Bill Gross: Investment Outlook 02.11

Devil’s Bargain by Bill Gross

There are lots of ways to describe money: moolah, lean green, dinero … I memorized one definition of “money” from an economic textbook way back in 1966: “A medium of exchange and a store of value,” it said. Well, yes, I suppose, although it failed miserably in the latter capacity in subsequent years. My primer also neglected to mention the increasingly dominant function that money was to assume in a finance-oriented, capitalistic system: Money can be used to make money. Not that interest rates and biblical usury aren’t millenniums old. I remember a story from Sidney Homer’s history of finance that described how a BC-era borrower would be forced to turn over his wife as collateral upon default – wondering at the time whether that might be an incentive for a future Mesopotamian debt bubble! Still, my textbook was nowhere near contemplating the half century of financial “innovation” that was ahead and how money and its levering was to be the foundation for much of America’s prosperity.

Money has become the economic and political wedge for profound changes in American society. 

Perhaps the most deceptive policy tool to lessen debt loads is the “negative” or exceedingly low real interest rate that central banks impose on savers and debt holders.

Old-fashioned gilts and Treasury bonds may need to be “exorcised” from model portfolios and replaced with more attractive alternatives both from a risk and a reward standpoint.

Money would also become the economic and political wedge for profound changes in American society. Fifty years ago, the highest paid and most prestigious professions were that of a doctor or a 707 airline pilot who flew the “golden” route from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Today the yellow brick road begins on Wall Street or the City. Aside from supernova innovators such as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, the money is made from securitizing things instead of booting and rebuilding America. The tallest buildings in almost every major city are banks, with tens of thousands of people shuffling and trading paper for a living. One of this country’s premier investment banks paid each of its 26,000 employees an average of $370,000 in 2010, nearly ten times the take-home pay of other American workers. Almost a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people on Forbes annual richest list make their money from money, whereas only 8% could make that claim in its first issue in 1982, and probably close to 0% when I first read my economic primer in 1966.

Having been part of this process and even a member of the rogue’s gallery itself, I know one thing for sure: This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon. PIMCO, while Mammonesque, is a company to be proud of. I can say with confidence that there are very few clients who have not benefited from our investment management over the years. Some of the rest of this industry, however, I’m not so sure of: rating agencies that perpetually fail at commonsensical quality judgments, bankers that make loans to subterranean credits and then extend the beggar’s bowl for themselves, and 80% of active money managers that underperform the market. As a profession we have failed miserably at our primary function – the efficient and productive allocation of capital: The S&L debacle of the early 1980s, the Asian crisis, LTCM, dotcoms, subprimes, Lehman and the resurrection, instead of the reformation, of Wall Street, are major sins of the modern era of money. Hang your heads, moneychangers. And no, it is not yet time to move on, as many banking CEOs suggest. How can bond traders make ten, one hundred, one thousand times more money than an engineer or social worker given their dismal historical performance? Why is it that some of today’s doctors are using food stamps while investment banking executives complain about millions of dollars in compensation that might be deferred in case of a future bailout?

Financiers have lost their high ground and, if truth be told, we began to lose it a long time ago when we figured out that money was more than a medium of exchange or a poor substitute for a store of value. We figured out a turbocharged way to make money with money and proclaimed ourselves geniuses in the process. Well, we’re not. We may be categorized as “opportunists,” to be generous, but society’s “paragons” and a legitimate destination for a significant percentage of college graduates? Hardly. To paraphrase Paul Volcker, the only productive invention to come out of the banking industry over the past generation was the ATM.

This country desperately requires a rebalancing of priorities. After readjusting the compensation scales via regulation and/or free market common sense, America needs to anoint a new set of Mensans who can create something more than a cash machine and make this country competitive again in the global marketplace. We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again. We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship. We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up. America requires more than a makeover or a facelift. It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system. It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola. Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul? A devil’s bargain more than likely.

Complete article via PIMCO

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