"But if gold goes down, I'll buy more..."
IN THE WAY he makes the case for commodities Jim Rogers takes no prisoners. The author of "Hot Commodities" is so bullish—particularly on agriculture these days—that hearing what he has to say can leave you a bit unsettled. When IndexUniverse.com managing editor Olly Ludwig caught up with Rogers recently, he said new RBS' lineup of commodity ETNs that have his name on them are so far superior to the competition.
Surveying the world of agriculture, Rogers talked about the growing shortage of farmers around the world at a time of tight food supplies. He also reaffirmed his bullishness on gold—and his bearishness on bonds—both of which are closely tied to his skepticism that the US and the rest of the industrialized world will ever get out from under all its indebtedness without some additional crisis.
His most surprising revelation? After dismissing Russia for years as a dangerous investment destination, where losing money was almost guaranteed, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed his approach to foreign investment. That means Rogers is poking around the commodities-rich country looking for ways to profit.
Olly Ludwig: What commodity or commodities are flying under the radar that perhaps investors ought to be looking at more closely right now?
Jim Rogers: I'd have to say agriculture, because agriculture is very depressed on any kind of long-term basis. Sugar prices, for instance, are down about 75 percent or so from their all-time high in 1974, 38 years ago. We have been consuming more agricultural commodities than we have been producing in the world for the last decade or so. So inventories are near historic lows, which, of course, is a dangerous situation.
But worse still, we're running out of farmers. The average age of farmers in America is 58; in Australia it's 58; in Japan it's 66. In America, more people study public relations than study agriculture. So the farmers are dying and retiring, and no young people are coming into agriculture. Agriculture is facing a serious, serious problem, so prices have to go much, much higher, or we're not going to have any food at any price.
Olly Ludwig: So a broad approach would serve investors well, say, in a multicommodity futures-based ETF, such as PowerShares' DBC or United States Commodity Funds' USCI?
Jim Rogers: I prefer the Rogers indexes, because they are better constructed to outperform the others. But yes, a broad fund.
Olly Ludwig: Let's talk about your new securities that just went live here in the United States, the broad family of contango-mitigating RBS ETNs. Can you offer some observations about them—the broad one, and the ones focused on agriculture, energy, industrial metals and precious metals—first in relation to the pre-existing Merrill Lynch "Elements" ETNs that are already on the market and that don't have a contango-mitigating feature?
Jim Rogers: As you know, the markets do have contango and backwardation. It's always been the case with commodities, and always will be. These products attempt to mitigate the problems of contango. And so far, the ETNs have been able to do a good job, better than the regular, original index. Will that be the case in the future? I don't have a clue.
Olly Ludwig: So, what's to recommend this particular new suite of products relative to some of these other contango mitigation strategies that are on the market already?
Jim Rogers: Well, these new indexes have outperformed the others so far. Will they in the future? I don't know.
Olly Ludwig: Looking ahead to gold in 2013, what is the biggest factor in gold's continued success? What's your near-term outlook and longer-term outlook in terms of whether this rally still has legs?
Jim Rogers: I own gold and I own silver. I own all the precious metals, especially gold and silver. I'm not sure I would buy right now. Gold has gone up 12 years in a row, which is extremely unusual for any asset, at least in my experience. I don't know any asset that's gone up 12 years without a down year except gold. Gold has had only one decline over 30 percent in those 12 years. That, too, is extremely unusual.
Plus, if you look at the open interest from the CFTC, the speculators have been piling into gold. The number of call options is more than twice the put options. All the signs are that there's too much speculation in gold right now.
I'm not selling, by any stretch. I own it. If it goes down, I'll buy more. If America bombs Iran, I'll probably buy more going up. But I own it and, over the longer term, gold is going to go much higher because the world is doing nothing but printing money. And when the world economies get bad again, they're going to print even more money. But I'm not buying now.
Olly Ludwig: As far as gold and silver right now, which do you see as the more prospective of the two precious metals?
Jim Rogers: On a historic basis, silver is cheaper than gold. Gold is down 10 or 15 percent from its all-time high. Silver is down 30 or 40 percent. So I guess I'd rather buy silver than gold. I'm buying neither at the moment. But if I had to, I'd probably buy silver today rather than gold. But again, I'm not buying or selling either.
Olly Ludwig: Now, on the natural gas front, how much thought have you given to this ramping up of production in the States? There's talk about exports. Do you see that as a realistic prospect that the United States will become a gas exporter?
Jim Rogers: I read the same things you do. But what I don't read much about is the fact that the number of drilling rigs for shale gas has gone down 75 percent in the last 18 months or so. Because it turns out that these wells are very short-lived. They're great for the first 30 days. But by year three or four, they're very expensive to maintain.
Two things come to mind. One is that I presume human ingenuity will solve that problem somehow. But if it's a geological problem and it cannot be solved, then the gas boom is not quite what we all thought it might be. And I'm told the same applies to the shale oil wells.
