International Man: What is a speculator, and why do they have such besmirched reputations?
Doug Casey: Let’s first define a few terms. Most people bandy words around without a precise idea of what they mean. If a person can’t define a word precisely, he actually can’t know what he’s talking about.
Let’s start with “investor”. That’s somebody who, in effect, plants a seed and expects it to grow into a plant that will yield 100 more seeds. Everybody respects—or should respect– investors because successful investors allocate scarce capital prudently, enabling the creation of new wealth. Successful investors are positive moral actors, benefitting the world at large while they enrich themselves.
A “speculator” is different. He doesn’t allocate capital in order to grow a business or create something. He simply takes advantage of distortions in the market to increase his personal share of existing wealth.
Most speculative opportunities have political roots, taking advantage of distortions created by laws, regulations, taxes, or other government action. Sometimes government does something genuinely catastrophic, like wage a war, conduct a pogrom, or hyperinflate the currency. Especially at times like that, speculators appear, buying things when the owners are desperate for cash. Or supplying things during shortages for appropriately high prices.
Speculators don’t care about charity, but in fact, they’re benefactors; they give desperate people who lacked foresight what they want or need. It’s perverse, but the public treats their rescuers as “predators” or “exploiters”, and the government will typically interfere even more, making the situation worse.
Speculating has a bad name because it’s essentially a zero-sum game. It’s not about creating wealth but taking advantage of manias, panics, and general stupidity. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing. Speculators transfer wealth from those who have bad judgment to those who have good judgment, from bad capital allocators to good ones. Because speculators appear in a time of crisis and profit from it, the public naturally associates them with crises, disasters, and tough times. That, however, is a case of confusing correlation with causation. “The public” likes easy answers, so they blame speculators, not politicians and bureaucrats. And politicians like to deflect the blame from themselves.
Although a speculator isn’t motivated by notions of morality, he provides a moral and beneficial service to the market out of necessity. He’s like a fireman, who’s rarely seen and not needed unless there’s a fire. Or a doctor, who’s not needed unless there’s a sickness or an injury. Only a fool would blame a fireman or a doctor for the problem he’s there to cure. The speculator should be seen in the same light. When everyone wants to sell, he appears with capital and provides a bid to desperate sellers when no one else will. When everyone wants to buy, he appears with goods that he prudently put aside. He’s providing a service when it’s most needed.
Successful speculators naturally attract envy and resentment, however. The public is suspicious of speculators and doesn’t like them. But it’s assigning the blame to the wrong person.
If we lived in a free-market environment, would-be speculators would be chronically unemployed because there would be very few government-caused distortions to take advantage of. In today’s world, however, government is everywhere and becoming more and more powerful. Distortions, crises, and disasters are increasingly thick underfoot.
It’s unfortunate, but in the next 10 years, everybody is going to be forced to be a speculator just in order to survive.
International Man: There are enormous government-caused distortions in the markets, including near-zero interest rates, money printing reaching into the trillions, and a stock-market bubble pumped up by all the easy money.
Why is being a speculator more important now than ever?
Doug Casey: A “saver” is someone who produces more than he consumes and sets aside the difference. Savers, like investors, are moral actors, accumulating capital, which benefits everyone. In advanced countries, savers set that difference aside in the form of currency (US dollars or whatever the local currency might be).
Savers are the economic bedrock of any economy. But, unfortunately, they’ll be devastated over the next ten years. Why is that?
Over the next decade, governments will be printing new currency units by the trillions. Most are bankrupt now, hugely indebted, and spending more than the tax revenue they collect. Urged on by fashionable Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)—which is certainly both the most absurd and destructive economic notion to appear since Marxism—governments everywhere, including the US, will court hyperinflation. MMT is just an academic justification for large amounts of money printing, taxation, and State economic intervention. South American banana republics have used MMT for many decades; it’s a major reason they’re banana republics.
In any event, most currencies—prominently including the US dollar—will lose 50%, 75%, or 90% against the value of real goods and services over this decade. You can’t really try to get ahead by being a saver. That’s now a formula for disaster. And it’s too bad since saving is so critical to prosperity.
It’s also going to be very hard to be an investor because the markets will go up and down wildly, like an elevator with a lunatic at the controls. Investors—unlike speculators—require a minimum of stability. Markets and business results will be unpredictable.
What alternatives, therefore, are left for your money if you can neither save nor invest?
You’re going to have to learn to speculate, which, again, is to take advantage of politically caused distortions in the market. And in the highly politicized environment we’ll be facing, there will be plenty of purely psychological panics to the downside and manias to the upside as well.
The next few years will have a lot of bad news for almost everyone, interspersed with some good news for a few.
The bad news is that in an inflationary, heavily taxed, heavily regulated society such as ours, the general standard of living will decline. One has to become a speculator out of self-defense.
The good news—turning a lemon into lemonade—is that the same governmental intervention creates plenty of opportunities to speculate successfully. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of those opportunities. Price controls, manipulated interest rates, strikes, war rumors, subsidies, and hundreds of other politically related actions will pull the market in bad, but reasonably predictable, directions. They result in trends you can bet on. It’s as if the government was guaranteeing your success.
The bad news is that, in the kind of chaotic environment we’re looking at, the public will look for scapegoats. And speculators will be convenient targets.
International Man: How does a speculator capitalize on the politically caused distortions in the marketplace and practice good judgment in order to make profits?
