Thursday, June 20th, 2013
The biggest bond fund manager on the planet likely had a bad day today and judging by his comments during the following Bloomberg TV interview, he is not too impressed with the current Fed head, who is “driving in a fog,” or the front-runner to fill Ben’s shoes, Yellen “is a Siamese twin in terms of policy… [preferring someone] who would emphasize Main Street as well as Wall Street – which has been the emphasis for the past three or four years.” The mistake the Fed is making, Gross explains, “is blaming lower growth on fiscal austerity and expects towards the end of the year once that is gone, all of the sudden the economy will be growing at 3%,” or more simply the error of their policy-making ways is “to think that is a cyclical as opposed to a structural problem in terms of our economy.” The bottom-line is that Gross sees less Taper (due to disinflation) and warns “those who are selling treasuries in anticipation that the Fed will ease out of the market might be disappointed.”
Gross on today’s statement by Bernanke:
“It was a pro-growth type of statement and a suggestion that some additional definitions in terms of when tapering might begin and when it might end. Obviously according to a 7% unemployment number that speaks in his mind and perhaps my mind to early 2014. But I might also say in terms of questions and answers, and that is critical I think, that he did speak to the conditional influence of inflation. That even if unemployment came down to 7% and inflation did not go up to 2%, they would look around and readjust their decision. This is a combined growth, unemployment and inflation type of combination that has to be delicately managed and I think the market has misinterpreted the growth and the unemployment targets while leaving out the inflation targets going forward.”
On what he means by market misinterpretation:
“I think they are missing the influence on inflation that obviously the chairman has considered and perhaps the committee as well. There was a question and Q&A that basically said, Mr. Chairman, if we are down at 1% inflation and it doesn’t rise, then real interest rates are in a quandary to which you have limited flexibility, and he said, I agree completely with the premise of your question. I would think the markets are looking at the 7% unemployment rate and suggesting the tapering will end at that point. I would suggest that yes, he did say 7% in terms of an unemployment target where tapering would end, presumably in 2014, but he also qualified significantly a number of times that inflation has to go back up towards that 2% target and at the moment we are not there. Those who are selling treasuries in anticipation that the Fed will ease out of the market might be disappointed unless we have inflation close to 2%.”
On how the Fed will respond if we don’t get to 2%:
“I think the Chairman is almost deathly afraid and we have witnessed in speeches going back five or 10 years on the part of the chairman in terms of the helicopter speech and the reference not only to the depression but to the lost decades in Japan. I think he is deathly afraid of deflation. As we meander back and forth around the 1% level, I would suggest that the chairman to the extent that he perhaps has a limited time left in terms of being the Chairman, that he would guide the committee towards not only an unemployment rate which has been emphasized in terms of the Q&A but also towards a higher inflation target, which is really a target. It’s not something in terms of a cap, but the inflation target of 2% and for the next year or two, 2.5% has been specifically delineated in terms of that. It’s a target. Those who think it is a cap and we are 1% below the cap and therefore the Fed doesn’t care about it, I think the chairman told us the Fed does care about it and the closer we get to 2%, the better as far as he’s concerned.”
On Janet Yellen:
“I think she is a Siamese twin in terms of policy. She is very much a dove and has chaired the communication effort on the part of the Fed for the last few years which has emphasized and will continue to be emphasized. PIMCO does not want to be in a position of endorsing anyone. We would simply endorse a chairman or chairwoman who perhaps would emphasize Main Street as well as Wall Street which has been the emphasis for the past three or four years.”
On when he thinks the Fed will start to taper QE and when investors need to start trading on that:
“Based on what he said, based upon what the Fed estimates have given us in the last hour it suggests that yes, towards the end of the year, as we hit 7.25%, and if inflation rises as opposed to stays at 1% that the Fed would begin to taper and that ultimately they would end tapering in perhaps the first quarter of 2014. Is that a realistic possibility? At PIMCO, we don’t think that really is. We think the chairman and the Fed are taking a very much of a cyclical type of view.
He blames lower growth on fiscal austerity and expects towards the end of the year once that is gone, all of the sudden the economy will be growing at 3%. He blames housing prices moving up on homeowners that simply like higher home prices as opposed to emphasizing the mortgage rate, which is really what has provided the lift in the first place. To certain extent his driving analogy, which he talked about pulling back on the accelerator, I think he might be driving in a fog. I think the Fed itself may be driving in a fog. To think that is a cyclical as opposed to a structural problem in terms of our economy. I simply think and PIMCO thinks that real growth to lower unemployment below 7% is a long shot over the next 6, 12, 18 months.”
Wednesday, June 12th, 2013
by Tom Bradley, Steadyhand Investment Funds
In his June Investment Outlook, PIMCO’s Bill Gross says that the Quantitative Easing policy (QE) of the U.S. Federal Reserve hasn’t worked. He points out that over the last 5 years there hasn’t been a 12-month period when the economy has grown faster than 2.5%. Thus his conclusion: QE hasn’t worked.
Now, let me first state that I too am of the view that the Fed has gone too far in trying to manage/stimulate the economy. They had to act during the 2008/09 crisis, and thank goodness they did, but they’ve continued to micro-manage ever since. Like Mr. Gross, I think the Fed has got in the way of economic healing, which has to occur before the next up cycle can start. I suspect we’re now behind where we’d otherwise be if the Fed had pulled back and let the cycle play out.
Having said that, I find Mr. Gross’ comment interesting. Yes, the economy has been growing slowly, but it has been growing while the rest of the western world (Europe and Japan) has not. How can he (along with many others who share his view) say it hasn’t been working if he doesn’t know what would have happened without the QE trilogy? It seems to me that the U.S. economy has done surprisingly well in the face of all its challenges. I’d say that the Fed’s meddling has enhanced GDP growth. Unfortunately, it’s borrowed the growth from a time in the future when the necessary healing will need to occur.
Copyright © Steadyhand Investment Funds
Tuesday, June 4th, 2013
by William H. Gross, PIMCO
Joseph Schumpeter, the originator of the phrase “creative destruction,” authored a less well-known corollary at some point in the 1930s. “Profit,” he wrote, “is temporary by nature: It will vanish in the subsequent process of competition and adaptation.” And so it has, certainly at the micro level for which his remark was obviously intended. Once proud, seemingly indestructible capitalistic giants have seen their profits fall short of “everlasting” and exhibited a far more ephemeral character. Kodak, Sears, Barnes & Noble, AOL and countless others have been “competed” to near oblivion by advancing technology, more focused management, or evolving business models that had better ideas more “adaptable” to a new age.
Yet capitalism at a macro level must inherently be different than the micro individual businesses which comprise it. Profits in total cannot be temporary or competed away if capitalism as we know it is to survive. Granted, the profit share of annual GDP can increase or decrease over time in its ongoing battle with labor and government for market share. But capitalism without profits is like a beating heart without blood. Not only is it profit’s role to stimulate and rationally distribute new investment (blood) to the economic body, but the profit heart in turn must be fed in order to survive.
And just as profits are critical to the longevity of our capitalistic real economy so too is return or “carry” critical to our financial markets. Without the assumption of “carry,” or return over and above the fixed, if mercurial, yield on an economy’s policy rate (fed funds), then investors would be unwilling to risk financial capital and a capitalistic economy would die for lack of oxygen. The carry or return I speak to is most commonly assumed to be a credit or an equity risk “premium” involving some potential amount of gain or loss to an investor’s principal. Corporate and high yield bonds, stocks, private equity and emerging market investments are financial assets that immediately come to mind. If the “carry” or potential return on these asset classes were no more than the 25 basis points offered by today’s fed funds rate, then who would take the chance? Additionally, however, “carry” on an investor’s bond portfolio can be earned by extending duration and holding longer maturities. It can be collected by selling volatility via an asset’s optionality, or it can be earned by sacrificing liquidity and earning what is known as a liquidity premium. There are numerous ways then to earn “carry,” the combination of which for an entire market of investable assets constitutes a good portion of its “beta” or return relative to the “risk free” rate, all of which may be at risk due to artificial pricing.
This “carry” constitutes the beating heart of our financial markets and ultimately our real economy as well, since profits on paper assets are inextricably linked to profits in the real economy, which are inextricably linked to investment and employment. Without these, the wounded heart dies and shortly thereafter the body. But there comes a point when no matter how much blood is being pumped through the system as it is now, with zero-based policy rates and global quantitative easing programs, that the blood itself may become anemic, oxygen-starved, or even leukemic, with white blood cells destroying more productive red cell counterparts. Our global financial system at the zero-bound is beginning to resemble a leukemia patient with New Age chemotherapy, desperately attempting to cure an economy that requires structural as opposed to monetary solutions. Let me shift from the metaphorical to the specific to make my case.
