How to Protect Your Wealth When Wars Threaten

I mentioned in a previous blog post a book entitled “Wealth, War and Wisdom” by Barton Biggs which covers how the turning points of World War II intersected with market performance. I have now read it and I am surprised that this book is not better known. It’s a very good analysis of how the wars of the 20th century impacted stock markets and the wealth of individuals. It probably should be essential reading for residents of the Ukraine at this moment in time, but it’s worth everyone reading it.

Does the stock market predict wars and their impacts is one question he tackles. The answer is yes and more accurately than political commentators it seems in many cases.

Here are some tips from the book that might be helpful:

  • Stock markets recover when the news stops getting worse, and before good news appears.
  • Equity markets have been a good protection against loss of wealth even in countries that suffered defeats, particularly in the long-term. The economic recovery of Japan and Germany after the Second World War soon offset their losses during the war.
  • Bonds are a losing investment in real terms whether you are on the winning or losing side. Inflation erodes their value because Governments print money to finance wars.
  • Buying gold only works if you bury it in the back garden, as otherwise it’s likely to be confiscated.
  • Property, particularly farms you live on, or small businesses you operate, are good investments even in the worst times.

The author actually covers the history and battles of World War II in some depth and it’s a refreshing and well researched analysis even for someone like me who is old enough to have read about a lot about the era in the 1960s and since. It provides some wonderful anecdotes and facts about how those wars created suffering for many millions of people.

The book was published in 2007. The author, Barton Biggs, was born in the USA and was an investment manager and strategist for Morgan Stanley. He made his name by forecasting the dotcom boom and bust which he called “the biggest bubble in the history of the world”. There is a fuller biography on Wikipedia.

Altogether a very original book which I highly recommend.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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An Exciting Week for Investors

Last week was certainly an exciting week for stock market investors. The FTSE 100 index fell sharply on Thursday but recovered to rise almost 4% on Friday. The US S&P 500 showed a similar pattern. This was no doubt from the initial reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with an initial panic followed by a more considered response.

Sanctions against Russia might have some impacts particularly on oil/gas prices but Russia is not the only producer.

I thought it interesting to look at the Ukrainian and Russian stock markets. Yes Ukraine has more than one but all trading was suspended by their regulator on Thursday. Moscow’s stock market was hit by a big collapse with the RTS index falling by 38% on Thursday and the rouble plunged to a low against the dollar. But there was a significant recovery on Friday. The bounce back on Friday in the markets seems to be based on some relief than sanctions were not as extreme as feared.

But there is a call to exclude Russians from the Swift international payment network. I recall reading a note some years ago that explained how interbank settlements still took place during the Second World War between the combatants. It would seem unwise to block access to Swift which would be damaging not just to Russia particularly as there are alternative payment networks that are already in place or could soon be created.

There is a book that was recommended by Jonathan Davis at a Mello event last week entitled “Wealth, War and Wisdom” by Barton Biggs which covers how the turning points of World War II intersected with market performance. I have ordered a copy to read and may write a review of it later. In my experience big political events have a big short-term impact as investors hunker down and cease buying or selling until the picture is clearer. With no trading prices rapidly fall. But markets can soon recover as soon as the long-term picture is clearer. It is best not to take hurried decisions about your shareholdings in such circumstances.

As it stands the Ukrainian army is apparently putting up a better fight than was expected although the fog of war is clouding the picture with reporting of military activity being mainly anecdotal. I recall looking at the comparative armed forces numbers of Russia and Ukraine a week ago and the 190,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine did not seem enough to ensure a quick victory even if Russia had more heavy equipment to hand. Russia does not seem to have captured the main communication centres, the TV and Radio stations or the heads of Government which is the typical prerequisite for a coup d’état. Even if Russia manages to install a puppet government it could be a long-drawn out conflict and Ukraine is a big country. As Russia and the US learned in Afghanistan, it’s easier to get into a country than to get out. Establishing long-term regime change is very difficult when most of the population opposes you. That is particularly so when there are lots of weapons in the hands of the population which is apparently now so in the Ukraine with many volunteers willing to fight. They may be short of ammunition in due course so the question to ask is how they might get resupplied? We may simply end up with another proxy war with Russia and the West fighting a guerrilla war in Ukraine by supporting local militias with very negative impacts on the local civilian population.

The outlook is bleak unless there is some desire for a political settlement that meets the aspirations of both Russia and Ukraine which does not seem impossible to me.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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