Doug Casey: You have to keep your eyes open, looking everywhere across time and space. That’s one reason why it’s important to broaden your knowledge base into as many areas as possible.
Gold and silver are classic examples of government-guaranteed speculations. The State price-controlled silver at $1.29 an ounce until 1965 and gold at $35 an ounce until 1971. After having been artificially suppressed for so long, the metals were a sure bet to explode upward in price. Speculators who understood basic economics positioned themselves accordingly. Over the next nine years, gold climbed more than 2,000% and many gold stocks climbed 5,000% or more.
Another example was uranium in 2000. Uranium got as low as $10 per pound, half of its cost of production. A speculator would know that and understand that since 20% of American electricity is produced by nuclear power, unless the price of uranium went up a lot, there wasn’t going to be any uranium to fuel power plants. The typical uranium stock went 10-1 over the next five years; some went 100-1.
In September of 1992, George Soros, a shrewd speculator, went massively short the British pound. He saw that it was overpriced relative to other currencies and was artificially supported. Generally speaking, a good speculation is one that, in effect, is underwritten by the government.
The housing bubble of 2008 is another example. Clever speculators saw that the government, for political reasons, was trying to turn everyone who could even fog a mirror into a homeowner. Speculators shorted debt instruments that were financing the bubble and about to default.
Right now, I see two excellent speculations. They’re simple, high potential, and low risk.
One is to take out a 30-year fixed interest rate mortgage on any residential real estate that you own. It’s now possible to lock in a 30-year mortgage for 2.5%, which is already less than the officially acknowledged rate of inflation and substantially below the actual rate of inflation. It’s a gift. That’s one that everybody can engage in.
The second is to buy gold stocks. Relative to both the rest of the market and their earnings, they’re about as cheap as they’ve ever been in history. I’ve been active in gold mining stocks for most of my career. They’re notoriously volatile. The group—by which I mean the explorers, developers, and small producers—cyclically moves up 1000%, then melts down 95%. Right now, I think, is one of the ripest times in the last 50 years to own them.
They’re not heirlooms, so you don’t want to own them forever. But, I suspect, over most of this decade, gold stocks are going to do extremely well. A full explanation of why I say this is, obviously, beyond the scope of this interview.
Right now, commodities in general are also a great speculation. Even though the longest bear market in history is commodity prices. They’ve gone down in real terms, against the price of human labor, for roughly the last 5,000 years. That trend will continue over the long term. But they cyclically have explosive bull markets. While most commodities have gone up a lot in the last year, and they’re no longer at giveaway prices, they’re still a great speculation.
International Man: How do speculators prevent themselves from being trampled by the crowd and by the emotional sentiment of the public?
Doug Casey: First of all, remember that the trend is generally your friend. You don’t want to try to swim upstream, going against the trend. You don’t want to wear yourself out trying to be a contrarian just for the sake of being contrarian. The time to be contrarian is only at frenzied or panicky turning points.
The important thing is to recognize when the trend is about change and reverse yourself.
For example, since bonds have generally gone up for the last 40 years since interest rates peaked at around 15% in the early ’80s, the public has come to think rates will stay low forever. When the market turns, they’ll stay long out of inertia and habit. Now, however, is an excellent time to sell bonds, with rates at 0%, 1%, 2%, or even negative numbers in the case of European currencies. Bonds are now return-free risk.
The same is true with stocks. Stocks have been in a huge bull market, punctuated by sell-offs, for forty years—as have bonds. By all traditional indicators of what’s cheap—price to book value, price to earnings, or price to dividends—they’re in a bubble. The public hasn’t been involved in stocks this way since the “go-go” years of the late ’60s, or the late ’20s for that matter. Stocks are very expensive. At some point, very soon, this long-term trend is going to change. It will be a catastrophe for most investors—who are actually gamblers, although they don’t know it.
Go with the flow and make the trend your friend. But recognize the signs when it’s about to change. Because when it does change, you could have a decade of profits washed away in a matter of months. I think we’re very close to that turning point.
International Man: What can the average retail investor do to tilt the odds in their favor?
Doug Casey: You need two things. One is a broad knowledge base. If you’re going to play the money game, you’d better know a lot about many things. You have to know a lot of different things so that when an opportunity occurs, you can recognize it. Having a broad knowledge base helps you to correctly identify opportunities and avoid pitfalls.
At least know more than the average investor. That’s not a terribly high bar. You don’t have to be an Einstein in physics to make money in technology stocks—but you should have a grip on basic scientific principles. I don’t think most people do.
Here’s some practical advice. Go to a cocktail party, see what people are talking about, and pay attention to it. Few will have anything other than the most superficial knowledge about where they’re investing. Whatever they’re most enthusiastic about is probably something you want to sell, not buy.
If you don’t like cocktail parties, look at magazine covers. I recognize that magazines aren’t as common in drugstores as they used to be, but you can find their equivalents online. When Business Week runs a cover telling you that the securities market is dead, maybe you ought to look at securities, or if they say that inflation is dead, maybe you ought to look at inflation hedges. When they say oil is a dead duck—like now, for instance—look to buy oil stocks.
Editor’s Note: Doug Casey’s forecasts helped investors prepare and profit from: 1) the S&L blowup in the ’80s and ’90s, 2) the 2001 tech stock collapse, 3) the 2008 financial crisis, 4) and now… Doug’s sounding the alarms about a catastrophic event.
One he believes could soon strike America. To help you prepare and profit, Doug and his team have prepared a special video. Click here to watch now.