As someone who didn’t grow up in the U.S., I have a different view of time and certainty. When I arrived, I was always amazed at how people planned for longer and longer events that were way out into the future, but with a certainty that everything would go to plan, e.g., in estate planning, using generation-skipping trusts.
For me, the U.S.’s long-term view reminded me of Issac Asimov’s trilogy, the Foundation, when the Mule appears, unforeseen, and topples the Foundation contrary to expectations. In the U.S. I see the overwhelming belief that everything will fine in the long term, and while there are outlining events, everything reverts to the mean. However, there are always unforeseen events that can disrupt the trend and cause it never to return to the prior norm.
I grew up in South Africa, and many of my parent friends had done the long constant migration south. They lived in the Republic of the Congo, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With independence in 1960, the military revolt, the succession of Kantaga, and the influx of mercenaries and paramilitary troops to protect mining interests, they fled, many moving to Zambia where their for mining skills were in demand. Zambian independence in 1964 and the fears over privatization starting in 1968, they moved onto Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. With Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence “UDI” from the United Kingdom in 1965, the civil war began, which lasted until 1980 with free elections. Many decided to move further south, to South Africa, a country bound to be stable and prosperous. These moves were often made in a rush, as power structures changed, and in most cases, they lost everything they had during each relocation. Unfortunately, in South Africa, the 1976 Soweto uprising was the beginning of the end for the minority white government; it would take nearly twenty years for that to occur. Many of these people my parents knew were too old to move once more and stayed on, seeing wealth evaporate with declining an economy, currency, and sanctions.
I know of a family in Zimbabwe where the patriarch was a multi-millionaire. On his death, he left everything in trust for seven beneficiaries – each receiving over a million, with the stipulation that the trustee must invest the funds. As Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed in the 2000s with hyperinflation hitting its peak of at an estimated 79.6 billion percent month-on-month in November 2008, the value of the trust’s assets declined. The trustee, a corporation, could not move the funds overseas due to currency restrictions and would not disburse the funds to the beneficiaries because of the terms of the trust. Today each beneficiary’s interest will buy them less than a tank of gas for their car.
Finally, I went to boarding school in Switzerland in 1973. One of my friends was a Lebanese whose father had interests in Lebanon and started a new business in Iran because he thought diversification was a good idea. In 1975 the Lebanese Civil war started, which was too continue to 1990, but the troubles never really left. That war cost them nearly everything they had in Lebanon; however, the business was doing well in Iran. Having seen what had happened, he bought properties in New York, London, and Cayman as further diversification and protection. January 1979, his father was in New York watching the Shah leave, the riots, and the bank, which held his accounts burn. They never returned to Iran, but thankfully the portfolio of properties kept them financially afloat.
Why these stories, well we have seen in the six months with COVID, how the world has changed. What we took for granted is no longer sure. When will return to “normality” who knows, but according to Dr. Fauci, sometime in late 2021? As I have said in this newsletter many times, your old business plans, strategy, and financial models need to go out the window and new ones prepared in light of what is happening.
I would add to that, as you consider the long term outlook and your business and investment portfolio, I would look for hedges to protect for large unforeseen events. Following Nassim Taleb’s barbell strategy – you avoid the middle in favor of a linear combination of extremes, across all domains from politics to economics to one’s personal life.
There is talk of the dollar falling in value and possibly losing its reserve country status. How long it takes the U.S. to recover from COVID is another uncertainty as we have yet to find a strategy. Will the U.S. and China go to war over Taiwan? What will these events do to your business? Thus, I would consider other parts of the country, other countries in supply chain protection. With regard to investments, international assets as a hedge. As for looking outside the U.S., I would not claim the authority to recommend any particular country. I definitely would not follow the steps of the Englishman in 1980, deciding the world was unsafe, moved to the Faulkland Islands as he determined the safest place to be. Less than two years later, the Argentine invaded, and the Falklands War got going.
However, realize nothing is certain! Trends don’t last forever, and while things to revert to the mean, after massive disruptions, there will be a new mean. Take the lesson from COVID to reexamine everything and do it regularly. Complacency has enormous costs. As David Mitchell put it so well in Cloud Atlas when two people are discussing revolutions,
“All revolutions are, until they happen, then they are historical inevitabilities.”
Not that I am saying revolution is coming, but large, unpredictable things are and like revolutions most will all be historical inevitabilities, as COVID was!