In his latest monthly commentary, PIMCO chief Bill Gross gets philosophical.
His note is titled Man In The Mirror, and in something we’ve never seen before, there’s a dramatic graphic up top.
So what is this all about?
Basically, Gross is pondering the fact that various legends like himself, Warren Buffett, George Soros, Dan Fuss, and Peter Lynch may have just been products of an incredible period in financial history history over the last few decades. And one day that period may come to an end. And there will be no way to know who was truly great until the “epoch” changes, and one of great investor perfectly makes the change.
Here are a few key paragraphs:
Am I a great investor? No, not yet. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s “Jake” in The Sun Also Rises, “wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” But the thinking so and the reality are often miles apart. When looking in the mirror, the average human sees a six-plus or a seven reflection on a scale of one to 10. The big nose or weak chin is masked by brighter eyes or near picture perfect teeth. And when the public is consulted, the vocal compliments as opposed to the near silent/ whispered critiques are taken as a supermajority vote for good looks. So it is with investing, or any career that is exposed to the public eye. The brickbats come via the blogs and ambitious competitors, but the roses dominate one’s mental and even physical scrapbook. In addition to hope, it is how we survive day-to-day. We look at the man or woman in the mirror and see an image that is as distorted from reality as the one in a circus fun zone.
But let me admit something. There is not a Bond King or a Stock King or an Investor Sovereign alive that can claim title to a throne. All of us, even the old guys like Buffett, Soros, Fuss, yeah – me too, have cut our teeth during perhaps a most advantageous period of time, the most attractive epoch, that an investor could experience. Since the early 1970s when the dollar was released from gold and credit began its incredible, liquefying, total return journey to the present day, an investor that took marginal risk, levered it wisely and was conveniently sheltered from periodic bouts of deleveraging or asset withdrawals could, and in some cases, was rewarded with the crown of “greatness.” Perhaps, however, it was the epoch that made the man as opposed to the man that made the epoch.
My point is this: PIMCO’s epoch, Berkshire Hathaway’s epoch, Peter Lynch’s epoch, all occurred or have occurred within an epoch of credit expansion – a period where those that reached for carry, that sold volatility, that tilted towards yield and more credit risk, or that were sheltered either structurally or reputationally from withdrawals and delevering (Buffett) that clipped competitors at just the wrong time – succeeded. Yet all of these epochs were perhaps just that – epochs. What if an epoch changes? What if perpetual credit expansion and its fertilization of asset prices and returns are substantially altered? What if zero-bound interest rates define the end of a total return epoch that began in the 1970s, accelerated in 1981 and has come to a mathematical dead-end for bonds in 2012/2013 and commonsensically for other conjoined asset classes as well? What if a future epoch favours lower than index carry or continual bouts of 2008 Lehmanesque volatility, or encompasses a period of global geopolitical confrontation with a quest for scarce and scarcer resources such as oil, water, or simply food as suggested by Jeremy Grantham? What if the effects of global “climate change or perhaps ageing demographics,” substantially alter the rather fertile petri dish of capitalistic expansion and endorsement? What if quantitative easing policies eventually collapse instead of elevate asset prices? What if there is a future that demands that an investor – a seemingly great investor – change course, or at least learn new tricks? Ah, now, that would be a test of greatness: the ability to adapt to a new epoch. The problem with the Buffetts, the Fusses, the Granthams, the Marks, the Dalios, the Gabellis, the Coopermans, and the Grosses of the world is that they’ll likely never find out. Epochs can and likely will outlast them. But then one never knows what time has in store for each of us, or what any of us will do in the spans of time.