Why I disagree with Bill Gross about Carry Trades.

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Bill Gross

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bill Gross has issued a new message to investors in a letter entitled Bon Appetit! He is worried about yield spread compression and refers to the past forty years as a “Gray Swan” event. I disagree. The demise of the carry trade is greatly exaggerated.

I am going to go out on a limb here and offer a mild critique of Mr. Gross’ letter. Admittedly, I am on the thin limb – actually, its more like a leaf… I have never completed a “carry trade” myself, nor am I articulate in the fine points of duration. The one thing I do know is what a yield curve looks like, and I don’t think the shape of that curve will change for many years to come: Up and to the right… The demise of the carry trade is greatly exaggerated.

Bill Gross is a very wise man and a fixed income investor par excellence, but he has also been wrong from time to time.

A couple of general observations about the latest Bill Gross missive:

First, Mr. Gross doesn’t provide any Earth-shattering revelations here (pun intended). With the exception of life insurance and pension fund managers, I don’t think there is anyone left who doesn’t believe that a large measure of returns in the investment world have been the result of steadily declining interest rates post-Volcker.

Second, I don’t believe anyone disagrees that the low hanging fruit of a wide yield spread has been squeezed out due to the proliferation of liquidity. Therefore the probability of risk mis-pricing has risen significantly. Mr. Gross’ point about the danger of illiquid assets is very relevant. I am in the commercial real estate industry and the compression of yields has been breathtaking.

Third, I am very surprised to hear Bill Gross talk of the past 40 years as a one-off “Gray Swan” event. He usually has a fantastic sense of historical context which he seems to disregard in his letter. World capitalism has faced severe disruptions, panics, and most of all – deflation. The last decades of the 1800’s were marked by massive over-investment in railroads and steel (enabled by foreign capital) which caused multiple panics and a severe depression. The Great Depression itself was a period of deflation where the entire banking system ceased to operate because there was no ability to borrow short and lend long. The depositors simply refused to “lend” to the banks at all. The current period, in many ways, is not unprecedented.

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I’m really not that unusual! People confuse me and Alan Greenspan all the time.

Mr. Gross contradicts himself. He says that volatility is very likely in a market with compressed yield spreads, and yet he glosses over the disruptions of the past. He says you will rarely find a 12 month period where bonds had a negative performance. To make this statement assumes that the ebbs and flows of credit markets have been homogeneous. In fact, there have been pockets of massive volatility in credit markets: The 1974 IMF intervention in the UK bond market, the capitulation of New York City’s municipal bonds, the massive defaults of the central american debt crisis of the early 1980’s, Long-Term Capital Management, the Asian and Mexican currency crises, etc were all relatively recent events. Each one of them required highly coordinated international central bank intervention. Each one of them alone could have rendered the 40-year “Gray Swan” analogy useless. Indeed, if the past 40 years is a “Gray Swan”, it is one of artificial nature – entirely managed by central banking intervention. 2016 may be an extreme moment in time, but again, it is not unprecedented.

Here are some specific disagreements I have with Mr. Gross’ position:

1. The playing field of the post-Lehman era is littered with bond managers (including Bill Gross on occasion) who have bet against a reversal in yields, only to find themselves on the wrong side of the trade. Rates have continued to decline.

2. Gross has contradicted himself by recently recommending securities like Annaly Capital (NLY) and the Nuveen Preferred Income Opportunities Fund (JPC), both of which rely on short term leverage to juice long term yields. Are these not carry trades?

3. Three reasons for declining rates show little signs of reversal. Inflation has continued to decline. Indeed, we may well be on the cusp of a Japan-style 20-year+ deflation cycle. Next, the entire banking system relies on the ability to borrow short and lend long at higher rates. The Federal Reserve will do everything in its power to maintain this friendly arrangement for as long as it takes. Finally, the carry-trade referred to by Mr. Gross limits its perspective to the domestic environment. It ignores the other main trend of the past few decades – the demand for US Treasuries as a safe haven and/or the repatriation of export-based dollars. The argument also ignores the desire to borrow money in a currency that is depreciating to obtain stronger dollar yields.

