“So, what’s up with Sendero?” asked a friend and reader.
“Good question,” I replied.
Allow me to answer.
I have started and stopped writing a new edition probably ten times. Each time I get a thousand words so so into it, I start doubting that these musing are of any real value. To anyone.
Don’t get me wrong. I love writing and I feel a real connection with the small tribe of fellow travellers who read Sendero.
But everyone in the world is positively overflowing with opinions and observations.
So who am I to put my writing out there as being of any greater value or interest than any others? Especially seeing as how I have already written a million words on hundreds of topics.
In short, I increasingly feel I have said all I have to say. Or, like a dinner guest who has overstayed their welcome, I have said all I should say.
“What about the experiences from living in the middle of nowhere Argentina, or the travel adventures? Those are usually fun,” asked my friend helpfully.
To which I replied, to the effect of, “But are they really so interesting?”
For instance, since the last edition of Sendero, I have travelled to La Puna, a tiny wind battered pueblo located at over 14,000 feet high in a desolate desert where we drank bad wine, saw a dozen arandu - basically a south american ostrich - dozens of vicunas and thousands of pink flamingos, of all things.
Kind of interesting, but once you’ve seen a couple hundred pink flamingos, there’s really no need to look any further.
While in the Puna, we wished my dear friend, former business partner and increasingly insane extreme hiker Frank Trotter bon voyage as he set off in an attempt to summit one of the highest mountains in South America, the handsomely named Volcan Galan which stands 20,000 feet high. (He made it to 17,000 feet before having to turn back because of the altitude).
After the summit attempt, Frank met up with my Fellow Horsemen Pablo, Nico and Enrique and then hiked alongside the riders for four long days before arriving at Bill and Elizabeth Bonner’s estancia at Gualfin.
To give you a sense of how tough the journey was, one of the party started coughing blood and had to be evacuated.
In any event, having survived his hike, we all met up at Gualfin, the Bonner’s massive estancia in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and had an amazing asado involving prodigious quantities of meat accompanied by a variety of excellent extreme altitude wines. So, that was fun.
But, again, who cares?
I could also recount my return to Lima, Peru for a whirlwind 24 hour sushi eating visit with a business colleague and now friend. Or that we travelled south to Northern Patagonia where we spent time at the Llao Llao Hotel, one of the most beautifully sited hotels in the world, and went river rafting on a tranquil river that winds through the pampas outside of our old home town of San Martin de Los Andes.
And I played alongside a professional golf player in a Pro-Am golf tournament, We were in the lead at the end of the first day but the pro - a lovely guy - decided to prematurely celebrate and so it was a massively hung over shadow of his former self who showed up for the second day. We lost dismally.
All good fun, but of any value to anyone? I don’t think so.
“What about your occasional investment ideas? Those can be useful.”
I hope so, though as I become increasingly reflexive on these things, I feel a strong desire to simplify how I invest. If I don’t end deleting this latest version of these musings, maybe I’ll share some ideas a bit later on.
Regardless, all of that is a long way of saying that if I don’t feel I have something of some utility to share, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Yours or mine.
So, let’s see where this edition goes. Hopefully this version will get off the launch pad.
As I write, I am listening to an oldie but goody, Ship of Fools by World Party. I think it should enjoy a resurgence, given the number of fools now dominating the global political scene.
Living a Double Life
Having just arrived from Argentina the day before yesterday, I am writing you today from a cozy chaise lounge (my favorite form of furniture) in the living room of our house in Vermont.
The door to door from Cafayate to Vermont is a long one, about 24 hours. It is, however, helpful that Argentina and the East Coast of the US are just an time zone apart, so there’s no jet lag involved.
Having refused to fly north for Christmas last year - it’s just too damn cold and inconvenient - it has been a full nine months since I last set foot in the USA.
Things here vs. there seem pretty much the same old, including the keystone cops level of incompetence on display at every official checkpoint we encountered after arriving. I refer specifically to immigration which was grossly understaffed, and to the TSA checkpoints which were grossly overstaffed but excruciatingly slow.