If “carry” is the oxygen that feeds financial assets then it is clear to all – even to central banks with historical models – that there is a lot less of it now than there used to be. In the bond market – interest rates, risk spreads, volatility and liquidity premiums are all significantly less than they were five years ago during the financial crisis and, in many cases, less than they have ever been in history. Before 2009, the U.S. had never had a policy rate so low, and in the U.K. short-term rates at 50 basis points are now nearly 2% lower than they have ever been, which is a long, long time. Throughout periodic depressions, the Bank of England in the 20th, 19th and even 18th century never dropped short rates below 2%. Add to that of course the New Age chemotherapy called Quantitative Easing (QE) being employed everywhere (and now in double doses at the Bank of Japan,) and you have an “all in”, “whatever it takes” mentality that has successfully lowered longer-term interest rates, risk spreads, volatility and risk premiums to similar extremes. Granted, the astute observer might counter that corporate and high yield risk “spreads” have historically been lower – and they were in 2006/2007 – but never have corporate and high yield bond “yields” been lower. Never has your average B/BB company been able to issue debt at well below 5% and never – which is my point – never have investors received less for the risk they are taking. “Never (as I tweeted recently) have investors reached so high in price for so low a return. Never have investors stooped so low for so much risk.”
In the process of reaching and stooping, prices on financial assets have soared and central banks have temporarily averted a debt deflation reminiscent of the Great Depression. Their near-zero-based interest rates and QEs that have lowered carry and risk premiums have stabilized real economies, but not returned them to old normal growth rates. History will likely record that these policies were necessary oxygen generators. But the misunderstood after effects of this chemotherapy may also one day find their way into economic annals or even accepted economic theory. Central banks – including today’s superquant, Kuroda, leading the Bank of Japan – seem to believe that higher and higher asset prices produced necessarily by more and more QE check writing will inevitably stimulate real economic growth via the spillover wealth effect into consumption and real investment. That theory requires challenge if only because it doesn’t seem to be working very well.
Why it might not be working is fairly clear at least to your author. Once yields, risk spreads, volatility or liquidity premiums get so low, there is less and less incentive to take risk. Granted, some investors may switch from fixed income assets to higher “yielding” stocks, or from domestic to global alternatives, but much of the investment universe is segmented by accounting, demographic or personal risk preferences and only marginal amounts of money appear to shift into what seem to most are slam dunk comparisons, such as Apple stock with a 3% dividend vs. Apple bonds at 1-2% yield levels. Because of historical and demographic asset market segmentation, then, the Fed and other central banks operative model is highly inefficient. Blood is being transfused into the system, but it lacks necessary oxygen.
In addition, there are several other important coagulants that seem to block the financial system’s arteries at zero-bound interest rates and unacceptably narrow “carry” spreads:
- Zero-bound yields deprive savers of their ability to generate income which in turn limits consumption and economic growth.
- Reduced carry via duration extension or spread actually destroys business models and real economic growth. If banks, insurance and investment management companies can no longer generate sufficient “carry” to support employment infrastructures, then personnel layoffs quickly follow. With banks, net interest margins (NIM) are lowered because of “carry” compression, and then nationwide retail branches previously serving as depository magnets are closed one by one. In the U.K. for instance, Britain’s four biggest banks will have eliminated 189,000 jobs by the end of this year compared to peak staffing levels, reports Bloomberg News. Investment banking, insurance, indeed the entire financial industry is now similarly threatened, which is leading to layoffs and the obsolescence of real estate office structures as well which housed a surfeit of employees.
- Zombie corporations are allowed to survive. Reminiscent of the zero-bound carry-less Japanese economy over the past few decades, low interest rates, compressed risk spreads, historically low volatility and ultra-liquidity allow marginal corporations to keep on living. Schumpeter would be shocked at this perversion of capitalism, which is allowing profits to be more than “temporary” at zombie institutions. Real growth is stunted in the process.
- When ROIs or carry in the real economy are too low, corporations resort to financial engineering as opposed to R&D and productive investment. This idea is far too complicated for an Investment Outlook footnote – it deserves expansion in future editions – but in the meantime, look at it this way: Apple has hundreds of billions of cash that is not being invested in future production, but returned via dividends and stock buybacks. Apple is not unique as shown in Chart 1. Western corporations seem focused more on returning capital as opposed to investing it. Low ROIs fostered by central bank policies in financial markets seem to have increasingly negative influences on investment and real growth.
- Credit expansion in the private economy is restricted by an expanding Fed balance sheet and the limits on Treasury “repo.” Again, too complicated for a sidebar Investment Outlook discussion, but the ability of private credit markets to deliver oxygen to the real economy is being hampered because most new Treasuries wind up in the dungeon of the Fed’s balance sheet where they cannot be expanded, lent out and rehypothecated to foster private credit growth. I have previously suggested that the Fed (and other central banks) are where bad bonds go to die. Low yielding Treasuries fit that description and once there, they expire, being no longer available for credit expansion in the private economy.
Well, there is my still incomplete thesis which when summed up would be this: Low yields, low carry, future low expected returns have increasingly negative effects on the real economy. Granted, Chairman Bernanke has frequently admitted as much but cites the hopeful conclusion that once real growth has been restored to “old normal”, then the financial markets can return to those historical levels of yields, carry, volatility and liquidity premiums that investors yearn for. Sacrifice now, he lectures investors, in order to prosper later. Well it’s been five years Mr. Chairman and the real economy has not once over a 12-month period of time grown faster than 2.5%. Perhaps, in addition to a fiscally confused Washington, it’s your policies that may be now part of the problem rather than the solution. Perhaps the beating heart is pumping anemic, even destructively leukemic blood through the system. Perhaps zero-bound interest rates and quantitative easing programs are becoming as much of the problem as the solution. Perhaps when yields, carry and expected returns on financial and real assets become so low, then risk-taking investors turn inward and more conservative as opposed to outward and more risk seeking. Perhaps financial markets and real economic growth are more at risk than your calm demeanor would convey.
Wounded heart you cannot save … you from yourself. More and more debt cannot cure a debt crisis unless it generates real growth. Your beating heart is now arrhythmic and pumping deoxygenated blood. Investors should look for a pacemaker to follow a less risky, lower returning, but more life sustaining path.
The Wounded Heart Speed Read
1) Financial markets require “carry” to pump oxygen to the real economy.
2) Carry is compressed – yields, spreads and volatility are near or at
3) The Fed’s QE plan assumes higher asset prices will revigorate growth.
4) It doesn’t seem to be working.
5) Reduce risk/carry related assets.
William H. Gross
The “risk free” rate can be considered the return on an investment that, in theory, carries no risk. Therefore, it is implied that any additional risk should be rewarded with additional return.
A word about risk:
Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. References to specific securities and their issuers are not intended and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase, sell or hold such securities. PIMCO products and strategies may or may not include the securities referenced and, if such securities are included, no representation is being made that such securities will continue to be included.
Statements concerning financial market trends are based on current market conditions, which will fluctuate. There is no guarantee that these investment strategies will work under all market conditions or are suitable for all investors and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest for the long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market.
This material contains the current opinions of the author but not necessarily those of PIMCO and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material has been distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein are based upon proprietary research and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.
Wednesday, May 1st, 2013
“There Will Be Haircuts”
“Good as Money,” proclaimed the ad for Twenty Grand Cognac. Being a beer drinker, and never having cashed in a Budweiser to pay for a fill-up at the local gas station, I said to myself “Man, that must be really good stuff!” Even in a financial meltdown I thought, you could use it in place of cash, diamonds, gold or Bitcoins! And if the Mongol hordes descend upon us during a future revolution, who wouldn’t prefer a few belts of Twenty Grand on the way out, instead of some shiny rocks and a slingshot?
Well, not being inebriated at that moment I immediately shifted focus to a more serious topic. What IS money? A medium of exchange and a store of value is a rather succinct definition, but we generally think of it as cash or perhaps checks that reflect some balance of “ready” cash at a friendly bank. Yet as technology and financial innovation have progressed over the past few decades, and as central banks have tenuously validated the liquidity and price of various forms of credit, it seems that the definition of money has been extended; not perhaps to a bottle of Twenty Grand Cognac, but at least to some other rather liquid forms of near currency such as money market funds, institutional “repo” and short-term Treasuries “guaranteed” by the Fed to trade at par over the next few years.
All of the above are close to serving as a “medium of exchange” because they presumably can be converted overnight at the holder’s whim without loss and then transferred to a savings or checking account. It has been the objective of the Fed over the past few years to make even more innovative forms of money by supporting stock and bond prices at cost on an ever ascending scale, thereby assuring holders via a “Bernanke put” that they might just as well own stocks as the cash in their purses. Gosh, a decade or so ago a house almost became a money substitute. MEW – or mortgage equity withdrawal – could be liquefied instantaneously based on a “never go down” housing market. You could equitize your home and go sailing off into the sunset on a new 28-foot skiff on any day but Sunday.
