Bill Gross – A Billionaire’s Vietnam War Stories
When I was twenty-two years old, I came face-to-face with a Marine drill sergeant who turned out to be the meanest old dog you’d never want to meet in your life. Sergeant Cruz was his name, but “Sir” was the only title he recognized-and that at a minimum of 110 decibels from a squeaky voiced kid who was barely able to shave. From the start, let me acknowledge that was never cut out to be a military man — and Cruz knew it. Like a lion instinctively culling out the weakest wildebeest from the herd, he was on to me the minute I took that fateful first step inside the Pensacola barracks in October of 1966. My hair was gone in the first ten minutes, my body became vulnerable during the next ten, and my ego was completely destroyed by sundown. I had decided to be a Viet Nam jet jockey, but the commitment was weak and the Sergeant smelled it almost instinctively. “Where are your love beads. Mr.!”, he screamed in my face. “In San Francisco. SIR!”. became my accepted reply. “Well, then you’d better get your hairy ___ out of here and back to your hometown real soon don’t you think, boy?” “No. Sir!”, I would squeak in return.
Ah. Sergeant Cruz. Everyone else hated him too, you see. He was the personification of the system we were being forced to accept within the short span of twelve weeks. After that, we would be officers and learning the insides of a cockpit instead of a latrine. But Cruz was standing in our way, especially mine it seemed. I could do nothing right. I was awake until three in the morning searching for that microscopic piece of rust in my rifle that he always seemed to find during inspection. I never slept in my bunk, because the “hospital corners” he demanded for my sheets took over an hour to make and there was simply no time. All the while my broken body, though never once touched by his hand, was in full retreat from the countless marches, push-ups, pull-ups, obstacle runs, and anything else that you’ve seen in the movies and thought was pure Hollywood fiction. I’m here to tell you – they’re all true.
“You’ll never fly a jet, Mr. Gross!”, he would scream. “Blimps are more your style.” He was right, of course, but the Navy wasn’t using any blimps in Viet Nam, so I eventually found my home on a destroyer in the South Pacific. I’ll never forget Cruz though. His twelve weeks were three months from Hell, but they were my first big steps on the way to manhood. As was customary at the commissioning ceremony for young officers, each new Ensign would sign a dollar bill and hand it to their drill sergeant in hopes of being remembered once they became famous down the road. I didn’t know it then, but I realize now that it was Cruz who should have done the signing. Bill Gross, and a thousand other blimp pilots, have surely disappeared from his memory lane, but Marine Sergeant Alfredo Cruz will remain indelibly in ours, with the highest respect and esteem, for the rest of our lives.
Next to the Sergeant, my strongest impression of those years was the swiftness of the transition – hair one minute, bald the next. Something akin to that has taken place in the pension world recently and, while I’m no actuary, I know a blimp or a liability when I see one. The headline came from General Motors, although it could just as easily been generated by many of America’s largest or, for that matter, smallest companies. “GM Warns of Pension Financing” blared The New York Times. What GM was saying was that due to the drop in interest rates to the lowest levels in twenty years, their pension liabilities had increased to the point where they might have to contribute an additional S5 billion by the end of 1993 in order to shore up their pension plan. Now this is probably a little confusing, even to some actuaries, especially when it’s observed that due to the decline in yields over the past twelve years or so, both bond and stock returns have averaged nearly 15% a year. How could a plan that’s quadrupled its assets in ten years (15% annually) be forced into contributing another S5 billion in order to keep it actuarially sound? Well, it all has to do with the assumed rate of future returns on assets, the rate of expected inflation, and a company’s future liabilities to its plan participants. If these future liabilities are discounted at a lower interest rate, then their present value goes up, and if the duration of their liability stream is longer than the duration of their assets, then a company such as GM may be forced into heavy contributions if interest rates drop. The real truth of it is that some plans have held too many callable bonds, refinanceable mortgages, or just plain cash that never ‘locked” in a high return for the next 20-30 years, and they’re hurtin’ puppies about now.
