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Bill Gross' Latest: "Mainstream America Is Being Slowly Cooked Alive"

While hardly as dramatic as Bill Gross' last letter in which he urged readers to "go to cash" as a result of the "Frankenstein creation" that ZIRP has created, his latest letter "Saved by Zero" takes a calmer stance and taking a page out of Paul Marshall's FT Op-Ed profiled yesterday, urges central banks to "get off zero" as the "developed world is beginning to run on empty because investments discounted at near zero over the intermediate future cannot provide cash flow or necessary capital gains to pay for past promises in an aging society. And don’t think that those poor insurance companies and gargantuan pension funds in the hundreds of billions are the only losers."

His punchline:

"Mainstream America with their 401Ks are in a similar pickle. Expecting 8-10% to pay for education, healthcare, retirement or simply taking an accustomed vacation, they won’t be doing much of it as long as short term yields are at zero. They are not so much in a pickle barrel as they are on a revolving spit, being slowly cooked alive while central bankers focus on their Taylor models and fight non-existent inflation."

We are not so sure about that non-existant inflation: sure, if one ignores healthcare, food, tuition and expecially rental costs, then sure. But let that slide for the time being.

Gross' conclusion: "get off zero and get off quick. Will 2% Fed Funds harm corporate America that has already termed out its debt? A little. Will stock and bond prices go down? Most certainly. But like Volcker recognized in 1979, the time has come for a new thesis that restores the savings function to developed economies that permit liability based business models to survive – if only on a shoestring – and that ultimately leads to rejuvenated private investment, which is the essence of a healthy economy. Near term pain? Yes. Long term gain? Almost certainly. Get off zero now!"

Sure, it makes all the sense in the world... and that's why the Fed won't do it precisely because of the "stock prices going down" part. The Fed clearly confirmed that the stock market mandate is the only one it cares about, and as such it will let Wall Street trample over Main Street any day. Confirming this is the latest Fed Funds projection which has a December rate hike now at just 42% odds, meaning the majority of the market no longer believes the rate hike will come before 2016 (just as Goldman demanded), and is acting accoridngly.

The real question, one not addressed by Gross in this letter, is the dramatic shift in the market's posture, one where a continuation of easy conditions no longer leads to a surge in stocks. It is this that is the biggest threat to the Fed, as the market is now confirming a major easing episode such as QE4 or NIRP may not be what the Econ PhD doctor ordered to get new all time highs.

This is why the Fed is not only trapped, but pushing on a string. And the longer it keeps rates at zero the greater the pain in the long-run.

For now, however, we have many more months in which to debate when, how and why the Fed will finally raise for the first time in what is increasingly looking like a decade.

From Bill Gross of Janus:

Saved by Zero

So the Fed has chosen to hold off on their goal of normalizing interest rates and the ECB has countered with the threat of extending their scheduled QE with more checks and more negative interest rates and the investment community wonders how long can this keep goin’ on. For a long time I suppose, as evidenced by history at least. Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have meticulously documented periods of “financial repression”, long stretches of years and in some cases decades where short-term and even long-term yields were capped and suppressed below the level of inflation. In the U.S. the most recent repressive cycle extended from 1930 to 1979, nearly half a century during which investors on average earned 1.5% less than the rate their principal was eroding due to inflation. It was a savers nightmare.

But then Paul Volcker turned the bond market upside down and ever since (until 2009), financial markets enjoyed positive real yields and a kick in the pants boost to other asset prices, as those yields gradually came down and increased the present value of bonds, stocks and real estate. Low or zero interest rates it seems do wonders for asset prices and for a time even stabilize real economies,but they come with baggage and as zero or near zero becomes the expected norm, the luggage increasingly grows heavier. Model driven central banks seem not to notice. Accustomed to Taylor Rules and Phillips Curves, their commentary is almost obsessively focused on employment statistics and their ultimate impact on inflation. Lost in translation however, or perhaps lost in transition to a New Normal financial economy, is the fact that while 0% or .25% or other countries’ financially suppressed yields might be appropriate  for keeping their economy’s head above water, they act as a weight or an economic “sinker” that ultimately lowers economic growth as well.

No Model will lead to this conclusion. Only the Japanese experience of the last several decades seems to give a hint, but the aging demographics of their society is offered as a convenient excuse for their experience. Zero is never mentioned as a complicit accomplice,
especially since inflation itself has averaged much the same. But models aside, there should be space in an economic textbook or the minutes of a central bank meeting to acknowledge the destructive influence of 0% interest rates over the intermediate and longer term.

How so? Because zero bound interest rates destroy the savings function of capitalism, which is a necessary and in fact synchronous component of investment. Why that is true is not immediately apparent. If companies can borrow close to zero, why wouldn’t they invest the proceeds in the real economy? The evidence of recent years is that they have not. Instead they have plowed trillions into the financial economy as they buy back their own stock with a seemingly safe tax advantaged arbitrage. But more importantly, zero destroys existing business models such as life insurance company balance sheets and pension funds, which in turn are expected to use the proceeds to pay benefits for an aging boomer society. These assumed liabilities were based on the assumption that a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds would return 7-8% over the long term. Now with corporate bonds at 2-3%, it is obvious that to pay for future health, retirement and insurance related benefits, stocks must appreciate by 10% a year to meet the targeted assumption. That, of course, is a stretch of some accountant’s or actuary’s imagination.

Do central bankers not observe that Detroit, Puerto Rico, and soon Chicago, Illinois cannot meet their promised liabilities? Do they simply chalk it up to bad management and inept governance and then return to their Phillips Curves for policy guidance? Do they not know that if zero were to become the long-term norm, that any economic participant that couldn’t print its own money (like they can), would soon “run on empty” as Blackstone’s Pete Peterson once expressed it in describing our likely future scenario? The developed world is beginning to run on empty because investments discounted at near zero over the intermediate future cannot provide cash flow or necessary capital gains to pay for past promises in an aging society. And don’t think that those poor insurance companies and gargantuan pension funds in the hundreds of billions are the only losers. Mainstream America with their 401Ks are in a similar pickle. Expecting 8-10% to pay for education, healthcare, retirement or simply taking an accustomed vacation, they won’t be doing much of it as long as short term yields are at zero. They are not so much in a pickle barrel as they are on a revolving spit, being slowly cooked alive while central bankers focus on their Taylor models and fight non-existent inflation.

My advice to them is this: get off zero and get off quick. Will 2% Fed Funds harm corporate America that has already termed out its debt? A little. Will stock and bond prices go down? Most certainly. But like Volcker recognized in 1979, the time has come for a new thesis that restores the savings function to developed economies that permit liability based business models to survive – if only on a shoestring – and that ultimately leads to rejuvenated private investment, which is the essence of a healthy economy. Near term pain? Yes. Long term gain? Almost certainly. Get off zero now!