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.
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.
Not only insurance companies but banks suffer from this inability to maintain margins at the zero bound. In the process, they close retail branches that once were assumed to be the golden key to successful banking. Defense! And here’s one of the more interesting anecdotal observations on our current zero-based environment, one to which my investment paragon – Warren Buffett – would probably immediately admit. His business model – and that of Berkshire Hathaway – has long benefitted from what he has described as “free float.” Those annual policy payments, whether for hurricane, life or automobile insurance, have long given him a competitive funding advantage over other business models that couldn’t borrow for “free.” Today, however, almost any large business or wealthy individual can borrow or lever up with minimal interest expense. Buffett’s “Omaha/West Coast” offense is being duplicated around the world thanks to central bank monetary policies, placing an increasing emphasis on stock and investment selection as opposed to business model liability funding. Buffett will succeed based upon his continued strong offensive play calling, but the rules of the game are changing.
The plight of Buffett of course is in some respects the plight of PIMCO or any investment/financially-oriented firm in this new age of the zero bound. And it seems to us at PIMCO that successful investing in a deleveraging, low interest rate environment will require defensive in addition to offensive skills.