So? Boooring, Mr. Gross. Back to the boot camp stories, please. More jets, fewer blimps. I know, I know, but there’s more to this than meets the eye and if you’re a plan sponsor (director of a pension plan), then you’ve gotta’ hear me out. Even after this S5 billion contribution by GM, the company “assumes” that its pension assets will earn a return of approximately 10% a year – a rate of growth that GM described as “realistic and prudent”. That’s the rub. GM thinks they’re gonna’ be flying jets at 10% high, and I (in the role of Sgt. Cruz at last) think they’re destined for blimps at 7% low. That 3% spread, while seemingly minuscule, says a lot about future corporate profitability or even solvency in a low inflationary environment…
— William H. Gross
INVESTMENT OUTLOOK, May 1993
Near Collision at Sea
The Gross household is a robe-wearing household – at least on the distaff side. Sue has a closet full of them, all white, and is thrilled each and every Christmas with a new white one under the tree. Go figure. I on the other hand am a little more casual about nighttime attire, a habit I picked up or at least observed during my Navy years in the South China Sea. But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in 1969, yours truly was a lowly ensign whose responsibility among other things was to substitute for the captain when he was sleeping. Vietnam era captains couldn’t be at the helm 24/7 so during relatively calm hours, the benchwarmers got a chance to quarterback the ship. Such was the case on a warm September evening, making 20 knots on our way home to San Diego in the middle of the vast and totally empty Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles west of Honolulu. I was standing the dreaded “mid-watch” – midnight to 4:00 am – and under instructions to wake the captain if anything “unusual” took place; FAT chance, aside from the occasional mermaid or sea monster sightings, and no one ever woke the captain up for that.
Well, around 2:00 am there was a sighting – quite remarkable, actually, because the Pacific is BIG and the occasional freighter was rare indeed. Ten miles at 15° off the bow, I spotted an oil tanker on the horizon, apparently headed our way. There is a Navy axiom that even an idiot ensign can remember, which tells a navigator whether or not a mid-ocean collision is possible – “constant bearing, decreasing range,” or CBDR for short. If, for instance, that tanker was closing to five miles and was still positioned 15° off the bow, well, there would be a growing chance that we would meet head-on five miles later. Ah, wouldn’t you know it – this tanker had a CBDR and yours truly was the only one who was aware of it. Tankers set their controls on automatic pilot during the midnight hours, so the approaching ship wasn’t about to change course. I was the only officer awake. Not for long, though – I called up the captain like the good little ensign I was, and here, dear reader, is where I finally circle back to the underwear. A captain in full dress uniform is an impressive sight – four stripes on the epaulets, heavily starched white shirt. “Yes Sir!” is the almost automatic response. But an unshaven, 60-year-old, pot-bellied captain in his underwear? Now there’s a disconcerting sight. “I got the deck,” he said, which meant he was assuming control as he plopped into the captain’s chair with a toot and an expulsion of natural gas worthy of the prior evening’s pork and beans.
Well, to this point, the incident was a paragon of human comedy not tragedy, but it quickly turned serious. Two miles 15°, one mile 15°, 1000 yards 15° – “Captain – constant bearing, decreasing range!” Ah, but El Capitan wasn’t hearing me – he was asleep at the helm, and half-naked no less: in command, in his underwear, and off somewhere in la-la land. Twenty seconds after my warning, the tanker came within 20 yards of cutting us and 150 young sailors in half. I in my fascination with a captain in his jockey shorts had assumed he was awake and knew what he was doing. He in his Fruit of the Looms and 2:00 am exhaustion was incapacitated, temporarily incompetent, and anything but a Naval captain. “What the hell was that?!” he screamed as it passed astern after nearly disemboweling our 300-foot destroyer. I was speechless and subject to a potential court martial, so I meekly replied, “A tanker, sir”. “The Grim Reaper” would have been a better description. It is with that as a reminder that there are no white robes under the Christmas tree for yours truly. I wear a t-shirt and jockey shorts if only to remind me of a sleeping pot-bellied captain and that old Navy adage – constant bearing, decreasing range – constant bearing, decreasing range.
Forty years later, I find myself in a similar position, this time, however, displaying the four-striped epaulets myself as a co-captain of the SS PIMCO, a $1.2 trillion carrier designed to travel the world and the seven seas in a quest for principal protection and alpha generation. And I thought the mid-watch was a hassle! Whatever it is, Mohamed and I either alternately or in unison maintain 24-hour surveillance for tankers on a collision course with your investment portfolios and savings. There should be no “what the hell was that!” moments at PIMCO, even on Lehman Day 2008. Indeed, there was not. While the global financial tanker was on automatic pilot, we had changed course well in advance and it has been relatively smooth sailing since.
