Photo: Bloomberg TV
Bill Gross, the PIMCO fund manager known as the “Bond King,” is out with his February investment letter, titled “Credit Supernova!“This month, Gross tackles the relationship between credit expansion and real growth. He channels the late economist Hyman Minsky, saying the economy is now in Minsky’s “Ponzi finance” phase, “when additional credit would be required just to cover increasingly burdensome interest payments, with accelerating inflation the end result.”
Gross writes that new credit is providing diminishing returns: “Each additional dollar of credit seems to create less and less heat. In the 1980s, it took four dollars of new credit to generate $1 of real GDP. Over the last decade, it has taken $10, and since 2006, $20 to produce the same result.”
The reason, Gross says, is because more and more of that credit is being channeled into market speculation, driving a wedge between markets and the real economy. “Investment banking, which only a decade ago promoted small business development and transition to public markets, now is dominated by leveraged speculation and the Ponzi finance Minsky once warned against,” he writes.
Below is an excerpt from the letter (emphasis his):
So our credit-based financial markets and the economy it supports are levered, fragile and increasingly entropic – it is running out of energy and time. When does money run out of time? The countdown begins when investable assets pose too much risk for too little return; when lenders desert credit markets for other alternatives such as cash or real assets.
REPEAT: THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS WHEN INVESTABLE ASSETS
POSE TOO MUCH RISK FOR TOO LITTLE RETURN.
Visible first signs for creditors would logically be 1) long-term bond yields too low relative to duration risk, 2) credit spreads too tight relative to default risk and 3) PE ratios too high relative to growth risks. Not immediately, but over time, credit is exchanged figuratively or sometimes literally for cash in a mattress or conversely for real assets (gold, diamonds) in a vault. It also may move to other credit markets denominated in alternative currencies. As it does, domestic systems delever as credit and its supernova heat is abandoned for alternative assets. Unless central banks and credit extending private banks can generate real or at second best, nominal growth with their trillions of dollars, euros, and yen, then the risk of credit market entropy will increase.
The element of time is critical because investors and speculators that support the system may not necessarily fully participate in it for perpetuity. We ask ourselves frequently at PIMCO, what else could we do, what else could we invest in to avoid the consequences of financial repression and negative real interest rates approaching minus 2%? The choices are varied: cash to help protect against an inflationary expansion or just the opposite – long Treasuries to take advantage of a deflationary bust; real assets; emerging market equities, etc. One of our Investment Committee members swears he would buy land in New Zealand and set sail. Most of us can’t do that, nor can you. The fact is that PIMCO and almost all professional investors are in many cases index constrained, and thus duration and risk constrained. We operate in a world that is primarily credit based and as credit loses energy we and our clients should acknowledge its entropy, which means accepting lower returns on bonds, stocks, real estate and derivative strategies that likely will produce less than double-digit returns.
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