Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bill Gross – February 2011 Investment Outlook: Devil’s Bargain

There are lots of ways to describe money: moolah, lean green, dinero … I memorized one definition of “money” from an economic textbook way back in 1966: “A medium of exchange and a store of value,” it said. Well, yes, I suppose, although it failed miserably in the latter capacity in subsequent years. My primer also neglected to mention the increasingly dominant function that money was to assume in a finance-oriented, capitalistic system: Money can be used to make money. Not that interest rates and biblical usury aren’t millenniums old. I remember a story from Sidney Homer’s history of finance that described how a BC-era borrower would be forced to turn over his wife as collateral upon default – wondering at the time whether that might be an incentive for a future Mesopotamian debt bubble! Still, my textbook was nowhere near contemplating the half century of financial “innovation” that was ahead and how money and its levering was to be the foundation for much of America’s prosperity.

Money would also become the economic and political wedge for profound changes in American society. Fifty years ago, the highest paid and most prestigious professions were that of a doctor or a 707 airline pilot who flew the “golden” route from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Today the yellow brick road begins on Wall Street or the City. Aside from supernova innovators such as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, the money is made from securitizing things instead of booting and rebuilding America. The tallest buildings in almost every major city are banks, with tens of thousands of people shuffling and trading paper for a living. One of this country’s premier investment banks paid each of its 26,000 employees an average of $370,000 in 2010, nearly ten times the take-home pay of other American workers. Almost a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people on Forbes annual richest list make their money from money, whereas only 8% could make that claim in its first issue in 1982, and probably close to 0% when I first read my economic primer in 1966.


To rebalance debt loads and re-equitize financial institutions that should have known better, central banks and policymakers are taking money from one class of asset holders and giving it to another. A low or negative real interest rate for an “extended period of time” is the most devilish of all policy tools. And the asset class holder that it affects, or better yet, “infects,” is the small saver and institutions such as insurance companies and pension funds that hold long-term fixed income assets. It is anyone who holds bonds with coupons that cannot keep up with inflation or the depositor in a local bank who cumulatively holds trillions of dollars in time deposits that don’t earn a real rate of interest. This is the framework that has been created by modern-day policymakers who have innovated far beyond their biblical counterparts. To put it bluntly, they are robbing savers and taking money surreptitiously from longer-term asset holders who are incorrectly measuring future inflation.