The metaphor begs the question however as to what tanker is now on a constant bearing decreasing range, and indeed there would seem to be many such blips on the radar screen: global imbalances in trade, finance and currencies; excessive private and sovereign debt levels; growing disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor; aging demographics threatening aging and younger generational priorities. Lots of ships out there. Our upcoming Secular Forum will analyze these topics and many more next week, after which Mohamed and I will alert you to the prospects.
For now I would like to continue down the route of previous months’ Investment Outlooks and discuss the immediate threat to investment portfolios represented by low policy rates (fed funds in the U.S.) and the increasing negative real yields that they engender as inflation accelerates. I spoke last month to the reality of investors being “skunked” and having their pockets picked simply by receiving yields less than inflation, and suggested that as a major reason why the PIMCO ship was carrying a limited supply of Treasuries on board. Although we have warned for several years of the deteriorating creditworthiness of America’s AAA rating, our de minimis Treasury positions had less to do with much more immediate issues than America’s balance sheet prospects. We are highly sensitive to the pocket-picking policies that governments in general deploy to right the ship.
Well, ahoy matey, as quick as you can shout “thar she blows,” an academic working paper by Carmen Reinhart and M. Belen Sbrancia affirmed the same thing but in much more grounded, well-ballasted research. The paper, titled “The Liquidation of Government Debt,” contains a historical analysis of how governments attempt to get out from under the crushing burden of a debt crisis. For developed countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, the period beginning in the mid-1940s (when depression and WWII sovereign debt loads were oppressive) was used as a starting point for pocket picking, “skunking,” or what they term “financial repression.” While the ancient Romans used to shave metal coins in an attempt to monetize existing debts, our evolving financial system has used more sophisticated techniques. With inflation accelerating, due to WWII and post-war demands on commodities, the Treasury capped long-term bond yields at 2½% and in so doing ensured that its debt/GDP ratio would be reduced. If savers received an average 2% on their Treasuries while the nominally based economy was advancing at 5% or more annualized growth rates, then debt to GDP could be lowered from its peak level of 116% to 112%, to 109%…etc. every 12 months. In fact, the authors found that “for the United States and the United Kingdom, the annual liquidation of debt via negative real interest rates amounted on average to 3 or 4% percent of GDP a year…which quickly accumulated (without compounding) to a 30 to 40% of GDP debt reduction in the course of a decade.” Even after interest rate “caps” were removed in 1951 via the Fed-Treasury Accord, extremely low/negative real interest rate policies continued until the Volcker revolution in 1979. By that time, U.S. (and U.K.) debt levels had been normalized, primarily at the expense of savers who had been “repressed” (and depressed!) for over three decades. At that historical turning point, government bonds were labeled “certificates of confiscation.” Not only had savers received Treasury bill rates that were negative for over 25% of the nearly four decades, but they were holding long-term AAA rated bonds trading at 30 to 40 cents on the dollar.
The point of the Reinhart paper was not to state the obvious – that inflation is bad for bonds. Their financial repressionary thesis points out that bond prices don’t necessarily have to go down for savers to get skunked during a process of “debt liquidation.” The argument over whether the end of QEII on June 30 will result in higher yields and lower Treasury bond prices is, in a sense, a secondary one. Even if 10-year Treasuries stay where they are at 3.30%, and fed funds close to 0%, savers and financial intermediaries are being shortchanged by both of these yields and everything in between. Today’s rates resemble the interest rate caps prior to the 1951 Accord. Either through QEI, QEII or the Fed’s “extended period of time” language reinforced at Chairman Bernanke’s recent press conference, U.S. Treasuries and the bond market in general are being “repressed,” “capped” or simply overvalued compared to the prior 30 years. Bond investors forced to invest in dollar government bonds either through indexation, convention, regulatory guidelines or simply falling asleep at the helm are being shortchanged by 1 to 2% annually compared to historical norms and in many cases receive negative real yields, as shown in Chart 1. If Reinhart’s history is any guide, an investor should expect these overvaluations to be with us for years if not decades. While that still leaves open the question of price behavior following QEII, there should be little doubt that simply holding Treasuries at these yield levels for an extended period of time represents an abdication of responsibility.
