Restarting the economy is going to be more difficult than it was stopping it. A vigorous discussion on the topic is desperately needed as many feel talking about opening the economy is akin to reigniting the infection rate when in reality the discussion is needed to formulate an appropriate and workable plan.
Talking about restarting the economy is good policy. Shutting down large swaths of economic activity was necessary for public health. And for the most part it was a fairly easy process: governors gave the order and their state ground to a halt as people sheltered in place, giving COVID-19 no viable path to propagate. The same happened around the world. It is The Day the World Stopped.
The spread of COVID-19 had slowed and in many countries has all but stopped. Concerns the virus is picking up steam where social distancing is relaxed is still a real risk. However, policies designed to slow the spread of the virus appear to be working. Multiple medical therapies hold promise and a massive effort to develop a vaccine are in progress. A vaccine would be a game changer, but realistically that is still as much as 1 ½ years away before it becomes available. The economic price would be too high, and the resulting harm to human health from lack of services, too damaging to wait over a year before reopening the closed parts of the economy.
Reopening the economy can begin in as little as a few weeks to a month if handled properly. Germany has made signs they are ready to slowly restart economic activity. China, the first to suffer the scourge, has already reopened much of its shuttered economy. The real question now is: How well will it work? If the virus takes off again it will set us back. However, if enough people have built an immunity while social distancing is still practiced, many parts of the economy can reopen.
Turning economic activity back on will not be like flicking a light switch. There are several issues when restarting an economy after such a brutal and abrupt stoppage. We will now turn our discussion to an appropriate and safe way to reopen a shuttered economy. Even more important than opening closed businesses is how to get money flowing again. If nobody shows up for the party we are no better off.
A Plan for Reopening Shuttered Industries
While it is true the current economic downturn may be the most abrupt (fastest) and deepest decline in modern history, it isn’t the first time an economy had to plan on restarting after such a shock to the system. The situation (and rules) are different from rebuilding after the destruction from war; the rules, however, have many similarities, albeit on a much smaller scale.
After World War II, Germany and Britain were in ruins, along with much of the rest of Europe and Japan and other areas of the Far East. While a contagious virus wasn’t running wild, a plan was developed for rebuilding the destroyed areas. Without the Marshall Plan, Europe would have suffered much longer as they worked to rebuild. A similar reconstruction plan was instituted in Japan.
We don’t need anything as drastic as a Marshall Plan today. But the lessons can still be learned. For example, you didn’t start rebuilding a war torn Britain by investing in industries that heavily rely on infrastructure before the infrastructure was funded and well on its way to becoming operational. In other words, there has to be an order to the reopening of an economy.
It can happen fast. The Marshal Plan was a 4-year plan to fund investment in rebuilding cities and industries, and remove trade barriers between European nations and those nations and the United States.
We do not need 4 years to reignite our economy! Still, it will take time and it will not always be a smooth process. Prior to a vaccine for COVID-19 there stands a strong chance there will be pockets of infection flareups. Fear will be the common enemy.
It would be unwise to open everything at once. A step-by-step process will allow for the fastest opening of the economy without undue risk to public health. The real question is: What gets opened first, second and so forth and to what degree?
Before any plan can work social distancing must be practiced by the public until an effective vaccine is found, effective and fast testing is available or most people are inoculated. If enough people develop a natural immunity (prior infection) the same result can be achieved, if only over a much longer time frame and higher number of dead.
A requirement everyone wear a mask in public would also go a long way, if not very fashionable. Social distancing and a mask would reduce the spread of COVID-19 to such an extent it might not remain viable for long as it can’t keep finding new hosts.
A cheap, fast and easy way to test for those currently contagious would also allow for a faster opening of economic activity.
The first businesses to reopen should be retail establishments. It is easy to practice social distancing at a furniture mart and therefore, these businesses should be allowed to open soon.
Certain service businesses can be opened at this time as well. The law office, bank and public buildings and parks all allow for social distancing without much inconvenience to people.
Factories and other manufacturing facilities can reopen along with service businesses and retail outlets. Safety policies might mean some factories run at less than full capacity, but they would be open and should be able to find ways to slowly increase business activity until fully operational, or nearly so.
Churches and other places of worship would also be some of the first places to reopen.
After an adequate waiting period (say two or three weeks) to determine the virus is not spreading faster again, it will be time to open even larger swaths of economic activity.
This is where it gets difficult. Bars and restaurants really could use a return to normalcy. Unfortunately, large groups of people gather at these establishments and social distancing is extremely difficult. Unless a natural immunity or vaccine reduces risk, large gatherings are a serious threat to reigniting the infection rate.
Instead, it might be proper to open salons. Social distancing is impossible in these situations; by design the hair stylist has to be close to you to cut your hair. However, a mask might be enough to solve the problem. Yes, the hair stylist is close to the customer when cutting her hair, but the room isn’t crowded tight with people. A mask and hand washing between clients could do the trick. (This is more important than you think! Do you want to now what our world would look like after people go a year without any hair care? Yikes!)
An accurate and fast way to test for those currently contagious would also facilitate a quicker opening of these businesses.
As serious as the matter is, certain businesses need to reopen as some point. Gyms are a high risk place, but social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing equipment between use should make it a viable solution to reopening our exercise centers. A fast, accurate and low cost testing method to reveal who is contagious would certainly allow for these establishments to open sooner.
Restaurants are next. We might limit the number of people in the room and require masks for all employees. (Kind of hard for patrons to eat while wearing a mask.) The same for bars. A reasonable plan would be to allow a certain number of people per area and slowly raise the density of people allowed per gathering as long as infection rates remain low.
The hardest hit is the last to reopen. Concerts and sporting events pack people in too tight for proper safety with a highly contagious virus on the loose. Yelling and cheering at a packed sporting event all but assures you will face a high risk of infection if an infected individual is present. Sporting events with empty stands is an option, but there is something about a full stadium that makes the event serious, real.
