The way ahead is asset spread

Sell Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia to invest in China, finance guru Marc Faber tells Martin Merz

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 1:27am

Legendary bearish investor Marc Faber, aka Dr Doom, shares his signature insights on gold, art, cash and inflation


Where do you put your money?
I advocate that investors diversify their assets because we don't know what the world will look like in five years' time. People should have some real estate, some equities, some bonds and some gold. The weighting will depend on market conditions, but at all times I would advocate some diversification as it allows you more flexibility. If one asset class goes really wrong you still have the others and they are not all that closely correlated. Then you can further diversify real estate and equities in different sectors of the market and geographical locations.


Do you invest in property?
Yes, I also have real estate, but there are management issues. You have to watch it and property rights are not well protected in many places. But the idea of owning real estate globally is a valid point.


Faber's cheery demeanour clouds at mention of his notorious moniker - Dr Doom - and he twitches the here-we-go-again twitch.
The brand has been diluted because some people have now also adopted the name. There is also a Rolling Stones song called Doom and Gloom. I will sue them for copyright violation.

I don't care about the name. But frequently you will hear some clueless idiot say, 'He's always bearish.' That is wrong. I actually turned very positive about equities at their lows in 2009. On the day the markets bottomed out, Bloomberg interviewed me and I said I would rather buy than sell at this level because the market was oversold and the mood was very negative.

And again a year ago when the S&P was at 1,074 the mood was very negative. Now it's a different scenario and the economy is a special story.

Most of my buy recommendations related to assets that were completely out of favour.

If I have an asset class like gold 10 years ago, everybody said, "It's gone down for 20 years." Yes, it had gone down for 20 years - 10 years ago - but nobody was interested at that time. Now there is more interest, but still not much. But at that time there was zero interest.

So nobody pays attention to when I see buy opportunities.

On the other hand, when I see selling opportunities, like in '87, or in Japan in 1990, or before 1990, or in Nasdaq stocks when everybody was bullish and I was turning bearish, then everybody listens. They don't act - they think I am crazy - but at least they listen.

So it's easier to say, 'Oh he's bearish.' They don't look at the times I am being very positive about asset prices. People in Hong Kong still like to say: 'Oh, Dr Doom, he will always be right when there is a recession.'

Some of my friends are much more negative than I am about equities. I tell them I look for a correction of 20 per cent. After that we will have to look at the situation and see how it evolves. But I have friends - and they're not stupid - who think the market will go down 90 per cent.

Where I'm mostly negative is US government bonds. They may rally for 10 days or even three months, but from a longer-term point of view I think they offer very poor reward and quite a lot of risk.

I just wonder why gold is up from less than US$300 in 1999 to US$1,700 today; it's a reflection of the loss of purchasing power of paper money. And that is inflation: the loss of purchasing power. That is the definition of inflation. And that can come through asset inflation, or through consumer price inflation, or even wage inflation. It can come in many different guises.

Just to measure the price of a cup of coffee doesn't tell you anything about inflation because we are dealing with just one market: coffee. There is a shortage of coffee due to a bad crop and the price goes up, or there could be a good crop and the price goes down. That is just one item among thousands and thousands of items that you would have to measure to arrive at a reasonably reliable inflation rate.


You are keen on gold?
I was recently at a conference where someone said gold is not an asset. To this I say: is cash on the balance sheet of a corporation an asset or not? It is an asset if a corporation holds US$100 million in cash, they put it on the balance sheet as an asset. In this case I don't see why gold shouldn't be an asset. Is it an asset that generates dividends or pays interest? No.


In what form do you keep gold? In bullion form or in little pieces that you could exchange for vegetables?
Physical gold. Ingots of gold, but not in my basement. I also have coins. But if things get bad I'm not sure that even gold will be helpful. Maybe if you carry a gold coin they'll kill you on the street.

I'm simply saying that gold has some merit as a store of value, whereas cash at the present time with zero interest has no merit as a store of value. I maintain that in the long run the way I see central banks printing money that to hold all your money in cash because you think it's safe is a big risk.


