[Resource Shortages] Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever – by Jeremy Grantham (GMO Quarterly Letter – April 2011)

GMO is a global investment management firm committed to providing sophisticated clients with superior asset management solutions and services. As of March 31, 2011, GMO managed nearly $108 billion* in client assets using a blend of traditional judgments with innovative quantitative methods to find undervalued securities and markets. (GMO website)

Jeremy Grantham, who co-founded GMO in 1977, is the chief investment strategist and is an active member of GMO’s asset allocation division.

Summary of the Summary

The world is using up its natural resources at an alarming rate, and this has caused a permanent shift in their value. We all need to adjust our behavior to this new environment. It would help if we did it quickly.

Summary

 Until about 1800, our species had no safety margin and lived, like other animals, up to the limit of the food supply, ebbing and flowing in population.

 From about 1800 on the use of hydrocarbons allowed for an explosion in energy use, in food supply, and, through the creation of surpluses, a dramatic increase in wealth and scientific progress.

 Since 1800, the population has surged from 800 million to 7 billion, on its way to an estimated 8 billion, at minimum.

 The rise in population, the ten-fold increase in wealth in developed countries, and the current explosive growth in developing countries have eaten rapidly into our finite resources of hydrocarbons and metals, fertilizer, available land, and water.

 Now, despite a massive increase in fertilizer use, the growth in crop yields per acre has declined from 3.5% in the 1960s to 1.2% today. There is little productive new land to bring on and, as people get richer, they eat more grain-intensive meat. Because the population continues to grow at over 1%, there is little safety margin.

 The problems of compounding growth in the face of finite resources are not easily understood by optimistic, short-term-oriented, and relatively innumerate humans (especially the political variety).

 The fact is that no compound growth is sustainable. If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash. We must substitute qualitative growth for quantitative growth.

 But Mrs. Market is helping, and right now she is sending us the Mother of all price signals. The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70%. From 2002 until now, this entire decline was erased by a bigger price surge than occurred during World War II.

 Statistically, most commodities are now so far away from their former downward trend that it makes it very probable that the old trend has changed – that there is in fact a Paradigm Shift – perhaps the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.

 Climate change is associated with weather instability, but the last year was exceptionally bad. Near term it will surely get less bad.

 Excellent long-term investment opportunities in resources and resource efficiency are compromised by the high chance of an improvement in weather next year and by the possibility that China may stumble.

 From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives. This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.

 We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies. There is little time to waste.

Introduction

The purpose of this, my second (and much longer) piece on resource limitations, is to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common. (Previously, I had promised to update you when we had new data. Well, after a lot of grinding, this is our first comprehensive look at some of this data.)

Accelerated demand from developing countries, especially China, has caused an unprecedented shift in the price structure of resources: after 100 hundred years or more of price declines, they are now rising, and in the last 8 years have undone, remarkably, the effects of the last 100-year decline! Statistically, also, the level of price rises makes it extremely unlikely that the old trend is still in place. If I am right, we are now entering a period in which, like it or not, we must finally follow President Carter’s advice to develop a thoughtful energy policy and give up our carefree and careless ways with resources.

The quicker we do this, the lower the cost will be. Any improvement at all in lifestyle for our grandchildren will take much more thoughtful behavior from political leaders and more restraint from everyone. Rapid growth is not ours by divine right; it is not even mathematically possible over a sustained period.

Our goal should be to get everyone out of abject poverty, even if it necessitates some income redistribution. Because we have way overstepped sustainable levels, the greatest challenge will be in redesigning lifestyles to emphasize quality of life while quantitatively reducing our demand levels. A lower population would help. Just to start you off, I offer Exhibit 1: the world’s population growth. X marks the spot where Malthus wrote his defining work. Y marks my entry into the world. What a surge in population has occurred since then! Such compound growth cannot continue with finite resources. Along the way, you are certain to have a paradigm shift. And, increasingly, it looks like this is it!

For the rest of this insightful essay please go to the GMO website: http://www.gmo.com/websitecontent/JGLetterALL_1Q11.pdf

 

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