You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.
– Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” 1965
Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
– William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Did you feel the economic weather change this week? The shift was subtle, like fall tippy-toeing in after a pleasant summer to surprise us, but I think we’ll look back and say this was the moment when that last grain of sand fell onto the sandpile, triggering many profound fingers of instability in a pile that has long been close to collapse. This is the grain of sand that sets off those long chains of volatility that have been gathering for the last five years, waiting to surprise us with the suddenness and violence of the avalanche they unleash.
I suppose the analogy sprang to mind as I stepped out onto my balcony this morning. Texas has been experiencing one of the most pleasant summers and incredibly wonderful falls in my memory. One of the conversations that seem to occur regularly among locals who have a few decades under their belts here, is just how truly remarkable the weather has been. So it was a bit of a surprise to step out and realize the air had turned brisk. In retrospect it shouldn’t have fazed me. The air has been turning brisk in Texas at some point in October for the six decades that my memory covers, and for quite a few additional millennia, I suspect.
But this week, as I worked through my ever-growing mountain of reading, I felt a similar awareness of a change in the economic climate. Like fall, I knew it was coming. In fact, I’ve been writing about it for years! But just as fall tells us that it’s time to get ready for winter, at least in more northerly climes, the portents of the moment suggest to me that it’s time to make sure our portfolios are ready for the change in season.
Shakespeare coined the marvelous term sea change in his play The Tempest. Modern-day pundits are liable to apply the word to the relatively minor ebb and flow of events, but Shakespeare meant sea change as a truly transformative event, a metamorphosis of the very nature and substance of a man, by the sea.
In this week’s letter we’ll talk about the imminent arrival of a true financial sea change, the harbinger of which was some minor commentary this week about the economic climate. This letter is arriving to you a little later this week, as I had quite some difficulty writing it, because, while the signal event is rather easy to discuss, the follow-on consequences are myriad and require more in-depth analysis than I’ve been able to bring to them on short notice. As I wrestled with what to write, I finally came to realize that this sea change is going to take multiple letters to properly describe. In fact, it might eventually take a book.
So, in a departure from my normal writing style, I am going to offer you a chapter-by-chapter outline for a book. As with all book outlines, it will be simply full of bones but without much meat on them, let alone dressed up with skin and clothing. I will probably even connect the bones in the wrong order and have to go back later and replace a leg bone with a rib, but that is what outlines are for. There is clearly enough content suggested by this outline to carry us through the next several months; and given the importance of the subject, I expect to explore it fully with you. Whether it actually becomes a book, I cannot yet say.
I should note that much of what follows has grown out of in-depth conversations with my associate Worth Wray and our mutual friends. We’ve become convinced that the imbalances in the global economic system are such that the risks are high that another period of economic volatility like the Great Recession is not only likely but is now in the process of developing. While this time will be different in terms of its causes and symptoms (as all such stressful periods differ from each other in many ways), there will be a rhyme and a rhythm that feels all too familiar. That should actually be good news to most readers, as the last 14 years have taught us a little bit about living through periods of economic volatility. You will get to use those skills you learned the hard way.
This will not be the end of the world if you prepare properly. In fact, there will be plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the coming volatility. If the weatherman tells you winter is coming, is he a prophet of doom? Or is it reasonable counsel that maybe we should get our winter clothes out?
Three caveats before we get started. One, I am often wrong but seldom in doubt. And while I will marshal facts and graphs aplenty to reinforce my arguments, I would encourage you to think through the counterfactuals presented by those who will aggressively disagree.
Two, while it goes without saying, you are responsible for your own decisions. It is easy for me to say that I think the bond market is going to go in a particular direction. I can even bet my personal portfolio on my beliefs. I can’t know your circumstances, but if you are similar to most investors, this is the time to make sure you have a truly balanced portfolio with serious risk management in the event of a sudden crisis.
Three, give me (and Worth, whom I am going to draft to write some letters) some time to develop the full range of our ideas. To follow on with my weather analogy, the air is just starting to get crisp, and winter is still a couple months away. Absent something extraordinary, we are not going to get snow and a blizzard in Dallas, Texas, tomorrow. We may still have some time to prepare, but at a minimum it is time to start your preparations. So with those caveats, let’s look at an outline for a potential book called Sea Change.
I turned publicly bearish on gold in 1986. At the time (a former life in a galaxy far, far away), I was actually writing a newsletter on gold stocks and came to the conclusion that gold was going nowhere – and sold the letter. I was still bearish some 16 years later. Then, on March 1, 2002, I wrote in Thoughts from the Frontline that it was time to turn bullish on gold. Gold at that time was languishing around $300 an ounce, near its all-time bottom.
What drove that call? I thought that the future directions of gold and the dollar were joined at the hip. A bit over a year later I laid out the case for a much weaker dollar in a letter entitled “King Dollar Meets the Guillotine,” which later became the basis for a chapter in Bull’s Eye Investing. As the chart below shows, the dollar had risen relentlessly through the early Reagan years, doubling in value against the currencies of America’s global neighbors, causing exporters to grumble about US dollar policy. Then the bottom fell out, as the dollar made new lows in 1992. From 1992 through 2002 the dollar recovered about half of its value, getting back to roughly where it was in 1967. Elsewhere about that time, I predicted that the euro, which was then at $0.88, would rise to $1.50 before falling back to parity over a very long period of time. I believe we are still on that journey.
One of the biggest drivers of economic fortunes in the global economy is the currency markets. The value of your trading currency affects every aspect of your business and investments. It is fundamental in nature. While most Americans never even see a piece of foreign currency, every time we walk into Walmart (WMT) , we are subject to the ebb and flow of global currency valuations, as are Europeans and indeed every person who participates in the movement of goods and services around the globe. In fact, globalization means that currency values are more important than ever. The world is more tightly interconnected now than it has ever been, which means that events which previously had no effect upon global affairs can trigger cascades of events that affect everyone.
I believe we are in the early stages of a profound currency-valuation sea change. I have lived through five major changes in the value of the dollar in the 45 years since Nixon closed the gold window. And while we are used to 40% to 50% moves in the stock market and other commodity prices happening in just a few years (or less), large movements in major trading currencies typically take many years, if not decades, to develop. I believe we are in the opening act of a multi-year US dollar bull market.
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