What about art as an asset?
Eric Clapton bought three Richter paintings for US$3 million in 2003. He sold one for US$22 million. Is it an asset or is it not an asset? It doesn't generate a dividend. It doesn't generate any cash flow, and no interest payments. It's an asset, and he had the pleasure of looking at it while he owned it. So this is a form of inflation.

The problem with art is that it can go out of fashion and drop in value.

Cash can also go out of fashion and drop in value. And maybe the egos of hedge fund managers will also be severely deflated one day too.

Every inflation is eventually followed by deflation. Stocks they go up - the Nikkei went up to 39,000 and now it's at 8,000. The price of gold was US$850 in 1980 then it dropped to US$300. Everything goes up and eventually comes down.

One of the reasons I'm a little bit negative at the present time is that investors really believe, by and large, that prices will only go up - the art dealers think that the price of paintings will continue to go up and up and real estate people think the price of real estate will continue to go up, and fund managers think that stocks will continue to go up.

But if you look at the markets in 2007 then most stock markets were at a high point. The S&P was 1,576 at the time, then it went down to 666. Then we had QE1, QE2 and QE3 and we have massive deficits. These deficits were like I send you a cheque - most of it is transfer payments - and then you can go and spend it. But in the meantime the debt grows and grows and grows. So considering the quantitative easing and the deficits, and the same happened with the ECB who also increased their balance sheets, why are markets still below the 2007 highs?

When I consider all this then I know that something is not quite right. The market is telling you the Fed's policies and the intervention by governments are very suspect because otherwise the markets would be higher.

There is an artificially low interest rate on bonds because the Fed is buying bonds. When the rate of the bonds goes down the price of the bonds goes up, so I think we're in a bond bubble. And probably more so than equities.


China rising - do you buy into China rising exponentially forever?
No country has risen exponentially forever. In the course of economic development, there are bouts of very strong growth - like in Japan between 1950 and the late 1980s, or South Korea and Taiwan from 1965 to the 1990s - and then invariably growth slows down because the economy reaches a size where it cannot expand at the same rate as when it was small.

China had very strong growth from 1990 to 2007, a recession in 2008, then a very strong response by the government with monetary and fiscal policies, which boosted growth artificially from 2009 to late 2011. Since then the economy has definitely slowed down.

Is China in a recession now? I don't know because it is very difficult to measure GDP as the figure depends on a personal consumption expenditure price deflator that you use, that is, the deflation rate you use.

My estimate is that the Chinese economy at the present time is growing at a maximum of 4 per cent per annum. Maybe they will go into recession. How many recessions did the US have between 1800 and today? In the 19th century there were already 19 recessions. There were cycles when the economy grew at a faster rate and then it slows down, and sometimes it goes into recession. This is absolutely normal.

The stock market in China tells you a little bit of the story. They may not reflect entirely the economic situation, but the Shanghai index was at 6,000 in 2007 and now we're at 2,000. But definitely China's purchases of commodities have slowed down. Most of the Asian countries' exports have been declining, as well as industrial production.

But what do I care about economic growth? I care about whether stocks go up or down, whether bonds or currencies go up or down.


Well what's going on in the stock markets?
If we look at the S&P, it was at 666 on March 6, 2009, and a year ago it was at 1,074. Now it is 1,470. So it has gone up a lot already. From the 2009 lows, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines are up 250 per cent. So we're not talking about depressed markets.


Who's investing in the Greek stock market?
Well a lot of people are bottom fishers, and they're up 65 per cent. So I'm saying that if detritus like the Greek market can go up 65 per cent, I presume that China could also rebound by 20 per cent. The stock market may have already discounted a recession in China, though I'm not entirely sure that this is the case.

If we look at the different markets in Asia, the asset allocators, including a hedge fund manager who doesn't know that there is inflation in the system - maybe he should sell Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia now and invest in China. I prefer to play China through Hong Kong.

I think Hong Kong shares have also rebounded quite strongly from the recent lows, so I don't think they have a huge upside potential.