What to Expect in 2014 (And Beyond)

This outlook is being written a good 45 days later than when “What to Expect in 2013…” was written over a year ago. It is amazing how much can happen in that short time frame and can influence one’s view of the next year. If I let another 45 days pass I am sure there would be some things that would change. I believe the risks are to the upside on more positive news on the economy but at some point that news could affect Fed action.  Much of what could happen this coming year is influenced by what is going on in the energy sector. Middle East economies, of course, but also inflation, GDP growth, and geopolitical events will affect markets and the US economy specifically. These points will become clear as I spell out some of my expectations. Understand that these expectations follow the Byron Wien formula where I believe there is greater than a 50% chance they happen when the rest of the world may not agree. The “Expectations” are designed to stimulate thought. Some of them can relate directly to the securities markets, but some do not, and this year, a little whimsy. Hopefully, you can figure out which one that is. Let’s begin:

  1. After printing two 4% GDP quarters in 2013 and seeing a 1 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate, there is finally some recognition that, maybe, the Fed’s actions really did produce some stimulus. This could lead to self-sustaining growth in the US economy in 2014 with at least one more 4% print this year. Less noise from the crazies in Washington adds to business confidence and, ultimately, capital expenditures.
  2. Economic growth and job creation become more apparent with forecasts for a decline in the unemployment rate possibly approaching 6% before the end of the year. The Federal Reserve begins making noise about speeding up tapering and hints at reducing the time the Funds rate would remain anchored at its current level. This is in spite of limited evidence, at least early in the year, that the inflation rate is approaching the targeted 2% level. This ultimately has a dampening effect on the markets.
  3. We begin seeing some academic work and, of course, the pundits talking about an acceleration of the technological revolution making the case that low inflation or maybe even some signs of deflation are actually a good thing in this technologically driven environment. The low inflation picture is reinforced at the headline level by energy supplies expanding within the US, in the Middle East from Iraq and, ultimately, Iran. As other countries embrace fracking the potential for even more supply keeps downside pressure on energy prices.
  4. The negative elements on inflation, which are not sufficient to cause major concerns, come via erratic supply in soft commodities from continuation of drought in certain areas combined with weather abnormalities which, more and more, are blamed on climate change. As we get into the latter part of the year, the improving developed market economies combined with growth in Asia put some upward pressure on hard commodities. Investors must make the decision to invest in the extraction companies that have suffered from low prices or directly into the commodities themselves.
  5. The positive change in US trade balances from lower imports of energy combined with rising energy exports adds more than a percentage point to US GDP and reinforces the case for a strong dollar relative to almost every other currency except possibly the Chinese yuan. Asia shows growing signs of a currency war fueled by the impact of further weakening of the Japanese yen beginning to very seriously affect the export trade of its Asian competitors.  While this has a tendency to push up inflation rates in many of the Asian countries, the developed markets benefit from lower prices on many imported goods further softening their inflation rates.
  6. The impact of the currency wars raises questions about the stability of some of the emerging markets, particularly in Asia. There are also concerns about the pace of wage increases in these heretofore attractive locations for outsourcing. Manufacturing and some service corporations begin making different strategic decisions on the best places to locate manufacturing and processing centers.  The decisions are reinforced by a growing belief that technological advances will continue to allow capital to substitute for labor, or at least keep pressure on wages. More business activities find their way back into the developed countries of the world. China moves cautiously in the same direction, taking advantage of its own technological progress. It begins marketing itself as a technological leader as opposed to a low-cost labor market. This is not easy as China, at the same time, continues to push toward a more consumer-oriented society. Incomes have to rise and, politically, the population needs to be kept content. It will not be a smooth year for China.
  7. Coming elections in India point to a possible loss of leadership for the Congress party. Combined with continued economic difficulties and some strife associated with the potential leadership change, the country moves further down the path of being even less attractive for foreign direct investment. It loses another year to the relative growth of its Asian neighbors and finds itself participating in the currency wars as a possible way to salvage elements of growth.
  8. With the exception of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Panama, the rest of Central and South America flounders. The US begins to pay more attention to its southern neighbors. Out of desperation, Argentina reaches a settlement on its outstanding debt and begins a focus on building its energy sector with some help from outside sources. A Menem-like regime change becomes a more likely political outcome.
  9. The changing energy picture outside the Middle East, combined with likely increased production out of Iraq and, ultimately, Iran, result in a change in the relative importance of Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Israel. This could produce some positive movement in the Palestinian situation, and some changes in the relationships of Saudi Arabia with the rest of the Middle East and possibly Asia as the US becomes an even smaller market for its oil and an export competitor. On the other hand it raises the risk of some turmoil in the region as the power picture changes and attempts are made to preserve the old order in  a possibly military fashion.
  10. The fading newspaper industry surprises the street with its earnings in the early part of the year and benefits from contentious congressional races in the third and fourth quarters as well. The advertising related to Academy Award nominations and ultimately selections reaches new heights in print and social media. Studios advertise some small (but not cheap) movies to extremes to compete with some very high quality films and performances. We actually walked out of a couple of the most highly advertised ones. Aren’t two-page spreads a little extreme? Unfortunately, the correlation between the advertising and the nominations and awards becomes very direct leaving it up to the audiences to hopefully, make their own decisions after the fact. The quality and audience continue to rise for television productions and the associated delivery mechanisms for these performances leaving 3-D sequels and prequels to the movie industry. Can’t wait for “Inside Llewyn Davis Today–in IMax.”

