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. ... 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.
Beware the Ides of March, or the Ides of any month in 2015 for that matter. When the year is done, there will be minus signs in front of returns for many asset classes. The good times are over. ... Timing the end of an asset bull market is nearly always an impossible task, and that is one reason why most market observers don’t do it. The other reason is that most investors are optimists by historical experience or simply human nature, and it never serves their business interests to forecast a decline in the price of the product that they sell. Nevertheless, there comes a time when common sense must recognize that the king has no clothes, or at least that he is down to his Fruit of the Loom briefs, when it comes to future expectations for asset returns. Now is that time and hopefully the next 12 monthly “Ides” will provide some air cover for me in terms of an inflection point. ... Even with the recognition of the Minsky Moment in 2008 and his commonsensical reflection that “stability ultimately leads to instability,” investors have continued to assume that monetary (and at times fiscal) policy could contain the long-term business cycle and produce continuing prosperity for investors in a multitude of asset classes both domestically and externally in emerging markets. ... If real growth in most developed and highly levered economies cannot be normalized with monetary policy at the zero bound, then investors will ultimately seek alternative havens. Not immediately, but at the margin, credit and assets are exchanged for figurative and sometimes literal money in a mattress. As it does, the system delevers, as cash at the core or real assets at the exterior become the more desirable holding. The secular fertilization of credit creation and the wonders of the debt supercycle may cease to work as intended at the zero bound.
June Gloom, the fog and clouds that often linger here over the Southern California coast this time of year, appears to have spread to the Federal Reserve. ... We agree that QE must end. It has distorted incentives and inflated asset prices to artificial levels. But we think the Fed’s plan may be too hasty. ... Fog may be obscuring the Fed’s view of the economy – in particular, the structural impediments that will inhibit its ability to achieve higher growth and inflation. Mr. Bernanke said the Fed expects the unemployment rate to fall to about 7% by the middle of next year. However, we think this is a long shot. ... Mr. Bernanke’s remarks indicated that the Fed is taking a cyclical view of the economy. ... Our view of the economy places greater emphasis on structural factors. Wages continue to be dampened by globalization. Demographic trends, notably the aging of our society and the retirement of the Baby Boomers, will lead to a lower level of consumer demand. And then there’s the race against the machine; technology continues to eliminate jobs as opposed to provide them. ... It’s reasonable, of course, for Mr. Bernanke to try to prepare markets for the inevitable and necessary wind down of QE. But if he has to wave a white flag three months from now and say, “Sorry, we miscalculated,” the trust of markets and dampened volatility that has driven markets over the past two or three years could probably never be fully regained. It would take even longer for the fog over the economy to lift.