he whales of our current economic society swim mainly in financial market oceans. Innovators such as Jobs and Gates are as rare within the privileged 1% as giant squid are to sharks, because the 1% feed primarily off of money, not invention. They would have you believe that stocks, bonds and real estate move higher because of their wisdom, when in fact, prices float on an ocean of credit, a sea in which all fish and mammals are now increasingly at risk because of high debt and its delevering consequences. Still, as the system delevers, there are winners and losers, a Wall Street food chain in effect.
These economic and/or financial food chains depend on lots of little fishes in the sea for their longevity. Decades ago, one of my first Investment Outlooks introduced “The Plankton Theory” which hypothesized that the mighty whale depends on the lowly plankton for its survival. The same applies in my view to Wall, or even Main Street. When examining the well-known wealth distribution triangle of land/labor/capital, the Wall Street food chain segregates capital between the haves and have-nots: The Fed and its member banks are the metaphorical whales, the small investors earning .01% on their money market funds are the plankton. Yet similar comparisons can be drawn between capital and labor. We are at a point in time where profits and compensation of the fortunate 1% – both financial and non-financial – dominate wages of the 99% and the imbalances between the two are as distorted as those within the capital food chain itself. “Ninety-nine for the one” and “one for the ninety-nine” characterizes our global economy and its financial markets in 2012, with the obvious understanding that it is better to be a whale than a plankton. Not only do Wall Street and Newport Beach whales like myself have blowholes where they can express their omnipotence as they occasionally surface for public comment, but they don’t have to worry as yet about being someone else’s lunch.
Delevering Threatens Global Monetary SystemYet while the whales have no immediate worries about extinction, their environment is changing – and changing for the worse. The global monetary system which has evolved and morphed over the past century but always in the direction of easier, cheaper and more abundant credit, may have reached a point at which it can no longer operate efficiently and equitably to promote economic growth and the fair distribution of its benefits. Future changes, which lie on a visible horizon, may not be so beneficial for our ocean’s oversized creatures.
The balance between financial whales and plankton – powerful creditors and much smaller debtors – is significantly dependent on the successful functioning of our global monetary system. What is a global monetary system? It is basically how the world conducts and pays for commerce. Historically, several different systems have been employed but basically they have either been commodity-based systems – gold and silver primarily – or a fiat system – paper money. After rejecting the gold standard at Bretton Woods in 1945, developed nations accepted a hybrid based on dollar convertibility and the fixing of the greenback at $35.00 per ounce. When that was overwhelmed by U.S. fiscal deficits and dollar printing in the late 1960s, President Nixon ushered in a new, rather loosely defined system that was still dollar dependent for trade and monetary transactions but relied on the consolidated “good behavior” of G-7 central banks to print money parsimoniously and to target inflation close to 2%. Heartened by Paul Volcker in 1979, markets and economies gradually accepted this implicit promise and global credit markets and their economies grew like baby whales, swallowing up tons of debt-related plankton as they matured. The global monetary system seemed to be working smoothly, and instead of Shamu, it was labeled the “great moderation.” The laws of natural selection and modern day finance seemed to be functioning as anticipated, and the whales were ascendant.
Too Much Risk, Too Little ReturnFunctioning yes, but perhaps not so moderately or smoothly – especially since 2008. Policy responses by fiscal and monetary authorities have managed to prevent substantial haircutting of the $200 trillion or so of financial assets that comprise our global monetary system, yet in the process have increased the risk and lowered the return of sovereign securities which represent its core. Soaring debt/GDP ratios in previously sacrosanct AAA countries have made low cost funding increasingly a function of central banks as opposed to private market investors. QEs and LTROs totaling trillions have been publically spawned in recent years. In the process, however, yields and future returns have plunged, presenting not a warm Pacific Ocean of positive real interest rates, but a frigid, Arctic ice-ladened sea when compared to 2–3% inflation now commonplace in developed economies.