Travel will also be among the last to fully reopen. Packing a plane is not the best idea when a highly contagious virus is on the loose. Proper precautions could be taken to reduce risk. Disinfecting after each use and masks on public transportation would make sense. Testing, when available, would allow for a full opening of economic activity even if a vaccine is not yet ready.
These steps do not have to take place in a vacuum. Fully reopening the economy could happen in a few months with most business activity functioning at a high level within 30 days. Accurate, fast and low cost testing would also speed the reopening of the economy. A vaccine would be the best option, but the economy will still need time to reset as it opens after such a shock. Things will not pick up where they left off.
We have learned a lot about COVID-19 so far. Treatments are getting better and more equipment is available. That reduces the seriousness of the infection. Even without a vaccine there will be a growing number of people with a natural immunity. As we discover how effective an immunity infection provides, we can also focus on how many have been infected without serious symptoms. At some point we need to know how many people already are not at risk due to immunity. Reinfection issues will need to be addressed.
It is growing clearer each day we can reopen economic activity without undue risk to human health. There are measurable risks to locking people down to prevent the spread of disease. At some point it is a better choice to take precautions while letting the herd out in the pasture.
Velocity of Money
The velocity of money is the gorilla in the room nobody is talking about. Opening businesses is only the first step. My guess is there will be a surge in business activity as the wildlife gets a whiff of fresh air. Then the economic reality of the family budget will bear down.
The stimulus money will certainly help, but that money helped people muddle through the abyss. Some jobs are not coming back. Some businesses will not survive the assault inflicted upon them. There is no amount of money that will put things back exactly as they were.
Will back rent need to be paid or will landlords suffer the loss? Will all employees be called back to work? What about businesses that close? If tenants are forced to pay a backlog of rent it will retard tenants’ spending on other goods and services. If the landlord swallows the loss the landlord will be forced to reduce spending. Either way money will not move as fast in the economy. The same applies to employees not called back to work as their employer closed permanently.
The same applies to mortgage payments and other loans. Will payments be pushed to the back of the loan? Regardless, the family budget is worse off. Many questions still need answering for a smooth re-opening of economic activity.
And will jobs still pay the same with higher unemployment?
Bars and restaurants might get an initial surge of business, but not all industries will enjoy such a bump. Travel and entertainment take time to set up. Planning a concert takes time. The day the switch is flipped is not the day people have airline tickets to get away. People will start closer to home before venturing further. Planning a vacation will not happen instantly.
And some industries are of the trickle-down type. For Boeing to sell more airplanes, airlines need to book more passengers. The money flows downhill and Boeing is not first in line for a check.
The above chart shows a damning detail about the American economy. From 1960 to 1990 the speed at which money exchanged hands in the economy was static. The accelerating economic growth of the 1990s bumped the velocity of money a bit higher before coming back down in the early 2000s.
But ever since the Great Recession the speed that money changes hands has been slowing. Part of the issue is the level of the money supply. The Federal Reserve has not been bashful about increasing the money supply over the last decade. If people don’t increase spending at the same pace the Fed increases the money supply we see the velocity of money come down. Each new dollar the Fed dumps into the economy has less effect than the one prior. This is a form of spin-down and it always comes to an end at some point.
That has been a problem for the last decade. More and more money gets pumped into the economy, but it has had a smaller and smaller effect. Money just does not move the way it used to, even when more is pumped into the system.
The third major bear market in 20 years might drop the velocity of money even lower. A vibrant, healthy economy has a strong velocity of money as money is earned, spent, saved and invested. For a decade we have seen money pumped into the economy and mostly it arrived with a loud thump. Most of the past decade of economic gains is attributable to public spending on the national credit card. Without this so-called stimulus, we had no discernible economic gains. I will leave it to you, kind readers, to determine if this is a viable long-term solution.
The real challenge is not the reopening of businesses; it is the reinvigorating of the movement of money. If everyone has a million dollars, but they all sit on it — none of it moving — there is still no economic activity, at least as measured by Gross Domestic Product which tracks how much money has been put to work buying goods and services. If the velocity of money slows even more it could be a very anemic recovery, indeed! Or worse.
The economic expansion after the Great Recession was slow by historical standards. It is also a likely reason it lasted so long since the excesses of too rapid of growth were avoided.
But slow growth is like watching paint dry or suffering water torture if you need a job or are working to build a business. If money isn’t moving it means it isn’t going to wages or small businesses either.
The challenge is starting a national dialog on reopening the economy as soon as safely possible and developing plans to avoid an incredibly slow recovery, even slower than the 2009-2019 expansion.
It seems during my entire adult life (from the early 1980s) each economic expansion has started slower and was harder to accelerate. Interest rates have dropped for 30 years until we are now at 0% yet again. If the Fed creates more money, only to see the velocity of money slow more, there will be little value gained by future Fed actions.
Maybe a Keynesian style government infrastructure spending program might do the trick. However, China has tried to do this every time they want to spike growth and the benefits are not all they desired.
I guess the Fed could print money forever without consequences and give it away as a basic income. I also have a bridge I’d like to sell you if you believe there is such a free lunch without consequences.
I certainly do not have all the answers. I think my plan for opening the economy is sound with some modest tweaks by the powers that be. The real problems start when the economy is back open and it isn’t what we remember when we last saw it.
And we better start tossing ideas around because I think time is running shorter than anyone wants to admit.
More Wealth Building Resources
Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?
Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.
QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.
A cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregation studies work and how to get one yourself.
Plenty has been written about income and wealth inequality over the last decade. There is another inequality gap expanding even faster than that of income and wealth. The gap between the top 1% and the rest is growing rapidly in this area and it had a direct effect on income and wealth.
I call it intelligentsia. These people are the most educated or learned (there is a difference) and therefore control their ability to grow income and wealth at will. These hyper intelligent people also have greater political influence.
The intelligentsia are the other 1%. Nobody is complaining about their growing gap of knowledge. The reason for this is clear. Anybody who wants to grow their level of knowledge can with few barriers. Because personal responsibility is involved we will never see a rally or protest claiming people are not allowed to learn.
