The Financial Fire Trucks Are Gathering
"It will therefore be crucial that you see the world anew. That means looking from the outside in to reanalyze much that you have probably taken for granted. This will enable you to come to an understanding. If you fail to transcend conventional thinking at a time when conventional thinking is losing touch with reality, then you will be more likely to fall prey to an epidemic of disorientation that lies ahead. Disorientation breeds mistakes that could threaten your business, your investments and your way of life." -- James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg, The Sovereign Individual, 1997
The economic news just continues to be bad. New unemployment claims were over 529,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis. The "real" number was 606,877 lost jobs. New home sales were off by another 5% and down 40% from a year ago, as builders slash inventories. The Chicago Purchasing Manager index came in at 33.8, the weakest number since the serious recession of 1982. The national number due next Monday will be just as ugly, as durable goods were down far more than expected, by a negative 6.2%. But it is Thanksgiving weekend, and not a time for gloom. In this week's letter I am going to talk about why we should be optimistic about the future. Things will turn around. I will also make a few comments about the latest stimulus package.
As I will be moving my home this weekend, I am writing this letter early. I am going to use material from two previous letters, which I think will help give us perspective. The first is a personal anecdote from last Thanksgiving (2007), as a lead-in to comments on whether the Fed's latest monetizing action will end up spurring inflation; and then the second is part of an essay I did for my last book, Just One Thing, edited and updated.
A Thanksgiving Fire Drill
Last Thursday (2007), we sat down for a massive Thanksgiving dinner at my 21st-floor apartment in Dallas. All seven kids, my 90-year-old mother, and an assortment of friends and relatives (about 15 of us) started to work on a 16-pound prime rib, 18-pound turkey, and massive amounts of potatoes, mushrooms, and lots more. Grace was said, the wine was poured, and we were feeling good about life.
And then about 15 minutes into the meal, the fire alarm went off, telling us to evacuate. This was annoying, as it seemed like we have had a false alarm at least once every few weeks in the past few months. So, we did what we have done in the past and ignored the alarm. After all, this is a modern structure (only 4 years old) with fire sprinklers everywhere. We assumed that someone had a grease fire in their kitchen that would quickly be put out.
But the alarm kept sounding quite loudly, which did tend to interrupt conversation. As my dining room table is near the floor-to-ceiling window, we tended to look out when we heard sirens. And sure enough, the fire truck pulled up alongside the building. "Good," we said, "they will get that grease fire under control." And we continued eating and drinking, although with a heightened sense of concern. Fires in apartment buildings are not to be taken too lightly. People do die from them.
And then a second and a third fire truck parked underneath the window. That was a tad disconcerting, but surely they were just making sure that there was adequate back-up. It was when the 8th truck pulled up within a few minutes that I began to get more than a tad concerned. They were pulling hoses and running around very quickly.
At that point, we started trying to figure out how to leave; but how do we get a 90-year-old fragile lady down 21 flights of stairs? We spent a moment pondering that, and then my youngest son came back into the apartment to report that he could smell smoke a few floors down in the stairwell. Well, that was not good. #2 son said to come to his window at the back of the apartment, where we looked out and could see a rather significant amount of smoke coming from the 2nd and 3rd floors. No, this was not good at all. No one was panicking, but we began to think about how to get us down the stairwell and soon.
And then I got a call from a friend who was late coming to dinner. "The fire marshal told me that you have to get out of there NOW!" All this in just a few short minutes, mind you.
So, we started to move to the stairs. Fortunately, there were two rather big, strong young men at dinner (one was my oldest son and the other was a boyfriend who was just back from a tour in the army, but both chiseled out of granite). After several attempts, we decided that taking mother down piggyback would be the best. The young men took turns carrying her.
At first, I still thought it was overkill, but as we got to the 16th floor the smoke in the staircase was very apparent. By the 12th floor it was hard to breathe, and at the 7th floor the smoke was too thick to go on. One of the kids opened the hall door and went and checked the next stairwell, which was freer of smoke. So we changed exits and got out to the street, smelling of smoke - but we were all safe.
It seems some idiot must have tossed a cigarette down the trash chute and started a fire in what is a rather large trash collection bin for hundreds of apartments on the bottom two floors. The fire should have been contained, but the concern was that if anyone had left a trash-chute door open, the fire could have easily spread to a higher-level floor.