Bond – and stock – investors have been sailing on the “Good Ship Lollipop” for over 30 years following the Volcker Revolution and the return of high real interest rates to investment markets. Now, however, with governments attempting to impose financial repression, bond investors should revolt. Their ship should more likely be christened the “USS Caine” in memory of a silver screen mutiny that, while traumatic, eventually returned all sailors safely to port. PIMCO advocates not so much a mutiny but a renewed vigilance on this new ship, stressing bond market “safe spread” alternatives available globally, including developing/emerging market debt at higher yields denominated in non-dollar currencies. Many of these countries have more pristine balance sheets and higher real interest rates than those currently being imposed in some developed markets subject to current and future “repression.” If AAA quality is your requirement, then Canadian or Australian bonds may also fit your horizon. Join us, along with Carmen Reinhart, in shouting “constant bearing/decreasing range!” The Treasury market is on a collision course with financial repression and it is time to adjust your rudder to starboard to get home safely.
— William H. Gross, Managing Director
INVESTMENT OUTLOOK, May 2011
The Caine Mutiny (Part 2)
At The Tipping Point
I’ve spun a few yarns in recent years about my days as a naval officer; not, thank goodness, tales told by dead men, but certainly echoes from the depths of Davy Jones’ Locker. A few years ago I wrote about the time that our ship (on my watch) was almost cut in half by an auto-piloted tanker at midnight, but never have I divulged the day that the USS Diachenko came within one degree of heeling over during a typhoon in the South China Sea. “Engage emergency ballast,” the Captain roared at yours truly – the one and only chief engineer. Little did he know that Ensign Gross had slept through his classes at Philadelphia’s damage control school and had no idea what he was talking about. I could hardly find the oil dipstick on my car back in San Diego, let alone conceive of emergency ballast procedures in 50 foot seas. And so…the ship rolled to starboard, the ship rolled to port, the ship heeled at the extreme to 36 degrees (within 1 degree, as I later read in the ship’s manual, of the ultimate tipping point). One hundred sailors at risk, because of one twenty-three-year-old mechanically challenged officer, and a Captain who should have known better than to trust him.
We survived, and a year later I exited – the Diachenko and the Navy for good – theirs and mine. I think I heard a sigh of relief as I saluted the Captain for the last time, but in memory of those nearly tragic moments, let me reprint an article posted on wikiHow, outlining exactly how to go about abandoning ship should you ever venture into the South China Sea or anywhere close to Davy’s infamous locker. The article is a bona fide and serious attempt to instruct would be passengers in a Titanic-like disaster. I found it, however, as comical as yours truly pretending to be a chief engineer in 1969. Judge for yourself…
wikiHow: the how to manual you can edit
How to Escape a Sinking Ship
The Basics: Before Setting Sail
1. Understand the mechanics of a sinking ship. Water usually enters the lowest point of a ship first, the bilge area.
2. As more and more water enters the ship, it will start to heel significantly. From this point on, sinking will occur quickly. Abandon ship.
If Sinking is Imminent
1. Think about your sense of etiquette. What will you do if push comes to shove?
2. If you’re in charge of the sinking ship learn how to send a Mayday. Read “How to call Mayday from a marine vessel” on the attached internet link.
3. Stay calm and don’t panic.
4. If you see someone with fear, yell at them.
5. While still on deck, watch for catapulting objects coming your way. Large items can kill you.
6. Find a lifeboat. The best scenario is to enter a lifeboat without getting wet.
7. If jumping off the ship, always look first.
8. If you survive, be ready for the reality that others may have perished. Seek counseling.
Counseling indeed! If only I knew then what I know now: wikiHow, not experience or damage control school, is the best teacher. So, should bond investors abandon ship? And who to believe? The captain of the Fed, the co-captains of the USS PIMCO, or just trust your instincts? Well there is no wikiHow moment to guide you in this case, although it’s true that yours truly, PIMCO, and the bond market have sailed some rough seas over the past few years. So has Chairman Bernanke. We’re all in this one together it seems.
Immediate analysis of the past 6 weeks’ market action would argue that in late April, both the Fed and PIMCO observed that bond markets were approaching a tipping point. Yields were too low, prices too high, both for investors’ and the economy’s own good. The Fed’s Jeremy Stein had written a research paper outlining the risk. I, in fact, had written a March Investment Outlook outlining Governor Stein’s paper, and to be fair, PIMCO had been warning of high seas for what seems like an eternity. “Never,” I tweeted, “have investors reached so high for so little return. Never have investors stooped so low for so much risk.” True enough, history will likely record.
