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More Great Thoughts from Jeremy Grantham

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I always look forward to Jeremy Grantham’s Quarterly Letter.  Grantham is the Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), an investment management firm, entrusted to oversee approximately $97 billion in client assets.

Unlike many asset managers, Jeremy Grantham has a social conscience.  As a result, during the past few years we have seen him direct some sharp criticism at President Obama, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and – of course – Goldman Sachs.  Grantham fell behind schedule when his Third Quarter 2011 Letter was delayed by over a month.  As a result, Grantham’s Fourth Quarter 2011 Letter was just released a few days ago.  At 15 pages, it earned the title “The Longest Quarterly Letter Ever”.  As usual, Grantham has provided us with some great investment insights – along with some pointed criticism of our ignorant legislators and mercenary corporate managers.  What follows are some selected passages.  Be sure to read the entire letter here (when you have time).

To leave it to capitalism to get us out of this fix by maximizing its short-term profits is dangerously naïve and misses the point: capitalism and corporations have absolutely no mechanism for dealing with these problems, and seen through a corporate discount rate lens, our grandchildren really do have no value.

To move from the problem of long time horizons to the short-term common good, it is quickly apparent that capitalism in general has no sense of ethics or conscience.  Whatever the Supreme Court may think, it is not a person.  Why would a company give up a penny for the common good if it is not required to by enforced regulation or unless it looked like that penny might be returned with profit in the future because having a good image might be good for business?  Ethical CEOs can drag a company along for a while, but this is an undependable and temporary fix.  Ethical humans can also impose their will on corporations singly or en masse by withholding purchases or bestowing them, and companies can anticipate this and even influence it through clever brand advertising, “clean coal” being my favorite.  But that is quite different from corporate altruism. Thus, we can roast our planet and firms may offer marvelous and profitable energy-saving equipment, but it will be for profit today, not planet saving tomorrow.

It gets worse, for what capitalism has always had is money with which to try to buy influence.  Today’s version of U.S. capitalism has died and gone to heaven on this issue. A company is now free to spend money to influence political outcomes and need tell no one, least of all its own shareholders, the technical owners.  So, rich industries can exert so much political influence that they now have a dangerous degree of influence over Congress.  And the issues they most influence are precisely the ones that matter most, the ones that are most important to society’s long-term well-being, indeed its very existence.  Thus, taking huge benefits from Nature and damaging it in return is completely free and all attempts at government control are fought with costly lobbying and advertising.  And one of the first victims in this campaign has been the truth.  If scientific evidence suggests costs and limits be imposed on industry to protect the long-term environment, then science will be opposed by clever disinformation.

*   *   *

Capitalism certainly acts as if it believes that rapid growth in physical wealth can go on forever.  It appears to be hooked on high growth and avoids any suggestion that it might be slowed down by limits.  Thus, it exhibits horror at the thought (and occasional reality) of declining population when in fact such a decline is an absolute necessity in order for us to end up gracefully, rather than painfully, at a fully sustainable world economy.  Similarly with natural resources, capitalism wants to eat into these precious, limited resources at an accelerating rate with the subtext that everyone on the planet has the right to live like the wasteful polluting developed countries do today.  You don’t have to be a PhD mathematician to work out that if the average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is cooked, along with most other things.  Indeed, scientists calculate that if they caught up, we would need at least three planets to be fully sustainable.  But few listen to scientists these days.  So, do you know how many economic theories treat resources as if they are finite?  Well, the researchers at the O.E.C.D say “none” – that no such theory exists.  Economic theory either ignores this little problem or assumes you reach out and take the needed resources given the normal workings of supply and demand and you can do it indefinitely.  This is a lack of common sense on a par with “rational expectations,” that elegant theory that encouraged the ludicrous faith in deregulation and the wisdom of free markets, which brought us our recent financial fiascos.  But this failure in economic theory – ignoring natural limits – risks far more dangerous outcomes than temporary financial crashes.

*   *   *

As described above, the current U.S. capitalist system appears to contain some potentially fatal flaws.  Therefore, we should ask what it would take for our system to evolve in time to save our bacon.  Clearly, a better balance with regulations would be a help. This requires reasonably enlightened regulations, which are unlikely to be produced until big money’s influence in Congress, and particularly in elections, decreases.  This would necessitate legal changes all the way up to the Supreme Court.  It’s a long haul, but a handful of other democratic countries in northern Europe have been successful, and with the stakes so high we have little alternative but to change our ways.

*   *   *

Capitalism, by ignoring the finite nature of resources and by neglecting the long-term well-being of the planet and its potentially crucial biodiversity, threatens our existence.  Fifty and one-hundred-year horizons are important despite the “tyranny of the discount rate,” and grandchildren do have value. My conclusion is that capitalism does admittedly do a thousand things better than other systems:  it only currently fails in two or three.  Unfortunately for us all, even a single one of these failings may bring capitalism down and us with it.

