Why Jeremy Grantham changed his mind

The opinions of Jeremy Grantham, veteran investor and founder of Boston-based money-management firm GMO, have been featured regularly in posts on the Investment Postcards blog. Against the background of his general disregard for  conventional wisdom, his turnaround in early March from a perma-bearish stance to a more bullish demeanour was particularly closely followed.

“… be aware that the market does not turn when it sees light at the end of the tunnel. It turns when all looks black, but just a subtle less black than the day before,” he said in March in a newsletter entitled “Reinvesting when terrified“. He also cautioned investors not to fall prey to “terminal paralysis” that often sets in after a financial crisis.

A recent interview by SmartMoney with Grantham provides insight on why he has changed his mind and his prognosis for the future. A few excerpts from the interview are shared below.

SmartMoney: In 2007 you were worried the global financial market could fall apart, and you said a market downturn was probably coming. Okay, say it: “I told you so.”

Jeremy Grantham: That seems so long ago. I felt like saying that a few months ago, but now onward and upward, and wait for the next unexpected twist.

SM: Why were you so certain things were going to get so ugly?

G: There wasn’t a whole lot of doubt where I was coming from. I thought the fair value of the S&P was 925; the S&P went to 1500. And by 2006 the housing bubble was at a 100-year peak. This was the 32nd asset bubble that we’ve tracked, and all but the U.K. housing bubble have popped.

SM: … for the first time in years, you like US stocks.

JG: We think a fair price for the S&P 500 index is 900. By sheer divine intervention we bought into the market on Mar. 6, the day it hit the recent low of 666. It’s likely, but far from certain, that we’ll go back and make a new low. You aren’t going to get to buy at the absolute low unless you have a time machine.

SM: Anything else besides US stocks?

JG: US stocks were nicely cheap, and frankly, the rest of the world was even cheaper. In early March, when we bought, we invested only in stocks we thought would have a 10 to 14 percent average annual return after inflation. That’s magnificent. We haven’t seen anything like that in 20 years. It was somewhat disappointing that prices moved up so fast in just a couple of weeks. The odds are a bit more than 50-50 that we will go back and test that low.

SM: So you’ve made a quick buck. Now what?

JG: You have a set of possibilities. First, if the market nosedives, it’s easy: You buy. The second is confusing, when the market just goes sideways, between 700 and 800. The market is irritatingly cheap then, but not super cheap. The longer that goes on, the less probability we will set a new low, so we’ll ultimately put money each month into the market.

SM: What if stocks keep rallying?

JG: If the market goes higher, above 950, and then starts moving sideways, between 950 and 1050, we probably do very little. Then the market is moderately overpriced.

SM: Over the long haul, is there any particular industry or sector you like?

JG: The people who move quickly in this market can make money. The people who invest in energy alternatives will make more. Alternative energies and combating climate change are the single most important economic initiatives over the next 10 years-really over the next 50 years. It will be a very exciting next 50 years.

SM: Will we get out of this mess?

JG: The stimulus is so great in the United States, China and the United Kingdom, it will kick the economy up. GDP will go back positive for two to three quarters. They’ll assume everything is settled, that throwing money at it has worked. But the long-term imbalance between overproducers [like China] and overspenders [like the US] will continue. It’ll be a multiyear drag on growth.

SM: We’re just throwing money at the problems?

JG: If the problem is that we consume too much and borrow too much, does it make sense to borrow more and spend more? It doesn’t make sense to solve alcoholism by giving an alcoholic a quart of whiskey, but everyone believes that we must stimulate. So that’s why we feel this is a temporary cure. This is like when you revive the drunk, he staggers down a few blocks, then falls down again.

SM: That does not sound promising.

JG: We’re not rich, and we’re undersaved and underpensioned. Those will be a real brake on economic growth. This will be a pretty long recovery period, longer than we’re used to, but hopefully not as long as Japan took. It will not be as long as the Depression, but it will be several years, and not just two. Lord knows we have had several fat years.

Originally published at Prieur du Plessis’s International Investment Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.