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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!



 

No Justice For The Wicked

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Although the drumbeat continues, I remain skeptical as to whether any of the criminals responsible for causing the financial crisis will ever be brought to justice.  In the weeks before President Obama’s Inauguration, the foremost question on my mind was whether the new administration would take the necessary steps to change the culture of corruption on Wall Street:

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.

At that time, I also focused on the point made in a commentary by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn, which appeared in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

I concluded that piece with a rhetorical question:

Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?

By March 23, 2009, it had become obvious that our new President was more concerned about the “welfare” (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks than the well-being of the American economy.  I began my posting of that date with this statement:

We the people, who voted for Barack Obama, are about to get ripped off by our favorite Hope dealer.

On August 27 of that year, I wrote another piece expressing my disappointment with how things had (not) progressed.  My October 1, 2009 posting focused on the fact that H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.

After the release of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing the causes of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I lamented the fact that the mainstream media hadn’t shown much concern about the matter, despite the terrible fraud exposed in the report.  Nevertheless, by the next day, I was able to highlight some great commentaries on the Valukas Report and I felt optimistic enough to conclude the piece with this thought:

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.

If only  . . .

By the eve of the mid-term elections, I had an answer to the question I had posed on January 5, 2009 as to whether our new President and Congress would be up to the task of cleaning up Wall Street:

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
*   *   *
Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.

By the close of 2010, I noted that an expanding number of commentators shared my outrage over the likelihood that we would never see any prosecutions result from the crimes that brought about the financial crisis:

A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most recently, Matt Taibbi has written another great article for Rolling Stone entitled, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”.  It’s nice to know that the drumbeat for justice continues.  Taibbi’s essay provided a great history of the crisis, with a particular emphasis on how whistleblowers were ignored, just as Harry Markopolos was ignored when (in May of 2000) he tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  Here is a great passage from Matt Taibbi’s essay:

In the past few years, the administration has allocated massive amounts of federal resources to catching wrongdoers — of a certain type.  Last year, the government deported 393,000 people, at a cost of $5 billion.  Since 2007, felony immigration prosecutions along the Mexican border have surged 77 percent; nonfelony prosecutions by 259 percent.  In Ohio last month, a single mother was caught lying about where she lived to put her kids into a better school district; the judge in the case tried to sentence her to 10 days in jail for fraud, declaring that letting her go free would “demean the seriousness” of the offenses.

So there you have it.  Illegal immigrants:  393,000.  Lying moms:  one.  Bankers:  zero.  The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious.  You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players.  But for stealing a billion dollars?  For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure?  Pass.  It’s not a crime.  Prison is too harsh.  Get them to say they’re sorry, and move on.  Oh, wait — let’s not even make them say they’re sorry.  That’s too mean; let’s just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead.  But don’t make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don’t ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year.  What’s next?  Taxpayer-funded massages for every Wall Street executive guilty of fraud?

Wouldn’t it be nice if public opinion meant more to the Obama administration than campaign contributions from Wall Street banksters?