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Got Gold?

Hedge fund investor and billionaire Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates once retorted “If you don’t own gold, you know neither history nor economics.” Gold interest began spiking again during the COVID-19 pandemic as investors flocked to real assets to hold their money in while equities were flopping. As the S&P 500, NASDAQ, and Dow Jones have started on a downward trend once again, gold has again been experiencing gains in value. Hopefully, most readers can answer yes when asked “Got Gold?”  Servant Financial clients can assuredly answer affirmatively as outlined at the close of this article.

Despite Dalio’s admonition, gold holders, or gold bugs as they are affectionally called, are in the minority of U.S. investors. The Gold IRA Guide conducted a survey in 2020 to reveal the opinions of Americans surrounding gold and silver ownership. 1,500 Americans were surveyed between the ages of 18 and 65+. The survey revealed that 89% answered “no” when asked “Got Gold?”  Only 10.8% of respondents owned either just gold (4.3%) or both gold and silver (6.5%). Some respondents just owned silver (5.1%), suggesting a combined 84% of Americans owned neither gold nor silver at that time.

An updated survey by Gold IRA Guide in May 2022 of 2,500 American households found that almost 4 out of 5 reported having done nothing with their investment portfolio or retirement accounts to hedge against generationally high inflation.  Consumer Price Inflation (CPI) was reported above 8% for all items in both March and April of 2022.  Frankly, I think this is a sad commentary on institutional money management because it is very likely that many of these survey respondents were working with trusted investment advisors.  Unfortunately, a large majority of money management firms have apparently not “studied history or economics.”  Lemming-like, many institutional money managers are beholden to the traditional 60/40 stock and bond regime that has worked so well for the last 3 decades since the start of the 1990s.

Ray Dalio has also stated that “There are two main drivers of asset class returns – inflation and growth.”  We know from history that growth has been the dominant driver since the 1990s aided by a secular decline in inflation and interest rates.  Unfortunately, over the next 30-plus years, our elected geniuses in Washington and their co-conspirators at the Federal Reserve mistook that secular trend for permanence and repeatedly doubled down on the mantra “deficits don’t matter.” While most American households cannot feasibly operate under a budget deficit, the U.S. government seems to think they can. Washington elites ignored “history and economics” by spending and printing without limitation.  It’s as if they were seeing the world through Morgan Wallen Whiskey Glasses:

Line ’em up, line ’em up, line ’em up, line ’em up

Knock ’em back, knock ’em back, knock ’em back, knock ’em back

Fill ’em up, fill ’em up, fill ’em up, fill ’em up

‘Cause (INFLATION) ain’t ever coming back.

However, it is now increasingly apparent that we are entering a secular period in history where inflation trumps growth as the primary driver of asset class returns.  Safe passage through this new secular inflationary period requires polishing up on the history of gold cycles.  The chart below from Octavio Costa at Crescat Capital provides a nice overview of gold’s price history since the 1970s.  It’s important to note on this timeline that in August 1971 President Nixon closed the “gold window” which prevented foreign governments from redeeming their dollars for gold.  Up until this point, gold had served as an important governor on U.S. spending and printing.

History shows that when gold was the primary monetary unit before the adoption of gold-backed fiat currencies, gold also served as a governor of war.  Would-be aggressors were limited in financing war against their neighbors by the amount of gold stored in their treasuries and the amount of gold booty or other resources they could recover from their conquests. The same goes for pirates and naval conquests.

For those readers interested in digging a little deeper into gold, we’ve found that the most comprehensive analysis of gold markets available is entitled “In Gold We Trust”, prepared annually by Incrementum.  Incrementum published their 417-page, 17th edition earlier in 2023 entitled Showdown | In Gold We Trust report 2023 (hyperlinked to YouTube summary presentation of the report).

Incrementum presciently entitled their May 2023 edition “Showdown.”  The report summarizes the four important Showdowns that they expected to play out over the next year or more:

  1. West Versus East Geopolitics
  2. Competing Currencies (BRIC+ Currency Bloc)
  3. Failing Monetary Policies
  4. Price of Gold (gold price advances have been tame relative to Incrementum’s cycle view)

Obviously, Incrementum was aware of the Russia-Ukraine “showdown” at the time of publication but likely could not have anticipated another violent “showdown” in the Middle East.  Sadly, the inhumanity of humanity intervened again in recorded history with another Middle Eastern war on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (also known as the Fourth Arab–Israeli War).  That war began on 6 October 1973, when an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria jointly launched a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Following the outbreak of hostilities, both the United States and the Soviet Union initiated massive resupply efforts for their allies (Israel and the Arab states respectively) during the war which led to a confrontation between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.

Source: Bloomberg, SpringTide

Incrementum included a thoughtful, far-reaching interview with former Credit Suisse economist Zoltan Pozsar.  Pozsar is a Hungarian-American economist known for his analysis of the global shadow banking system.  He published a widely read December 2022 analysis while at Credit Suisse entitled “War and Commodity Encumbrance”.

Pozsar has since started his own macroeconomic advisory firm specializing in funding and interest rate markets called Ex Uno Plures.  The firm’s name (“out of one, many” in Latin) is the antonym of E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”), the motto on the Great Seal of the United States and dollar bill.  The firm’s raison d’être and the main thesis of the War and Commodity Encumbrance whitepaper is that “for generations, investors have been operating in a unipolar macroeconomic environment, where the U.S. dollar reigned supreme globally and where E Pluribus Unum was the perfect motto to describe what became known as the global dollar cycle. However, the conflict between the U.S. and China is set to reshape the global monetary order centered around the U.S. dollar. De-dollarization, the re-monetization of gold, the invoicing of a growing number of commodities and goods in renminbi, and the proliferation of CBDCs (Central Bank Digital Currencies) will challenge the US dollar’s hegemony (“out of one, many”).”

Incrementum’s headline quote from the Pozsar interview reads, “Two percent inflation and going back to the old world, I don’t think it stands a snowball’s chance in hell. Low inflation is over and we’re not going back.”

Here are some of Pozsar’s specific recommendations from the interview for adapting to the New World Order as he sees it (emphasis added):

  • We are moving into a multipolar reserve-currency world where the dollar will be challenged by the renminbi and the euro for reserve currency status.
  • These currencies, especially the renminbi, would not necessarily be used as a reserve currency, but rather to settle trade. Gold could play an increased role here. (Pozsar notes that since 2016-17, the renminbi has been convertible to gold on the Shanghai and Hong Kong Gold Exchanges.)
  • The Chinese are using swap lines to settle international trade accounts. This is a fundamentally different approach from the dollar reserve framework and would mean that trade can occur in renminbi without nations needing to hold vast reserves of the currency.
  • The various crises that today’s financial market participants have witnessed were solved by throwing money at whatever problem arose. The current inflation problem is different.
  • This situation is also vastly different from the late 1970s when Paul Volcker curbed inflation by prolonged high-interest rates. Chronic underinvestment in the resource sector and labor issues will cause inflation to remain sticky.
  • The traditional 60/40 portfolio allocation will struggle in this environment. Pozsar recommends a 20/40/20/20 (cash, stocks, bonds, and commodities) allocation.