So what does this all mean for the markets? I wish I knew. History says that the kind of equity market we had in the US in 2013 is usually followed by a decent year.  I don’t think it is that simple. We could see some re-allocation by institutions whose US equity portfolios have been pushed above their target percentages. At the same time, if we are beginning to return to a more normal relationship between earnings yields and fixed income yields, traditional debt doesn’t look that attractive. It may mean that markets outside the US are more attractive–maybe Europe and maybe some of the emerging markets if the currency is hedged out. There are some risk elements in the geopolitical situation. I think we will have to look harder for returns this year and the risks are high enough to look for some less correlated investments. I wouldn’t reduce my equity exposure, but I might change the mix.

We’ll have to see if another 45 days sets us up for totally different surprises. If nothing else I hope this has provided some food for thought.

I have some longer term expectations including a carryover from past years which, one of these days, will actually come to pass. I include these as additional repast for the brain. As has been the case since the millennium, the year will likely be more interesting than we anticipated.

  1. Contrary to normally quiet years during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes further steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring more immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service operations.
  3. Moore’s Law, driven primarily by Intel driving down the nanometer scale and introducing other innovations,  continues to march on. The use of Big Data becomes ubiquitous. This produces technological advances that enhance the opportunities in health care, manufacturing, extractive industries, media and services beyond even the imagination of some of the best speculative fiction writers. These advances, on balance, are positive but continue to raise concerns about the environment and quality of life and opportunity for those at the lower end of the economic and educational spectrum.
  4. Breakthroughs in stem cell research particularly led by work coming out of the New York Stem Cell Foundation change the nature of disease management and eradication and move general therapeutic advances away from animal models to direct testing on human cells. Targeted therapeutics driven by DNA analyses tied to narrower classes of patient recipients change the nature of drug and health delivery. It becomes apparent that the US FDA model is slowing the pace of US therapeutics development by the cost and time required to bring solutions to market. Much as financial services regulation was geared to the benefit of larger entities, it becomes clear that therapeutics development has been on the the same path. Change occurs in response to other countries moving more rapidly in bringing solutions to market.
  5. Away from continual ups and downs in financial assets as the world works its way through the hangover from the 2008-2012 financial crises, the general march of human progress is positive. I hope to be around to observe it. Maybe the breakthroughs suggested in the previous expectation will help that.

What to Expect in 2013 (and Beyond)–An Optimistic View

This year in early January I posted “What to Expect in 2012 (and Beyond).”  Some of what I expected last year has rolled over into 2013. With more than a month to go before we step into 2013 it is a little risky to make predictions, particularly when much of what is predicted depends on the resolution (or not) of the fiscal cliff. I believe we will reach a resolution and actually take some steps toward overall fiscal reform. That may be the biggest and most important expectation which sets the course for much of what else could occur. Hopefully, op-ed pieces like Steve Rattner’s in the 11/25 Sunday NYTimes will become part of the dialogue in Washington. Keep in mind that the expectations below follow the Byron Wien approach, i.e., my view is a greater than 50% chance of these expectations coming to pass while the conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s plunge in.

  1. With the resolution of the fiscal cliff and some steps toward overall fiscal reform, big corporations and small businesses step up their plans for 2013 and beyond, affecting hiring and capital spending.  The rest of the US economy joins the housing recovery, producing growth in the US exceeding 3.5% for the year with at least one quarter printing over 4% in spite of the trade deficit expanding.
  2. The US experiences double digit growth in capital spending as delayed plans are finally implemented with resolution of the fiscal cliff.
  3. Unemployment works its way lower by a percentage point. Unfortunately, the number of jobs unfilled increases substantially as the mismatch between skills and needs comes into stark relief.
  4. The new leadership in China, while taking a conservative social stance, takes additional steps to insure a decent recovery in economic growth. The strength of the US economy aids China’s recovery.
  5. While the noise about Greece grows and is joined by more concerns about Spain, Italy and France, Europe continues to muddle through with interesting support from the Middle East and some support from China.
  6. As Moore’s Law marches on, Samsung and others introduce advances in tablets and communications devices which puts pressure on Apple that reflects itself in relative stock performance. Apple does an interesting pivot which changes the landscape for even more robust consumer devices.
  7. The Argentine situation is not contained and has an impact on politics, growth rates and inflation for its neighbors, requiring more attention to South America from the US than we have been willing to give thus far.
  8. As we enter the year end 2013, because of the surprising global growth, there are some unsettling signs of inflation. QE is reduced and expectations for a rise in rates increase.
  9. The US stock market has a good rise in the first half of 2013, but inflation concerns and a possible Fed reaction push markets down in the latter part of the year reversing  some but not all of the earlier gains. Analysts find themselves chasing earnings for much of the year.