It will also record however, that the risk was not only in narrow credit spreads and emerging market debt/equity markets but at the heart of the credit system itself: U.S. Treasuries. What supposedly old salts like yours truly didn’t suspect was that all bonds, and yes, equities too were at risk of heeling over based upon a rather perfect storm, one that forecasters everywhere found difficult to fathom.
The forecast for bad weather as I’ve mentioned was becoming more rational with every increase in asset prices. If all markets were being artificially supported as PIMCO claimed and the Fed confirmed, then someday, someday that support via quantitative easing would have to be withdrawn. But the dark clouds seemed to be far off on the horizon. Investors worldwide piled on the leverage – not just in high yield or equity space – but in Treasuries as well. If the Fed (and BOJ) were going to keep writing checks at one trillion per year, then these two central banks alone might be buying 70-80% of all developed market future supply. The fear was that there might not be enough for others, not that there was too much leverage.
Well, that started to change with the May 22nd taper talk and, of course, with the Fed’s June 19th statement and Chairman Bernanke’s press conference. In trying to be specific about which conditions would prompt a tapering of QE, the Fed tilted overrisked investors to one side of an overloaded and overlevered boat. Everyone was looking for lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship, and selling begat more selling, even in Treasuries. While the Fed’s move may ultimately be better understood or even praised, it no doubt induced market panic. Without the presence of a “Bernanke Put” or the promise of a continuing program of QE check writing, investors found the lifeboats dysfunctional. They could only sell to themselves and almost all of them had too much risk. A band somewhere on the upper deck began to play “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
Well I go too far in my sinking ship metaphor, but you get the point, I hope. The U.S. economy is not sinking, nor are the majority of global economies. Their markets just had too much risk, and in PIMCO’s opinion, too much hope for a constant QE and for the growth that it would produce. In effect, the ship was top heavy with too little ballast. Guess I should have known, huh?
Well where does the ship go from here? Should you as a bond investor jump overboard and risk the cold money market Atlantic Ocean at near zero degrees? We don’t think so – and not because we want to keep you on board – we just don’t think so. Why not?
1) The Fed’s forecast of the economy which prompted tapering panic is far too optimistic. If 7% unemployment is tapering’s final port of call, we simply think that we’re much further away than the Fed’s compass would suggest. We argue for structural headwinds – demographic, globalization, and technology influences – that have had and will continue to have dampening effects on domestic and global growth. The Fed, we would argue, is too cyclically oriented, focusing substantially on housing prices and car sales. And speaking of housing, since mortgage rates have risen by 1½% in the last six months and the average monthly check for a new home buyer is up by 20–25% as well, then as I tweeted several weeks ago, “Mr. Chairman are you serious?” Growth will be negatively influenced.
2) Inflation, according to the Fed’s own statistics is running close to a 1% pace. The Fed has told us that they “target,” “ target” 2% and for the next 1–2 years are willing to accept even 2½% until they reverse engines. Fed Governor Bullard of the St. Louis Fed was in our opinion correct where he dissented from the majority decision several weeks ago, citing the distant shores of 2%+ inflation and the seeming inability to even move in that direction.
3) Yields have adjusted by too much. While T.V. and the press focus on 10-year Treasuries at 2.55% as their guiding star, subjective stabs by yours truly or anyone else are difficult day to day. The technicals, as Mohamed has written, can dominate while the fundamentals are flushed to second page priorities. When analyzing the fundamentals though, I like to point to a “North Star” that is as permanent as possible within the context of current market instability. Tapering aside, if the Fed has consistently informed the market that its policy rate – Fed Funds at 25 basis points – will stay there for a substantial period of time even after the end of QE, then to my eye, Fed Funds will not increase until at least mid-2015 and even then subject to a consistently strong economy that produces 2%+ inflation. I wonder if we can get there in this decade to tell you the truth. But the beauty of this North Star Fed Funds sextant is that it can be rather directly observed in futures markets, either for Fed Funds or for Eurodollars, which are a close companion. Right now, Fed Funds futures markets are predicting a 75 basis point yield in 2015, and Eurodollars validating a similar conclusion. That would suggest a mispricing, despite the obvious caveat of professional observers that some of the 75 is a surcharge for potential volatility. In any case, if frontend curves are up to 50 basis points cheap, then intermediate curves – the 10-year Treasury – may be as much as 35 basis points too cheap. They belong in our opinion at 2.20% instead of 2.55%.