And what about the modern fire sprinklers in the trash collection area - the ones I was relying on? They inexplicably did not go off in the trash bin, allowing the fire to blaze on garbage and grease; but the heat rising set off the sprinklers in the trash chutes on higher floors, causing a lot of smoke as the water fell onto the trash, with the smoke escaping into the stairwells.
But all was not lost. It seemed that three of us grabbed a bottle of wine and glasses as we left! ("Train up a child in the way he should go...") So, we sat outside and waited, sipping on a brilliant chardonnay and a full-bodied cabernet for an hour or so until the very professional firemen cleared the building of smoke and let us back up, where we finished dinner, with lots of stories to tell. And my middle daughter had her ten seconds of fame, as she made national news. It was more excitement than any previous Thanksgiving, and one we will talk about for years.
The Financial Fire Trucks Are Gathering
Last year I wrote, after the above story: "I rather think the stock market is acting like we did at dinner. When the alarms go off, we note that we have heard them several times over the past few months, and there has never been a real fire. Sure, we had a credit crisis in August, but the Fed came to the rescue. Yes, the subprime market is nonexistent. And the housing market is in free-fall. But the economy is weathering the various crises quite well. Wasn't GDP at an almost inexplicably high 4.9% last quarter, when we were in the middle of the credit crisis? And Abu Dhabi injects $7.5 billion in capital into Citigroup, setting the market's mind at ease. All is well. So party on like it's 1999.
"However, I think when we look out the window from the lofty market heights, we see a few fire trucks starting to gather, and those sirens are telling us that more are on the way. There is smoke coming from the building. Attention must be paid."
I had been pounding the table for over a year to get out of the stock market. All of the signs of upheaval were there. And now many portfolios are down by 50%. And the fire of a credit crisis is blazing all around us. The firemen in the form of the Fed, the US Treasury, and central banks all over the world are trying to put it out.
And while the stock market may enjoy a serious rally over the next few months, we are not out of the woods. The fire is still raging and we are witnessing ever-more aggressive attempts to get the fire of the credit and housing crisis under control.
Yesterday the Treasury announced yet another huge $800 billion bailout, but this one has a different flavor. Much of the previous bailout money has come from the Treasury either borrowing money and buying assets (which does not create new dollars) or simply taking assets onto the national balance sheet, guaranteeing the debt. With this latest move, the Fed is going to buy $600 billion in mortgage bonds by monetizing, or creating, new dollars.
Normally this would set off more alarm bells, over worries about inflation. But these are not normal times. With the twin bubbles of the credit and housing crises still imploding, we are seeing a massive deleveraging and the disappearance of multiple trillions of dollars from consumers and businesses. And the bond market clearly expects more softening and maybe even deflation. The 10-year bond is below 3%. I wrote 10 years ago that we could see the 30-year US bond below 3% by the end of this decades-long cycle, which we began in the early '80s with Paul Volker.
As I wrote last April, the velocity of money (how fast a dollar moves through the economy) is slowing rather dramatically. It could fall another 10% and just get back to the average for the last 107 years. Given the growth in population, inflation, productivity, and other factors, the money supply will need to grow by 7% annually for the next several years to keep the economy at equilibrium. Remember, GDP (gross domestic product) is essentially the velocity of money times the supply of money. If the velocity slows down, the money supply needs to rise just to stay even.
The Fed is going to have some room to pump up the money supply without seeing inflation rise precipitously. I think this is the first of what will be several large injections, as they will keep it up until the economy begins to recover. They will especially do more if it looks like we could roll over into a deflationary environment next year. I will be writing more about this in the coming months.
And now, the beginning of my essay in Just One Thing (written three years ago, but still quite timely!).
The Millennium Wave
Over the next ten to twelve years, we will see three recessions that will slowly move the average price-to-earnings ratio of stocks to historic lows. Rising oil and energy prices will be a main culprit of both the slowdown in the economy and an increase in inflation. Ever-increasing monetary inflation will, in fact, trigger a huge increase in all commodity prices, as well as a decline in bonds. Asset inflation will show up in the housing markets as home values continue to skyrocket. The dollar will continue to weaken against major foreign currencies. The current war will become increasingly unpopular, and the next administration will be forced to withdraw troops, under the guise of declaring victory. The American voting public will be split as never before, with major patterns in voting habits making a generational change. The newspapers will continue to write about how an Asian country will dominate the world economically in less than a few decades.
Following this period of malaise, there will be an amazing cycle of new technical innovation that will spark yet another major bull market. The new technologies will change the world in ways that simply cannot now be imagined and will lead to whole new industries, putting amazing new power and abilities into the hands of individuals and governments.