The next few expectations are holdovers, with some modifications, from 2012. They may not all come to pass in 2013. None of them were complete in 2012.  But as we move further into the decade, in my view, they will likely happen, and will have an impact on how our future unfolds.

  1. Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes several steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service locally.
  3. Aside from the continuing concerns about Europe and the ripple effect of the Argentine situation on South America, India becomes a focal point. With the economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, the leadership looks for diversions and points to its neighbors, China and Pakistan as problems. There are internal confrontations as well. While there is limited impact on the global economy, the uncertainty affects foreign investment and India’s outsourcing businesses.

On balance, this is a set of optimistic expectations with some trouble spots, as always, diverting our attention. I am optimistic about what can happen, certainly within the US, as long as the crazies in Washington get a bit rational. If not, I will need to spell out a whole new set of expectations. It will be an interesting year.

What to Expect in 2013 (and Beyond)–An Optimistic View

Last year in early January I posted “What to Expect in 2012 (and Beyond).”  Some of what I expected last year has rolled over into 2013. With more than a month to go before we step into 2013 it is a little risky to make predictions, particularly when much of what is predicted depends on the resolution (or not) of the fiscal cliff. I believe we will reach a resolution and actually take some steps toward overall fiscal reform. That may be the biggest and most important expectation which sets the course for much of what else could occur. Hopefully, op-ed pieces like Steve Rattner’s in the 11/25 Sunday NYTimes will become part of the dialogue in Washington. Keep in mind that the expectations below follow the Byron Wien approach, i.e., my view is a greater than 50% chance of these expectations coming to pass while the conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s plunge in.

  1. With the resolution of the fiscal cliff and some steps toward overall fiscal reform, big corporations and small businesses step up their plans for 2013 and beyond, affecting hiring and capital spending.  The rest of the US economy joins the housing recovery, producing growth in the US exceeding 3.5% for the year with at least one quarter printing over 4% in spite of the trade deficit expanding.
  2. The US experiences double digit growth in capital spending as delayed plans are finally implemented with resolution of the fiscal cliff.
  3. Unemployment works its way lower by a percentage point. Unfortunately, the number of jobs unfilled increases substantially as the mismatch between skills and needs comes into stark relief.
  4. The new leadership in China, while taking a conservative social stance, takes additional steps to insure a decent recovery in economic growth. The strength of the US economy aids China’s recovery.
  5. While the noise about Greece grows and is joined by more concerns about Spain, Italy and France, Europe continues to muddle through with interesting support from the Middle East and some support from China.
  6. As Moore’s Law marches on, Samsung and others introduce advances in tablets and communications devices which puts pressure on Apple that reflects itself in relative stock performance. Apple does an interesting pivot which changes the landscape for even more robust consumer devices.
  7. The Argentine situation is not contained and has an impact on politics, growth rates and inflation for its neighbors, requiring more attention to South America from the US than we have been willing to give thus far.
  8. As we enter the year end 2013, because of the surprising global growth, there are some unsettling signs of inflation. QE is reduced and expectations for a rise in rates increase.
  9. The US stock market has a good rise in the first half of 2013, but inflation concerns and a possible Fed reaction push markets down in the latter part of the year reversing  some but not all of the earlier gains. Analysts find themselves chasing earnings for much of the year.

The next few expectations are holdovers, with some modifications, from 2012. They may not all come to pass in 2013. None of them were complete in 2012.  But as we move further into the decade, in my view, they will likely happen, and will have an impact on how our future unfolds.

  1. Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent in reaction to some elements of an “Asian Spring” in the region, China takes several steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress. Externally, this includes significant acquisitions in other countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities where there is a receptive government. At home, R&D is accelerated, particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced and an explicit carbon tax is put in place.
  2. As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by.  Enlightened corporations become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems. Corporations become much more vocal about creating paths to bring illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the domestic pool. The tide shifts significantly on immigration issues. The skill match is aggravated by decisions on the part of some US corporations to bring business operations back into the States. Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity, available feedstock and relative safety lead to better economics for manufacturing and service locally.
  3. Aside from the continuing concerns about Europe and the ripple effect of the Argentine situation on South America, India becomes a focal point. With the economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, the leadership looks for diversions and points to its neighbors, China and Pakistan as problems. There are internal confrontations as well. While there is limited impact on the global economy, the uncertainty affects foreign investment and India’s outsourcing businesses.