Do not confuse this with formal education. Formal education is expensive which is a serious barrier many people cannot overcome. The intelligentsia know a formal education is only a small part of knowledge and the influence it brings. Most colleges teach nothing about sound investing. As the owner of a tax practice I can assure you colleges are not churning out highly qualified tax professionals. These and other forms of knowledge require a personal commitment to learning.
Time to Get Schooled
The newsfeeds are filled with the plight of getting a college education. Costs are rocketing higher and student loan debt is blasting further into record territory daily. But formal education isn’t the problem, you are.
Sorry to be so blunt, but there is no other way to put it. The whining and complaining about college costs are unacceptable and do nothing to improve the situation.
College is important. Learning is even more important. If you can’t motivate yourself to learn without the stick of a professor threatening, you will never be part of the intelligentsia. Ever.
What you learn in college or technical school is only a fraction of what you need. Formalized education is more about the experience, the contacts, than about learning. Learning comes from outside the institution.
I know this is hard to grasp, but can you imagine Newton going to school to learn the things he discovered? Who taught Einstein about relativity? Who taught the Wealthy Accountant about taxes? It was the same person in each case. We taught ourselves.
Newton and Einstein had to learn and then build new knowledge and understanding from the base they had. Your favorite accountant took one tax class before going full-time. Of course, I read massive amounts of material in addition to that single class.
I have a secret. When I started my business I took the H&R Block tax course. That was the one course. It was something like 10 or 15 weeks where we met one night a week (maybe it was twice a week; it was a long time ago) for a few hours. That’s it. From there I kept growing. I read IRS publications. I attended continuing education classes before I had my enrolled agent license and was required to. I read every tax book in the library and bought more.
I went from dumbest to the intelligentsia of the tax community in a handful of years due to my massive indoctrination.
What about Contacts
The biggest benefit of formal education is the contacts you make. The classroom learning is available outside the institution in most cases. In some disciplines the professor requires you step off the campus to experience real world activities. It’s kind of hard to experience an archeology dig at a desk.
The cost of college is the textbooks. Having a professor preach to you from the book she probably wrote herself and requires for her class to drive sales is a waste of time. The professor then tests you to see if you have been paying attention and reading the additional material. If you are part of the intelligentsia you don’t need a professor prodding you; you can learn faster and better on your own. The classroom is slowing you down.
Formal education has one huge benefit only available from a group.
The intelligentsia is a small group of people, the 1% of knowledge holders, who stick together. College brings people together allowing these unique souls the opportunity to identify each other and share ideas. Is it any wonder managers of the largest businesses and political leaders draw their teams from people they met in college?
Contacts are more important than knowledge. (It hurts to say that.) It’s true. Who you know is more important than what you know. If you know the right people you are better off than knowing everything there is to know.
Without a formal education, without the advantage of a college campus, how can a budding intelligentsia acquire the contacts she needs to excel? The answer is simple: conferences.
Once formal education is completed the intelligentsia needs a way to stay in touch. If they are not part of your team you need a way to contact these people when the need arises.
One of the most common questions I get in my office is: Do you know anyone who . . . ? In many cases I do. Why is that?
I meet many highly advanced performers during the course of my day. Some I met during my short tenure attending college. (I have no degrees.) Many I met personally at a conference.
Conferences are like mini college courses. The training is intense; the learning environment ripe. I learned more at conferences than college ever taught me. Things never taught in the classroom are discussed over a cold one as the evening wears on at a conference.
How to Be Part of the Intelligentsia
The intelligentsia is an unassuming group. Rarely do you find someone excluded. Admission is simple; be an intellectual or highly educated.
How do you get this way? By standing on the outside drinking in all the knowledge until you qualify. It doesn’t take long either. When knowledge is flowing fast and furious your learning curve is steep. Soon you have something to add to the discussion. It is at this point you are a member of the intelligentsia whether you know it or not.
The next question is: Where do I find these conferences?
Before I tell you that I remind you a college education starts before you attend your first conference. You can buy or rent textbooks from Amazon. Books are the dues paid to become a member of the intelligentsia. Rare is the intelligensa (yes, I know I made up a word; would you prefer intelligencer?) who has no personal library.
Read. Read every day. Read stuff that nourishes the mind. Novels are fine for entertainment, but you are an intelligentsia neophyte. Your mind is fertile ground waiting for the seeds. Never allow such a fertile field to lay fallow!
Once your mind has been planted with vast tracts of knowledge it is time to meet your people. You could read the textbooks and wander the local college campus discussing the issues with those you find. Some colleges allow this; other might ask you to leave. It is an idea.
As your level of knowledge increases you want focused increases of knowledge. This requires a venue specific to your needs; you need to start attending conferences.
Conferences cost money. This is where your real education takes place. Conferences have classroom training coupled with massive socializing. What you learn in the classroom is only the conversation starter.
What is taught in the classroom continues afterwards. The presenter is frequently part of the discussion. The same thing can happen in college, but getting the professor to be one of the guys is unusual. At a conference the people you meet are people you can contact when the need arises. When you need a team member you have a pool of intelligent and experienced people to draw from.
Conferences are everywhere! I have never met a conference I didn’t like. It’s hard in the beginning for the newbie. Don’t worry. Walk right up and join the group. You’ll be one of the cult members in about thirty seconds flat. Don’t be shy. Do NOT waste the opportunity. To this day I have never witnessed anyone getting shot because they joined the conversation. (A few should have been.)
It is impossible for me to list every conference in every genre so let me give you an example you can extrapolate from.
Let’s use my profession, taxes/accounting, as a discussion point. If you want to attend a tax conference/seminar there are thousands to choose from. The AICPA is a good place to start. An internet search of your state CPA organization will have additional offerings. The National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP) has many basic tax courses to pick from too.
Once you attend a conference or a few seminars you will end up on a list. Then the opportunities will come to you. The difficult part is choosing which conferences and seminars to attend with your limited time resources.