Commenting further on the commodities allocation Pozsar echoed the words of Dalio on “gold, inflation and growth”:

“Within that commodities basket, I think gold is going to have a very special meaning, simply because gold is coming back on the margin as a reserve asset and as a settlement medium for interstate capital flows. I think cash and commodities is a very good mix. I think you can also put, very prominently, some commodity-based equities into that portfolio and also some defensive stocks. Both of these will be value stocks, which are going to benefit from this environment. This is because growth stocks have owned the last decade and value stocks are going to own this decade. I think that’s a pretty healthy mix, but I would be very careful about broad equity exposure, and I would be very careful of growth stocks.”

Servant Financial client portfolios have long held, meaningful allocations to gold.  Below is a summary of gold allocations by client portfolio risk profile:

The chart below provides the performance of a Moderate Risk client portfolio after management fees against a traditional 60/40 global composite portfolio (without management fees) over the past twelve months ended October 20, 2023, and highlights the benefit of holding traditional gold and precious metals and digital gold over this time. (Past performance is not indicative of future performance.)

Moreover, bitcoin broke emphatically through the $34K level on October 24, 2023, and is up some $8,400, or 32%, in the past 30 days after the United States Court of Appeal issued a court mandate this week requiring Grayscale Investment’s application for a spot Bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) to be reviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  The mandated SEC review could potentially pave the way for the conversion of the Greyscale Bitcoin Trust (BTC) from a trust (trading a week ago at a 12% discount to the net asset value (NAV) of underlying bitcoin held) to a spot ETF trading much closer to NAV. Servant predicted this “Bitcoinalization” as we coined it back in July of this year.

The title of this month’s newsletter is a hat-tip to the highly successful “Got Milk?” ad campaign of the 1990s and early 2000s.  Trends in consumption and investment evolve, affected by the cyclical and episodic nature of humanity and a myriad of factors from health and ethical concerns to technological innovations and geopolitical events. Just as the dairy industry has faced challenges and adapted, the gold investment landscape is also undergoing a transformation and monetary renaissance. The intrinsic value of milk as a household staple of a well-balanced diet is akin to the enduring value that gold brings to a well-diversified investment portfolio.  Just as there have been resurgences in milk consumption through innovation and adaptation, the allure of gold, gold miners, and other scarce stores of monetary value remains. A “Got Gold?” mindset offers investors a timeless refuge, especially in an era characterized by economic uncertainties, inflation, and geopolitical unrest.

 

Blessing for Peace

May those who make riches from violence and war,

Hear in their dreams the cries of the lost.

Excerpt from the poem by John O’Donohue

 

Bitcoinalization: The Coming Institutionalization of Bitcoin

The digital economy is an umbrella term that describes how traditional brick-and-mortar activities are being disrupted or altered by the Internet and blockchain technologies. The institutionalization of digital assets throughout history has been driven by various factors, including shifts in investor risk preferences or changes in economic conditions, but most importantly by advancements and convergences in technology and related network effects. Network effects are a phenomenon whereby a product or service gains additional economic value as more people use it.  Think of social media networks Facebook and Twitter, e-commerce platforms like Amazon or Apple’s app store and iPhone, or digital payment platforms like PayPal, Venmo, or Bitcoin.

The institutionalization of “tangible” digital assets began with the proliferation of digital real estate assets over the last few decades. The emergence of these new real assets has been driven by a massive secular movement from analog to digital systems and the development of real assets and infrastructure to support the digitization of economic activities and an ever-increasing array of new digital technologies. Below are a couple of examples of ubiquitous digital real estate assets that have emerged over recent decades:

Cell Towers: Cell towers are perhaps one of the earliest examples of new digital real assets that have undergone the institutionalization process. As mobile communication technology has developed to meet business and consumer demands for greater bandwidth and rich features, a massive infrastructure buildout has occurred to support network reliability and responsiveness. Cell towers provide the infrastructure necessary for wireless communication networks, and they generate revenue through leasing agreements with telecommunication service providers.

Institutional investors recognized the combination of stable income and the growth potential of cell towers and began investing in the asset class. Tower companies, REITs, and infrastructure funds were formed to acquire and manage portfolios of cell towers. We witnessed the successful development of this nascent asset class in the mid-2000s through a family office advisory relationship for which we oversaw a private equity fund exit of a private cell tower business to Crown Castle International (NYSE: CCI) for $5.8 billion and very rich multiples on invested capital and tower cash flows. These entities focus on leasing tower space to telecommunication companies, effectively creating a stream of relatively stable and growing rental income. Co-location of cellular equipment from multiple carriers on a single tower created interesting upside optionality and ultimately outsized returns for early cell-tower owners and investors.

Data Centers: With the rapid growth of the digital economy, data centers have emerged as a critical infrastructure asset necessary to support the increased digitization of communication and storage and retrieval of exponentially larger data elements. Data centers provide the physical infrastructure to store and process large amounts of digital information. Institutional investors recognized the increasing demand for data storage and processing capabilities, leading to the development of specialized data center investment firms and funds.  Like cell towers, specialized public corporations and REITs were formed to hold these data center assets, such as Equinix, Inc. (Nasdaq: EQIX) and Digital Realty Trust, Inc. (NYSE: DLR)

Concurrently, Amazon was developing its own data center expertise and infrastructure in support of its online book-selling business and expansion into other consumer products. Ultimately, Amazon was able to monetize its cloud-computing and data center expertise by building out a hugely profitable outsourced data center management business within Amazon.com (NYSE: AMZN) called Amazon Web Service, or AWS for short. This unique company’s specific transformation illustrates the powerful confluence of learning curves, technological reinforcement, economies of scale, and/or network convergence that can be associated with the digitization of the economy.

The institutionalization of these two asset classes involved the entry of large-scale institutional investors, such as pension funds, insurance companies, venture capital, and private equity firms, who brought significant capital and professional management expertise. They often acquired substantial portfolios of assets within the specific asset class, creating economies of scale and professionalizing operations.

The institutionalization process typically involves the standardization of investment structures, the development of specialized investment vehicles (for example, the more tax-efficient REIT structure for holding qualifying real estate assets), and the establishment of industry best practices. Very often adjustments in the existing regulatory framework and industry practices are necessary to bridge compliance gaps. The institutionalization process generally contributes to increased liquidity, transparency, and stability within an asset class, ultimately making it more attractive to a wider range of investors.  The REITs cited earlier are examples of these institutional market forces.  I think one important lesson from this history is that you want to be an early investor in these emerging digital asset classes prior to the formation of public REIT structures that democratized the asset to the masses.

Importantly, smaller, and more nimble retail investors have a distinct advantage over institutional investors if they can identify the approaching institutionalization of an asset class in advance of the institutional capital pools and have the fortitude to invest in an emerging digital asset in the early adopter phase of the S-curve adoption patterns commonly taught in university business classes. The early adopter phase is typically after proof of concept but prior to mass market adoption and the large institutional capital flows.