Both the lower quality and lower yields of previously sacrosanct debt therefore represent a potential breaking point in our now 40-year-old global monetary system. Neither condition was considered feasible as recently as five years ago. Now, however, with even the United States suffering a credit downgrade to AA+ and offering negative 200 basis point real policy rates for the privilege of investing in Treasury bills, the willingness of creditor whales – as opposed to debtors – to support the existing system may soon descend. Such a transition occurs because lenders either perceive too much risk or refuse to accept near zero-based returns on their investments. As they question the value of much of the $200 trillion which comprises our current system, they move marginally elsewhere – to real assets such as land, gold and tangible things, or to cash and a figurative mattress where at least their money is readily accessible. “There she blows,” screamed Captain Ahab and similarly intentioned debt holders may soon follow suit, presenting the possibility of a new global monetary system in future years, or if not, one which is stagnant, dysfunctional and ill-equipped to facilitate the process of productive investment.
While all monetary systems are a balance between debtors and creditors, absent voluntary defaults, it is usually creditors that establish the rules for transitions to new regimes. Such was the case in the late 1960s as France’s de Gaulle threatened to empty Ft. Knox unless a new standard was imposed. Now, with dollar reserves widely dispersed in Chinese, Japanese, Brazilian and other surplus nations, it is likely to assume that there will come a point where 2% negative real interest rates fail to compensate for the advantages heretofore gained in buying sovereign bonds. China, for instance, may at the margin shift incremental Treasury holdings to higher returning commodity/real assets which might usher in a gradual or somewhat sudden reconfiguration of our current dollar-based credit system. Having a reduced incentive to purchase Treasuries and curtail Yuan appreciation, the Chinese and their act-alikes may look elsewhere for returns. In addition, previously feared but now tamed private market bond vigilantes like PIMCO have similar choices, if clients with their index-bounded holdings begin to broaden their guidelines. Together, there is the potential for both public and private market creditors to effect a change in how credit is funded and dispersed – our global monetary system. What that will look like is conjectural, but it is likely to be more hard money as opposed to fiat-based, or if still fiat-centric, less oriented to a dollar-based reserve currency. In either case, the transition is likely to be disruptive and an ill omen for seafaring investors.
Reflationary Potential, Low Asset Returns
This transition continues to point towards higher global inflation as a solution to overextended debt-ladened balance sheets – be they public or private. Bond investors therefore should favor quality and “clean dirty shirt” sovereigns (U.S., Mexico and Brazil), for example, as well as emphasize intermediate maturities that gradually shorten over the next few years. Equity investors should likewise favor stable cash flow global companies and ones exposed to high growth markets. Investors in general, however, will be hard pressed to repeat the rather right-tailed performance of the past 30 years, a whale rather than plankton-dominated era based on excessive credit expansion. Deleveraging economies and financial markets present a different and lower returning kettle of fish than did recent credit-dominated decades.
That is because historical leverage was almost always applied by borrowing at a short-term rate and lending longer and riskier at a higher yield. That “spread” practically guaranteed levered returns over and above the policy lending rate during the past 30 years. No matter whether it was at 10%, 5% or eventually approaching 0% the lending spread at a higher yield was threatened only on a temporary basis during cyclical economic contractions brought about by temporary periods of tight money on the part of the Federal Reserve. As long as the economy bounced back, credit extension and its profitability were never threatened.
All of that changed, however, as deleveraging produced narrower yield margins, asset price exhaustion, and a reluctance on the part of lenders to lend (and in many cases – borrowers to borrow). Combined with now negative real interest rates of 200–300 basis points on the front end of the lending curve, the ability to successfully lever financial market returns has been jeopardized. Bond, equity and all financial assets which are structurally bound together by this dynamic must lower return expectations. Maintain a vigilant watch matey!
Plankton Disappearing, Food Chain at RiskThe world’s financial markets currently seem obsessed with daily monetary and fiscal policy evolutions in Euroland which form the basis for risk on/risk off days in the marketplace and the overall successful deployment of carry and risk strategies so important to asset market total returns. Euroland is just a localized tumor however. The developing credit cancer may be metastasized, and the global monetary system fatally flawed by increasingly risky and unacceptably low yields, produced by the debt crisis and policy responses to it. The great white whale lies waiting on the horizon. Investors should sail carefully and the Wall Street 1% should put on their life vests if they expect to weather the inevitable storm that may threaten the first-class cabins they have come to enjoy.
William H. Gross