So as long as liquid assets can hold par/cost with an option to increase in price, then these new forms of credit or equity might be considered “money” or something better! They might therefore represent a “store of value” in addition to serving as a convertible medium of exchange. But then, that phrase “Good as Money” on the cognac bottle kept coming back to haunt me. Is all this newfangled money actually “money good?” Technology and Fed liquidity may have allowed them to serve as modern “mediums of exchange,” but are they legitimate “stores of value?” Well, the past decade has proved that houses were merely homes and not ATM machines. They were not “good as money.” Likewise, the Fed’s modern day liquid wealth creations such as bonds and stocks may suffer a similar fate at a future bubbled price whether it be 1.50% for a 10-year Treasury or Dow 16,000.
But let’s not go there and speak of a bubble popping. Let’s perhaps more immediately speak about current and future haircuts when we question the “goodness of money.” Carmen Reinhart has said with historical observation that we are in an environment where politicians and central bankers are reluctant to allow write-offs: limited entitlement cuts fiscally, no asset price sink holes monetarily. Yet if there are no spending cuts or asset price write-offs, then it’s hard to see how deficits and outstanding debt as a percentage of GDP can ever be reduced. Granted, the ability of central banks to avoid a debt deflation in recent years has been critical to stabilizing global economies. And too, there have been write-offs, in home mortgages in the U.S., for example, and sovereign debt in Greece. But the cost of these strategies, which avoid what I simplistically call “haircuts,” has been high, and their ability to reduce overall debt/GDP ratios is questionable. Chairman Bernanke has admitted that the cost of zero-bound interest rates, for instance, extracts a toll on pension funds and individual savers. Some of his Fed colleagues have spoken out about the negative aspects of QE and future difficulties of exit strategies should they ever take place. (They won’t!) So current policies come with a cost even as they act to magically float asset prices higher, making many of them to appear “good as money” – shots of cognac notwithstanding.
But the point of this Outlook is that even IF… even IF QEs and near zero-bound yields are able to refloat global economies and generate a semblance of old normal real growth, they will do so utilizing historically tried and true “haircuts” that rather surreptitiously “trim” an asset holder’s money without them really knowing they had entered a barbershop. These haircuts are hidden forms of taxes that reduce an investor’s purchasing power as manipulated interest rates lag inflation. In the process, governments and their central banks theoretically reduce real debt levels as well as the excessive liabilities of levered corporations and households. But they represent a hidden wealth transfer that belies the vaunted phrase “good as money.”
Before drinking up, let’s examine these haircuts to see why they do not represent an authentic store of value even if their bubbly prices never pop. I will give each haircut a symbolic name – I welcome your suggestions as well via e-mail reply: firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Negative Real Interest Rates – “Trimming the Bangs”
During and after World War II most countries with high debt overloads resorted to artificially capping interest rates below the rate of inflation. They forced savers to accept negative real interest rates which lowered the cost of government debt but prevented savers from keeping up with the cost of living. Long Treasuries, for instance, were capped at 2½% while inflation was soaring towards double-digits. The resulting negative real rates together with an accelerating economy allowed the U.S. economy to lower its Depression-era debt/GDP from 250% to a number almost half as much years later, but at a cost of capital market distortions.
Today, central banks are doing the same thing with near zero-bound yields and effective caps on higher rates via quantitative easing. The Treasury’s average cost of money is steadily grinding lower than 2%. If current policies continue to be enforced in future years it will eventually be less than 1% because of the inclusion of T-bill and short maturity financing. The government’s gain, however, is the saver’s loss. Investors are being haircutted by at least 200 basis points judged by historical standards, which in the past offered no QE and priced Fed Funds close to the level of inflation. Large holders of U.S. government bonds, including China and Japan, will be repaid, but in the interim they will be implicitly defaulted on or haircutted via negative real interest rates.
Are Treasuries money good? Yes. But are they good money? Most assuredly not, when current and future haircuts are considered. These rather innocuous seeming (-1%) and (-2%) real rate haircuts are not a bob or a mullet in hairstyle parlance. More like a “trimming of the bangs.” But at the cut’s conclusion, there’s a lot of hair left on the floor.
(2) Inflation / Currency Devaluation – “the “Don Draper”
Inflation’s sort of like your everyday “Mad Men – Don Draper” type of haircut. It’s been around for a long time and we don’t really give it a second thought except when it’s on top of a handsome head like Jon Hamm’s. 2% ± a year – some say more – but what the heck, inflation’s just like breathing air … you just gotta have it for a modern-day levered economy to survive. Sometimes, though, it gets out of control, and when it is unexpected, a decent size hit to your bond and stock portfolio is a possibility. If our TV idol Don Draper lives another decade or so on the airwaves, he’ll find out in the inflationary 70s. Such was the example as well in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and in modern day Zimbabwe with its One Hundred Trillion Dollar bill shown below. As central banks surreptitiously inflate, they also devalue their currency and purchasing power relative to other “hard money” countries. Either way – historical bouts of inflation or currency devaluation suggest that your investment portfolio may not be “good as the money” you might be banking on.
(3) Capital Controls – the “Uncle Sam Cut”
Uncle Sam with his rather dapper white hair and trimmed beard serves as a good example for this type of haircut, if only to show that even the U.S. can latch on to your money or capital. Back in the 1930s, FDR instituted a rather blatant form of expropriation shown above. All private ownership of gold was forbidden (and subject to a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison!) if it wasn’t turned into the government. Today we have less obvious but similar forms of capital controls – currency pegging (China and many others), taxes on incoming capital (Brazil) and outright taxation/embargos of bank deposits (Cyprus). Governments use these methods to keep money out or to keep money in, the net result of which is a haircut on your capital or your potential return on capital. Future haircuts might even include a wealth tax. Are gold and/or AA+ sovereign bonds good as money? Usually, but capital controls can clip you if you’re not careful.
(4) Outright Default – the “Dobbins”
Ah, here’s my favorite haircut, and I’ve named it the “Dobbins” in honor of this 5-year bond issued in the 1920s with a beautiful gold seal and payable, in dollars or machine guns! Bond holders got neither and so it represents the historical example of the ultimate haircut – the buzz, the shaved head, the “Dobbins.” As suggested earlier, the objective of central banks is to prevent your portfolio from resembling a “Dobbins.” I have tweeted in the past that the Fed is where all bad bonds go to die. That is half figurative and half literal, because central banks are typically limited from purchasing bonds payable in machine guns or subprime mortgages (there have been exceptions and Bloomberg reported that nearly 25% of global central banks are now buying stocks believe it or not)! But by purchasing Treasuries and Agency mortgages they have rather successfully incented the private sector to do their bidding. This behavior reflects the admission that modern-day developed economies are asset-priced supported. Unless prices can continuously be floated upward, defaults and debt deflation may emerge. Don’t buy a Dobbins bond or a Dobbins-like asset or a bond from a country whose central bank is buying stocks. They probably aren’t “good as money!”
So it seems as if the barber has you cornered, doesn’t it? Sort of like Sweeney Todd! Let’s acknowledge that possibility, along with the observation that all of these haircuts imply lower-than-average future returns for bonds, stocks, and other financial assets. If so, the rather mixed metaphor of “money’s goodness” and “avoiding haircuts” is still the question of our modern investment age. The easiest answer to the question of what to buy is to simply take your ball and go home. If the rules aren’t fair, don’t play. That endgame however, results in a Treasury bill rate of 10 basis points or a negative yield in Germany, France and Northern EU markets. So a bond and equity investor can choose to play with historically high risk to principal or quit the game and earn nothing. PIMCO’s advice is to continue to participate in an obviously central-bank-generated bubble but to gradually reduce risk positions in 2013 and perhaps beyond. While this Outlook has indeed claimed that Treasuries are money good but not “good money,” they are better than the alternative (cash) as long as central banks and dollar reserve countries (China, Japan) continue to participate.
The same conclusion applies to credit risk alternatives such as corporate bonds and stocks. Granted, this sounds a little like Chuck Prince and his dance floor metaphor does it not? His example proved that dancing, and full heads of hair are not forever. So give your own portfolio a trim as the year goes on. In doing so, you will give up some higher returns upfront in order to avoid the swift hand of Sweeney Todd. There will be haircuts. Make sure your head doesn’t go with it.
1) Central banks and policymakers are acting like barbers. They haircut your investments.
2) Negative real interest rates, inflation, currency devaluation, capital controls and outright default are the barber’s scissors.
3) Gradually reduce duration, risk positions and “carry” as the year proceeds.
William H. Gross
Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. Investors should consult their financial advisor prior to making an investment decision.
This material contains the current opinions of the author but not necessarily those of PIMCO and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein are based upon proprietary research and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.
