Is A Depression-Like Event Coming? Is It Here Already?

rogernusbaum

Life has been getting more difficult for people for a long time. The idea of people being underemployed goes back to the tech wreck 20 years ago, no pushback if you can trace it to some earlier event. We have been on a trajectory to being less healthy, having weaker financial footing, a widening wealth gap (the economic reality of why this is bad is that a couple of hundred thousand wealthy people can't consume enough to keep the US economy afloat) and living under the threat of serious consequences from the various versions of QE and the like over the last 13 years--it should have been inflationary, we did not understand the power of deflationary forces and don't know if or when price inflation will matter again.

The Coronavirus event seems to be magnifying some of those weaknesses as well as creating a whole set of new problems related to the shutting down of the economy, the depression-like unemployment and the trillions of dollars we are going to throw at this problem. There was a great line in that post from Erin Bromage that went viral over the weekend, "if you don't solve the biology, the economy won't recover." That is where we are now. What the experts think they know seems to change on a daily basis. Regardless of whether we underreacted in shuttering the economy or overreacted there is the potential for many recently lost jobs to go away permanently. Kamala Harris is proposing a bill to give everyone $2000/mo, every month until three months past when this event ends. Even if you disagree with the $1200 that most Americans got, that amount of money wasn't going to last very long and if you believe in giving people any money then it wouldn't make sense to cut those people off after giving them one month's rent/mortgage payment with the prospect that this might last for many more months. There have been a couple of instances of places opening back up only to be met with an uptick in cases.

I continue to remain aware of how little I know personally about epidemiology and virology as I find this entire event to be getting increasingly complex. The capital markets have been rallying in a surprising fashion with the complexity of depression like data along with massive fiscal and monetary responses including the buying of fixed income ETFs.

This is reasonably creating stress for people and for systems. Everyday life is more complex. For some folks, the added complexity is very stressful like for people who've lost their jobs or who are learning that they "need" to go out a little or people trying to juggle working from home and meeting their kids' needs at the same time. Shane Parrish has an old post about complexity bias that I think relates, especially when you factor in the stress that I think unusual complexity brings with it.

The lesson I take from Parrish is a reiteration to seek simplicity whenever possible. If whatever aspects of your life that are important to you have not been meaningfully disrupted at this point, what could change to upset that apple cart and what simple steps can you take now to at least partially mitigate potential upset. Costco is limiting the amount of meat that customers can buy in one visit because of the various shutdowns at meat packing plants (these plants are apparently superspreader environments). I don't think other stores have imposed limits but on one visit to Sprouts a couple of months ago, they were out of meat for whatever reason. This might be something to get out in front of. Likewise with other foodstuffs important to you. Buying some extra groceries is a simple task with an important benefit.

If there is another wave of the virus, then there might be another wave of selling in the equity market. This comment is not about trying to time markets or trade nimbly but trying to assess any reasonably foreseeable cash needs for people relying on their investment accounts for income. Selling a little bit here to get a few months ahead on cash needs is far from panicking, it is the opposite. The market crashed very quickly and is often the case with fast declines, there was a quick snapback that recovered a meaningful chunk of that decline which tells me that there is plenty that is normal in terms of behavior even if the metaphorical printing presses are running around the clock.

Ian Bremmer thinks we are in a depression that will last two or three years. Nassim Taleb thinks this is an opportunity "do a total reset professionally, economically, personally. Treat this thing as if it were here to stay & make sure you can do with it. If it goes away, it will be a bonus but remember that the shadow of the following one will be progressively built into the system." We've explored this in recent weeks during the pandemic. Taleb's advice can be taken to varying degrees. If this event has hit you especially hard then you've probably already been working on how to improve your situation and improve your resiliency right now and for the next external shock. Remember that just as the Financial Crisis was different than the tech wreck, the next external shock will be different than this one. Instead of preparing a repeat of the Covid 19 virus, prepare for general disruption, whatever you think "general disruption" means.

It is always worthwhile to evaluate and seek to improve various aspects of your life. This can include your personal finances like debt and budget issues, how you manage your portfolio like your asset allocation and philosophy but don't make changes when fear is running high, your health specifically diet and exercise habits, your skill set and maybe trying to become moderately proficient in one or two completely new things and other things that are typical in most peoples' lives. Then there are things that are unique to your specific circumstance, for us, we live in a semi-rural spot. It's pretty ideal, we're secluded but we're only 15 minutes from Costco and Trader Joe's. Things that come in handy to have around for us include tools we know how to use, building materials and I've wanted to add a generator. While we probably should have installed one a while ago we didn't and for now we got a portable one that will power our most essential parts of the house that we can charge with solar. This feels a little silly to me but if the food supply chain can be disrupted, arguably the disruption hasn't even been that serious, then why can't the electrical infrastructure also be disrupted?

If Kamala Harris' bill passes, we'll take the $12,000 but I don't want to be in a situation where we are nerve wracked and desperate waiting for it. There is a direct tie in with this sort of life prep to portfolio prep. It's not about predicting what will happen but hopefully reducing the potential personal upheaval that too many folks are now forced to endure.