Posts tagged ‘new normal’

The New Abnormal: Living with Negative Rates

Crazy Lady

Pimco, the $1.5 trillion fixed-income manager located a stone’s throw distance from my office in Newport Beach, famously (or infamously) coined the phrase, “New Normal”. As former Pimco CEO (Mohamed El-Erian) described years ago, around the time of the Great Recession, the New Normal “reflects a growing realization that some of the recent abrupt changes to markets, households, institutions, and government policies are unlikely to be reversed in the next few years. Global growth will be subdued for a while and unemployment high.”

As it turns out, El-Erian was completely wrong in some respects and shrewdly prescient in others. For instance, although the job recovery has been one of the slowest in a generation, 14.5 million private sector jobs have been added since 2010, and the unemployment rate has been more than halved from 10% in early 2009, to below 5% today. However, the pace of global growth has been relatively weak since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which has forced central banks all over the world to lower interest rates in hope of stimulating growth. Monetary policies around the globe have been cut so much that almost 25% of global GDP is tied to countries with negative interest rates (see chart below).

Source: Financial Times

Source: Financial Times

The European central banks started the sub-zero trend in 2014, and the Bank of Japan recently joined the central banks of Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland in negative territory. The negative short-term rate virus has spread further to long-term bonds as well, as evidenced by the 10-Year German Bund (sovereign bond) yield, which crossed into negative territory last week (see chart below).

Source: TradingEconomics.com

Source: TradingEconomics.com

The New Abnormal

The unprecedented post-crisis move to a 0% Fed Funds rate target, along with the implementation of Quantitative Easing (QE) by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, was already pushing the envelope of “normal” stimulative monetary policy. Nevertheless, central banks pushing rates to a negative threshold takes the whole stimulus discussion to another level because investors are guaranteed to lose money if they hold these bonds until maturity.

As we enter this new submerged rate phase, this activity can only be described as abnormal…not normal. Preserving money at a 0% level and losing value to inflation (i.e., essentially stuffing money under the proverbial mattress) is a bitter enough pill to swallow. Paying somebody to lend them money gives “insanity” a good name.

The stimulative objectives of negative interest policies established by central bankers may be purely intentioned, however there can be plenty of unintentional consequences. For starters, negative rates can produce too much of a good thing, in the form of excess borrowing or leverage. In addition, retirees and savers across a broad spectrum of ages are getting crushed by the paltry rates, and bank profit margins (net interest margins) are getting squeezed to boot.

Another unintended consequence of negative rate policies could be a polar opposite outcome to the envisioned stimulative design. Scott Mather, a co-portfolio manager of the $86 billion PIMCO Total Return Fund (PTTRX) is making the case that these policies could be creating more economic contractionary effects than invigorating expansion. More specifically, Mather notes, “It seems that financial markets increasingly view these experimental moves as desperate and consequently damaging to financial and economic stability.”

Eventually, the cheap money deliberately created by central banks will result in a glut of risk-taking and defaults. However, despite all the cries from hawks protesting money printing policies, cautious bank lending behavior coupled with regulatory handcuffs have yet to create widespread debt bubbles. Certainly, oceans of cheap money can create pockets of problems, as I have identified and discussed in the private equity market (see also Dying Unicorns), but supply and demand rule the day at some point.

In the end, as I have repeatedly documented, money goes where it is treated best. Realizing guaranteed losses while trapped in negative rate bonds is no way to treat your investment portfolio over the long-run. In the short-run, the safety and stability of short duration bonds may sound appealing, but ultimately rational and efficient behavior prevails. Why settle for 0% or negative rates when yields of 2%, 4%, and 6% can be found in plenty of other responsible investment alternatives?

Arguably, in this post financial crisis world we live in, we have transitioned from the New Normal to a New Abnormal environment of negative rates. Pundits and prognosticators will continue spewing fear-filled cautionary advice, but experienced, long-term investors will continue taking advantage of these risk averse markets by investing in a quality, diversified portfolio of superior yielding investments. For now, there are plenty of opportunities to choose from, until the next phase of this economic cycle… when the New Abnormal transitions to the New Normalized.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds , but at the time of publishing had no direct position in PTTRX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

June 18, 2016 at 2:50 pm 1 comment

PIMCO – The Downhill Marathon Machine

How would you like to run a marathon? How about a marathon that is prearranged all downhill? How about a downhill marathon with the wind at your back? How about a downhill marathon with the wind at your back in a wheelchair? Effectively, that is what a 30-year bull market has meant for PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Co.) and the “New Normal” brothers (Co-Chairman Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erian) who are commanding the bond behemoth (read also New Normal is Old Normal). Bill Gross can appreciate a thing or two about running marathons since he once ran six marathons in six consecutive days.

