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Ray Dalio

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On July 31, 2005 @ 2:30 pm In Economy | Comments Disabled

Bipolar Disorder

Interview
with Ray Dalio, Chief Investment Officer, Bridgewater Associates

By SANDRA
WARD

WHEN YOU MANAGE NEARLY $120 billion in institutional
assets and your hedge fund provides consistent returns of about 15%, after fees,
on average, every year for nearly 16 years running, who wouldn’t want to hear
your views on the economy? Dalio, founder of Westport, Conn.-based Bridgewater
Associates, has built an organization renowned for its penetrating analysis of
world markets and its ability to seize investment opportunities among different
asset classes, particularly the credit and currency markets. Clients gain access
to Bridgewater’s latest thinking on global markets through the firm’s Daily
Observations newsletter. We thought you might like to get the scoop straight
from the horse’s mouth.

Barron’s: What’s your outlook for inflation?

Dalio: I think inflation is gradually trending higher.
It won’t emerge as a threat probably until late 2006. World economies are late
in the economic cycle, and there are not the same excesses there used to be. The
dollar will go down a lot and commodity prices will go up a lot. There is a
structural surplus of labor and there’s disinflation from labor and manufactured
goods and productivity, but commodity inflation will offset that. The rate at
which this will occur will be gradual at first, and as we get later into 2006
we’ll have run out of slack and there will be more of a depreciation in the
value of the dollar and more appreciation in commodity prices and the Fed will
lag that move. Real rates will be relatively low.

You’re not concerned the Fed tightens too much?

No, I don’t believe they will tighten too much. Rates will
continue to rise and the Fed will continue to tighten, but their moves will lag
the forces of positive economic growth, a declining dollar and rising commodity
prices. The Fed is looking at general inflation, and that will rise slowly. The
economy is growing at a moderate pace, and so any tightening will be
comparatively slow and modest. The balance- of-payments issue is a major issue,
but it is not going to be a major problem this year. This year will be the first
attempt to remedy the problem, but what is going to happen is our
balance-of-payments position is going to worsen a lot. In 2005, 2006 and 2007 we
are going to see our current-account deficit go from 5½% to 6½% to 7½% of gross
domestic product. Our need for foreign capital is going to continue to grow at
the same time that China’s desire to buy our bonds — and Japan’s to some
extent, as well — will diminish. China’s desire to have an independent monetary
policy will be a driving factor. But there is a bipolarity in the world: The
mature industrialized countries are in relative stagnation, and the big reason
the U.S. is growing faster than most of other countries is because we are being
lent capital. We are substantially dependent on foreign lending.

To put that in perspective, we import about 65% more than we
export. Then there are the emerging countries. These countries, with their
economic booms, are running current-account surpluses and are net lenders to the
developed world. This is a very, very healthy set of circumstances. Emerging
countries are using their capital to pay down their debts, and they are buying
the U.S. Treasury bonds to hold their own currencies back. There is a very
favorable structural shift in wealth to developing nations. We are very, very
bullish on emerging countries, particularly Asian emerging countries and their
currencies. Fundamentally, though, you have to ask yourself whether the ties
between us and the emerging countries that are buying our bonds will last. It
doesn’t make sense. The balance-of-payment situation reminds me very much of the
Bretton Woods breakup in 1971.

When we came off the gold standard?

Yes. What we had then was a fixed-exchange-rate system. Japan
then was very similar to what China is now in terms of per-capita incomes and
growth rate. Japan was emerging from a post-World War II economy that was
dilapidated. Japan and Germany acquired very large surpluses. They believed the
U.S. dollar was a credible exchange rate and they needed stability from that,
and so we borrowed and overconsumed until the price of the exchange rate was out
of line. They had to buy lots and lots of bonds, and when you buy bonds, you
have to print money to do that. So Japan and Germany had to stimulate their
economies and then they wanted to slow their economies, just like China
today.

China has an overheating economy, and because of its fixed
exchange rate, it has to produce more money supply. For a country like China to
tie its monetary policy to a country like the U.S. doesn’t make any sense. One
is growing at a 9% real rate, the other is growing at 3%, if it’s lucky.


But aren’t we beginning to see signs the Chinese want to
wean themselves from that system?