As we’ve all experienced firsthand with the emergence of mobile communication enabled by cell towers and cloud computing enabled by data centers, the adoption rate of digital innovations tends to be non-linear.  Adoption is generally slow at first driven by a small group of innovators. Adoption rates then  torise rapidly as early adopters and then the early and later majority come on board in the mass market phase before adoption flattens out in the maturation phase.  These traditional S-curve innovation adoption rate concepts are graphically depicted below:

Levels of Adoption: Solution Search/Innovators: <2.5%, Proof of Concept/Early Adopters: 2.5% to 13.5%, System Integration/Early Majority: 13.5% to 50.0%, Market Expansion/Late Majority: 50.0% to 84%, and Laggards – last 16%

Source: Rocky Mountain Institute, “Harnessing the Power of S-Curves”

Bitcoinalization

According to a June 2022 analysis of Bitcoin User Adoption by Blockware Solutions, somewhere between 1% to 3% of the global population are bitcoin users/holders.  This is a broad approximation because one on-chain entity could be a single person that self-custodies their bitcoin or it could be an exchange, custodian desk, or other institution that represents thousands or potentially millions of individuals.

Blockware Solutions’ analysis puts Bitcoin somewhere in the Early Adopters phase in the S-curve paradigm. System Integration is the next phase in the cycle and with it comes mass-market adoption.  From this standpoint, bitcoin is at a critically important inflection point in its history.  We’ve “coined” this coming wave of institutional adoption as bitcoinalization.

Before going into our investment case further, let’s look at the institutionalization process of a purely digital networked business more like bitcoin and distributed ledger technology (DLT) to supplement the foregoing tangible cell tower and data center examples. Some important patterns and potential impediments for future Bitcoin user adoption may become apparent.

One technology-enabled asset class institutionalization process that can be seen as an analogy for Bitcoin and DLT is the emergence of the Internet and the subsequent development of the digital advertising industry.  As can be seen from the digital real estate examples, the Internet revolutionized the way information is shared, communicated, and accessed. The World-Wide Web provided a platform for new business models and created opportunities for new and innovative asset classes. One of these asset classes is digital advertising, which grew alongside the expansion of the Internet and digital real estate assets and infrastructure.

Correspondingly, bitcoin and DLT would not be possible without the Internet and associated global communication and data processing networks.  Bitcoin and DLT have transformed the financial landscape by introducing decentralized digital currencies and distributed ledger systems. Bitcoin, as the first and most well-known cryptocurrency, paved the way for the institutionalization of digital assets and the exploration of blockchain-based technologies or distributed ledgers.

Similarities between the institutionalization processes of digital advertising and Bitcoin/DLT include:

Disintermediation: Both digital advertising and Bitcoin/DLT aim to eliminate intermediaries, reducing the need for trusted third parties. In digital advertising, the traditional intermediaries, advertising agencies, were bypassed as digital platforms enabled direct connections between advertisers and consumers. Similarly, Bitcoin and DLT aim to create a trustless system where transactions can occur directly between participants without financial intermediaries, such as banks or other financial institutions.

Growing Institutional Interest: Over time, digital advertising gained significant institutional interest as advertisers and marketers recognized its potential for more targeted, cost-effective advertising, and more discernable return and payback metrics. Similarly, Bitcoin and DLT have attracted venture capital firms, technology companies, and other traditionally early investors that recognized the potential for decentralized finance, secure, immutable transaction processing, and other benefits of blockchain technology.

Initial Skepticism and Regulation: Both digital advertising and Bitcoin/DLT faced initial skepticism and regulatory challenges. Digital advertising faced scrutiny, and regulatory frameworks needed to adapt to new forms of online advertising to address consumer protection and privacy concerns. Similarly, bitcoin and cryptocurrencies encountered market skepticism and continue to face regulatory scrutiny as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other financial regulators seek to better understand and regulate this new asset class.

Importantly, it’s in this regulatory oversight where we have just recently seen a potential framework developing for much-needed regulatory clarity. The SEC has long come under fire for its approach of regulating crypto markets by enforcement, rather than providing proactive, definitive regulatory guidance. After arguably being found asleep at the wheel in the aftermath of the FTX debacle, the SEC has become a more consistently active regulator. In a watershed event, the SEC sued Coinbase (NASDAQ: COIN) and Binance, two of the world’s largest crypto exchanges, in June 2023 for allegedly breaching SEC securities regulations. The SEC alleged Coinbase traded at least 13 crypto assets that the SEC deemed to be securities which should have been registered with the SEC. (Ironically, the SEC reviewed Coinbase’s initial public offering of securities in April 2021 and did not object to the Company’s public listing.)  The SEC accused Binance of offering 12 cryptocurrencies without registering them as securities.

The SEC’s litigation claims center around whether crypto tokens represent investment contracts and/or securities. Given the technological innovations and new business models involved with crypto assets, this is a substantially gray area that will ultimately be decided by the courts. Just last week a judge ruled in a split decision in the SEC’s earlier lawsuit against Ripple that Ripple’s XRP token was a security sometimes.

Although there has been a long-running debate as to whether some cryptos are securities, there has been very little argument from the SEC that Bitcoin is a security. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) ruled in 2018 that “virtual currencies, such as bitcoin, have been determined to be commodities under the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA)” in its Bitcoin Basics brochure.

Despite this seeming clarity for bitcoin’s treatment as a commodity, the SEC has denied dozens of registrations for spot bitcoin exchange-traded funds (ETFs) of commodity-based trust shares over the last few years.  Paradoxically, the SEC has allowed numerous ETFs based on bitcoin futures to trade on regulated exchanges but has denied every spot bitcoin application that has been submitted to date. The SEC has often cited that the underlying spot market of Bitcoin is subject to fraud and manipulation. Since the derivatives market reflects spot prices, it is difficult to see the SEC logic in allowing the futures-based ETFs but not ETFs based on the underlying bitcoin.

However, it seems that regulatory clarity is about to arrive for Bitcoin with the recent submission by Blackrock (NYSE: BLK) for a spot Bitcoin ETF.  We see the SEC approval of a spot bitcoin ETF akin to the REIT structure that democratized cell tower and data center ownership to the masses. Blackrock is the world’s largest investment manager at $9 trillion in assets under management (AUM).  It’s CEO, Larry Fink, was an early skeptic and once declared, “Bitcoin is nothing more than an index for money laundering.”  Funny how profit incentives and client defections to your competitors providing Bitcoin access will change your tune.

On July 13, the SEC added BlackRock’s spot Bitcoin ETF application to its list of proposed rulemaking filings for the NASDAQ stock market. This move may signal the SEC’s intent to take the application more seriously after BlackRock added a “surveillance-sharing” agreement with U.S. crypto exchange Coinbase to its updated application. Blackrock’s competitors Fidelity Investments, WisdomTree, Invesco, VanEck, and others have followed suit and filed similar “surveillance-sharing” amendments to their respective bitcoin ETF applications. Several of these other bitcoin ETFs were recently added to the SEC’s review docket.

It is particularly interesting to note that both the NASDAQ exchange and CBOE are partnering with Coinbase to provide the market surveillance function to address SEC concerns about monitoring of fraud. The Coinbase name was originally omitted in Blackrock and other bitcoin ETF applications, possibly due to the SEC’s wide-ranging enforcement action against Coinbase.