On balance, this is a set of optimistic expectations with some trouble spots, as always, diverting our attention. I am optimistic about what can happen, certainly within the US, as long as the crazies in Washington get a bit rational. If not, I will need to spell out a whole new set of expectations. It will be an interesting year.

What Could Happen in 2012 (and Beyond)

Byron Wien, the Election, the Economy, Immigration, China, India, South America, Education–surprises!

Byron Wien does the most thorough job of putting together thoughtful, provocative and useful ideas on possible surprises for each year. I have been fortunate enough to know Byron and to participate in the Third Thursday group on which he draws, in part, to test both conventional wisdom and real surprises. I could not attend the December lunch this year as I was in India. Below is the email I sent Byron in late November. I will use that as the start of my thoughts on surprising things that could happen in 2012 and will then toss out a few additional ideas. Here we go:

“Byron, Am heading to India on Friday. Sorry I will miss your pre-surprise lunch. Am attaching copies of the text and slides I will be using in India. I don’t think they say anything you don’t know, but you might find something in there…My big surprise is that Joe Biden will not be the VP candidate in the coming election. Second surprise would be that the US does better than expected in 2012 given the debacle in Europe. Neither China nor India do as well as currently expected and China steps up to do something in Europe–maybe buy a Greek Island? They need Europe. Brazil starts to look a bit like Argentina–I think they are way understating their inflation rate. Capital flows our way and the RU dips into the 7’s before the election. If so, Obama wins in a walk. The really big surprise would be Huntsman as the Republican candidate–or maybe Obama’s VP candidate? What a ticket that would make. Jack”

The idea of surprises is to get people thinking away from trendlines. I use Byron’s definition, which is a personal belief that there is greater than a 50% chance of something happening where conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s continue:

1) It is hard to see us getting through the year without an energy crisis of some type where demand significantly exceeds supply and oil prices spike once again. This could stem from trouble in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. It could be brought about by some covert action by the US that has been in the works for some time and comes to fruition within the next 10 months. There are too many possibilities for this not to have greater than a 50% chance of occurring within this calendar year. The combination of a hydrocarbon energy crisis combined with a major climate disaster somewhere in the world will lead to policy actions on the part of the US to accelerate both natural gas development and alternative energy development as well.  Energy efficiency finally begins having its day. Talk of a carbon tax grows particularly as other countries implement implicit and explicit carbon pricing.

2) Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent forced by an “Asian Spring” throughout the region, China takes several bold steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress, combined with a desire by Hu and Wen to put more of their stamp on the future.  This includes major acquisitions in the developed countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities. At home, R&D is accelerated particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced or eliminated and an explicit carbon tax is put in place. Following Australia’s lead and China’s moves, several Asian countries put in place mechanisms to reduce their use of conventional hydrocarbons for energy–although everyone finds that they have 200 million year-old hydrocarbons in shale formations and begins using the immature  production technologies developed in the US, creating even more environmental disasters.

3) As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by. Enlightened corporations, led by GE,  become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems which were supposed to do the job. Corporations become much more vocal about bringing illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the pool domestically. It becomes clear that a controlled amnesty program for current illegals in the US will add significantly to GDP and to government revenues. The tide begins to shift on immigration issues.

4) The US labor situation is aggravated in the short term by decisions on the part of several US corporations to bring manufacturing operations back into the States.  Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity and relative safety lead to better economics manufacturing locally. Caterpillar’s actions with its Canadian operations start the ball rolling. As stated above, US corporations take on a significant role in training and general education to meet their labor needs.

5) In spite of the demand for its natural resources, South America finds itself in much more turmoil politically and economically than one might expect. Natural disasters from climate change and it’s young mountain ranges compound economic issues from changes in export markets and a continuing misallocation of financial resources. Led, once again, by problems in Argentina, some degree of turmoil ripples north through the continent into Central America and requires more of the attention of the US than we have been willing to give thus far. Immigration to the US, both legal and illegal, accelerates as the US economy picks up steam.

6) India becomes a focal point. With an economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, India looks for diversions. Troops move north to “prepare” for confrontation with China, and west to confront Pakistan. Some elements internally are confronted as well. While the numbers show growth, the quality is somewhat problematic. Energy shortages push India toward even more aggressive alternative energy policies.

These aren’t all of the surprises we will find in 2012. I must say I continue to be optimistic about the US in spite of the crazies in Washington and the anger, bigotry and fear manifesting itself during the Republican primary battles. All of those who were planning on moving out of the country if Obama was re-elected–the ABO crowd– or any of the Republican choices–the ABAR crowd, might want to reconsider.

