JEREMY GRANTHAM'S GOT A TRACK RECORD that's impossible to ignore—he called the Internet bubble, then the housing bubble. While moves like those have earned the famed forecaster the nickname "perma-bear," in early 2009 he also told clients at GMO, his $100 billion, Boston-based money-management firm, to jump back into the market. It was the same week that stocks hit their post-Lehman low.
Now, however, the outspoken Yorkshireman, who is chief investment strategist at GMO, is making headlines with a new prediction: Dire, Malthusian warnings about environmental catastrophe. To hear him tell it, the world is running out of food. Resources will only keep getting more expensive. And climate change looms over it all. Indeed, at times he sounds like someone Greenpeace would send door-to-door with a clipboard. (He's not above likening the coal-industry spin to the handiwork of Goebbels.) If it were anyone else, Wall Street would probably laugh him off. But because it's Jeremy Grantham, they just might listen.
Q: You've been ringing alarm bells about commodity prices. Why all the worry?
A: They came down for a hundred years by an average of 70 percent, and then starting around 2002, they shot up and basically everything tripled—and I mean, everything. I think tobacco was the only one that went down. They've given back a hundred years of price decline and they gave it back between '02 and '08, in six years. The game has changed. I suspect the game changed because of the ridiculous growth rates in China—such a large country, with 1.3 billion people using 45 percent of the coal used in the world, 50 percent of all the cement and 40 percent of all the copper. I mean these are numbers that you can't keep on rolling along without expecting something to go tilt.
Q: This led to some surprising conclusions, like your concerns about natural resources most of us have barely heard of.
A: We went through one by one, and we decided the most important, the most valuable and the most critical was phosphate or phosphorous. Phosphorous cannot be made, only placed. It is necessary for all living things. And we are mining it, and it's depleting. And I like to say, if that doesn't give you goosebumps, then you're tougher than me. That is a terrible equation. So I went to the professors, and I said, what's going to happen, and they said, 'Oh, there's plenty of phosphorous.' But what's going to happen when it runs out? 'Oh, there is plenty.' It's a really weak argument. We do have a lot, but 85 percent of the low-cost, high-quality phosphorous is in Morocco…and belongs to the King of Morocco. I mean, this is an odd situation. Much, much more constrained than oil in the Middle East ever was—and much more important in the end. And the rest of the world has maybe 50 years of reserve if we don't grow too fast.
Q: What are investors supposed to do?
A: The investment implications are, of course, own stock in the ground, own great resources, reserves of phosphorous, potash, oil, copper, tin, zinc—you name it. I'd be less enthusiastic about aluminum and iron ore just because there is so much. And I wouldn't own coal, and I wouldn't own tar sands. It's hugely expensive to build coal utilities, and the plants they have to build for tar sands are massive, and before they get their money back I suspect that the price of solar and wind will have come down so much.
So I wouldn't use that, but I think oil, the metals and particularly the fertilizers, I would own—and the most important of all is food. The pressures on food are worse than anything else, and therefore, what is the solution? Very good farming, which can be done. The emphasis from an investor's point of view is on very good farmland. It's had a big run. You can never afford to ignore price and value, but from time to time you can get good investments in farmland, and if you're prepared to go abroad, you can do it today. I wouldn't be too risky. I would stay with distinctly stable countries—Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil, Canada, of course, and the U.S. But I would look around, in what I call the nooks and crannies. And forestry is the same. Forestry is not a bad bargain, a little overpriced maybe, but it's in a world where everything is overpriced today, once again, courtesy of incredibly low interest rates that push people into investing. A wicked plot of the Federal Reserve.