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Thursday, April 11th, 2013
The bond king is pissed:
No Bill, we are bothered too: we have been looking for the past 24 hours on the Fed’s site for ways to subscribe to said early release distribution list and still can’t find it. We even offered Kevin Henry $29.95 a month to add us to Fed’s frontrunning newsletter and so far, nothing.
How are we to make 100% returns in the otherwise risk free market, if we too can’t have market moving information days in advance of everyone else?
Mr. Bernanke, are you listening – it hinders the “wealth effect” by denying everyone material, market-moving information early!
Get to work Mr. Chairman.
Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
A Man in the Mirror
by William H. Gross, PIMCO
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a…
— Michael Jackson
Am I a great investor? No, not yet. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s “Jake” in The Sun Also Rises, “wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” But the thinking so and the reality are often miles apart. When looking in the mirror, the average human sees a six-plus or a seven reflection on a scale of one to ten. The big nose or weak chin is masked by brighter eyes or near picture perfect teeth. And when the public is consulted, the vocal compliments as opposed to the near silent/ whispered critiques are taken as a supermajority vote for good looks. So it is with investing, or any career that is exposed to the public eye. The brickbats come via the blogs and ambitious competitors, but the roses dominate one’s mental and even physical scrapbook. In addition to hope, it is how we survive day-to-day. We look at the man or woman in the mirror and see an image that is as distorted from reality as the one in a circus fun zone.
Yet at first blush, there is a partial saving grace in the money management business. We have numbers. Subjective perceptions aside, we have total return and alpha histories that purport to show how much better an individual or a firm has been than the competition, or if not, what an excellent return relative to inflation, or if not, what a generous amount of wealth creation over and above cash … the comparisons are seemingly endless yet the conclusions nearly always positive, rendering the “saving grace” almost meaningless: everyone in their own mind is at least a six-plus or a seven, and if not for the most recent year, then over the last three, five, or 10 years. Investors thrive on the numbers and turn them in their favor when observing their reflections. That first blush becomes a permanently rosy complexion with Snow White cheeks.
The investing public is often similarly deceived. Consultants warn against going with the flow, selecting a firm or an individual based upon recent experience, but the reality is generally otherwise. Three straight flips of the coin to “heads” produces a buzz in the crowd for another “heads,” despite the obvious 50/50 probabilities, as do 13 straight years of outperforming the S&P 500 followed by … Well, you get my point. The Financial Times just published a study confirming that a significant majority of computer simulated monkeys beat the stock market between 1968 and 2011 – good looking monkeys that is.
In questioning initially whether I am a great investor, I open the door to question whether other similarly esteemed public icons like Bill Miller are as well. It seems, perhaps, that the longer and longer you keep at it in this business the more and more time you have to expose your Achilles heel – wherever and whatever that might be. Ex-Fidelity mutual fund manager Peter Lynch was certainly brilliant in one respect: he knew to get out when the gettin’ was good. How his “buy what you know best” philosophy would have survived the dot-coms or the Lehman/subprime bust is another question.
So time and longevity must be a critical consideration in any objective confirmation of “greatness” in this business. 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? How many coins do you have to flip before a string of heads begins to suggest that it must be a two-headed coin, loaded with some philosophical/commonsensical bias that places the long-term odds clearly in a firm’s or an individual’s favor? I must tell you, after 40 rather successful years, I still don’t know if I or PIMCO qualifies. I don’t know if anyone, including investing’s most esteemed “oracle” Warren Buffett, does, and here’s why.
Investing and the success at it are predominately viewed on a cyclical or even a secular basis, yet even that longer term time frame may be too short. Whether a tops-down or bottoms-up investor in bonds, stocks, or private equity, the standard analysis tends to judge an investor or his firm on the basis of how the bullish or bearish aspects of the cycle were managed. Go to cash at the right time? Buy growth stocks at the bottom? Extend duration when yields were peaking? Buy value stocks at the right price? Whatever. If the numbers exhibit rather consistent alpha with lower than average risk and attractive information ratios then the Investing Hall of Fame may be just around the corner. Clearly the ability of the investor to adapt to the market’s “four seasons” should be proof enough that there was something more than luck involved? And if those four seasons span a number of bull/ bear cycles or even several decades, then a confirmation or coronation should take place shortly thereafter! First a market maven, then a wizard, and finally a King. Oh, to be a King.
But let me admit something. There is not a Bond King or a Stock King or an Investor Sovereign alive that can claim title to a throne. All of us, even the old guys like Buffett, Soros, Fuss, yeah – me too, have cut our teeth during perhaps a most advantageous period of time, the most attractive epoch, that an investor could experience. Since the early 1970s when the dollar was released from gold and credit began its incredible, liquefying, total return journey to the present day, an investor that took marginal risk, levered it wisely and was conveniently sheltered from periodic bouts of deleveraging or asset withdrawals could, and in some cases, was rewarded with the crown of “greatness.” Perhaps, however, it was the epoch that made the man as opposed to the man that made the epoch.
Authors Dimson, Marsh and Staunton would probably agree. In fact, the title of their book “Triumph of the Optimists” rather cagily describes an epochal 101 years of investment returns – one in which it paid to be an optimist and a risk taker as opposed to a more conservative Scrooge McDuck. Written in 2002, they perhaps correctly surmised however, that the next 101 years were unlikely to be as fortunate because of the unrealistic assumptions that many investors had priced into their markets. And all of this before QE and 0% interest rates! In any case, their point – and mine as well – is that different epochs produce different returns and fresh coronations as well.
I have always been a marginal or what I would call a measured risk taker; decently good at interest rate calls and perhaps decently better at promoting that image, but a risk taker at the margin. It didn’t work too well for a few months in 2011, nor in selected years over the past four decades, but because credit was almost always expanding, almost always fertilizing capitalism with its risk-taking bias, then PIMCO prospered as well. On a somewhat technical basis, my/our firm’s tendency to sell volatility and earn “carry” in a number of forms – outright through options and futures, in the mortgage market via prepayment risk, and on the curve via bullets and roll down as opposed to barbells with substandard carry – has been rewarded over long periods of time. When volatility has increased measurably (1979-1981, 1998, 2008), we have been fortunate enough to have either seen the future as it approached, or been just marginally overweighted from a “carry” standpoint so that we survived the dunking, whereas other firms did not.
My point is this: PIMCO’s epoch, Berkshire Hathaway’s epoch, Peter Lynch’s epoch, all occurred or have occurred within an epoch of credit expansion – a period where those that reached for carry, that sold volatility, that tilted towards yield and more credit risk, or that were sheltered either structurally or reputationally from withdrawals and delevering (Buffett) that clipped competitors at just the wrong time – succeeded. Yet all of these epochs were perhaps just that – epochs. What if an epoch changes? What if perpetual credit expansion and its fertilization of asset prices and returns are substantially altered? What if zero-bound interest rates define the end of a total return epoch that began in the 1970s, accelerated in 1981 and has come to a mathematical dead-end for bonds in 2012/2013 and commonsensically for other conjoined asset classes as well? What if a future epoch favors lower than index carry or continual bouts of 2008 Lehmanesque volatility, or encompasses a period of global geopolitical confrontation with a quest for scarce and scarcer resources such as oil, water, or simply food as suggested by Jeremy Grantham? What if the effects of global “climate change or perhaps aging demographics,” substantially alter the rather fertile petri dish of capitalistic expansion and endorsement? What if quantitative easing policies eventually collapse instead of elevate asset prices? What if there is a future that demands that an investor – a seemingly great investor – change course, or at least learn new tricks? Ah, now, that would be a test of greatness: the ability to adapt to a new epoch. The problem with the Buffetts, the Fusses, the Granthams, the Marks, the Dalios, the Gabellis, the Coopermans, and the Grosses of the world is that they’ll likely never find out. Epochs can and likely will outlast them. But then one never knows what time has in store for each of us, or what any of us will do in the spans of time.
What I do know, is that, like Michael Jackson sang in his brilliant, but all too short lifetime, I am and will continue to look at the man in the mirror. PIMCO, Gross, El-Erian? – yes, we’re lookin’ good – in this epoch. If there’s a different one coming though, to make our and your world a better place, we might need to look in the mirror and make a Chaaaaaaaange … Depends on what we see, I suppose. We will keep you informed.
Man in the Mirror Speed Read
- Investors should be judged on their ability to adapt to different epochs, not cycles. An epoch may be 40-50 years in time, perhaps longer.
- Bill Miller may in fact be a great investor, but he’ll need 5 or 6 more straight “heads” in a future epoch to confirm it. Peter Lynch is a “party pooper.” Warren is the Oracle, but if an epoch changes will he and others like him be around to adapt to it?
- No matter how self-indulgent you think this IO is, I just looked in the mirror and saw at least a 7. You must be blind!
William H. Gross
Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. This material contains the current opinions of the author but not necessarily those of PIMCO and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein are based upon proprietary research and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.