So there you have it, fellow passengers and paying clients. Don’t jump ship now. We may have reached an inflection point of low Treasury, mortgage and corporate yields in late April, but this is overdone. Will there be smooth sailing tomorrow? “Red sky at night, sailors delight?” Hardly. Will you be able to replicate annualized returns in bonds and stocks for the past 20–30 years? Hardly. Expect 3–5% for both. But sailors, don’t panic. And like wikiHow suggests, if you see someone that’s afraid, “yell at them!” Yell, “This ship’s going to make it to port,” Fed, PIMCO, and PIMCO co-captains willing. Those icy Atlantic money market waters are likely to be with us for a long, long time. Have a cocktail, tell the band to stop playing dirges, because you’re gonna be just fine with PIMCO at the helm.
Tipping Point Speed Read
1) Yields and risk spreads were far too low two months ago.
2) Global markets were too levered and now they are derisking.
3) The bond market ship is not sinking. Expect low but positive returns in future years.
4) Don’t panic. Yell at someone!
— William H. Gross, Managing Director
INVESTMENT OUTLOOK, July 2013
The Tipping Point
It was a matter of happenstance I suppose – certainly not serendipity. Our meeting may have been an inevitable coming together, but it was certainly not initially welcomed by me. Happenstance is the better word. Fateful happenstance.
Serendipity rarely happens in a cab and it was in a San Francisco cab – not an Uber – where I confronted my ancient past. Sue and I were headed back to the Four Seasons after a brief glimpse of the city at dusk from the “Top of the Mark.” The driver appeared to be Vietnamese, and having had a margarita or two, I unfortunately stumbled into the emotional jungles of Vietnam to which I had come, and from which I had safely departed nearly a half century ago. “You’re Vietnamese,” I said, “how old are you?” “53,” he said. “I grew up in Da Nang and escaped when I was 8 with my mother, after my father and older brother were killed.” I subtracted 8 from 53 and quickly placed him in Vietnam at the same time I had been, in 1969. “Have you ever been there?” he queried. “Well yes,” I stuttered, “about the time you left, but I was in the Navy” – an excuse that supposedly cleared me of direct involvement, but in reality was not the case. An awkward silence followed. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry for what we did. I/we shouldn’t have been there.” I desperately wanted to say that. But I didn’t. I missed my moment of atonement and we continued on to the hotel. Getting out I gave him a $20 bill for an $8 fare – a weak apology to be sure, and he knew it. “No,” he said, “that is too much, take back 5 dollars.” I did – apology accepted – flawed as it was. He and his mother had survived and moved on. Perhaps I have too. “Goodnight,” I said. Goodnight Vietnam ….
Don’t say “goodnight,” but say “good evening” to the prospect of future capital gains in asset markets. Investors won’t be getting much of them. Financial markets have had nearly a half century of peaceful (sometimes volatile) asset appreciation fueled particularly by the decline in real and nominal interest rates from 1981 onward. We know that bond prices go up when interest rates go down, but somehow have to be reminded of a similar effect on stocks, real estate and commodities. Almost all commonsensical and historical financial models tell us interest rates are a key asset price driver. But now – and since 2012 – we have reached the beginning of the end just as I did in 1969 – the dusk of asset appreciation – because it has lost its primary interest rate driver. And after nearly 5 years of U.S. near-zero percent policy rates and global quantitative easing, which have seen the Fed’s balance sheet – to name one – expand by nearly 4 trillion dollars, and those of the BOJ and the BOE increase proportionately more, the global economy is left to depend on economic growth for further advances, and it is growth that is now and has recently been historically deficient. At PIMCO, Paul McCulley recently reminded us that structural global growth rates have come down due to a yawning gap of aggregate demand relative to aggregate supply. Economist speak, I suppose (and he’s a good one), for not enough willing or able consumers: 1) they have too much debt, 2) Boomers are getting older, 3) workers are outdated and outjobbed by technology, and 4) labor is overwhelmed by corporations with the power to contain wages at a lower rate than topline increases. Demand is deficient because consumers are experiencing their own Vietnam from a multitude of directions.