Keep in mind that the foregoing passages were just from Part II of the Quarterly Letter.  Part III is focused on “Investment Observations for the New Year”.  Be sure to check it out – it’s not as bearish as you might expect.  Enjoy!



 

Latest Obama Cave-in Is Likely To Further Erode His Base

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Well, he did it again.  Despite the fact that President Obama had vowed to veto the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows for indefinite detention of American citizens without trial, the White House announced that the President will breach yet another promise and sign the controversial bill.

Jeremy Herb at The Hill reported on the administration’s concern that if Obama were to veto the bill, there might not have been enough votes in Congress to prevent an override of that veto.  In other words:  Obama was afraid of being embarrassed.  The report noted the defensive language contained in the official White House spin, to the effect that some minor changes in wording were made to satisfy the President:

The White House backed down from its veto threat of the defense authorization bill Wednesday, saying that the bill’s updated language would not constrain the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

*   *   *

The administration won some changes in conference committee, which wrapped up Monday, including the addition of a clause stating that FBI and local law enforcement counterterrorism activities would not be altered by the law.

Big deal.  Let the outrage begin!  At the Huffington Post, Michael McAuliff noted that the President had already decided to back down on his veto threat before the House of Representatives passed the bill:

The switch came just before the House voted 283-136 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act despite impassioned opposition that crossed party lines, with Democrats splitting on the bill and more than 40 Republicans opposing it.  Numerous national security experts and civil liberties advocates had argued that the indefinite detention measure enshrines recent, questionable investigative practices that are contrary to fundamental American rights.

At the Human Rights Watch website, no punches were pulled in their criticism of Obama’s latest betrayal of those very principles his supporters expected him to advance:

The Obama administration had threatened to veto the bill, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), over detainee provisions, but on December 14, 2011, issued a statement indicating the president would likely sign the legislation.

“By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.  “In the past, Obama has lauded the importance of being on the right side of history, but today he is definitely on the wrong side.”

*   *   *

The far-reaching detainee provisions would codify indefinite detention without trial into US law for the first time since the McCarthy era when Congress in 1950 overrode the veto of then-President Harry Truman and passed the Internal Security Act.

*   *   *

“It is a sad moment when a president who has prided himself on his knowledge of and belief in constitutional principles succumbs to the politics of the moment to sign a bill that poses so great a threat to basic constitutional rights,” Roth said.

Many people might not know that quantitative equity research analyst and former hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz (author of Bailout Nation) is an alumnus of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, where he served on the Law Review, and graduated Cum Laude with a 3.56 GPA.  Here are some of the recent comments made by Mr. Ritholtz concerning the National Defense Authorization Act:

While this is shocking, it is not occurring in a vacuum.  Indeed, it is part of a 30 year-long process of militarization inside our borders and a destruction of the American concepts of limited government and separation of powers.

*   *   *

Other Encroachments On Civil Rights Under Obama

As bad as Bush was, the truth is that, in many ways, freedom and constitutional rights are under attack even more than during the Bush years.

For example:

Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history – even more so than Nixon.

*   *   *

Furthermore – as hard as it is for Democrats to believe – the disinformation and propaganda campaigns launched by Bush have only increased under Obama.  See this and this.

And as I pointed out last year:

According to Department of Defense training manuals, protest is considered “low-level terrorism”.  And see this, this and this.

An FBI memo also labels peace protesters as “terrorists”.

At his blog, The Big Picture, Ritholtz made these points in a December 3 argument against the passage of this bill:

You might assume – in a vacuum – that this might be okay (even though it trashes the Constitution, the separation of military and police actions, and the division between internal and external affairs).

But it is dangerous in a climate where you can be labeled as or suspected of being a terrorist simply for questioning war, protesting anything, asking questions about pollution or about Wall Street shenanigans, supporting Ron Paul, being a libertarian, holding gold, or stocking up on more than 7 days of food.  And see this.

Once again, President Obama has breached a promise to his supporters out of fear that he could be embarrassed in a showdown with Congress.  Worse yet, Obama has acted to subvert the Constitutional right of Due Process simply because he wants to avoid the shame of a veto override.  As many commentators have observed, George W. Bush was not plagued by any such weakness and he went on to push a good number of controversial initiatives through Congress – most notably the Iraq War Resolution.  I find it surprising that so many of President Obama’s important decisions have been motivated by a fear of embarrassment, while at the same time he has exhibited no concern about exposing such timidity to both his allies and his opponents – wherever they may be.


 

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