The legendary investor is sticking for now with the two Cs: China and commodities.
WELL, BANK EXECUTIVES and investors can breathe a sigh of relief: Jim Rogers has covered the short positions on financial stocks he put in place ahead of last year's massive meltdown.
But just because this influential investor isn't betting that big banks will fall much further doesn't mean he's confident they will stage a lasting rally either. He feels similarly about U.S. stocks in general.
"I am skeptical about the rally, and the world economy for the next year or two or three," he says. "But if stocks go down, I can make money with commodities."
Rogers, now 66, gained fame as George Soros' hedge-fund partner in the 1970s and 1980s. After retiring from professional money manager in his late 30s, the Alabama native tooled around Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America visiting emerging markets, one by one. His resulting book, Investment Biker, helped to popularize emerging market investing at the outset of a bull market for the sector.
He also helped to popularize commodity investing, which for decades was the province of niche investors. In the 1990s, he developed commodity indexes based on futures contracts that in recent years have been turned into exchange-traded funds available to all investors. His 2004 book, Hot Commodities, came ahead of a surge prices for energy, metals, and agriculture.
Since its inception in July 1998, the Rogers International Commodities Index has gained 158%, while the S&P 500 has fallen 23%. And that gain for the commodities index comes despite the fact that it's lost more than half of its value since last July. At these levels, Rogers has been a buyer.
These days, Rogers, now 66, is sticking close to home in Singapore with his wife, Paige Parker, and two small daughters. He's about to release his latest book, A Gift to My Children: A Father's Lessons for Life and Investing (Random House), in which he encourages other people's children to travel widely and learn Mandarin so they can reap the rewards of China's economic boom.
Recently, Rogers talked to Barrons.com by phone from his Singapore home.
Q: When you last did a lengthy interview with Barron's magazine a year ago (see "Light Years Ahead of the Crowd," April 14, 2008) you were lightening up on emerging markets investments. Well, you called that one right. But now that many of those markets have fallen from their highs of recent years, are you more optimistic?
A: No. I've sold all emerging markets stock except the ones in China. I bought more Chinese shares in October and November during the panic, but I have not bought China or any other stock markets including the U.S. since then. I'm not buying anything in China right now because the Chinese market ran up maybe 50% since last November. It's been the strongest market in the world in the past six months and I don't like jumping into something that has been that run up. Still, I'm not thinking of selling these stocks either. I think if it goes down I'll buy more. I think you will find that it's the single strongest market in the world since last fall.
Q: In your latest book, you talk of China as the great investment opportunity of the 21st century, just as the U.S. was in the 20th century. What percentage of a typical American investor's portfolio should be in China?
A: If they can't even find China on a map, I don't think they should have anything in China. They should know something about China before they invest there. If they have the same convictions that I do then they should probably have a lot. If you asked me that question in 1909 about the U.S. stock market, I would have said to put 100% of your money in the U.S.
Q: Might it make sense to have a greater weighting in a diversified mix of Chinese stocks than in U.S. stocks?
A: Well yes. Just as in 1909, if you were German or Chinese, you should have had the largest percentage of your money in the United States. The idea of investing is to make money, not to have some sort of political agenda.
Q: That being said, you currently think Chinese stocks are bid-up now, so you're not buying at these levels. So what have you been buying lately?
A: I have been buying commodities through the Rogers commodity indexes I developed because my lawyer won't let me buy individual commodities. I recently bought the all four Rogers indexes – the Elements Rogers International Commodities Index (ticker:RJI) as well as the three specialty indexes, the International Metals (RJZ), the International Energy (RJN), and the International Agriculture (RJA.) That's how I invest in commodities and that's what I bought last week. I have been buying these shares since last fall and up to last week.
Q: Though you got out of emerging markets last year before they fell hard, you seemed be caught by surprise by the fall-off in commodity prices last year. Is that right?
A: Yes, I was surprised. I did not expect commodities to go down that much and in retrospect it was a period of forced liquidation for many (professional) investors. You know AIG went bankrupt, which was huge in commodities. Lehman Brothers was big in commodities.
But at least I was shorting the investment banks at the time and other financials such as Citigroup and Fannie Mae. So I was hedged by being long commodities and short the other things such as financials and as you know most of them were down from 80% to 100%, so I more than made up on my shorts than I lost on my longs. So thank God for (the stock decline in) Citigroup and thank God (for the decline) in Fannie Mae.
