and believe me, those forecasts require a foghorn warning given current market and economic distortions. Capitalism has entered a new era in this post-Lehman period due to unimaginable monetary policies and negative structural transitions that pose risk to growth forecasts and the historical linear upward slope of productivity.
Here’s my thesis in more compact form: For over 40 years, asset returns and alpha generation from penthouse investment managers have been materially aided by declines in interest rates, trade globalization, and an enormous expansion of credit – that is debt. Those trends are coming to an end if only because in some cases they can go no further. Those historic returns have been a function of leverage and the capture of “carry”, producing attractive income and capital gains. A repeat performance is not only unlikely, it is impossible unless you are a friend of Elon Musk and you’ve got the gumption to blast off for Mars. Planet Earth does not offer such opportunities.
“Carry” in almost all forms is compressed and offers more risk than potential return. I will be specific:
- Duration is unquestionably a risk in negative yielding markets. A minus 25 basis point yield on a 5-year German Bund produces nothing but losses five years from now. A 45 basis point yield on a 30-year JGB offers a current “carry” of only 40 basis points per year for a near 30-year durational risk. That’s a Sharpe ratio of .015 at best, and if interest rates move up by just 2 basis points, an investor loses her entire annual income. Even 10-year U.S. Treasuries with a 125 basis point “carry” relative to current money market rates represent similar durational headwinds. Maturity extension in order to capture “carry” is hardly worth the risk.
- Similarly, credit risk or credit “carry” offers little reward relative to potential losses. Without getting too detailed, the advantage offered by holding a 5-year investment grade corporate bond over the next 12 months is a mere 25 basis points. The IG CDX credit curve offers a spread of 75 basis points for a 5-year commitment but its expected return over the next 12 months is only 25 basis points. An investor can only earn more if the forward credit curve – much like the yield curve – is not realized.
- Volatility. Carry can be earned by selling volatility in many areas. Any investment longer or less creditworthy than a 90-day Treasury Bill sells volatility whether a portfolio manager realizes it or not. Much like the “VIX®”, the Treasury “Move Index” is at a near historic low, meaning there is little to be gained by selling outright volatility or other forms in duration and credit space.
- Liquidity. Spreads for illiquid investments have tightened to historical lows. Liquidity can be measured in the Treasury market by spreads between “off the run” and “on the run” issues – a spread that is nearly nonexistent, meaning there is no “carry” associated with less liquid Treasury bonds. Similar evidence exists with corporate CDS compared to their less liquid cash counterparts. You can observe it as well in the “discounts” to NAV or Net Asset Value in closed-end funds. They are historically tight, indicating very little “carry” for assuming a relatively illiquid position.
The “fact of the matter” – to use a politician’s phrase – is that “carry” in any form appears to be very low relative to risk. The same thing goes with stocks and real estate or any asset that has a P/E, cap rate, or is tied to present value by the discounting of future cash flows. To occupy the investment market’s future “penthouse”, today’s portfolio managers – as well as their clients, must begin to look in another direction. Returns will be low, risk will be high and at some point the “Intelligent Investor” must decide that we are in a new era with conditions that demand a different approach. Negative durations? Voiding or shorting corporate credit? Buying instead of selling volatility? Staying liquid with large amounts of cash? These are all potential “negative” carry positions that at some point may capture capital gains or at a minimum preserve principal. But because an investor must eat something as the appropriate reversal approaches, the current penthouse room service menu of positive carry alternatives must still be carefully scrutinized to avoid starvation. That means accepting some positive carry assets with the least amount of risk. Sometime soon though, as inappropriate monetary policies and structural headwinds take their toll, those delicious “carry rich and greasy” French fries will turn cold and rather quickly get tossed into the garbage can. Bon Appetit!
Just a Game
(Originally published on the Janus Capital website, July 6, 2016)
If only Fed Governors and Presidents understood a little bit more about Monopoly, and a tad less about outdated historical models such as the Taylor Rule and the Phillips Curve, then our economy and its future prospects might be a little better off. That is not to say that Monopoly can illuminate all of the problems of our current economic stagnation. Brexit and a growing Populist movement clearly point out that the possibility of de-globalization (less trade, immigration and economic growth) is playing a part. And too, structural elements long ago advanced in my New Normal thesis in 2009 have a significant role as well: aging demographics, too much debt, and technological advances including job-threatening robotization are significantly responsible for 2% peak U.S. real GDP as opposed to 4-5% only a decade ago. But all of these elements are but properties on a larger economic landscape best typified by a Monopoly board. In that game, capitalists travel around the board, buying up properties, paying rent, and importantly passing “Go” and collecting $200 each and every time. And it’s the $200 of cash (which in the economic scheme of things represents new “credit”) that is responsible for the ongoing health of our finance-based economy. Without new credit, economic growth moves in reverse and individual player “bankruptcies” become more probable.
But let’s start back at the beginning when the bank hands out cash, and each player begins to roll the dice. The bank – which critically is not the central bank but the private banking system– hands out $1,500 to each player. The object is to buy good real estate at a cheap price and to develop properties with houses and hotels. But the player must have a cash reserve in case she lands on other properties and pays rent. So at some point, the process of economic development represented by the building of houses and hotels slows down. You can’t just keep buying houses if you expect to pay other players rent. You’ll need cash or “credit”, and you’ve spent much of your $1,500 buying properties.
To some extent, growth for all the players in general can continue but at a slower pace – the economy slows down due to a more levered position for each player but still grows because of the $200 that each receives as he passes Go. But here’s the rub. In Monopoly, the $200 of credit creation never changes. It’s always $200. If the rules or the system allowed for an increase to $400 or say $1,000, then players could keep on