The internet has made finding conferences matching your interests easier than ever. By joining the intelligentsia you are joining an elite group. The intelligentsia earn more and have more. For some reason the 1% of income earners and 1% of wealthiest people in our society also happen to be in the other 1% too: the intelligentsia.
By focusing on income inequality you miss the point. Focus on learning and knowledge and you will be a card carrying member of the intelligentsia. Your income will go up automatically as a result.
Now, if you will excuse me. I have a book with my name on it.
When Donald Trump won the Presidency many people were elated. Many more were depressed. Others felt scorn, concern, nervousness, helplessness and betrayal. How could this happen? A man with no political experience and a fire brand built on controversy win the election?
Shortly after the election Warren Buffett was quoted as saying America would be just fine with Trump as President even though Buffett supported Hillary Clinton. He said America has the “secret sauce” to keep the nation strong and growing. It did little to sooth the nerves of people fearful what damage a political unknown could do to the country or the world.
Warren Buffett made a career out of optimism. From an early age he always felt America would keep growing and the standard of living would keep rising. Recently in a Berkshire (a public company he runs) annual report he espoused how good things were. (This was before the election season started.) Buffett outlined how even 2% GDP growth coupled with the low population growth of the U.S. would add 34.4% to real growth over the next generation. This is on top of our already high standard of living.
Where does such optimism originate? Better still, can we have some? Buffett’s optimism has made him one of the richest people to have ever lived. He sees brighter days no matter what the economic conditions.
Today we will discover how and why optimism is the source of all wealth and a virtual fountain of youth. We can have more and live longer. Warren Buffett is pushing against 90 years of age and is spry as ever. He drinks soda and eats junk food every day. If anyone has a secret sauce to happiness, financial independence and long life Buffett is the guy.
The Numbers are so Depressing
There is so much to be depressed about. Income inequality means the rising standard of living will leave many behind. The economy is stuck in low gear. And, OMG!, what if it starts growing faster now. Trump will get the credit, or worse, a second term.
Finding optimistic people to spend time with is difficult because so few are optimistic. Instead they are broke and for good reason.
Reading is even harder. You need to read to learn, but news reports as practically assisted suicide. I’m waiting for a prosecutor looking to make a name for himself to cash in on this bonanza.
Normally the books I read are uplifting. Two recent books I read are testing my resolve. I finished The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel. The book was good, packed full of useful information and backed by solid research about income and wealth inequality throughout history.
Unfortunately history doesn’t have many sample of income/wealth inequality leveling out unless enforced by mass military mobilization (especially for the loser of the war), plague/famine, revolution or societal collapse. The record is clear and not reassuring. History is clear inequality continues to grow in starts and spurts until it finally is released by a violent event forcing a leveling between the top 1% and the lower or average income/wealth levels.
Scheidel tried hard to be upbeat in the face of such information. At the end he put on a brave face and provided the best examples of leveling that was not accompanied by devastation. He was grasping at straws. History is clear, but not without hope.
I am currently reading The World as it Is by Chris Hedges. Hedges could turn a lottery win into an opportunity to slit your wrists. He doesn’t even try to put on a happy face. The World as it Is is comprised of 66 short essays on world events. So you understand what I am talking about, here are a few essay titles: It’s Not Going to be OK, So Much for the Promised Land, Liberals are Useless (don’t feel bad conservative, he gave you the same treatment), Man is a Cruel Animal, Confronting the Terrorist Within, The American Empire is Bankrupt and No One Cares.
Forget about any attempt for a happy ending. It is endless whining and complaining. All is bad, all is hopeless, why even bother to try. Ich!
I bought Hedges’s book after hearing him speak. (I don’t remember where. It was on TV or a video or something.) Hedges is an intelligent and articulate man with a compelling story. His voice resonates and draws you in. I enjoy the reading while I disagree with the message.
I bring up these two negative books for a reason. Before we can delve into optimism we have to define the enemy of optimism so we can avoid it.
I recommend both books above. The Great Leveler is powerful information we can use to avoid the pitfalls of history. The World as it Is provides an alternative look at the difficulties facing America and the world. Rather than part with hard-earned coin I would visit the library for both books. If you need a research tool The Great Leveler might be worth the purchase.
I’m Feeling Much Better Now
You, as I, will face negative messages daily as we travel through life. Warren Buffett faces the same headwinds you and I do while remaining as unflinching in his optimistic determination the world is getting better.
The facts support Buffett. Crime is down in virtually every category in most Western nations and even most non-Western nations around the planet. As I write we are approaching a decade of steady economic expansion. Growth is slow, yet steady. No overheating to destabilize the economic growth pattern. Interest rates are low, inflation too. In America taxes are among the lowest of the developed nations.
Our standard of living is continually rising. Even the poorest are significantly better off than a mere 50 years ago. We live longer and have more opportunity than ever.
Health care might be exorbitant in the U.S., but we have more therapies to live longer. Cancer and heart disease are no longer a guaranteed death sentence. We can even abuse our bodies smoking, overeating and neglecting proper exercise and still enjoy a longer life expectancy than our parents. God, we are lucky to be living in such an awesome time and place.
Work is easier too. I grew up milking cows. The number of cows one man (or woman) can milk at a time is astounding compared to how I did it back in the late 1970s.
Tax preparation is radically different! The amount of work we get done would have taken double the employees five years ago. My clients will be happy to hear I upgraded several new pieces of technology in the office. Tax returns will be finished faster this year due to this new technology. We tested the system on a live return earlier this week with impressive results.
Traveling in modern times is a pleasure (unless you plan on flying). We can get anywhere on the planet in a day or less if we had to. Travel across country is started and finished all while the sun shines for one single day.
Travel is also safer than ever. We can visit Aunt Edna in Tupelo as a day trip if we desire; we can visit Uncle Fred in Adelaide, Australia with no real inconvenience at all.
When I graduated from high school 35 years ago gasoline was $2 a gallon. It’s not much more now than back then. And the percentage of our income needed to feed ourselves is lower than ever.
