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Ray Dalio (Trades, Portfolio), founder of Bridgewater Associates, thinks we're back to the late 1930s. In an Aug. 28 LinkedIn post, as well as recent television interviews, he described three similarities between today and the decade that brought us the Great Depression. According to Dalio, if the economy begins to slow, these similarities may "produce serious problems."
If you're worried about the value of your portfolio, you'll want to hear him out.
This first similarity Dalio identified deals with is monetary policy. He argued that central banks can't rely on monetary policy forever. Eventually, the benefits of monetary policy diminish. Cutting rates or expanding the Federal Reserve's portfolio, for example, won't boost the economy if debt levels are too high. Dalio thinks we may have reached that point. And while many politicians, economists and investors are banking on more stimulus, the effects shouldn't be counted on.
"As for monetary policy and fiscal policy responses, it seems to me that we are classically in the late stages of the long-term debt cycle, when central banks' power to ease in order to reverse an economic downturn is coming to an end," Dalio said.
He also listed three causes:
Concerns over monetary policy are also making other gurus cautious. Seth Klarman (Trades, Portfolio) highlighted in his annual letter to investors the upcoming troubles with government intervention, rising deficits and sovereign debt levels.
He also thinks poor fiscal and monetary policy could eventually spell the end for the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency.
Dalio also pointed to increasing wealth inequality as a danger to the status quo. He argued the polarization of politics is particularly concerning.
"If I was the president of the United States, what I would do is recognize that this is a national emergency," he said. "If you look at history, if you have a group of people who have very different economic conditions, and you have an economic downturn, you have conflict."
He went on to say:
"Disparity in wealth, especially when accompanied by disparity in values, leads to increasing conflict and, in the government, that manifests itself in the form of populism of the left and populism of the right and often in revolutions of one sort or another. The American dream is lost. For the most part we don't even talk about what is the American dream. And it's very different from when I was growing up."
Dalio is right to compare this issue with the 1930s. According to most research, income inequality has reached levels last seen in the years before the Great Depression hit.
"Wealth inequality has increased dramatically since the 1980s, with a top 1% wealth share around 40% in 2016 versus 25% to 30% in the 1980s," UC Berkeley economics professor Gabriel Zucman said. "The share of wealth owned by the bottom 90% has collapsed in similar proportions."
Yet again, Dalio finds a like-minded friend in Klarman, who said, "It is not hard to imagine worsening social unrest among a generation that is falling behind economically and feels betrayed by a massive national debt that was incurred without any obvious benefit to them."
That could spell trouble for investors. "It can't be business as usual amid constant protests, riots, shutdowns and escalating social tensions," Klarman added."Social cohesion is essential for those who have capital to invest."
Finally, Dalio sees a political power shift occurring, not unlike what happened in the 1930s. Put simply, the guru sees a "rising world power challenging an existing world power." This dynamic has widespread impacts.
"External politics is driven by the rising of an emerging power (China) to challenge the existing world power (the U.S.), which is leading to a more extreme external conflict and will eventually lead to a change in the world order," Dalio wrote. "If/when there is an economic downturn, that will produce serious problems in ways that are analogous to the...serious problems in the late 1930s."
Given recent escalations in the trade war between the U.S. and China, Dalio is growing increasingly nervous.
"Unfortunately, the war with China is spreading," he wrote. "Yesterday it spread to a currency war that will affect all currencies. It could spread to a capital war and/or an embargo war (shutting off needed items). In a worst case, it could go beyond that. We need to watch it closely," he said.
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This article first appeared on GuruFocus.