Whose Recovery?: Swimming with the Investor Class
‘Never was a rich man who didn’t get his money off a poor man’s back,’ is what Paul would say. Which is another way of claiming that all Real Value comes from labor.
By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / July 21, 2009
Another less-bad week is in the making for corporate earnings, housing sales, and unemployment trends — perhaps less bad enough to say that corporate capital is on the mend — less bad enough to keep the markets from driving the price of all things down. But if the weekly rate of less-badness holds steady at “only about” a half-million newly unemployed and half a dozen banks closed down we will be sliding that much closer to Real Hard Times.
This week may give us a chance to put some big questions onto the table about the way things work and the Real Meaning of the stresses we’re about to undergo, together. Let’s talk about the Real Market, shall we? And the Real Deal that we’re all in the process of cutting.
For five months I’ve been cramming market analysis the way I used to cram geometry the week before college boards. And for strictly educational purposes I have taken some advice from John Dewey by making my study “hands on” by putting a few hundred bucks into an online trading account. Thirty nine trades later, my portfolio is outperforming the dollar, so I haven’t lost any Real Money yet, but I’ve learned a few things.
Dewey was correct. What you learn is different depending on whether you are watching or participating. Put just a little money in an active market account and suddenly things go pop and start dancing all around you. Right away you lose your sense of what’s really up or down.
An abstract lesson that the market teaches you is the distinction between judgment and theory. You take or sell a position at so-and-so a price. That’s judgment. You base the decision on what? After your first few killer trades you begin to feel a gut-level desire for some theory that will help you to keep your head from spinning and your palms dry. Yes, a few hundred dollars means that much to me. So you have to go looking for market theory.
One of my early favorites in market theory was Investor’s Business Daily, because it identified a fairly consistent set of criteria for buying and selling, and then was considerate enough to remind me to breathe. IBD offers advice you would expect to hear from Ben Franklin. One rule that stuck with me is to never take more loss than eight percent.
Gradually I have become less interested in individual stocks and more interested in Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) which allow me to make a little money from China or India while losing money in Real Estate or the Middle East. Websites such as Google Finance, MarketWatch, and stockta.com allow you to track stocks through online portfolios. Another nice free service is investmenttools.com. For a quick glance at overall trends, I also like the market overview page at stockcharts.com or some of the “view all funds” lists available at ETF providers such as iShares or PowerShares. Of course, the Wall Street Journal offers an excellent market data page.
In the hard times that are coming, newspapers will likely continue their downsizing and dispersion. But I don’t think this will affect investors very much. Outfits like Standard and Poors, Thomson-Reuters, Bloomberg, and Murdoch seem like they will be able to continue delivering robust information to premium customers. When you go looking for information that has cash value, you discover that the information sector is booking plenty of first class seats.
Plato’s Republic teaches that justice is a matter of everyone minding their own business, because each occupation has its urgencies. So let’s clear up first things first. Real Investing is a full-time occupation. If the market calls, you’d better be there to answer. Meanwhile, you’d better keep watching out. Once you get a taste for the daily risk of the market life you can see why so many people with Real Money still prefer to take out U.S. Treasury notes. When someone says China is buying U.S. bonds for chiefly political reasons please ask them where they’d find a less risky place for Real Big Money today.
Therefore, anyone who wants to make a national policy of retirement funding via personal market accounts is simply asking everyone to drop what they do best, because you cannot expect everyone to be an excellent investor on the side. Retirement funding is a craft unto itself. Besides, imagine your tax dollars going into someone else’s market bets.
There are three basic families of market theory. The first one is represented by Jim Cramer, the bouncing host of Mad Money. I like the guy, because there is something pleasing about anyone enjoying his work that much. Plus, if you actually have “skin in the game,” his daily presence on television is a kind of exorcism against the dread-mongering that fills so much market chatter. He didn’t succumb to the great “head and shoulders scare” of early July.
As for market scares in general, I started this story on a Friday evening when all was quiet. Now that I’m doing final revisions on Monday morning, I find myself thinking, who knows? A crash could come any day. Or a pop. Or a bomb somewhere. Or a bad number out of Korea. So as of this minute in time it appears that Cramer’s short-term bullishness has been vindicated. Right now, Cramer’s keel is still attached.
Cramer’s theoretical model is “fundamentals.” For the most part, he likes to buy stocks in individual companies. He likes to study the balance sheets, read the SEC docs, listen to the conference calls, and figure out if there is really a productive business priced at a bargain level. Sometimes he gets it wrong, but mostly he wraps his recommendations inside reasons that help you to think about the way the market is working. Like a good teacher, Cramer presents his own choices in ways that help you to think on your own. He offers a market theory.
Along with the other two families of market theory that I will discuss below, the “fundamentals” camp assumes the perspective of the investment class. Cramer can discourage wage raises for Wal-Mart workers because they would raise the price of goods for customers, which will drive down store sales, which will, you guessed it, hurt the stock price that investors need most. We’ll come back to this problem later.