We have more and it goes further. We are always connected (not always a good thing) if we want to be. We can visit grandma on the other side of the globe at zero cost. Just dial in your Facebook or Twitter account.
Not all is good news, I understand. Education costs are exploding. However, the cost of learning is cheaper than ever. Books are free from the library or at your doorstep in hours or the next day from Amazon. Training courses are cheap and available in nearly every city of any size. Blogs and other online resources have more information than you can possibly consume.
Medical costs are an issue in the U.S. However, Americans can hop on a plane and get better and cheaper health care for procedures with any significant costs attached. Emergency care is still an issue, but we are optimists. We will find a way.
Life is good. It has always been good. We choose to be miserable.
Optimism does something to us. Optimism allows us to feel satiated and happy, content. Knowing tomorrow will be better than today is a powerful mental tool for appreciating every moment of precious life we have.
Why is Warren Buffett still working at his age? Because he is happy doing what he does. He sees the world as a glass completely full and overflowing with wealth. He picks some up for himself and his shareholders, leaving plenty for you and me to enjoy as well.
Wealth is between the ears. Wealth is not about money, but optimists generally have more of that too.
Optimists also found a fountain of youth. Have you ever notice guys like Buffett look so darn young for their age? It’s not money either. I know plenty of rich people who look like something the cat dragged in at a young age. Optimism takes years off. Buffett skips to work every day not to get more money (that is just the game he plays and the scorecard) but to see up close and personal the constant improvement of the human condition each and every day.
Elon Musk, another mentor I admire, warns of A.I. and other catastrophes humans are certain to eventually face. But Musk is an optimist! He doesn’t cry about the risk or inevitability; he defines the problem and then rolls up his sleeves to solve it. Musk knows you need to identify problems before taking actions to resolve them.
America, China, the West and humanity are not dead! These are the best of times and better still are coming. There will be bumps along the way, of course. A meaningful optimism needs periodic excitement.
You and I are lucky. The first step toward wealth is to recognize this fact. All I had all those years ago on the family farm was optimism. I knew I could do it. Had no idea how, but I knew it would happen. From that moment forward I was wealthy. It wasn’t long before it revealed itself in my investment portfolio.
Or, you can be a sad Gus complaining about every minor inconvenience, endlessly calling for the next market crash, Great Depression or the end of time. All we ask is you sit over there in the corner where we don’t have to see you. It’s such a bummer when you are around.
Have you ever wondered why Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz continue to thrill audiences nearly a century later while the box office leader three years ago over Christmas weekend can’t be sold by Wal-Mart for less than a dollar from the remainder bin? Why does The Shawshank Redemption still perform well after more than two decades?
Closer to home, why do some personal finance blogs find a massive and growing audience while others languish? Mr. Money Mustache publishes a few times a month and still generates 5 million page views or more per month. What characteristics do perennial sellers have? More important, can we replicate their success?
Last week one of my all-time favorite authors, Ryan Holiday, published Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts answering the above questions. Holiday has ample experience to draw from in his work with companies such as Google and cultural icons like Tim Ferris.
You can reinvent the wheel or you can learn from the best. Perennial Seller breaks the process of creating long-term success into four parts: The Creative Process, Positioning, Marketing and Platform. We will touch on each of these before we end with a real world example from our personal finance (PF) community.
The Creative Process
Before something becomes a long-term successful seller it has to be created. Too many people want to jump ahead to marketing. They want money and they want it now. Unfortunately they will not like what the marketing section has to say if they do.
Creating a blog with a growing audience and dedicated fans willing to support the blogger, you first need to create the product. Books need to be written before they show up at the bookstore.
Holiday spends most of the book talking about creating a perennial seller in the arts: books, movies, music. He does expand the discussion to his days working for American Apparel before the CEO went off the rails. His advice can easily encompass business models for goods and services, too. The PF community will find the process valuable for their side gigs.
Creating a product, writing a book, composing a song is all hard work. The tendency is to follow a hot trend or create a knockoff of another successful product. It rarely works. You might get some success, but it never lasts. The original has the advantage when it comes to standing the test of time.
When I started this blog I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Money Mustache. And why not? His readers would be my readers. Working with an icon of the early retirement community meant people would find me by reading MMM. At first.
I knew I would be different, but I always found myself apologizing for the differences, especially the idea of retiring early. Read my early work here. It drips with desperation. Slowly I moved into the open prairie where I felt most comfortable. I started writing my stuff my way. No apologies.
I always told storing which is my hallmark. But the idea I’d be a successful follow-on of the MMM crowd gave me a momentary boost the first few weeks before curling up in submission. My traffic has since exceeded anything I managed those early days.
I stopped apologizing and started doing what I needed to do. I was different and knew it. When I allowed the differences to show through I found my audience. And good thing.
A recent reader emailed to let me know he reads over a thousand PF blogs and never saw one with a picture of Hitler on the front page above the fold. Yeah, I knew it was different.
Readers beg me to publish a book (it’s in the works) of blog posts. More on that in a bit.
The creative process is hard work. You need more than one idea, one book, one blog post. No matter how brilliant you are you need to create more.
As you think about your product, service, book, blog, or song, you need to know who it will appeal to.
Ryan Holiday has provided excellent guides to determining what your work is about and whom it is for. Positioning within a genre is vital if you want to produce a perennial seller.
Success of any kind, long- or short-term, almost always is classified in a category or genre. Nothing appeals to everyone! Too many bloggers, writers, singers think they are serving everyone. Bull!
You can make a comfortable living with a mere 1,000 dedicated fans who buy everything you produce. (Holiday said it in the book and shows how.) Imagine a humble blog, like, ah, this one. Selling t-shirts, ad revenue, third-party affiliates, and Amazon can provide a nice income stream. A thousand dedicated fans buying your book or program can add up. A simple $100 from a thousand dedicated fans gets you to a six figure income.
The trick is getting to a thousand “dedicated” fans. Part II of Perennial Seller is dripping with information on how to position your brand, You, Inc., to acquire those thousand dedicated fans. In all likelihood you will end up with many more as your cult grows.
