It is not often you see bond managers openly embrace Ponzi schemes, but that is exactly what Bill Gross did in his post Run Turkey, Run.
There’s another important day next week and it rather coincidentally occurs on Wednesday – the day after Election Day – when either the Donkeys or the Elephants will be celebrating a return to power and the continuation of partisan bickering no matter who is in charge. Wednesday is the day when the Fed will announce a renewed commitment to Quantitative Easing – a polite form disguise for “writing checks.” The market will be interested in the amount (perhaps as much as an initial $500 billion) as well as the targeted objective (perhaps a muddied version of “2% inflation or bust!”). The announcement, however, has been well telegraphed and the market’s reaction is likely to be subdued. More important will be the answer to the long-term question of “will it work?” and perhaps its associated twin “will it create a bond market bubble?”
The Fed’s second round of QE, therefore, more closely resembles an attempted hypodermic straight to the economy’s heart than its mood elevator counterpart of 2009. If QEII cannot reflate capital markets, if it can’t produce 2% inflation and an assumed reduction of unemployment rates back towards historical levels, then it will be a long, painful slog back to prosperity. Perhaps, as a vocal contingent suggests, our paper-based foundation of wealth deserves to be buried, making a fresh start from admittedly lower levels. The Fed, on Wednesday, however, will decide that it is better to keep the patient on life support with an adrenaline injection and a following morphine drip than to risk its demise and ultimate rebirth in another form.
We at PIMCO join with Ben Bernanke in this diagnosis, but we will tell you, as perhaps he cannot, that the outcome is by no means certain. We are, as even some Fed Governors now publically admit, in a “liquidity trap,” where interest rates or trillions in QEII asset purchases may not stimulate borrowing or lending because consumer demand is just not there. Escaping from a liquidity trap may be impossible, much like light trapped in a black hole. Just ask Japan.
Ben Bernanke, however, will try – it is, to be honest, all he can do. He can’t raise or lower taxes, he can’t direct a fiscal thrust of infrastructure spending, he can’t change our educational system, he can’t force the Chinese to revalue their currency – it is all he can do, and as he proceeds, the dual questions of “will it work” and “will it create a bond market bubble” will be answered. We at PIMCO are not sure.
Still, while next Wednesday’s announcement will carry our qualified endorsement, I must admit it may be similar to a Turkey looking forward to a Thanksgiving Day celebration. Bondholders, while immediate beneficiaries, will likely eventually be delivered on a platter to more fortunate celebrants, be they financial asset classes more adaptable to inflation such as stocks or commodities, or perhaps the average American on Main Street who might benefit from a hoped-for rise in job growth or simply a boost in nominal wages, however deceptive the illusion. Check writing in the trillions is not a bondholder’s friend; it is in fact inflationary, and, if truth be told, somewhat of a Ponzi scheme. Public debt, actually, has always had a Ponzi-like characteristic. Granted, the U.S. has, at times, paid down its national debt, but there was always the assumption that as long as creditors could be found to roll over existing loans – and buy new ones – the game could keep going forever. Sovereign countries have always implicitly acknowledged that the existing debt would never be paid off because they would “grow” their way out of the apparent predicament, allowing future’s prosperity to continually pay for today’s finance.
Now, however, with growth in doubt, it seems that the Fed has taken Charles Ponzi one step further. Instead of simply paying for maturing debt with receipts from financial sector creditors – banks, insurance companies, surplus reserve nations and investment managers, to name the most significant – the Fed has joined the party itself. Rather than orchestrating the game from on high, it has jumped into the pond with the other swimmers. One and one-half trillion in checks were written in 2009, and trillions more lie ahead.
The Fed, in effect, is telling the markets not to worry about our fiscal deficits, it will be the buyer of first and perhaps last resort. There is no need – as with Charles Ponzi – to find an increasing amount of future gullibles, they will just write the check themselves. I ask you: Has there ever been a Ponzi scheme so brazen? There has not. This one is so unique that it requires a new name. I call it a Sammy scheme, in honor of Uncle Sam and the politicians (as well as its citizens) who have brought us to this critical moment in time. It is not a Bernanke scheme, because this is his only alternative and he shares no responsibility for its origin. It is a Sammy scheme – you and I, and the politicians that we elect every two years – deserve all the blame.
A Sammy scheme is temporarily, but not ultimately, a bondholder’s friend. It raises bond prices to create the illusion of high annual returns, but ultimately it reaches a dead-end where those prices can no longer go up. Having arrived at its destination, the market then offers near 0% returns and a picking of the creditor’s pocket via inflation and negative real interest rates. A similar fate, by the way, awaits stockholders, although their ability to adjust somewhat to rising inflation prevents such a startling conclusion. Last month I outlined the case for low asset returns in almost all categories, in part due to the end of the 30-year bull market in interest rates, a trend accentuated by QEII in which 2- and 3-year Treasury yields approach the 0% bound. Anyone for 1.10% 5-year Treasuries? Well, the Fed will buy them, but then what, and how will PIMCO tell the 500 billion investor dollars in the Total Return strategy and our equally valued 750 billion dollars of other assets that the Thanksgiving Day axe has finally arrived?
We will tell them this. Certain Turkeys receive a Thanksgiving pardon or they just run faster than others! We intend PIMCO to be one of the chosen gobblers. We haven’t been around for 35+ years and not figured out a way to avoid the November axe. We are a survivor and our clients are not going to be Turkeys on a platter.
Gross openly endorses Bernanke’s admitted Ponzi scheme because “to be honest, all he can do”.
Excuse me for asking but why does the Fed have to do anything? Better yet, why can’t the Fed and politicians admit the truth. The truth is there is no easy way out of this mess, and it is beyond foolish to attempt Ponzi schemes because there is nothing else to try.
Please remember that Ponzi schemes must collapse by definition. Yet Bill Gross arrogantly believes PIMCO can avoid such a collapse even though he also thinks the bond bull market is over. Yes, PIMCO has a great track record over the years, but making money in bond bull markets is a lot different than making money in bond bear markets and collapsing Ponzi schemes.
Fed’s Morning After Pill
The morning after the election the Fed will at long last announce exactly what its QE policy will be. Allegedly the Fed picked that date so as to not interfere in the election, yet the result has been massive speculation in stocks and commodities with economic pundits tossing around ever-increasing QE targets up to $4 trillion dollars.
In hindsight, the Fed’s self-induced guessing game was arguably more election manipulative than if it had done whatever it was going to do in advance. Whether on purpose or not, I suggest the Fed got more bang for the buck by encouraging speculation about what it would or would not do.
Sell the News?
Several weeks ago I suggested it might be a sell the news reaction. Instead, the runup in commodities and equities has been so massive it would not surprise me one bit to see a massive selloff before the news is even announced.
How can anything under $4 trillion not be priced in by now?
Liquidity Traps and Black Holes
For more on liquidity traps please consider Liquidity Traps, Falling Velocity, Commodity Hoarding, and Bernanke’s Misguided Tinkering
Fore more on black holes in which intelligent thoughts struggle to escape, please read Bill Gross’ mind.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock