An opportunity in crisis
4 Jun 2009, 0101 hrs IST, ET Bureau
Legendary investor Jim Rogers has in an interview to The Economic Times warned that the very measures taken by the recession-hit western countries to spur growth could cause a bigger crisis for the world economy. His sentiments find echo in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s exhortation that central banks should return to ‘independent and sensible monetary policies’.
The crux of Roger’s argument is that the central banks have printed a huge amount of money which the real economy may not able to absorb. All this money may fuel asset prices again. In the long run, he warns, this liquidity deluge would lead to high inflation and interest rates and a worse economic downturn.
Such a stark warning would appear premature at this stage. After all, the annual rate of inflation has fallen to below zero in the Eurozone and elsewhere, too, inflation is hardly a concern. Those belonging to Roger’s camp would argue that excess liquidity in the global system could create another commodities bubble led by oil. This will cause inflation to rear its head again. In that case, it is argued, the central banks would not be able to act quickly enough for fear of causing a deeper crisis.
Even though there is sound logic to this gloomy scenario, there is very little that can be done as the priority at this stage is to stimulate economic activity. Where does that leave the investors? Jim Rogers himself admits that he would not short stocks.
The rising tide of liquidity could take them to ‘crazy levels’. So, in the short term, no matter which scenario you believe, stocks appear to be a good bet. In fact, real assets such as commodities or land have an even greater appeal in likely high inflation situation. Indeed, Rogers makes out a case for agricultural commodities, but the argument goes beyond inflation.
A spike in crude prices would cause more land to be diverted to producing bio-fuels, causing a price spiral in many farm goods. Others would disagree with the notion of commodities running up sharply in the early stages of recovery when demand is weak. One can argue endlessly, but what is true is that there is a liquidity deluge thanks to monetary loosening. And such a policy did cause possibly the greatest run up in asset prices that ended late last year.
Fund Managers can become farmers: Jim Rogers
4 Jun 2009, 0005 hrs IST, ET Bureau
Even if you are outright bearish, don't short the market. Stocks could touch crazy levels, but they may be in currencies which are worthless.
Indeed, a sovereign default and currency turmoil could rattle world markets in a year or two. In a chat with ET, global investor Jim Rogers says cotton, silver and sugar can be hot picks. Read on.
At one stage we were inundated with gloomy forecasts, which were further reinforced by the IMF and World Bank. And then suddenly stocks surged — something most were not prepared for. How risky is the market today?
Central banks all over the world have printed huge amounts of money, and the real economy is not strong enough for all this money to be absorbed... so, it's going into stocks and real assets such as commodities. It's a mistake what they are doing. It's giving short-term pleasure, but there's long-term pain as we are going to have much higher inflation, much higher interest rates and a worse economy down the road.
The American bond market is already beginning to go down dramatically as people realise that the American government has to sell huge amount of bonds, and secondly, there is going to be inflation, serious inflation, as it was always in the past when you had governments printing huge amounts of money.
Stocks are rising even as fiscal deficit is widening. Somewhere it has to snap...
It's going to snap. Later this year, next year, we are going to have currency problems, maybe even a currency crisis. I don't know with which currency — maybe with the pound sterling, maybe with the US dollar, who knows. It maybe with something none of us have at the moment. When you have a currency crisis, stocks will be affected, many things will be affected. It is not sound, what's happening out there in the world.
In the 1930s, we had a huge stock market bubble which popped. And then politicians started making many mistakes. They became protectionist. They made solvent banks take over insolvent banks and then both banks failed in the end.
They are doing many of the same mistakes now. What's different this time is that we are printing huge amounts of money which they did not print at that time. So, we are going to have inflation this time.
What do you do? No politically-elected government can afford so much pain, unemployment and hardships...
America could have. America just had an election. The guy was elected in November and he could have come in the beginning of a four-year term and said the guys before me were hopeless idiots. They ruined things. We have to solve this problem. We have to take some pains now. But don't worry, we will get through this pain, and in two to three years or four years, things would be fine. And he could have been re-elected.
