Friday, November 26, 2010

run turkey run

PIMCO | Now, however, with growth in doubt, it seems that the Fed has taken Charles Ponzi one step further. Instead of simply paying for maturing debt with receipts from financial sector creditors – banks, insurance companies, surplus reserve nations and investment managers, to name the most significant – the Fed has joined the party itself. Rather than orchestrating the game from on high, it has jumped into the pond with the other swimmers. One and one-half trillion in checks were written in 2009, and trillions more lie ahead. The Fed, in effect, is telling the markets not to worry about our fiscal deficits, it will be the buyer of first and perhaps last resort. There is no need – as with Charles Ponzi – to find an increasing amount of future gullibles, they will just write the check themselves. I ask you: Has there ever been a Ponzi scheme so brazen? There has not. This one is so unique that it requires a new name. I call it a Sammy scheme, in honor of Uncle Sam and the politicians (as well as its citizens) who have brought us to this critical moment in time. It is not a Bernanke scheme, because this is his only alternative and he shares no responsibility for its origin. It is a Sammy scheme – you and I, and the politicians that we elect every two years – deserve all the blame.

Still, as I’ve indicated, a Sammy scheme is temporarily, but not ultimately, a bondholder’s friend. It raises bond prices to create the illusion of high annual returns, but ultimately it reaches a dead-end where those prices can no longer go up. Having arrived at its destination, the market then offers near 0% returns and a picking of the creditor’s pocket via inflation and negative real interest rates. A similar fate, by the way, awaits stockholders, although their ability to adjust somewhat to rising inflation prevents such a startling conclusion. Last month I outlined the case for low asset returns in almost all categories, in part due to the end of the 30-year bull market in interest rates, a trend accentuated by QEII in which 2- and 3-year Treasury yields approach the 0% bound. Anyone for 1.10% 5-year Treasuries? Well, the Fed will buy them, but then what, and how will PIMCO tell the 500 billion investor dollars in the Total Return strategy and our equally valued 750 billion dollars of other assets that the Thanksgiving Day axe has finally arrived?

We will tell them this. Certain Turkeys receive a Thanksgiving pardon or they just run faster than others! We intend PIMCO to be one of the chosen gobblers. We haven’t been around for 35+ years and not figured out a way to avoid the November axe. We are a survivor and our clients are not going to be Turkeys on a platter. You may not be strutting around the barnyard as briskly as you used to – those near 10% annualized yields in stocks and bonds are a thing of the past – but you’re gonna be around next year, and then the next, and the next. Interest rates may be rock bottom, but there are other ways – what we call “safe spread” ways –to beat the axe without taking a lot of risk: developing/emerging market debt with higher yields and non-dollar denominations is one way; high quality global corporate bonds are another. Even U.S. Agency mortgages yielding 200 basis points more than those 1% Treasuries, qualify as “safe spreads.” While our “safe spread” terminology offers no guarantees, it is designed to let you sleep at night with less interest rate volatility. The Fed wants to buy, so come on, Ben Bernanke, show us your best and perhaps last moves on Wednesday next. You are doing what you have to do, and it may or may not work. But either way it will likely signify the end of a great 30-year bull market in bonds and the necessity for bond managers and, yes, equity managers to adjust to a new environment.

If a country gets the politicians it deserves, then the same can be said of an investor – you’re gonna get what you deserve. Vote No to Republican and Democratic turkeys on Tuesday and Yes to PIMCO on Wednesday. We hope to be your global investment authority for a new era of “SAFE spread” with lower interest rate duration and price risk, and still reasonably high potential returns. For us, and hopefully you, Turkey Day may have to be postponed indefinitely.