Thursday, February 28th, 2013
by William Gross, PIMCO
But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values?
– Alan Greenspan 1996
PIMCO’s dear friend and former counselor Alan Greenspan coined this now famous phrase in the midst of what turned out to be a fairly rationally priced stock market in late 1996. While the market was indeed moving in the direction of “dot-com” fever three to four years later, the Dow Jones Industrial Average at the time was a relatively anorexic 6,000, and the trailing P/E ratio was only 12x. For a central bank that was then more concerned about economic growth and inflation as opposed to stock prices, risk spreads, and artificially suppressed interest rates, the Chairman’s query made global headlines, became a book title for Professor Robert Shiller and a strategic beacon for portfolio managers thereafter. Having experienced two and perhaps three bouts of significant market irrationality since Greenspan’s speech (the 1998 Asian Crisis, 2000 Dot-Coms, and of course 2007’s subprime euphoria), investors these days have their ears pressed to the ground and eyes glued to the tape for any sign of renewed irrationality. If the game is now musical chairs as opposed to Chuck Prince’s marathon dancing, it pays to be close to a chair, even as the “can’t miss” euphoria mesmerizes 2013 asset managers worldwide.
Into this academic but high-staked market fog has stepped another Fed official, this time not a Chairman but a relatively new yet similarly quizzical Governor. Jeremy Stein’s February 2013 speech has not gained the attention that Chairman Greenspan’s did, but it is remarkably similar in its intent and initial question: Governor Stein asks, “What factors lead to overheating episodes in credit markets?… Why is it that sometimes, things get out of balance?” Without mimicking Chairman Greenspan’s phrase, Governor Stein renews the quest, asking nearly a decade and a half later, “How do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values?”
I suppose it’s fair to criticize both queries on two grounds: 1) Although asked by Chairman Greenspan, it was never really answered in the 1996 speech. 2) If the Fed’s so smart, why are some of us still poor? Why did our 401(k)s become 201(k)s in 2009 before recovering to near peak levels currently? If they’re so smart, why the roller coaster ride, the 30% decline in home prices since 2006, and our current 7.9% unemployment rate?
Well to answer for the absent Chairman and the necessarily silent Governor Stein, the Fed incorrectly assumed that as long as inflation was benign, and future productivity prospects were near historical proportions, then asset price exuberance was an indirect and much less significant influence on economic growth. The Chairman admitted as much in a public “mea culpa” several years ago. We’re not that smart, he seemed to intone. Sometimes we make mistakes. I’m with you there, Mr. Chairman. Sometimes we all do.
So let’s approach this new paper with eyes wide open and pant bottoms close to those mythical musical chairs. Governor Stein’s speech reflects importantly on the answer to the question asked by a recent Wall Street Journal headline: “Is (the) Bull Sprint Becoming a Marathon?” Is there indeed “A Boom Time” in markets as the Financial Times queried on the heels of Dell, Virgin Media, and then HJ Heinz?
Governor Stein, as does PIMCO, suggests caution. On a scale of 1-10 measuring asset price “irrationality”, we are probably at a 6 and moving in an upward direction. Admittedly, Stein never ventures into the netherworld of stock market prices or leveraged buyouts. He appears to know better. What he does stake claim to however is a thesis for high yield spreads with the implication that other credit markets bear similar consequences. His initial starting point is that the pricing of credit is primarily an institutional as opposed to a household decision making process. Individuals may become unduly irrational when it comes to buying high yield ETFs or mutual funds, but it is the banks, insurance companies and pension funds, to name the most dominant, that influence the price of credit – high yield bonds – and by osmosis, investment grade corporates, municipals, and other non-Treasury risk credit assets. From this initial premise, he then points to recent research by Harvard’s Robin Greenwood and Samuel Hanson that suggests that while credit spreads are helpful future guides, that a non-price measure – the new issue volume (and perhaps quality) of high yield bonds – is a more trustworthy input. To quote: “When the high-yield share (of issuance) is elevated, future returns on corporate credit tend to be low.” And because of financial innovation and easier regulatory changes, institutional buyers such as banks, insurance companies and pension funds tend to match the mountains of issuance with an exuberance that eventually can be labeled irrational. Stein’s bottomline is that recent evidence suggests that we are seeing a “fairly significant pattern of reaching-for-yield behavior emerging in corporate credit.” In fact, investors bought over $100 billion of high yield and levered loan paper last year, a record level even exceeding the ominous levels in 2006 and 2007. Shown below in Chart 1 is a history of CLO issuance, admittedly a subset of high yield, but one which illustrates the supply pattern Governor Stein is leery of.
Now at this point, I suppose readers expect yours truly to jump all over the Governor’s speech/premise and to advance my own more learned thesis. Not really. With previously expressed reservations about the prescience of the Fed (or any of us!) I applaud his attempt to answer the initial 1996 question. I think Governor Stein’s speech was a little uni-dimensional, and a little too supply and model driven as opposed to behaviorally influenced, but I liked it, and PIMCO agrees with its conclusion. Corporate credit and high yield bonds are somewhat exuberantly and irrationally priced. Spreads are tight, corporate profit margins are at record peaks with room to fall, and the economy is still fragile. Still that doesn’t mean you should vacate your portfolio of them. It just implies that recent double-digit returns are unlikely to be replicated and that when today’s 5-6% high yield interest rates are adjusted for future defaults and recovery values, that 3-4% realized returns are the likely outcome. Just this past week the Financial Times reported that global corporate default rates are inching higher just as companies with fragile balance sheets sell large amounts of debt. Don’t say Governor Stein didn’t warn you.
But I would step now into the forbidden territory of equity pricing by presenting additional historical correlations compiled by Jim Bianco of Bianco Research – admittedly not a thickly populated academically staffed organization like the Fed, but a well-regarded one nonetheless. He points out in a recent daily release that high yield and corporate bonds are really just low beta equivalents of stocks. It appears that they are. The following charts show a rather commonsensical negative correlation of high yield spreads (and therefore future high yield returns) to stock prices.
The conclusion would be that where high yield prices go, stock markets follow, or vice versa. Narrow yield spreads in high yield credit markets appear to be accompanied by “narrow” equity risk premiums in the market for stocks, which is another way of saying that the course of future equity returns may not resemble its recent exuberant past. 3-4% high yield returns over the next few years? Why shouldn’t that logically lead to a generalized 5-6% return forecast for stocks? Admittedly, returns for both high yield and equity markets have been unduly influenced in the past few years by Quantitative Easing, the writing of trillions of dollars of Federal Reserve checks and the exuberant migration of institutions and households alike to the grassier plains of risk assets dependent on favorable economic outcomes. It is what central banks encourage and to date it has been successful. If and when that support dissipates or if the economy remains anemic, investors should be cautious and temper their enthusiasm.
PIMCO’s and Governor Stein’s “rational temperance,” in contrast to excessive historical bouts of “irrational exuberance,” simply counsels to lower return expectations, not to abandon ship. PIMCO is a global investment manager – not one with a perpetual frown or even an ever-present half empty glass – but one which hopes to provide alpha and above market returns while still standing tall in the aftermath of future irrational bouts of exuberance. We join with Governor Stein and perhaps Alan Greenspan in encouraging not an exit but a reduced expectation. Credit spreads nor interest rates cannot be artificially compressed forever, nor can stock prices rise perpetually on their coattails. Be rational, be optimistic if so inclined, but temper it with a commonsensical conclusion that we have seen something similar to this before, and that previous outcomes seldom matched the exuberance.
IO Speed read:
1) Chairman Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” speech in 1996 posed an excellent question, and history provided the answer.
2) Fed Governor Jeremy Stein asks the same question in 2013 with a uni-dimensional but useful model.
3) Stein’s paper, accompanied by correlations from Bianco Research, suggests caution in today’s high yield market.
4) High yield bonds, stock prices and other risk spreads move in relative tandem.
5) PIMCO cautions “rational temperance”: be bullish if you want, but lower return expectations on all asset classes.
William H. Gross
Copyright © PIMCO
Thursday, January 31st, 2013
January 30, 2013
by Brad Sorensen, CFA, Director of Market and Sector Analysis, Schwab Center for Financial Research
• As expected, no changes were made to Federal Reserve monetary policy at its latest meeting. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) kept its asset purchase program in place and interest rates at near zero.
• The makeup of the FOMC has changed with the traditional rotation at the start of the year. The major hawk and lone dissenter on many recent decisions has rotated off the voting committee, along with three others. Their replacements may be slightly more dovish and we don’t expect many changes in philosophy, but there is a new dissenter.
• With economic improvement continuing and some of major risks seemingly subsiding, chatter is increasing that a start to return to monetary normalcy may come sooner rather than later, although at this point it’s likely to be a slow go.
