High-performing hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham is known for his doom-and-gloom outlook. But his latest shareholder letter, called “Welcome to Dystopia”, updates the merely “terrifying” problems of eurozone financial contagion and U.S. debt with worldwide instability and social collapse.
In his February quarterly letter, Grantham (left) urged investors to “try to contain natural optimism”; in December, he warned the U.S. was falling behind other developed nations, even the U.K. Consistently, he has urged investors to be overweight natural resources.
Though he stands by his resource recommendation, Grantham’s current thinking is not quite as cheerful as in the past. This is largely because the new era (beginning 10 years ago) of rising resource prices he started writing about a year ago has been aggravated by what he sees as the start (five years ago) of a full-blown food crisis.
The current spike in corn prices is more worrisome than the previous 2008 food crisis because the poor U.S. crop yield comes despite “very much larger plantings than were available in 2008.” What’s more, this is the third consecutive year of extremely bad weather, the improbability of which Grantham takes as confirmation of climate change.
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Grantham brings the case of Egypt as emblematic of the mathematical inescapability of crisis. The strategically important Middle Eastern country is already staggering under rising food prices that consume more than 40% of its food budget (in contrast to the 10% or 12% of developed-country budgets).
Now, declining crop yields combined with rising demand resulting from global population growth suggest the possibility that grain prices could double in the next 20 years.
While that would be “painful indeed even for rich countries,” for a country like Egypt whose population of 84 million is expected to swell to 140 million by 2050, “any material increases in real grain prices from here on are unlikely to be easily manageable,” Grantham writes.
The hedge fund manager concludes: “If you realize that several countries are in [Egypt’s] position and quite a few are worse off, then you realize how perilously thin the veneer of global stability is.”