Wednesday, October 03, 2007


At the turn of the twentieth century, about 70% of all Americans live on a farm. Today, 2% live on farms. In China, there are a billion people ready to leave the farm if work can be found. What will all those people do?

The poor are not concentrated in China. In Asia and Africa there are billions of people who live off the equivalent of $2 per day. Suddenly, the cell phone is changing their lives. Poor "peasant farmers" now scrap together $20 or so to purchase a used cell phone. They pay a high per minute usage charge, but they are extremely frugal with their minutes. Indeed, they prepay for a few minutes or even for just a few seconds of time. They make very short phone calls or they send abbreviated text messages.

When I was in the 7th to 10th grades, I stayed after school for extracurricular activities such as football practice. When practice was over, I would start walking toward home which was four miles from school. Before starting to walk, I would send a "flash" message to my home. In those days, the pay phone across from the school required a nickel to make a 3 minute local call. To save the nickel, my siblings or I would call our home (party line) number and let the phone ring less than one complete ring and then we would hang up. Since the call was not completed, our nickel would come back. In later years, a prearrange "flash definition" might mean that a family member was leaving the Atlanta airport which meant it was almost time to drive to the Greensboro airport to pick up the traveler. A "flash" would also be sent upon arrival back at college.

Going to such extremes to save a nickel on a local call or a dollar and a half on a long distance call seems silly today but the $1.50 long distance call was equal to three hot, dirty and hard hours in the tobacco fields for the older kids and 6 hours of handing up by the younger kids. My oh my how do things change!? When my Dad was a boy, he worked in the tobacco fields for 12 cents per day. It is hard to believe but true that millions of Americans were as poor in the 1930's as billions of Africans are today. I am thankful that the "flash" has come to Asia -- Africa.

Business Week magazine reports that the cell phone is literally saving lives. It is also having a huge impact on the economies of the poorest of nations. One very short message might save a peasant farmer a 20 mile walk to a market or it might encourage him to head to the market where his particular goods might be in short supply. Phone transfers are even being used to send money. Cell phone communication beats banging on a drum any day of the week. Usage is surging and profits are substantial! While each phone generates only a few dollars of revenue per year, the total revenues are substantial because there are billions of phones. The number of cell phones in under developed nations just went over the 3 billion mark and the 5 billion mark is expected to be reached in 7 or 8 years.


Those who believe a mile US economic slow down is going to turn into a world wide recession or depression are ignoring the most tremendous "boom" in world history. While this boom has resulted in a temporary strain on the worlds resources, it has also resulted in enormous benefits from free trade. The productivity gains in many cases are by factors that are almost beyond belief. Can you imagine a three letter text message saving you a 20 mile walk through a rain forest?

The citizens of the USA are benefiting greatly. The demand for our goods and services is soaring. The annualized rate of growth of US services is currently running at better than 13%! The rate of growth in exports of goods is running at better than 16%! Jobs in America are plentiful and unfortunately a large number of excellent but "illegal citizens" are in the process of being thrown out of work in America. I am still hopeful that Congress will pass an immigration reform bill before essentially closing down for the 2008 elections before Thanksgiving. So far, the only "progress" being made is to fund a $3 billion fence that will not do diddle squat.

Exports from America will continue to soar because the world economy is super strong but all the while the really big growth in jobs and incomes will occur over seas. It is hard to believe but America is no longer the land of the free. Today, the USA taxes American businesses at higher rates than do foreign governments. One problem is that in America, we tax business profits when they are made and then we tax them again when the owners of the business shift money from one pocket to the other through the payout of dividends.


All of those billions of phones require computer chips, communications networks and knowledge to operate them. Powerful rifle shot ads will be "pushed" through billions of phones and Google will send a substantial number of these ads. Hardware, software, educational facilities and airlines are just a few areas that will see benefits from the massive build-out that is underway. Google has opted to partially fund a new under the Pacific fiber optic cable in exchange for wholesale priced usage. The name for the number of bytes of information that will be sent is some thing like Tera bytes. The total amount of information being sent and received will grow at exponential rates for many years to come.


Stock Market Bears are more than plentiful. One of today's problems is that market players, myself included, tend to look back at history to discover a "similar time to the current time"; there has never been a time like this. Even the industrial revolution does not compare. It took a few hundred years for the industrial revolution to creep all the way around the world and it never did make it all the way. The information revolution has spread like wild fire. The powerful thing is that it is a powerful dis-inflationary force. I think the bears would have an easier time understanding if they would focus on the huge productivity gains instead of on the inflation of food and energy. Food is now a very small part of GNP and the amount of energy used per dollar of GNP has fallen dramatically. As I have said before, the stone age did not end because man ran out of rocks but because he learned to use metals to his advantage. In the same way, we will never run out of oil. Indeed, the planet earth is a carbon sink that is experiencing net growth in resources daily.


Bill Gross is the most famous bond investor on the planet; bond investors are by nature pessimistic. Don Hayes is an optimistic and successful growth stock investor. Both men believe that short term and long term interest rates are going to fall over the next year or so. Bill says that the Fed Funds Rate will drop to 3.5 to 3.75% because the USA will experience an economic slowdown. Don Hayes offers the same interest rate forecast but his reasons are largely what I have detailed above; strong gains in productivity and low prices because of technological advances and free trade.

I am mostly in the Don Hayes camp because I believe the stock market will soar by 30% or so over the next year. However, I am not convinced that interest rates will fall so hard. I see low inflation but also very strong economic growth. Certainly, the current quarter will be a bit below trend as the "hit of the credit market freeze-up" and the housing building slump will have an effect. However, by the second and third quarters of next year, we just might see 5% real growth. Even if inflation is down to 1.25% or so, the long bond will likely be trading at 6.25% or better. Such "high rates" might even become a part of the Wall of Worry that the stock market will climb.


It may be patriotic to BUY AMERICAN, but it is fair to buy from the low cost producer. By doing so, the poorest of the poor will get earn food for their families and Americans will spend their time more productively. It was psychologically hard for American families to leave the farm and today it is psychologically hard to believe that America does not need manufacturing jobs. The fact is that goods are plentiful for a fair price. Be happy that you do not have to "flash" a phone call to save a penny and be kind to those who must!