Skip to comments.There Will Be Haircuts (Bill Gross)
Posted on 05/01/2013 7:23:44 AM PDT by blam
There Will Be Haircuts
William H. Gross
May 1, 2013
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 wouldnt 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 holders 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 Feds 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 lets not go there and speak of a bubble popping. Lets 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 its 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 wont!) 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 holders money without them really knowing they had entered a barbershop. These haircuts are hidden forms of taxes that reduce an investors 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, lets 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 Treasurys 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 governments gain, however, is the savers 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 cuts conclusion, theres a lot of hair left on the floor.
(2) Inflation / Currency Devaluation the Don Draper
Inflations sort of like your everyday Mad Men Don Draper type of haircut. Its been around for a long time and we dont really give it a second thought except when its on top of a handsome head like Jon Hamms. 2% ± a year some say more but what the heck, inflations 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, hell 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 wasnt 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 youre not careful.
(4) Outright Default the Dobbins
Ah, heres my favorite haircut, and Ive 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. Dont buy a Dobbins bond or a Dobbins-like asset or a bond from a country whose central bank is buying stocks. They probably arent good as money!
So it seems as if the barber has you cornered, doesnt it? Sort of like Sweeney Todd! Lets 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 moneys 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 arent fair, dont 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. PIMCOs 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 doesnt 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 barbers scissors.
3) Gradually reduce duration, risk positions and carry as the year proceeds.
William H. Gross Managing Director
I know a bit of American history but have never delved into the gold confiscation scam that the U.S. government perpetrated in the 1930s. How could it possibly have been viewed as Constitutional for the Govenment to seize private property? A wake up call for anyone who thinks that the U.S.S.C. will actually side with gun owners when the Feds inevitably push for confiscation.
Well, I gave up the fight and bought an Oster “Fast Feed” clipper and attached the 1/4 inch comb and do the whole head now - beard, hair, neck etc.....saves time so I don’t have to make time to go see about buying precious metals and stocks some asshole on WS is hyping....
"As long as the music is playing, youve got to get up and dance."
That makes sense...also, somewhat off subject, the opening paragraph about “going out” reminded me of the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the British spy, discovered by a Nazi, and knowing he’s doomed, drops his phony accent and sez “Well ole chap, if I got to go, I’d like to go out speaking the Kings - and drinking good scotch.”
Now, back to our regularly scheduled thread from Pimco.
I had a chance at one time (for a period in the 70s) to buy gold at a price somewhere between $4-600/ounce...
I could have but didn’t buy any. Had I done so with the available cash I had, I’d have made maybe $4-5K on it.
Unless you have a buttload to gamble, or that unstoppable itch to hedge against financial devastation of society, the trouble ain’t worth the risk...more colloquially, the “juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”
Today? I have my money invested in more concrete and vendable things - brass, lead, copper and a host of other accessories that make them more desirable. There is not one, not a single piece of what I have that wouldn’t go for several times what I paid for it in times I consider more predictable.
Awww...you’re just trying to cheeer me up....
Better to be a happy pessimist
Coffee beans have been my 2nd-level commodity of choice.
Clean water, food & medical supplies are inherently much more valuable to life than gold.
Then again, if you don’t prioritize life, you might choose gold. Hmmm.
Because in the strictest sense of the word, FDR did not actually "seize" anybody's gold. FDR bought the gold, at $20.67 an ounce.
Of course, "bought" equals "seized" in this case, but judges usually don't care if the average man is hurt by big government.
It's like the theft known as "eminent domain". If the Government wants your land, they - not you - set a price for the land, then they take it.
The same might happen with guns. Some bureaucrat in DC might decide that a Colt 45 is worth, say, $10. Then you can either sell you gun to the Government, or become an outlaw.
The Gold Clause Cases were a series of actions brought before the Supreme Court of the United States, in which the court narrowly upheld restrictions on the ownership of gold implemented by the administration of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to fight the Great Depression. The last in this series of cases is notable as the most recent Supreme Court opinion whose outcome was leaked to the press before the official release of its decision.
The gold was confiscated for “public use” and its owners received “just compensation”. See Amendment 5.
That’s the Constitutional rationale, and that rationale actually holds up to scrutiny. Gold owners did receive dollars in an amount determined by the official, price-controlled value of gold that was the international definition of the dollar. Those dollars were still convertible to silver at the longstanding silver definition of the dollar: 371 4/16 grains of silver to the dollar. Of course, Roosevelt revalued gold shortly after confiscation.
It would be worse today: if gold were confiscated as in 1933, those who surrendered their gold would receive dollars that have no convertibility to silver or anything else.
That episode in history is one of a very long list of outrageous US government actions that began shortly after the Constitution was ratified. It really is a very flexible document when handled by clever jurists, politicians, and lawyers.
Coffee beans have shelf life issues and aren’t sufficiently compact. Plus, coffee prices are very volatile.
Single-malt scotch whiskey is a better solution. It only goes up in price, is immediately useful, and has recognized value in exchange. If the S doesn’t HTF, you can still enjoy it twenty years from now.
* * * The Fascist Business Model came into vogue in 2001. The merger of state with the largest of corporations, primarily the big banks, the big defense contractors, the big news media networks, and the big pharmaceuticals, has created a chokehold around the neck of the nation, without 5% recognizing the function of the model during the strangulation in progress. The merger with the deeply corrupted corporations in power became standard fixtures following the 911 attacks, an elaborate self-destruction of the fundamental structure of the nation and its priorities by the syndicate. Think a massive elaborate bank heist of gold bars, bearer bonds, and diamonds, but such discussion belongs in other venues. . . . During the last twelve years, financial treachery and banking criminality have run rampant in a true global spectacle , their stock & trade. However, treachery with permitted bank and bond fraud, rigged financial markets, naked short ambushes, flash crashes, and lawsuits that convert criminal procedures into standard low business costs all have resulted in profound consequences * * *
It didn’t hurt either when Democrat-installed overseers like Franklin Raines and that 9/11 traitor Jaime Gorelick who ran the fanny/freddie Mae. Likewise with Democrat entrenched operatives in the SEC and elsewhere.
Corrupt bankers/businesses may have done some of this on their own, but it would not have happened if an honest overseer contingent were present.
The problem isn’t capitalism - it is greed and crime.