The preceding scenario would, in fact, all come to pass. Except that the year that was written was 1970, and not 2005. The forces that have changed the world in the decades following 1970 were only foreseen in science fiction and a few obscure books and journals. Who dreamed of the Internet in 1970? Who could envision that the Berlin Wall would come down in 1989? That Japan would not, in fact, dominate the world of economics and overwhelm the United States? Or that the China of Mao would become a capitalistic growth machine, and that the USSR would break up? A personal computer on every desk and more computing power in an automobile than existed in the largest computers of the time? A globalized world economy? The prospect that a falling population (and not overcrowding) would be a problem, or that a Green Revolution would mean enough food for all (except where governments kept out a free market)?
In the 1970s, the mood of the country was decidedly negative. Japan was eroding our manufacturing base and unemployment was increasing. Reagan spoke of the Misery Index, which was a combination of inflation and unemployment, in his race against Jimmy Carter.
And yet it all changed. In fact, the one constant in the modern world is that the pace of change is accelerating.
In his groundbreaking book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler depicted the First Wave as the agricultural revolution, the Second Wave as the industrial revolution, and the Third Wave as the electronic data and communication revolution. He depicted a society that would be working in "electronic hamlets," sending their daily work over "electronic highways" to "virtual places of business."
Written twenty-five years ago, The Third Wave was an amazingly prescient book. Toffler saw a world of mass customization, with government and business interwoven and a world filled with ambiguity and change. Although some suggest that we're still in the middle of Toffler's Third Wave, I would suggest that what we are facing is different in both substance and character.
The Third Wave was actually the result of an innovation cycle that we can call the Information Age. I believe we are only halfway through the Information Age, with more profound changes as to how we work and play just around the corner.
But this time something is different. Instead of one wave of innovation following another, I believe that we are going to see multiple waves of significant change and innovation surge all over the world at roughly the same time. The combined effects are going to produce a period of change unlike anything seen in the history of man.
I call the combination of these factors the Millennium Wave. It will change things in ways that almost defy the imagination and at a pace that will leave one breathless. On the one hand, the Millennium Wave will be seen as a source of good, as we will live healthier and longer and there will be more of the basic necessities of life and more life options. On the other hand, the very ground we walk on will seem like it is shifting. The roadmap we have in our minds for our future will require a constant fine tuning (if not major reprogramming) in order to determine our position.
The more precisely you plan your future, the harder that change will hit you. Flexibility will be the order of the day. To paraphrase the prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous, "Please grant me the knowledge of what will change, the understanding of what will not change, and the wisdom to understand the difference."
As I pondered the question I put to the other writers in this book, "What is the one thing you have learned that you want to pass on?" I came to realize that the key talent in the future would be the ability to deal with the tremendous technological and cultural changes that are coming at an ever-increasing pace, while developing an understanding of how those changes will evolve in the age-old patterns of life. There are patterns that change very slowly or cycle or trend. Learning how all these patterns fit together with the changes of the Millennium Wave is at the heart of not just the investment enterprise, but modern life in general.
But let's deal with the investment enterprise first. Anyone familiar with the research on the psychology of investing knows that it points to the overwhelming conclusion that the broad class of investors (which does not include you or me, of course) consistently assumes that the current trend will continue long into the future.
They may give lip service to believing things will change, they may constantly worry about changing trends, but they do not invest that way. The late and deservedly famous economist Herbert Stein taught us the simple concept, "An unsustainable trend will not be sustained." And yet investors (and indeed all humans on almost every level) allow the current trend to be the primary force in their vision of the future. As Mark Finn noted in Chapter 5, we use past performance, even when we know we shouldn't, to be the guide in picking our future investments.
Investors all too often rationalize their actions with the mantra of "this time it's different" or assume they will be able to nimbly react to or avoid the affects of the change when it happens. It never is and they hardly ever do.
My personal career path has been one of almost constant change. Yet it is but an echo of a million other entrepreneurs and businessmen and women. We all deal with change. In fact, the amount of change that I have had to deal with is rather unremarkable, in the grand scheme of things. There are millions - perhaps billions - of people who go through far more abrupt changes almost daily.
How well we deal with life (not just our investments!) in the next 20-30 years is going to be directly related to how well we deal with what will be an accelerating rate of change.