The Economy, The Environment, Lessons Learned, Opportunities Today

A speech given to venture capitalists & entrepreneurs in India in December 2011

I am very pleased to be here today.  I come to India regularly for pleasure and for business although it is always a pleasure. What I plan to do is provide an economic and market context on what has happened in the United States trying to draw some parallels and contrasts to Asia – India specifically – and Europe. I will start with some history, review where we are today and then venture some guesses about where we may be going. I will relate that to what happened in the venture world historically, again to compare and contrast with what is happening here in India. I will then turn to the opportunities this presents. Several of you here today are investors, and your allocation to potential investments is made in an economic context regarding returns relative to risks. So lets start with economics.

Some history:  I am not sure that recent history provides one with the right context, so it may be helpful to look at a longer time span, which could provide a better perspective. I will give a caveat that “perspective” is an overused word. (As is “caveat” for that matter.) Jane Smiley, a great writer, may have been right when she had one of her protagonists define perspective as actually believing that two parallel lines meet.  Maybe you have to be an engineer to appreciate that. At any rate, this is my point of view and my sorting of the data and my perspective—one that is US centric, partly because it would be presumptuous for me to tell you about your own country, and partly because it represents a model that may be useful to understand.

I am not going to present a comprehensive picture of the economy and the markets. Instead, I will highlight a few points that I think have some relevance to investing today. Let’s start with GDP growth in the United States since World War II.

The US has had 12 recessions since the Second World War.  What is most interesting to me about this recession are 1) the year over year decline has been greater than any of the post-War recessions, 2) the rate of recovery compared to earlier recessions has not been as high, and 3) the official recession exceeded both the 81-82 and 73-75 recessions by a few months. In addition, we haven’t seen a 5% year-over-year GDP gain since late 1999.  High oil prices and Central Bank tightening were the primary causes of the other two lengthy recessions.  This latest one is much more of a financial crisis like a quarter of the 47 recessions the US has had in the last 220 years. Several of those financial recessions were substantially longer and in many cases deeper than what we have experienced thus far. In almost all cases the crises extended globally or even originated elsewhere in the world, primarily England. This crisis is certainly global. And has manifested itself serially from the US to Europe and is now affecting Asia, including India.

However, in the US, which was first to see the downturn, away from the construction market and its impact on economic activity, the rest of the US economy is actually doing well and is growing. And importantly, in my view, it may be approaching self-sustainability.  Profits have more than doubled from their lows in 08 and are 20% above their peak in 06.  In some ways the US securities market reflects this off of its lows generated by the fallout from the Lehman bankruptcy.

I am referring to the S&P Technology Sector, which while still way below its peak in the dotcom bubble is at levels seen in 1998 before the 18-month blow-off produced that final peak in March 2000.

This index is a reasonably good proxy for what has happened to overall values in the venture capital world in the US.  A caveat I would add though, is that while values have tracked one still has to be somewhat concerned about valuations.

The overall valuation in the US, while down, is still above the lowest Price/Earnings ratios that have been hit in the longer cycles of valuation in the market. One can come up with a variety of reasons why valuations may not go to previous lows experienced, but I have to say there were always a set of reasons why valuations could not go lower.   I think it is useful to look at valuations in the public markets, as history shows that private equity valuations tend to track public market valuations overall and by sector going in and coming out.

Valuations in India are not low by historical standards. This does translate into private equity valuations and does raise some points of caution.  It goes without saying, but I would make the point that the valuation one gets going into an investment may be one of the best determinants of the ultimate return.

Historically, the US is bouncing closer to the bottom of a price channel waiting for earnings growth or possibly further market declines to bring down the multiples a bit more. We can review how the US got to this point and where we are likely to go from here. This pattern does relate to what is happening globally.

It is a fairly simple picture. We overleveraged the economy to support consumption, which in turn has led to a very significant trade deficit, about half from overconsumption and about half from dependence on others for our hydrocarbons.  This is a US and European problem for the most part, but to some degree it exists here and in other parts of Asia as well. As we work our way out of this problem it will likely result in lower overall growth in the Western world for a number of years. Europe is likely to show negative numbers next year—maybe even this quarter.  I would point out though, that in the US, there are some positive indications. If one looks at total debt outstanding, the number has actually flattened, with government debt replacing private debt. The ratio of debt to GDP has fallen as well-still high but falling. US corporations have significant enterprise capacity if they only had the confidence and the opportunities for investment. They ultimately have to do something with their cash.  I would also make the point that US banks, in contrast to other banks around the world, are accumulating cash. Deposits are up. The Federal Reserve has bought paper from the banks, and the Europeans, South Americans and others believe that their liquid assets may be safer in US banks than their own. In addition, if the dollar stays where it is or weakens particularly against the Asian currencies we would move closer to values we saw during the 90’s.  A point I am making is that part of the growth in the 90’s in the US was fueled by a lower dollar than we have today.  From its low in 1988 the dollar marched up doubling in value over the next ten years and today is still 50% above that trough but in a recent decline.

