Bill Gross’s latest monthly letter is out, and the title is There Will Be Haircuts.
Haircuts, of course, are a popular topic of discussion ever since Cyprus clipped the savings of large depositors in order to recap the banks.
In his latest letter, Bill Gross points argues that there’s no way that governments will ever be able to reduce total debt to GDP unless they find creative ways to clip bondholders.
He comes up with four main ways.
(1) Negative Real Interest Rates – “Trimming the Bangs”
During and after World War II most countries with high debt overloads resorted to artificially capping interest rates below the rate of inflation. They forced savers to accept negative real interest rates which lowered the cost of government debt but prevented savers from keeping up with the cost of living. Long Treasuries, for instance, were capped at 2½% while inflation was soaring towards double-digits. The resulting negative real rates together with an accelerating economy allowed the U.S. economy to lower its Depression-era debt/GDP from 250% to a number almost half as much years later, but at a cost of capital market distortions.
PIMCOToday, central banks are doing the same thing with near zero-bound yields and effective caps on higher rates via quantitative easing. The Treasury’s average cost of money is steadily grinding lower than 2%. If current policies continue to be enforced in future years it will eventually be less than 1% because of the inclusion of T-bill and short maturity financing. The government’s gain, however, is the saver’s loss. Investors are being haircutted by at least 200 basis points judged by historical standards, which in the past offered no QE and priced Fed Funds close to the level of inflation. Large holders of U.S. government bonds, including China and Japan, will be repaid, but in the interim they will be implicitly defaulted on or haircutted via negative real interest rates.
Are Treasuries money good? Yes. But are they good money? Most assuredly not, when current and future haircuts are considered. These rather innocuous seeming (-1%) and
(-2%) real rate haircuts are not a bob or a mullet in hairstyle parlance. More like a “trimming of the bangs.” But at the cut’s conclusion, there’s a lot of hair left on the floor.
(2) Inflation / Currency Devaluation – “the “Don Draper”
Inflation’s sort of like your everyday “Mad Men – Don Draper” type of haircut. It’s been around for a long time and we don’t really give it a second thought except when it’s on top of a handsome head like Jon Hamm’s. 2% ± a year – some say more – but what the heck, inflation’s just like breathing air … you just gotta have it for a modern-day levered economy to survive. Sometimes, though, it gets out of control, and when it is unexpected, a decent size hit to your bond and stock portfolio is a possibility. If our TV idol Don Draper lives another decade or so on the airwaves, he’ll find out in the inflationary 70s. Such was the example as well in the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and in modern day Zimbabwe with its One Hundred Trillion Dollar bill shown below. As central banks surreptitiously inflate, they also devalue their currency and purchasing power relative to other “hard money” countries. Either way – historical bouts of inflation or currency devaluation suggest that your investment portfolio may not be “good as the money” you might be banking on.
PIMCO(3) Capital Controls – the “Uncle Sam Cut”
Uncle Sam with his rather dapper white hair and trimmed beard serves as a good example for this type of haircut, if only to show that even the U.S. can latch on to your money or capital. Back in the 1930s, FDR instituted a rather blatant form of expropriation shown above. All private ownership of gold was forbidden (and subject to a $10,000 fine and 10 years in prison!) if it wasn’t turned into the government. Today we have less obvious but similar forms of capital controls – currency pegging (China and many others), taxes on incoming capital (Brazil) and outright taxation/embargos of bank deposits (Cyprus). Governments use these methods to keep money out or to keep money in, the net result of which is a haircut on your capital or your potential return on capital. Future haircuts might even include a wealth tax. Are gold and/or AA+ sovereign bonds good as money? Usually, but capital controls can clip you if you’re not careful.
PIMCO(4) Outright Default – the “Dobbins”
Ah, here’s my favourite haircut, and I’ve named it the “Dobbins” in honour of this 5-year bond issued in the 1920s with a beautiful gold seal and payable, in dollars or machine guns! Bond holders got neither and so it represents the historical example of the ultimate haircut – the buzz, the shaved head, the “Dobbins.” As suggested earlier, the objective of central banks is to prevent your portfolio from resembling a “Dobbins.” I have tweeted in the past that the Fed is where all bad bonds go to die. That is half figurative and half literal, because central banks are typically limited from purchasing bonds payable in machine guns or subprime mortgages (there have been exceptions and Bloomberg reported that nearly 25% of global central banks are now buying stocks believe it or not)! But by purchasing Treasuries and Agency mortgages they have rather successfully incented the private sector to do their bidding. This behaviour reflects the admission that modern-day developed economies are asset-priced supported. Unless prices can continuously be floated upward, defaults and debt deflation may emerge. Don’t buy a Dobbins bond or a Dobbins-like asset or a bond from a country whose central bank is buying stocks. They probably aren’t “good as money!”