Exclusive: Interview With Eric Sprott

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Zero Hedge had an opportunity recently to ask Eric Sprott a variety of questions touching on everything from investment recommendations, to policy guidelines, to a general outlook for the world economy. As Sprott has long been a rare voice of contrarian reason in a field of lemming-like uniformity, lately driven by nothing more than a pursuit of centrally planned momentum and Bernanke-induced "heatmapping", we believe the answers were vastly more interesting and illuminating than anything available for mass media consumption.

Interview with Eric Sprott of Sprott Asset Management

1. The conspiracy of optimism, suggested by the likes of almost anyone appearing in the MSM (print and cable), is that the US is the place to invest in 2011. A glance at the hedge funds you manage (as of the end of 2010) suggest that you are not buying into this hype. Are the short positions you have in your Hedge Funds still mainly in the US? If so what sectors and why?

A: Our short positions are all exclusively in large cap US names, with a focus on the financial and consumer discretionary sectors. We’ve been bearish on US equities for some time, particularly those in the financial sector that remain severely over-levered in this environment. We’ve managed our long/short hedge fund with the view that we entered a long-term bear market in 2000, and we’ve enjoyed maintaining an active short portfolio throughout the decade. It’s provided specific opportunities to produce alpha, and also provided negative beta exposure during the sell offs when downside protection was needed most. I urge all my investors to consider adding a hedge fund that can short effectively. It really is one of the best investment vehicles to own during a long-term secular bear market for equities, which I firmly believe we are still in.
2. Conversely you are mostly long Canadian equities, with some international exposure. What international countries and sectors do you have exposure too?

A: Most of the equities we invest in long are listed in Toronto. Their underlying assets tend to be distributed globally, however. In the case of our mining exposure, we own mines all over the world: Africa, Southeast Asia, United States, South America. Our location in Toronto has proven advantageous in that it grants us access to the best management teams in the resource industry. Toronto is a major mining-finance capital and we have one of the busiest foyers on Bay Street, with various resource management teams visiting with us regularly to provide updates. We’ve been investing in this space for almost ten years now, so we’ve developed deep contacts within the mining industry internationally. Our sector focus is currently concentrated in precious metals and energy equities. We manage all the company-specific risks on an individual basis, but the sector weights are guided by our macro views.
3. We are currently seeing a massive rise in commodity costs across a broad spectrum of raw materials. The result of the Bernanke "wealth effect". What do you see as the consequences of the rise in commodity prices, for equity and credit markets?

A: It’s unbelievable to see. The food inflation is astounding,… when you see vegetable prices rising 40% in a month, grains up 20% on the year, eggs, sugar,… meat, all up 20-30% since July, it makes you wonder how they manage to massage the CPI so effectively. It’s becoming quite a serious issue, really. The Brent price is especially problematic – we always wonder about the consequences higher oil prices could potentially have on this “recovery”. We all saw the peripheral damage it caused in 2008, completely aside from the banking collapse that was happening at the time. There’s little doubt that these price increases are having a major impact across the globe – look at Egypt, for example. How much of that situation was initiated by food inflation? Same with UK with their recent numbers. It’s only a matter of time before we see more direct effects on prices here at home.
4. How do you see the end of QE2 playing out across the credit and equity markets?

A: I don’t think the market is prepared to go it alone yet. I don’t think we can have a strong equity market without more stimulus. It was amazing to see the sentiment shifts in January, as pundits began declaring the end of QE2, and no need for QE3,… but of course a few weeks pass and problems surface somewhere, this time in the Middle East, and Obama has to get up there and promise more printing to prevent a sell-off. I think the US is in such a difficult situation now with their Treasury auctions. We wrote about this in late ’09, asking how the US could realistically fund their debt requirements. The big question is how much of QE2 has been indirectly funneled back into on-the-run issues. It’s obvious the market doesn’t want to go there yet, but that is a vital question in anticipating the need for QE3.
5. Now that the "Wealth Effect" seems to be the main mandate of US the Federal Reserve, do you envision Bernanke having the ability to implement further incarnations of QE? If so under what circumstances?

A: I just think of how much they’ve spent up to this point to keep this thing going. Think of all the programs they’ve initiated. QE 1, QE 2, TARP, TALF, Fannie and Freddie – it’s all adds up to trillions, so it doesn’t seem far fetched to assume they’ll institute more measures to plug the dam.
6. Do you see any bubbles present or being blown in the world right now? If so, where and what are they?

