Bill Gross and Frogs
August 20, 2011 4 Comments
Using the metaphor of frogs Bill Gross explains Financial Repression and the ways of dealing with it.Of course he speaks of the situation in the US but there is no reason why investors in other countries whose governments are struggling with debt can’t learn from him.All said and done not for nothing he is the Bond King!
To quote him “Put a frog in a kettle of boiling water and he’ll jump out faster and further than any of those blue ribbon winners at the Calaveras County jumping frog contest.Put him in a pot at room temperature, however, slowly turn up the temperature to boiling, and you’ll have frog legs for dinner. This latter, more unfortunate toad temporarily adapted to his external environment, which seemed like a practical thing to do, until – well, until he reached 212 degrees at which point he was cooked.”Financial repression is similar to slowly turning up the heat on poor froggy/the bond holder/saver. And the boiling point is when the nominal returns on bonds turns negative.
Financial repression is a term used to describe several measures such as those listed below which governments employ to channel funds to themselves which in a deregulated market would go elsewhere. Financial repression can be particularly effective at liquidating debt.
- Explicit or indirect capping or control over interest rates, such as on government debt and deposit rates.
- Government ownership or control of domestic banks and financial institutions while placing barriers to entry before other institutions seeking to enter the market.
- Creation or maintenance of a captive domestic market for government debt achieved by requiring domestic banks to hold government debt via reserve requirements, or by prohibiting or disincentivising alternative options that institutions might otherwise prefer.
- Government restrictions on the transfer of assets abroad through the imposition of capital controls
These measures allow governments to issue debt at lower interest rates than would otherwise be possible. A low or negative nominal interest rate can help governments reduce debt servicing costs, while a high incidence of negative real interest rates liquidates or erodes the real value of government debt.Such ’macroprudential regulation’ as financial repression might ensure the health of an entire financial system but it also results in a transfer of wealth from savers to borrowers.
Bill gross has another frog story to explain how to deal with financial repression.To quote him “All right fellow frogs, so we’re being repressed and shortchanged in order to allow Uncle Sam to balance its books. Whatta we gonna do about it? “Frogs of the world unite,” as Lenin might have said, and so here’s where I harken back to Mark Twain and my second lesser-told frog story. There was this other frog who instead of being tossed into a pot of hot water was left to cool its heels in a pitcher of cold milk. Unable to jump out, he churned and churned those frog legs until eventually the milk turned into butter and the hardened butter allowed him the platform to leap to froggy freedom! Well, let’s get churnin’, fellow frogs. If the U.S. or the U.K. or any other government is going to attempt to boil us alive, let’s make butter! Butter in this instance is what PIMCO characterizes as “cheap bonds.” Potentially confusing, “cheap bonds” is really a simple concept – sort of like the teeter-totter. Any bond, even a Treasury bond, is composed of several pieces – sort of like an atom with its neutrons, electrons, protons, positrons, neutrinos (whoops, don’t wanna go too far here). There’s an interest rate or yield piece, commonly measured by “duration.” There’s a credit piece, typically referred to as a “spread” when you buy a corporate bond. And there’s a volatility piece, a liquidity piece and other little bits and particles that will go unexplained for now. The important point, though, is that if the government is going to artificially repress yield, then an intelligent frog should focus on the parts of a bond that are less repressed! You can, for instance, produce a 1% expected return in today’s market in a number of ways. Buy a repressed 3-year Treasury note at just under 1%, or purchase an A-rated corporate floating rate note (FRN) with little to no durational risk at a 3-month LIBOR +75 basis points spread, currently returning 1%. Which is the better deal? Well, they both appear to lead you to the same place but our cheap bonds argument would maintain that the FRN gets you there with a lot less risk. The credit piece, in other words, is a safer spread than the duration piece.
Journalists, financial advisors, and perhaps even some clients marvel at how PIMCO can be doing so well in 2011 while being underweight the Treasury/durational component of the bond market. Folks – we’re making butter. If you’re being repressed, our strategy is to churn those legs, get out of the pitcher, and above all stay away from boiling pots of water.“
“We suggest buying “cheap bonds” focusing on “safe spread,” which means buying more floating and fewer fixed rate notes, adding an additional credit component – be it investment grade, high yield, non-agency mortgage or emerging market related – and shading your portfolio in the direction of non-dollar emerging market currencies. Investors shouldn’t give their money away, and at the moment, the duration component of a bond portfolio comes close to doing just that – not because a bear market is just around the corner come July 1, but because it doesn’t yield enough relative to inflation. Come on frogs, make butter, not someone else’s dinner. Buy cheap bonds!”