Again, I don't know if it's a gap in my knowledge, and I need to do something about it to find out. If mankind can solve the problem, then sure, that's going to be a great boon for the world. There's a lot of shale gas and shale oil in the world. A lot of countries have it, it turns out. In all, bull markets and commodities will end some day. And this may be the thing that ends this bull market. But "some day" is still a long way away, as far as I can see.
I'm not rushing out to buy natural gas just because I don't really know the answer yet. If I find it is a serious geological problem that we cannot solve any time soon, then I'll probably buy more natural gas. But at the moment, I'm just watching.
Olly Ludwig: Looking at China and its agricultural imports from the United States, do you see any particular products that are going to benefit more than others, say, corn or soybeans or something else?
Jim Rogers: As you know, they already import soybeans. And consumption of wheat continues to rise in China, with Chinese prosperity, and so does sugar consumption. So anything that China consumes and is in short supply there will benefit from Chinese prosperity. But again, someday the bull market will end, at least they always have.
Olly Ludwig: When might this commodity boom that you first wrote about in your book, "Hot Commodities," run its course? How far is this along? Is there some kind of an end in sight?
Jim Rogers: Well, I don't see the end in sight—yet. Conceivably, the world economy is going to collapse sometime in the next decade. And if that happens, needless to say, then central banks are going to print even more money. It's the wrong thing to do, but commodities will benefit and be a better place to invest than stocks, or certainly better than bonds if that happens.
On a historic basis, we're maybe two-thirds of the way through the commodity bull market. Normally, eight, nine, 10 years into any bull market in anything, you start to see more supply come in. But what happened in 2008 and 2009 means there is a lot of potential capacity or supply that's been deferred or delayed. So we don't have as much supply coming as we normally would in this stage of the bull market.
So this bull market might last longer than most. But again, there's no reason for me to determine that yet. The bull market is still intact. I hope I'll be smart enough to recognize that a lot of capacity and a lot of supply is coming in, because that will be the end of the bull market. But that's still years away.
Olly Ludwig: You've spoken very pointedly about the US and where it finds itself in the arc of its history, with all of the debt and the money printing. I'm wondering if you might comment specifically on what you're witnessing now with the budget talks that are going on, this whole "fiscal cliff"—the possibility of greater taxation coming into focus. Is there anything in all of this that seems to be relatively good news? Or do you continue to see the whole US picture with a great deal of skepticism?
Jim Rogers: None of these talks are going to lead to reduction of the debt. Whether it's the president or the Congress, none of their plans show any debt reduction for a year, if not a decade. So they may just be slowing down the march over the cliff. But they're not solving the problem.
Olly Ludwig: And is there anything in Europe any different? Or is it much the same story line, in your view?
Jim Rogers: Well, in Europe they had, what, 20 summits in the last three or four years? And each time they came out, they solved the debt. Ah, they solved the problem in Europe. And everybody breathes a sigh of relief for a day or a week or a month. And the next thing you know, we're right back where we started. So, no.
Olly Ludwig: Any shorts you have currently that you're willing to talk about?
Jim Rogers: I'm short technology in the US because technology isn't so over-exploited. I'm short emerging markets. I've shorted the bond market. I hasten to tell you I've shorted the bond market two or three times in three years—unsuccessfully. I don't know if I got my timing right this time or not.
Olly Ludwig: And what about unlikely long positions that might be a surprise? I'm thinking about how you were sort of joking you would be long places like North Korea if you could.
Jim Rogers: Mainly long currencies and commodities such as the agricultures, as we've discussed. I would like to find a way to invest in North Korea. The only way I know to invest in North Korea is to buy stamps or their gold and silver coins from North Korea.
And Russia, I'm looking for ways to invest. I've been skeptical about Russia for 46 years, since I first visited there in 1966. I'm changing my view on Russia. I have not made any investments there yet, just because I haven't found any.
Olly Ludwig: What is it about Russia that suddenly looks a little bit more palatable to you at this point?
Jim Rogers: Actually, since 1917, the Russians have said, "When it's your money, then invest here, and we'll all get rich." And as soon as you did that, they took it away from you, or shot you, or put you in jail, or whatever. But I have the view that Putin, for whatever reason—I'm not going to speculate about his reasons—that the government has changed now in Russia, and realizes they have to play by the same rules that everybody else does if they're going to prosper.
And so, if that's the case, Russia has gigantic potential. They've got everything in the world there: huge natural resources. They're trying to develop the transportation network so that they can transport goods from Asia through Siberia. And they're spending huge amounts of money doing it. If it works, it would save a lot of time and money to get goods to Asia instead of going by ship. It would ruin Singapore, of course, because Singapore would be wrecked by the new transportation route. Anyway, there are various things that I see happening that give me encouragement for the first time in my life about Russia.
This interview was republished at Hard Assets Investor
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