Sunday, April 27, 2008

GMO 1Q08 Quarterly Letter

I highly recommend the 1Q08 letter from Jeremy Grantham of GMO LLC. As put by Barry Ritholz at The Big Picture, "The 1Q 2008 letter looks at asset bubbles and puts the role of the Fed under the leadership of Greenspan and Bernanke under the microscope, with a wistful nod to Paul Volcker:"

You can find the letter here. Below are a few of my favorite passages:

"Paul Volcker inherited about as big a mess as we have today. He worked out what he had to do and did it with unusual lack of concern about what Congress thought of the necessary pain involved and the number of enemies he might make. He paid the price for forthright behavior by being replaced, despite a record for correct and tough behavior that makes for the most invidious comparison today."

"This has indeed not been our finest hour in the U.S. Times are bad enough, in fact, to make us mourn the American leadership skills of WWII and the generosity and foresight of the Marshall Plan. We can all wonder at the incredible vision, drive, organizational skill, and willingness to sacrifice resources that were required by the Manhattan Project and compare it to the rudderless or even deliberate avoidance of leadership of the greatest issues today: climate change and energy security. We can only wonder what a Manhattan Project aimed at alternative energy might have accomplished by now, had it been started 15 years ago. What we have had in lieu of vision, leadership, and backbone is a series of easy paths taken."

"The idea that occasional economic setbacks might benefit the system in the long run was one of the early ideas to disappear. Yet if you prop up weak sisters who would otherwise fail and in failing present their more efficient competitors with extra growth, you must surely weaken the system. Desperation pricing from weak firms who simply should not exist can weaken the profitability of a whole industry, as it has for the airlines. The average efficiency of most industries is reduced with at least
some effects on our global competitiveness. With a slightly lower average return on equity, the ability to reinvest drops so that, in this world of moral hazard where recessions are few and mild, GDP growth is a little less than it might have been."

"The defense of bailouts is that the alternative is ugly. But surely the penalties for excessive risk taking, issuing flaky paper, passing it on – often in its entirety – to others, and not even understanding the consequences of the low grade paper that you yourself issue should be ugly. “Yes, of course, we would like to punish the excessive risk takers” goes the line, but we can’t do it without hurting the innocent economy. But we will never know what can be absorbed if the penalties are always removed by a bailout. In more traditional times, say, from 1945 to 1985, the economy could absorb substantial punishment from recessions and still grow faster than it has done in the last 10 years. So in a crisis à la Bear Stearns we now transfer pain from risk takers to innocent tax payers. Worse, even the routine treatment for the bubble breaking disease does the same. By raising the slope of the yield curve, the Fed deliberately benefits its bankers and hedge funds that borrow short and invest long and punishes pensioners and others who are trying to make a safe but still reasonable return at the short end."

"The real incompetence here goes back over 20 years: the refusal to deal with investment bubbles as they form, combined with willingness, even eagerness, to rush to the rescue as they break. It’s almost as if neither Greenspan nor Bernanke allows himself to see the bubbles. Greenspan was always conflicted and contradictory about whether bubbles could even exist or not. Bernanke, in contrast, has more of the typical academic’s certainty that the established belief in market efficiency is correct and therefore investment bubbles must be merely the product of investors’ overheated imaginations. It would be convenient to have such an important role as Fed Chairman filled by someone who actually deals with the real world, messy or not, that is given to inconvenient bursts of euphoria and riddled by considerations of career and business risk, which modify behavior far away from economic efficiency."

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