Fundamental analysts such as Cramer, Peter Schiff, H.S. Dent, or Warren Buffett have market theories grounded in the study of earnings, demographics, economic, and yes, investment trends in the Real World.
The second family of theorists can be called “chart technicians.” What they study is the price and volume action as it can be pictured in hundreds of ways. The vintage form of technical analysis — the candlestick chart — is attributed to an 18th Century rice trader in Japan.
The classic school of modern-day chart technicians goes under the name of Dow Theory because it was founded by the first editor of the Wall Street Journal, Charles H. Dow, who became the Dow of Dow-Jones. In its classical form, Dow Theory compares the movements if two indexes, the Dow Industrials and the Dow Transportations, which according to Jack Schannep and the editors of thedowtheory.com, yields a buy or sell signal about once a year. To catch more short-term trends, all kinds of charting devices have been invented.
I think the most popular technical tool of the modern trader is the Moving Average Convergence/Divergence indicator or MACD (pronounced Mac-D). At the Wall Street Journal for example the MACD is a default feature of every dynamic chart, reflecting market movements into a graph that helps gauge probable short-term trends in price.
During the head-and-shoulders scare of early July, technical analysis dominated market chatter. Investors have plenty of fundamental reasons to worry about another downturn, so technical signals can really spook the herd. The head-and-shoulders pattern was a pure technical signal that things could get very bad quickly. It spooked me. As it turned out, either there was no head-and-shoulders or the pattern was more of a signal that something big was about to happen up OR down.
The head-and-shoulders pattern, if it was one, actually signaled a breakout or sudden uptrend — which is not the first opportunity I have missed (in the market as in life) because of caution poorly timed.
This week the technical question becomes whether the breakout has established a new floor for a short-term trading range. The fundamental school seems cautiously optimistic that data will continue to come in “less bad.” And many of the technical chart analysts — including the ones who spooked us before–seem to think we’re going to be trading a new level up, at least for the near term. Technical signals don’t take all the chaos out of the market, but they do help you to feel as if you are not gambling on absolute randomness.
The third great family of market theory, The Elliott Wave, could be placed under technical analysis as a subset of Dow Theory, but I’m going to place Elliott Wave Theory in its own camp, because it seems like another order of technical analysis altogether.
Once upon a time a fellow named Ralph Nelson Elliott became so ill that he did nothing but study stock charts. He came up with astonishing results. He found a wave with a complex construction in which advances were related systematically to declines. He theorized that each wave was a wave of waves in which the basic structure was repeated in fractal form. The closer you get to the shorter time frames the tinier the waves become.
The contemporary master of the Elliott Wave Theory is Robert Prechter, who does not offer much advice for free. If you want Prechter’s analysis in detail you will have to pay for it. I think of him as the modern-day Pythagoras. As a market trader, I’m paying for his opinion and glad about it.
Well let me qualify that. To know Prechter’s approach is to know a vision of the next decade that is not gladdening in outline. The long-term wave we seem to be on right now is the yin to that yang we were riding during the good times. If Elliott was correct about the underlying form of market waves, and if Prechter is correct in the application, then prices are really deep disclosures of a psychic life that buoys our collective consciousness. And no, dear reader, you are not reading a Pynchon novel just now.
The Elliott Wave school strikes me as Jungian in flavor, so it will be an acquired taste for most. Something about Jungian archetypes runs counter to mainstream thinking, so we shall soon see who teaches whom the greater lesson. For my part, the older I get the more sense Jung makes. And the Elliott Wave has a serious following among Real Investors.
Related to market theory is an emerging trend in “social investing.” A visit to the KLD website will give you the essential orientation to social consciousness as it has been monetized by the investment classes. Also, a brand new ETF trading under the ticker symbol JVS brings a new style of valuation to the American investor by way of principles mandated by Sharia Law. I have written a little more about these items under a project called abetterorder.com. I own some JVS.
Even with only a few hundred bucks in play these are the things you begin to learn as if your fortune depended upon it. The market is a game — and you want to win. Which brings us back to something that I promised to discuss — the perspective of the investing class. This is a class of folks that for the most part have saved money that they are trying to grow and protect. They appear to be very smart and decent people, even downright likeable. And they have some very practical experience in how the market game works and how to win it. But I used to have a neighbor named Paul who worked all his life for the city parks department.
“Never was a rich man who didn’t get his money off a poor man’s back,” is what Paul would say. Which is another way of claiming that all Real Value comes from labor. If we extend Paul’s intuition to the investment classes as such we might say that all great wealth is already a kind of redistribution.
On the one hand I wonder if Paul could have done better in the wealth department if he had applied his eighth-grade education and not assumed that investment potential belonged to other people. No doubt there are a billion people asking that question right about now. Better choices are always possible. Nobody can say they weren’t warned. So I can see how value belongs not only to those who produce it but also to those who treat it best.
Therefore, I can understand why so many smart investors take a hard line when it comes to the kind of respect we should pay for value. I can see why they have a passion for gold as a standard. A devotion to standards of valuation has allowed many of them to see clearly how our loose regards would steer us into the ditch we’re in. When you start watching your money closely in a trading market, these perspectives accrue practical value.
