The high rate of inflation most of us believe is waiting not too far down the road will be an earthquake for investment markets. The likely winners (gold, silver, precious metals stocks) and the likely losers (long-term bonds and most stocks) aren’t too hard to identify. But separating the sheep from the goats is only one element for financial success in an environment of rapidly rising consumer prices.
Higher rates of price inflation will bring greater volatility to all financial markets. The higher you expect inflation and hence gold to go, the more volatility you should expect to see for assets of every type. Even if in fact the dollar is on the road to perdition, there will be detours and backtracking along the way.
Inflation doesn't operate smoothly; it is a disrupter for both the economy and for the political system. From time to time over the next five to ten years, the Federal Reserve will come to see inflation as its most urgent problem. And every time that happens, the Fed will slow the creation of fresh dollars or even put up a big INTERMISSION sign and stop printing altogether for a while.
Such seizures of monetary virtue won’t last long, but while they do last, they will hammer most investment markets, including the market for the yellow stuff and for stocks of companies that produce or look for it. You could be absolutely correct about where the dollar is headed in the long run and still have a scary ride.
2008 was just a preview of the downdrafts you will need to survive. There will be even uglier smash-ups, and you don’t want to be among the hard-money investors who get carried off on a stretcher. To avoid being one of them, you’ll need to include cash as a constant, permanent element of your portfolio. Cash is a courage booster. Having a substantial cash reserve makes it easier to hold on to your other investments when they are getting battered and you are tempted to bail out. And cash gives you the wherewithal to buy on dips – and on the big dumps.
Of course, cash will be the asset whose value is shrinking. But the rate at which the purchasing power of your cash declines will depend very much on how you hold it.
Interest rates on money market instruments, such as Treasury bills and large CDs, track the rate of inflation fairly closely. By creating money fast enough, the Federal Reserve can keep rates on money market instruments one or two percentage points below the inflation rate, but not indefinitely. And any such effort to suppress short-term interest rates succeeds at the cost of producing even higher inflation later. Similarly, the Fed can keep money market rates one or two points above the inflation rate for a while, with the likely eventual result of a slowing in inflation. But over long periods, the average yield on money market instruments about matches the average rate of inflation.
Given that money market yields travel the same path as inflation rates, holding cash doesn’t seem to be terribly painful. The loss in purchasing power about gets made up for by the yield. That’s a nice thought – until you think about taxes. Even though the yield is merely replacing the purchasing power being lost, the yield is subject to income tax, unless you do something about it.
Doing nothing about it is, in a subtle way, risky for your portfolio. When price inflation gets to, say, 10% and money market yields are near the same level, if you are in a 40% tax bracket, you’ll be losing purchasing power on your cash at a rate of 4% per year. The situation will get worse as inflation moves higher, and you’ll be tempted to cut back on cash in order to cut back on the leakage. And that will leave you dangerously ill-prepared for the next INTERMISSION sign.
Logically, then, to make holding cash cheap or even free, you need to hold the cash in an environment where the yield is protected from taxes. Let’s look at the possibilities, some of which, you should be warned, may make you say “Yuk.”
A straight annuity is a contract with an insurance company that pays you a certain amount per year for the rest of your life. A deferred annuity begins with an accumulation period, during which the contract earns interest or some other investment return. You can end the accumulation period whenever you want and then either start receiving a lifetime of payments or simply withdraw the contract's accumulated value.
Earnings in a deferred annuity are tax-deferred until they are withdrawn. So if the return on a deferred annuity tracks money market yields, then the real value of the annuity will hold approximately steady, even at high rates of inflation.
Deferred annuities are now an almost forgotten topic. They were, for the first time ever, a very big topic in the high-inflation years of the 1970s and 1980s. The reason was simple – sky-high interest rates. But in more recent experience, interest rates have been so low that the advantage of tax-deferred compounding has hardly been worth the trouble. It's when interest rates are high that tax-deferred compounding brings a big payoff.
When price inflation heats up and puts money market rates on a boil, expect to see ads for deferred annuities on every financial street corner. The right annuity contract will certainly be better than leaving cash in a bank account, but it still won't be the most attractive medium for holding cash through a period of rapid inflation. There are one, or perhaps two, limitations on an annuity's appeal.
The first is that the protection from being taxed on a fictitious return only goes so far. Even though the money inside the annuity may be holding its purchasing power (with interest continuously replacing what is being lost to inflation), eventually you'll cash the annuity in. At that point, all the interest will be taxable. After, say, a decade of high inflation, most of what comes out of the annuity will be accumulated interest – which will be taxable as ordinary income. So you'd have a one-time loss of nearly 40% of your purchasing power, assuming you're in a 40% tax bracket. (I know that sounds awful, but it would be a far better result than paying tax on interest income year by year during a decade of rapid inflation.)
The second limitation is that, so far as I have been able to determine, no insurance company offers a program that would let you switch the value of an annuity between money investments and something related to precious metals. That may change as inflation and the public's interest in gold picks up. But until it does, there would be no tax-efficient way to tap the purchasing power your annuity had been protecting to buy something gold-related during the downdrafts we're trying to prepare for.