If the pain comes in 2010, 2011 or 2012, there will be nobody he can blame. Especially, if things go bad later, the opposition will say, wait a minute, 2009 looked good. The next guy is going to say you did it... But you are right. It's very difficult for an elected government. You have a newly-elected government in India. Whenever you have a new government they can take some of the pain.
You recently said that you would invest in China and Sri Lanka but not in India. Aren’t you betting on the new government in India?
I was trying to make a point that if anyone wants to invest in this particular part of the world, the best place would be Sri Lanka. Because it looks like the 30-year war is coming to an end.
Throughout history, if you go to a place after the war ends you usually find everything as very cheap, everyone is demoralised, people are just depressed and there are enormous opportunities if you have energy.
In my view, investing in Sri Lanka in May 2009 is probably a better bet than Pakistan, Bangladesh, India or some of the other countries nearby. Let's hope the new Indian government does something. I have heard wonderful things from Indian politicians for 40 years.
And rarely do they produce. It's not the first time that the Congress party has been in the power. If they mean it, India's going to be one of the greatest development stories in the next 20 years. But I don’t know if they mean it.
What kind of reforms?
Why isn't the currency convertible, why isn't foreign capital encouraged, why isn't foreign expertise encouraged, why is it so protectionist? Why are farmers only allowed to own five hectares? India should be the greatest farming nation in the world. You have the soil, the weather, you have everything and yet an Indian farmer can own only five hectares.
How can an Indian farmer compete with a guy in Ireland who can own 1,000 hectares or a guy in Brazil who can own 5,000 hectares? Smart people don't become farmers. Because what's the future? Whenever prices start going up, Indian politicians ban futures trading, as if futures trading makes prices go up. It's the craziest and the most absurd thing in the whole world. Prices go up because there is a reason for prices to go up.
Last year you were buying only Chinese stocks. Why?
The market collapsed in October-November. That's when I bought more Chinese shares. I have not bought any Chinese shares since then. I have not bought shares anywhere in the world since then. My way of participating in what's going on now is to buy commodities.
In my view, commodities are the only place where fundamentals are improving. Farmers can't get loans for fertilisers now, even though inventories of food are the lowest in decades. Nobody can get a loan to open a mine. So, you will have supplies of everything continuing to decline.
What else are you looking at while investing?
There are some industries in India that would do exceedingly well in the next few years, one of which is water. You have a horrible water problem. China also has a horrible water problem. So, I bought water companies in China. There are some great opportunities if America falls off the face of the earth. China is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to solve the agricultural problem.
So, I am buying agricultural stocks and water stocks in China. There are other industries in India which have a great future. I am very bullish on Indian tourism. Wherever I go for speeches around the world I tell people, if you have to go to one country in your lifetime, you should go to India.
Your government is going to re-build the military, they say. So, there's going to be great opportunities here. Also, they may build the infrastructure. So, I see many opportunities in India.
The possibility of a sovereign default in the developed world could further depress sentiments. You think it’s possible?
In 1918, the UK was the richest and the most powerful country in the world. Within one generation it was in shambles, within two-and-a-half generations it defaulted. The UK defaulted in 1970s and had to be bailed out by the IMF. Many of the countries in the developed world are in serious trouble right now.
Iceland has already defaulted. I think there could be a currency crisis because of sovereign debt problems later this year, next year or 2011. Developed nations have defaulted before. Remember the Asian crisis. It was a default of one kind or the other. It has happened before and it will happen again.
Are you worried about any particular market or region?
I am glad that I have no investments in the UK. Neither long, nor short. I am convinced that it’s in trouble. I am worried about the US. I have sold nearly all of my US dollars. I always had some as I am an American citizen. But I see serious problems developing there. Those two of the big developed countries are the ones that I see with the most likely problems.
But the problem is that it never works that way. Everybody is sitting here watching the UK and US and it may happen in say Portugal or some place we haven’t thought of and it will come suddenly to surprise us all.
If US unemployment touches the 10%-mark, it would further impact retail sales. How bad could this be for Asia?
Let's pick on China for a minute. If you sell to Wal-Mart in the US and if you are a Chinese supplier you know there is a problem. And you are going to be suffering. Any company that deals with the West is going to have problems. On the other hand, companies that are in the water-treatment business in Asia will care less if the West disappears. They are too busy making money, too busy going to work everyday.
