• bill gross without the mustacheBy Bill Gross
  • The New Normal, previously believed to be bell-shaped and thin-tailed in its depiction of growth probability and financial market outcomes, appears to be morphing into a world of fat-tailed, almost bimodal outcomes.
  • A new duality – credit and zero-bound interest rate risk – characterizes the financial markets of 2012, offering the fat left-tailed possibility of unforeseen policy delevering or the fat right-tailed possibility of central bank inflationary expansion.
  • Until the outcome becomes clear, investors should consider ways to hedge their bets, including: maximizing durations, U.S. Treasury bonds that may potentially offer capital gains, long-term Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS), high quality corporates and senior bank debt, and select U.S. municipal bonds.
How many ways can you say “it’s different this time?” There’s “abnormal,” “subnormal,” “paranormal” and of course “new normal.” Mohamed El-Erian’s awakening phrase of several years past has virtually been adopted into the lexicon these days, but now it has an almost antiquated vapor to it that reflected calmer seas in 2011 as opposed to the possibility of a perfect storm in 2012. The New Normal as PIMCO and other economists would describe it was a world of muted western growth, high unemployment and relatively orderly delevering. Now we appear to be morphing into a world with much fatter tails, bordering on bimodal. It’s as if the Earth now has two moons instead of one and both are growing in size like a cancerous tumor that may threaten the financial tides, oceans and economic life as we have known it for the past half century. Welcome to 2012.
The Old/New Normal
But before ringing in the New Year with a rather grim foreboding, let me at least describe what financial markets came to know as the “old normal.” It actually began with early 20th century fractional reserve banking, but came into its adulthood in 1971 when the U.S. and the world departed from gold to a debt-based credit foundation. Some called it a dollar standard but it was really a credit standard based on dollars and unlike gold with its scarcity and hard money character, the new credit-based standard had no anchor – dollar or otherwise. All developed economies from 1971 and beyond learned to use credit and the expansion of debt to drive growth and prosperity. Almost all developed and some emerging economies became hooked on credit as a substitution for investment in tangible real things – plant, equipment and an educated labor force. They made paper, not things, so much of it it seems, that they debased it. Interest rates were lowered and assets securitized to the point where they could go no further and in the aftermath of Lehman 2008 markets substituted sovereign for private credit until it appears that that trend can go no further either. Now we are left with zero-bound yields and creditors that trust no one and very few countries. The financial markets are slowly imploding – delevering – because there’s too much paper and too little trust. Goodbye “Old Normal,” standby to redefine “New Normal,” and welcome to 2012’s “paranormal.”
2012 Paranormal
This process of delevering has consistently been a part of PIMCO’s secular thesis but “implosion” and “bimodal fat tailed” outcomes are New Age and very “2012ish.” Perhaps the first observation to be made is that most developed economies have not, in fact, delevered since 2008. Certain portions of them – yes: U.S. and Euroland households; southern peripheral Euroland countries. But credit as a whole remains resilient or at least static because of a multitude of quantitative easings (QEs) in the U.S., U.K., and Japan. Now it seems a gigantic tidal wave of QE is being generated in Euroland, thinly disguised as an LTRO (three-year long term refinancing operation) which in effect can and will be used by banks to support sovereign bond issuance. Amazingly, Italian banks are now issuing state guaranteed paper to obtain funds from the European Central Bank (ECB) and then reinvesting the proceeds into Italian bonds, which is QE by any definition and near Ponzi by another.
So global economies and their credit markets instead of delevering and contracting, continue to mildly expand. Yet there is bimodal fat-tailed risk in early 2012 that was seemingly invisible in 2008. Granted, the fat right tail of economic expansion and potentially higher inflation has existed for the 3+ year duration. QEs and 500 billion euro LTROs can do that. At the other tail, however, is the potential for “implosion” and actual delevering. To the extent that most sovereign debt is now viewed as “credit” in addition to “interest rate” risk, then its integration into private markets cannot be assured. If only Italian banks buy Italian bonds, then Italian yields are artificially supported – even at 7%. If so, then private bond markets and non-peripheral banks in particular may refuse to play ball the way ball has been played since 1971– purchasing government debt, repoing the paper at their respective central banks and using the proceeds to aid and assist private economic expansion. Instead, fearing default from their sovereign holdings, any overnight or term financing begins to accumulate in the safe haven vaults of the ECB, Bank of England (BOE) and Federal Reserve. Sovereign credit risk reintroduces “liquidity trap” and “pushing on a string” fears that seemed to have been long buried and forgotten since the Great Depression in the 1930s.