Sunday, October 16, 2011

‘Fixed’ Income Gets Neutered and Spayed

I have watched in waking nightmarish horror over the past few months as one of the great pillars of investment doctrine has crumbled like a prophetic Nebuchadnezzar statute failing under an assault to its feet of clay. In my dreams, Bob Barker from The Price Is Right has a stack of banks and countries on a glitzy, gaudy stage and advises bidders that the only sure way to lose is to over-bid. And, as mindless mildly obese contestants line up to guess how low they can go, Bob keeps screaming into that crazy little microphone some nonsense about getting neutered and spayed. Finance ministers from the G-20 all gather for photo ops in the background as the band plays Nearer My God To Thee.

Let’s dispense with the punch-line up front. If you have a 401(k), you know, that ‘big government’ siren song inducing you to pump froth into investment banks today for the ‘benefit’ of paying tax to an insolvent government later (wow, I’m out of control here), you have ALREADY LOST. Sitting in your pension allegedly securing your retirement, backing your insurer and your bank, and hijacking your mortgage are over $25.6 trillion dollars of investments that are NOT WORTH WHAT YOU’RE BEING TOLD (according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association or SIFMA, municipals at $2.9 t, treasuries at $8.9 t, mortgage-backed securities at $8.9 t, federal agency debt at $2.7 t, and asset backed debt at $2.2 t – and the “t” stands for trillion). And, while I’m a big fan of debt issued by corporations that are actually making stuff – a sizable chunk of the $7.5 trillion in corporate debt – some of that’s fluffy too. Here’s the bummer. As we saw with the bankruptcy of Harrisburg Pennsylvania this week and as we’ve watched play out over the past several months and years with sovereigns reneging on their fiduciary obligations, this stuff was supposed to be the reliable means of preserving capital and earning a predictable return.

Here’s the problem. Long ago, in a land far, far away, there was a bad piece of legislation drafted that said that, to meet tax-deferral criteria, certain types of investments HAD to be purchased by pension managers and other statutory buyers. Oh, for those of you who don’t know your own history, this investment stalwart goes all the way back to the tax code of 1913! In collusion with the indictable rating agencies (by the way, when are we going to see some of these cases actually move forward as they were complicit in the theft of billions of dollars?), debt issuers continued to produce ‘inventory’ for a market that had to buy. And, as the quality of investments went down, the buyers were forced to keep buying. Why? Because the debt was good? Because somebody was up to repay obligations? NO! They had to keep buying because the law said they had to. And, worst of all, when governments decide to stick it to the bondholders – a rather populist impulse lately – they are sticking it… are you ready for this … to YOU!

‘Fixed’ income is a neutered, one-eyed, three legged mongrel dog at the SPCA currently awaiting euthanasia. It existed long enough to actually effectuate a season of wealth redistribution where prime brokers and agents got rich off your money. And now, now that we’re seeing pensions seeking liquidity for things like retirement and entitlements, the cupboard is bare. PIMCO’s Bill Gross got lambasted by professional investment advisors when he railed against fixed income dogma. Erroneously, market analysts, pundits and other charlatans lined up and pointed at buying statistics to tell him that his quality critique was wrong. Well, here’s some bad news for all you Harvard Business School and University of Chicago promoters. Just because someone buys something doesn’t mean that: a) they want to and; b) they wouldn’t buy something else if they had the chance. A market that is coerced by statute is…, well, a fraud. Bill’s right. Our economy is NOT producing and, if the ‘no-big-government’ Republicans actually catch the bus that they’re chasing at the moment, you will see that, like the Democrats of the current administration, the only way to prop up the illusion of the U.S. economy is for the government to keep spending. Take government procurement and government contractors out of the mix and we’re 25% more unemployed and 30% deeper in Depression.

“Full faith and credit” is an illusion. When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says that the “recovery from the crisis has been much less robust than we had hoped for,” what he means is that the ability to repay our financial obligations has just gotten more remote. To have ‘Fixed Income’ you need that critical component – INCOME!! Otherwise the game is FIXED (and, for those of you who didn’t grow up in an organized crime family, that’s actually a bad thing). In his speech to Congress a few days ago, he issued the most honest words of his tenure: “In sum, the nation faces difficult and fundamental fiscal choices, which cannot be safely or responsibly postponed.” The bummer is that, following that sentence, he provided NO sign of confidence. Instead, he detailed the long-dating of Treasury assets to put their illiquidity safely out of range of the next two Presidential election cycles pushing maturities out to 6 to 30 years instead of the current trove of 3 years and less. And, in an amazing no-confidence vote, after discussing the failing of the housing market to levels not seen since World War II, he announced that the Fed would be investing principal payments in mortgage-backed securities because, clearly, they’re a better bet than the U.S. Treasury?

So why is it that, against all compelling data that evidences that the wheels have come off the bus and it’s careening off the cliff, do ‘fixed income’ promoters still look at investors and tell them that this is where their money is safe? Simple. First, because they’re already taking fees from you – fees that you’ll never recover. And second, because they don’t have the courage or intellect to come up with a more accountable strategy. What investor in fixed income would choose to lose all of their money over the risk that they may have to pay tax on INCOME? Presiding over the extermination of wealth, ‘managers’ are paralyzed by the fear that they may be irrelevant – pawns in a chess game that was rigged in 1913. For the past 13 quarters, household debt has been shrinking. Business and state debts have been relatively flat. This means that the inventory of investment debt has spent 13 quarters being shifted towards sole source production by the worst possible debt originator – countries with flat or negative GDP.

So, if you want to look at why PIMCO’s Bill Gross is correct in his assessment, look at the September 16, 2011 Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds data on pages 60-64. You’ll see that we’ve got a structural problem in that ‘fixed income’ is missing its income (or asset) confidence. Oh, and by the way, for those of you who are big fans of S&P or other index public equities – tiny piece of bad news – there’s a strong correlation between the financial health of these companies and the credit behavior of the government. Bottom line. If the 80’s was the era of out-sourced heavy industry manufacturing; if the 90’s was the era of out-sourced consumer manufacturing; and, if the 00’s was the era of out-sourced services… then the 10’s will be the era of out-sourced investment income. And, for the record, the correlated returns to the positive will come from countries most of you have never visited. So here’s an idea. Before you lose more money from your 401(k) abysmal fixed income collapse, buy a plane ticket to a place with GDP growth in excess of 5% and get yourself a world-view. You may actually find out that there’s a bigger world out there and, heaven forbid, you may just come to like it.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dave,
    I recently talked with a gentleman that passed you along to me, I respect him greatly, and now that I have read through some of your writing I understand why he did so. I would very much like to correspond, talk... connect with you. I am on a true life mission to better our shared world, locally and globally if I can. I have all the passion and purpose I will need, the thing that I am lean on is good people to help me find the way. Funding is an abstract, to me, so even a modicum of guidance of guidance would be of great help. Your obvious expertise may go a long way with my willingness to adapt to what ever form I need to make this purpose possible.
    I appreciate you time and work.
    With respect,
    Christopher Thompson
    The Finding Finite Project


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave