The More Things Change
This is the text of a speech given at the Accelerating Change 2004 conference at Stanford University. The conference organizers asked me to look out over the next 3-4 decades and offer my thoughts as to what the future may look like. A somewhat daunting task, and one guaranteed to failure, as the future always seems to surprise, I nevertheless tried to peer into that dark glass.
La plus ca change, la plus c'est la meme choses.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
What of the future? Can we really stand here in 2004 and have some idea of what will transpire in the next 2-3 decades? Looking at which things will not change will give us some clues as to what will change, and some ideas as to the future in which most of us will assuredly live.
There are three things that over the next 40 years are not going to change.
- The innovation cycle is not going to change - it will be with us as it is simply part of our human progression, although it is going to increase in intensity and frequency.
- The Business Cycle and its cousins, Secular Bull and Bear markets, will not change. As long as the business cycle remains in place, and Congress has yet to find a way to repeal it, this tendency to go from over-valued to under-valued markets, that started when the Medes were trading with the Persians, will persist.
- Human psychology is not going to change. Human psychology is the reason we get these cycles and the reason we get busts and booms.
The Innovation Cycle
A Russian Economist, Nikolas Kondratieff, noticed that we can look at cycles in the Markets, and his research led to these long waves becoming known as the Kondratieff Wave1. Many argued that these up and down cycles lasted 56 years, 73 years or 69.3 years. Most people, including me, look at that research and think that it is voodoo economics. What is implied by many of the adherents of the K-Wave theory is that the markets and actual prices themselves are pre-determined in some fixed, almost linear, fashion, like a predetermined destiny in a science fiction novel. The Kondratieff Wave followers were the guys that were telling you, if you were reading the sales letters published in the late 80's, about the crash of 1990, the crash of 1987 or the crash of 1994.
The Kondratieff Wave disciples tried to predict the market with a precise cycle depending upon the numbers of years, and when they dated the beginning of the last cycle. They had figured out that there were in fact cycles, but Joseph Schumpeter came along and said the cycles really relate more to innovation cycles than fixed waves in time.
What Schumpeter found was that a new innovation takes a great deal of time to get to a 10% penetration in any given market, but the growth from 10% to 90% is one of rapid change. The cycle follows what we call an S-Curve and as you get to the mature phase (or the last 10% of growth) everyone eventually gets access to the innovation. The innovation now has complete penetration and growth slows until it is basically in line with the economy's growth, which is GDP (Gross Domestic Product) plus inflation. The innovation can go into other places where it hasn't penetrated, but once it has saturated the major world economies like the United States or Europe, it's no longer an innovation, but a commodity.
Harry Dent came along and said let's rework this innovation cycle idea a little bit and try to define it better. (While his book, The Roaring 2000's,2 is an excellent analysis of the innovation cycle, please pay no attention to the ludicrous investment projections that he makes (like the Dow going to 40,000 by 2008). What he says is that when you look back over time, there are five phases to the innovation cycle. First is the innovation period, second a growth boom followed by a shakeout, then the maturity phase and then he ending or final phase.
Let's take a look at what happens during the shakeout. What happens during the shakeout is that a frenzy develops where too many people are throwing money at the innovation, overbuilding and adding way too much capacity, because that's what we as humans do. We chase what is already hot rather than what might become hot in the future. We throw money at stuff that's going up, create too much of it, and then there's not enough market demand for that capacity and you get a shakeout. It happens almost invariably in all innovation cycles.
We are all familiar with the overdevelopment of trans-ocean fiber optic capacity. The first few lines were projected to have (and some actually did have) fabulous profit potential. But then everyone jumped in and too much capacity was built, forcing a dramatic drop in price.
This is not far different from railroads. When the first 20 mile railroad was built in England, the investors found their profit projections were way off. Profits were much higher than anticipated. In fact, the early railroads were showing 100% profit in the first year. Just like fiber optics 150 years later, too many railroads were built and bankruptcies were soon the order of the day.
But over time, demand caught up with supply, and more railroads were needed and the maturity boom took over. While hard for the investors, it was actually good for society, as all that capacity and lower prices meant new business opportunities developed as whole new markets opened up.
Right now for instance, in my opinion we are still in the growth boom of the information age. We haven't seen the true shakeout yet. No one knows how the development of broadband to the homes of America will play out. Will it be on cable or fiber or even on your power lines? Who will be your phone/cable/wireless/cell/internet company in 10 years? What bundled services will we all feel we need? The Internet was just a mini bubble compared to the potential shakeout coming. When we see the true information age shakeout, I think it will look like all classic growth boom shakeouts. We will see too much capacity, prices will plummet. There will be some major companies which will not survive and some who will stand tall. The excess capacity will soon be swallowed up in growing demand and then this Information Age innovation cycle will start its mature boom phase.
Secular Bull and Secular Bear Markets
Another cycle that will always be there is the Business Cycle accompanied by Secular Bull and Secular Bear Investment Markets. We use secular, not in the terms of religion, but from the Latin word secula which means an age or period of time. What I argue in my book, Bull's Eye Investing, is that we shouldn't look at these cycles in terms of price, which most people do, but rather we should look at them in terms of valuation.
Michael Alexander wrote a great little (and far too overlooked) book called Stock Cycles. He wrote and published it in 1999 and says, "Here's why we're going to have this crash" completely apart from everything else. He seems to have pegged the markets with the way he views cycles. Alexander finds that these valuation cycles in secular bear/bull markets run anywhere from 8-17 years and he forecasts that we're currently in the middle innings of a secular bear cycle. In the past a secular bear never stops in the middle of going down, it always goes to the full extent of the pendulum. There will be bull market rallies during a secular bear market, but the next secular bull market will begin after we go through what I call "The Puke Factor," when very few want to talk about or own equities anymore.
The race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong, but that is the way to bet. You don't want to make a long shot bet on the slowest horse winning when you are going to a horse race. You want to look for the horse that is likely to win that day. History shows us that Bear Markets always start with high price to earnings (P/E) ratios and Bull Markets always start with low price to earnings ratios. The lower the price to earnings ratio at the beginning of the period, the higher your returns are going to be when the price to earnings ratio tops out.
Where (in terms of P/E) you start investing makes a huge difference as to what your results are going to be over time. In fact, there have been periods of 20 years or more that a market index has made zero returns. That's not what the guys tell you down at the office when they are trying to get your money into their mutual fund. There's never a money manager that will tell that today is not a good day to invest in their fund. Me included. It's always a good day to invest, although history shows us that some days are better than others.
Here's a study done by Jeremy Grantham, where he breaks up the years from 1925-2001 by looking at the average price to earnings level for the year. He then groups the years based on this valuation into 5 different buckets. The highest price to earnings years was labeled the "most expensive 20% of history"; the lowest price to earnings years was labeled the "cheapest 20% of history." What he found is that over the next 10 years the cheapest or second cheapest quintiles had an average compound return of 11%. That's when your financial planner tells you to write a 10%-12% return expectation into your retirement planning model, because, "Look, see what the market has done for the past 10-15 years?"
However, if you invested in the most expensive quintile in history, the average compound return over the next 10 years was zero. That's not a good deal, except for the managers charging a fee to manage your money. So, getting into the market during times of low valuations has been the best choice in the past.
Markets are volatile. What you find is that over the last 103 years the Dow Jones Industrial Average's annual return was between +/- 10% over 30% of the time. Over 70% of the time, the annual return was either above 10% or below 10%.3 A company called Dalbar has done some studies that show the average investor does not do nearly as well as the average mutual fund does because they chase returns.4 They switch into a fund that is "hot." Chasing returns is momentum investing - if something goes up, let's invest in it. What happens is, people typically get into something at the top, then it turns down and they get out. This strategy is essentially a formula for buy high, sell low and is a poor way to invest.
Let's talk about the real effect of compounding. Take the last 103 years from 1900-2002, the markets simple annual arithmetic average return is 7.2%. That's what the brokers and other salespeople are trotting out when they try and raise money. The problem is over the same period of time if the returns are compounded annually, the average is only 4.8%. Keep in mind that this is the compound average over long periods of time (in this case 103 years). This negative compounding effect, if you will, stems from the fact that if you are down 33% early on, you are going to have to make 50% to bring you back.
In my book or at www.crestmontresearch.com, there is a chart for Taxpayer Nominal Returns over the last 103 years. You can see in this chart what your returns would have been for any given period of time starting with any year you choose. The chart is color coded; the reds are below zero returns; pink is between zero and 3%; blue is between 3% and 7% and light and dark green cover the periods with annual compounded returns over 7%. The annually compounded numbers are in white or black and indicate whether the price to earnings ratios were falling or rising during that period.
Surprise, Surprise...you find out that almost all the light and dark green squares are periods of rising price to earnings ratios, or black numbers. However the red and pink squares are predominately periods of contracting price to earnings ratios, or white numbers. This graph also helps visualize the long term historical returns patterns in the market. You can easily find periods of 10 or 15 years where you're making 0-3% net. This tells me when I see a period of high price to earnings valuations, better returns might be found elsewhere.
There is always a Bull Market somewhere in something. When you're in Secular Bear cycles, become more concerned about protecting against a loss and try for absolute returns; when you're in Secular Bull cycles, buying an index for relative returns has historically done well in the past. What I mean by that is, if price to earnings are at low valuations, and you put money in index funds historically you will do well even if there are events like October 1987 because as the price to earnings rises it will hopefully be due to the price going up rather than earnings coming down. All you need to do is follow the market because the market's going up and if you actually beat the market by active management, you did a good job.
Now, if we are in a Secular Bear cycle, you want to do just the opposite. In Secular Bear's, market valuations are going down over time. Now you want to focus on absolute returns and the need to protect against negative returns. Your measure, in a Secular Bear cycle, is a money market fund. In a Secular Bear cycle, the person who loses the least is the winner. That's just the way things are. Typically, you could have beaten stock market index returns dramatically in this period simply by being in bonds.
Let's talk now about Human Psychology, which will always be with us. Last year's winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics were two psychologists, who came up with the sometimes obvious thought that investors are irrational. Their contribution, however, was that humans are not just irrational, but predictably irrational. We keep on making the same mistakes time and again. I am reminded of one of my wife's favorite quotes, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."
One example of behavior patterns which drive the markets is the "home field advantage." We bet on our home teams. I live in Dallas. It would be reasonable to expect, and bookies make lots of money on the fact, that people in Dallas will bet on the Dallas Cowboys more than on the Saint Louis Rams. Those of us in Dallas read the local papers and thus know more about the Cowboys than any other team. Because we know more about them, we think they are a better team than they in reality are.
Researchers have done studies where they ask people to play the following game. A deck of 52 cards is held up and the participants are told, "I will show you a card and put it back into the deck. If your card is picked from the deck at random, you get $100. To play the game will cost you $1." What will you sell that card for? The researchers find that a person will sell that card and their chance at the $100 prize on average for $1.86. This is actually a reasonable price but a little low. The probability of a payout is 1/52 which comes out to $1.92.
Next, the researchers shuffle the deck again and let the participant pick a card from the deck. What will people sell their card for now? Closer to $6.00. Because they touched the card, they feel they are intimately aware of and have a connection to the card. "I've touched this card. I've studied this card and I know its value." An interesting side note is the researchers found that MBA students felt their chance was worth closer to $9.00.
Researchers have also found the same phenomena with institutional investors. When asked, "Which market do you think is going to go up more in the next 5 years?" they tend pick their home countries. Why? Because they know that country. They are familiar with it. In the 90's, investors knew their stock, "I've examined it and know it history, I've talked to the CEO, I've looked at all of the data, and I know it."
And then they ride it right on down because they think that because we know something and we've studied something that it has more value. Wrong. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. But knowledge of a situation does not in and of itself create value. That's not to say we shouldn't be studying and reading about all our investments, but we have to recognize that we have a bias about what we know.
We also have what's called a "Confirmation Bias." We like to read people that think like us. We tend to run around with people that think like us because they help reconfirm that we are right. My "Thoughts from the Frontline" newsletter is a very self-selecting thing as most of the people who read me do so because they like what I'm saying. It reinforces their beliefs. If they don't like my ideas and views on global economic issues, they unsubscribe. It's merely a confirmation bias. Very few people read me to get another side of the story. That's just the way human nature is.
One of the things I try to do in my letter and my "Outside the Box" is present people with the other side of the story. I find the best way to internally establish my ideas is to be challenged by others ideas. Working through well-thought essays which disagree with me forces me to constantly re-evaluate my positions.
Another concept is "hindsight bias." How many of us know that the dotcom era was a bubble? How many of us knew in 1999 that the dotcom era was a bubble? Everybody was telling us that this time its different and using some quite creative arguments to prove why, but one of the things that you need to run away from is when anyone tells you that this time it's different.
Another thing we do is "extrapolate." We take a piece of data and we extrapolate it into the future. I'm going to give you a little business model here, something that should be successful. Take the average Wall Street analyst' earnings projections5, cut them in half, and hire three MBAs to justify why you are cutting those prices in half.
That's one day of work. Then, for the next 29 days, you go work on your golf handicap. At the end of the year, you should be the most accurate analyst in the country. People will pay you tons of money, and your golf handicap will be in single digits. That's not a bad business model.
Why is this? Professional analysts take recent trends and they project them into the future. By the way, if the trends are down, then you want to add some to it because the professionals will project the lower trend for too long as well. Even professionals take the current trend and the current data and push it into the future. That's one way we get extrapolation. The better plan is to take the data, read tons of it, and then bring inferences out of it to try to see the patterns.
What Will Change?
Let's talk about what will change. The pace of innovation is going to change. The pace of globalization is going to change. The shift from a US-Centric world to a more balanced world is going to change.
First, let's look at the pace of innovation. There have been many major innovation cycles - think Agricultural, Commerce, Cotton, Textile, Railroads, Industrial, Mass Production and Information. Each of these has 5 periods, the innovation, a growth boom, a shakeout, a maturity boom cycle and the final phase. Just to give you an idea of what we mean by the industrial economy - that included coal, education, iron, railroad, steel and the telegraph.
The Mass-Market economy was also composed of "smaller" innovations in the 1900's. The airline, broadcasting, education (secondary), electric power and appliances, motor vehicles, petroleum, synthetic fiber and telephone were all part of the mass-market economy. We still have a mass-market economy, but now it's in more of a mature phase. We see much of what was novel only a few decades ago as simple commodities today. In the 80's, the information age started and again there's lots of components to the information age, but historians will look back and see it as one big movement. We are well into the growth cycle, as I noted above, and waiting for the shakeout phase to rear its head.
We will look more at the innovation cycles in a moment, but first let's shift gears and look at a few other important areas.
Another thing that is cooked into the books is demography. We can make a fairly realistic projection of how many people will be over 60 in 20 years by looking at how many people are over 40 today. By projecting birth and death rates, which change slowly over time, we can get a fairly realistic handle on world population trends. And what we see is an aging Europe, Japan and America and an explosion of population in Asia.
This will have a major effect on the pace and shift of globalization. The developed countries have gone from about 33% of world population in 1950 to the 18% range right now. The current developed countries will be 12% of the population in 45 years. The underdeveloped countries are going to grow to roughly 87%. That's a huge demographic shift.
Another important shift will be in the 10 major Islamic countries. By 2050 their population will be about the same as the developed countries. Today, Russian has 145 million people and at its current rate it will be 100 million it 2050. Iran and Iraq currently have 87 million people combined. Today they are roughly 60% of the population of Russia, and in 2025 those two countries will have 10 million more people than Russia. Iran alone will have a greater population than Russia in 45 years. How do you think a nuclear power and militaristic power like Russia is going to be able to deal with that change? It makes me wonder if the reason Iran wants nuclear power is simply the US?