What kind of commodities will smart money chase? Can money be made in crude?
I own gold but think silver is better right now. Natural gas is cheaper than oil right now, but I own them all. If you want to buy crude, you should probably buy cotton. Because all farmers in the US are planting corn to turn into energy
. That means they are not going to plant any cotton. The best way to play crude oil is to buy cotton.
Right now, there are huge subsidies around the world for farmers to plant corn, maize, for instance, so that they can be converted into energy. If energy prices go higher, there will be even more of that.
If everybody plants his fields with soya, corn or palm oil to turn it into oil or energy then no one is going to plant cotton.
And you can make a lot more money in cotton than oil. Between oil and gold, buy cotton. Between oil and gold buy silver. The other way to invest in oil is to buy sugar as everybody is converting a lot of sugar into energy.
Silver is so much cheaper on a historic basis. And gold is near its all-time high. Silver is 75% below its all-time high. So, I would suspect that silver and cotton are going to do better than gold and oil.
Global population is close to its peak and genetically-modified crops will increase productivity. What makes you so bullish on agriculture?
It doesn't matter. The world has been consuming more than it produced. Food inventories are at a multi-decade low. And we haven't had any bad weather. We had isolated cases of droughts and things. That may never happen again. But if it does, the prices of food would go through the roof.
If there is climate change taking place, the best way to participate is through agriculture or through agriculture products. There are many positive things happening. Right now, there is a shortage of everything in agriculture — seeds, fertilisers, tractors, tractor tyres. We have a shortage of farmers because farming has been a horrible business for the past 30 years.
What kind of a market are you witnessing now?
It's a bear market rally. I was going to say I don't think S&P 500 will see new highs. But I have to quickly temper that by saying against the dollar because the S&P 500 could triple from here if they print enough money and the value of the US dollar collapses, then S&P could go to 50,000, Dow Jones can go to 1,00,000.
Which is one reason why I am not shorting stocks right now. Because there is a possibility of this sort of a thing. There is a possibility that stocks could go through unheard of levels, but would be in worthless currency.
That naturally brings us to the debate on a new international reserve currency
Several countries have raised the issue once again. The US dollar is terribly flawed right now. Something has to be done to the US dollar and something will be done just as something was done about the pound sterling. After World War II, people stopped using the pound sterling and converted to the dollar for many reasons. Something's going to be done about the dollar.
We are much closer to be doing something about it or will be forced to do something about it. India was forced to change in 1991 and the world will be forced to change the currency situation in the foreseeable future.
There is already an underlying fear that this mountain of cash will chase assets and eventually force central banks to mop up liquidity. How do you think this would play out?
I know they all say, 'Don't worry, we will reverse gears and take the excess liquidity out in time.' I don't believe them for a minute. No one has ever done it that way. When central bankers started trying to, it caused so much pain that they quickly reversed or have got rid of that central banker and put somebody else in.
I just don't think they could do it. That's why I am worried about the bond market and the inflation. If all central banks do it together, that's going to lead to higher unemployment, riots in the streets, civil unrests.
Your track record as an investor has been more than impressive. But in todays market can you replicate your performance of the past 20 years?
One can. I probably cannot as I am not spending enough time at it. But it can be done. There are going to be people who we will read about in 20 years having made legendary fortunes starting now. In the 1930s, there were people who built huge fortunes and laid the foundations like Templeton.
He started in the 1930s. He saw opportunities and took advantage. These are people who saw great advantages and opportunities in the 1930s, acted and became fantastic successes. There may be somebody out there now. I don’t know who she is. Maybe she is in Brazil, China or India.
What will you tell a confused fund manager who seeks your advice?
Become a farmer. The world has tens of thousands of hotshot fund managers right now. If I am correct, the financial community is not going to be a great place to be in for the next 30 years. We have many periods in history when financial people were in charge, we had many periods when people who produced real goods were in charge — miners, farmers, etc.
The world, in my view, is changing and is shifting away from the financial types to producers of real goods, and this is going to last for several decades as it always has. This may sound strange but it always happens this way. Ten years from now, it may be farmers who will drive the Lamborghinis and the stock brokers will drive tractors or taxis at best.