But enough grousing about the unavoidable minions of the state: every country suffers from those. Instead, I want to share the pros and cons of living in two countries, a topic I know a bit about.
Maybe it will be helpful, but if you are not open to the idea of diversifying your life internationally, you may want to let your eyes slide down the page to the next article.
First, a moment to set the proverbial stage for newcomers.
I still remember what triggered us to first expatriate: the receipt of the final payment I received for the sale of a company I was a partner in. The final check was for 49% of the amount due to me, with the balance of 51% peeled off for taxes.
Through the fog of time, I still recall being flabbergasted that the government felt entitled to over 50% of the fruits of 7 years of very, very hard work on my part.
That was about twenty four years ago. In reaction, I packed up and set out on a three year journey around the world in a quest for paradise on earth, eventually settling on Argentina as offering the best of what I wanted from this life.
Lamentably, while there I came to the realization I didn’t actually have the means to jublilado (retire) and so agreed to return to the US in order to join up with three friends - including the previously mentioned Mr. Trrotter - to start EverBank, one of the first pure online banks.
In time I sold my shares in that business and, among other interests, partnered up with Doug Casey to start Casey Research. In any event, about 14 years ago I finally returned to Argentina and, after an exhaustive search ended up in Cafayate, where I helped Doug develop La Estancia de Cafayate.
As Doug and I were integrally involved in the founding of La Estancia, we were able to include those amenities that suited our individual tastes, including an amazing spa and athletic facility, a world class golf course, vineyards, polo fields, riding trails, a comfortable clubhouse and more.
So, not only was I able to return to my version of paradise, but to customize my immediate surroundings, a rare and wonderful thing.
After a lot of traveling back and forth -- I still had a lot of business responsibilities in the USA - I was able to organize things to work remotely and so, about ten years ago, we finished our house in La Estancia and began our dual life, spending between nine and ten months a year in Cafayate, with the balance in some combination of Vermont and visiting other parts of the world.
A Double Life - the Pros
I first glimpsed the potential of dividing my life between more than one country when I was in my thirties and through circumstances I no longer remember became friendly with Arthur Lipper, founder of the well-respected mutual fund rating service. (Shock of all shocks, I just googled Arthur and, at the age of 88, he appears to still be going strong!)
In any event, I mentioned to Arthur I was organizing a conference in Sydney, Australia, where he had some business interests, and he kindly introduced me to friends of his there.
While I forget their names, over dinners and lunches with Arthur’s friends, I learned all three had residences in two or even three countries, shifting their homes every four to six months.
Increasingly curious about the idea of an internationally diversified lifestyle, I pressed each for details and listened while they enthusiastically described their lifestyles. It was clear that each passionately enjoyed shifting their residences between countries, each shift accompanied by happy reunions with old friends, and enjoying their favorite restaurants and other haunts with fresh eyes and eager anticipation.
Which is likely why when I got mad as hell at the unfair taxation and decided to do something about it, the course of action I took was to expatriate.
That rather long warm up leads me to benefit number one of a dual life.
- You’ll never find yourself in a rut. Provided you set things up properly, for example by keeping two sets of clothes in your residences to minimize the amount of luggage you have to tote, transitioning between your residences can be pretty seamless. After enjoying each residence anew for some period of time, you begin to anticipate the coming change of scenery, to another place you know and love.
Each of our two homes are populated with people you care for and enjoy, with bonds made even stronger because you will never fall into the sort of dial-in relationships that can come from constant proximity. Everyone has new experiences to share, keeping things fresh.
- A more favorable taxation regime. As a branded mule of the United States Government, we remain on the hook for federal taxes, but because we spend less than the hurdle amount of time in Vermont, we no longer pay state income taxes, a considerable savings. There is also a waiver on the first $100,000 in foreign earned income which can be helpful if you are working abroad.
As Argentine income taxes can also be oppressive, we are careful to stay under their hurdle as well, though we are still on the hook for a reasonable amount of tax based on our assets in the country, and on our various business interests.
If you are a citizen of most other countries, then an internationally diversified lifestyle can actually result in your paying no income taxes at all, one of the quickest paths to wealth accumulation.