Yemen will be bigger than Germany in 45 years. Yemen is a small country, where will they go?6 We have already witnessed the largest migration of human population in human history. Over 200 million Chinese have moved from the interior and the west to within 90 miles of the coast in the last 20 years. That is almost too large to grasp. It is as if half the population of the middle part of United States decided to move to the coast in the next 20 years.
What implications does demography have on the aging population of the world? The population over 60 years old will grow dramatically in the developed world from 2005 to 2040. The US will go from 16% today to 26%; Japan grows from 23% to 44%; Italy from 24% to 46%. Those are major problems which will affect worker productivity, health care and strain the economy. The percentage of GDP that countries will have to tax if they keep the promises they made to the retirees will be a problem, as there will be less workers to pay into the pay as you go retirement systems. France will be at 64% and Germany will be at 60% of GDP just for social services, without adding other government costs such as education, military, roads, etc.
Do you think young people are going to stay in France or Germany and see tax rates of 75% or more? The strain on the systems clearly can't work.7 Europe and Japan are destined to go through enormous social and economic strains. Farm subsidies, a deeply engrained part of Europe and Japan, will be cut or done away with. How can I say this? There will be more elderly voters who want their health care and pensions than there are farmers. Just the threat of a drop of a small part of farm subsidies in France brings out farmers who riot, block roads and create mass protests. Think about what will happen as they lose those subsidies over the next 15-20 years.
While not as bad as Europe and Japan, the US has its own problems coming down the demographic highway. The US will be forced to change its social security system. If we don't change it by the end of 2005, my prediction is that it will not change until 2013.Whoever is elected president by either party in 2008 will not touch the "third rail" of politics (social security) until a second term. By then, the problems will be much bigger.
Social Security in the US can be fixed. The real problem is Medicare and health care. Health care costs will rise from 14% of GDP in 2003 to 17% in 2010 and keep on rising as Baby Boomers need more care and as better and ever more expensive solutions are found to keep us healthy. A reported $40 trillion dollar deficit looms in front of US tax-payers. The options are not pretty. We can raise taxes significantly over time, cut back on other spending like our military, farm subsidies, education and welfare, or cut back on health care. What politician will want to run on that platform?
This will all produce a shift of economic power to the East. China, India and the rest of Asia will come to the fore by the middle of this century. This shift will be forced because of the Economic, Political and Demographic changes which will happen in the West. The United States and Europe have guaranteed our baby boomers and our elders "X" amount of our GDP. We have bet the farm on our future, we haven't saved enough money for it and we're expecting our kids to pay it. That's going to force fundamental restructuring. China, India and other parts of Asia don't have those obligations because the elderly population is a much smaller percentage, so they will be able to devote more of their dollars to research and to economic development. The sheer shift of assets into research and development will give the Asians an advantage. They have an advantage in terms of demographics, but not too much over the US. China, by the way, is going to have demographic problems within 20-30 years.
Governments are the problem, they are not the solution. Less government, from a business standpoint, generally means less cost and that is a better thing. The less money that you are paying in taxes, the less money your corporations and your investors pay in taxes, the more the customers are going to be able to pay to put your products on the table and in their homes. Not to mention the more money to return to investors.
The change that I think is really coming over the next four decades is the demise of centralized governments because they are not "profitable." They don't work in a globalized and industrialized world society with mobile capital and mobile people. What we will see is the rise of the sovereign individual, which is a very uncomfortable change; governments won't willingly give up that power. The "spread" between the rich and poor will increase as well, making the politics of envy all the more susceptible to politicians who love to demagogue.
Now, let's look at what I think will be a positive force, and one that will help us get through these problems. As I noted above, I think in another few years that we will see a shakeout of the Information Age and then a follow-on maturity boom which will last another 20 years. Looking at past such cycles, the boom should be every big as big as the innovation boom was in 1980-2000. That in itself will create a world-wide technology and productivity boom, creating jobs and wealth.
Such a boom is not all that hard to forecast, and it will be welcome. But I think there is a surprise coming, something that we have not seen in human history. I believe we will get multiple innovation booms overlaid on top of the maturity boom of the Information Age.