Now we get to the section everyone wants to talk about. Well, forget about it.
Ryan Holiday is a smart young man and he knows he can’t tell you to do this and do that and you will sell a million copies of your book or get a million page views.
I’ll talk about marketing more in Part 2 of this post to be published on Wednesday.
So no one ruptures an internal organ I will share a taste before moving on.
You do not need a publicist, Google or Facebook advertising, or any other expensive promotional activities to sell well. Most money spend on advertising is useless.
You know what might work? Giving away free copies of your book to the right person. A certain tax guy might want to provide free tax preparation or advisory services to a mustachioed gentleman from Colorado. Or the same tax guy might speak for free at conferences and help attendees gratis as a goodwill gesture.
Doing these things and a few similar gestures will give you more work than you can handle. Then you need to go back to the creative process and create more and develop the brand You Inc. further. It is also time to move toward building your
You can (and should) start building your platform even as you begin the creative process. Gathering followers is how you will generate buzz and early adopters of your book, blog, song or product. I’ll share an idea Ryan Holiday used (mentioned in the book) and that caught me early in his career.
Before Holiday had a product he knew he needed a platform from which to sell his books. He tried blogs/web pages, but eventually settled with the idea of building a mailing list of his monthly book recommendations. By the time his first book came out he had 5,000 people on his email list he could recommend “his” book to. The list has since grown to over 80,000.
As you can imagine, the mailing list is a powerful tool Holiday used to sell his books. And it worked. His books continue to sell better and to a wider audience as the mailing list grows.
Before I include a personal story not in the book I want to share a special gift Holiday gives to his readers. At the end of the book he includes a web address for additional case studies and interviews not in the book. The web address is: perennialseller.com/gift. Or you can email Holiday at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will email back the bonus information.
Before you consider me a lout for sharing this information before you even buy the book or borrow it from the library, know that Ryan Holiday is building his email list as you take him up on the offer. He is building his platform while you get additional free information. A bit of quid pro quo.
In the Real World
Well, who in the heck is this Ryan guy anyway? You may have never heard of him until now. How about we use a live example from our own community: Jim Collins. (If you are reading this Jim, sorry. I needed a guinea pig and you were an available victim. Should sell a couple of books for you though if it is any consolation.)
Last year Jim published The Simple Path to Wealth. You probably heard me extol the virtues of the book. It is pulled from the Stock Series of his blog.
When talking to Jim you will hear him say there is nothing new in his book; it’s all in the blog. It’s a lie. (Sorry to rat you out like that, buddy. Somebody had to expose you.)
Jim’s book is all in his blog, of course. What he doesn’t tell you is he reworked the entire set of blog posts, fixing grammar errors and tightening up the text.
Then he sent the finished product to qualified first readers who promptly pulled the whole thing apart, exposing massive (several hundred) problems. Jim fixed them all. Then he sent it out to another qualified first reader confident he fixed all the boo-boos only to learn a few hundred more were missed the first round.
This went on for a while until the book was as clean and tight as any professionally published book from a major publishing house. As an end user I can assure you The Simple Path to Wealth is better edited than 95% of the stuff from the professional houses. That is saying a lot.
And it’s a self published book! It was the reason I delayed reading the thing. I know how self published books can be. Then I made the mistake of reading a few pages. I was hooked.
My good friend, Mister Collins, has had excellent sales figures on his book. A high quality work, well edited, well created, is a masterpiece. Here is how he did it using Ryan Holiday’s formula.
Jim wrote (the creative process) the blog and later edited part of that into the book, polishing to a bright shine. He positioned his blog and book right down the middle of his genres: personal finance, early retirement and financial independence.
Jim marketed his book through his blog and asked Mr. Money Mustache to write the forward, which he did. Jim already had an awesome platform with his blog and mailing list. People were buying Jim’s book to give as gifts! Camp Mustache SE in January 2017 gave a free copy to every attendee. Nothing beats word of mouth as a marketing tool (also in Holiday’s book).
One Last Thing
Normally I tell people they can either buy the book or pick it up at the library. This book is different. If you write a blog (many readers do), run a business (many readers do) or have a side gig (many readers do) then you want to own Perennial Seller. If you do not fall into one of these categories feel free to visit the library on this one.
If you are a writer, blogger, musician, artist, business owner or have a side gig you will want to hold this one in your hand and keep it within arm’s reach in your personal library. Better bring your highlighter too. You’re going to need it.
You can’t sit down with Bill Gates for more than 10 minutes before he starts telling you about a recent book he read. If you’re not lucky enough to chew the fat with Bill you can get an update on his reading recommendations anytime you want on his blog: Gates Notes.
Ryan Holiday actually has a free subscription service to inform his followers monthly of great books he has read and recommends. Over the years I have found many inspiring and mentally stimulating books from Holiday’s list.
Books are the foundation of knowledge. I read a lot because you will be hard pressed to find a successful individual who doesn’t read on a regular basis and because it is fun. Books have a special feel. Some people enjoy Kindle versions; I still prefer holding a book in my hands. I might get my news digitally, but when I dive deep into a subject I want paper in my hands even if I have to lug it through an airport. It’s just me.
Outside family, books have provided my greatest pleasures in life. I have traveled the world and through time; I have seen great societies and dined with the greatest minds of history. I did it all through the eyes of those who were there. Books have given me all that and more. You are free as long as you can crack a book and disappear into another realm.
It’s time again for me to share some of my enlightened reading. I prefer massive books. I also enjoy books that delve deep into business, science, taxes, accounting, history and math. I am not sure there is a genre I don’t enjoy.
When I was younger I read thousands of novels. Not so much anymore. Most of my time is spent with my nose stuck in a heavily researched book. Take away my reading time and I get cranky. For me, reading books is as important as sleep and breathing and more important than food. I can go longer without food than a book.
I find new books to read in various places. The above mentioned Gates and Holiday have been a reliable source. Sometimes The Economist has a good recommendation. The news gives me books to add to my reading list, too. And now I want you to help grow my list.