However, China’s currency has been rising. On balance, I believe other Asian currencies will track China’s over the long run.

India’s currency tracked China’s earlier this decade but I think internal issues and some concern about the impact of the European problems have affected values more recently. I do believe in the long run, based on economics, the Rupee is likely to strengthen against the dollar. Internal issues, for example allowing for Foreign Direct Investment, could affect the timing and degree of strengthening as trade balances shift.

Looking at High Tech trade, which is a good proxy for some of the venture activity, aided to a measurable extent by the lower dollar and Moore’s law, the US had a positive trade balance annually in High Technology Products through the 90’s. Lots of factors have affected the numbers over time, but the net of it is the US went from roughly a $24 Billion annual surplus at the end of that decade to a $96 Billion annual deficit in 2010. I think the dollar has been an important factor. Looking at India specifically, overall, this year you will have about a $15 Billion annual trade surplus with the US. Actual exports have doubled in the last 5 years and will likely be $36 Billion this year. Venture-backed companies should be getting their piece of that.

I do believe in the long run, currency adjustment may be the most important factor in job growth in the US, and possibly Europe, reducing the labor arbitrage that now exists between the developing world and the developed world. This will require significant productivity improvement in the developing world to offset higher currency values.

It is unlikely the dollar gets back to the lower end of the 90’s level in a straight line any time soon, because, right now, given our relative growth and safety, we see capital continuing to flow in our direction adding some strength to the dollar. However, over the next decade or more, the dollar is likely to weaken, particularly against the Asian currencies.  As the dollar adjusts and the economy does show modest growth, the capital is there in the private sector to finance growth once there is some certainty about where it will come from and if the Europeans can deal with their deficits. Many of those dollars will make their way overseas seeking that growth and creating jobs, if local policies are supportive. Let’s also remember that while the US may be running a trade deficit in high tech products, it is exporting at a $288 Billion annual rate and importing at a $192 Billion rate.

And, in spite of its overall trade deficit with almost every country on the planet, the US still exported over $1.4 Trillion of goods. And not counting oil imports the US bought $1.8 Trillion of goods from the rest of the world. Indian corporations big and small, startups or established companies, can certainly take advantage of the demand that continues to exist in the US for products–and services as well.

While there is a risk that, given the political rhetoric, we could find ourselves aborting the recovery that is starting in the US and is likely to spread, logic or sanity should lead us to a different set of conclusions. This could set the stage for a very interesting investment environment. Globally, particularly in the faster growing developing world which I define as the BAICs not the BRICS—Brazil, Africa, India and China, infrastructure spend and total investment will continue to rise to meet the demands of the populace and the demands of the global marketplace for their products—both natural resources and manufactured goods and some services.  This is continuing to bring more individuals into the middle classes with their own set of demands and needs.

Brazil, India and China, as well as most of Africa have a long way to go before the mix of their economies comes anywhere close to the more mature world. But look at what is ahead.

If we look at a breakdown of GDP and employment by major sector—agriculture, industry, and services, for two developed world countries and three of the BAICs—I don’t have stats for all of Africa–, we will see that India, Brazil and china have a much higher percentage of GDP and employment in Agriculture. To make this a little clearer, let’s take Agriculture and compare the US, Germany and India. US agricultural output represents about 1.6% of GDP and employs 1% of the work force. Germany is at 1% of GDP and 2% of the workforce. India is at 18% of GDP but over 50% of the workforce is still employed in agriculture.  Today’s mix has some similarities to where the US was earlier in the 20th century, although with higher manufacturing and lower services.  China looks even more like the US at that time.  We are talking about large populations shifting from the agricultural sector to manufacturing and services over the next few decades. This carries with it some political risk and not necessarily a smooth transition. But, this also means on balance, growth. And I would make an important point: It is easier to innovate into growth than it is into replacement.

