PIMCO's Bill Gross is out with his latest 2012 investment outlook, entitled "Defense." Given all the equity commentary on the site lately, we thought we'd add some fixed income color.
In his commentary, Gross outlines the core tenets of PIMCO's "offense" from 1981 to 2011. Now, from 2012 onwards, Gross says that "successful investing in a deleveraging, low interest rate environment will require defensive in addition to offensive skills."
To learn what exactly that means, here is Gross' entire commentary below:
- Over the past 30 years, an offensively minded Federal Reserve and their global counterparts were printing money, lowering yields and bringing forward a false sense of monetary wealth.
- Successful investing in a deleveraging, low interest rate environment will require defensive in addition to offensive skills.
- The PIMCO defensive strategy playbook: Recognize zero bound limits and systemic debt risk in global financial markets. Accept financial repression but avoid its impact when and where possible. Emphasize income we believe to be relatively reliable/safe; seek consistent alpha.
My point about pigskin offense and defense is the perfect metaphor for the world of investing as well. Offensively minded risk takers in the markets have historically been the ones who have dominated the headlines and won the hearts of that beautiful gal (or handsome guy). Aside from the rare examples of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, however, the secret to getting rich since the early 1980s has been to borrow someone else’s money, throw some Hail Mary passes and spike the ball in the end zone as if you had some particular genius that deserved monetary rewards 210 times more than a Doctor, Lawyer or an Indian Chief. Nah, I take that back about the Indian Chief. The Chiefs, at least, have done pretty well with casinos these past few decades.
Still, the primary way to coin money over the past 30 years has been to use money to make money. Although the price of it started in 1981 at a rather exorbitantly high yield of 15% for long-term Treasuries, 20% for the prime, and real interest rates at an almost unbelievable 7-8%, the gradual decline of yields over the past three decades has allowed P/E ratios, real estate prices and bond fund NAVs to expand on a seemingly endless virtuous timeline. Books such as “Stocks for the Long Run” or articles such as “Dow 36,000” captured the public’s imagination much like a Montana to Jerry Rice pass that always seemed to clinch a 49ers victory. Yet an instant replay of these past few decades would have shown that accelerating asset prices weren’t due to any particular wisdom on the part of academia or the investment community but an offensively minded Federal Reserve and their global counterparts who were printing money, lowering yields and bringing forward a false sense of monetary wealth that was dependent on perpetual motion. “Rinse, lather, repeat – Rinse, lather, repeat” was in effect the singular mantra of central bankers ever since the departure of Paul Volcker, but there was no sense that the shampoo bottle filled with money would ever run dry. Well, it has. Interest rates have a mathematical bottom and when they get there, the washing of the financial market’s hair produces a lot less lather when it’s wet, and a lot less body after the blow dry. At the zero bound, not only are yields rendered impotent to elevate P/E ratios and lower real estate cap rates, but they begin to poison the financial well. Low yields, instead of fostering capital gains for investors via the magic of present value discounting and lower credit spreads, begin to reduce household incomes, lower corporate profit margins and wreak havoc on historical business models connected to banking, money market funds and the pension industry. The offensively oriented investment world that we have grown so used to over the past three decades is being stonewalled by a zero bound goal line stand. Investment defense is coming of age.
While Wall Street and levered investors have fared better than their Main Street counterparts, it’s not as if they’re in “primetime Deion Sanders” shape either. Conceptualize the historical business model of any financially-oriented firm for the past 30 years and you will see what I mean. Insurance companies, for instance, whether they be life insurance with their long-term liabilities, or property/casualty insurance with more immediate potential payouts, have modeled their long-term profitability on the assumption of standard long-term real returns on investment. AFLAC, GEICO, Prudential or the Met – take your pick – have hired, staffed, advertised, priced and expensed based upon the assumption of using their cash flows to earn a positive real return on their investment. When those returns fall from 7% positive to an approximate 1% negative, then assumptions – and practical realities – begin to change. If these firms can’t cover inflation with historical real returns from their float, then they begin to downsize in order to stay profitable. The downsizing is just another way of describing a transition from offense to defense in a zero bound nominal interest rate world where almost any level of inflation produces negative real yields on investment.
- Recognize downward trend in interest rates and scale duration accordingly.
A. Emphasize income and capital gains. PIMCO Total Return Strategy.
B. Utilize prudent derivative structures that benefit from systemic leveraging – financial futures,
swaps (but no subprimes!)
C. Combine A and B along with careful bottom-up security selection to seek consistent alpha.
Ready, Set, Hut, Hut, Hut –
- Recognize zero bound limits and systemic debt risk in global financial markets. Accept financial repression but avoid its impact when and where possible.
A. Emphasize income we believe to be relatively reliable/safe.
B. De-emphasize derivative structures that are fully valued and potentially volatile.
C. Combine A and B along with security selection to seek consistent alpha with admittedly lower nominal returns than historical industry examples.
So there you have it – the PIMCO playbook. I suppose if I had any common sense I would hold up that clipboard to the front of my mouth like sideline coaches do during big games. Don’t want to chance any of the competition reading our lips to get a heads up on PIMCO’s next offensive play call. But then that’s never been my or Mohamed’s style, given the importance of informing you, our clients, of what we are thinking when it comes to investing your hard-earned capital. Go ahead competitors and read our lips, we’ll just pound that pigskin down the field anyway. Besides, as I’ve pointed out, the emphasis these days should be on the defensive coach. Leveraging has turned into deleveraging. 15% yields have turned into 0% money. The Super Bowls of the future will have their Mannings and Bradys, but the defensive line may record more sacks and make more headlines than ever before.
For other market commentary, we've posted up Jeremy Grantham's 10 investment lessons as well as Oaktree Capital and Howard Marks' latest letter.