I’m a global macro investor who has been betting on what’s going to happen for over 50 years. I’ve been through all sorts of events and cycles in all sorts of places over a long time which led me to study how these events and cycles work. In the process, I learned that I needed to study history to understand what’s going on and what’s likely to happen.
Early in my career, I learned though a couple of painful mistakes that the biggest things that surprised me did so because they never happened in my lifetime but had happened many times in history. The first time that happened was on August 15, 1971 when I was clerking on the floor of the New York Stock exchange and the U.S. defaulted on its debt promise to allow people to turn in their paper dollars for gold. I thought that this was a big crisis that would send stock prices down but they went up a lot. I didn’t understand why because I’d never experienced a big currency devaluation before. When I looked back in history, I saw that the exact same thing happened on March 5, 1933 when Roosevelt defaulted on the U.S.’s promise to let people turn in their paper money for gold and stocks went up. That led me to study and learn why—which is that money could be created, and when it’s created, it goes down in value which makes things go up in price. That experience led me to study the rises and declines of markets, economies, and countries which I’ve done ever since. For example, my studying how the 1920s debt bubble turned into the 1929-33 financial collapse led me to anticipate and profit from the 2008 financial crisis. That’s how I learned that it’s critical to take a longer-term perspective and understand the mechanics behind why history rhymes.
A few years ago, I saw three big things happening that hadn’t happened in my lifetime but had happened in the 1930-45 period. These were:
The largest amounts of debt, the fastest rates of debt growth, and the greatest amounts of central bank printing of money and buying debt since 1930-45.
The biggest gaps in wealth, income, values, and the greatest amounts of populism since the 1930-45 period.
The greatest international great powers conflict, most importantly between the U.S. and China, since 1930-45.
Seeing these three big things that never happened in these magnitudes in my lifetime led me to study the rises and declines of markets, economies, and countries over the last 500 years, as well as the rises and declines of China’s dynasties the last 2,100 years.
That examination showed me that these three big forces—i.e. the debt/money one, the internal conflict one, and the external conflict one—transpired in big cycles that reinforced each other to make up what I call the Big Cycle. These cycles were driven by logical cause-effect relationships Most importantly, this study of the last 500 years of history taught me that:
The previously described financial conditions repeatedly proved to be leading indicators of big financial crises that led to big shifts in the financial order.
The previously described levels of political and social gaps repeatedly proved to be leading indicators of great conflicts within countries that led to big changes in domestic orders.
The previously described great powers’ conflicts repeatedly proved to be leading indicators of international conflicts that led to big changes in the world order.
Said differently, history shows that the painful seismic shifts part of the Big Cycle comes about when there is simultaneously 1) too much debt creation that leads to debt bubbles bursting and economic contractions which cause central banks to print a lot of money and buy debt, 2) big conflicts within countries due to big wealth and values conflicts made worse by the bad economic conditions, and 3) big international conflicts due to rising world powers challenging the existing world powers at a time of economic and internal political crises In doing this study, I also saw two other big forces that had big effects. They are:
Acts of nature (droughts, floods, pandemics) including climate change.
Learning leading to inventions of technologies that typically produced evolutionary advances in productivity and living standards —e.g., the First and Second Industrial Revolution, and computing/AI revolution.
I call these the Five Big Forces. I saw how they affect each other and change in logical ways to produce the Big Cycle that produces big changes in the world order. I came to realize that if one understands and follows each of these forces and how they interact, one can understand most everything that’s changing the world order. That’s what I’m trying to do.
I will give you a quick summary of what I learned from my study but if you want to lean more about how and why things change you can get that in my book Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order.
Where We Are and What’s Likely Ahead
1. The Financial/Economic Force
In the U.S., we are now in middle part of what I call the short-term debt cycle and is also known as the business cycle. These short-term debt cycles have lasted 7 years on average, give or take about 3 years. There have been 12 1/2 of them since the new monetary world order started in 1945. So, we are now about half-way though the 13th of the cycles, at the point of the cycle when the central bank has tightened money to fight inflation that is just before the debt and economic contractions which will likely come over next 18 months.
We are also in a late and dangerous part of the long-term debt cycle because the levels of debt assets and debt liabilities have become so high that it is difficult to give lender-creditors a high enough interest rate relative to inflation that is adequate to make them want to hold this debt as an asset without making interest rates so high that it unacceptably hurts the borrower-debtor. Because of unsustainable debt growth, we are likely approaching a major inflection point that will change the financial order. Said differently, it appears to me likely that we are approaching a debt/financial/economic restructuring that will lead to big changes to the financial order.