This perseverance also assisted Gross in co-founding PIMCO in 1971 with $12 million in assets under management. Since then, the company has managed to add five more zeroes to that figure (today assets exceed $1.2 trillion). In the first 10 years of the company’s existence, as interest rates were climbing, PIMCO managed to layer on a relatively thin amount of assets (approximately $1 billion). But with the tailwind of declining rates throughout the 1980s, PIMCO’s growth began to accelerate, thereby facilitating the addition of more than $25 billion in assets during the decade.  

The PIMCO Machine

For the time-being, PIMCO can do no wrong. As the endless list of media commentators and journalists bow to kiss the feet of the immortal bond kings, the blinded reporters seem to forget the old time-tested Wall Street maxim:

“Never confuse genius with a bull market.”

The gargantuan multi-decade move in interest rates, the fuel used to drive bond prices to the moon, might have something to do with the company’s success too? PIMCO is not exactly selling ice to the Eskimos – many investors are scooping up PIMCO’s bond products as they wait in their bunkers for Armageddon to arrive. Thanks to former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker (appointed in 1979), the runaway inflation of the early 1980s was tamed by hikes he made in the key benchmark Federal Funds Rate (the targeted rate that banks lend to each other). From a peak of around 20% in 1980-1981 the Fed Funds rate has plummeted to effectively 0% today with the most recent assistance coming from current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.

Although these west-coast beach loving bond gurus are not the sole beneficiary in this “bond bubble” (see Bubblicious Bonds story), PIMCO has separated itself from the competition with its shrewd world-class marketing capabilities. A day can hardly go by without seeing one of the bond brothers on CNBC or Bloomberg, spouting on about interest rates, inflation, and global bond markets. As PIMCO has been stepping on fruit in the process of collecting the low-hanging fruit, the firm has not been shy about talking its own book. Subtlety is not a strength of El-Erian – here’s what he had to pimp to the USA Today a few months ago as bond prices were continuing to inflate: “Simply put, investors should own less equities, more bonds, more global investments, more cash and more dry ammunition.”

If selling a tide of fear resulted in a continual funnel of new customers into your net, wouldn’t you do the same thing? Fearing people into bonds is something El-Erian is good at:  “In the New Normal you are more worried about the return of your capital, not return on your capital.” Beyond alarm, accuracy is a trivial matter, as long as you can scare people into your doomsday way of thinking. The fact Bill Gross’s infamous Dow 5,000 call never came close to fruition is not a concern – even if the forecast overlapped with the worst crisis in seven decades.

Mohamed Speak

Mohamed El-Erian is a fresher face to the PIMCO scene and will be tougher to pin down on his forecasts. He arrived at the company in early 2008 after shuffling over from Harvard’s endowment fund. El-Erian has a gift for cryptically speaking in an enigmatic language that could only make former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan proud. Like many economists, El-Erian laces his commentary with many caveats, hedges, and generalities – concrete predictions are not a strength of his. Here are a few of my favorite El-Erian obscurities:

  • “ongoing paradigm shift”
  • “endogenous liquidity”
  • “tail hedging”
  • “deglobalization”
  • “post-realignment”
  • “socialization losses”

Excuse me while I grab my shovel – stuff is starting to pile up here.

Don’t get me wrong…plenty of my client portfolios hold bonds, with some senior retiree portfolios carrying upwards of 80% in fixed income securities. This positioning is more a function of necessity rather than preference, and requires much more creative hand-holding in managing interest-rate risk (duration), yield, and credit risk. At the margin, unloved equities, including high dividend paying Blue Chip stocks, provide a much better risk-adjusted return for those investors that have the risk tolerance and time-horizon threshold to absorb higher volatility.

