Capitalism Has Entered A New Era-And Historic Returns Are Gone Forever by John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics

We live in interesting times. We continue to see repercussions from Brexit. The other major players—in Europe, China, and Japan—seem to be in a downward spiral. Not to mention, the bubble-like issues we see in Canada and other parts of the world.

The world is quickly getting far more complex… something that central banks’ (and everybody else’s!) models can’t capture. We are tiptoeing into a period of enormous uncertainty.

Bill Gross addresses these topics in two of his recent letters (I featured them in my free weekly newsletter, Outside the Box). His first deals with the expectations that most investors have about future returns over the long term—as opposed to what reality suggests. Of course, your mileage may vary. It depends on how you choose to create your portfolio. The average investor, however, is at best looking at about a compound 4-5% over the next 10 to 15 years.

And that’s if everything works and we see the top end of the expected returns. Given current bond yields and stock valuations, that outcome may be unlikely.

Bill’s take is not significantly different from what I’ve been writing, but he makes a number of very good points and has data sets that are really worth paying attention to. Plus, Gross is just a fun writer.

His second letter starts with the simple game of Monopoly that we are all familiar with. Bill then begins to develop an analogy to the real economy.

Nowadays, central banks keep increasing the amount of money you get every time you pass Go. If that happens in Monopoly, your investing strategy changes significantly— the price of assets goes up because the supply of money increases at an ever faster rate. Which means that the velocity of money rises until at some point you have a problem. Quoting:

[H]owever with yields at near zero and negative on $10 trillion of global government credit, the contribution of velocity to GDP growth is coming to an end and may even be creating negative growth as I’ve argued for the last several years. Our credit-based financial system is sputtering, and risk assets are reflecting that reality even if most players (including central banks) have little clue as to how the game is played.

Bill is shouting a warning about the viability of the current economic system.

He didn’t quote Yeats, but I will: “The centre cannot hold.”

Bon Appetit!

(Originally published on the Janus Capital website, June 2, 2016)

The economist Joseph Schumpeter once remarked that the “top-dollar rooms in capitalism’s grand hotel are always occupied, but not by the same occupants”. There are no franchises, he intoned — you are king for a figurative day, and then — well — you move to another room in the castle; hopefully not the dungeon, which is often the case. While Schumpeter’s observation has obvious implications for one and all, including yours truly, I think it also applies to markets, various asset classes, and what investors recognize as “carry”. That shall be my topic of the day, as I observe the Pacific Ocean from Janus’ fourteenth floor — not exactly the penthouse but there is space available on the higher floors, and I have always loved a good view. Anyway, my basic thrust in this Outlook will be to observe that all forms of “carry” in financial markets are compressed, resulting in artificially high asset prices and a distortion of future risk relative to potential return that an investor must confront.

Experienced managers that have treaded markets for several decades or more recognize that their “era” has been a magnificent one despite many “close calls” characterized by Lehman, the collapse of NASDAQ 5000, the Savings + Loan crisis in the early 90’s, and so on. Chart 1 proves the point for bonds. Since the inception of the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate or Lehman Bond index in 1976, investment grade bond markets have provided conservative investors with a 7.47% compound return with remarkably little volatility. An observer of the graph would be amazed, as was I, at the steady climb of wealth, even during significant bear markets when 30-year Treasury yields reached 15% in the early 80’s and were tagged with the designation of “certificates of confiscation”. The graph proves otherwise, because as bond prices were going down, the higher and higher annual yields smoothed the damage and even led to positive returns during “headline” bear market periods such as 1979-84, or more recently the “taper tantrum” of 2013. Quite remarkable, isn’t it? A Sherlock Holmes sleuth interested in disproving this thesis would find few 12-month periods of time where the investment grade bond market produced negative returns.

Capitalism, Historic Returns

The path of stocks has not been so smooth but the annual returns (with dividends) have been over 3% higher than investment grade bonds as Chart 2 shows. That is how it should be: stocks displaying higher historical volatility but more return.

But my take from these observations is that this 40-year period of time has been quite remarkable – a grey if not black swan event that cannot be repeated. With interest rates near zero and now negative in many developed economies, near double digit annual returns for stocks and 7%+ for bonds approach a 5 or 6 Sigma event, as nerdish market technocrats might describe it. You have a better chance of observing another era like the previous 40-year one on the planet Mars than you do here on good old Earth. The “top dollar rooms in the financial market’s grand hotel” may still be occupied by attractive relative asset classes, but the room rate is extremely high and the view from the penthouse is shrouded in fog, which is my meteorological metaphor for high risk.

Let me borrow some excellent work from another investment firm that has occupied the upper floors of the market’s grand hotel for many years now. GMO’s Ben Inker in his first quarter 2016 client letter makes the point that while it is obvious that a 10-year Treasury at 1.85% held for 10 years will return pretty close to 1.85%, it is not widely observed that the rate of return of a dynamic “constant maturity strategy” maintaining a fixed duration on a Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate portfolio now yielding 2.17%, will almost assuredly return between 1.5% and 2.9% over the next 10 years, even if yields double or drop to 0% at period’s end. The bond market’s 7.5% 40-year historical return is just that – history. In order to duplicate that number, yields would have to drop to -17%! Tickets to Mars, anyone?

Capitalism, Historic Returns

The case for stocks is more complicated of course with different possibilities for growth, P/E ratios and potential government support in the form of “Hail Mary” QE’s now employed in Japan, China, and elsewhere. Equities though, reside on the same planet Earth and are correlated significantly to the return on bonds. Add a historical 3% “equity premium” to GMO’s hypothesis on bonds if you dare, and you get to a range of 4.5% to 5.9% over the next 10 years,

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