In its first meeting of 2013, the Federal Reserve provided no surprises by keeping its current monetary policy in place. The Fed will continue to purchase $40 billion per month in mortgage-backed securities, while also purchasing $45 billion in longer-term US Treasury securities in order to “support a stronger economic recovery.”
Additionally, the target range for the fed funds rate remains at 0%-0.25% and the Fed continues to believe that rate will be appropriate “at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5%.” The Fed also acknowledged softness in the economy during the fourth quarter (as seen in the negative 0.1% gross domestic product figure released today by the Commerce Department), but attributed it to mainly “transitory” factors such as weather, while also noting better household spending, business fixed investment and a further improvement in the housing market.
With no new economic forecasts and no press conference after this meeting, it’s no surprise the Fed made few changes to its statement. One note was the absence of what had become the traditional dissenting voice in the form of Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker, who rotated off the voting committee along with three other members. Their four replacements are generally considered a bit more dovish, but we don’t believe that any change in the current direction of the Fed, which is largely framed by Chairman Ben Bernanke, will result. However, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Esther George, one of the new voting members, replaced Lacker as the lone dissenter.
Will improvement lead to changes sooner rather than later?
After this meeting, it seems to us the major question on Wall Street remains the same: “When will the Fed start to reverse course?”
There’s been increasing commentary among Fed members beginning to broach the subject of when and how they may start to unwind their current policy accommodation. With inflation still appearing relatively tame, and especially with wage-based inflation remaining absent, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of pressure on the Fed to make a move toward accommodation removal.
Chairman Bernanke is a noted student of the Great Depression, and has expressed his belief that central banks around the world in similar situations have made the mistake of abandoning their easing policies too soon. It seems to us he’d be willing to tolerate a little higher inflation rate in order to have the chance to better ensure the unemployment rate continues to drop.
However, there are other members of the Fed who’ve noted actions they could start to take to remove some of the accommodation without touching interest rates, and that may start to occur sooner rather than later. The Committee noted that it will take a “balanced approach” to the removal process, although what that actually means in practice is unknown at this point.
First step: Stop buying assets
In our view, the most obvious first action would be to stop at least one, if not both, of the current streams of asset purchases. Of course, given the desire of the current iteration of the Fed to be more open, we would likely hear quite a bit of commentary coming out of the Central Bank alluding to that possibility before the actual decision was actually announced.
And while the path may seem to be clear, it’s important to remember that some of the risks the Fed was concerned with toward the end of last year still exist, even if their urgency may have diminished. The Fed is still assessing the impact of the payroll tax hike on virtually all working Americans, while also looking ahead to the coming fights over the spending sequestrations and the debt ceiling, and what the impact of these issues may be on the economy. These risks, combined with Bernanke’s fear of moving too soon and the lack of inflationary pressures, may result in the Fed staying at the table longer than current data suggests they need to.
We continue to advocate a slow but steady return to a more normal monetary position, as it’s now quite clear to most observers that we’re no longer in a financial crisis that current policy was put in place to fight. Additionally, jobs continue to be added, housing is now contributing to economic growth and manufacturing appears to be expanding—allowing, in our view, a more normal policy.
Copyright © Schwab.com
Thursday, January 31st, 2013
This is the way the world ends…
Not with a bang but a whimper.
They say that time is money.* What they don’t say is that money may be running out of time.
There may be a natural evolution to our fractionally reserved credit system which characterizes modern global finance. Much like the universe, which began with a big bang nearly 14 billion years ago, but is expanding so rapidly that scientists predict it will all end in a “big freeze” trillions of years from now, our current monetary system seems to require perpetual expansion to maintain its existence. And too, the advancing entropy in the physical universe may in fact portend a similar decline of “energy” and “heat” within the credit markets. If so, then the legitimate response of creditors, debtors and investors inextricably intertwined within it, should logically be to ask about the economic and investment implications of its ongoing transition.
But before mimicking T.S. Eliot on the way our monetary system might evolve, let me first describe the “big bang” beginning of credit markets, so that you can more closely recognize its transition. The creation of credit in our modern day fractional reserve banking system began with a deposit and the profitable expansion of that deposit via leverage. Banks and other lenders don’t always keep 100% of their deposits in the “vault” at any one time – in fact they keep very little – thus the term “fractional reserves.” That first deposit then, and the explosion outward of 10x and more of levered lending, is modern day finance’s equivalent of the big bang. When it began is actually harder to determine than the birth of the physical universe but it certainly accelerated with the invention of central banking – the U.S. in 1913 – and with it the increased confidence that these newly licensed lenders of last resort would provide support to financial and real economies. Banking and central banks were and remain essential elements of a productive global economy.
But they carried within them an inherent instability that required the perpetual creation of more and more credit to stay alive. Those initial loans from that first deposit? They were made most certainly at yields close to the rate of real growth and creation of real wealth in the economy. Lenders demanded that yield because of their risk, and borrowers were speculating that the profit on their fledgling enterprises would exceed the interest expense on those loans. In many cases, they succeeded. But the economy as a whole could not logically grow faster than the real interest rates required to pay creditors, in combination with the near double-digit returns that equity holders demanded to support the initial leverage – unless – unless – it was supplied with additional credit to pay the tab. In a sense this was a “Sixteen Tons” metaphor: Another day older and deeper in debt, except few within the credit system itself understood the implications.
Economist Hyman Minsky did. With credit now expanding, the sophisticated economic model provided by Minsky was working its way towards what he called Ponzi finance. First, he claimed the system would borrow in low amounts and be relatively self-sustaining – what he termed “Hedge” finance. Then the system would gain courage, lever more into a “Speculative” finance mode which required more credit to pay back previous borrowings at maturity. Finally, the end phase of “Ponzi” finance would appear when additional credit would be required just to cover increasingly burdensome interest payments, with accelerating inflation the end result.
Minsky’s concept, developed nearly a half century ago shortly after the explosive decoupling of the dollar from gold in 1971, was primarily a cyclically contained model which acknowledged recession and then rejuvenation once the system’s leverage had been reduced. That was then. He perhaps could not have imagined the hyperbolic, as opposed to linear, secular rise in U.S. credit creation that has occurred since as shown in Chart 1. (Patterns for other developed economies are similar.) While there has been cyclical delevering, it has always been mild – even during the Volcker era of 1979-81. When Minsky formulated his theory in the early 70s, credit outstanding in the U.S. totaled $3 trillion.† Today, at $56 trillion and counting, it is a monster that requires perpetually increasing amounts of fuel, a supernova star that expands and expands, yet, in the process begins to consume itself. Each additional dollar of credit seems to create less and less heat. In the 1980s, it took four dollars of new credit to generate $1 of real GDP. Over the last decade, it has taken $10, and since 2006, $20 to produce the same result. Minsky’s Ponzi finance at the 2013 stage goes more and more to creditors and market speculators and less and less to the real economy. This “Credit New Normal” is entropic much like the physical universe and the “heat” or real growth that new credit now generates becomes less and less each year: 2% real growth now instead of an historical 3.5% over the past 50 years; likely even less as the future unfolds.
Not only is more and more anemic credit created by lenders as its “sixteen tons” becomes “thirty-two,” then “sixty-four,” but in the process, today’s near zero bound interest rates cripple savers and business models previously constructed on the basis of positive real yields and wider margins for loans. Net interest margins at banks compress; liabilities at insurance companies threaten their levered equity; and underfunded pension plans require greater contributions from their corporate funders unless regulatory agencies intervene. What has followed has been a gradual erosion of real growth as layoffs, bank branch closings and business consolidations create less of a need for labor and physical plant expansion. In effect, the initial magic of credit creation turns less magical, in some cases even destructive and begins to consume credit markets at the margin as well as portions of the real economy it has created. For readers demanding a more model-driven, historical example of the negative impact of zero based interest rates, they have only to witness the modern day example of Japan. With interest rates close to zero for the last decade or more, a sharply declining rate of investment in productive plants and equipment, shown in Chart 2, is the best evidence. A Japanese credit market supernova, exploding and then contracting onto itself. Money and credit may be losing heat and running out of time in other developed economies as well, including the U.S.
If so then the legitimate question is: how much time does money/credit have left and what are the investment consequences between now and then? Well, first I will admit that my supernova metaphor is more instructive than literal. The end of the global monetary system is not nigh. But the entropic characterization is most illustrative. Credit is now funneled increasingly into market speculation as opposed to productive innovation. Asset price appreciation as opposed to simple yield or “carry” is now critical to maintain the system’s momentum and longevity. Investment banking, which only a decade ago promoted small business development and transition to public markets, now is dominated by leveraged speculation and the Ponzi finance Minsky once warned against.
So our credit-based financial markets and the economy it supports are levered, fragile and increasingly entropic – it is running out of energy and time. When does money run out of time? The countdown begins when investable assets pose too much risk for too little return; when lenders desert credit markets for other alternatives such as cash or real assets.