More specifically. it appears likely to me that because of large deficits the U.S. Treasury will have to sell a lot of debt and it appears there will not be adequate demand for it. If that happens, it will lead to either much higher interest rates or the Fed printing a lot of money and buying bonds which will devalue money. For these reasons, the debt/financial conditions could worsen, perhaps very significantly, over the next 18 months.
2. The Domestic Order Force
In several countries, most importantly the U.S., we have seen a growing percentage of the population that are populist extremists (about 20-25 percent of the right are extreme and about 10-15 percent of the left are) and a shrinking of the percentage of the population that are bipartisan moderates. Though the bipartisan moderates still remain in the majority, they constitute a declining percentage of the population and they are far less willing to fight and win at all costs. In studying history, I saw this growing populism of both sides and increased conflict has repeatedly occurred when large gaps in wealth and values existed at the same time as bad economic conditions. At such times, significant percentages of the population chose populist political leaders who vowed to fight and win for them rather than compromise. In my book, I described the state the U.S. is now in as Stage 5 (“When There Are Bad Financial Conditions and Intense Conflict”) of the “internal order cycle,” which comes just before some sort of civil war and changes in the domestic order. That is what is now happening.
Looking ahead, the next 18 months will be an increasingly intense big election period which will lead to much greater political conflict which is likely to sharper the divide between the left and the right. Thirty-three Senate seats, the presidency, and control of the House will be fought over by a number of populist candidates and there will likely be poor economic conditions, so the fights will be vicious and there will be a real test of rule-following and compromising, both of which are required to make democracies work. You can see the movement toward a win at all cost fight while the respect for the legal and political systems declines. You can see this dynamic playing out even now, in things like Donald Trump and his followers being at war with the justice system, or as he and his followers would say, the system’s war against him. Whichever perspective you have, it is clear that we are headed into a type of civil war over the next 18 months. To me the most important war is between the bipartisan moderates and the populist extremes, yet the bipartisan moderates are for the most part quietly staying out of this fight. The only thing the Democrats and Republicans can agree on, which most Americans also agree on, is being anti-China which brings me to my next big force.
3. The International World Order Force
The conflicts between the U.S. and China are likely to intensify as domestic political tensions will likely lead to increased aggressiveness toward China. That is because in the U.S. most everyone is anti-China and those running for office will want to out-China-bash each other in an election year. China and the US are already dangerously close to some form of war, whether an all-out economic one or, worse, a military one. There are also important elections in Taiwan next year, which is already a flash point in U.S.-China elections, and a U.S.-backed push for Taiwanese independence is something to keep a close eye on when weighing the potential for even more overt U.S.-China conflict. There are several issues—Taiwan, chips, dealing with Russia, sanctioning investments—that are being fought over, and both sides are preparing for war. I don’t mean to say that we are destined for war, but I do mean that the odds of some form of a major conflict are dangerously high.
4. Acts of Nature
Acts of nature are of course harder to predict accurately, but they appear to be getting worse and are likely to be more costly and damaging over the next five to ten years due to climate change. Also, the world is entering an El Niño phase of the climate cycle over the next year.
What can we expect from technology/human inventiveness? Like acts of nature, it is hard to know exactly, though there should be no doubt that generative AI and other technological advances have the potential to cause both massive productivity gains and massive destructions, depending on how they are used. The one thing that we can be sure of is that these changes will be greatly disruptive.
Exactly how events will unfold is beyond my ability to say, but there is no doubt in my mind that those who assume that things will work in the orderly ways we have gotten used in the last few decades will be shocked and probably hurt by the changes to come.
How well these changes are managed will make all the difference. If our leaders can rise above their tendencies to fight and instead focus on cooperating, we can certainly navigate these tricky times to create a better world for most people. Presumably, this outcome is best for everyone, so we should be strongly against civil disorder and war between nations, keeping it in the back of our mind so we strive for cooperative decision-making. For example, now that a debt ceiling agreement has passed, it would be great to see the Democrats and Republicans mutually agree on a bipartisan group of very skilled people to come up with a practical, long-term bipartisan plan. I wrote an article “Why and How Capitalism Needs to be Reformed?” years ago which is still relevant today in case you’re interested. Having said that, it is probably unrealistic to believe that we can materially change the course of events, so what is most important for most people is to visualize the worst. If you do that, you will be prepared for it and will probably be fine.
In closing I should say that the most important thing I’ve learned in my 50 years of being a global macro investor is that I can be wrong. For that reason, while I suggest that you consider what I am sharing, I also suggest that you assess it and the circumstances for yourself.