Growth requires a sense of urgency. Everything speeds up. One does not want to get left behind. There is also an opportunity to experiment and, of course, to fail. But growth covers up many sins and extends the runway to get it right. And, it usually results in multiple approaches to opportunities and problems. Let me elaborate further on this point–that it is easier to innovate into growth than replacement. The economics are different if, instead of simply taking away share from an established player, one is participating in an expanding market. Particularly, when it comes to plant and equipment, customers are making a different calculation if it is an expansion cost vs. a replacement cost. In any instance, replacement or expansion, I believe that most innovations relate to some form of productivity improvement. It is worth thinking about any venture investment in terms of productivity–whether in Social Media or cell phones where the productivity of connecting with others has been enhanced, diagnostics, medical outcomes, energy, agritech, measurement itself, or infrastructure.  When growth is uncertain or out on too far a horizon it becomes more difficult than it already is.  I think the best venture capitalists understand that, to some extent adding a vision that may see growth potential where others don’t. And, many of the best VC firms are on multiple continents having extended their reach to one or more of the BAICs, in particular, to take advantage of changing income levels and a growing consumer class; in other words investing into growth. Some would even say that innovation requires consumption growth. Successful innovation also requires the VC experience and a VC infrastructure as foundations.  I don’t totally accept what some are characterizing as the US exceptionalism, is that exceptional. And that other systems are not producing innovators. Not every engineering or science graduate–or dropout for that matter–in the US is an innovator. I have to believe that the distribution of potential innovators in any country is the same, and ultimately the infrastructure that permits that innovation will exist there as well. In some instances, it is already happening.

Asia and Europe combined are putting more venture capital to work than the US and have been since 2006. India and China are putting Rupees and Yuan to work at about 40% of the US rate. And the rest of Asia is quite vibrant as well.  What is lacking is both a long enough history of repeatable success, and the Tim Harford observation—Harford of the Financial Times–of the Galapagan Isolation vs. Corpocracy, as represented by Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, the Silicon Wadi of Israel or the other pockets within the US and elsewhere that include investors with reach, experience and staying power; innovators with access; and flexible resources to execute. Harford’s analogy is that in the Galapagos, an ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world, different flora and fauna developed. He equates the ecosystems in parts of the venture world to this phenomenon.  You can go to the World Policy Institute website, www.worldpolicy.org, and look for the Journal issue entitled “Innovation,” to read more about this. This topic is included in an essay by Neal Stephenson, a great Science-Fiction writer and an unusual contributor to this kind of publication. He lays out some challenges for those of us who exist on the portal between the real world and those imagined. A fun and stimulating read.

Well, while Europe and Asia are increasing their venture investing, in the US the VC industry is going through a contraction, which is a good thing for returns—maybe not for the planet.

The number of funds raising capital is down and the number of investments being made is down. By the way, I want to thank my friends at Knightsbridge Advisers for several of the next slides. Knightsbridge is a fund of Venture Funds with a specific and very successful focus developed over a long period of time on the top quartile venture funds in the US, many of whom now reach into Asia specifically.

Historically, stronger returns have followed these contractions. Fund Raising is down to its historically low percentage of stock market capitalization and there is not a great inventory of what has been historically defined as early stage capital.  These are metrics that should be tracked in any market.

And, the top quartile, which has consisted of the same VC funds for many years with only few exceptions, has substantially outperformed the rest of the industry.  These firms are their own Galapagos.  There isn’t enough history here, in India, to determine all the entrants into that top quartile. Some firms are beginning to stand out, but we need a couple more cycles to really tell who has staying power. We may be hitting one of those cycles here right now.

This is an important point. As I said, growth can cover up many sins. To paraphrase Warren Buffet or Mark Twain–“you have to wait until the tide goes out to see who is not wearing a bathing suit.”

Having said that, this takes nothing away from the opportunity here in India, fueled by significant growth.

There is a very fertile environment here for Value Creation. I would highlight three sectors specifically for India. IT, Life Sciences and CleanTech, all in the context of infrastructure development and increasing awareness and demands from the populace for what they see elsewhere in the world.

It starts with the Internet and expands to mobile apps and cloud computing. And, it is driven by increasing processing speeds. We are still in early days regarding the ongoing impact of Moore’s Law. Three weeks ago I attended a three-day Intel Capital conference on the west coast. Duron, is in the Intel portfolio and I was fortunate enough to join our CEO, Ajay Awasthi, at the conference.  200 of Intel’s portfolio companies and 400 Intel managers and technologists attended the conference. Over half the companies were from outside the US. This was a very exciting and stimulating conference. Intel will invest in any company meeting its return criteria that will lead to more chips being sold—that covers the range from the technology around chips to social media.  The most important news though was when Paul Otellini, the CEO, stated that Intel has 10 years of clear visibility on Moore’s Law.  I think that means within 10 years, processing speeds on a single chip will be at least 64 times faster than they are today.  I am not sure we can imagine all the possibilities, but with a sense of certainty around that happening we get very close to Neal Stephenson’s and William Gibson’s worlds.

A big factor in India is bringing basic health care to a broader segment of the population. I think integrated delivery systems will be a part of the solution here. Ultimately, improving outcomes and taking advantage of the IT developments on the horizon will change the nature of health care and create real value for those who participate.

The need to drive both energy independence and cleaner renewable energy creates enormous opportunities. I don’t think India can wait for grid build-out to satisfy its needs. Much of the grid that does exist is aged and outmoded. A leap to models with distributed power and low power products offers many opportunities. This is my bias, but I truly believe that the need for innovation here is critical to the survival of the planet.

