Bill Gross’ Investment Outlook: March Madness by Bill Gross, Janus Capital Group.
Every year, March Madness reminds me of my own storied basketball career – with more emphasis on stories than a career I will admit, but what else would you expect from a 6 foot tall white guy whose best assets were that he could jump higher than most and whose legs looked good in short shorts. I did start as point guard on a championship team for three years running, but what I remember most was not a last second buzzer beater but the foxy cheerleaders yelling “Bill, Bill, he’s our man – if he can’t do it no one can.” Their cheers, however went silent outside of the gym. They never seemed to say hi in the halls which I found somewhat confusing but nevertheless precedent setting as I transitioned into college at Duke.
Being somewhat of a high school star, I decided to try out for the taxi squad on the freshman team. Duke that year was well stacked with three future All Americans and NBA players but they needed some competition in practice and I was a prospective servant for the greater cause – not Duke – but my chance to show off and eventually get a girl into the backseat of a car for the first time in my life. Neither came to pass as I was cut during the first tryout session and cut frequently as well on second and third dates in parking lots behind the sorority houses.
I found my chance to get even though, when 35 years later I came back to my alma mater on a philanthropic mission and was picked up at the airport by none other than Bucky Waters, the freshman coach who had so coldly and heartlessly cut me from the team. Recognizing Bucky but he not recognizing me I said, “Nice to see you again Buck.” “Did we ever meet?” he asked optimistically in hopes for a close personal connection and a bigger check. Once I said, “In 1962, the day you cut me from the freshman taxi squad.” “Ohooooo I’m so sorry”, he said. “I’m sorry too Buck”, I responded: “that’ll cost the university a few bucks!” We laughed and have been friends ever since.
But that’s not the end of my storied basketball career at Duke. Twelve years ago I attended a summer basketball camp for middle-aged guys at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the site of my humbling yet undeserved dismissal nearly forty years before. The one and only Coach K headed the three-day session and began with an inspirational talk followed by a friendly admonition to have fun, concluding by saying that no one who ever attended the camp for the past 15 years had ever gone home without making a basket. Never that is until Bill Gross signed up. Why my teammates never passed to me I’ll never know – perhaps it was my frequent air balls or the constant turnovers – go figure – but I remember during the last game Coach K called a special play – sort of like the one for that little runt Rudy, who was on the taxi squad for Notre Dame, in the movies. Coach even told the other team to sort of give me a wide berth to the hoop to keep the streak alive. Thirty seconds to go, I got the ball, my great looking legs now covered up by modern day shorts to the knee; lacking any youthful bounce that as a teenager could dunk a basketball; not hearing any sort of encouragement from foxy cheerleaders screaming my name from the sidelines; nevertheless, I dribbled the ball confidently to the hoop with no one in my way – I went up for the gimme layup – it rolled in and around and out. The streak had been broken. “That’ll cost you a few bucks, Coach K”, I disgustedly said as we shook hands after the buzzer. We laughed and commiserated about my unique contribution to Duke Basketball. Like I said, a storied career – full of stories but void of points not only in the parking lot of the Alpha Phi sorority but on the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
If there ever was an economic concept that currently is not a layup, it would be what the future average level of Fed Funds will be. No one really knows and unlike the gimme layup that Coach K provided for me, there are no “gimmes” when it comes to scoring a Fed Funds basket. As we all know, the neutral or natural rate of interest is not a new concept. Irving Fisher back in early 20th century hypothesized that while neutral nominal policy rates could go up or down depending on inflation and cyclical growth rates, that the real natural rate of interest was relatively constant. I think history has disproved this thesis, not only because central banks and govt. fiscal policies have suppressed (and sometimes elevated) that real rate but because of structural changes in real GDP growth rates, demographics, and the globalization of finance amongst others. Greenspan hinted at that with the “irrational exuberance” question that he never answered, and Bernanke got closer with his “global savings glut” but neither of them – nor Janet Yellen and her thousands of historically model driven staff have come very close since. They still believe in their 3¾% nominal blue dots which conflate to a 1¾% real rate of interest that has been in vogue for 30 years now. Yellen herself has admitted that the real neutral rate changes and that it depends on a variety of factors including fiscal and monetary policy, term premiums, equity prices and yield curves – so many as to be impossible to model. When Jim Cramer screamed “they know nothing, they know nothing”, he was being a little unfair but not by much. It was a 3% real rate of interest in the U.S. that broke the levered global economy back in 2006 / 2007; a rate that may have been appropriate 20 years before when credit as a % of GDP was 200% instead of 350%, but not in 2006, when the obvious micro example of a 1% short term teaser rate on a $500,000 home in Modesto, California became a Libor + 3% loan shortly thereafter, and broke the back of the U.S. housing market.
Actually a few economists at the Fed have climbed on board the new neutral train, some as early as 2001 when a paper from Janet Yellen’s own San Francisco Fed authored by Thomas Laubach and John Williams showed the history of a changing U.S. real rate of interest from 4½% in 1965, to which it descended on a smoothing scale to a now (–.35%). Their model is updated quarterly by the way, and while I’m not a believer in historical models per se, I think it’s obvious that the real neutral has changed dramatically as evidenced by real time prices in the bond market. What the new neutral rate will be for the next 5-10 years is however, still up for