Currently, the Biotech Revolution is still in its initial innovation phase. It has barely made an impact in comparison to what most experts think it will in the next 15-20 years. In another few years, we will start to see the growth boom from the Biotech Revolution kick in. Amazing new drugs and processes will change the way we live. We will live longer and healthier lives, eat better and less expensive foods, clean up our waste (and our waists) and even develop new energy sources.
Coming right on the heels of the Biotech Revolution will be the Nanotech Generation - a world of unbelievably small machines and processes. What sounds like science fiction today will be reality in 20-30 years.
$100 oil is not the problem, it's the solution, as converting to new energy sources is a huge growth dynamic. The need for new and cheaper sources of energy will compel all sorts of innovation and new invention. The steam engine was basically developed to pump water out of coal mines, as England needed new forms of energy to substitute for dwindling forests. Yet the collateral uses propelled the British Empire to its peak of economic power. Think of the resources and the money and the innovations that will come to play with the development of a new energy paradigm for the world.
For the first time in history, we could get multiple major Innovation Booms all creating change and economic progress at the same time. It would be like Watts and Edison and Ford and Bell and Whitney and Crick all doing there thing at the same time. How different might our world have been? How would things have progressed? Just imagining the possibilities will give you some idea of what may lie in our future.
Yes, I did outline a number of problems in our future in this speech. But there have always been problems of one form or another. The key to understanding the changes that are in our future, to finding profitable investments, is not to ignore the problems, but to figure out how they will be solved and then to invest in the solution.
La Jolla, Houston and Home(!)
I am in La Jolla for my annual Accredited Investor Strategic Investment Conference that I run in conjunction with Altegris Investments. Quite the line-up of speakers: Richard Russell, Rob Arnott, Paul McCulley, Andy Kessler, Mark Finn and your humble analyst, plus a number of funds and managers. We are recording the main sessions and I will let you know how to get a copy of those sessions in a future letter.
For those interested (and who qualify), I write a free letter on various topics concerning hedge funds. A new one will go out next week on the topic "Are There Too Many Hedge Funds? I take a somewhat controversial position, which will not surprise long time readers. If you are an Accredited Investor (basically net worth of more than $1,000,000) you can go to www.accreditedinvestor.ws and sign up. In conjunction with Altegris Investments (and Absolute Return Partners in Europe) we offer information about and access to hedge funds and other alternative investment products. You can read on the web site more details about how the process works. (In this regard, I am president of and a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, member NASD. See specifics disclosures and risks below.)
As always, I hate to limit access, but we must work within the rules, which limit access and information on hedge funds to those with specific net worth. Next time you see your congressman, tell him how stupid it is to have rules written 60 and 70 years ago dictate what you can and cannot invest in. There would be riots if we limited investments to just white males over 50, yet we think nothing about drawing a sharp line between those who are "rich" and those who are not. Archaic.
After speaking in Houston Tuesday and Wednesday, I will be home for most of the next month, and I am ready to be home. My travel in April has been brutal, and I look forward to being able to get some major writing and research projects done. Plus, the Dallas Mavericks are in the play-offs and this year it looks like they might get past the first round. We'll see if Dirk Nowitzski and team can get us past the first two rounds.
1 Michael A. Alexander, Stock Cycles: Why Stocks Won't Beat Money Markets Over the Next Twenty Years (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com, 2000)
2 Dent, Harry S., Jr. The Roaring 2000s: Building the Wealth and Lifestyle You Desire in the Greatest Boom in History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
3 Study done by Crestmont Research, www.crestmontresearch.com
4 Dalbar Inc., www.dalbar.com
5 David Dreman, "What Earnings Recovery?," Forbes (July 8, 2002).
6 Martin Barnes, The Bank Credit Analyst (March 2003), www.bcaresearch.com
7 Richard Jackson and Neil Howe, "The 2003 Aging Vulnerability index: An Assessment of the Capacity of Twelve Developed Countries to Meet the Aging Challenge," Center for Strategic and international Studies (CSIS) (March 2003).