Drowning in the Money River: Why the 99% of Us Are Falling Further Behind

It's a big club and you ain't in it.

~ George Carlin

If you suspect society is unfair, that there's a different set of rules the rich live by, you're right.

I've had ample chance to witness first-hand evidence of this in my time working on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Simply put: our highly financialized economy is gamed to enrich those who run it, at the expense of everybody else.

The Money River

A recent experience really drove this home for me.

Having received my MBA from Stanford in the late 90s, I remain on several alumni discussion groups. Recently, a former classmate of mine, who now runs her own asset management firm, circulated her thoughts on how today's graduating students could best access an on-ramp to the 'money river'.

What's the 'money river'? Good question.

The money river is the huge tsunami of investment capital sloshing around the globe, birthed by the historically-unprecedented money printing conducted by the world's central banks over the past decade. Since 2008, they've more than tripled their collective balance sheet:

(Source)

The $13+ trillion in new thin-air money issued to achieve this is truly staggering. It's so large that the human brain really can't wrap around it. (For those who haven't seen it, watch our brief video How Much Is A Trillion? to better understand this.)

But suffice it to say, all that money has to go somewhere. And it first goes into the pockets of those with closest access to it, and of those who direct where it flows.

In the context of MBA graduates working in finance, accessing the 'money river' often follows this recipe:

  • Step 1: Get hired by a buy-side fund (asset management firm, hedge fund, etc)
  • Step 2: Make friends at other funds by investing part of your portfolio in their offerings
  • Step 3: Leave to create your own fund, which all your new buddies will invest part of their firms' portfolios in
  • Step 4: Collect a fat annual salary of 2% of assets under management (regardless of how your fund performs), plus 20% of any gains

Let's put a little math behind this, with real-world numbers based on another classmate of mine who followed this recipe. After graduating, he went to work for a prestigious private equity firm, spending nearly a decade there as a fund manager. He then left to start his own fund.

Since he had invested in scores of ventures and funds while working for the private equity firm, he had amassed plenty of industry insiders who knew they had to reciprocate when it came time for him to hang out his own shingle, because "that's how the game is played". You help me when I need it, and I'll do the same for you.

Only a few weeks after announcing the formation of his new fund, he had raised $100 million for it. At his 2% management fee, that gave him an annual salary of $2 million no matter how the fund performed. And with the standard carried interest percentage, he had substantial additional upside of 20% of any profits the fund may take in the future.

Since forming this fund nearly ten years ago, the financial markets have been on a historic bull run, with hardly any corrections along the way. This is primarily due to the trillions in new money provided by the world's central banks mentioned above. So, it's little surprise that my former classmate's fund now stands at over $1.1 billion in assets under management.

That's now a $20 million annual management fee. Plus 20% on (conservatively estimating) hundreds of millions of gains made along the way.

Not bad work if you can get it.

No Fund For You!

But that's a big part of my point here. The 99% don't have a key past the velvet rope to access the money river.

Look, I don't begrudge this guy his success. Well, maybe I do; but it's not personal -- I know him well enough to say that for certain he's extremely smart, bold and hardworking. But he's benefiting from being in the Big Club that George Carlin railed about. The rest of us ain't in that club, and won't ever be. But our futures are being determined -- or more accurately put, undermined -- by it.

All that liquidity being provided by the central banks? To keep that money flowing it needs to be cheap to those who want to borrow it, so the banks have concurrently driven interest rates down to the lowest levels in recorded history (going back over 5,000 years). Some extra-aggressive central banks have even pursed negative interest rates.

What this has resulted in is a tremendous transfer of wealth to the already-rich at the expense of everybody else.

Those with the means and access to borrow have been able to get essentially free money to do so; while savers and those dependent on fixed income have been starved of any yield whatsoever.

The wave of global stimulus plus the low cost of borrowing has driven capital into nearly every asset market, rocketing prices higher. So those who have held those assets have become substantially richer, while those who have not have become increasingly priced out.

Along with asset prices, prices of nearly everything else have risen, too, dramatically increasing the cost of living:

(Source)

But, as costs have risen, wages have not. Especially when measured in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) terms.