- Two unique lifestyles. While in Cafayate I live a very physically and socially active lifestyle, with long horseback rides (invariably chewing coca leaf to maintain stamina), driving our 4-wheel drive truck into the surrounding Andes to visit small and scenic mountain pueblos, playing golf and sharing meals accompanied with great wines with friends.
Spare time is soaked up by working with my friend and winemaker par excellence Agustin Lanus in building our extreme altitude wine business, and our restaurant Bad Brothers Wine Experience.
As Cafayate is blessed with 320 days of sun, weather is never a hindrance to our activities, a big contrast to soggy Vermont.
Back in Vermont, we take advantage of all the conveniences of a hyper-efficient consumer society, restocking our necessities with overnight deliveries from Amazon. And we always greatly anticipate savoring the many cuisines unavailable in the middle of nowhere Argentina.
Since returning two days ago I have devoured a well made pizza, sashimi, pancakes and sausage with maple syrup, a cheese burger, a sausage, egg and biscuit combo, more sashimi and… and… all of which explains why even though we are in Vermont for under three months, I’ll pack on 10 pounds.
Fortunately, thanks to the largely paleo diet of Argentina, to wit beef and vegetables, I lose those pounds within two weeks of returning home.
Of course, per above, a big part of the pleasure of returning to Vermont is the chance to spend time with a treasured group of friends, with walks and golf in the visually stunning and very green environment (because it rains so much), a stark contrast to the high desert scenery on constant display in Cafayate.
- Two different worlds. In addition to the cultural differences of our two homes, simple geography opens up all sorts of new opportunities for adventures and experiences. In Cafayate, we are a short hop to Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Patagonia, Paraguay, etc.
In Vermont, we are three hours from Boston or Montreal, and a six hour drive or short flight to New York city. Travel to Europe and the United Kingdom, where our daughter is attending school, is breeze. In Cafayate, we can ride for days across a desert, in Vermont we can boat on Lake Champlain.
- A breath of freedom. While in the US one has to be ever vigilant lest one trip a speed trap or otherwise get sideways with a member of the increasingly endemic state security apparatus. In some of the more progressive nationstates, it is actually an arrestable offense to get a person’s gender identity wrong. I can put up with all of this, and a long list of other politically correct madness for a few months, but on return to Argentina I always feel like I breathe freer.
For example, the coca leaf, which has been chewed in the Andes for eight millenia and is perfectly safe and legal where we live In Argentina, is a Class 2 felony here in the ‘land of the free’.
In rural Argentina, the police strictly play the role of “night watchmen”, there to help if you need them. There are virtually no speed traps and, other than some innocuous checkpoints to assure you have your lights on or are not slobbering drunk, there is almost no interaction with the local constabulary other than the exchange of pleasantries.
Resident vs. Guest. In the US, you are considered government property, whereas as an expat in Argentina, you are a welcomed guest. Officials and the populace in general treat foreigners pleasantly, happy to have them in the country spending much needed harder currencies (at this point, pretty much any currency is harder than the Argentine peso).
Local advantages. While circumstances are different throughout Argentina, in Cafayate there is no serious crime, no friction with the locals, some of the best weather in the world and scenery to knock your socks off. We live in a sea of vineyards, and the pace of life is measured. There’s no 24 hour news cycle to distract and ill-inform, and people take time together to eat, or to share a gourd of maté. If you live a stressed life in Cafayate, it’s your own damn fault.
In the upscale Vermont we live in, there is a wide selection of restaurants, quaint cafes, a movie theater and all the shops and malls one could want (which I personally don’t) a short drive away. The town is also crime free, and the scenery equally stunning, but in a different way.
Perpetual summer. Winter in Argentina is summer in the United States, and vice versa. Personally, I detest the cold and if I never again experience another snowfall, it will be just fine. With our schedule, we slide from summer into summer, and then back into summer again.
Cost of living. I cannot believe how expensive it is in the United States. A round of golf at a local so-so course is US$135. At our much better course in Cafayate, it is $8.00. A kilo of good steak in Vermont will set you back close to $90. In Cafayate, it might cost $10. Our maid, a wonderful person and a very hard worker, costs us about US$600 all in per month. In Vermont, forget about it. As a result, by spending up to nine months in Cafayate, we can enjoy a very high quality of life, at a greatly reduced monthly burn rate.
