It was back in late 1999 that I first contacted Dr. Marc Faber in Hong Kong and sought his advice on investments. I had come across him on a website and bought a book about his past predictions. He was not as well known then outside Asia.
But what I had noticed was that he agreed with me that stock markets looked way overvalued as the Millennium approached and were heading for a crash. We met in his dingy office in Central in Hong Kong and I have been a fan ever since.
Yet a decade later and in my book not much has changed. I was perfectly right not to buy equities in 1999. They have moved sideways only, with some enormous fluctuations, and still look significantly overvalued. Today the S&P is in the mid-80s on price-to-earnings and actually much higher than in 1999.
Miracles do not happen
In March this year global stock markets crashed to a low point. Since then we have seen an almost miraculous recovery in financial markets, and a stabilization of global trade and industrial output at lower levels after a bigger and faster fall than in 1929.
But I don’t believe in miracles. What caused this recovery in financial markets is the aggressive printing of money, particularly in the US and UK via so-called quantitative easing. Equities have risen on this tidal wave of liquidity and currencies have devalued.
The result is a monstrous bubble in financial markets, bigger than in 1999 before the dot-com collapse. Dr. Faber has also noticed this phenomenon but appears convinced that money printing will continue to pump up the bubble on each correction, until a final collapse on some distant day.
I remain overly cautious perhaps, although I have made several great investments in the past decade unlike those who invested in the stock market in 1999. I think when you can identify an obvious bubble then it is best to be humble and stand aside, and not hope that you will be closest to the exit door when it blows up.
Having faith in the Fed
My faith in the ability of the Fed and US government to permanently deny gravity is also limited. I am a non-believer. Dr. Faber also heaps scorn on Mr. Bernanke and yet appears blinded by his charisma into thinking he can always make black turn into white.
What if the rally since March turns out to be part of the phase four down cycle described by Dr. Faber in his own investment classic ‘Tomorrow’s Gold’? Then it is a false recovery based on false optimism about a coming recovery, when in reality a further downturn is coming as the stimulus package and low interest rates become unsustainable.
Liquidity fueled rallies are notoriously fickle. Like J.P. Morgan’s taxi on a rainy Friday night in New York it tends not to be there when you need it most.
So if you put money into equities for 2010 then you are investing in a market completely miss-valued on fundamentals and prompt up by a liquidity bubble that is bound to ultimately pop.
The cunning plan of the banks is apparently to shift their bad debts into equity before the market crashes, thereby finally dumping their bad debts on to shareholders. If Marc Faber is right about the Fed’s ability to keep the bubble going, they might pull it off.
Cash and gold
Cash or gold sound a better investment, for in equities you risk losing a great deal of money and the upside will be limited. As in late 1999 I would sooner play safe and invest to make real money when asset prices are very much cheaper. That opportunity will occur again but only after the equity bubble has blown up.
Is it not odd that equity markets are leveraging up again just as business around the world is de-leveraging? That alone ought to keep you out of equities. For it means real business is still contracting. And do you want to buy shares in a contracting business? Why no of course not, and yet that is exactly what you are doing if you buy equities now, so why do it?
Stock markets around the world also still look highly valued by historical standards, even that bubble of 1999 has never fully deflated. In the past stock markets have faced long periods of much lower price-to-earnings ratios, and that is not where you will want to be invested for future capital gains.
About Peter Cooper:
Oxford University educated financial journalist Peter Cooper found himself made redundant by Emap plc in London in the mid-1990s and decided to rebuild his career in Dubai as launch editor of the pioneering magazine Gulf Business. He returned briefly to London in 1999 to complete his first book, a history of the Bovis construction group.
Then in 2000 he went back to Dubai to become an Internet entrepreneur, just as the dot-com market crashed. But he stumbled across the opportunity to become a partner in www.ameinfo.com, which later became the Middle East’s leading English language business news website.
Over the course of the next seven years he had a ringside seat as editor-in-chief writing about the remarkable transformation of Dubai into a global business and financial hub city. At the same time www.ameinfo.com prospered and was sold in 2006 to Emap plc for $27 million, completing the career circle back to where it began a decade earlier.
He remains a lively commentator and columnist as a freelance journalist based in Dubai and travels extensively each summer with his wife Svetlana. His financial blog www.arabianmoney.net is attracting increasing attention with its focus on investment in gold and silver as a means of prospering during a time of great consumer price inflation and asset price deflation.