It is the time of the year for forecasts; but rather than do an annual forecast, which is as much a guessing game as anything else (and I am bad at guessing games), I’m going to do a five-year forecast to take us to the end of the decade, which I think may be useful for longer-term investors. We will focus on events and trends that I think have a high probability, and I’ll state what I think the probabilities are for my forecasts to actually happen. While I could provide several dozen items, I think there are seven major trends that are going to sweep over the globe and that as an investor you need to have on your radar screen. You will need to approach these trends with caution, but they will also provide significant opportunities.
There is a book in here somewhere, but I do not intend to write one today. In fact, my New Year’s resolution is to write shorter letters in 2015. Over the last decade and a half, the letter has tended to get longer. A little more here, a little more there, and pretty soon it just gets to be a bit too much to read in one sitting. That means I need to either be more concise, break up my topics into two sessions or, if further writing is necessary, post the additional work on the website for those interested.
So I’m writing today’s letter in that spirit. Each of the major topics we’ll be covering will show up in other letters over the next few months. I would appreciate your feedback and any links to articles and/or data points that you think I should know about regarding these topics.
But first, this is generally the most downloaded letter of the year. I want to invite new readers to become one of my 1 million closest friends by simply entering your email address here. You can follow my work throughout the year, absolutely free (and see how my prognostications are turning out). And if you’re a regular reader, why not send this to a few of your friends and suggest they join you? At the very least, Thoughts from the Frontline should make for some interesting conversations this year. Thanks. Now let’s get on with the forecasting.
Seven Significant Changes for the Next Five Years
Let’s look at what I think are six inexorable trends or waves that will each have a major impact in its own right but that when taken together will amount to a tsunami of change for the global economy.
1. Japan will continue its experiment with the most radical quantitative easing attempted by a major country in the history of the world… and the experiment is getting dangerous. The Bank of Japan is effectively exporting the island nation’s deflation to its trade competitors like Germany, China, and South Korea and inviting a currency war that could shake the world. I’ve been saying this for years now, but the story took a nasty turn on Halloween Day, when the Bank of Japan announced it was greatly expanding and changing the mix of its asset purchases. The results have been downright scary, and a major slide in the JPY/USD exchange rate is almost certain over the next five years. I give it a 90% probability. All this while the population of Japan shrinks before our very eyes.
2. Europe is headed for a crisis at least as severe as the Grexit scare was in 2012 – and for the resulting run-up in interest rates and a sovereign debt scare in the peripheral countries. After all these years of struggle, the structural flaws in the EMU’s design remain; and now major economies like Italy and France are headed for trouble. In the very near future we will finally know the answer to the question, “Is the euro a currency or an experiment?” The changes required to answer that question will be wrenching and horrifically expensive. There are no good answers, only difficult choices about who pays how much and to whom. Again, I see the deepening of the Eurozone crisis as a 90% probability.
3. China is approaching its day of reckoning as it tries to reduce its dependency on debt in its bid for growth, while creating a consumer society. The world is simply not prepared for China to experience an outright “hard landing” or recession, but I think there is a 70% probability that it will do so within the next five years. And the probability that China will suffer either a hard landing OR a long period of Japanese-style stagnation (in the event that the Chinese government is forced to absorb nonperforming loans to prevent a debt crisis) is over 95%. To be sure, it is still quite possible that the Chinese economy will be significantly larger in 2025 (ten years from now) than it is today, but realizing that potential largely depends on President Xi Jinping’s ability to accomplish an extremely difficult task: deleveraging the debt overhang that threatens the country’s MASSIVE financial system while rebalancing the national economy to a more sustainable growth model (either through either a vast expansion of China’s export market or the rapid development of “new economy” sectors like technology, services, and consumption; or both). This will not be the end of China, which I’m quite bullish on over the very long term, but such transitions are never easy. Even given this rather stark forecast, it is still likely (in my opinion) that the Chinese economy will be 20 to 25% bigger as 2020 opens than it is today; and every other major economy in the world (including the US) would be thrilled to have such growth. At the very least, though, China’s slowdown and rebalancing is going to put pressure on commodity exporters, which are generally emerging markets plus Australia, Canada, and Norway.