The bottom line on the positives is that each of our two homes offer unique characteristics that add richness to our lives, though it is probably clear that the middle of nowhere Argentina wins hands down for the overall quality and pace of life.
So, that’s some of the positives. Now, for the negatives.
- Tax reporting. The US government hates expats, and so has come up with all sorts of additional reporting to bedevil you, not the least of which is FATCA (add a “T” at the end and the bureaucratic bias becomes obvious) and PFICS which requires a ton of paperwork for any investments you have outside of the US which generate the majority of their income passively.
Then, as we are partners in three businesses in Argentina, we have to provide our financials, translated a time consuming and expensive process.
If your situation was a bit simpler, for example you were retired and didn’t have trusts or business interests or investments outside of the US, your tax reporting would no doubt be simpler, but in our case our tax returns are the size of a telephone directory, and very expensive.
The costs of two residences. Again, this is a matter of personal choice, but we decided to keep our house in Vermont versus renting for the short period we are here. The kids think of the Vermont house as “home” and so we maintain it, which means thousands in property taxes, snow plowing, lawn work, etc. In time, we’ll sell it and eliminate that cost.
Family separations. If you have a close family with children and grandchildren, hying off to the other side of the globe can be trying. Our kids are still youngish, with no grandchildren in sight, but I know others that have tried the expat life and found the separations too painful and so repatriate. I guess this is a matter of attitude, and our attitude is that we have one life to live and we very much want to spend a significant part our remaining years in our version of paradise.
Health Concerns. I have had a couple of hernia operations in Argentina and the work was done efficiently and at a fraction of the cost that it would have been back in the US. That said, if you had a more serious condition, then you should make sure that the second country you choose has good healthcare that is readily accessible. I hear the Thai healthcare facilities, which cater to medical tourism, are exceptional.
Being an Odd Duck. Living between two countries makes you a bit of an odd duck. Which is to say you don’t fit into the standardized processes required by governments and corporations. For example, I doubt I could get a mortgage in the US at this time. Dealing with things like driver’s licenses, banking and so forth can require a bit of shucking and jiving. Nothing that one of average intelligence can’t handle, but it can be a negative.
Travel. Some people enjoy travel but I’m not one of those people, so having to pack up and spend roughly 24 hours traveling back and forth is always inconvenient. While I hate to spend the money, we now only travel business class when travelling internationally, reducing the pain somewhat.
After a few minutes trying to think of other negatives, I gave up. In short, there is a lot more upside than downside, at least as far as we are concerned.
Even so, I suspect only a fairly small percentage of the US population has the right circumstances and the attitude required to successfully live a dual life, or at least lives as starkly different as those between the US and a small high desert town in Argentina.
If you think you might enjoy a dual life, then you might start by imagining what would make for your ideal residences. Maybe it’s the US and the UK? Or, maybe your second home could be somewhere in Spain, with all of Europe a short flight away? Or, Hawaii and Thailand… or… or…
With modern transport, the world has grown ever smaller and easier to access. Dare to dream? Or, to live your dream. We did, and have never regretted our decision for a minute.
A few months back, my son and I made a one day trip to Peru, primarily to visit the distributor of our extreme altitude wines there. Conveniently, Lima is only a two hour hop from Salta City, the nearest large airport to our home in Cafayate.
Given there was so little of it, the time in Lima flew by and almost as soon as we had unpacked, we were packing up again. Following a second day of sampling the local cuisine, and some spectacular white wines, we were picked up for the drive to the airport and our late night return flight.
As background, Lima’s origins are as a Spanish colonial city: founded by the conquistador Pizarro in 1535. In the old part of the old city, you can still visit houses that some of Pizarro’s fellow travellers and conquerors lived in, back in the day.
From those not so humble beginnings, the Lima metro area has grown to encompass almost 2,000 square miles, and now serves as home to just shy of 9 million souls.
