Bill Gross: Great traders adapt to changing market epochs

Man in the Mirror

Investing and the success at it are predominately viewed on a cyclical or even a secular basis, yet even that longer term time frame may be too short. Whether a tops-down or bottoms-up investor in bonds, stocks, or private equity, the standard analysis tends to judge an investor or his firm on the basis of how the bullish or bearish aspects of the cycle were managed. Go to cash at the right time? Buy growth stocks at the bottom? Extend duration when yields were peaking? Buy value stocks at the right price? Whatever. If the numbers exhibit rather consistent alpha with lower than average risk and attractive information ratios then the Investing Hall of Fame may be just around the corner. Clearly the ability of the investor to adapt to the market’s “four seasons” should be proof enough that there was something more than luck involved? And if those four seasons span a number of bull/ bear cycles or even several decades, then a confirmation or coronation should take place shortly thereafter! First a market maven, then a wizard, and finally a King. Oh, to be a King.

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.

Authors Dimson, Marsh and Staunton would probably agree. In fact, the title of their book “Triumph of the Optimists” rather cagily describes an epochal 101 years of investment returns – one in which it paid to be an optimist and a risk taker as opposed to a more conservative Scrooge McDuck. Written in 2002, they perhaps correctly surmised however, that the next 101 years were unlikely to be as fortunate because of the unrealistic assumptions that many investors had priced into their markets. And all of this before QE and 0% interest rates! In any case, their point – and mine as well – is that different epochs produce different returns and fresh coronations as well.

I have always been a marginal or what I would call a measured risk taker; decently good at interest rate calls and perhaps decently better at promoting that image, but a risk taker at the margin. It didn’t work too well for a few months in 2011, nor in selected years over the past four decades, but because credit was almost always expanding, almost always fertilizing capitalism with its risk-taking bias, then PIMCO prospered as well. On a somewhat technical basis, my/our firm’s tendency to sell volatility and earn “carry” in a number of forms – outright through options and futures, in the mortgage market via prepayment risk, and on the curve via bullets and roll down as opposed to barbells with substandard carry – has been rewarded over long periods of time. When volatility has increased measurably (1979-1981, 1998, 2008), we have been fortunate enough to have either seen the future as it approached, or been just marginally overweighted from a “carry” standpoint so that we survived the dunking, whereas other firms did not.

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