"Gross Says Diversify From Dollar as Deficits Surge (Update3)
June 3 (Bloomberg) -- Bill Gross, founder of Pacific Investment Management Co., advised holders of U.S. dollars to diversify before central banks and sovereign wealth funds ultimately do the same amid concern about surging deficits.
The U.S.’s “fortune-producing capabilities seem to be declining, which might suggest that its relative standard of living is doing so as well,” Gross wrote in his June investment outlook posted today on the Newport Beach, California-based firm’s Web site. “If so, the implications are serious.”
Gross, manager of the world’s biggest bond fund, said on May 21 that the U.S. will “eventually” lose its AAA credit rating after Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook on the U.K.’s AAA to “negative” from “stable” amid an escalating ratio of debt-to-gross domestic product. While U.S. marketable debt is at about 45 percent of GDP, annual deficits of 10 percent will push the amount to 100 percent within five years, a level that rating companies and markets view as a “point of no return,” he said.
Government spending will push the budget deficit to $1.75 trillion in the year ending Sept. 30, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s forecast. The gap will be narrowed to “roughly” 3 percent of GDP from a projected 12.9 percent this year, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said June 1.
‘Years to Come’
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said today that large U.S. budget deficits threaten financial stability and the government can’t continue indefinitely to borrow at the current rate to finance the shortfall.
The U.S. growth rate “requires a government checkbook for years to come,” Gross said. Coupled with Medicare and Social Security entitlements, government borrowing could reach 300 percent of GDP, meaning “the Chinese and other surplus nations cannot fund the deficit even if they were fully on board,” he wrote.
China, the largest U.S. creditor, with $767.9 billion of debt, has shifted purchases of Treasuries into shorter-maturity securities amid concern about unprecedented debt sales.
Geithner, speaking yesterday in an interview in Beijing with Chinese state media outlets, said he has “found a lot of confidence” in the U.S. economy during his trip to China.
Investors should position themselves in the front end of the yield curve as long-term Treasury yields likely move higher, steepening the so-called yield curve, Gross wrote.
Gross reduced his holdings of government-related bonds in the $150 billion Total Return Fund in April for the first time since January, according to company data. In addition to Treasuries, the government debt category can include inflation- linked Treasuries, so-called agency debt, interest-rate derivatives and bank debt backed by the FDIC.
The dollar weakened beyond $1.43 against the euro yesterday for the first time in 2009 on bets record U.S. borrowing will undermine the greenback, prompting nations to consider alternatives to the world’s main reserve currency.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may discuss his proposal to create a new world currency when he meets counterparts from Brazil, India and China this month, Natalya Timakova, a spokeswoman for the president, told reporters yesterday. Russia’s proposals for the Group of 20 meeting in London in April included studying a supranational currency.
The U.S. currency climbed 0.8 percent to $1.4186 per euro at 10:13 a.m. in New York, from $1.4303 yesterday, in the biggest intraday advance since May 27. The dollar traded at 95.82 yen, compared with 95.76.
The government has pledged $12.8 trillion to open credit markets and snap the longest U.S. economic slump since the 1930s. The Fed will buy as much as $1.75 trillion in Treasuries and housing-related debt to drive down consumer borrowing costs. That could have “inflationary implications,” Gross said.
“Our expectation is the government won’t be able to exit” from those positions, Gross said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio today. The programs “will be semi-permanent positions on their balance sheets.”
For all the hand-wringing over the dollar’s slide, expanding deficits and declining credit ratings, the bond market shows international demand for American financial assets is as high as ever. The Federal Reserve’s holdings of Treasuries on behalf of central banks and institutions from China to Norway rose by $68.8 billion, or 3.3 percent, in May, the third most on record, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
The Total Return Fund rose 4.8 percent in 2008, beating 93 percent of its peers, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The fund has returned 1.5 percent this year, according to Pimco data.