4. All of the above will tend to be bullish for the dollar, which will make dollar-denominated debt in emerging-market countries more difficult to pay back. And given the amount of debt that has been created in the last few years, it is likely that we’ll see a series of crises in emerging-market countries, along with an uncomfortably high level of risk of setting off an LTCM-style global financial shock. My colleague Worth Wray spoke about this new era of volatile FX flows and growing risk of capital flight from emerging markets at my Strategic Investor Conference last May, and he has continued to remind us of those risks in recent months (“A Scary Story for Emerging Markets” and “Why the World Needs the US Economy to Struggle”). Now that Russia has tumbled into a full-fledged currency crisis with serious signs of contagion, Worth’s prediction is already playing out, and I would assign an 80 to 90% probability that it will continue to do so, as a function of (1) the rising US dollar and a reversal in cross-border capital flows, (2) falling commodity prices, or (3) both. This massive wave is going to create a lot of opportunities for courageous investors who are ready to surf when countries are cheap.
5. I do not believe that the secular bear market in the United States that I began to describe in 1999 has ended. Secular bull markets simply do not begin from valuations like those we have today. Either we began a secular bull market in 2009, or we have one more major correction in front of us. Obviously, I think it is the latter. It has been some time since I’ve discussed the difference between secular bull and bear markets and cyclical bull and bear markets, and I will briefly touch on the topic today and go into much more detail in later letters. For US-focused investors, this is of major importance. The secular bear is not something to be scared of but simply something to be played. It also offers a great deal of opportunity. If I am right, then the next major leg down will bring on the end of the secular bear and the beginning of a very long-term secular bull. We will all get to be geniuses in the 2020s and perhaps even before the last half of this decade runs out. Won’t that be fun? Let’s call the end of the secular bear a 90% probability in five years and move on.
6. Finally, the voters of the United States are going to have to make a decision about the direction they want to take the country. We can either opt for growth, which will mean a new tax and regulatory regime, or we can double down on the current direction and become Europe and Japan. I’ve traveled to both Europe and Japan, and they’re both pleasant-enough places to live, but I wouldn’t want to be a citizen of either Japan or the Eurozone for the rest of this decade. (I particularly love Italy, but it is beginning to resemble a basket case, with last year’s optimistic drive for reforms seemingly stalled.)
However, I would rather live and work and invest in a high-growth country, with opportunities all around me, a country where we reduce income inequality by increasing wealth and opportunities at the lower end of the income scale instead of trying to legislate parity by increasing taxes and imposing government-mandated wealth redistribution, which slows growth and squelches opportunity for everyone.
A restructuring of the US tax and regulatory regime does not mean a capitulation to the wealthy, big banks, or big business. Properly conceived and constructed, it will allow the renewal of the middle class and result in higher income for all. Sadly, it is not clear to me that either the Republican or Democratic parties are up to the task of making the difficult political decisions necessary. They each have constituencies that tend to opt for the status quo. But I see hope on both sides of the political spectrum that change is possible. The course they set will give us an idea where we will want to focus our portfolios in the decade of the ’20s. It is a 100% probability that we will have to make a decision. It is less than 50% that we will make the right one – or at least the one that I think is the right one.
7. We have entered the Age of Transformation. We’re going to see the development of new technologies that will simply astound us – from increasingly capable robots and other applications of AI to huge breakthroughs in biotechnology. The winners are going to be those who identified the truly transformational technologies early on in their development and invested wisely. While riskier (potentially far riskier) than most of your investments should be, a basket of new-technology stocks should be considered for the growth part of your portfolio. I see the Age of Transformation as a 100% probability.
Just for the record, I also see a continuation of the global deflationary environment and a slowing of the velocity of money until we have some type of resolution concerning sovereign debt. Central banks will continue to try to solve the “crises” I mentioned above with monetary policy, but monetary policy will simply not be enough to stem the tide. Central banks can paddle as hard as they like into the waves of change, but they cannot reverse their powerful flow.
Now, let’s look further at each of the waves that are forming into a potential tsunami.
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