On Monday night, more than eighty million Americans watched our two candidates for president argue more about missing tax returns, deleted emails, and a former beauty queen than the issue that matters most to our country’s health and prosperity: economic growth.
When our economy grows rapidly, as it did during the Reagan and (Bill) Clinton administrations, good things happen. Home ownership increases, budget deficits shrink (Mr. Clinton produced a surplus his last four years), crime drops, and America’s influence increases worldwide. Unfortunately, our gross domestic product hasn’t grown more than four percent a year since the end of the last century, and I don’t see it topping that critical figure again anytime soon.
My last post generated a fair amount of negative feedback on my Yahoo Finance page and on Twitter. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and being called an idiot (and worse) by all sorts of strangers on the internet. I understand that people have strong feelings about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but I have to say, the vitriol of the comments took me by surprise.
Setting aside whether it was fair (or legal) for the government to change the bailout terms for Fannie and Freddie, my main point in writing about the two giant GSEs seemed rather straightforward: the low-priced stocks and preferred shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are extremely risky investments. If Washington formally nationalizes these companies (or does so informally, as it seems to be doing right now), there is a good chance that their stocks will go to zero. Sure, the big hedge funds and their armadas of lawyers might prevail in court and win the return of the companies’ dividends to shareholders. But even if that happens, it will probably take years. As I wrote in the last line of the post, “There are easier ways to make money.”
The broader lesson of the GSEs for both retail and professional investors can be stated in four words:
On the plane ride back from the Booth Investment Management Conference in Chicago on Sunday, I read the great new book by veteran financial journalist Bethany McLean, Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the US Mortgage Giants. The book tells the story of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two massive GSEs (government sponsored enterprises) that buy, package, and sell pools of mortgage loans. It’s a fascinating, if distressing history. Unfortunately, because our government failed to do away with Fannie and Freddie during the 2008 financial crisis, that history is still unfolding.
I do not short debt. But, on paper at least, shorting the sovereign debt of poorly managed European nations not named Greece sure seems like a great investment right about now. Aside from the negligible cost of the coupon, the downside to shorting the bonds of places like Portugal, Spain, and Italy seems to be almost nil. We’re talking about heavily indebted countries with aging populations and staggering unemployment, and yet, thanks largely to QE measures, their bond yields are shockingly low. This is clearly an unsustainable situation. QE will have to end eventually and if EU leaders finally develop a backbone, yields might return to double-digit levels more quickly.
Geez. I’m almost talking myself into this idea. Then again, it’s impossible to predict when (or if) the global pandemic of bailout fever will finally end.