PIMCO has traveled along a long prosperous road over the last 30 years with the benefit of a historic  decline in interest rates. While PIMCO may have coasted downhill in a wheelchair for the last few decades, this behemoth may be forced to crawl uphill on its hands and knees for the next few decades, as interest rates inevitably rise. Now that is a “New Normal” scenario Bill Gross and Mohamed El-Erian have not forecasted.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in PIMCO/Allianz, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 25, 2010 at 1:29 am 12 comments

The New Abnormal – Now and Then

Mohamed El-Erian, bond manager and CEO of PIMCO (Pacific Investment Management Company, LLC) is known for patenting the terms “New Normal,” a period of slower growth, and subdued stock and bond market returns. Devin Leonard, a reporter from BusinessWeek, is probably closer to the truth when he describes our current financial situation as the “New Abnormal.” Accepting El-Erian description is tougher for me to accept than Leonard’s. Calling this economic environment the New Normal is like calling Fat Albert, “fat.” When roughly 15 million people are out of work, not receiving a steady paycheck, am I suppose to be surprised that consumer spending and confidence is sluggish?

Rather than a New Normal, I believe we are in the midst of an “Old Normal.” Unemployment reached 10.8% in 1982, and we recovered quite nicely, thank you, (the Dow Jones Industrial has climbed from a level about 800 in early 1982 to over 11,000 earlier in 2010). Sure, our economy carries its own distinct problems, but so did the economy of the early 1980s. For example:

  • Inflation in the U.S. reached 14% in 1982 (core inflation today is < 1%) ;
  • The Prime Rate exceeded 20%;
  • Mexico experienced a major debt default;
  • Wars broke out between the U.K./Falklands & Iran/Iraq;
  • Chrysler got bailed out;
  • Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated;
  • Hyperinflation spread throughout South America (e.g., Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil)

As I’ve mentioned before, in recent decades we’ve survived wars, assassinations, currency crises, banking crises, Mad Cow disease, SARS, Bird Flu, and yes, even recessions – about two every decade on average. “We’ve had 11 recessions since World War II and we’ve had a perfect score — 11 recoveries,” famed investor Peter Lynch highlighted last year. Media squawkers and industry pundits constantly want you to believe “this time is different.” Economic cycles have an odd way of recurring, or as Mark Twain astutely noted, “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” I agree.

Certainly, each recession and bear market is going to have its own unique contributing factors, and right now we’re saddled with excessive debt (government and consumers), real  estate is still  in a lot of pain, and unemployment remains stubbornly high (9.5% in June). Offsetting these challenges is a global economy powered by 6 billion hungry consumers with an appetite of achieving a standard of living rivaling ours. Underpinning the surge in developing market growth is the expansion of democratic rule and an ever-sprawling extension of the technology revolution. In 1900, there were about 10 countries practicing democracy versus about 120 today. These political advancements, coupled with the internet, are flattening the world in a way that is creating both new competition and opportunities. The rising tide of emerging market demand for our leading edge technologies not only has the potential of elevating foreigners’ standard of living, but pushing our living standards higher as well.

With the United States economy representing roughly 25% of the globe’s total Gross Domestic Product (~5% of the global population), simple mathematics virtually assures emerging markets will continue to eat more of the global economic pie. In fact, many economists believe China will pass the U.S. over the next 15 years. As long as the pie grows, and the absolute size (not percentage) of our economy grows, we should be happy as a clam as our developing country brethren soak up more of our value-added goods and services.

On a shorter term basis, Leonard profiles several abnormal characteristics practiced by consumers. Here’s what he has to say about the “New Abnormal”:

“The new abnormal has given rise to a nation of schizophrenic consumers. They splurge on high-end discretionary items and cut back on brand-name toothpaste and shampoo. Companies like Apple, whose net income jumped 94 percent in its last quarter, and Starbucks, which is enjoying a 61 percent increase in operating income over the same time frame, are thriving. Mercedes-Benz is having a record sales year; deliveries of new vehicles in the U.S. rose 25 percent in the first six months of 2010. Lexus and BMW were also up. Though luxury-goods manufacturers like Hermýs [sic] and Burberry are looking primarily to Asia for growth, their recent earnings reports suggest stabilization and even modest improvement in the U.S.”

