From time to time I find an article that is particularly interesting. This one, by Frank Holmes compares Russia and Texas, and then goes on to talk about America’s debt levels and future gold prices.
You’ve no doubt heard that everything’s bigger in Texas. That’s more than just a trite expression, and I’m not just saying that because Texas is home to U.S. Global Investors.
Want to know how big Texas really is? Let’s compare its economy with that of Russia, the world’s largest country by area. As you probably know, Russia’s been in the news a lot lately, so the timing of this comparison makes sense. The U.S. just levied fresh sanctions against the Eastern European country for its alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and early last week President Donald Trump warned Russia that the U.S. military could soon strike its ally Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons—a promise he kept Friday evening.
The Russian ruble traded sharply down following the news, decoupling from Brent crude oil, the country’s number one export.
But back to the comparison. Even though Russia has nearly five times as many residents as Texas, the Lone Star State’s economy is more than $40 billion larger. Texans, therefore, enjoy a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of around $58,000, whereas Russians have one closer to $8,700.
Texas Is So Much More than Oil Country
The Russian Federation is the largest single producer of crude in the world, pumping out 10.95 million barrels per day (bpd) in January, according to the country’s energy minister. Texas is no slouch, though, as its output came close to 4 million bpd in January. That’s the most ever for a January since at least 1981. And from December 2017 to February 2018, its oil and gas industry accounted for nearly 30 percent of the state’s employment growth, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
But whereas Russia’s economy is highly dependent on exports of oil and petroleum products, the Texas economy is broadly diversified. The state ranks first in the U.S. for not only oil production but also wind energy. It has a robust agricultural sector, and it’s a leading hub for advanced technology and manufacturing, aeronautics, biotechnology and life sciences. Austin, the state capital, is steadily emerging as the most dynamic U.S. filmmaking city outside of Hollywood.
All of this has helped contribute to Texas being among the fastest growing states in the U.S. In 2017, it grew by more than 1,000 new residents per day.
Meanwhile, Russia’s population is slowly shrinking because of low birth rates and low immigration. Its population peaked at 148 million in the early 1990s—right around when the Soviet Union fell—and by 2050, it’s estimated to sink to 111 million.
Can Russia Root Out Its Corruption?
One area where Russia trumps Texas is in corruption. If you think Texas—or any other state—has a corruption problem, Russia takes it to a whole new level.
But Russia takes it to a whole new level. Last year, it ranked 135 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), released in February. Among Eastern European countries, only Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan ranked lower. Watchdog group Freedom House was similarly critical in its most recent analysis, giving the country an overall democracy score of 6.61 out of 7, with 7 being “least democratic.”
So notorious and widespread is Russia’s mafia that a number of movies have been made about it. One of the best among them is David Cronenberg’s excellent Eastern Promises(2007).
Having said all that, I believe it’s prudent for investors to underweight Russian stocks for the time being and overweight Western Europe. Because of U.S. sanctions, Americans have until May 7 to divest completely from a number of Russian names, including Rusal, En+ Group and GAZ (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod), all of which saw serious outflows last past week. The MSCI Russia Index, which covers about 85 percent of Russian equities’ total market cap, plunged below its 200-day moving average, but last Thursday it jumped more than 4 percent, its best one-day move in two years.
Weaker Greenback and $1 Trillion Deficit Helps Gold Glitter
Gold is rallying right now, but as I told Daniela Cambone in last week’s “Gold Game Film,” it has little to do with Russian geopolitics, or even trade war fears, which have subsided somewhat in the past couple of weeks. Instead, the price of gold is responding primarily to a weaker U.S. dollar. For the 30-day period, the greenback has dipped close to 20 basis points—for the year, more than 11 percent.
I think what’s also driving the yellow metal right now are concerns over the U.S. budget deficit and ballooning government debt. This week the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said it estimated the deficit to surge over $1 trillion this year and average $1.2 trillion each subsequent year between 2019 and 2028, for a total of $12.4 trillion. By the end of the next decade, then, debt held by the public is expected to approach 100 percent of U.S. GDP.
According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, government debt now stands at over $21 trillion—or, put another way, $174,000 per taxpayer. Imagine what the interest payments on that must be.
The CBO, in fact, commented on this. Believe it or not, the government’s annual payments on interest alone, made even more burdensome by rising rates, are expected to exceed what it spends on the military by 2023. And remember, defense is one of the country’s top expenditures, alongside Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs.
There was even more news last week on debt and the deficit, as Congress tried, and failed, once again to amend the Constitution by requiring a balanced budget. The amendment could not get the two-thirds support it needed.
You can probably tell where I’m headed with all of this. Savvy investors and savers might very well see this as a sign to allocate a part of their portfolios in “safe haven” assets that have historically held their value in times of economic contraction.
Gold is one such asset that’s been a good store of value in such times. As I’ve shown before, gold has tracked U.S. government debt up since 1971, when President Richard Nixon ended the gold standard. I always recommend a 10 percent weighting in gold—5 percent in bars and coins; 5 percent in high-quality gold stocks, mutual funds or ETFs.