Real wages are now 7% lower than they were in 1973  -- and that's calculated using the official government-reported inflation rate, which we all know vastly understates the actual inflation rate. (Read our report on The Burrito Index to understand why the true price inflation households suffer is more like 5x greater than the official reported rate).

So the rich see their assets shoot the moon, and they get access to the 'money river', to boot. While the rest of us see stagnant real wages and a skyrocketing cost of living.

Is it any surprise that a tremendous and still-growing wealth gap between the 1% and everyone else has resulted?


(Source)

(Source)

The Future Looks Dim For Those Sleepwalking Into It

As we've written about at length in our recent report The Great Retirement Con, the average American worker is woefully unprepared to afford his/her retirement:

(Source)

And for those counting on a pension, odds aren't bad it may get reduced/eliminated during a future economic crisis.

Think that could never happen? Well, Governor Jerry Brown just announced this on Wednesday:

California's Brown Raises Prospect of Pension Cuts in Downturn (Bloomberg)

California Governor Jerry Brown said legal rulings may clear the way for making cuts to public pension benefits, which would go against long-standing assumptions and potentially provide financial relief to the state and its local governments.

Brown said he has a "hunch" the courts would "modify" the so-called California rule, which holds that benefits promised to public employees can’t be rolled back.

"There is more flexibility than there is currently assumed by those who discuss the California rule,” Brown said during a briefing on the budget in Sacramento. He said that in the next recession, the governor “will have the option of considering pension cutbacks for the first time.”

That would be a major shift in California, where municipal officials have long believed they couldn’t adjust the benefits even as they struggle to cover the cost. They have raised taxes and dipped into reserves to meet rising contributions. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the nation’s largest public pension, has about 68 percent of assets needed to cover its liabilities.

Across the country, states and local governments have about $1.7 trillion less than what they need to cover retirement benefits -- the result of investment losses, the failure by governments to make adequate contributions and perks granted in boom times.

"In the next downturn, when things look pretty dire, that would be one of the items on the chopping block," Brown said.

And this is in California, one of the most pro-worker/pro-entitlement states in the Union. If California is already sending out warnings like this, you can be sure that the other 49 states are thinking of making (at least) equally-harsh cuts when the next recession hits.

Potential cuts to promised pensions is just one of the many ways in which those running the system will act to preserve their share of the pie when crisis next arises. Those concerned about what other measures might be taken would do well to read our report Upon The Next Crisis, The Rules Will Suddenly Change.

And for those who prefer their cynicism blended with hard truths and humor, watch this short video of George Carlin's epic rant against the elite's Big Club. I quoted Carlin at the beginning of this article for a reason, he really nailed the central point I'm trying to make (Warning: the language used gets quite graphic):

Fighting Back

So, what can the rest of us in the 99% do about it?

Is this a lost cause? Should we just accept our fate and sink to the bottom of the money river, smothered by its high prices and low yields?

No.

The good news here is that there's a clear set of strategies for keeping yourself afloat while the system continues to pursue these pernicious and deeply unfair policies. They take focus, effort and discipline -- but anyone implementing them will have good chance to stay ahead of the rising cost curve, and have a real shot at financial prosperity.

In Part 2: Winning Against The Big Club, we examine a number of strategies for offsetting the soaring costs of everything from housing to healthcare -- with particular focus on the investments and actions you can take today, inside and outside of the markets, to preserve the purchasing power of your wealth from the nefarious "stealth tax" placed on your money by the kind of inflation discussed above.

Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

This was one of the first homesteads in the area in the 1880's and was just begging to be brought back to its original glory — with a touch of modern. When we first purchased the property, it was full of old stuff without any running water, central heat or AC, so needless to say, we had a huge project ahead of us. It took some vision and a whole lot of trust, but the mess we started with seven years ago is now a place we hope the original owners would be proud of.

To restore something like this is really does take a village. It doesn't take much money to make it cozy inside, if like me you are willing to take time and gather things here and there from thrift shops and little antique shops in the middle of nowhere.

But finding the right craftsman is a different story.

Matt Jensen and his assistant Rob did this entire job from sketches I made. Because he built this in his off hours it took just over a year, but so worth the wait. It wasn't easy as it was 18"out of square. He had to build around that as the entire thing we felt would collapse. Matt just reinforced the structure and we love its imperfections.