REPEAT: THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS WHEN INVESTABLE ASSETS POSE TOO MUCH RISK FOR TOO LITTLE RETURN.
Visible first signs for creditors would logically be 1) long-term bond yields too low relative to duration risk, 2) credit spreads too tight relative to default risk and 3) PE ratios too high relative to growth risks. Not immediately, but over time, credit is exchanged figuratively or sometimes literally for cash in a mattress or conversely for real assets (gold, diamonds) in a vault. It also may move to other credit markets denominated in alternative currencies. As it does, domestic systems delever as credit and its supernova heat is abandoned for alternative assets. Unless central banks and credit extending private banks can generate real or at second best, nominal growth with their trillions of dollars, euros, and yen, then the risk of credit market entropy will increase.
The element of time is critical because investors and speculators that support the system may not necessarily fully participate in it for perpetuity. We ask ourselves frequently at PIMCO, what else could we do, what else could we invest in to avoid the consequences of financial repression and negative real interest rates approaching minus 2%? The choices are varied: cash to help protect against an inflationary expansion or just the opposite – long Treasuries to take advantage of a deflationary bust; real assets; emerging market equities, etc. One of our Investment Committee members swears he would buy land in New Zealand and set sail. Most of us can’t do that, nor can you. The fact is that PIMCO and almost all professional investors are in many cases index constrained, and thus duration and risk constrained. We operate in a world that is primarily credit based and as credit loses energy we and our clients should acknowledge its entropy, which means accepting lower returns on bonds, stocks, real estate and derivative strategies that likely will produce less than double-digit returns.
Still, investors cannot simply surrender to their entropic destiny. Time may be running out, but time is still money as the original saying goes. How can you make some?
(1) Position for eventual inflation: the end stage of a supernova credit explosion is likely to produce more inflation than growth, and more chances of inflation as opposed to deflation. In bonds, buy inflation protection via TIPS; shorten maturities and durations; don’t fight central banks – anticipate them by buying what they buy first; look as well for offshore sovereign bonds with positive real interest rates (Mexico, Italy, Brazil, for example).
(2) Get used to slower real growth: QEs and zero-based interest rates have negative consequences. Move money to currencies and asset markets in countries with less debt and less hyperbolic credit systems. Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Canada are candidates.
(3) Invest in global equities with stable cash flows that should provide historically lower but relatively attractive returns.
(4) Transition from financial to real assets if possible at the margin: buy something you can sink your teeth into – gold, other commodities, anything that can’t be reproduced as fast as credit. Think of PIMCO in this transition. We hope to be “Your Global Investment Authority.” We have a product menu to assist.
(5) Be cognizant of property rights and confiscatory policies in all governments.
(6) Appreciate the supernova characterization of our current credit system. At some point it will transition to something else.
We may be running out of time, but time will always be money.
Speed Read for Credit Supernova
1) Why is our credit market running out of heat or fuel?
a) As it expands at a rate of trillions per year, real growth in the economy has failed to respond. More credit goes to pay interest than future investment.
b) Zero-based interest rates, which are the result of QE and credit creation, have negative as well as positive effects. Historic business models may be negatively affected and investment spending may be dampened.
c) Look to the Japanese historical example.
2) What options should an investor consider?
a) Seek inflation protection in credit market assets/ shorten durations.
b) Increase real assets/commodities/stable cash flow equities at the margin.
c) Accept lower future returns in portfolio planning.
William H. Gross
* The terms “money” and “credit” are used interchangeably in this IO. Purists would dispute the usage and I would agree with them, arguing for the usage for simplicity’s sake and the evolving homogeneity of the two.
† Outstanding credit includes all government debt as well as corporate, household and personal debt. Does not include “shadow” debt estimated at $20-30 trillion.
Past performance is not a guarantee or a reliable indicator of future results. All investments contain risk and may lose value. Investing in the bond market is subject to certain risks, including market, interest rate, issuer, credit and inflation risk. Equities may decline in value due to both real and perceived general market, economic and industry conditions. Investing in foreign-denominated and/or -domiciled securities may involve heightened risk due to currency fluctuations, and economic and political risks, which may be enhanced in emerging markets. Currency rates may fluctuate significantly over short periods of time and may reduce the returns of a portfolio. Sovereign securities are generally backed by the issuing government. Obligations of U.S. government agencies and authorities are supported by varying degrees, but are generally not backed by the full faith of the U.S. government; portfolios that invest in such securities are not guaranteed and will fluctuate in value. Inflation-linked bonds (ILBs) issued by a government are fixed income securities whose principal value is periodically adjusted according to the rate of inflation; ILBs decline in value when real interest rates rise. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) are ILBs issued by the U.S. government. Commodities contain heightened risk including market, political, regulatory and natural conditions, and may not be suitable for all investors.
The views and strategies described herein are for illustrative purposes only and may not be suitable for all investors. The information is not based on any particularized financial situation, or need, and is not intended to be, and should not be construed as investment advice or a recommendation for any specific PIMCO or other strategy, product or service. Investors should consult their financial advisor prior to making an investment decision. There is no guarantee that these investment strategies will work under all market conditions and each investor should evaluate their ability to invest long-term, especially during periods of downturn in the market.
This material contains the current opinions of the author but not necessarily those of PIMCO and such opinions are subject to change without notice. This material is distributed for informational purposes only. Forecasts, estimates, and certain information contained herein are based upon proprietary research and should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or investment product. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, or referred to in any other publication, without express written permission. PIMCO and YOUR GLOBAL INVESTMENT AUTHORITY are trademarks or registered trademarks of Allianz Asset Management of America L.P. and Pacific Investment Management Company LLC, respectively, in the United States and throughout the world. ©2013, PIMCO.
Monday, January 28th, 2013
Everyone knows that for the better part of the past year Apple, Inc. (“AAPL”, or “The Company”) was the world’s biggest company by market cap, with Exxon finally regaining that title on Friday, following AAPL’s latest price drop in the aftermath of its disappointing earnings. Most know that AAPL aggressively uses all legal tax loopholes to pay as little State and Federal tax as possible, despite being one of the world’s most profitable companies.
Many also know, courtesy of our exclusive from September, that Apple also is the holding company for Braeburn Capital: a firm which with a few exceptions (Bridgewater; JPM’s CIO prop trading desk) also happens to be one of the world’s largest hedge funds, whose function is to manage Apple’s massive cash hoard, with virtually zero requirements, and whose obligation is to make sure that AAPL’s cash gets laundered legally and efficiently in a way that complies with prerogative #1: avoid paying taxes.
What few if any know, is that as part of its cash management obligations, Braeburn, and AAPL by extension, has conducted a mindboggling $600 billion worth of gross notional trades in just the past four years, consisting of buying and selling assorted unknown securities, or some $250 billion in 2012 alone: a grand total which represents some $1 billion per working day on average, and which puts the net turnover of some 99% of all hedge funds to shame!
Finally, what nobody knows, except for the recipients of course, is just how much in trade commissions AAPL has paid over the past four years on these hundreds of billions in trades to the brokering banks, many (or maybe all) of which may have found this commission revenue facilitating AAPL having a “Buy” recommendation: a rating shared by 52, or 83% of the raters, despite the company’s wiping out of one year in capital gains in a few short months.
The Perfectly Legal Tax Evasion Scheme
Apple’s massive cash hoard is something that gets its 15 minutes of fame each and every quarter, because for now at least, it keeps growing and growing and growing. However, that is not exactly correct. In fact, the company’s cash and cash equivalents at December 31, 2012 is just $16.2 billion: barely $9 billion more than it was 4 years ago, on December 31, 2008. Where the bulk of AAPL’s profits are kept, however, is not in cash and equivalents, but in various undisclosed short- and long-term securities.
It is these, and particularly the latter, that have soared in a near parabolic fashion in the past 4 years. As the chart below shows, while cash and short-term marketable securities have been virtually flat for the better part of the past 16 quarters, it is the long-term marketable securities that have exploded from just $2.5 billion to a whopping $97.3 billion.
So why does AAPL funnel its profits in a fashion that redirects it to investments instead of domestically hoarded cash? Simple: to take advantage of offshore venues which allow it to avoid paying any tax on the cash that gets redirected for trading purposes. As per the company’s filings, of the massive $137.1 billion in cash and investments AAPL has access to, a near record 68.7%, or $94.2 billion, is held offshore.
The chart above means that contrary to popular disinformation, AAPL “only” has ready access to some $43 billion in domestically held cash for corporate purposes such as dividends, stock buybacks and local M&A. The rest of the cash is essentially in offshore lockboxes, which are non-recourse for domestic corporate purposes, absent repatriation. And herein lies the rub. From the latst 10-Q:
As of December 29, 2012 and September 29, 2012, $94.2 billion and $82.6 billion, respectively, of the Company’s cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities were held by foreign subsidiaries and are generally based in U.S. dollar-denominated holdings. Amounts held by foreign subsidiaries are generally subject to U.S. income taxation on repatriation to the U.S.
