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Grantham: No Market For Young Men

Hey, Young Turks on trading desks, up-and-coming money managers and Wall Street stock jockeys: You want the truth about the global markets today? Listen to Jeremy Grantham, chairman of Boston-based investment manager GMO LLC: You can’t handle the truth.

“This is no market for young men,” Grantham said. “At least us old men remember what a real bear market is like, and the young men haven’t got a clue.”

Women, too, for that matter. And at 72, after 40-plus years in the investment business, Grantham can make this claim unchallenged, but his point is more about the lessons of experience than the limitations of age, and an investor’s ability to build on the former and overcome the latter.

With Greece on the verge of default, and conomic growth in even the healthiest developed markets stuck in slow gear, Grantham reserves his harshest words for the leaders of central banks, big money-center banks and governments. The fittest global companies, meanwhile, are getting his firm’s client’s money.

Policymakers and politicians have acted like “children at play,” Grantham has said. As he sees it, they’ve created a tower of debt and an illusion of wealth, and have not been held responsible for their frivolous actions.

“No one has been prepared to make tough decisions,” Grantham said in a recent telephone interview. “Where have the Europeans been for 10 years? None of these things came out of the woodwork two weeks ago. No one attempted to blow the whistle and make tough decisions in a timely fashion.”

Targeting income inequality

“Kicking the can” on deficits and spending delays the reckoning, but only makes it more painful when it comes. Had “grown-ups” been supervising the financial system, the problem might not have gotten out of hand, Grantham noted.

To put the debt crisis in perspective, Grantham suggested imagining multiple stacks of building blocks, “fairly precarious and fairly tall,” each set uncomfortably close to the other. If one falls, it could either take down several others or fall neatly between them. The trouble, Grantham said, is that there’s really no way to know.

Financial markets nowadays are faced with this hit-or-miss scenario, and buyers don’t like the odds. Said Grantham: “We have these basically distinct problems joined only by a general fragility of the financial system. So you can’t know for sure that if China stumbled it wouldn’t set off something else, or if the U.S. goes into a double-dip [recession], it won’t set off a European bank failure.”

Especially worrisome to Grantham is the gulf between wage earners in the U.S. The top 10% of U.S. workers currently receive about half of the nation’s total income, with half of that going to the top 1%. The last time this country saw a wage gap so extreme was just before the 1929 stock-market crash and the Great Depression. By comparison, in the late 1970s the top 1% garnered about 9% of all earnings.

“You can’t run the conomy on BMWs alone,” Grantham said. “If the average person is in a pickle, how do you have a healthy conomy?”

For starters, he said, you tax the richest more than they’re paying now. Said Grantham: “We have actually made the tax structure friendlier to the top 10%.”

Grantham contends that income inequality at these levels takes a real toll on ordinary workers and society as a whole. To bridge this gap and give average workers a bigger slice of the pie, Grantham advocates investing in education, training, and to “change the tax structure to make it equitable.”

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