Bill Gross: Survival of the fittest in a Fed-leveraged world

But if QE is soon to be out, and guidance soon to be what remains, I think investors should listen and invest accordingly. Not with total innocence, but sort of like a totally hyena-aware lion cub – knowing there’s bad things that can happen out there in the jungle, but for now enjoying the all clear silence of the African plain. In bond parlance, the all clear sign would mean that the Fed believes what it says, and if their guideposts have any credibility, they won’t be raising policy rates until 2016 or even beyond. The critical question to ask in terms of the level and eventual upward guide path of the policy rate is how high a rate can a levered economy stand? How much wood can a woodchuck chuck? How high a rate can a homebuyer handle? No one really knows, but we’re beginning to find out. The increase of over 125 basis points in a 30-year mortgage over the past 6–12 months seems to have stopped housing starts and importantly mortgage refinancings in its tracks. It was the primary “financial condition” that Chairman Bernanke cited in his September press conference that shifted the “taper to a tinker to a chance” that maybe they might do something next time.

The 30-year mortgage rate of course is connected to the policy rate and its pricing in forward space. All yields in composite are what an economy has to hurdle in order to grow at historically hoped-for rates at 2%-3% real and 4%-5% nominal: Treasury yields, mortgage yields, corporate yields and credit card yields, all in composite. Ray Dalio and company at Bridgewater have the concept down pat. The objective, Dalio writes, is to achieve a “beautiful deleveraging,” which assumes minimal defaults and an eventual return of investors’ willingness to take risk again. The beautiful deleveraging of course takes place at the expense of private market savers via financially repressed interest rates, but what the heck. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if the Fed’s (and Dalio’s) objective is to grow normally again, then there is likely no more beautiful or deleveraging solution than one that is accomplished via abnormally low interest rates for a long, long time. It is PIMCO’s belief that Yellen, Woodford and Dalio are right. If you want to trust one thing and one thing only, trust that once QE is gone and the policy rate becomes the focus, that fed funds will then stay lower than expected for a long, long time. Right now the market (and the Fed forecasts) expects fed funds to be 1% higher by late 2015 and 1% higher still by December 2016. Bet against that.

The reason to place your bet on the “don’t come” 2016 line is what we have just experienced over the past few months. We have seen a 3% Treasury yield and a 4½% 30-year mortgage rate and the economy peeked its head out its hole like a groundhog on its special day and decided to go back inside for another metaphorical six weeks. No spring or summer in sight at those yields. The U.S. (and global economy) may have to get used to financially repressive – and therefore low policy rates – for decades to come. As the accompanying chart shows, the last time the U.S. economy was this highly levered (early 1940s) it took over 25 years of 10-year Treasury rates averaging 3% less than nominal GDP to accomplish a “beautiful deleveraging.” That would place the 10-year Treasury at close to 1% and the policy rate at 25 basis points until sometime around 2035! I’m not gonna stick my neck out for that – April, May and June of 2013 have taught me a lesson that low yields can become high yields almost overnight. But they should stay abnormally low. A highly levered U.S. and global economy cannot deleverage “beautifully” without repressive future policy rates, which in turn help to contain 5s and 10s although with much less confidence and more volatility as investors have seen recently.

Investment Implications In betting on a lower policy rate than now priced into markets, a bond investor should expect a certain pastoral quietude in future years, much like that grazing cow, I suppose. Not that exciting, but what the hay, it’s an existence! Portfolios should emphasize front end maturity positions that are stabilized by the Fed’s forward guidance as well as volatility sales explicitly priced in 30-year agency mortgages. Because of the inflationary intention of low policy rates, TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) and the avoidance of anything compositely longer than say 7–10 years of maturity should be favored (long liability structures such as pension funds excepted). PIMCO believes that such a modeled portfolio could likely return 4% in future years.

A bond investor’s focus must simplistically be this: In this new age where short-term yields cannot go lower, let the yield curve, volatility and acceptably priced credit spreads be your North Star. Duration and its empowering carry are fading from the nighttime sky, especially for 10- and 30-year maturities. Mother Nature nor Mother Market cares not a whit for your losses nor your hoped for double-digit return from an equity/bond portfolio that is priced for much less. Be a contented cow, not a voracious crow, and graze wisely with increasing certainty that the Fed and its forward guidance is your best bet for survival.

"Survival Speed Read"

1) Focus on front-end yields, because the Fed can’t raise policy rates in a levered economy.

2) Respect all living things, even crows and bugs.

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