Curve” was intended to slow but not stop the spread of the disease so that the medical system will have time to deal with all of the illness. Implicit in this notion is that people will continue to get sick with Covid, albeit at a slower rate, until either a good treatment or a vaccine is developed. By the way, a vaccine is not a sure thing. The common cold is viral and there is still no vaccine and this is the year 2020.

IMO

Parents cannot completely isolate their children from any bad things out there in the world, and if they try to do so, they are failing by not developing their childrens’ social skills. Likewise, governments cannot forever keep their citizens isolated. Citizens will abide for a short time but not for very long. We are social animals, and if we are bound (collectively) to acquire some form of Covid-19, let’s get on with it. With a few limited exceptions, “Flatten the Curve” has succeeded in keeping demand for medical services at reasonable levels, even below normal levels. Let’s hope that governments heed Taleb’s advice and undertake an “Antifragile” method of opening up our nation’s businesses, even if it is at a slow pace.

The Oil Market

You may have read or heard that the price of oil went “below zero” earlier this week. Before you get too excited, this doesn’t mean that your local gas station will be paying you to fill ‘er up, instead of the other way around. Instead, the “below zero” relates to the oil futures market, and specifically to the futures contract that was to expire the next day. For all of you procrastinators out there, it means that those oil producers who waited until the last day to sell their product ended up getting screwed.

Oil Futures

Oil producers substantially sell their oil through the futures market. The New York Mercantile Exchange (the NYMEX) provides the major market for oil futures, and their futures mature every month. One futures contract is for 1,000 barrels or 42,000 gallons of oil. If you are “long” on a futures contract at maturity, you will take delivery of however many contracted barrels you are long.

The futures market functions so that oil producers have a market mechanism they can rely on to more smoothly sell their product and to lock in a price ahead of time so that they know what their revenues will be. For buyers on the other side of the transaction, through the futures market, they can book their price and quantities so as better to plan the amount of oil they will have in storage at a given time.

May Contract

With respect to the May contract, which is the contract that matured earlier this week and went below zero, the reason it went below zero is that there is very little excess storage capacity right now. Big oil storage tanks stateside and oil supertankers out at sea are mostly already full. Buyers of the May contract would have to take physical delivery of the oil in May, but with storage capacity already full, there was no place to put the oil, so sellers had to pay buyers to take it off their hands. My point is that the “below zero” aspect was a very short-term phenomenon due to the lack of storage capacity.

Coronavirus

Why is storage capacity so chock full? The Coronavirus shutdown, of course. With so many businesses closed down, and particularly with airline travel way down, meaning jet fuel consumption is way down, daily demand for oil is down about 20% by some estimates, from about 100 million barrels per day pre-Coronavirus to perhaps 80 million today. As a physical product with long production and storage periods, oil has difficulty with a demand shock such as we are in today.

Investment Opportunity?

The opportunists among us might look at an upside-down below zero oil market and think that there might be an opportunity to invest and make a lot of money right now. They might be right particularly if they have an empty oil tanker or land-based tank system that can accommodate upwards of 42,000 gallons of oil and can hold on to that oil for a year or more before reselling it. As to other ways to profit from this anomaly, they are hard to find. Unless you are either a genius or lucky short-term trader, the only way for the ordinary investor to make money through this specific anomaly is to buy an asset now and holding it for the long term. The problem is finding an asset that you would own for the long term that was beaten down consistent with the “below zero” May futures contract. You could perhaps look at the USO, which is the US Oil Futures ETF, which has fallen to under $3. If you think it could soon return to say $5, that would be a nice return, and maybe worth a play. See the chart here:

Majors

What about your major producers such as ExxonMobil and Chevron? While they have of course taken a hit due to the Coronavirus economic shutdown, they did not seem to react badly to the “below zero” May contract. No big deal, say XOM and CVX investors. See the charts here:

You can certainly make the case to buy XOM, CVX, or any other oil-related company now at beaten-down prices and hope to sell higher as general economic activity improves. After all, if you by XOM now at $42-ish and it returns to the mid-$60s, where it was just 4 months ago, that would be a 50% return. However, my point is that the majors didn’t seem to be significantly affected by the “below zero” May contract issue.

IMO

As with most situations, it is better not to speculate short-term but to invest long-term. As long-term opportunities go, investing in major oil companies or other oil-related businesses may be a good one if you can see your way out of the downturn we are currently in. Then again, there are other economic segments that you might say the same thing about. If you have patient money and you can stomach an eventful ride, there are opportunities out there.