In addition to the spot bitcoin ETFs, there have been several other positive institutional moves that may also promote bitcoinalization:

  • Not to be left out, rumors abound that Vanguard ($7.6 trillion in AUM) may potentially take over the Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (GBTC) and convert it into a spot ETF.
  • Last September, Fidelity Investments, Schwab and Citadel announced they were teaming up to launch a new crypto exchange called EDX.
  • Fidelity Investments is no stranger to bitcoin. Fidelity has been leading the institutional adoption of bitcoin. For example, Fidelity has its own bitcoin mining operation. And since early last year, Fidelity has enabled their 73,000 retirement plan clients to make bitcoin allocations with 401K plans where Fidelity acts as the custodian or administrator.
  • More recently Fidelity Investments began rolling out Fidelity Crypto® capabilities to its Fidelity Institutional Registered Investment Advisory (RIA) network and family office clients by providing access to Fidelity Digital Assets custody and execution services within the RIA Wealthscape platform.

 

All the foregoing developments are elegantly summarized in the following chart from BitcoinNews.com. Led by Blackrock and Fidelity, the following institutions which control some $27 trillion in assets under management are queuing up to invest in a scarce 21 million bitcoin (19.4 million in existence and 1.6 million left to be mined).

Considering the foregoing, we will be taking the following actions on behalf of our Servant Financial clients:

  1. Doubling portfolio allocations to the bitcoin sector – initial client allocations based on account risk tolerances were to Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (OTC: GBTC) ranging from 1% to 2% and Hut8 Mining (NASDAQ: HUT) of 1.5% to 2.0%,. HUT’s stock price has doubled in the last 45 days on the bitcoin rally on news of Blackrock’s ETF filing and company specific merger developments.  We’ve simply doubled the HUT allocation in more risk-tolerant client accounts that hold this security without making additional share purchases.  Concerning the direct bitcoin allocation, we are withholding action on any additional GBTC allocations until we’ve had an opportunity to meet with Fidelity Investments on the Fidelity Crypto® integration for registered investment advisors.  Initially, Fidelity will not be charging custodial fees for cold storage of client Bitcoin or Ethereum.  Over time, Fidelity intends to charge 0.4% for Bitcoin and Ethereum custody. GBTC charges a 2% annual management fee.
  2. Continuing Professional Education – taking an online course for a certificate in blockchain and digital assets for financial advisors offered by Digital Asset Council for Financial Professionals.
  3. Ongoing securities research – analysis of other leading “picks and shovels” companies in the bitcoin and blockchain ecosystem like HUT. We are beta-testing a more speculative pure-play model invested in six companies for one client.
  4. Convergence of bitcoin miners and their high-performance computing capabilities with artificial intelligence applications – it’s a story for another day but a convergence of artificial intelligence and bitcoin mining/high-performance computing is anticipated. It seems that bitcoin mining equipment is uniquely suitable for artificial intelligence applications, particularly NVIDIA graphics processing units (GPUs, initially developed for gaming and graphics applications) with application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for bitcoin mining. Some miners established early strategic relationships with NVIDIA (NASDAQ: NVDA).

“I love this stuff – bitcoin, Ethereum, blockchain technology – and what the future holds.” – Abigail Johnson, granddaughter of the late Edward C. Johnson II, founder of Fidelity Investments.

And just like that bitcoin is institutional – bitcoinalization.

Summer Road Trip

The summer season has officially begun and following in the footsteps of the Griswold family, you’ve decided to take a typically American road trip. But instead of a final destination of Walley World, your destination is a more durable investment portfolio as you suspect the wheels may come off the US economy this summer. Fasten your seat belts, get out your road map, and drive along as we explore some of the key points of interest (POI) for the U.S. economy this summer.

First POI: National Debt Ceiling

One POI that could cause you to reduce your cruising speed this summer could be the National Debt Ceiling. The media and public have been in a veritable frenzy over the past month about the National Debt Ceiling as the legislative and executive branches of government have until June 5th to reach a compromise on raising the national debt limit. The U.S. Government reached its $31.4 trillion debt limit in January however the Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” and accounting tricks to avoid a technical default. The U.S. Treasury Department recently warned that if the ceiling were not raised by June 5th, the U.S. Government could default on its payment obligations to debt holders.

About $6.8 trillion of this debt is owed to other federal agencies such as the Social Security Trust Fund, the Federal Old Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, and the Military Retirement Fund. The remainder is held by the public. Among these public debtholders are U.S. banks, investors, the Federal Reserve, state and local governments, mutual funds, pension funds, and several foreign governments. Almost half of U.S. debt is held in trusts for retirement, meaning if the U.S. government ever defaulted, it could have far-reaching impacts on current and future retirees. Much like you, these retired workers are likely looking to hit the road in their RVs this summer.  Some sharp-eyed retirees may have foreseen this speed bump ahead and begun rethinking their travel plans.  Many have pulled over into the relative safety and comfort of a rest area; tired and frustrated that their retirement income lies in the hands of politicians jockeying to ride shotgun beside the Commander in Chief.

Source: The Balance Money

In addition to military leadership, the Commander in Chief holds primary responsibility for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.  Stiffing your foreign lenders would be a steering error with potentially fatal consequences.  Japan, China, and the United Kingdom lead the line of geopolitical traffic cops, collectively holding over $2 trillion of U.S. debt. Japan and China’s large holdings of U.S. debt help support the value of the dollar as the global reserve currency and finance U.S. purchases of their relatively cheaper goods. The U.S. economy is one of the key global economies as most foreign countries have some trading relationship with the United States.  In addition, the U.S. dollar dominates global exchange markets, representing 90% of trading volume.  A U.S. default on its national debt would cause a major economic pileup and delays in global economic activity transmitted through the U.S. dollar-based global financial system. The U.S. maintained its AAA or equivalent credit rating by the major reporting agencies until the last debt ceiling crisis in 2013, when Standard and Poors downgraded the U.S. to an AA+ credit rating, citing political brinkmanship over raising the Federal debt ceiling.

Source: The Balance Money

Thankfully, legislators have reached a proposed deal that would lift the federal debt limit; however, the proposed legislation will do little to reduce the government spending that sped up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The package would suspend the borrowing limit until January 2025 along with limiting military spending growth to 3% and imposing limits on nonmilitary spending. Some other features of the deal include some cutting of funding for the Internal Revenue Service and a tightening of work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The deal still needs to be approved by both the House and Senate before going to the Commander in Chief for his signature. At this juncture, it seems likely that these two backseat drivers will reach agreement soon enough to apply the brakes and avoid a catastrophic Thelma & Louis ending.

