The coming flight to quality stocks

October 27, 2010, 9:40 PM UTC

Leave it to Jeremy Grantham to blast Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former chairman Alan Greenspan in a rightfully scary missive titled “Night of the Living Fed.”

Jeremy Grantham, the institutional money manager in Boston who oversees nearly $100 billion, has been as critical of the Fed’s interest rate policies over the past 15 years as he has been adept at spotting bubbles fueled by the low rates. He warned clients of tech stocks more than a decade ago and more recently called a worldwide asset bubble before the meltdown in 2008. (Though he’s labeled a perma-bear, Grantham pounces on opportunities: on March 10, 2009, at the market’s lows, he encouraged clients to load up on stocks in a note titled “Reinvesting When Terrified.”)

His latest quarterly note reminds investors how dangerous it is for Bernanke and Co. to rely on ultra-low interest rates, and the resulting cheap debt, to promote economic growth. “My heretical view is that debt doesn’t matter all that much to long-term growth rates,” he writes. “In the real world, growth depends on real factors: the quality and quantity of education, work ethic, population profile, the quality and quantity of existing plant and equipment, business organization, the quality of public leadership (especially from the Fed in the U.S.), and the quality (not quantity) of existing regulations and the degree of enforcement.”

A graph of total debt compared to U.S. GDP growth drives home the point: as the U.S. tripled its debt compared to GDP in the past three decades, GDP growth slowed to 2.4% from its 100-year average of 3.4%.

Read Grantham’s entire note below (and we really encourage you to do so, even if it takes the better part of an afternoon). The most sobering section must be the effect that near zero percent interest rates has on retirees in the U.S.

“When rates are artificially low, income is moved away from savers, or holders of government and other debt, toward borrowers,” Grantham writes. “Today, this means less income for retirees and near-retirees with conservative portfolios, and

more profit opportunities for the financial industry; hedge funds can leverage cheaply and banks can borrow from the government and lend out at higher prices or even, perish the thought, pay out higher bonuses. This is the problem: there are more retirees and near-retirees now than ever before, and they tend to consume all of their investment income.”

Flight to quality

Since Grantham is foremost a stock investor, we’ll let you read his criticisms and instead highlight what he thinks it means for stocks. Grantham’s takeaway: don’t fight the Fed.

Stocks, which are overvalued by historical standards, can still run up 20% or more, he says.

Year three of a presidential cycle is typically a good time for stocks. Since FDR’s presidency, some 19 cycles have passed with only one bear market. That, coupled with low short-term interest rates, leads Grantham to affix 50/50 odds on the S&P 500 Index reaching 1,400 or 1,500 in the next year.

“There is also the definite possibility that we could slide back into a double dip, so we may get lucky and have a chance to buy cheaper stocks,” he writes. “But probably not yet. And, of course, if we get up to 1400 or 1500 on the S&P, we once again face the consequences of a badly overpriced market and overextended risk taking with six of my predicted seven lean years still ahead.”

To cope with seven lean years (more here), Grantham still proselytizes high-quality stocks: the 25% of companies in the S&P 500 with low-debt and high, stable returns.

“For good short-term momentum players, it may be heaven once again,” he writes. “Being (still) British, this is likely to be my nth opportunity to show a stiff upper lip.” And it may be easier even for average investors, he observes, to buy high-quality blue chips because they are getting “so cheap” relative to the market.

Recently, in the largest stock rally since 1932, Grantham often notes, high-quality blue chips have trailed the speculative, debt-laden companies within the S&P 500. He writes that chances are one in three that, come another rally in the next year, high-quality stocks will join in. “….Quality stocks are so cheap that they will ‘unexpectedly’ hang in,” he writes.

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