Monday, August 29, 2011

Steven Romick interview with Barron’s

Barron's: What were you up to the past couple of weeks?

Romick: We've been buyers of stocks in the last couple of weeks. Back in 2008, we had a ton of cash we drew down, flexing up our portfolio with distressed debt and high yield, taking it from roughly 5% to 34% four to five months later. Our strength isn't in being a macro investor and trading currencies or foreign bonds. But we think it's important to have a macro backdrop to invest against. Just as importantly, it will drive us away from things we should avoid, which can be as important as the things you own. At times, it limits catastrophic risk. From 2005 to 2007, when we worried about unsustainable home prices and the overlevered consumer and overlevered financial institutions, we didn't own banks, even if they looked cheap at 11 times earnings. Earnings were overstated.

What's worrying you these days?

The thing that Standard & Poor's got right in downgrading our country's debt is that they recognized that fiscal policy is inextricably linked to political process. Nothing about this political process really invites confidence. We think economic growth at best will be slow. Growth expectations for the U.S. were overstated, because if you look at the stimulus, there was no way to know what the permanent benefits would be. My partner Bob Rodriguez calls it Red Bull economics. When we look at a business, we look for companies to make good decisions for the long term, even if it negatively impacts the short term.

The U.S. government doesn't do that. They end up putting parks in that make constituents happy, but don't replace the pipes underneath the roads, because you don't see that. Our political process has been hijacked so that elected representatives and appointed officials are tempted to rewrite economic law based on political need rather than common sense.

What scares us: We continue to borrow from ourselves and from different sovereign nations to live beyond our means. So the biggest fear is this artificially low level of interest rates. Quantitative easing has allowed the government to push the back end of the yield curve down. If you are a lender, why the heck would you lend to the U.S. for a decade at a little over 2%, or for 30 years at 3.5%? One of our big concerns is that rates go up despite the economy—that we don't have complete control of our destiny.

Unlike Japan, we are borrowing from others. If rates jumped 5%, our interest expense as a percentage of our federal budget would jump from its current 6% to the high teens. How much spending would be crowded out because of that?