As is the case with many Latin American cities -- Asuncion in Paraguay pops immediately to mind -- the population growth occurred with a minimum of forethought and formal planning, resulting in roads that are woefully inadequate for the modern burden.
Heading to the Lima airport, we experienced the problem first hand. Despite our scheduled departure time of 11:45 pm, and the distance as the crow flies being a little over 8 miles, our friends encouraged us to allow at least 2.5 hours for the car ride from our hotel back to the airport.
To be safe, we left the hotel at 8:00 pm, figuring the rush hour would be over by then. It wasn’t.
In fact, given the inadequate road infrastructure, I think rush hour probably isn’t over until midnight.
Between the hours of 8:00 pm and 10:30 pm while were in the car, it was literally mayhem.
And by mayhem I mean that the main road to the airport, which was designed with three lanes in each direction, is now treated by the locals as having seven lanes in each direction.
At first I was appalled at what that means in practice, but after an hour of the equivalent of an amusement park ride, I started taking videos and photos, incredulous at the insane scenes unfolding around us as thousands upon thousands of cars, motorcycles, buses and trucks jockeyed to make forward progress.
At first I was shocked at sheer madness as buses would jerk into your ‘lane’ as if you were not there, followed seconds later by an insane motorcyclist - and anyone on a motorcycle would have to be insane - roaring into the inches wide gap between our car and the same bus.
I promise you, it would take a dystopian science fiction writer of the finest imagination to have visualized a future where traffic would end up like it is in Lima, and yet there it is.
As we crawled and jerked and lurched forward into narrow openings, I became increasingly fascinated by the whole affair.
Especially because, in a place like Lima, cars and trucks are expensive and highly valued. And a commercial truck driver who damages the company truck would have hell to pay. But yet, on a daily basis the owners and operators of such conveyances enter them into the equivalent of a Demolition Derby, with the exception that, as far as I could tell, crashes were relatively few.
How could it be, I wondered as our driver jerked the wheel to cut off some codger struggling to retain control over their ancient fiat, that this can work? Why doesn’t the mayhem periodically degrade into a massive pile-up?
And then the beautiful truth revealed itself to me: It is in no one’s interest to have an accident. Therefore, despite the utter fail of the local infrastructure, the human ants - having to get to point A from point B regardless - simply set out and do all they can to avoid an accident along the way.
The result, in the case of this particular road in Lima, is the equivalent of a coursing mass of snakes slithering in and out of lanes, each careful to avoid the other as the slightest touch would result in all manner of unpleasantness, the least of which will be having to pull out of the flow to engage in a heated argument about whose fault the crash was.
Injuries, death, a fist fight, the loss of an essential method of transport, the outlay of cash for repairs, dealing with police, etc., etc. - it’s all readily within the realm of possibility following an accident.
And so, thanks to the miraculous power of the human mind, the drivers in Lima, and everywhere, do a series of near instantaneous calculations as to speed and distance -- including snap character assessments of complete strangers (will they dare it, or back off when I dare it?) -- and they do these calculations by the thousands as they wend their way through traffic.
Oddly, this came to mind earlier today on the golf course when my playing partner asked me how I thought the current trade spat with China would turn out.
As I see it, in the same way that people will do everything they can to avoid an accident, so will President Trump and Xi Jinping swerve before a crash results.
Why? Because successfully negotiating a fairer trade deal with China would all but secure a second term for Trump, and because a failure to make such a deal could have serious economic consequences for both countries.
As the chart shows, China has, by a wide margin, the biggest downside.
Therefore, despite all the bluster, in the end the two countries are almost certain to make a deal.
If I am right, then all of the stocks that have sold off our of fear of a trade war should be a very good speculation.
While there are unquestionably narrower ways to play a trade agreement, the Ishares MSCI China ETF (MCHI) will give you exposure to the broader Chinese market, and the largest companies in that market. As you can see, it has sold off quite a bit, which if I am right is akin to compressing a spring for a rebound.
Or, if you prefer to keep your money closer to home, you might consider buying into a US semiconductor ETF. The chart here shows the sell off in the ProShares Ultra Semiconductor ETF (USD).
If you have other ideas on how one might play the end of the posturing about a trade war, why not share them in the comments section below?
