Fundhouse Insights Latest Articles
|“Good as Money,” proclaimed the ad for Twenty Grand Vodka infused with 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 Vodka, 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 vodka 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 vodka 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.
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.
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.
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.
PIMCO provides services only to qualified institutions and investors. This is not an offer to any person in any jurisdiction where unlawful or unauthorized. | Pacific Investment Management Company LLC, 840 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92660 is regulated by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. | PIMCO Europe Ltd (Company No. 2604517), PIMCO Europe, Ltd Munich Branch (Company No. 157591), PIMCO Europe, Ltd Amsterdam Branch (Company No. 24319743), and PIMCO Europe Ltd – Italy (Company No. 07533910969) are authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority (25 The North Colonnade, Canary Wharf, London E14 5HS) in the UK. The Amsterdam, Italy and Munich Branches are additionally regulated by the AFM, CONSOB in accordance with Article 27 of the Italian Consolidated Financial Act, and BaFin in accordance with Section 53b of the German Banking Act, respectively. PIMCO Europe Ltd services and products are available only to professional clients as defined in the Financial Services Authority’s Handbook and are not available to individual investors, who should not rely on this communication. | PIMCO Deutschland GmbH(Company No. 192083, Seidlstr. 24-24a, 80335 Munich, Germany) is authorised and regulated by the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) (Marie- Curie-Str. 24-28, 60439 Frankfurt am Main) in Germany in accordance with Section 32 of the German Banking Act (KWG). The services and products provided by PIMCO Deutschland GmbH are available only to professional clients as defined in Section 31a para. 2 German Securities Trading Act (WpHG). They are not available to individual investors, who should not rely on this communication. | PIMCO Asia Pte Ltd (501 Orchard Road #08-03, Wheelock Place, Singapore 238880, Registration No. 199804652K) is regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore as a holder of a capital markets services licence and an exempt financial adviser. PIMCO Asia Pte Ltd services and products are available only to accredited investors, expert investors and institutional investors as defined in the Securities and Futures Act. | PIMCO Asia Limited (24th Floor, Units 2402, 2403 & 2405 Nine Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong) is licensed by the Securities and Futures Commission for Types 1, 4 and 9 regulated activities under the Securities and Futures Ordinance. The asset management services and investment products are not available to persons where provision of such services and products is unauthorised. | PIMCO Australia Pty Ltd (Level 19, 363 George Street, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia), AFSL 246862 and ABN 54084280508, offers services to wholesale clients as defined in the Corporations Act 2001. | PIMCO Japan Ltd (Toranomon Towers Office 18F, 4-1-28, Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan 105-0001) Financial Instruments Business Registration Number is Director of Kanto Local Finance Bureau (Financial Instruments Firm) No.382. PIMCO Japan Ltd is a member of Japan Investment Advisers Association and Investment Trusts Association. Investment management products and services offered by PIMCO Japan Ltd are offered only to persons within its respective jurisdiction, and are not available to persons where provision of such products or services is unauthorized. Valuations of assets will fluctuate based upon prices of securities and values of derivative transactions in the portfolio, market conditions, interest rates, and credit risk, among others. Investments in foreign currency denominated assets will be affected by foreign exchange rates. There is no guarantee that the principal amount of the investment will be preserved, or that a certain return will be realized; the investment could suffer a loss. All profits and losses incur to the investor. The amounts, maximum amounts and calculation methodologies of each type of fee and expense and their total amounts will vary depending on the investment strategy, the status of investment performance, period of management and outstanding balance of assets and thus such fees and expenses cannot be set forth herein. | PIMCO Canada Corp. (199 Bay Street, Suite 2050, Commerce Court Station, P.O. Box 363, Toronto, ON, M5L 1G2) services and products may only be available in certain provinces or territories of Canada and only through dealers authorized for that purpose. | PIMCO Latin America Edifício Internacional Rio Praia do Flamengo, 154 1o andar, Rio de Janeiro – RJ Brasil 22210-030. | No part of this publication 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.