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More Wisdom From Jeremy Grantham

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One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently discussed some of the prescient essays of Jeremy Grantham, who manages over $100 billion as chief executive of an asset management firm – GMO.  Paul Farrell reminded us that Grantham warned of the impending financial crisis in July of 2007, which came as a surprise to those vested with the responsibility of paying attention to such advice.  As Farrell pointed out:

Our nation’s leaders are in denial, want happy talk, bull markets, can’t even see the crash coming, even though the warnings were everywhere for years. Why the denial?  Grantham hit the nail on the head:  Our leaders are “management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget and are somewhat impatient.”

Paul Farrell is warning of an “inevitable crash that is coming possibly just before the Presidential election in 2012”.  He incorporated some of Grantham’s rationale in his own discussion about how and why this upcoming crash will come as another surprise to those who are supposed to help us avoid such things:

Most business, banking and financial leaders are short-term thinkers, focused on today’s trades, quarterly earnings and annual bonuses.  Long-term historical thinking is a low priority.

Paul Farrell’s article was apparently written in anticipation of the release of Jeremy Grantham’s latest Quarterly Letter at the conclusion of the first quarter of 2011.  Grantham’s newest discourse is entitled, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”.  The theme is best summed-up by these points from the “summary” section:

  • From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives.  This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
  • We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies.  There is little time to waste.

After applying some common sense and simple mathematics to the bullish expectations of immeasurable growth ahead, Grantham obviously upset many people with this sober observation:

Rapid growth is not ours by divine right; it is not even mathematically possible over a sustained period.  Our goal should be to get everyone out of abject poverty, even if it necessitates some income redistribution.  Because we have way overstepped sustainable levels, the greatest challenge will be in redesigning lifestyles to emphasize quality of life while quantitatively reducing our demand levels.

We have all experienced the rapid spike in commodity prices:  more expensive gas at the pump, higher food prices and widespread cost increases for just about every consumer item.  Many economists and other commentators have blamed the Federal Reserve’s ongoing program of quantitative easing for keeping interest rates so low that the enthusiasm for speculation on commodities has been enhanced, resulting in skyrocketing prices.  Surprisingly, Grantham is not entirely on board with that theory:

The Monetary Maniacs may ascribe the entire move to low interest rates.  Now, even I know that low rates can have a large effect, at least when combined with moral hazard, on the movement of stocks, but in the short term, there is no real world check on stock prices and they can be, and often are, psychologically flakey.  But commodities are made and bought by serious professionals for whom today’s price is life and death. Realistic supply and demand really is the main influence.

Grantham demonstrated that most of the demand pressure on commodities is being driven by China.  This brings us to his latest prediction and dire warning:

The significance here is that given China’s overwhelming influence on so many commodities, especially in terms of the percentage China represents of new growth in global demand, any general economic stutter in China can mean very big declines in some of their prices.

You can assess on your own the probabilities of a stumble in the next year or so.  At the least, I would put it at 1 in 4, while some of my colleagues think the odds are much higher.  If China stumbles or if the weather is better than expected, a probability I would put at, say, 80%, then commodity prices will decline a lot.  But if both events occur together, it will very probably break the commodity markets en masse.  Not unlike the financial collapse.  That was a once in a lifetime opportunity as most markets crashed by over 50%, some much more, and then roared back.

Modesty should prevent me from quoting from my own July 2008 Quarterly Letter, which covered the first crash.

*   *   *

In the next decade, the prices of all raw materials will be priced as just what they are, irreplaceable.  If the weather and China syndromes strike together, it will surely produce the second “once in a lifetime” event in three years.

For the near-term, we appear to be in an awful double-bind:  either we get crushed by increasing commodity prices – or – commodities will become plentiful and cheap, causing the world economy to crash once again.  It won’t bother Wall Street at all, because The Ben Bernank and “Turbo” Tim will be ready and willing to provide abundant bailouts – again, at taxpayer expense.


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Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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