Second POI: Revisiting Cryptocurrencies

Next stop on our summer road trip, is a place we have visited before, cryptocurrencies. At the end of 2022, we discussed some of our key investment themes for 2023 with crypto assets making the list. Cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, were on everyone’s POI list last summer.  However, the epic failure and fraud of one of the largest digital currency exchanges, FTX, halted many people’s crypto ride prematurely. The price of Bitcoin fell 65% last year but has it started to make a comeback? The short answer is yes however it has not yet reached its all-time high of 2020. Bitcoin is up 67% year to date with Ethereum following suit, rising almost 59% year to date. While crypto assets are increasing in popularity again after their self-inflicted pileup last year, many remain skeptical about whether alternative currencies are the safest route on the investment highway. Similar to old Route 66 that runs from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, digital currencies have had several bumps, potholes, and dead ends across its history. Still, Route 66 remains a viable, albeit alternative pathway.  It has not been abandoned by more adventuresome travelers.  Inflationary pressures and a long history of fiat-based monetary accidents have venturous investors exploring these digital assets for diversification benefits as uncertainty looms around the U.S. economy and recession odds grow with the length of days. We expect to see more sensible government regulation in this space over time. The stakes have been raised with SEC cracking down on the popular trading and exchange platform, Coinbase, in April.  Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle have been working on providing legislative clarity where the SEC has left a regulatory vacuum.  Cryptocurrencies may not be on everyone’s destination list this summer; however, we will be keeping a watchful eye on their route this summer.  The incessant drumbeat of global de-dollarization and circumventions of U.S. hegemony by U.S. allies and foes alike will be good fodder for economists’ ghoulish tales around summer campfires.

Third Stop: Energy Prices

From the air conditioning in your home to the gas tank filled up for that summer road trip, energy prices remain a stipulation in summer travel plans. Last year, energy prices, impeded many people’s ability to take that summer vacation or forced them to turn down the thermostats in their homes as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict put price pressure on oil and natural gas. Europe felt the brunt of spiking energy prices as its largest supplier of natural gas, Russia, shut off its pipes to countries supporting Ukraine in its war efforts. As a result, prices skyrocketed which sent shockwaves to energy consumers around the world. Thankfully, Europe pushed its populous to conserve energy, and, coupled with a mild Winter, the European Union was able to escape a possible pileup widely predicted this past winter.  Energy prices have largely stabilized along with the apparent stalemate in the Russia-Ukraine War with oil prices falling 7% and natural gas prices falling 42% since January 1st making your summer travel a bit cheaper going into the warmer months.

Fourth POI: Hospitality Industry

Our final stop is a look at the hospitality industry: the epicenter of summer travel season. The hospitality industry which includes hotels, bars, and restaurants took a major hit during the pandemic as restrictions and public fear kept many people locked down. However, the CDC recently lifted its Public Health Emergency as COVID-19 has become less virulent and more manageable from a public health perspective. This news couldn’t have been better timed for the hospitality industry as this summer is projected to be full of travel for Americans. A study conducted by Deloitte found that 50% of Americans plan to take trips this summer that include hotel or rental home stays along with many reporting they will be traveling internationally this year. As a result, bars, hotels, and restaurants are among the economy’s fastest-growing employers according to the Wall Street Journal. This hiring frenzy comes on the heels of increased consumer spending in April even though recessionary fears persist. Overall, much like this author, Americans seem to be making room in their budgets for that epic 2023 summer road trip making the hospitality industry one sector to watch this year.

“When all else fails, take a vacation.”  – Betty Williams

Hopefully, we’ve whetted your appetite for a summer road trip.  Let’s face it, our elected officials and central bankers are driving erratically and should get off the road.  Thankfully they’ll be on summer break soon, probably just as soon as they raise the debt ceiling.

There is an old Wall Street adage, “Sell in May and go away” that ties in well with this summer road trip theme.  Of note, we’ve tactically reduced Servant Financial model portfolios to the lower end of their risk tolerance range earlier this month to keep your summer road trip on track and carefree.  Although we cannot prevent government or Fed-induced market accidents from occurring, we can limit the portfolio damage.  With the S&P 500 trading at 4,200 and a rich 24 times last twelve-month price-earnings ratio (PE) and 19 times forward PE, selling in May and focusing on your summer vacation seems like a very sensible thing to do.

Contact us today to learn how you can keep your investment portfolios safely on the road this Summer.

 

Riding the Bitcoin Rocket

What is Bitcoin?

Over the past few years it is more than likely you have either directly encountered Bitcoin or heard of it, and this is for good reason. As cryptocurrencies are still so new and foreign to most people, reluctance and skepticism are a natural hurdle. Just as many people thought the internet was a waste of time during its inception, Bitcoin is bound to face similar issues. However, popular financial figures such as Elon Musk and Anthony Scaramucci have sung cryptocurrencies’ praises for its innovative blockchain technology. Bitcoin has the potential to significantly disrupt current financial systems such as our current fiat money system while revolutionizing data collection and financial transaction systems.

In 2008, a person using the name Satoshi Nakamoto published a white paper on a public online mailing list. The paper, titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System stated the objectives of the currency as well as the actual code for how to make it possible. As the name suggests, the main objective of Bitcoin is to create a decentralized digital currency that is fully peer-to-peer, not requiring any regulators, banks to be a mediator, or middlemen for transactions. Additionally, Bitcoin avoids rapid fiat currency inflationary episodes like we are seeing currently because the number of bitcoin to be mined has been fixed at 21 million. All of these are made possible through the computer code for blockchain which Satoshi provides in the same paper.

Blockchain Technology

Blockchain is the technology that makes Bitcoin and all cryptocurrencies possible. While it is an extremely complicated system altogether, it can be summarized in a fairly digestible way. Blockchain is essentially a linear public ledger of all transactions, using encryption and decryption as a means of verifying transactions. As Bitcoin transactions are made, they are publicly broadcasted to all computers in the blockchain network and grouped into blocks. These blocks must then be decrypted by the network of computers in the system. Once one of these computers solves the block, the ledger is permanently updated with that block being the newest block on the end of the chain. This process continues indefinitely, constantly adding verified blocks full of transactions. This process eliminates the risk of double spending while remaining decentralized. Double-spending occurs when a single digital token can be spent more than once through duplication or falsification of the blockchain record. The information for all of these blocks as well as the individual transactions within them are all public and can be viewed at any time. While the crypto wallet public key is displayed for transactions, no information is linked to the key that could compromise anonymity.

Mining and Supply

There is only a single way new Bitcoins are created. That is through the process of mining. Calling it mining is slightly misleading as in reality mining is an essential process that maintains the blockchain network. Miners are the computers connected to the blockchain network which complete the decryption process to verify and post blocks. Whichever computer eventually solves the encryption by providing the correct 64-digit hexadecimal value is rewarded a set number of new Bitcoins. This is the only way new Bitcoins are added to the system.

About every four years or 210,000 blocks verified, the Bitcoin reward for solving a block is halved. This rate was established at inception to limit the supply growth and cap the total number of Bitcoins that will ever exist at 21 million. In addition to this, the blockchain system adjusts the difficulty of its encryptions to the amount of mining power in the network to maintain this rate. This is how Bitcoin handles inflation. These countermeasures to inflating the supply are hard-coded into the blockchain. Unlike the U.S. fiat dollar system where money can be arbitrarily created whenever needed by the government, Bitcoin has a fixed total supply and rate of adding to the supply that is not controlled by an irresponsible third party. Today, the reward for solving a single block is 6.25 BTC which currently, would be valued at around $144,000.