My personal experience of continuing change will be echoed throughout the world. Some of the changes were forced upon me. Some of them I willingly embraced. I told friends on the occasion of several of these changes that I hoped this was the last time I would have to "reinvent" myself. I succumb to the fantasy that most investors share: that the trend of today will continue. And yet, I know that this is not likely. The field in which I plow and reap is changing under my feet, and it is unlikely that in ten years it will even look the same.
When I began my career thirty years ago, there was no fax, no overnight delivery, and phone service was expensive. Computers? Not until twenty years ago, and they were toys compared to today's machines. It cost a lot of money to deliver a newsletter up until just a few years ago. Now the marginal cost is almost nothing. One or one million is pretty much the same to me.
Research was a visit to the library, in addition to a personal collection of books and a few magazines and newsletters. Now I get scores of letters and articles every day delivered to my "mailbox," plus an almost infinite amount of data at my fingertips using something called Google. I have almost five gigabytes of research and articles stored from just the past few years on my computer, which I can search with a few strokes. To write an eight- to ten-page weekly letter as I do would have taken a week, plus a month of research, just a decade ago. Now I can access huge amounts of data each week, and I write my weekly letter on a computer in about five hours on a Friday afternoon. (I read where they will soon have pills that will help our memories. I am going to need them.)
International readers? Very few ever graced my musings in the last decade. Now, I have tens of thousands of international readers, often in some amazingly remote locations.
In short, the changes have been dramatic. At times, I complain, it has been hard to adjust. A lot of times those changes were just plain not fun. Some of them were very expensive lessons. Yet, I continue on down my current business path. But I know that change is coming. Change is like a train. It can either run over you, or you can catch it to the future.
But I can hear that peasant from China, as he follows an ox on the way to the city, telling me I can't even begin to imagine the speed of change. Think about the changes in China and Russia or other parts of the developing world in the last ten years. My less-than-sainted Dad last hitched a wagon to drive to town in the 1920s. He saw a man put on the moon with a slide rule, a yellow pad, and pencils forty years later. That pace of change has only increased.
In 1967, the movie The Graduate was the hit of the season. We remember that famous scene where a young Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) was told to seek a career in plastics. That was the rage at the time. But it turns out that was bad advice. Over 40 percent of jobs in plastics have disappeared since 1967.
And yet, there has been plenty of job growth. There were clearly better opportunities than plastics. Princeton Professor Alan Krueger tells us a quarter of all workers are now in occupations that were not listed in the Census Bureau's occupation codes in 1967. In 1967, if asked where the jobs and opportunities were going to come from, the proper and correct answer would have been, "I don't know, but they will." That was the correct answer in the malaise years of 1976-80. It is still the correct answer today.
Personal computers were yet a dream. AT&T was still a monopoly. Fiber optics? The Internet? Cell phones? Robotics? Biotech? Global positioning? Faxes? Video? MP3? Computer-aided design? They didn't exist.
In less than 30 years, we will look back at the changes that are still in our future and realize they were far, even vastly, more revolutionary than what we have seen in the last 30. But just as in 1975, when it would be hard to imagine the coming changes, in 2005 it is even harder to imagine what 2035 will be. We delude ourselves into thinking we know, but we really don't. Many of the truly amazing inventions we will enjoy in the future are still not even on a drawing board or in a garage.
There is plenty of entrepreneurial activity in the world, and the foundation for future large companies that will reward their investors is even now being laid. The driver for the next Microsoft, eBay, or Amgen will be the new opportunities brought about by the pace of change.
[Update in late 2008: within the last six months I have talked with two different researchers who believe they are on track for an altogether new form of power production, which would be cleaner and far cheaper than anything we have today. I have also interviewed another inventor who has patented a process which reduces by as much as 20% the electrical energy used in many of our electrical devices. And there are tens of thousands of inventors who are working on such breathtaking ideas. If only a few succeed....?]
What kind of pace of change are we talking about? Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of speech recognition, scanners, music synthesizers, and many other technical marvels, has a team of ten who track the progress of technology and predict where it will be in ten or twenty or one hundred years. He is an unabashed enthusiast when it comes to thinking about the future. It helps that he has been right so far, so it behooves us to pay attention when he notes (this was written in 2001):
"The first technological steps - sharp edges, fire, the wheel - took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the nineteenth century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the nineteenth century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The World Wide Web did not exist in anything like its current form just a few years ago; it didn't exist at all a decade ago.