Q: Now despite the recent stock-market rally that started in March, many U.S. stocks are trading well off their 2007 highs. How come you see no value to this market?
A: I am not buying U.S. companies mainly because I think we may have seen a bottom but I don't think we have seen the bottom. I am skeptical about the rally, the world economy for the next year or two or three. But if stocks go down, I can make money with commodities. In the 1970s, commodities went through the roof even though stocks were a disaster. In the 1930s, commodities rallied first and went up the most long before stocks pulled it together.
Q: Can you summarize the reasons for your bullishness about commodities?
A: It depends on the supply and demand. And we have had a dearth of supply. Nobody has invested in productive capacity for 25 or 30 years now. The inventories of food are the lowest they have been in 50 years and you have a shortage of farmers even right now because most farmers are old men because it has been such a horrible business for 30 years. And as for metals, nobody can get a loan to open a mine as you know. Who is going to give you money to open a zinc mine? It takes at least 10 years to open a mine so it's going to be 15 or 20 years before we see new mines come on. Nobody has been opening mines for 30 years and they are not going to. And in the meantime reserves are declining. As for oil, the International Energy Agency came out recently with a study showing that oil reserves worldwide were declining at the rate of 6% or 7% a year.
That does not mean that if suddenly the U.S. goes bankrupt that everything won't collapse in price. But I would rather be in commodities because it's the only thing I know where the fundamentals are improving. They are not improving for Citibank or General Motors but the supply situation in commodities is such that when demand comes back, then commodities are going to be the best place to be in my view.
Q: What do you think of bonds?
A: I am anticipating shorting bonds -- the U.S. long bond. It's about the only real bubble around that I can see right now -- other than the U.S. dollar. I am not shorting bonds at this moment because I've shorted plenty of bubbles in my day, and I have learned that you better wait because they go up higher than any rational person can anticipate. But my plan is to short the long bond in the U.S. sometime in the foreseeable future.
Q: I've read that you think the penchant of the last two presidential administrations for bailing out failing U.S. companies is a big mistake and will contribute to prolonging this recession. You argue that it's best to let these companies all go bankrupt. How bad can the economy get?
A: Yes, politicians are making mistakes. In Japan, the problem has lasted for 19 years. I hope that it doesn't last 19 years in the U.S. The approach that works is to let them (U.S. banks and automakers) collapse and clean out the system. The idea that phony accounting is the solution (through changes in mark-to-market rules) is ludicrous. And the idea that a debt problem and an excessive spending problem can be cured with more debt and more spending is ludicrous.
It's laughable on its face, but politicians think they've got to do something. Unfortunately, they are doing the wrong things and they are going to make it worse.
The 21st century belongs to China
According to Rogers, the 19th century was the era of the British Empire and the 20th century was the U.S.’ heyday. But the 21st century is China’s (though the rest of Asia is definitely going to get a boost too).
Jim Rogers is not a Ben Bernanke fan
Yep, it’s a fact. No “Team Bernanke” shirts for Jim Rogers (who said to scattered applause during the Q&A session that if he was in charge of the U.S. economy he would “abolish the Fed and resign.”).
Rogers is appalled by the government’s actions—Bernanke’s in particular. The U.S. government’s strategy calls for the debasement of the dollar, he says, calling it a “horrible policy.” While he concedes it can work in the short term, it NEVER works in the mid- or long term.
“He’s going to run those printing presses until we run out of trees, because that’s the only thing he knows,” Rogers said of Bernanke.
Add that on top of the country’s rapidly growing astronomical debt, and Rogers believes you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Commodities, commodities, commodities
OK, as mentioned before, there are 3 billion people in Asia, most of whom are aspiring to play the home version of the American Dream game show. And let’s face it: American society is largely about consumption. We like stuff―we buy it, we wear it, we eat it, we flaunt it, we sometimes even bedazzle it (yeah, Google that). So that’s a lot more consumption on the global level. Rogers notes that while consumption is expected to increase exponentially, not a lot of capacity has been added in the last few decades for a lot of commodities. Meaning, not a lot of new refineries have been built, and not a lot of new resources have been discovered or excavated for a variety of commodities.
U.S. government bonds are the next big bubble
Well, would you lend money to us? Rogers says short-term bonds are probably OK, but he advises getting out of anything with a longer maturity. He calls it “inconceivable” that anyone would lend money to the U.S. for 30 years at the going rate, and notes that the U.S. was a creditor nation as recently as 1987.
“Now the U.S. is the largest debtor nation in the history of the world,” he said.