December 6, 2012

Beatles Inspire Bill Gross’ Musings, but Not Investment Picks

Trippy outlook masks serious discussion of structural ‘headwinds’ and investment Picks and Pans

PIMCO founder Bill Gross (Photo: AP) PIMCO founder Bill Gross (Photo: AP)

Is Bill Gross on drugs?

We’ve wondered for some time (based on his monthly outlooks) if the bond chief is losing his mind as a result of old age; slipping a step on the approaching road to age 70. But based on his latest missive, maybe a new, drug-related theory presents itself.

“Strawberry Fields–Forever?” is the title of his December piece, posted to PIMCO’s website, which borrows heavily from The Beatles’ classic. In it, he offers his investing Picks and Pans, which seem chosen with a sober mind, and yet also performs a postmortem of sorts on the latest election, intertwined with Lennon’s sleepy lyrics, which seems delivered with a state of mind much altered.

“Rather than an economic mandate, November’s election was more of social commentary on the Republicans’ habit of living with eyes closed,” Gross begins, referencing the song.

Whoever succeeds President Obama, the next four years will likely face structural economic headwinds that will frustrate the American public, he argues.

“’Happy days are here again’ was the refrain of FDR in the Depression, but the theme song from 2012 and beyond may more closely resemble "Strawberry Fields Forever," as Lennon laments ‘It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out.’”

Why is it so hard to be someone these days, to pay for college, get a good-paying job and retire comfortably, Gross asks rhetorically.

“That really was the economic question of the 2012 election towards which very few specifics were applied from either side.”

They were mum “if only because the real cause of slower economic growth lies hidden in a number of structural as opposed to cyclical headwinds that may be hard to reverse,” he says. “While there are growth potions that undoubtedly can reduce the fever, there may be no miracle policy drugs this time around to provide the inevitable cures of prior decades. These structural headwinds cannot just be wished away as we move ‘forward’ whether it [is] to the right, the left or dead center.”

Noting that in a major policy speech last month, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in effect confirmed PIMCO’s “New Normal” thesis, he notes “there are numerous other structural headwinds that may reduce real growth even below the new normal 2% rate, not only in the U.S. but in developed economies everywhere.”

According to Gross they are:

  1. Debt/Deleveraging: “Developed global economies have too much debt–pure and simple–and as we attempt to resolve the dilemma, the resultant austerity should lower real growth for years to come.

  2. Globalization: “Globalization has been an historical growth stimulant, but if it slows, then the caffeine may wear off. The fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s and the emergence of capitalistic China at nearly the same time was a locomotive of significant proportions. Adding two billion consumers to the menu made for a prosperous restaurant, increasing profits and growth in developed economies despite the negative internal effects on employment and wages. Now, however, these tailwinds are diminishing, producing an airspeed which inexorably slows relative to the standards of prior decades.”

  3. Technology: “Technology has been a boon to productivity and therefore real economic growth, but it has its shady side. In the past decade, machines and robotics have rather silently replaced humans, as the U.S. and other advanced economies have sought to counter the influence of cheap Asian labor.”

  4. Demographics: “Demography is destiny, and like cancer, demographic population changes are becoming a silent growth killer. Numerous studies and common sense logic point to the inevitable conclusion that when an economic society exceeds a certain average ‘age’ then demand slows. Typically the dynamic cohort of an economy is its 20 to 55-year-old age group.”

So what to do?

"If a 2% or lower real growth forecast holds for most of the developed world over the foreseeable future, then it is clear that there will be investment consequences,” Gross writes. "Shown below, as recently published in a Time magazine article by Rana Foroohar, is a PIMCO list of future Picks and Pans based upon these ongoing structural changes."

Picks

  • Commodities like Oil and Gold
  • U.S. Inflation-Protected Bonds
  • High-Quality Municipal Bonds
  • Non-Dollar Emerging-Market Stocks

 Pans

  • Long-Dated Developed-Country Bonds in the U.S., U.K. and Germany
  • High-Yield Bonds
  • Financial Stocks of Banks and Insurance Companies

“As John Lennon forewarned, it is getting harder to be someone, and harder to maintain the economic growth that investors have become accustomed to,” Gross concludes. "The New Normal, like Strawberry Fields will 'take you down' and lower your expectation of future asset returns. It may not last 'forever' but it will be with us for a long, long time.”

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