Beyond the fray of high-end products, the masses have found reasons to also splurge at the nation’s largest mall (The Mall of America), home to a massive amusement park and a 1.2 million gallon aquarium. So far this year, the mall has experienced a +9% increase in sales.

So while El-Erian calls for a “New Normal” to continue in the years to come, what might actually be happening is a return to an “Old Normal” with ordinary cyclical peaks and valleys. If this isn’t true, perhaps we will all revert to a “New Abnormal” mindset described by Devin Leonard. If so, I will see you at the Mercedes dealership in my Burberry suit, with $3 latte in hand.

Read Devin Leonard’s Complete New Abnormal Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Mercedes, BMW, Burberry, Hermy’s, SBUX,  or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

August 4, 2010 at 12:12 am 7 comments

New Normal is the Old Normal

By Bruce Wimberly (Contributing Writer to Investing Caffeine)

Pimco bond gurus love to talk about the “new normal” as if there is such a thing in financial markets. The problem with promoting such a view is that it assumes markets are static. Ask John Meriwether and his pack of Nobel Prize winning colleagues at LTCM how static the markets are? The point is nothing is normal about the markets or the economy for that matter. No one has a magic crystal ball that can predict the future and if you did you would certainly not promote it on CNBC. Mohamed El-Erian and his bond fund mavens (see also article on Bill Gross) are the poster children for the “new normal.” I will give them credit it is a great marketing gimmick. Not only does it sound cool but it covers just about everything while packaging it into a nice neat sound bite. Talk about media hounds –does El-Erian actually have time to run Pimco after spending hours getting his make-up ready for the countless interviews he gives each day? And what is up with the 1970ʼs mustache?

In the world according to Pimco the new normal, “reflects a growing realization that some of the recent abrupt changes to markets, households, institutions, and government policies are unlikely to be reversed in the next few years. Global growth will be subdued for a while and unemployment high; a heavy hand of government will be evident in several sectors…. But, hold on, I am getting ahead of myself here. I still have a few more preambles”! Iʼll bet he does.

El-Erian is never short on opinions. As an investor all I really care about is what does this mean for asset prices? Ok, so global GDP is going to slow as consumers and institutions repair balance sheets, government policies are becoming more burdensome, and unemployment stays high. Check. Got it. While I am not El-Erain I think what he really meant to say is, “We have already established our bond positions and if you want to help our shareholders you should follow our example and invest on the short end of the curve and be wary of inflation. The Fed is printing money and history suggests this will end badly.”

As a formal multi-billion dollar fund manager, I happen to agree with the guy. While I think he could have been more direct with his message, there is no way the fed can inflate us out of this mess without their being some pain down the road. The United States cannot print its way to a recovery. Todayʼs long bond auction is just the first shot against the bow. The 4 3/8% coupon went off at a price of $97.6276 for a 4.52% yield versus a 4.49% prior. In other words, the so-called “new normal” really is the old normal and rates are heading higher my friends.

In this so- called “new normal” of higher rates what should an investor do? First, avoid the treasury bubble like the plague. This is where irrational exuberance is occurring the most. Wake-up people. What Pimco bond managers should be telling you is, “Donʼt buy our funds” (except Reits, Tips and Commodities). Bonds are going to get killed. That is the “new normal”. The “new normal” is inflation is your worst nightmare for bonds and bond buyers. Yes, bonds had a great run the last decade and that is the point! History will not repeat itself. The “new normal” is stocks will outperform bonds over the next ten years handily. Yes, stocks might get hit in the short run as rates rise but in the long run they are a far better asset class to weather inflation. The simple truth is businesses can raise prices. That is all you need to know. Donʼt anchor to the last ten years, as Pimco would like you to do. Donʼt worry about slick slogans – like the “new normal”. Just think about all the assets that have poured into Pimcoʼs funds over the last 10-15 and ask yourself “is this likely to continue?”

To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky great investors “skate to where the puck will be”. In my opinion, that leads you away from the mutual fund behemoth that is Pimco and the safe haven of bonds and back into equities. Yes, the S&P 500 has gone nowhere the last 11 years and that is my point…. the “new normal” is the old normal and equities regain their long term return advantage over other asset classes.

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and equity securities in client and personal portfolios at the time of publishing. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 16, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment


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