A: I don’t see any greed bubbles in this market. Nobody’s buying T-bonds to get rich. While I do think the US bond market is a ‘bubble’ in the sense that it’s widely mispricing US risk, I don’t think investors are buying bonds with the expectation of selling them higher down the road. Investors are just trying to maintain some level of real return in here. Many are also trying to game the Fed, stay ahead of them. The commentators who call the precious metals market a bubble are laughable. Nobody owns the stuff. It’s extremely tightly held. Plenty of paper gold floating around, but that’s another story.
7. What possible or probable black swan event (timeline of 12-24 months) keeps you up at night?

A: A major supply disruption in the oil market would throw us over the edge. The economy isn’t strong enough to withstand high energy prices for an extended period.

You also have to wonder what happens if they don’t extend QE2 – and the impact the inevitable rise in rates would have on the US and global economy. We’re obviously in a very precarious environment today, so we have to be prepared for a “black swan” type event at any time. We’ve been managing our funds with a defensive view for over ten years now, so I would hope we could weather them better than most.
8. Your views on precious metals are well known. If there is a collapse in the USD and/or fiat currencies in general, how will gold be valued?

A: They’d likely be valued in terms of other goods, rather than in units of fiat currency. Investors won’t care what an ounce is worth in USD if the USD can’t be exchanged for anything. They’ll want to know what an ounce is worth in water, or food, anything consumable.

I think most mainstream investors still struggle to appreciate the changes that have occurred in precious metals market since 2008. Gold is reverting back into a world reserve currency – it’s so clearly visible now. It’s one of the only asset classes that has ‘worked’ for investors and savers. And yet there remains this large contingent who continue to question its legitimacy as an asset class.

One of the great struggles investors continue to have with gold, particularly in the US, is in embracing it as a monetary alternative. There are money managers and pension trustees who refuse to view gold as a store of value. They don’t understand the value argument. It’s a peculiar thing. If we lived in a different environment today, I’d understand their hesitance to embrace gold, but after everything we’ve gone through, and after acknowledging the fiscal reality of the Western powers, I just don’t understand why anyone would question the benefits of a hard currency. We need a hard currency today for SAVERS. Gold is for savers. We all need some sort of risk-free return vehicle in a properly functioning financial system. Bonds pay a negative real return today, so we’re forced to up our risk tolerance into equities or high-yield. You can’t save capital in cash in this environment – it’s as simple as that. You have to find another asset class to perform that function, and precious metals are once again reverting to their traditional monetary status to meet that need.
9. If you had the opportunity, what 3 policies would you enact that you believe would put the US on a path towards sustainable growth?

A: That’s a tough one. I try to focus more on what they’re doing, rather than worrying about what they should do. I think I’ve been fairly clear in articulating the challenges Western governments face today. Realistically, there is only so much austerity a country can take – look at the impact it’s already having in the UK. I just don’t see the US making the sacrifices required to put them back on the right path long-term. When you see the CBO forecasting budget deficits into 2021, one can only assume that the US plans to borrow in perpetuity. That only works as long as you can get the borrow. But we all know the game changes when the US can’t get the borrow through traditional means. We may already be there.

If I were to make recommendations, I’d focus on addressing leverage in the banking system. I firmly believe 20:1 is far too high a leverage multiple to maintain in this environment. I don’t even know what the right number is – maybe it’s no more than 5:1. But we can’t keep this situation going where a mere 5% shift in asset prices can completely wipe out your tangible equity.  I would also try removing the “too big to fail” safeguards that allow the financials to reach such insane levels of leverage. And then of course there’s the derivatives issue, which almost nobody even wants to talk about anymore… but it never went away. It’s probably an even bigger problem today.
10. You have been in the financial industry for well over 35 years. If you had to create a portfolio for a 30 year today, what would it look like. How would you advise one to manage said portfolio?

A: I would be invested heavily in precious metals, both the bullion and equities. I would maintain exposure to energy, and I would have some shorts on the table. Buy-and-hold isn’t dead if you hold the right things, but 30 years is probably too long a timeframe to park capital and forget about it. I’ve always been more of a long-term investor than a trader, and although my themes tend to last for many years, I’ve seen many different markets throughout my career. I’ve definitely repositioned my funds over time. I sincerely hope we do see a true bull market in equities again at some point – I would be the first to applaud one because it’s easier to pick stocks in a secular bull market. But for the time being, until we solve the debt problems, I think our current positioning is the best way to be invested. And for what it’s worth I also think there’s plenty of opportunity in this market as well – there certainly has been for us. It’s just a matter of staying on top of macro developments, focusing on valuation and investing with conviction.

Special thanks to Lizzie.