“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
Balzac was on to something 200 years ago, but to be fair to modern day multi-millionaires, the only real way to accumulate wealth prior to the 18th century was to steal it, or tax it, I suppose, as was the case with kings and their royal courts. It was only with the advent of capitalism and annual productivity gains that entrepreneurs, investors, and risk-takers with luck or pinpoint-timing could jump to the head of the pack and accumulate what came to be recognized as a fortune. Still, the negative connotations persist. I remember a cocktail party in the early 80s where a somewhat inebriated guest engaged me in a debate about the merits of capitalism. “You’re filthy rich,” he said, which struck me as most unfair from a number of angles. First of all, he hadn’t seen anything yet, I thought, and second, I wasn’t quite sure where the “filthy” came from. Resentment that he’d missed out on my presumed good deal, I suppose, and in the process using a hackneyed phrase that was bitter and biting, yet had some context of historical sociological relativity. Still, he might have been on to something there – not about me, hopefully, because I’ve always felt that while PIMCO has prospered, it’s only because its clients have benefitted even more so – but about the developing sense of one-sided, perhaps off-sided wealth generation that was to dominate the next several decades. Granted, we had Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and other true capitalistic dynamos who benefitted society immeasurably. But growing percentages of fortunes were being made by those who could borrow or aggregate other people’s money. Because our economy was still in a relatively early stage of leveraging, those who borrowed money and used it to invest in higher-risk yet higher-return financial or real assets didn’t require a lot of skill, they just needed to be able to convince a bank or an insurance company to lend them some money. After that, the secular wave of leverage would be enough to multiply their meager equity many times over and carry them to a beach where a fortune awaited them much like a pirate’s buried treasure.
Readers who are interested in such things as the Forbes annual list of hoity-toities will have noticed that more and more of them are global, not U.S. citizens. The U.S., in other words, is not producing as much wealth in proportion to the rest of the world. Its fortune-producing capabilities seem to be declining, which might suggest that its relative standard of living is doing so as well. If so, the implications are serious, not just for Donald Trump but for wage earners and ordinary citizens, as reflected in their income levels and unemployment rates. Stockholders, 401(k) investors, and yes, bond managers will be affected too. Last week’s furor over the possibility of an eventual downgrade of America’s AAA rating demonstrates that only too clearly. On the night of May 20, Standard & Poor’s announced a downgrade watch for the United Kingdom and since the U.S. and U.K. are Siamese-connected, financially-levered twins, the implications were obvious: the U.S. might be next. In the space of 48 hours, the dollar declined 2%, and U.S. stocks and long-term bonds were down by similar amounts. Such a trifecta rarely occurs but in retrospect it all made sense: a downgrade would cast a negative light on the world’s reserve currency, and since stocks and bonds are only present values of a forward stream of dollar-denominated receipts, they went down as well.
The potential downgrade, while still far off in the future in PIMCO’s opinion, seemed dubious at first blush. While country ratings factor in numerous subjective qualifications such as contract rights, military might, and advanced secondary education, the primary focus has always been on the objective measurement of debt levels, in this case sovereign debt, as a percentage of GDP. Yet, as shown in Table 1, both the U.S. and the U.K. entered the Great Recession with attractive ratios compared to such grievous offenders (and AA rated) as Japan.
Yet as the markets recognized rather abruptly last week, both countries seem to be closing the gap in record time. To zero in on the U.S. of A., its annual deficit of nearly $1.5 trillion is 10% of GDP alone, a number never approached since the 1930s Depression. While policymakers, including the President and Treasury Secretary Geithner, assure voters and financial markets alike that such a path is unsustainable and that a return to fiscal conservatism is just around the recovery’s corner, it is hard to comprehend exactly how that more balanced rabbit can be pulled out of Washington’s hat. Private sector deleveraging, reregulation and reduced consumption all argue for a real growth rate in the U.S. that requires a government checkbook for years to come just to keep its head above the 1% required to stabilize unemployment. Five more years of those 10% of GDP deficits will quickly raise America’s debt to GDP level to over 100%, a level that the rating services – and more importantly the markets – recognize as a point of no return. At 100% debt to GDP, the interest on the debt might amount to 5% or 6% of annual output alone, and it quickly compounds as the interest upon interest becomes as heavy as those “sixteen tons” in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s famous song of a West Virginia coal miner. “You load sixteen tons and whattaya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Pretty soon you need 17, 18, 19 tons just to stay even and that describes the potential fate of the United States as the deficits string out into the Obama and other future Administrations. The fact is that supply-side economics was a partial con job from the get-go. Granted, from the 80% marginal tax rate that existed in the U.S. and the U.K. into the late 60s and 70s, lower taxes do incentivize productive investment and entrepreneurial risk-taking. But below 40% or so, it just pads the pockets of the rich and destabilizes the country’s financial balance sheet. Bill Clinton’s magical surpluses were really due to ephemeral taxes on leverage-based capital gains that in turn were due to the secular decline of inflation and interest rates that at some point had to bottom. We are reaping the consequences of that long period of overconsumption and undersavings encouraged by the belief that lower and lower taxes would cure all.
