Bill Gross has a must-read piece out for his monthly Investment Outlook called “Midnight Candles.” He begins the piece with allusions to his advancing years (Gross is now 65) and the mortality he feels because of it – pretty sobering stuff. Gross then abruptly segues into his investment outlook, leaving one with the distinct impression he is suggesting there is something ephemeral in the global financial system’s status quo ante.
To solve the problem, Gross suggests continuing artificially low interest rates to maintain pumped up asset prices. This is a perverse conclusion I reject categorically. But his analysis leading up to this is right on the money. And the line he takes to make the transition to his thinking is right out of Credit Writedowns’ playbook.
I’ll jump straight into a discussion of why in a New Normal economy (1) almost all assets appear to be overvalued on a long-term basis, and, therefore, (2) policymakers need to maintain artificially low interest rates and supportive easing measures in order to keep economies on the “right side of the grass.”
Let me start out by summarizing a long-standing PIMCO thesis: The U.S. and most other G-7 economies have been significantly and artificially influenced by asset price appreciation for decades. Stock and home prices went up – then consumers liquefied and spent the capital gains either by borrowing against them or selling outright. Growth, in other words, was influenced on the upside by leverage, securitization, and the belief that wealth creation was a function of asset appreciation as opposed to the production of goods and services. American and other similarly addicted global citizens long ago learned to focus on markets as opposed to the economic foundation behind them. How many TV shots have you seen of people on the Times Square Jumbotron applauding the announcement of the latest GDP growth numbers or job creation? None, of course, but we see daily opening and closing market crescendos of jubilant capitalists on the NYSE and NASDAQ cheering the movement of markets – either up or down. My point: Asset prices are embedded not only in our psyche, but the actual growth rate of our economy. If they don’t go up – economies don’t do well, and when they go down, the economy can be horrid.
This, my friends, is the dreaded asset-based economy. It is the same financial model which has led us to mountains of debt and repeated bubbles and extreme financial instability. I have said in the past that aggregate debt levels as measured by ratios like debt to nominal GDP should remain constant to the degree that the capital used to generate that growth is efficiently allocated. However, we have seen a ballooning in debt, which suggests that we need far more capital to generate a unit of growth than we did a generation ago. Gross makes similar arguments, focusing instead on assets instead of debt (liabilities).
First of all, assets didn’t always appreciate faster than GDP. For the first several decades of this history, economic growth, not paper wealth, was king. We were getting richer by making things, not paper. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the cult of the markets, which included the development of financial derivatives and the increasing use of leverage, began to dominate. A long history marred only by negative givebacks during recessions in the early 1990s, 2001–2002, and 2008–2009, produced a persistent increase in asset prices vs. nominal GDP that led to an average overall 50-year appreciation advantage of 1.3% annually. That’s another way of saying you would have been far better off investing in paper than factories or machinery or the requisite components of an educated workforce. We, in effect, were hollowing out our productive future at the expense of worthless paper such as subprimes, dotcoms, or in part, blue chip stocks and investment grade/government bonds.
Again, these themes echo something I recently posted on, namely the hollowing out of America’s middle class from downsizing and outsourcing. See my post “A conversation with Stephen Roach on Charlie Rose “ in which the juxtaposition between a Stephen Roach interview circa 1996 and one from this past week makes plain the long-term problem.
Gross comes to a very different conclusion to all of this than I come to. He says, faced with a potential collapse in nominal GDP growth, the answer is to feed the patient more of the asset price elixir to wean him off his drugs. Cold turkey would lead to depression (i.e. death – that makes the tie to his lead in plain).
This is where it gets tricky, however, because policymakers, (The Fed, the Treasury, the FDIC) recognize the predicament, maybe not with the same model or in the same magnitude, but they recognize that asset prices must be supported in order to generate positive future nominal GDP growth somewhere close to historical norms. The virus has infected far too many parts of the economy’s body, for far too long, to go cold turkey. The Japanese example over the past 15 years is an excellent historical reference point. Their quantitative easing and near-0% short-term interest rates eventually arrested equity and property market deflation but at much greater percentage losses, which produced an economy barely above the grass as opposed to buried six feet under. The current objective of global policymakers is to do likewise – keep the capitalistic patient alive through asset price support, but at an “old normal” pace if possible, six feet or 6% in U.S. nominal GDP terms above the grass.
My conclusion is different. I have said before that I also think cold turkey would lead to disaster (see my post “Confessions of an Austrian economist), but I am under no illusion that we need to keep supporting the asset-based economy indefinitely. Our goal should be to use government stimulus as cover to eliminate malinvestments and downsize bloated sectors of the economy like financial services. This is one reason I am in favor of introducing a comprehensive too-big-to-fail (TBTF) resolution process to allow big banks to fail and breaking up TBTF financial institutions.
Going back to Gross, he concludes that his policy preference for maintaining is supportive of asset prices in the medium-term but not so supportive that we are going back to the gold rush of yesteryear.
If policy rates are artificially low then bond investors should recognize that artificial buyers of notes and bonds (quantitative easing programs and Chinese currency fixing) have compressed almost all interest rates. But while this may support asset prices – including Treasury paper across the front end and belly of the curve, at the same time it provides little reward in terms of future income. Investors, of course, notice this inevitable conclusion by referencing Treasury Bills at .15%, two-year Notes at less than 1%, and 10-year maturities at a paltry 3.40%. Absent deflationary momentum, this is all a Treasury investor can expect. What you see in the bond market is often what you get. Broadening the concept to the U.S. bond market as a whole (mortgages + investment grade corporates), the total bond market yields only 3.5%. To get more than that, high yield, distressed mortgages, and stocks beckon the investor increasingly beguiled by hopes of a V-shaped recovery and “old normal” market standards. Not likely, and the risks outweigh the rewards at this point.
While I disagree with some of what Gross says, his is a very good piece if you want to know which way the wind is blowing. I have linked to it below.
Midnight Candles – Bill Gross, Pimco