On the other hand, market trends are thoroughly social if not absolute manifestations of collective (un)consciousness. The problems of market cycles have dimensions that exceed the sum of individuals. As my neighbor Paul implied, strictly speaking there is no such thing as individual wealth. All wealth in some sense is held in trust. Likewise, individuals don’t create market cycles, it takes a market to go boom and bust.
I can understand why some of the great artists of the market are outraged by our social responses to market crisis. They call it socialism. Yet, no matter which family of theory you belong to — whether fundamental, technical, or E-wave — you are dealing directly with a social movement.
At some level each and every individual choice gets subsumed into a dynamic relation to other choices such that “the market” comes to exist with a life of its own. Every investor wants to know, what will the market do today? So there is something that troubles me about investor perspectives that seem to take for granted that “the market” is the only motive force worth respecting, as if the social reality of our lives could be so one-dimensional.
The investment-class perspective shows through when Cramer discourages higher wages at Wal-Mart. This is a perspective that overvalues existing savings to the detriment of new savings that could be made possible if “the market” were enabling more opportunity for all. If existing savings accounts were willing to take a little less return, perhaps new savings accounts could be more easily started downstream.
In the case of my old neighbor Paul, why shouldn’t a worker expect a social order in which every productive life is rewarded with decent wages, benefits, and pensions? But Frederick Douglass long ago advised Americans not to gnash our teeth at spectacles of unfairness. Struggle is the Real Cure.
As corporate capital rebuilds its structure from the current bust to the next boom, why shouldn’t some higher expectations of performance be costed in right now? I think I understand how these labor costs will make additional demands upon the structure of recovery, but if decent health benefits and pensions are made a universal condition of corporate earnings perhaps the regeneration of corporate health this time will help to raise up a new generation of investors who understand that money not budgeted toward labor’s livelihood is at risk of being gambled away.
Finally, I have an intuition that the bias of the investor class leads to a skewed desire for a gold standard, but I’m not altogether sure about this. It may be that my impression is colored by a context in which most of the talk about gold is by people who are thinking chiefly of wealth in individual terms. In five months of investing I too have gone from “gold, what’s it good for” to “give me thirty shares of silver trust please.” I’m up eleven dollars thanks to that call on SLV.
In thinking about gold, I have drawn the distinction made by San Francisco economist Henry George who talked about the difference between wealth for personal use and capital that is put back into new tools. The good people at Lew Rockwell point out that if I hold my personal wealth in a Real Bank it will be leveraged into Real Capital, therefore there is no Real Difference between wealth and capital. Yet even if this were also true for holdings in Real Gold, I think we can still distinguish between wealth and capital. But I’m willing to grant that Real Gold held by a Real Bank may be somewhat more productive than fear itself.
As for the assumption that Real Banks will take Real Savings and turn them into Real Capital, I think this is the problem. From what I understand, banks are not producing capital investments at any kind of usual rate. And they are not doing it because of the damage done by the great evil that Henry George warned against-land speculation. Therefore, the dramatic increase in American savings is not now being leveraged into new tools for American workers. The pressures of the current economy will keep labor compensation low on one side while disrupting on the other side the assumption that increased savings by labor should be leveraged into capital investment. Instead, Real Banks are gouging labor further on the debt front. Prechter has more to say about what has happened to Real Banks in his July newsletter.
Which brings us to the last word in successful investing, Warren Buffett. No doubt his influence has sometimes weighed down upon wages from time to time as he seeks to maximize earnings from Dairy Queen or Geico. Last week he admitted that he had to cut the jobs of 500 people. Yet Buffett says that it may be time to think about a second stimulus which would be a Real Stimulus this time. What interests me about Buffett’s position — all puns intended — is that he speaks as an exceptionally engaged investor who follows carefully how his wealth, and therefore his capital, has effects on precise productive labors.
If Buffett can stomach the idea of a stimulus then we should raise the question of costing into the new generation of investment a better life for labor in long-term salaries, benefits, and pensions. We are the workers upon whose labor the power of U.S. Treasury notes depends–and we have been valued in this crisis as worthy enough to carry the world’s savings accounts on our backs. Therefore cost us in at the full value of a whole life.
Maybe there is nothing that can be done about a future that is already written by the finger of God. Just save yourself if you can. But when it comes to the problems faced by the investor classes and their personal wealth preservation in this sick economy, at least Buffett still talks as if the investor classes are in the same boat with the rest of us and how we need to pull together and share some of the risks. While we’re at it, we should not be afraid to discuss the opportunities that this crisis holds out for labor. Discussing it today will be cheaper than discussing it tomorrow.
Based on what I’ve learned after five months as an active trader, I don’t think it’s a question of whether hard times are coming. The question is how can we best work on this social trauma individually AND together to address risks and opportunities system-wide? The thing that strikes me about Buffett’s position on the second stimulus is this. If the ship’s going down, Captain Buffett talks as if he’s prepared to go down with it. Any Real Captain would surely toss Real Gold overboard now in order to bring more Real Lives safely to port later.
[Greg Moses is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence.]