The founder of research firm MacroMavens is down on U.S. stocks but bullish on China, gold miners, and oil.
FORTUNE — It isn’t always easy being a skeptic. Just ask Stephanie Pomboy, 43, a market strategist who jokes that she spent the first half of the year with “nary a cocktail party invitation” because of her bearish outlook. Pomboy, who founded her institutional research firm MacroMavens in 2002 and now advises top hedge funds like Passport Capital and giant money managers such as BlackRock and Fidelity, split off from the pack several months ago when she decried stocks and embraced gold and Treasuries. She has since been proved right on both counts. As growth in the U.S. grinds to a halt, Pomboy’s prognosis for the economy remains dreary: She forecasts a prolonged economic downturn, dampened by a secular decline in consumer spending. But she also sees opportunities. Pomboy told Fortune how investors can prepare for hard times ahead.
The market has been dismal so far this year. Could things get worse?
I’m betting that we’ll get some language from the Fed about extending quantitative easing and that Washington will continue to make a lot of noise but essentially do nothing. The economy will continue to stall, just continue decelerating. Then we’ll have an environment where expectations about earnings growth will have to come down, and there will be an increasing recognition that we’ve really accomplished nothing over the last three years.
If investors actually do start to accede to that reality, it’s going to be a major negative for the markets. All along, the hope has been, let’s give it another month, we’ll muddle through and it will be fine. If that complacency gets shaken up, there’s no reason the stock market won’t head back to the lows of the crisis.
So do you recommend avoiding stocks altogether?
I think there’s going to be de-risking in general. I expect the liquidity tide to recede, beaching all boats. It’s a question of picking the boats that are going to hold up better than others. In the long term, clearly you want to be building exposure to the new world order, which is going to be shaped by emerging-markets economies. The increasingly indebted and decrepit developed world will play a smaller role. I’m inclined to go long on emerging Asia, because those countries are primarily geared toward China. My view on China is that it may be a bubble, but it’s a centrally controlled economy. So it’s a bubble that can go on longer than you can remain solvent by betting against it. Their foreign-exchange stockpile is “ginormous” — that’s a technical term. They could buy 10% GDP growth for several years with just the foreign-exchange resources they have at present.
Treasury rates have hit new lows as prices have risen. Will Treasuries continue to outperform?
Intellectually, I can see the case for rates going lower. The deflationary undertones of the U.S. economy are very powerful. I would expect interest rates to stay low for a long time. I’d be shocked if rates were over 2.5% a year from now. So I definitely wouldn’t short Treasuries. But at these low nominal rates, it’s not particularly compelling to buy them either.
You don’t anticipate rising rates, but you’re bullish on gold. Why?
Forever, inflation was viewed as the primary driving force for gold. So when I suggested that gold and Treasury bonds would rally at the same time, it was seen as laughable. But people were looking at it backward. Gold didn’t go up because of inflation. Gold went up because the Fed pegged interest rates by printing dollars, which debased the currency, which fueled gold. Gold was going up because the Fed was monetizing.
There has been a lot of commentary lately about how cheap gold stocks are relative to bullion. If you think gold is going up, rather than trying to trade it from $1,800 an ounce to $2,000, you could buy a mining company and get significant leverage on that $200 move.
Are there other commodities you like right now?
I’m really interested in strategic resources — commodities that emerging nations like China are trying to stockpile. Oil would be at the forefront. I think it will continue to be a beneficiary of this global debasement of currency and the need for emerging nations to diversify the foreign exchange resources that they’re sitting on, which are being debased every single day. Why not take that money and spend it on building strategic oil reserves rather than watching it go up in smoke?
I don’t think it’s a mystery why oil is still over $80 at a time when the global economy is hardly booming. There’s silent demand coming from somewhere. Our emerging-markets creditors are opting to spend their excess dollars on commodities rather than U.S. Treasuries.
One problem with buying commodity funds is that the cost of rolling futures contracts erodes gains. I found a good way to get around that problem is to just go long on the Russian stock market, which has a correlation of more than 90% with the price of oil.
This article is from the October 17, 2011 issue of Fortune.
–In December, watch for Fortune’s ranking of the 2011 Wall Street All-Stars.