Worldwide hysteria and the fear factor notwithstanding, Casey Research Chairman Doug Casey still considers nuclear power "by far the safest, cheapest and cleanest form of mass power generation." Sharing his views in this Energy Report exclusive on the eve of a sold-out Casey Research Summit in Boca Raton, Florida, Doug says power generated from wind, sun, the tides and other alternative sources are "very nice special applications but don't work economically unless they're subsidized."
The Energy Report: You have traveled the world extensively, studying the geopolitical forces that shape the economy on a day-to-day basis. In the past, you’ve been quite enthusiastic about uranium because of the need for nuclear power. Has the situation in Japan altered your view?
Doug Casey: No. What's happened in Japan is most unfortunate, but it hasn't altered my view at all. People are referring to it as a Class 7 Chernobyl disaster. Perhaps 20,000 people, or more, have died because of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. Not one death, so far, has been attributed to that nuclear power plant.
What happened at that plant was not anticipated, and the reactor shouldn't have melted down. Still, I have long said that nuclear power is by far the safest, cheapest and cleanest form of mass power generation. That is absolutely as true now as it was before the Fukushima disaster.
Around the world, coal is the source of the vast majority of power, and it kills directly, through air pollution and fly ash, thousands of people per year and many thousands more per year through coal mine disasters. Most of the mining deaths in the world — many thousands each year — occur in coal mines. No one ever talks about that. Nor do people seem to recall that when a large hydroelectric dam gives way it kills thousands of people. The debate on nuclear is intellectually dishonest.
TER: But mass psychology includes a nuclear fear factor.
DC: That's true, because the average person is absolutely ignorant of science. Ask a kid in the city where milk comes from, and he says it comes from a carton out of Safeway. He doesn't know it comes from cows and what's involved in raising cattle. It's the same with power. They think it's like magic. But if you want to turn the lights on, if you want your refrigerators to run, you've got to generate the power, and you're not going to do it from wind and solar. Those are very nice applications, but they don't work economically unless they're subsidized.
I have high hopes that these things will get better in the future, along with tidal and geothermal power. But now, and for the next generation, only coal and nuclear make any sense for mass power generation. Of course, if the government hadn't been involved in nuclear for all these many years, we might be using thorium — which appears to have many advantages — instead of uranium. We'd certainly be far more advanced with uranium reactors using different technologies. The Fukushima plant design was almost 50 years old and the plant itself was 40 years old; that's the equivalent of driving a 1957 Chevy today for your primary transportation. This is what happens when you have heavy regulation that makes capital costs so high that you can't put in new technologies. Is nuclear power potentially dangerous? Of course. Everything is. But it's a question of alternatives. I'm afraid hysteria has overwhelmed reason here.
TER: But how can we get over that? Can uranium really increase in value if the entire world is reassessing nuclear facilities?
DC: Reassessing in favor of what? Sure, they're going to build more coal plants because India and China and the whole world needs more power. But aside from coal, what are they going to do?
TER: How about liquefied natural gas (LNG)? Some suggest that LNG will be a viable alternative in Japan, at least temporarily.
DC: LNG is fine except that it suffers from the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome too. First, you have to get the gas; there's plenty of gas, but nobody wants it recovered using current fracking techniques. Then you have to compress it and deliver it in a highly compressed form. Nobody wants an LNG tanker around, because if it explodes, it'll literally blow up a city. That happened in Cleveland in the 1940s. Hundreds of people died and it took out half a square mile of Cleveland. So it's not without risk.
A new hysteria is developing since we found shale gas, with absolutely vast quantities available using new technologies of horizontal drilling and fracking. But there are dangers of damaging the water table, so everybody will say, "You can't go for shale gas here because it can potentially ruin our water" — and maybe they're right, at least in some instances. Everybody wants power but nobody wants to do what it takes to generate the power. I don't know how all of this is going to end, but probably badly because the world is so politicized.
TER: Shifting focus a bit, Doug, earlier this month, in a piece entitled "Keeping Capital in a Depression," you wrote about agriculture as a viable option, and your summit agenda includes an "Investing in Agriculture" presentation by Steve Yuzpe, CFO at Sprott Resource Corp. Could you tell us a bit about your views on agriculture going forward?
DC: The prices of most grains, especially wheat, corn and soybeans, have doubled in the last year. You can make a good case that agriculture is a good place to be for the long term. I'm quite involved in the cattle business in Argentina and I think cattle actually will go much higher for a lot of fundamental reasons. Agricultural land all over the world has gone up hugely in the last few years. But that's the problem, because if you want to make money, you have to buy cheap. Almost no assets are actually cheap anymore because so many trillions of dollars are floating around. I try to look at all the markets, everywhere. There are very few bargains.
TER: A recent article you wrote suggested that you're not crazy about commodity foods such as wheat, soy or corn because they're so subject to political interference and — as you put it — "they're not as important as foods for wealthy people, which is the profitable sector in the market." What do you mean by subject to political interference? And what are foods for wealthy people?
DC: Two different questions and they're both good. As for political interference, Argentina is an excellent example because Americans are only a few years behind the Argentineans in learning how to destroy an economy. In agriculture, a government can use export controls — subsidizing some things and taxing others — to manipulate the market. Wheat, soy, corn and other grains are common targets. These are commodities for feeding masses of people, grown by the millions of tons. I find boutique areas of the market much more interesting — and less regulated.
TER: For example?
DC: Apples, peaches, blueberries, or, for that matter, cattle. The rich people in the world are getting richer, mostly because of politically-caused distortions. But the middle classes are growing by tens of millions of people per year in China. They don't want to just eat bread and cheap soybean-based foods. Rich people like to eat meat, so it makes sense to me that it's a better place to be. Plus, ranchers haven't made money raising cattle for decades — most do it just because they're ranchers, and can't break a bad habit. Cattle herds worldwide have been in liquidation for a long time. I believe that's going to change, and cattle prices are going way up.
Another problem mass commodity producers face is that every year farmers can plant huge new crops, adding volatility to the market. But cattle take years to mature. So the supply is more predictable, and constrained.
TER: In the world of the Greater Depression that you foresee, to what extent is the production of foods for wealthy people — the fruits and the meat — sustainable? Wouldn't these markets also crash?
DC: In a depression the standard of living goes down. That's the definition of a depression. But it will go down less for rich people than for poor people. So in relative terms, I think rich people's foods will be higher-priced. I don't think they're going to go down as much and they're likely to go up more. Think about caviar. The number of sturgeon will go down and the number of people who want to eat fish eggs will go up. In fact, if I could buy long-term contracts on caviar and good eating fish, I'd do it.
Regardless of what happens in the U.S. and Europe, both of which are in a lot of trouble, the Indians and the Chinese are coming up rapidly in the world. Scores of millions of people a year in both of those countries are joining the middle class. After they have money, nobody wants to eat high-fructose-based corn products. They want to eat rich people's food too.
TER: In terms of the mass commodities, you pointed out that at any point farmers can simply plant more grain. But aren't there issues in terms of the amount of arable land available, appropriate water sources and machinery and so forth that inhibit or limit that ability to just plant more? If we have this ability to just plant everywhere, why are potash and fertilizers going up so much? Doesn't that indicate we're trying to get more out of the same places?
DC: That's absolutely true. There are counterarguments to everything I've said and I'm well aware of them. For instance, when it comes to these grains, they're all gigantic monocultures. Whenever you have a gigantic monoculture that goes for many, many miles in every direction, like in the grain-growing areas of the world, you're looking at a potential disaster because a bug — whether it be a microbe or an insect — could devastate all of it at once. When plantings were much more variegated, you couldn't have a wholesale disaster wipe out the whole crop.
Another thing to consider is that while the fertilizers increase yields on the one hand, on the other hand, fertilizers as well as the various biocides are very destructive of soils. They kill good microbes and earthworms and things like that. And, of course, in many growing areas they pump water up from the water table. That's generally a non-renewable resource because it takes thousands of years to recharge those water tables. That's another potential disaster.
At some point you could find the grains going through the roof for those various reasons. But in the meantime, as people plant grains, for instance, here in Argentina cattle are being kicked off good land because it's being planted with grains. The cattle have to go on junkier and junkier lands that are less productive. All of these things are pushing against each other in the markets. So, having said all that, I prefer the ends of the market that are generally looked upon as being rich people's foods.
TER: Aside from holding precious metals and finding agricultural niches such as you've described, how does someone with any wealth preserve it during this tumultuous period you anticipate?
DC: You must be geographically and politically diversified. That's critical. It's hard to find a politically stable place, but at least you can find a politically isolated place that's unlikely to be overrun in a war, or become a police state. The average person lives his whole life in the country where he was born, and whatever happens in that country happens to him. He's planted there and stays there, acting like a vegetable, which isn't a very intelligent approach to survival. So I recommend, first of all, political and geographical diversification.
TER: When it comes to geographically allocating your capital, you've founded a development in Argentina called La Estancia de Cafayate, a remote "lifestyle community" near the Andes — apparently now home to more than 150 people from a couple of dozen countries. But you know a lot of other places, too. How do you view Argentina now in comparison to other countries that are thriving? Thailand's economy is healthy, expanding more than 7.5% last year. And of course everybody talks about China's economic growth. Do you consider those politically stable places? Or would you focus more on South America?
DC: I'm a huge fan of the Orient. I've lived in Thailand, and thought seriously about going back for the years to come. But as much as I love it, it's the antithesis of Argentina — not just geographically, but culturally it's exactly opposite as well. If you're of Caucasian background, it's fine to live in the Orient, which I've done for years, but you're never going to really be part of society there, and you probably won't learn the language either. Tonal languages are tough. All things considered, I'd say South America is the best place to be. It's experiencing a boom right now because of agricultural prices.
There are a lot of places you can go in South America — 15 countries. Argentina is just the one that culturally suits me. Of course, the government has been idiotic almost all the time since Perón, but it bothers you less than most governments in the world do. As far as Estancia is concerned, it's without question the best community in the world to live in, at any price — even 10 times the price. It has far more in the way of amenities and facilities and climate. And most important, the people buying there are the kind of people I want to hang around. So it's a good place to be.
TER: Another good place to be, this weekend at any rate, is your summit in Boca Raton. Participants can look forward to hearing from some remarkable people, with something on the order of 35 of them on your agenda. What do you expect to be the major takeaway from this summit?
DC: What we're facing now is something of absolutely historic importance, the biggest thing that's gone on in the world since the industrial revolution. Many things will be completely overturned in the years to come. What's happening now in the Arab world with all of these corrupt kleptocracies being challenged and overthrown is just beginning. We haven't heard the end of this in any of these countries — Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria. Saudi Arabia will be the big one, of course. Everything's going to be overturned. And all these stooges that the U.S. government has been supporting for years could very well lose their heads.
So this is a very big deal that we're facing here in the next 10 years. It's going to be the most tumultuous decade for hundreds of years, bigger than what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. Hold on to your hats. You're in for a wild ride.
Doug Casey, chairman of Casy Research, LLC, is the international investor personified. He's spent substantial time in over 175 different countries so far in his lifetime, residing in 12 of them. And Doug's the one who literally wrote the book on crisis investing. In fact, he's done it twice. After The International Man: The Complete Guidebook to the World's Last Frontiers in 1976, he came out with Crisis Investing: Opportunities and Profits in the Coming Great Depression in 1979. His sequel to this groundbreaking book, which anticipated the collapse of the savings-and-loan industry and rewarded readers who followed his recommendations with spectacular returns, came in 1993, with Crisis Investing for the Rest of the Nineties. In between, his Strategic Investing: How to Profit from the Coming Inflationary Depression broke records for the largest advance ever paid for a financial book. Doug has appeared on NBC News, CNN and National Public Radio. He's been a guest of David Letterman, Larry King, Merv Griffin, Charlie Rose, Phil Donahue, Regis Philbin and Maury Povich. He's been the topic of numerous features in periodicals such as Time, Forbes, People, US, Barron's and the Washington Post — not to mention countless articles he's written for his own various websites, publications and subscribers.