I think there are several other asset classes or sectors in which the venture community can participate that have growth characteristics.  Let me give you that broader characterization as we bring this to a close:

I start with Infrastructure. I think this could turn out to be a growth market in the US but will surely continue to be so here. And any innovation that contributes to the more productive movement of goods, services, people or information should find a market. Water also falls under infrastructure. There isn’t enough of it in the forms needed. Quality improvement and more efficient usage are two big opportunities. That leads us to Energy where there are enormous opportunities relating to the technologies being used and the productivity and efficiency of use, some of which I discussed already.

For India, we should include Agriculture or Agritech as its own category. This ties back into infrastructure, energy, water and life sciences, but should be listed here as its own. IT and Health Care are the two other big categories already discussed. Education is a difficult sector because of all the stakeholders who want a say in how the structure evolves, but one where technology can play a significant role and is very important in India. In some ways this sector also ties back into Energy as available and dependable clean power may be one of the most important factors in improving and broadening the educational map in this country. I put Financial Services and Hard Assets here as well as selectively attractive classes. . I list Global as a separate Asset Class, although every class listed can be considered global as well as domestic. The point this emphasizes is that the true growth opportunities involve solutions that extend beyond any domestic borders and truly allow one to be innovating into growth.  None of this is easy.  Persistent performance requires much more than capital and some smart people. It requires the ecosystems that in many cases have taken years to create. Investing beyond just getting Beta to getting real Alpha in any investment class requires patience and the full use of all the resources one can bring to bear. We are at an interesting stage where the nature of the venture industry may be returning to its previous core. I think it is a very exciting time for venture investing–not that it isn’t always exciting.

There are multiple opportunities across multiple sectors globally. Innovation is occurring and the pace is likely to accelerate. India is clearly innovating into a growth market in spite of near term concerns. Experienced Venture Capitalists can make a significant contribution. Smart capital can and should be choosy in this volatile global environment.    But maybe, if one is careful, the next decade may turn out to be a period of great investments with a great benefit to all humankind. Let us hope so.

Neuberger Berman’s Rivkin Discusses India Investments (Audio)

Jack Rivkin, director of the Neuberger Berman Mutual Funds, discusses investment and growth in technology in India. Rivkin talks to Bloomberg’s Kathleen Hays on “The Hays Advantage” on Bloomberg Radio.

Download the podcast

Management Trends in the 21st Century–Climate Change and Innovation play their part

I recently posted a comment on the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge website where a discussion is developing on the Most Significant Ideas in Management for the 21st Century. Below are five ideas I posted, all of which relate to management trends vs. societal trends. Of course, societal trends are almost always incorporated in forward thinking management views:

1)    Global Businesses, regardless of where they are headquartered, will be run by non-Western citizens.

2)    In the early part of the century there will be a significant age shift to a younger senior management structure effectively skipping a generation.

3)    With the accumulation and availability of investment capital outside the Western World, entrepreneurship will truly become global.

4)    A recognition of the growing real financial liability a corporation faces from not incorporating environmental sustainability and other societal issues into its decision-making will lead to widespread adoption of CSR. We already are seeing a valuation differential in the marketplace between CSR adopters and their counterparts.

5)    As the developing world begins creating its own patentable Intellectual Property, the fight over IP will become global and intense and, to some extent, may offset expanding universal access to information. The creation of IP may assert itself as a higher objective for management even though the shortened life of a new idea decreases its present value.

By the way, this is an interesting forum and I would urge others to contribute to it, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6639.html?wknews=02222011 .

The last two bullet points above clearly relate to what I think will be a management requirement—incorporating the impact of Climate Change on conducting business as the century progresses.  There is an implicit growing business liability related to lack of incorporation of likely legal and administrative response to emissions of various types as well as an impact on various factors of production. Some of that liability is already showing up, and in other instances, e.g.,  super fund sites, acid rain, there is some element of retroactivity that can be applied. It is not an easy present value calculation to determine if and when a corporation takes action, but it is not clear that many corporations are even making the calculation. Intellectual Property is a part of this calculation. Of course, here, it is not just related to innovations around Climate Change, but all innovations. I wrote,  in an earlier post, about steps China is taking to enhance its ability to create and protect Intellectual Property. Maybe coincidentally–or maybe not–the US is now making significantly more noise about increasing its spending on R&D and patent services in the face of significant pressure to cut federal spending. If the differential that the market place is willing to pay for reduction in liabilities through CSR investment and for ownership of Intellectual Property becomes more apparent, the pressure to lay out clearer guidelines in response to Climate Change and to improve our patent services should come from the corporate world with the government following. That is the way it should be. I hope it won’t be too late.