Here are a few pictures of the process and the transformation from where we started to where we are now:

​How it was

It doesn't look like much yet, but just you wait and see!

By request a photo tour of the restored cabin. I start doing the interior design in earnest tomorrow after the show, but all of the construction guys are now done. So I mopped the floors, washed the sheets, some friends helped by washing the windows. And now the unofficial / official tour.

The Property

The views are absolutely stunning and completely peaceful.

The Hong Kong protesters flocking to the streets in opposition to the Chinese government have a new symbol to display their defiance: the Stars and Stripes. Upset over the looming threat to their freedom, the American flag symbolizes everything they cherish and are fighting to preserve.

But it seems our president isn't returning the love.

Trump recently doubled down on the United States' indifference to the conflict, after initially commenting that whatever happens is between Hong Kong and China alone. But he's wrong — what happens is crucial in spreading the liberal values that America wants to accompany us on the world stage. After all, "America First" doesn't mean merely focusing on our own domestic problems. It means supporting liberal democracy everywhere.

The protests have been raging on the streets since April, when the government of Hong Kong proposed an extradition bill that would have allowed them to send accused criminals to be tried in mainland China. Of course, when dealing with a communist regime, that's a terrifying prospect — and one that threatens the judicial independence of the city. Thankfully, the protesters succeeded in getting Hong Kong's leaders to suspend the bill from consideration. But everyone knew that the bill was a blatant attempt by the Chinese government to encroach on Hong Kong's autonomy. And now Hong Kong's people are demanding full-on democratic reforms to halt any similar moves in the future.

After a generation under the "one country, two systems" policy, the people of Hong Kong are accustomed to much greater political and economic freedom relative to the rest of China. For the protesters, it's about more than a single bill. Resisting Xi Jinping and the Communist Party means the survival of a liberal democracy within distance of China's totalitarian grasp — a goal that should be shared by the United States. Instead, President Trump has retreated to his administration's flawed "America First" mindset.

This is an ideal opportunity for the United States to assert our strength by supporting democratic values abroad. In his inaugural address, Trump said he wanted "friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world" while "understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their interests first." But at what point is respecting sovereignty enabling dictatorships? American interests are shaped by the principles of our founding: political freedom, free markets, and human rights. Conversely, the interests of China's Communist Party are the exact opposite. When these values come into conflict, as they have in Hong Kong, it's our responsibility to take a stand for freedom — even if those who need it aren't within our country's borders.

Of course, that's not a call for military action. Putting pressure on Hong Kong is a matter of rhetoric and positioning — vital tenets of effective diplomacy. When it comes to heavy-handed world powers, it's an approach that can really work. When the Solidarity movement began organizing against communism in Poland, President Reagan openly condemned the Soviet military's imposition of martial law. His administration's support for the pro-democracy movement helped the Polish people gain liberal reforms from the Soviet regime. Similarly, President Trump doesn't need to be overly cautious about retribution from Xi Jinping and the Chinese government. Open, strong support for democracy in Hong Kong not only advances America's governing principles, but also weakens China's brand of authoritarianism.

After creating a commission to study the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote last month that the principles of our Constitution are central "not only to Americans," but to the rest of the world. He was right — putting "America First" means being the first advocate for freedom across the globe. Nothing shows the strength of our country more than when, in crucial moments of their own history, other nations find inspiration in our flag.

Let's join the people of Hong Kong in their defiance of tyranny.

Matt Liles is a writer and Young Voices contributor from Austin, Texas.

Summer is ending and fall is in the air. Before you know it, Christmas will be here, a time when much of the world unites to celebrate the love of family, the generosity of the human spirit, and the birth of the Christ-child in Bethlehem.

For one night only at the Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, on December 7th, join internationally-acclaimed radio host and storyteller Glenn Beck as he walks you through tales of Christmas in the way that only he can. There will be laughs, and there might be a few tears. But at the end of the night, you'll leave with a warm feeling in your heart and a smile on your face.

Reconnect to the true spirit of Christmas with Glenn Beck, in a storytelling tour de force that you won't soon forget.

Get tickets and learn more about the event here.

The general sale period will be Friday, August 16 at 10:00 AM MDT. Stay tuned to for updates. We look forward to sharing in the Christmas spirit with you!