As “annus horribilis” 2008 recedes into the background it might be timely to look back a few years and ask: Who really saw all of this coming? Was such an economic and financial disaster foreseeable? What kind of financial sage would have predicted it three or four years ago, in the middle of the “go-go” years? Well, it turns out there was such a prescient, counterintuitive person, keen of mind and generous of soul. That person himself passed away at age 95 in mid-2008. He was, Sir John Templeton, stock picker of the century, innovator, renowned philanthropist, and always a step or more ahead of the pack…far ahead.
I had the benefit of knowing Sir John and visiting him often where he lived, at Lyford Cay, the Bahamas. I also served on his board of advisors of the John Templeton Foundation. So more recently, in the throes of deepening recession, massive foreclosures, government bailouts, a global stock sell-off, indeed, near financial collapse and all around general — doom and gloom, I found myself repeatedly wondering out loud the same question: “What Would Sir John Say?” Then I remembered. I happened upon this urgent and wise “Memo” from him, written in June 2005. If only we had all taken it to heart and acted upon it then, how much better off we would be now. Read on:
Subject: Financial Chaos
By: John M. Templeton
Date: June 15, 2005
Increasingly often people ask my opinion on what is likely to happen financially. I am now thinking that the dangers are more numerous and far larger than ever before in my lifetime. Quite likely, as we near the end of the first six months of 2005, the peak of prosperity is behind us.
In the past century, protection could be obtained by keeping your net worth in cash or government bonds. Now, the surplus capacities are so great, that most currencies or bonds are likely to continue losing their purchasing power.
Mortgages and other forms of debts are over ten-fold greater now than before 1970. This can lead to manifold increases in bankruptcy auctions.
Surplus capacity, which leads to intense competition, has already shown devastating effects on companies, which operate airlines, and is now beginning to show in companies in ocean shipping and other activities. Also, the present surpluses of cash and liquid assets have pushed yields on bonds and mortgages almost to zero when adjusted for higher costs of living. Clearly, major corrections are likely in the next few years.
Most of the methods of universities and other schools, which require residence, have become hopelessly obsolete. Probably, over half of the universities in the world will disappear as quickly in the next 30 years.
Obsolescence is likely to have a devastating effect in a wide variety of human activities, especially in those where advancement is hindered by restricted bureaucracies or by government regulations.
Increasing freedom of completion is likely to cause many established institutions to disappear with the next 50 years, especially in nations where there are limits on free competition.
Accelerating competition is likely to cause profit margins to continue to decrease and even become negative in various industries. Over ten-fold more persons, hopelessly indebted, leads to multiplying bankruptcies: not only for them, but also for many businesses that extend credit without collateral. When this occurs, voters are likely to insist on rescue-type subsidies, which transfer the debts of governments, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Research and discoveries in efficiency are likely to continue to accelerate. Probably, in as quickly as 50 years, as much as 90 percent of education will be done by electronics.
Now, with well over 100 independent nations on earth and rapid advances in communication, people with superior educational backgrounds are likely to progress more rapidly than others. These people with more advanced education are likely to be true innovators.
Comparisons show that prosperity flows toward those nations having the greatest freedom of competition. Especially, electronics and computers are likely to become helpful in all human activities, including even helping persons who have not yet learned to read.
Hopefully, many of you can help us to find published journals and websites and electronic search engines to help us benefit from accelerating research and discoveries.
Not yet have I found any better method to prosper during the future financial chaos, which is likely to last many years, than to keep your net worth in shares in those corporations, which have proven to have the widest profit margins and the most rapidly increasing profits. Earning power is likely to continue to be valuable, especially if diversified among many nations.
He was, you have to admit, amazingly spot on. But what would Sir John say today in the midst of the greatest recession since the thirties, a global credit crunch of unparalleled proportions and unprecedented market turmoil?
I was with him less than two years ago at the famous Morgan Stanley equity conference at Lyford Cay and he was weak and frail from plain old age. He attended as much as he could because his mind was still sharp, even if his body was in decline. In the final session all the giants of financial services, the hedgies, asset managers, and top fund gurus told a bit about their plans for the future year or so. When Sir John spoke the room fell deafeningly silent, like in those old EF Hutton commercials, you could actually hear a pin drop. When he said he would “short” the financials, autos, airlines, housing, the QQQ, and Wal-Mart it was like a bomb had gone off and people (in this case the largest hedge funds and asset managers in the world) gasped for air. You see, Sir John was not known to normally — go short. One person who runs the world’s largest private equity fund asked sheepishly, “Is there nothing you would buy?” Sir John’s quiet but sure answer I will always remember. He said, “No, because nothing is cheap yet, but they will be shortly.”
Over his long lifetime Sir John while constantly urging for free markets, competition, spiritual knowledge and moral character would also be searching the world over and buying cheap stocks, and then holding them to sell when they had fully appreciated. He would see this moment, this next year, 2009, I think, as the buying opportunity of a lifetime, not only in the U.S. but also, as was his predilection, in markets around the world. Mark his words and check back in five, ten, or twenty years. And when in doubt always ask, “What Would Sir John Say?”