Apply a 30% tax to the offshore holdings and suddenly one can see why broad statements that AAPL has some $130/share in cash are largely meaningless: if AAPL wishes to have full access to dispose with this cash as it saw fit, it would first have to pay Uncle Sam some $30/share in cash before it had full recourse.
So why does AAPL chose to have cash stock up offshore instead of being able to dispose of it? Simple, and logical. Taxes, or rather the lack thereof.
The chart below shows that while AAPL has generated some $136 billion in operating profits in the past four years, the amount of cash taxes it has paid, as per the company’s cash flow statements, has been a grand total of $18.6 billion: a 13.6% effective tax rate. And this $18.6 billion also includes taxes paid in offshore venues, so realistically the cash taxes paid in the US are likely well under 10% of profits.
The same on a quarter by quarter basis: operating income grows, cash taxes paid stay the same:
But far form us making an ethical claim here: AAPL is merely following the same legal loopholes that are available to all, yet made a mockery of the tax shelters used by recent presidential candidates. Perhaps one should ask Congress why these laws are there in the first place to allow the same companies that spend millions on lobbying members of Congress to retain billions in unpaid taxes via various tax shelters: a rather amazing IRR, if only for the corporations involved.
None of the above is news, and AAPL’s aggressive use of tax loopholes has been known for years.
What has not been known is just how the cash from the company’s seemingly endless profits gets moved from the Income Statement to the Balance Sheet: profits, which until recently were assumed would grow in perpetuity, until something strange happened: Samsung became cooler and faddier than AAPL, which coupled with accelerated margin erosion at AAPL grappling with an end-consumer who has increasingly less disposable cash flow, has led to a drubbing of the stock to new 52 week lows.
A Hedge Fund On Stroids
The conventional wisdom of Apple, and by implication of Braeburn, is of a boring old shop which invests its money prudently and cautiously in ultra-safe securities.
This is what AAPL itself has to say about its allocation of capital. From the just released 10-Q:
The Company’s marketable securities investment portfolio is invested primarily in highly-rated securities and its investment policy generally limits the amount of credit exposure to any one issuer. The policy requires investments generally to be investment grade with the objective of minimizing the potential risk of principal loss.
Good but… “primarily” and “generally“? One doesn’t have to be an MF Global and JPM London Whale fallout expert to know that Jon Corzine’s or Jamie Dimon’s (or any other prop trading institution for that matter), was “primarily and “generally” supposed to be invested in highly-rated securities whose objective was avoiding risk and loss. Until it was uncovered they aren’t. And as we explained previously, when we dissected AAPL’s arm’s length asset manager Braeburn, there is little more out there:
Braeburn has no reporting obligations: there is no Investment Advisor Public Disclosure (IAPD) entry on Braeburn for the logical reason that it is not an investment advisor: it merely manages an ungodly amount of cash for AAPL’s millions of shareholders. There is also no SEC filing 13-F filing on Braeburn’s holdings. As such, not confined by the limitations of being a “long-only”, it is in its full right to hold any assets it feels like, up to and including CDS on housing, puts on Samsung, or Constant Maturity Swaps that pay if the 10 Year collapses. It just doesn’t have to report any of them.
Nobody knows: and that’s the beauty of Braeburn. It is the world’s largest hedge fund that is not really a hedge fund, nobody has heard of, and nobody knows just what assets it holds.
Indeed nobody does know just what goes on behind the door of Suite 225 at 730 Sandhill Road in Reno, Nevada where Braeburn in situated. However, one can extrapolate some rather curious things.
Such as that starting December 2008, and through December 2012, according to its own filings, AAPL has bought and sold a grand total of $600 billion in “marketable securities“, of which the sales alone amount to a whopping 205 billion!
What is not shown above is that over the same period, maturities on AAPL’s ever-growing portfolio amount to some $82 billion. In other words, between maturities and sales, AAPL has generated nearly $300 billion in cash for investment and reinvestment purposes.
Shortening the time frame somewhat, just in 2012 AAPL’s gross trading on its securities holdings amounts to a whopping $250 billion, or nearly $1 billion for every working day of the year: an amount that would put the turnover of some 99% of the most active daytrading hedge funds in the US to shame!
What is very curious is that even as AAPL’s overall portfolio rose and rose, with purchases “primarily” of supposedly safe investment grade securities, an amount which has peaked at $121 billion as of December 31, 2012, the actual quarterly maturity of AAPL’s portfolio, or the natural roll off, has decline to a near record low, or just 2.9% of total. How it is possible that the quarterly maturing notional continues to decline even as the portfolio, of both short- and long-term securities grows, is frankly, beyond our meager comprehension skills.
What is even more curious is that AAPL can’t even make the excuse that it is merely churning its short-term marketable securitie. As the chart below shows, beginning in March 2011, the total amount of sales and maturities exceeds the quarterly total holdings of short-term securities, which naturally implies that a substantial portion of the long-term securities is also being sold.
So why would AAPL engage in what increasingly appears to be not only active portfolio management, but extremely aggressive and overzealous portfolio management, one which includes massive trades – buys but more importlanly sales – on a day to day basis?
Said otherwise: why is the world’s premier maker of gizmos also one of the biggest under-the-radar day traders of unknown securities nobody has ever heard of?
* * *
We don’t know the answer to these questions. We do know however, that if one is indeed engaged in plain vanilla money management, such as investing in ultra safe investments, there would be no need of such aggressive purchases and dispositions of securities.
In fact, adding the simple average of the short- and long-term marketable securities holdings of AAPL over the past 4 years amounts to some $59 billion. Yet, as noted above, the total amount of gross trades -buys and sales – over the same period is $600 billion, or a total portfolio turnover of some ten mindboggling times!
This is hardly what one would call boring investing in safe securities, and certainly something one would call aggressive to quite aggressive money management, one that not even some of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers are equipped or willing to do.
Yet Braeburn Capital, a/k/a AAPL, has been doing it for the past 4 years, and does so to the tune of $1 billion per day.
* * *
Finally, there is the minor question of who exactly is it that executes these trades, or, in other words, which are the banks that have pocketed billions in commissions on AAPL’s furiously traded portfolio?
We don’t know, but we wonder: could it be the same banks that come rain or shine, gave AAPL a Buy rating, one which is still held by some 52 of the 63 banks covering the company, among which naturally are the most prominent brokers of “investment grade” securities:
Perhaps it would be very informative one day, years after the AAPL craze is long gone, to inquire just how much money AAPL paid out to any/all of the banks listed above in the form of trade commissions and other forms of “soft dollar” compensation. After all, any client which has conducted some $600 billion in trades in the past 16 quarters is known by one word at every single bank: “dream.”
And parallel to that, one wonders what AAPL’s total profits would have been and thus total marketable securities holdings, how much less the total trading churn and commissions to the sell side would have been had the downgrade battery started long ago, and thus broken the hypnotic and very much reflexive relationship between the world’s most profitable company and its “coolness” factor, which in a feedback loop made it sell more products, making its market cap bigger, making its securities holdings larger, and making sellside profits greater, and so on ad inf… until one day it all snapped.
* * *
The point of the above analysis is not to take away from the operational side of the business: the fact that AAPL created and dominated the smartphone and tablet sector for years is undisputable. Yet now that many challengers are emerging, both new and old, both premium and commoditized, more and more attention is shifting to AAPL’s balance sheet, and the main asset thereon: the company’s cash and marketable securities.
The point of the above analysis is to show that when it comes to said cash and marketable securities there is much more than meet the superficial eye, and certainly much, much more than just a summary assessment that “AAPL has nearly $140 billion in cash so it has to hand this cash out to investors.”
If there is one thing that the above should have made quite clear, it is that just as the AAPL product ecosystem is supposed to ensnare customers into always and only buying AAPL products, so the AAPL’s portfolio management “ecosystem” may have made it impossible for AAPL to break away from what is now 4 years of uber-aggressive asset management in the vein of some of the world’s most aggressive investors.
And that any hopes for a quick and easy disposal of cash to the benefit of shareholders may well not be coming any time soon.
* * *
Finally, a tangent: if indeed AAPL is invested in plain vanilla fixed income securities, as it reports, amounting to well over $120 billion which have a DV01 in the tens if not hundreds of millions, and if indeed, the great rotation from bonds into stocks has begun, AAPL, which many have jokingly called Fed-lite will suddenly develop a very, very big headache: how to dump over a hundred billion in debt in a market that suddenly has gone if not bidless, the bidweak.
Because while the Fed can print its own liquidity, AAPL, well, can’t…
Source: AAPL public filings