Sunday, August 16, 2009

More from Bill Gross

More from Bill Gross

"A photograph of Bernard Baruch looms ominously on the far corner of my PIMCO office wall. Vested, with pocket watch and protruding chin thrust prominently toward the observer, this well-known financier of the early 20th century at times appears almost alive. It was Baruch who almost schizophrenically cautioned investors during the stock market’s speculative blow-off in the late 20s that “two plus two equals four and no one has ever invented a way of getting something for nothing.” Three years later during the depths of economic and financial gloom he opined just the opposite: “Two plus two still equals four,” he said, “and you can’t keep mankind down for long.” Homo sapiens, as it turns out, stayed on the deck for much longer than Baruch envisioned – some historians having suggested that it was only war and not the rejuvenating economic spirits of a capitalistic peace that eventually turned the tide – but his words, first of caution and then of optimism, typify the way that fortunes were, and still are, made in the financial markets: Get your facts straight, apply them to the current valuation of the market, take decisive action, and then hold on for dear life as the mob hopefully comes to the same conclusion a little way down the road....

The threat, of course, falls under the broad umbrella of “burden sharing” and is a difficult one to interpret and anticipate, if only because the concept is evolving in the minds of policymakers as well. But clearly, as this financial crisis has morphed from Bear Stearns to FNMA, Lehman Brothers, AIG and now Chrysler, the claims of stockholders and in some cases senior debt holders have suffered. Please hear me on this. That is the way it should be. Capitalism is about risk taking and if you’re not a risk taker, you should have your money in the bank, Treasury bills, or a savings bond, not the levered investment of a bank or an aging automobile company. Let there be no company too big, too important, or too well-connected to fail as long as the systemic health of the economy is not threatened.

Having acknowledged that, however, let me be clear that these risks, long swept under the rug of prior Administrations, are now rising to a boil. The pressure to “survive well” or simply survive period is now clearly shifting to Wall Street as opposed to Main Street. The worm has turned, and our President, whom I voted for and still strongly support, has shed his predecessor’s regal robes for a populist’s cloak.

How does one invest during such a transition? Investors should recognize that this grassroots trend signals – most importantly – an increasing uncertainty of cash flows from financial assets. Not only will redistribution and reregulation lead to slower economic growth, but the financial flows from it will be haircutted and “burden shared” by stakeholders. In turn, the present value of those flows should reflect an increasing risk premium and a diminishing multiple of annual receipts. PIMCO’s Paul McCulley, famous for a catchy phrase or a light-bulb-generating truism, asked a group of clients the other day to compare FedEx and UPS to the U.S. Post Office, if it were a public corporation. “Which one would you pay more for?” he asked. If FedEx deserves a P/E of 12, wouldn’t the value of the Post Office be substantially less? His point, and mine as well, is that as wealth is redistributed, and the invisible private hand of Adam Smith begins to resemble more and more the public fist of government, then asset values should be negatively affected. First comes the haircutting and burden sharing, most recently evidenced by Chrysler and soon to be played out via the stress testing and equity dilution of government ownership of ailing banks. In those footsteps, however, will follow a slower rate of economic growth, not just in the U.S., but worldwide as heretofore libertarian capitalism is bridled, saddled and taught to trot instead of gallop over the investment plains."

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