Yes. You are seeing signs of the crack. What they want to do is
keep everything calm and orderly, just like Japan in the early ‘Seventies.
There’ll be some minor adjustment at first, but the minor adjustment won’t
change anything. Let’s say they revalue their currency by 5%, or even 10%. That
won’t structurally change anything. U.S. per capita income is about 30 times
what it is in China. But by 2006, China will revalue more aggressively. That
makes the dollar situation very bearish. I don’t think the dollar can rally much
beyond this point because so much of the buying of dollars is to prevent it from
going down. If the dollar goes up, the central banks are going to buy fewer
dollars, and whatever demand exists to help push the dollar up will be offset by
fewer dollars being purchased. The only way the dollar can sustain a major move
is if there were true demand for dollars, free-market demand to buy
dollar-dominated assets.

Are you short the dollar?

We are long the yen against the dollar, and we are particularly
long emerging-market currencies against the dollar. But we are short the euro
against the dollar.

When did you start shorting the euro?

Last December because of Europe’s economic stagnation. We have
built up the position since. When you look at the dollar, the yen and the euro,
it’s an ugly contest. They’re all pretty ugly. What we are long against the
dollar are either commodity exporters such as the Australian dollar or
emerging-market currencies. I like emerging-market currencies because their
central banks have been artificially holding their currencies back. In a normal
cycle in emerging markets, there’s a bust, then they maintain an easy monetary
policy, and then they have accelerated growth. That is very good for equities,
and their equity markets at those stages of the cycle tend to do very well. But
they artificially hold their currency down, because they are afraid that if the
currency were to appreciate, they would lose their competitive position. They
build up big reserves.

Once they are past a certain part of the cycle, these countries
typically buy fewer foreign bonds and let their currencies appreciate. Now,
increasingly, emerging-market countries are going to let their currencies
appreciate. It is very similar to my Bretton Woods comparison: Germany and Japan
had big balance-of-payments surpluses, but it was France that first broke ranks
with the United States. The French basically said, "Give us the gold instead of
checks for gold." Now Korea, in particular, but other Asian countries as well,
are beginning to change their reserve mix away from dollars.

What are they turning to?

They’re buying more euros and more gold. Gold is going to play
a much bigger role. Only 2% of Chinese reserves are in gold. There is a saying
that gold is the only asset you can have that isn’t someone else’s
liability.

What’s your view on oil?

In late 2006, I think you could see oil over $100. Whenever
we’ve had oil shocks, it’s because we’ve reached capacity, and we are at
capacity in refining and extraction. When we look at each country’s projections
of oil consumption, we find we’re consuming at a rate faster than it can be
produced.

Yet the industry itself doesn’t seem overly concerned, and
there’s not been any rush to reinvest in the business.

It is very interesting to me because forward oil prices are
higher than they’ve ever been. Usually in an oil shock, spot prices rise and you
could almost understand oil companies’ not making any investments because the
forward prices don’t support the spot price. Yet now the forwards have risen
materially. I don’t understand the industry’s behavior, but I think it is part
of the cycle.

When a major bull market that goes on for many years starts to
reverse, in the initial stages of the turn everybody is looking for the bull
market to come back. As with tech stocks. As with gold. Then it goes so much the
opposite way that everybody gives up on the story. No one holds any inventories
and everybody, in a sense, is short or forward-hedged. That creates the
ingredients for the market to move the other way.

These moves now, whether it is gold or oil or commodities, are
probably somewhere between 60% and 70% done in general. This is a pause. It is
also the time when sentiment changes and readjusts. Then the question is, What
is the supply-demand picture going forward? In order to be bearish on
commodities, you’d have to be bearish on growth in those countries that are
consuming the commodities.The question for commodities is really a consumption question,
and we have to assume that the machine doing all the consuming will be forced to
slow down. In China’s case, I don’t believe they are going to slow down. China
is overheating and there’s the risk of more overheating. As I said before, I
think you are going to see very strong commodity prices and disinflationary
pressures from labor and manufactured goods causing a gradual upturn in
inflation until the world is in its next recession, and that doesn’t seem to be
a prospect for 2005. It is not much of a risk until late 2006.

With the flattening of the yield curve, a lot of people have
been concerned about a recession.

I’m not worried about it. I don’t think there has been enough
of a tightening through the existing rate structure to cause a recession. The
magnitude of interest-rate changes that would be required to cause the economy
to slow is about a 4¼% fed-funds rate and about 5½% on the 10-year bond.

How do productivity and employment growth factor into your
outlook?