While a $144,000 payout for running a computer sounds attractive, the odds of actually being the one to solve the encryption is estimated to be about 1 in 22 trillion. Mining technology is becoming more productive every year with inventions like ASICs (Application-Specific-Integrated-Circuit) which are computers designed for the sole purpose of mining Bitcoin. However, even with one of these top-of-the-line computers, odds of solving the encryption are terrible as there are many other individuals and companies running mining operations at a scale that no individual can afford. This issue has led to the creation of mining pools. These are pools of individuals all agreeing to share in the profits of their combined computing power. With thousands of times the computing power, the chances of being the one to solve and be rewarded Bitcoin go up significantly. These profits are then divided up amongst individuals in the pool by how much computing power they offered to the pool.

Bitcoin Today

Fourteen years later, it is hard to imagine Satoshi had any idea that his creation would become such a big deal with some countries even using Bitcoin as legal tender. While the coin came from extremely humble beginnings, with a value as low as $0.09 per Bitcoin in 2010, it has hit astonishing highs of nearly $69,000 per Bitcoin just last year. Bitcoin’s price has fallen considerably from this point, today being worth just under $23,000 per coin. This decline is largely from a recent crypto panic caused by the crashing of multiple extremely over-leveraged crypto companies. Despite this recent dip, Bitcoin still shows immense promise for all of the reasons listed above. Even for those skeptical about Bitcoin, the blockchain technology surrounding it has taken off in every sector from food and supply chain to insurance and banking. American Express, Facebook, Walt Disney, and Berkshire Hathaway have all invested in the technology. As the fiat money system becomes more and more problematic and the importance of data collection grows, individuals and countries will be looking to Bitcoin and blockchain technologies for guidance.

Investing in Bitcoin

If you are considering putting money in Bitcoin there is a lot to consider. Crypto wallets can be intimidating and are only for direct investment in crypto assets. Instead, we will be focusing on investment opportunities that are tradeable like typical stocks but still provide exposure to the crypto markets. These come in a wide variety and may have different approaches to how they offer crypto exposure. For our purposes, we will cover three of these opportunities.

The first fund has been in the news for the past couple of months. Grayscale Bitcoin Trust (ticker: GBTC) is a closed-end fund holding purely bitcoin assets.  Unlike actual bitcoin, GBTC can be held in a tradional investment brokerage account or an IRA (individual retirement account).  Grayscale currently has assets under management of around $15 billion, making it the largest Bitcoin fund in the world. The fund provides the opportunity for people to gain exposure to the direct price changes in Bitcoin. Grayscale has plans to convert to an exchanged-traded-fund (ETF) which would allow them to use the creation and redemption technique of an ETF to stabilize the value to the net asset value (NAV). Currently, Grayscale’s inability to use this stabilizing technique has led to GBTC trading at nearly a 30% discount from the NAV of the underlying Bitcoin. In June, the SEC denied Grayscale’s application to convert to an ETF, citing concerns of potential manipulation. Grayscale is now suing the SEC over the decision following previous inconsistent approvals from the SEC for a Bitcoin futures ETF. If Grayscale ends up receiving approval for conversion, the current 30% discount will become a 30% profit for investors as the price will return close to NAV.

The next few investment opportunities take on more of a “pick and shovel” approach to investing in Bitcoin and crypto. This means investing in the tools that make this sector possible, such as computer chips and ASICs and the mining companies, rather than the crypto assets themselves as they can admittedly be volatile. The first of these is Fidelity Crypto Industry and Digital Payment ETF (Ticker: FDIG). This ETF holds assets across Fidelity’s entire Crypto Industry and Digital Payment Index, closely tracking the performance of the crypto sector rather than the potentially volatile prices of the cryptos themselves. Currently, FDIG holds assets under management of about $13 million with a NAV of $16.71. The second company we have an eye on takes a similar pick and shovel approach to invest in crypto. Bitwise Crypto Industry Innovators ETF (Ticker: BITQ) is another ETF holding shares of companies innovating in and supporting the crypto industry. Specifically, only companies that generate at least half of their revenues from crypto business activities. BITQ currently has assets under management of $72 million and a NAV of $8.10. These could be good options for those who are interested or have faith in crypto but want to take a more diversified approach on the sector.

   

 

 

 

 

 

An investment in GBTC, FDIG or BITQ can be as volatile as owning bitcoin or any other crypto.  We recommend only modest allocations to the crypto space of 1% to 5% within an investment portfolio because of the higher risk and speculative aspects of this nascent industry/technology. Servant Financial client portfolio models include GBTC and were recently rebalanced to purchase more given the market correction in the crypto sector along with traditional stock and bond markets.  More risk tolerant client models also hold Hut 8 Mining (NASDAQ: HUT) and these models were also rebalanced.  We typically do not invest in ETFs that do not have more than $100 million in assets under management so we will continue to monitor FDIG and BITQ.

Looking Forward

Crypto is still only in its beginning phase. With the application and acceptance of Bitcoin and other cryptos increasing each year, demand is expected to increase significantly. Broader acceptance and application of the technology is expected to lead to improved regulation of these currencies which will serve to increase adoption and overall understanding of cryptos as well as the benefits they have to offer. Bitcoin and crypto will continue to establish themselves as major disruptive forces to the current financial system. Bitcoin and crypto can potentially disintermediate traditional financial institutions much like what the internet and e-commerce did to traditional retailers, like book stores. As innovators such as Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, and Jeff Bezos will tell you, being on the right side of change can reap financial benefits and societal advancements.

Re-Evaluating the Role of Gold in Investment Portfolios

2022 has proven to be a particularly interesting and bumpy ride for investors as we travel the economic path toward the end of our rainbows and the achievement of our long-term savings and investment goals. Recent monetary policy and global events have investors reconsidering what role gold plays in a modern investment portfolio. Diversification into inflation hedging assets, such as gold, will be a key consideration for investment portfolios to manage the inflation bumps and monetary policy U-turns. In many respects, the market has indicated early in 2022 that what may be the key to surviving this rocky economic road is by looking ahead to what’s at the mythical end of the rainbow: a pot of gold. 

Gold Rush

What do today’s investors and gold prospectors from the 1800s have in common? They are both rushing to get their hands on gold. Inflation woes and market uncertainty have rightfully sent the gold market into a frenzy as investors seek its real asset protection. As of April 25th, gold’s value is up around 10% from the previous year and is up 22.8% since right before the pandemic began in March 2020. While it has given up some gains in recent weeks, it still has strong year-to-date returns. Frankly, gold has been a sparkling investment since 1999 when its price averaged around $252.50 per ounce. Today, gold is trading at closer to $1,900 per ounce, creating a strong upward trend over the last 23 years. Gold reached an all-time high on March 9th when the price of the “barbarous relic” topped out at $2,053.60. Volatility still plagues the real asset but for gold investors who have buried American Eagle coins, gold bars, or equivalents in their safety deposit boxes or investment portfolios, the reward has paid off.

