Can The 'Permanent Portfolio' Work Today?

by: David Merkel, CFA

Another letter from a reader:

Dear Mr. Merkel:

I just discovered your blog through Valuewalk, which I read most days. I haven't read much yet on your blog, but from what I've seen, I really like your insights and comments.

I've been thinking for a long time about the idea of a permanent portfolio concept, based on writing from years ago of an investment analyst, Harry Browne, now deceased. I've been thinking about this for my own investment requirements and also because I intend to write a book on the subject.

The big problem with a permanent portfolio today, versus 30 years ago, in my judgement, is identifying a long term fixed income vehicle would survive a major financial collapse. Browne always used 30 year US Treasury bonds, in an era when it seemed clear those bonds could survive a monetary deflation.

Of course, the Fed isn't about to institute a policy of sustained monetary deflation any time soon, on a voluntary basis. Any such deflation would occur, either because the Fed were unable or unwilling to monetize assets fast enough to head off cascading cross defaults and massive bonk failures; or because the Fed decided to let the house of cards collapse, in some future recession-panic, because it became obvious to a plurality of Fed governors that to prop up the house of cards would guarantee hyper inflation in short order. Of course, a hyper inflation would not only destroy the financial system, including the central bank; it would overturn the established political order, and cause a famine as the division of labor fell apart.

I think a monetary deflation will happen sooner or later, because of a financial "accident" (that reasonable people can foresee). Even if the central banks were to cause a hyper inflation, when that inflation ends after two or three years, the currency must be renounced. Then we would get deflation for a while via some new currency.

Since I think the deflation risk is realistic, I'm trying to figure out what-if any-bond instruments could survive deflationary destruction. Obviously, in a monetary deflation, all investment prices plummet, except default-free bonds. Default free bonds would rise in price, as interest rates plummeted. However, I'm not clear as to what bonds might work as vehicles in a permanent portfolio, because T bonds are no longer a reliable safe haven from eventual political default.

There might well be sovereign bonds in other countries that are more friendly to free enterprise and private property than contemporary US, and hence less prone to sovereign bond default, but this introduces the risk of currency fluctuations. So it's not a perfect solution. Perhaps some foreign sovereign debt combined with US Treasury debt would partly work. It has also occurred to me that some US utility or pipeline firm etc. might offer debt or preferred stock or other forms of fixed income debt/equity ownership that would survive default. In a terrible depression, I'd assume some utility companies would continue to function although, of course, not flourish. Obviously, any such debt or equity would be a very special situation, since most firms are now loaded to the gills with debt, making them poor risks to survive a crushing deflation.

My impression is all this is right up your ally. (Except for my musing-theorizing about the risk of monetary deflation, which no doubt makes me seem like a religious fanatic or political crazy.) Anyway, I'd be interested if you think this problem can be solved. In other words, do you think some private debt issues that are long term or even medium term exist to be discovered that could avoid default in a huge deflationary depression? How would you go about conducting a search for such safe U.S. corporate bonds or other fixed income instruments?

What I really need to do is immerse myself in reading about fixed income analysis. Which I hope to get to in a few months.

None of my fixation with bonds has to do with forecasting a decline in interest rates; until the next crisis, rates on the long end could easily climb. I'm looking for a secure volatile instrument that would gain in price as other investments were falling during a financial panic and subsequent depression.

Thanks for reading through all this. I look forward to spending a lot of hours in the future on your blog.

Yours truly,

Dear Friend,

I have written about the Permanent Portfolio concept here. I think it is valid. At some point in the near term, I will update my analysis of the Permanent Portfolio, and publish it for all to see, which I have not done before.

In a significant inflation scenario, gold would soar, long T-bonds would tank, T-bills would actually earn nominal but not real money, and stocks would likely trail inflation, aside from investors that invest in low P/E stocks. The permanent portfolio would likely do okay.

Same for a deflation scenario. Stocks will muddle. T-bonds will do well. T-bills will do nothing. Gold will do badly. That said, the permanent portfolio concept is meant to be an all-weather vehicle, and has done well over the last 44 years, with only 3 losing years, and returns that match the S&P 500, but with half the volatility.

I'm usually not a friend of ideas like this, but the Permanent Portfolio chose four assets where the price responses to changes in real rates and inflation fought each other. The rebalancing method is important here, as it is a strategy that benefits from volatility.

With respect to where to invest in fixed income to benefit from a depression is a touchy thing - it's kind of like default swaps on the US government, which are typically denominated in Euros. How do you know that the counterparty will be solvent? How do you know that the Euro will be worth anything?

Personally, I would just stick with long US Treasuries. The US has the least problems of all the great powers in the world. You could try to intensify your returns by overweighting long Treasuries, but that is making a bet. The Permanent Portfolio makes no bets. It just takes advantage of economic volatility, and rides the waves of the economy. As a group, stocks, T-bonds, T-bills, and gold, react very differently to volatility, and as such do well, when many other strategies do not.

Warren Buffett is "scary smart," so says Charlie Munger, who is "scary smart" himself. I think Harry Browne was "scary smart" with respect to the Permanent Portfolio idea. But am I, the recommend-er "scary smart?" I do okay, but probably not "scary smart," so take my words with a grain of salt.



PS - As an aside, I would note that if everyone adopted the "Permanent Portfolio" idea - gold would go through the roof, because that is the scarcest of the four investments.

Disclosure: None