Bill Gross’s big bet against US Treasuries didn’t work out well (latest yield on the 10-year is 2.70%), but nevertheless, as a gigantic bond investor his opinion on debt matters always matters… and obviously he’s pretty underwhelmed by the latest “deal.”
Here’s what scares him the most: $66 trillion in future liabilities:
So, how might this be rectified?
Gross sees four options:
- Balance the budget/growth – The current Congressional compromise is but one small step for fiscal solvency. There is no giant leap for mankind anywhere on the horizon. Trillions of further spending cuts, and yes trillions of tax hikes, are necessary to stabilise our “official” debt/GDP ratio of 90% or so. One important detail to keep in mind: projected deficits in 2012 and 2013 of 7-8% of GDP rely on OMB growth estimates of 3%+ in the next few years. Recent trends give pause to these estimates as does PIMCO’s New Normal, which believes 2% not 3% is closer to reality. If so, deficits move right back up to near-double-digit percentages of GDP. Likewise, should interest rates ever rise from current 2% average levels, a 100 basis point increase raises the deficit by 1% and erases any hoped for gains. Sisyphus would be familiar with this seemingly unsolvable dilemma.
- Unexpected inflation – While markets are global these days, figures sometimes lie and policymakers often figure. Focusing investors’ attention on statistics emphasising “core” or “chain-linked” methodologies can entice investors to stay home, or in the case of foreign nations, to “invest American.” Central bankers, not just in the U.S., but the U.K., have long been arguing for a reversion of headline 3% CPI numbers to the 2% or lower “core” standard expectation. “Patience,” they argue, but “prudence” might be the better watchword. If so, then the expected “unexpected” inflation would mimic the old Roman custom of coin shaving or its substitution with base metals instead of silver or gold. Inflation is the result no matter how you coin it, which puts more money in government coffers to pay their bills and less money in your pocket to pay yours.
- Currency depreciation – High deficits, both fiscal and trade, combined with low interest rates for extended periods of time produce declining currency valuations against more prosperous, and more policy conservative competitor nations. Few Americans are aware that the dollar’s recent 12-month depreciation of over 15% is an explicit tax on their standard of living. Uncle Sam, the government overseer, benefits enormously: one rather clever way for the U.S. to pay its bills to foreign creditors is to pay them in depreciated dollars. The Chinese and other offshore holders wind up getting not only .05% interest on their Treasury Bills, but 12 months later – voila! – their Bills are worth only 85 cents on the dollar in global purchasing power. The Chinese should be reading Shakespeare, not Confucius – especially the second half of “neither a borrower nor a lender be,” when it comes to U.S. dollars.
- Financial Repression via low/negative real interest rates – I have commented on this Carmen Reinhart, commonsensical technique in prior Outlooks. If the Treasury is borrowing money from you or PIMCO at .05% for the next six months and CPI inflation is averaging 3%, then lenders/savers are being shortchanged beyond even rather egregious historical examples. The burden of “sixteen tons” of debt á la Tennessee Ernie Ford is considerably reduced at 5 basis points of annual interest. “Loading” coal or debt in this case at near 0% yields doesn’t make the borrower another day older, nor deeper in debt. Actually it’s a shot of Botox for the borrower, but a shot of lead for the lender. Duck!
By using these four life rafts available to U.S. and other AAA sovereign borrowers, one can almost imagine a half century from now, that they remain solvent – although chastened perhaps with a lower credit rating. Based on historical example at Moody’s and Standard & Poors, it just might take 50 years for them to downgrade U.S. credit, but be that as it may, you and PIMCO as savers and savings intermediaries can take precautionary or even retaliatory measures to preserve purchasing power. favour countries with cleaner “dirty shirts” and higher real interest rates: Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Germany come to mind. Shade equity and fixed income investments away from dollar based indexes towards those of developing nations with stronger growth prospects. Purchase commodity based real assets before reserve surplus nations do. And above all, don’t be lulled to sleep by Congressional law makers that promise a change in Washington. The last change I believed in was on Election Day 2008, and that turned out to be more fiction than reality. Davy Crockett, where are you? You may have been drinkin’ whiskey in those Congressional Chambers and those “bars” may have been half fiction, but you were a coonskin hero of a forgotten age, a hero the likes of which we have yet to see in 21st century Washington. We’re stuck with the new Kings and Queens of a wilder frontier.