The current annual deficit of $1.5 trillion does not even address the “pig in the python,” baby boomer, demographic squeeze on resources that looms straight ahead. Private think tanks such as The Blackstone Group and even studies by government agencies, such as the Congressional Budget Office, promise that Federal spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will collectively increase by 6% of GDP over the next 20 years, leading to even larger deficits unless taxes are increased proportionately. Collectively these three programs represent an approximate $40 trillion liability that will have to be paid. If not, you can add that present value figure to the current $10 trillion deficit and reach a 300% of GDP figure – a number that resembles Latin American economies such as Argentina and Brazil over the past century.
So the rather conservative U.S. government debt ratio shown in Table 1 will likely be anything but in less than a decade’s time. The immediate question is who is going to buy all of this debt? Estimates suggest gross Treasury issuance of up to $3 trillion this calendar year and net offerings close to $2 trillion – almost four times last year’s supply. Prior to 2009, it was enough to count on the recycling of the U.S. trade/current account deficit to fund Treasury borrowing requirements. Now, however, with that amount approximating only $500 billion, it is obvious that the Chinese and other surplus nations cannot fund the deficit even if they were fully on board – which they are not. Someone else has got to write checks for up to $1.5 trillion additional Treasury notes and bonds. Well, you’ve got the banks and even individual investors to sponge up some of the excess, but a huge, difficult to estimate marginal supply will have to be bought. The concern is that this can be accomplished in only two ways – both of which have serious consequences for U.S. and global financial markets. The first and most recent development is the steepening of the U.S. Treasury yield curve and the rise of intermediate and long-term bond yields. While the Treasury can easily afford the higher interest expense in the short term, the pressure it puts on mortgage and corporate rates represents a serious threat to the fragile “greenshoots” recovery now underway. Secondly, the buyer of last resort in recent months has become the Federal Reserve, with its publically announced and near daily purchases of Treasuries and Agencies at a $400 billion annual rate. That in combination with a buy ticket for over $1 trillion of Agency mortgages has been the primary reason why capital markets – both corporate bonds and stocks – are behaving so well. But the Fed must tread carefully here. These purchases result in an expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, which ultimately could have inflationary implications. In turn, nervous holders of dollar obligations are beginning to look for diversification in other currencies, selling Treasury bonds in the process.
The obvious solution to both dollar weakness and higher yields is to move quickly towards a more balanced budget once a sustained recovery is assured, but don’t count on the former or the latter. It is probable that trillion-dollar deficits are here to stay because any recovery is likely to reflect “new normal” GDP growth rates of 1%-2% not 3%+ as we used to have. Staying rich in this future world will require strategies that reflect this altered vision of global economic growth and delevered financial markets. Bond investors should therefore confine maturities to the front end of yield curves where continuing low yields and downside price protection is more probable. Holders of dollars should diversify their own baskets before central banks and sovereign wealth funds ultimately do the same. All investors should expect considerably lower rates of return than what they grew accustomed to only a few years ago. Staying rich in the “new normal” may not require investors to resemble Balzac as much as Will Rogers, who opined in the early 30s that he wasn’t as much concerned about the return on his money as the return of his money.