Speculators have questioned whether this gold rush will continue throughout 2022. To be certain, gold prices will be very dependent on what happens with inflation, interest rates, and the Russian/Ukrainian conflict.  The barbarous relic’s bullish trends are currently projected to continue throughout 2022 but even the most optimistic investors will continue to keep an eye on its volatility because as we have experienced “All that glitters is not gold.” – William Shakespeare.

Gold Performance During Economic Crisis & Inflationary Pressure

Real assets such as gold or real estate like farmland have often been favored during times of economic crisis and global uncertainty since fiat money printing becomes global governments’ default solution. Investors flocked to real assets during The Great Inflation of the 1970s when unemployment levels were high, and the economy was turbulent. We saw similar circumstances during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Initially, gold also faced considerable volatility in 2008 as investors sought liquidity across all investment holdings.  After the initial shock of the financial crisis, people bought gold when they sensed that the money printing had started in earnest. Growth slowed down in 2012 as the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates and a weaker dollar resulted. The figure below shows the annual price movements of gold during this time period.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

              The most recent notoriety surrounding gold has understandably been driven by its relationship with inflation. Recently inflationary numbers accelerated with CPI growing more than 8% year over year and the narrative has flipped from “transitory inflation” to “secular inflation” and there is a growing concern for stagflation (slow economic growth with high inflation). The Federal Reserve has reversed course and dropped its inane “transitory” policies and is aggressively raising interest rates to temper demand and combat rising prices. However, with supply chains still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian/Ukraine conflict has thrown another wrench into global economic gears as the market for commodities, such as oil, gas, and grains grows more fractured.

What does all of this have to do with Gold? Well, this considerable market uncertainty has investors accumulating real assets and gold because of its historical positive correlation. In the past, as inflation levels have risen so has the price of gold. We discussed this dynamic in more detail in our February insight. Gold’s positive correlation with inflation has continued to hold in 2022 with gold prices peaking just as investors are seeking protection from high inflation.  The following table shows the correlations of various asset classes, including gold, to Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Historical Correlations of Financial Assets with Inflation (1970-2020)

Source: Data supplied by the TIAA Center for Farmland Research

Gold’s Performance in an Investment Portfolio

Gold can play a valuable role in an investment portfolio not only for its inflation hedging capabilities but also for its historical negative correlation with bonds and equities given its safe-haven attributes in times of war and geopolitical turmoil. Some investors argue that gold is unattractive within an investment portfolio because of its volatility and inability to produce an income stream. However, asset allocators and investors might be rethinking portfolio construction as recessionary fears persist and U.S. stock indices continue their volatile fall. The S&P500 is down –11.25% year to date with the NASDAQ and Dow Jones also posting similar losses for the period of -18.05% and -6.14%, respectively. In contrast, gold is up close to 4% year to date and investors are aggressively rethinking their portfolio diversification strategies.

Source: Q1 Market Commentary

              There are a variety of alternatives for investors to gain exposure to the gold market.  The most obvious is buying gold coins or bullion directly and storing them in a secure vault at a financial institution. Buying gold directly is unlikely to be the best option for many investors due to the high frictional cost of storage and security for the physical asset. Another option would be to invest in the supply chain for gold such as gold miners. Barrick Gold Corporation (GOLD) is the largest gold company in the world. The Toronto-based company mines, processes, and has reserves across five continents. Its stock price is up 7% year over year.  A more diversified gold mining play is the VanEck Gold Miners ETF up 20% year over year.  For investors seeking less direct gold exposure but still scouting for inflation protection, Horizon Kinetics Inflation Beneficiaries ETF (INFL), offers broad diversification benefits. We wrote about INFL in February when it was added to the Servant Financial portfolio. It currently has $896 million in assets under management with holdings in gold and other mining companies, energy and food infrastructure, and transportation: all sectors that have experienced some of the most positive price movements in the underlying commodities or products and services.

Traditional investment theory cites the most prevalent portfolio benchmark is a 60/40 split in an

investment portfolio with 60% equities or stocks and 40% fixed income instruments or bonds. Under this portfolio model, investors would be down -5.6% quarter to date as both U.S. stocks and bonds were hammered by rising inflation. The performance of the traditional 60/40 portfolio compares unfavorably with Servant Financials’ sample moderate risk client. The Servant model portfolio also holds a diversified mix of global equities and bonds but also includes a healthy allocation to precious metals. This inflation-protected model portfolio was down only -0.57% quarter to date. See the accompanying asset allocation chart.

Within this Servant model portfolio, INFL had total returns of 8.8% for the first quarter of 2022, Berkshire Hathaway Class B shares (+17.6%), Farmland Partners Inc shares (+14.6%), and various precious metal investments (GDX +19.0%, Sprott Gold & Silver Trust +8.9% and iShares Silver ETF +7.2%) accounted for the bulk of the favorable performance variance to the traditional 60/40 benchmark.

We will continue to monitor the performance of gold and other inflation hedges and adjust asset allocation as we chart the optimal path to the achievement of your long-term savings and investment goals. If you would like to discuss your financial situation and how to secure that pot of gold at the end of your investment rainbow, please contact us at john@servantfinancial.com.

One Up On Main Street – A Farmer’s Daughter’s Guide to Farmland Investing

Author’s Note

“This past month, I defended my master’s thesis on the Role of Farmland in a Mixed Asset Investment Portfolio. Under the direction of Dr. Bruce Sherrick at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I explored how an investment in farmland can interact in an investment portfolio of equities, bonds, and treasuries in addition to how it can hedge against inflation. Using data maintained by Dr. Sherrick and courtesy of the TIAA Center for Farmland Research, I analyzed the returns to farmland from 1970-2020 and some of my results are discussed below in addition to introducing farmland as an asset class to institutional and individual investors.” – Ailie

Background on US Farmland

Farmland is a unique asset class in that it has a limited supply and potentially an unlimited useful life. Only 17.2% of the United States landmass is considered arable.  With a growing world population projected to reach 9.7 billion by the year 2050, farmland is well positioned as a production source for a basic human need: food. Not only is the population rising but income levels are also expected to follow suit with world GDP projected to double by 2050. These statistics suggest that demand for food is going to go up and the composition of caloric intake is expected to change. Research shows that protein consumption rises with rising income levels.  With a significant portion of farmland acres dedicated to either feeding livestock or producing other protein sources like chickpeas or lentils, farmland owners and operators are uniquely positioned to meet this demand and profit from it. So long as humanity needs food, there will be economic rewards for the cultivators and landowners.

Farm Balance Sheet

If an institutional or individual investor was investing in a company’s common stock or buying a corporate bond, they would typically examine the balance sheet of the company. The same is true for investing in farmland. Farmland has grown in value significantly over the last 50 years with a 55% increase in the last 10 years alone. Farmland (Real Estate in the table below) dominated the asset side of the farm sector’s balance sheet encompassing close to 83% of total assets. Under the recent low-interest-rate environment, farmland’s debt level has also grown but this is still significantly less than the portion of farm assets it supports. The overall low debt to equity ratio of 16.2% demonstrates a very conservative leverage position relative to other real asset sectors and the relative strength of the U.S. Agriculture industry as a whole.

