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

Bill Gross Bill Gross

I hate crows and my wife Sue hates bugs, but like most married couples we have learned to live with our differences. Crows eat bugs though, and bugs eat bugs, and that scientific observation sets the context for the next few paragraphs of this month’s Investment Outlook.

About those crows: They screech, they jabber, they complain from the treetops and then once on the ground they hop, hop, hop all over the street looking for garbage. Flying seems beyond them – too much effort to flap those ebony wings. They prefer to play chicken with my car rolling into the driveway at 5 mph. “Get out of my way,” they seem to be saying. “We’re probably on the endangered species list and if you hit us, you’re the one that’ll be sorry.” Probably true – damn crows. About those bugs: Sue hates any kind of bug, but especially those with lots of legs. Creepy, crawly legs. Centipedes, Millipedes, even Octapedes and there are no eight-legged bugs. And of course there’s the world’s perennial favorite – the cockroach. Who could love “La Cucaracha?” Not Sue, that’s for sure.

Our hatred of bugs and crows, though, is perhaps too strong of a word. “Dislike” or “not like” might be better. Nature itself is rather neutral when it comes to any living thing – including us humans – so perhaps we Grosses should take a lesson from the grand Mother. And to think of it, perhaps it is nature and its rather incomprehensible neutrality that “bugs” me the most – not crows. Why, I wonder, is it that nature seems so indifferent to life, that it promotes, even encourages the Grim Reaper as a necessary condition for living and evolving? Why must it create multiple examples of a living species and then rather innocently step aside as they voraciously consume one another? Must Darwin and his survival of the fittest be God’s philosophical guidepost? Why couldn’t a loving and theoretically omniscient creator just make it simple as opposed to infinitely complex? Why couldn’t the Mother, for instance, pattern an outcome that produced a pride of one or two perfectly healthy lion cubs as opposed to three or four with flaws – the latter two becoming hyena food because they were too slow or insufficiently hyena-aware. So the hyenas could live, you say? Then why create hyenas in the first place – leave them out of the plan and prevent the needless suffering. Of course we would then probably all become grazing cows, chewing our cuds in a more pastoral but less painful setting. Perhaps – but better a cow, I think, than millions of crows eating billions of bugs. Hindus would agree. If I were the creator I’d do it better, but then I’m not. As for this life – count me in by necessity. I’ll play the game, but reluctantly. My rage and incomprehension at the pain and death of living things – especially two-legged ones – is as old as Mother time herself, but forever fresh and completely unanswerable.

Speaking of questions with no answers: 1) investors wonder what happened to the taper, 2) why the Fed seemed to change its mind and 3) where of course do we go from here? A few days before the September meeting, I tweeted that the Fed would “tinker rather than taper,” which was close to the end result, but still not totally accurate. They refused to budge, with an uncertain economy being the explanation. Ben Bernanke sort of sat back and did nothing, just like Mother Nature with her crows and bugs. The debate though is actually only so much noise in the scheme of things. The Fed will have to taper, cease and then desist someday. They can’t just keep adding $1 trillion to their balance sheet every year without something negative happening – either accelerating inflation, a tanking dollar or a continued unwillingness on the part of corporations to invest because of the resultant low and unacceptable returns on investment. QE (quantitative easing) has to die sometime. Just like Mother Nature, death and creative destruction seem to be part of the Grand Economic Scheme.

What matters most for bond and other investors, though, is not timing of the taper nor the endpoint of QE, but the policy rate: 1) how long it stays where it is, 2) what is the long-term neutral rate in a highly levered economy and 3) can a chastened central bank convince investors that it knows the answer and can be trusted to stick to it?

It’s the policy rate, both spot and forward, that prices markets and drives economies and investment decisions. QEs were simply a necessary medicine for rather uncertain and illiquid times. Now that more certainty and more liquidity have been restored, it’s time for the policy rate and forward guidance to assume control. Janet Yellen, future Fed Chairperson, would agree, as would oft-quoted Michael Woodford, Columbia University professor and 2012 Jackson Hole speaker, who seems to have become the private sector’s philosophical guru for guidance and benchmarks, that will now attempt to convince an investment public that what you hear is what you get.

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