Productivity growth has been following a typical cyclical path
but at a significantly higher level. Payroll employment is following a path
similar to its historical cycles, but it is much lower. That is a structural
difference that is good for businesses and bad for employees.

CHART

But shouldn’t productivity growth slow and hiring pick
up?

The causes of that productivity growth are going to be with us
a while. In the bubble years, corporations invested a lot in plant and
equipment. It is paying off. Secondly, there’s a surplus of world labor.

There are three basic things that make up an economy: labor,
natural resources and capital. There’s been a vast increase in the supply of
labor. The pricing of labor in China is holding down the pricing of labor in the
United States. The world’s supply of labor quadrupled with China coming into the
market. It’s had a big, big effect. The relatively cheap cost of labor helps
productivity. Productivity comes partially from investing in plant and equipment
but partially from keeping labor cheap. Those two factors are secular changes.
That’s why profit growth has been stronger, not because top-line revenue growth
has been better; profit margins have been better because of lower labor
costs.

Are the high profit margins sustainable? Or will they revert
to the mean?

Nothing necessarily reverts to the mean. They may not increase,
but they are not likely to decrease because we have this world supply of labor
and world supply of equipment. And the complexion of workers is changing. Do you
know that 44% of all corporate profits in the United States comes from the
financial sector — people who are shuffling money around? Only 10% comes from
those who manufacture things. We are living in a two-tiered economy, and you are
on one side of it. You write for Barron’s. You are in the financial
community. There is that economy. Then there is the person on the assembly
line.

In this business cycle, real GDP growth will follow the
average; interest rates will follow the average; productivity will follow the
average, but move up a notch; employment will follow the average but fall a
notch. The main reason for that is: China and India and other emerging countries
are changing the balance of supply-demand in labor. They are also changing
supply and demand for capital through their foreign exchange interventions.

They add all the surplus of labor and they consume all the
commodities, so that means a lot of demand for commodities at the same time
there is a lot of surplus of labor.

Another important secular change is the amount of U.S. debt.
Because we have a lot of debt, smaller increases in interest rates will shut off
the economy more quickly. Debt-service payments are what drive the economy.
Individuals don’t care about how much debt they have, and the interest rate
itself really doesn’t matter.

What matters is the monthly payment on the debt. That is true
for businesses, too. Because we have much more debt in the economy, it requires
less of a rise in interest rates in order to shut off the expansion.

Bond yields bottomed in May of 2003 at 3.38%, and we are going
to have an interest-rate increase that will be less than what we are used to –
something like 2¼% — to cause a cyclical peak in the bond yield at around 5½%
to 5¾%.

You’ve talked about your currency bets, but where else are
there opportunities?

We have big spread positions: Essentially, we are long European
bonds and Japanese bonds even though interest rates are very low. Against that,
we have short positions in U.K. 10-year gilts and U.S. Treasury bonds.

In other words, I don’t like U.S. bonds compared with European
or Japanese bonds.

I’m long inflation-indexed bonds in relation to nominal bonds.
We are long commodities. Oil is my favorite, but I also favor gold and
copper.

Commodities will peak when they tighten monetary policy. A lot
of people think the recessions after oil shocks in the past were caused by high
oil prices. They weren’t. They were caused by the tight monetary policies that
the central banks employed to fight inflation.

If you examine the amount of oil consumption and how much money
was actually taken out of pocket as a percentage of disposable income, it was
very small — amounts equivalent to .8% of disposable income.

We are not used to the fact you can have big commodity moves
without having big inflation. I’m a big commodity bull, but I’m not a super
inflation bull because I believe that the surplus of labor and productivity
changes will negate most of the price rise in commodities.

What about equities?

I’m slightly long equities.

More so in one part of the world versus another?

I’m particularly long Australian and Canadian equities.

Countries benefiting from a commodity boom.

Right. I’m still long small amounts of European equities. In
the U.S., I’m very slightly short against very small long positions. The way we
look at a position is to look at an outright spread. So I like foreign markets
relative to the U.S. market.

That gives me a little bit of a short position, just because I
like the others better. We’re slightly positive on almost all the equity markets
with the biggest equity exposure in Australia.

On a totally different subject, let me add here that there is a
revolution going on in how money is being managed. There’s going to be a shift
away from traditional investing, and traditional investing favors equities most.
There are going to be major net flows away from equity markets over the next
number of years. Money will go to bonds to some extent and to nontraditional
investments, but it will be at the expense of equities.

Thanks, Ray.

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