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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!



 

Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  Back in November of 2010, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


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