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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!



 

Hillary Throws A Tupperware Party

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While reading through Saturday’s Links at the Naked Capitalism website, I came across a posting by Jane Hamsher entitled, “Hillary Clinton Hosts ‘Iraq Opportunities’ Party For War Profiteers”.  I was reminded that a war, initiated under the pretext of finding Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”, was really all about creating “Iraq Opportunities”.  Using the “good cop / bad cop” routine, the “bad cops” of our One-Party System (the “Republican” branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party) promoted a war, which the “good cop” Democrat branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party claimed it was “forced” to support.  Just because Saddam wasn’t really stockpiling any weapons of mass destruction, doesn’t mean we can’t find any “Iraq Opportunities”.

Sure, there’s been a “changing of the guard” since the Iraq war began, but a look at the guest list for Hillary’s “Iraq Opportunities Party” will reveal the identities of some corporations, which expect to benefit from the expenditure of human lives and trillions of taxpayer dollars on the Iraq war effort.  Of course, Halliburton and KBR were invited to send some partygoers to the fete.  But don’t forget – the Obama Administration has been in charge for over two years  . . . so Alex von Sponek of Goldman Sachs was on the guest list.  As you can imagine, a Tupperware Party just wouldn’t be a Tupperware Party without a representative from Tupperware in attendance.  Accordingly, Rick Goins, the company’s CEO, received an invitation.

News of this event confirmed my worst suspicions about the Iraq war.  I wasn’t simply reacting to what Jane Hamsher had to say about Hillary’s Tupperware Party:

As Congress launches a bipartisan PR campaign to stay in Iraq forever, the White House throws a corporate looting party.

Ben White of Politico described the event as an expansion of Wall Street’s tentacles:

FIRST LOOK:  WALL STREET IN IRAQ? – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides (formerly chief administrative officer at Morgan Stanley) will host a group of corporate executives at State this morning as part of the Iraq Business Roundtable.  Corporate executives from approximately 30 major U.S. companies – including financial firms Citigroup, JPMorganChase and Goldman Sachs – will join U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss economic opportunities in the new Iraq.

While most of us have been conditioned to think of the Iraq War as a product of the neoconservative agenda, several commentators have discussed the role of neoliberalism as a motivator for the invasion of Iraq.  In a great essay entitled, “On Neoliberalism”, Sherry Ortner of the Anthropology Of This Century website, discussed the role of what Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, called “disaster capitalism” in bringing us to that moment of “shock and awe”:

If social or natural disasters do not offer themselves up, Klein shows convincingly that they will be manufactured, the war in Iraq being the latest case in point.  Let us follow the Iraq war thread into David Harvey’s 2007 book, A Short History of Neo-Liberalism, where it is his opening example.   Like Klein, Harvey sees “the management and manipulation of crises” (p. 162), whether floods, wars, or financial melt-downs, as part and parcel of establishing the neoliberal agenda.  And like Klein, he provides abundant evidence to show that the war in Iraq was a crisis manufactured to “impose by main force on Iraq… a state apparatus whose fundamental mission was to facilitate conditions for profitable capital accumulation”(p. 7).

Harvey offers a clear definition of neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has four main pillars:  1) the “privatization and commodification” of public goods; 2) “financialization,” in which any kind of good (or bad) can be turned into an instrument of economic speculation; 3) the “management and manipulation of crises” (as above); and 4) “state redistribution,” in which the state becomes an agent of the upward redistribution of wealth (159-164 passim).

Harvey places particular emphasis on the last point, the upward redistribution of wealth.  He takes issue with other writers who argue that the enormous growth of social inequality since the beginnings of neoliberalization in the 1970s is an unfortunate by-product of what is otherwise a sound economic theory.  Instead Harvey sees the vast enrichment of an upper class of capital owners and managers at the expense of everyone else as an intrinsic part of the neoliberal agenda:  “Redistributive effects and increasing social inequality have in fact been such a persistent feature of neoliberalization as to be regarded as structural to the whole project.” (p. 16).

The only real surprise to me was the revelation that the elite “upper class of capital owners and managers” likes to attend Tupperware parties.


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