"The paradigm shift rate (i.e., the overall rate of technical progress) is currently doubling (approximately) every decade; that is, paradigm shift times are halving every decade (and the rate of acceleration is itself growing exponentially). So, the technological progress in the twenty-first century will be equivalent to what would require (in the linear view) on the order of two hundred centuries. In contrast, the twentieth century saw only about twenty-five years of progress (again at today's rate of progress) since we have been speeding up to current rates. So the twenty-first century will see almost a thousand times greater technological change than its predecessor."
What Ray is saying is that most people project future growth in technology at today's rate of change. But the rate of change is accelerating, so that more and more change is packed into smaller and smaller amounts of time. Although the vast majority of the thousand times greater technological change Ray is talking about happens in the last part of this century, some of it happens in the next twenty years. How much change are we talking about? Well, from when he first penned those words, the pace of change has picked up. At current levels, that means the twentieth century was equivalent to about twenty years of progress at today's rate of change. That pace will continue to increase the amount of innovation we pack into just a few years. From his book Fantastic Voyage:
"...And we'll make another twenty years of progress at today's rate [of growth], equivalent to that of the entire twentieth century, in the next fourteen years. And then we'll do it again in just seven years."
That means in the next twenty-one years we will see double the technological change that we saw in the entire twentieth century. At that pace, we will see almost four times the rate of change within twenty-five years.
More and more money is being invested in a wider array of research and development all over the world. There are millions of projects by inventors looking to improve a product or service. Some changes will be small and some will have enormous implications. When the steam engine was being invented, there were just a handful of inventors who understood the steam engine and could work on one. Today, we have the luxury of having thousands of scientists, engineers, programmers, and inventors working on all manner of projects large and small. And as cheap and fast broadband becomes ubiquitous in the developing world, we will be adding tens of millions more to the process. A few of these multiplied millions will invent radical new products, adding to the pace of change.
As our knowledge expands, as our tools grow in number and decrease in cost, our ability to find useful products increases at an ever-growing rate. The tools that our current and future horde of inventors will create will allow for all sorts of new products and discoveries.
There are thousands of such tools, big and small, being created by scientists and inventors in research labs all over the world every month in scores of different industries. Each one allows the next group of inventors to create even more and better tools and ultimately products. Globalization is not just a manufacturing and sales process. It is also an intellectual process, as scientist from many parts of the globe can collaborate on a project, each bringing their specialized knowledge to the project. That allows scientists in smaller countries or in countries without significant resources to add to the sum total of brainpower being thrown at a project.
All this means change is going to come faster than ever before. And with these new changes will come renewed economic growth, and millions of new jobs in the US and all over the world.
Today's current crisis will pass, just as past crises have. And this will not be the last crisis or recession of our lives. We will sadly create whole new ways to foment a crisis. But in 20 years, no one is going to look back and say I wish I could go back to the good old days of 2007. We will then be living in the most exciting age in the history of man.
Thanksgiving, Moving, and New York
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. In the US, families and friends get together and feast and enjoy one another. And while we do that at Christmas as well, on Thanksgiving we do it "just because," with no need to buy last-minute presents, just last-minute food! It is a time to remember and be grateful for the grace of God in our lives.
Tomorrow morning will find me in the kitchen very early, cooking a 16-pound prime, five pounds of mushrooms, and lots of veggies. There are now about 25 family and friends coming for dinner, and most people are bringing something, so there will be lots of food, wine, and good times. Then the Dallas Cowboys game in the afternoon, while eating my mother's banana nut cake. It just doesn't get much better than this.
Then on Friday and Saturday we pack up and move a few miles up the road. I am actually looking forward to the move. I have enjoyed my urban apartment life, with the incredible view of downtown Dallas, and may move back to the Uptown area in a few years; but right now I want to cut my commute time and move my office into my home and into a good school district for Trey. He has been "going" to school online, but it is time for him to get into a more social setting. And the house we are moving into is very family-friendly, so I expect the kids who are "out" will be back even more.
Next Thursday I am off to New York. I will be on Happy Hour on Fox Business News at 5 pm Eastern with Cody Willard, and then at the Minyanville Festivus party that evening. The next night we go to see the hit musical Rock of Ages on Broadway as the guest of Barry Habib, one of the producers. My good friend and venture capitalist extraordinaire Bart Stuck will be there as well. And then Saturday is some sightseeing and dinner with friends and my South African partner Prieur du Plessis, who is in town for Festivus as well. It looks to be a great week!
Let me wish those of you in the US a very warm and sincere Happy Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be grateful for.
Your more hopeful for the future than ever analyst,