4. To the extent that inflation has the very strong possibility of turning into deflation, holding Treasuries sounds like a decent investment to me. Real yields improve in a deflationary environment. Meanwhile, pricing power at US corporations evaporates. What would you rather own? A piece of paper that can produce a 3% real yield (2% nominal yield) or stock in a commodity-based company that has falsely improved earnings per share through debt-binges for stock repurchases?

You may have to go to Mars to repeat the last 40 years, but the carry trade is going to continue for several more years right here on Earth.

Pension Fund Fantasy: Omaha’s 8% Return Projection

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Omaha is not unique among municipalities across the country – deals cut with workers many years ago have left pension funds well short of money needed for retirement benefits. The shortage has cost Omaha it’s top municipal bond rating and has driven Chicago – the nation’s most egregious offender – to the brink of bankruptcy.

It’s time for the City of Omaha to level with unions and citizens and admit that it’s 8% return projection for the future is a mathematical impossibility.

Today’s World-Herald:

The city expects a return of about 8 percent each year. In 2014, the fire and police pension fund returned 4.9 percent and the civilian fund 5.5 percent, according to annual performance appraisal reports for the funds.

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Let’s start out with how the pension fund managers performed over the past two years, because frankly, its hard to fathom. If you try to “back in” to the portfolio allocation, some weird numbers emerge:

First of all, let’s assume that the City of Omaha is smart enough to follow John Bogle’s advice and put its money in low-cost funds that track the indexes. If the City is paying anything more than 1% to have someone manage the portfolio, it is an outlandish fee and further detracts from the struggling performance. That’s an argument for another day. Let’s stick with the passive formula assumption for now…

In order to have generated a 16.2% return in 2013, the fund would have allocated roughly 33.7% of its money in bonds. Let’s say they went with the biggest option and chose the PIMCO total return bond fund. It was a bad year for Bill Gross and prompted his departure to Janus as the fund returned -1.92%. But don’t fret Omahans, the remaining 66.3% of the portfolio invested in the S&P 500 index would have returned 26.39% in 2013. Thus, for the year, the fund still generated an outstanding 16.2% return in 2013.

But if you apply the same asset allocation assumption to 2014’s numbers, the performance breaks down. PIMCO’s broad based bond fund bounced back and delivered a 4.69% return. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 continued its bull run and advanced by 12.39%. Based on the same allocation weighting at 34/66, the pension fund should have easily turned in a gain of 9.8%, not 5.5%. The only way this 5.5% performance could have occurred is if the managers shifted almost 90% to bonds or made the even-worse decision of holding straight cash in a large portion of the portfolio. The pension manager should be called on the carpet.

The questionable 2014 results notwithstanding, reaching an 8% return assumption will be a virtual impossibility going forward:

First, you have the problem of rolling bond maturities. Assuming the pension fund bought some 30 year treasuries back when rates were north of 10% means that as those bonds reach maturity, those funds have no place to go but lowly 2-4% yields.

Second, if bonds are 34% of the portfolio and a PIMCO-esque fund runs at a typical 100 basis points over treasuries, 3.5% is a good year. What would the 66% of the stocck portfolio have to generate to reach an overall return of 8%?

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Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller has tracked stock market data from 1871 to the present and has shown an average return of about 8.2%.

Aswath Damoradan at NYU has a data series leading back to the late 1800’s showing that stocks have returned approximately 5.74% over the treasury bond. Based on these data points, one will do well to expect a stock return of more than 8% going forward with a Ten Year Treasury yield of 2.15%.

Using the same portfolio weighting noted above, the Omaha’s pension fund expected return should be adjusted to 7% (if not 6.5%!). Denial and compound interest don’t mix well.

If Omaha is looking for a dose of reality, it should look to California where unfunded liabilities are at 50%.  Calpers, the largest pension fund in the US, reduced it’s target rate to 7.5% in 2012. Its own actuary argued for 7.25%.