Below I will share my reading recommendations for the summer. In return I want you to share some of your favorite reads. It doesn’t matter if you read it ages ago. A good book sticks with you and if it sticks, you should share.
I have starred (*) books I recommend for purchase. The remainder should be borrowed from the library. Starred books I feel most readers will return to again and again so it should be part of your personal library.
The time required to read the seven books on the list is 70 hours (assuming 10 hours per volume) or 10 weeks at an hour per day. You can buy all the starred books used at Amazon (or Kindle) for under $35 with Amazon Prime. A local used bookstore may bring an even greater bargain.
I read two magazines regularly. In the past I read many more periodicals, but most newspaper and magazine stories are online where I read them now.
National Geographic: I travel more than I care to. Most travel is business related and increasing due to this blog. However, I keep pace with the world at large by reading NG. The articles are not long, but contain powerful information. Written different than a news piece, NG writes from the perspective of a traveler on the ground. This allows me a glimpse into the lives of people from all corners of the world. Science and culture related articles interest me most, but I read NG cover to cover every issue.
The Economist: Most news reporting agencies leave me flat. The Economist is packed with news from around the world each week with numerous stories from the business world and the study of economics. You can read The Economist online, have the magazine delivered to your door, or both.
*The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder: The news media has plenty to say about Warren Buffett. You can watch interview after interview of him on YouTube and at the end of the day you are left wondering how he does it. Alice Schroeder (no relation to the author) spent years digging deep into the life of Buffett to give us an unblemished look at what makes Buffett Buffett. A short news piece is no match for 832 pages of journalism. Schroeder spent countless hours on the phone and in personal interviews with Buffett, his family and acquaintances. I warm you, this book is addicting; it is hard to turn out the lights when engaged in such a mesmerizing story. By the end you have a much better idea of how Buffett does it. There is no doubt in my mind your investing skills will improve by the time you turn the last page. These skills can be applied to your investment properties, business or side gig and equity investing.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: Our first of two fiction entries is rollicking fun. Dunces introduces us to Ignatius J. Riley, a most intoxicating character if there ever was one. Riley is always scheming. His antics with ways to earn money in jobs and side gigs will have you rolling on the floor. But I warn you, Riley is an idiot extraordinaire. His relationship with family and employers will have your eyes glued to the page. Readers of this blog know the value of a side gig. Dunces teaches us how not to do it.
Business Adventures by John Brooks: When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both say a book is the best business book ever written it might be worth the time to read it. Adventures is a collection of articles written by Brooks over his career investigating significant issues challenging businesses. Before the 1987 crash or 2008 financial crisis was stock crash of 1962. Brooks gives us a detailed look at what went wrong and what was done to prevent 1962 from becoming a 1987. Chapter 3 took a look at the federal tax code and its history. For some reason your favorite accountant couldn’t put the book down during that chapter. I also found the chapter on Xerox riveting. What sacrifices are made by a group of people to bring a company to life is inspiring. Note: These business stories are from the 1960s and therefore are dated. However, each story is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis: Before the current events caused Americans to doubt their government’s ability to lead there was the fear Nazi theology would usurp the White House. Lewis wrote his dystopian novel in 1935 as fear heightened over Hitler in Europe. The story follows Doremus Jessup, a small town newspaper editor, as Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip captures the imagination of the country. Windrip’s promises sound all too familiar today. Of course Windrip wins the presidency causing the country to spin down in violent authoritarianism. The novel does not offer a happy ending. Jessup and his ragtag compatriots build a movement to take the country back by using an underground network to publish the truth. People begin to fight back, but the cost is dear and the road back may never provide a full return. Perhaps Americans should also read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire too. Or a brief review on how the Roman Republic ended.
*The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor by David S. Landes: In The Wealth of Nations, published by Adam Smith in 1776, we learn about the division of labor and its effects on productivity and quality. (You can read The Wealth of Nations online for free here.) Smith also gave us a look at how money really works. Fast forward to 1998 and Landes picks up where Smith left off. No longer are we merely interested in how money works, but why some countries are rich and some poor. Several factors determine the wealth of a society. I’ll let you enjoy the process of learning as you read the book.
*The Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins: There is a reason I am recommending this book again. Jim Collins has produced what I consider one of the best books on investing ever written. Taken from the pages of his blog, Wealth is pulled straight from his stock series. Before you jump ship on me, understand this book is not about pouring over stock sheets and financials searching for the next good investment. Instead, Collins’ approach is simple: simple to read, simple to follow. The writing is crisp, clean and to the point. This is the perfect book for the restroom (sorry Jim) or ride to work. Each chapter is self contained, yet part of the whole. I am certain you will read this book again and again as I have. I keep finding myself re-reading chapters as a reminder to keep it simple and safe if I want to grow and maintain my wealth. (If you want to read about how the author and Collins nearly took over the world, read here.)
* The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel: Before we start I want to point out I recommend this book for purchase. Unless you plan on using the book for additional research you may wish to borrow the book from the library instead. The Great Leveler takes Piketty’s work a step further by looking back in history to determine where income inequality began, how it ended and reappeared in societies for millennia. This book is a surprising recount of income inequality in all societies since humans decided to leave the hunter/gatherer lifestyle. What I found most interesting was how similar the issues of income inequality are today with the same issue thousands of years ago. Hint: you are not going to like the four possible solutions history provided.
There it is, kind readers; my reading list to round out your summer. Pick and choose as your interests dictate.
Now it is your turn. I am always looking for good books to read. Share some of your favorites in the comments section below. Don’t leave a wayward accountant, a book lover, in the dark.
Earlier this year Mrs. Accountant and I attended Camp Mustache in Gainesville, Florida. We were offered a ride to the Camp, but we also had several additional days planned around the event. Renting a car in such a situation is expensive since the car would just sit there for days while my wallet was financially abused.
My youngest daughter rolled her eyes when I mentioned I needed the phone number to the Gainesville taxi service. She grabbed my phone and started working on it. This is an unusual event for anyone who knows me. I use my phone as a phone. Period. I don’t care about, nor do I want to know about any of the other things smart phone can do. I make my own breakfast, thank you.