Data maintained by the TIAA Center for Farmland Research based on data from the Economic Research Service, a sector of the USDA

Returns to Farmland

Like any real estate asset, farmland receives returns when held by an investor in two ways: appreciation in value and cash flow generated from rental income. In 2021, the U.S has experienced a rise in both. According to the USDA, farmland prices are up 8% from last year.  Record sales prices of farmland have been occurring throughout the U. S.’s key growing regions.

August 2021 USDA Land Values Summary

On the rental income side, most investors would be participating in a straight cash rent system meaning a farmer pays the landowner a fixed amount per year for the use of the land. Recently, the U.S. has experienced growth in cash rent values along with the rise in farmland prices.  Fueled by strong commodity prices, healthy farming profits, and appreciating land value, cash rental rates are projected to rise 10% in 2022.

To examine a longer-term horizon of historical returns to farmland, data from the TIAA Center for Farmland Research was utilized from the years 1970-2020. During this period, the average return to all U.S farmland was 9.7% with a standard deviation of 6.4%. This composite return encompasses all 50 states.   However, not all regions of the U.S. are suitable for farming or have optimal productivity. An institutional investor also has to consider that that are nine anti-corporate farming states that would make it difficult for them to invest in certain key production states like Iowa.

One way for an investor to maximize their potential returns while gaining operational efficiencies from scale is to invest in a farmland fund that provides broad diversification with farms in several key states. The Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund (“PLOZ” or “Promised Land”) is one way for investors to capitalize on the durable returns of U.S. farmland while also receiving favorable tax benefits such as a reduced capital gain taxes depending on how long the asset is held. The government defines opportunity zones as urban and rural communities that need significant investment to foster economic revitalization. The current PLOZ portfolio is managed by Farmland Partners in conjunction with Servant Financials’ founder, John Heneghan. Currently Promised Land owns 10 properties of 8,000 acres in North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, and Mississippi. These states encompass some of the highest performing states in the U.S.

Using this state composite for Promised Land, the weighted average return of states represented in the fund can be used as a proxy to compare farmland returns with other traditional investments. This is done by weighting the allocation to each of the 5 states by purchase price then finding the average return of these states using the TIAA Center for Farmland Research’s data on cropland return. The return from 1970-2021 across the Promised Land proxy states was 11.1% with a standard deviation of 8.4%. Looking at the more recent term, this farmland proxy had a return of 8.2% with a lower standard deviation of 5.2%.

Note: This analysis uses USDA state-level averages to compare historical returns and does not necessarily represent the returns that an investor would achieve with an allocation to the Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund.

Relationship of Farmland with Traditional Investments

The proxy returns in the Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund can be compared with other traditional assets such as corporate bonds, stock indices, REITS (real estate investment trusts), treasuries, and gold. Using a risk-return plot under two different time horizons, the position of farmland as an investment can be compared with other investments. Performance metrics from 1970-2020 were examined to show farmland as a longer-term investment compared to a shorter time horizon of 2000-2020. See the figures below for full details.

Data maintained by the TIAA Center for Farmland Research.

The Promised Land OZ proxy demonstrated the highest risk-adjusted return compared to the other asset classes over both time periods.  PLOZ has the optimal position in the upper left-hand quadrant of the graph with a high return and overall lower risk compared to equities, REITS, and gold. Even in the last 20 years, the PLOZ proxy still yielded high, relative returns with lower risk.

The relationship between farmland and other investments can be further compared by examining the correlation of returns in the chart below.  A value of 1 means two asset classes are perfectly correlated and would be expected to move up or down in tandem.  A negative number suggests the two assets move in the opposite direction over time.

Promised Land’s negative correlation with stocks (S&P 500, Dow Jones, NYSE) gives reason to believe that farmland would provide diversification benefits and offset some of the volatility of these assets with high standard deviations (risk measure). In the more recent past (2000-2020), farmland’s negative relationship with stocks is even stronger with a -.32 correlation with the S&P 500. Note that when the S&P 500 dropped 48.6% in 2008 after the great recession, the Promised Land proxy maintained a positive return of 8.9%.

Relationship of Farmland with Inflation

Recently, investors have been concerned about inflation and how they will affect investment portfolios.  The Labor Department recently reported that inflation had hit a 31-year high in October with the consumer price index (CPI) rising to 6.2%. Investors and economists across the globe are wondering if we are witnessing the death of Fed’s “inflation is transitory” narrative.  Historically, stock indices have had a negative correlation with inflation and investors are concerned that these inflationary trends are long-term and secular in nature. Farmland on the other hand has historically provided a nice hedge against times of inflationary pressure. Examining the PLOZ proxy returns with CPI trends shows a positive correlation of .71, meaning historically an increase in the CPI will also increase returns to farmland. Recently this trend has held as some Midwest land is up 20% in value along with the higher consumer prices. See the figure below for more details.

Investment Opportunities

With its potential return and diversification benefits along with its track record as an inflationary hedge, farmland is positioned well to have a complimentary role in a traditional 60/40 (equity/bonds) investment portfolio. To optimize on this potential, investors have a few different options to partake in farmland investing. The most obvious option is to buy farmland directly.   However, this could be costly and comes with the requirement that the investor find capable management for the parcel. Buying a single parcel of farmland also puts the investor at more risk that comes from regional concerns like weather or farm-level (or idiosyncratic) risks like loss of production due to water or soil nutrient levels.

To alleviate some of the parcel management burden while still participate in farmland’s return and diversification benefits could be to invest in the Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund. The fund is targeting internal rates of return between 8% and 14%, before consideration of the tax benefits it would provide to OZ investors. PLOZ’s mission is to help investors and agricultural communities achieve mutually beneficial outcomes through profitable, durable investing in farmland and the revitalization of rural American communities.  In addition to its core “opportunity zone” impact, Promised Land is evaluating other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles, such as farmland preservation, wetland and forestland restoration, organic conversions, and soil health and carbon management practices.  Promised Land’s vision is for these agricultural communities to prosper by feeding the world while OZ investors do well by doing good for these communities and the environment.  If you are interested in learning more about the Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund, please contact Ethan Rhee at ethan@servantfinancial.com.

Another option for investors would be to invest in Promised Land’s partner: Farmland Partners Inc. Farmland Partners Inc. (FPI) is a publicly traded company that acquires and manages high quality farmland throughout North America. FPI manages the farmland in the Promised Land Opportunity Zone Fund as well. FPI’s current portfolio consists of 157,000 acres in 16 different states. Currently FPI’s stock is trading for just over $12 per share which is up 50% from this time last year. We believe this is an attractive entry point below the fair value of the farmland that FPI owns.   On their third quarter 2021 earnings call, CEO Paul Pittman, commented that the net asset value of the farmland was closer to $14-$15 per share. FPI has also restarted its growth and consolidation strategy.  In addition to direct farmland acquisitions, FPI is growing its asset management business with its property management arrangement with Promised Land and its recent acquisition of Murray Wise & Associates.

With the risk of secular inflation on the rise and the inherent portfolio diversification, an investment in farmland is something all investors should be considering. By including an allocation to farmland in your investment portfolio, you’ll have a much more efficient portfolio and be “one up on Main Street” investors enamored with a traditional 60/40 investment portfolio.

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