So as yields have bottomed and are now expected by the markets to gradually rise, it’s down to growth, and growth is a question mark. The U.S. for sure is near the top of the “more certain” list, but 2% real growth since the Great Recession is nothing to brag about. It would have been a bare minimum expectation back in 2010. Elsewhere, an investor not only has to wonder, but perhaps retreat from the lack of growth sunshine. South America is in virtual recession with its big three – Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela – approaching lockjaw conditions of one sort or another. Euroland is above water, but floating on water wings with peripheral country unemployment (Spain, Portugal, Italy) averaging close to 20% – unprecedented except for the 1930s. Russia is retreating for geopolitical reasons. And Japan/China are supported only by credit creation of a magnitude that reminds one of Minsky, or Ponzi, or Potemkin with his mythical villages of growth due to paper, not productivity. Where is the growth? The world as McCulley correctly analyzes it, is demand deficient and supply rich.
Asset price growth therefore – capital gains in market speak – will be harder to come by. Without the tailwind of declining interest rates which have increased profit margins as well as decreased cap rates, they will instead face structural headwinds. Let me be clearer though – clearer than I was to my Vietnamese friend. PIMCO is not saying that asset prices will go down – they just won’t go up as much as many expect. And income – not capital gains – will be the dominant driver of future returns. “Good evening,” capital gains. “Good morning,” more dependable income – even in this age of artificially low interest rates.
Our reasoning for the continuation of an artificially priced global asset market that may be neither bear nor bull rests with our New Neutral interest rate template. If global policy rates eventually rise, but go up less than currently expected, then asset prices and P/Es can be better supported. PIMCO believes “Old Neutral” policy rates of 2% real and 4% nominal are out. The New Neutral policy rates (U.S.) of 0% real and 2% nominal are likely to be in. The Taylor Rule – is out. PIMCO’s Clarida (Rich) Rule – is in. How so? Because a levered global economy can only stand so much. Because a demand deficient global economy requires an extended period of low interest rates in order to maintain minimum levels of consumption. Because a low growth global economy in many cases is closer to deflation than inflation. Because, because, because.
What to do as an investor? First of all, reduce expectations. Second of all, do not reach for assets outside of your risk universe. Most of all, recognize that alpha generation in a capital gains deficient, income-oriented, low total return environment is more critical than ever. 100 basis points of excess return with near similar Sharpe/information ratios is all the more valuable in a 4–5% low-returning asset world. This is where PIMCO shines. Look to our bottom-up credit analysis. Check out our selected income diversifiers in strategic asset categories. Follow our top-down macro template à la McCulley/Clarida/and our revitalized PIMCO Investment Committee. Not a promise, but a decent bet. We’ve done it for 40 years, and we’re doing it in 2014. Just check the numbers, not the headlines.
As to specific strategies, we believe high quality Treasury and corporate bonds are fairly priced, but not cheap. Our typical durations are at index levels. We believe the yield curve will gradually flatten, but not in historical cyclical proportions. We believe credit spreads are tight, but may stay there. We still believe the Fed will be on hold until mid-2015 and will hike only gradually to our New Neutral 2% by 2017. We think investors should own bonds, and an average proportion of stocks too.
As we exited our cab at the Four Seasons, my Vietnamese friend seemed to want our conversation to go on and on. “How is it that we have come to this place 45 years on,” he seemed to be asking? “Why is it that we are now at peace, instead of war? And why did you come in the first place?” Happenstance, I suppose, not serendipity. I never responded to the quizzical look on his face; a missed opportunity. Ours was not necessarily a happy goodbye nor was the extra tip an appropriate apology. But there seemed to be an acceptance and a mutual hope for a peaceful future. A new epoch, just like the one for global investment markets.
Goodnight Vietnam Speed Read
1) Global growth rates will stay low due to a lack of aggregate demand and a continuing surfeit of supply.
2) Capital gains from almost all asset classes are approaching dusk. Low but relatively dependable income will be the market’s future driver.
3) PIMCO currently has indexed durations, a belief in a flattening but still historically steeper global curve, and credit positions that are mildly overweight.
— William H. Gross, Managing Director
INVESTMENT OUTLOOK, August 2014