In a few minutes my daughter completed her assault on my virgin phone. She added an app to my phone. (To this day I have no idea what an app is. Whenever the kids talk about apps I joke that we are living on The Planet of the Apps.)
I told her it was nice of her to put an app on my phone, but I’ll never use it. Another eye roll. “Here, dad,” she said pointing to the Uber icon now conveniently located in the middle of my screen. “All you do is touch the icon and tell the phone where you want to go.”
Well, my fingers don’t work well with all the small letters and stuff on a phone so I have made a habit of avoiding the issue. Now I find out I can talk to my phone and it responds. Awesome!
I know, I know. You readers are rolling your eyes like my daughter. This stuff has probably been around for a long time. Somehow I missed it. I refuse to blame my stubbornness on “missing it” even though it is probably the reason why.
The Sickness Spreads
The money I saved by using Uber rather than renting a car was significant. Better still, I didn’t waste time figuring out how to get anywhere in town; the Uber driver did that. I discovered they have apps to. (Welcome to The Planet of the Apps. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Once I told my phone where I wanted to go the screen showed me where the car was that would take me there. Who thinks of this stuff?
When the Uber driver arrived he knew where we wanted to go and he had neat stuff on his phone telling him the shortest way to get there.
Okay, I still don’t know how to use apps, but I can touch an icon and speak. The best part is I don’t really have to know where I’m going! This is a more common issue than you might imagine. For example, Mrs. Accountant and I wanted to go to the museum by the college. I told my phone just that and lo and behold the Uber guy took us there. It seems technology has advanced to a level where knuckle dragging Neanderthals can use it. And I have calluses on the back side of my fingers to prove it.
Later this year (October) I will be headed to FinCon in Dallas. This time we used Airbnb for the first time. There are no apps I am aware of for this. The same daughter (the older one might be a slacker) helped me sign up for/rent (whatever you call it) an apartment/room for the time we will be in Dallas for the event. Once again there were savings involved.
Before you laugh too hard at my ignorance, I want to share a story that proves I am not alone. A few years ago I was talking to the sole judge in my county. It was election season and I sometimes get involved in the process in unusual ways. As we talked I mentioned how my business has expanded by magnitudes of order and in profitability by using social media. This happened without expanding the size of the building I operate from.
The judge smiled as he told me he has no clue about social media and look how far he rose in life. Without missing a beat I said, “So you want me to take your job because I’m more qualified?”
I got the dumb look.
I am not alone in my ignorance with large portions of modern technology. Truth is I don’t do social media either. As a businessman I am fully aware the old methods of promoting a business don’t work or work poorly today (i.e. newspapers). I am also aware of the power of social media to spread a message. Rather than spend my days horsing around on Facebook or Twitter (you need to be President of the United States to have time for that foolishness) I hire the work done for me.
Employees seem to be happy to keep my public persona on social media alive and well. When it comes to bigger projects my firm hires third parties to manage the process. I know what I want. Then I hire the people to actually do it. I can be blissfully stupid to the issue while abstaining from ignorance. There is a difference.
Sure, you can be successful without using modern technology tools. The judge is still a judge and I still grow my practice without social media. But the judge is on social media; so am I. The county has professionals plastering the judge’s puss all over the internet and the county’s web page just like I have people doing the same for me in a the business setting.
I don’t encourage stupidity. The judge and I are not your go-to guy for high levels of intelligent IT planning. Heck, it was only a few years ago when somebody explained to me why it was called IT (information technology). It seems I was too caught up in being a top-notch tax guy that I forgot about learning things most people consider common knowledge.
You don’t have to understand surgery to know you might need a surgeon. Without ever placing my hand on a hot stove I instinctively know it would hurt like the devil to do it.
The same applies to many new forms of technology. Ignorance is one thing; stupidity another. Ignorance is refusing to accept the technology as a part of modern life and society. Stupidity is just not understanding how to use it. Time is a factor. So is desire. I don’t want to fondle my phone incessantly as many people do. I have Mrs. Accountant for that. You will never catch me texting and driving because I don’t text. I have kids for that.
Before I come across as a real ignorant fool, understand I use technology more than many people do, including accounting firms. While most people are playing with the latest app, I am hard at work reading about how certain apps and other technology can be used efficiently and productively in a business. It explains why I have one of the highest margins in the industry.
I’m in business to make money. When I am not working the business I want to spend my time with people I care about. Technology is background noise in life when it works and is utilized best. There is no reason to finger your phone so much. Put it down. You will survive. For the first 300,000 years of human existence the species did fine without a smartphone or an app. You can make it fifteen minutes without such a crutch.
This blog is currently under a major redesign. Kevin will bring this blog into the Twenty-First Century. Good thing because I don’t have a clue of how to design and program a web page. I write and hit publish. After that I call in the troops.
Does this mean Kevin will be the only creative design behind the new look out later this summer? In part, yes. But only in part. Kevin and I spent serious time discussing what I wanted. I can see the final product in my mind. The problem is programming it. I have leverage with Kevin. I have the idea, he improves on it, I provide more feedback and then he creates the product. The whole is better/more than the sum of the parts, as it should be.
Not So Dumb After All
The local judge may not understand social media. I hope if he ever presides over a case involving social media he educates himself so he can do his job. It is arrogance to think you understand all the facts when you don’t understand the basics. You can’t trust your own team either. They feed you what they want you to hear and what they think is important. Without knowledge you are at their mercy and less competent.
The same applies to me and my business. I extend outside my sphere of influence when making decisions. Kevin and his awesome talent are the result of my stretching beyond my normal circle. Knowing everything is not the goal! You can’t—and don’t want to—know everything. The greatest skill is learning to use the talents and knowledge of people around you for the greater good. It takes time to hone this ability. Knowing when you need additional input from a qualified expert is more art than science.
If you don’t master this skill you will have the same dumb look the judge had when I asked if he was proposing I take his job.