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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!



 

An Army Of Lobbyists For The Middle Class

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Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee this week to testify about the Fed’s monetary policy.  Scot Kersgaard of The American Independent focused our attention on a five-minute exchange between Colorado Senator Michael Bennett and The Ben Bernank, with an embedded video clip.  Senator Bennett asked Bernanke to share his opinions concerning the recommendations made by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission.  Bernanke initially attempted to dodge the question with the disclaimer that the Fed’s authority extends to only monetary policy rather than fiscal policy – such as the work conducted by the deficit commission.  If Congressman Ron Paul had been watching the hearing take place, I’m sure he had a good, hard laugh at that statement.  Nevertheless, Bernanke couldn’t restrain himself from concurring with the effort to place the cost of Wall Street’s larceny on the backs of middle-class taxpayers.

The chant for “entitlement reform” continues to reverberate throughout the mainstream media as it has for the past year.  Last May, economist Dean Baker exposed this latest effort toward upward wealth redistribution:

Emboldened by the fact that none of them have gone to jail for their role in the financial crisis, the Wall Street gang is now gunning for Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important safety net programs. Led by investment banker Pete Peterson, this crew is spending more than a billion dollars to convince the public that slashing these programs is the only way to protect our children and grandchildren from poverty.

A key propaganda tactic used by the “entitlement reform” crusaders is to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement” even though it is not (as I discussed here).  Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”, wrote a great essay, which refuted the claim that Social Security is “broken” while explaining why it is not an “entitlement”.  Unfortunately, there are very few politicians who are willing to step forward to provide the simple explanation that Social Security is not an entitlement.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently made a statement to that effect before a senior citizens’ group in East Haven, Connecticut – without really providing an explanation why it is not an entitlement.  Susan Feiner wrote a great commentary on the subject last fall for womensenews.org.  Here is some of what she said:

Moreover, Social Security is not an entitlement program as it’s paid for entirely by payroll taxes.  It is an insurance program, not an entitlement. Not one penny of anyone’s Social Security comes out of the federal government’s general fund.

Social Security is, by law, wholly self-financing.  It has no legal authority to borrow, so it never has.

If this incredibly successful and direly needed program hasn’t ever borrowed a dime, why is the president and his hand-picked commissioners putting Social Security cuts (and/or increases in the retirement age) in the same sentence as deficit reduction?

The attempt to mischaracterize Social Security as an “entitlement” is not a “Right vs. Left” dispute —  It’s a class warfare issue.  There have been commentaries from across the political spectrum emphasizing the same fact:  Social Security is not an “entitlement”.  The assertion has appeared on the conservative patriotsteaparty.net website, the DailyKos on the Left and in a piece by independent commentator, Marti Oakley.

The battle for “entitlement reform” is just one front in the larger war being waged by Wall Street against the middle class.  Kevin Drum discussed this conflict in a recent posting at his Plutocracy Now blog for Mother Jones:

It’s about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms.  With that gone, the response to every new crisis and every new change in the economic landscape has inevitably pointed in the same direction.  And after three decades, the cumulative effect of all those individual responses is an economy focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance.  In theory, that’s supposed to produce rapid economic growth that serves us all, and 30 years of free-market evangelism have convinced nearly everyone — even middle-class voters who keep getting the short end of the economic stick — that the policy preferences of the business community are good for everyone.  But in practice, the benefits have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch made this observation on March 1:

Wall Street’s corrupt banks have lost their moral compass … their insatiable greed has become a deadly virus destroying its host nation … their campaign billions buy senate votes, stop regulators’ actions, manipulate presidential decisions.  Wall Street money controls voters, runs America, both parties.  Yes, Wall Street is bankrupting America.

Wake up America, listen:

  • “Our country is bankrupt.  It’s not bankrupt in 30 years or five years,” warns economist Larry Kotlikoff, “it’s bankrupt today.”
  • Economist Peter Morici:  “Capitalism is broken, America’s government is two bankrupt political parties bankrupting the country.”
  • David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director:  “If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians” the “tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.”
  • BusinessWeek recently asked analyst Mary Meeker to run the numbers.  How bad is it? America really is bankrupt, with a “net worth of a negative $44 trillion.” Bankrupt.

And it will get worse.  Unfortunately, nothing can stop America’s self-destructive Wall Street bankers.  They simply do not care that their “doomsday capitalism” is destroying themselves from within, and is bankrupting America too.

On February 21, I quoted a statement made by bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO, which included this thought:

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.

That essay by Bill Gross became the subject of an article by Terrence Keeley of Bloomberg News.  Mr. Keeley’s reaction to the suggestions made by Bill Gross was this:

To redeem Wall Street’s soul, radical solutions are clearly needed, but advocating the eradication of profit-based markets that have served humanity well on balance without a viable replacement is fanciful. Gross deserves an “A” for intent — but something more practical than a “heart transplant” is required to restore trust and efficacy to our banking system.

*   *   *

But an economy based on something other than profit risks misery and injustice of another sort.  The antibodies now needed aren’t those that negate profitability.  Rather, they are the ones that bind financial engineering to value creation and advancement of society.

Perhaps the most constructive solution to the problem is my suggestion from February 10:  Recruit and employ an army of lobbyists to represent and advance the interests of the middle class on Capitol Hill.  Some type of non-partisan, “citizens’ lobby” could be created as an online community.  Once its lobbying goals are developed and articulated, an online funding drive would begin.  The basic mission would be to defend middle-class taxpayers from the tyranny of the plutocracy that is destroying not just the middle class – but the entire nation.  Fight lobbyists with lobbyists!


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