Since We’re Talking About Investing
I realized the other day that we probably had more cash in the bank than was prudent, so I consulted one of the best investors I know, my dear friend and business partner Olivier Garret and he steered me to Treasury Direct. It’s a government operated website that allows you to invest directly in treasury bills, bonds and other US government-back securities. So, at least until the zombie apocalypse, the money is safe and will generate around a 2.8% return. Peanuts, I know… but peanuts is better than zilch.
It doesn’t take overly long to set up an account, but, as many would expect, the website is about as clunky as can be. So, like a TSA line, a bit of patience is required. However, once your account is set up, you can directly bid on the treasury instruments you want, and set things up so that they will roll over automatically, and either reinvest your interest, or shuffle your returns into your bank account.
By laddering your bills, staggering the terms of your purchases, you will always have fresh cash showing up on a regular basis.
As far as the rest of the portfolio, while I have liked - and done pretty well with - deep value stocks, the reality I have learned is that sometimes stocks are deeply undervalued for a reason.
Case in point, McKesson (MCK). Here’s the chart.
Now, by conventional measures, at the time I invested in it the company was undervalued, yet it turned out to be one of my worse investments. What happened? Simply, McKesson, big fat cat in the medical delivery industry (they are a primary provider of medicines), is now squarely in the crosshairs of the disruptors. To wit, Amazon and some deep pocketed friends, including Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan, are moving the pieces around the board to change the game on how people receive essential drugs.
When I made our investment, the company was a lot better value, but ultimately the scales fell and I sold out with a rather handsome loss.
Pondering this, and as a result of working closely with my very smart partners and associates at RiskHedge.com, I came to the conclusion that, for the bulk of our portfolio, the only really intelligent investments these days are in disruptor companies. Not Amazon, Google, Netflix or any of the now behemoth disruptors, but the small cap disrupters with the intellectual property rights and world changing concepts destined to unseat the old guard.
These companies will, of course, have their ups and downs, but the transformative power of truly disruptive business models are so strong that, over time, the ones doing things right will succeed… and early investors do very, very well.
In that regard, look at the five year chart of Netflix (NFLX).
Great, right? Yet, there is compelling evidence that Netflix is about to have ithe pegs knocked out from under it.
For more on that topic, check out my RiskHedge.com associate Stephen McBride’s article on Forbes, which I think just shattered some record with over 3.5 million views.
And if you are so inclined, head over to RiskHedge.com and sign up for the free weekly e-letter, and consider signing up for a year’s subscription to Stephen’s new Disruption Investor research service. At the founder’s price of $49.00, it is a pretty amazing bargain.
While I am obviously biased, I put my money where my mouth is, and personally own almost all the recommendations the hard working team at Risk Hedge have made.
Until Next Our Paths Cross
I am happy to report that our extreme altitude wine business, Agustin Lanus Wines, is going extremely well, despite the rather dismal Argentine economy. Mainly because we have a unique product, and are focused on exporting, at the moment to China and soon the United Kingdom.
That is keeping me plenty busy, somewhat approaching the commitment of a full time job. While I used to think of dialing things back, the fact is that most mornings I jump out of bed eager to help expose the world to the advantages of extreme altitude wines. I have always enjoyed a good business challenge, and making headway in the overcrowded wine industry is very energizing.
FYI, there is a pretty simple reason extreme altitude wines are better. You see, all the good stuff in a wine - color, intensity and complexity of flavors, the ‘nose’... all come from the skin. To survive at an extreme altitude, and our vineyards are at 9,000 feet above sea level, the skins of the grapes must grow very thick.
The result is a beautiful wine full of flavor and polyphenols, which are among the best antioxidants, so there’s a health advantage too. If it’s of interest, you can learn more at www.AgustinLanusWines.com. Salud!
However, all work makes a dullard, so at the end of this week it’s wheels up for four days of golf in Scotland and Belfast, followed by visits to Exeter, Penzance and Dublin where we’ll have dinner with Stephen McBride and his lovely wife.
Until next time, I hope your trail leads you to happy destinations, and maybe even a dual life in two places you love.