Cash Value Life Insurance
As with a deferred annuity, the earnings on a cash value life insurance policy can accumulate and compound free of current tax. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Unlike the earnings on a deferred annuity, the earnings on cash value life insurance can come out of the policy tax free. The tidiest way is for you to die at just the moment that is most convenient for your financial plan. An alternative, if you don’t have such an accommodating attitude, is to borrow the earnings from the policy. You can do so tax free if the policy satisfies the “7-pay” rule: pay for the policy no more rapidly than with seven equal annual premiums.
Being able to borrow from the policy tax free would allow you to tap its value whenever gold and other hard investments have had a sizeable setback. Convenient. But, depending on your circumstances, that convenience may or may not be available to you for free.
Between the Internal Revenue Code's requirements for a contract to qualify as “life insurance” and the perversely characterized “consumer protection” rules of the various states, it is not possible to buy a life insurance policy in the US that does not have a face value far above the amount you’ve invested in the policy. The difference represents the insurance company’s risk – mortality risk – that you may stop breathing ahead of schedule. The insurance company, of course, will charge for that risk. There are a lot of variables, but think of the charge as amounting to something on the order of 1% per year of the capital you want to wrap inside the policy to protect the return from taxes.
Whether a cash value insurance policy (a 7-pay policy, so that you can borrow tax free) is a good place to shelter cash from the winds of inflation depends in large part on whether paying for mortality risk is or is not a wasted cost for you. If you now have a reason to own term life insurance, you are paying purely for mortality risk. In that case, it would make sense for you to convert to a cash value policy that could be invested in money market instruments as a way to prepare for high inflation. There wouldn’t be any additional mortality cost, and you would get the tax advantages of life insurance.
On the other hand, if you have no use for pure life insurance coverage, using a cash value policy for its tax advantages would require you to become a regular bettor in the actuarial casino, which you probably would not want to do.
If it is available to you, by far the best way to hold cash through an inflationary storm is in an Individual Retirement Account. Without any of the costs that come with a deferred annuity or a life insurance policy, you can invest in T-bills, insured jumbo CDs and other money market instruments and in near-cash assets such as very short-term bonds. You can have a free hand to tap the cash at opportune times to purchase precious metals and precious metal stocks. The whole arrangement is protected from current taxes, and with a Roth IRA the proceeds eventually can come out tax free.
You can do exactly the same with a solo 401(k) plan. And if you have a 401(k) plan that's sponsored by your employer, you may be able to do about the same, depending on the investment options the plan allows.
A retirement plan would be the ideal vehicle, but there is a size constraint. While the size of a deferred annuity or of a cash value life insurance policy is limited only by the size of your checkbook, IRAs are not so easily scalable. However, if you have a traditional IRA and would like to move a chunk of non-IRA money into it, there is a way to effectively do so.
Take a close look at your traditional IRA. How much of it is building tax-deferred wealth for you? Less than meets the eye.
If you are in, say, a 40% tax bracket, then no matter how large your IRA gets to be, when it comes time to take a distribution, 40% will go to the government. Your ability to postpone that event won't change the nature of it. In effect, the government now owns 40% of your IRA, and you own only 60%. If there is, for the sake of round numbers, $100,000 in your IRA, only $60,000 is working for you.
Fortunately, there is a way to buy out the government's share. It's a Roth conversion. You pay the tax now, so that eventually your withdrawals will be tax free. The result: the assets you own directly decline by $40,000 (the money you spend to pay the tax bill on the conversion); and the amount in the IRA that is working exclusively for you increases by $40,000.
That's a big improvement, because the net effect is to move capital out of a tax-paying environment and into a tax-free environment where all of the earnings get reinvested. To continue the example, the effective size of your IRA increases by two-thirds ($40,000/$60,000). That's two-thirds more money doing the happy work of tax-free compounding for your benefit.
You can do the same with a solo 401(k) – effectively plump it up through a Roth conversion.
The financial logic of a Roth conversion is compelling. The case is even stronger if you first restructure your IRA as an Open Opportunity IRA. The Open Opportunity structure starts out as a big idea – radically greater investment freedom – and then gets bigger.
Instead of being restricted to the menu of investments allowed by your existing IRA custodian, your IRA would own a single asset – a limited liability company that you manage. Then you would roll over the investments from your existing IRA into the new IRA and then into the LLC. As Manager of the LLC, you would have the choice of keeping the existing investments or switching to real estate, gold coins, equipment leasing or almost anything else.
That's the investment freedom. In addition, by designing the LLC appropriately, significant savings on the cost of your Roth conversion may be possible..
You can learn more about the Open Opportunity IRA in “The Year of the Roth,” in the June 2010 edition of The Casey Report.
Time to Plan
Deferred annuities, cash value life insurance and retirement plans – these are the ready vehicles for protecting the purchasing power of the cash you need for portfolio safety during times of rapid inflation. They do the job by reinvesting money market yields, which tend strongly to track inflation rates, without loss to current tax.
Of course, the three alternatives aren't exclusive; you can use more than one. Which of them would be best for you depends not just on their characteristics but on your individual circumstances. Now, before CPI inflation starts making double-digit headlines, is a good time to start weighing your choices. Even if you don't like any of the choices, any of them will be better than letting your cash rot.