Pimco's Bill Gross Sees 2010 as Year of Reckoning
Pimco managing director Bill Gross not only oversees the world's biggest bond fund, his views often sway markets. In a late December interview with TIME's John Curran, Gross pointed to the second half of 2010 as a period when investors large and small will reckon with a new reality of poor economic growth and a Federal Reserve that is hard pressed to offer much help.
TIME: Where do you see the economy going over the next 6 to 12 months?
Bill Gross: The economy should be relatively strong in the first half of 2010 then weaken in the second half. That's not to say we'll return to recession but we'll see weakness as opposed to a continuation of what will probably be a decent first half.
What will make the first half of 2010 so good?
The first half will be dominated by government stimulus and by inventory accumulation or a lack of [inventory] liquidation among businesses. I expect nothing from consumer [spending] and nothing really from housing or really any of the standard cyclical leading sectors. It's hard to put a number on GDP growth rates, but let's say 4% in the first half and then 2% in the second half, which would basically call for some additional help.
You're talking about a second shot of federal stimulus?
Yes, something else is probably needed if the [government's] thrust is really reducing unemployment below double digits and re-normalizing the economy.
What does this say about the Federal Reserve's hopes to start pulling its added liquidity out of the markets, either by raising short-term rates or just getting out of buying bonds, which has been keeping long rates low?
I think the Fed's statements suggest that they really want to exit in some fashion from the buying program. The first step in that direction, logically, would be to stop buying and our sense is that they're at least going to try that. But based on our forecasts for the second half of the year they may have to re-initiate it, and that will be difficult to do once they stop because it then becomes a political hot potato.
All that said, I think they'll stop buying mortgage agency securities, and the trillion-and-a-half dollar check that's been written over the past 9 to 12 months basically disappears. It's significant from the standpoint of interest rates and interest rate spreads in certain sectors. And I would even go so far as to say it might be a mistake.
Because they might have to restart the buying program later?
Yes, I think the Fed wonders about this as well. But you have to understand that the Fed's probably under political pressure — such as the hearings for new regulation of the Fed, the growing public unease about the supersized Fed balance sheet, etc.. The Fed's expanded balance sheet is not something that I consider to be a problem, but I think the market does — and so the Fed will probably be working in the direction of pulling some of the liquidity out of the marketplace. They won't sell — it's a near impossibility to unload what they've purchased over past 12 months. But they'll at least stop buying.
Won't that put upward pressure on interest rates?
I think it will. I mean the mortgage market would be your first place to look in terms of something that's overvalued that would become normalized. Nobody knows what the Fed's buying is worth — we think about half a percentage point on rates, but we don't know.
But secondly, there's a ripple affect. Just speaking about Pimco's general portfolio strategy, we've sold our agency mortgage securities, Fannie and Freddie, in the billions to the willing check of the Fed. They're buying a trillion dollars of them, or have over the past 9-12 months, and so we sold them a lot of ours. Now, what did we do with the money? We bought Treasuries, we bought corporate bonds, and so the bond markets in general have benefited, as have stocks because this available money effectively flows through the capital markets. So it's a trillion-and-a-half dollar check that won't be there as the Fed withdraws from the market. How that affects the markets, I just don't know. I'm not eagerly anticipating the answer, but I think it holds some surprises in 2010, not just in mortgage securities but stocks as well. We could miss the money, put it that way.
Given your scenario of weakness later in 2010, will there be a premium on safety, like Treasury bonds and notes?
I'd be careful about this continuing assumption that U.S. Treasuries are the place to go. There are a number of reasons to have doubts about Treasuries, not just because of America's sovereign risk but also from the standpoint of an over-owned currency [the dollar]. Add onto those concerns the comments from Chinese authorities and others. They that haven't said they're up to their neck in Treasuries, but you know they're getting close.
So maybe cash becomes the best asset class of 2010?
I'm not being wishy-washy here but cash doesn't earn anything. There's the Will Rogers quote about being more concerned about the return of your money, but you also have to be concerned about the return on your money and there's nothing [being paid] by cash and Treasury bills. At Pimco we would probably try and substitute for our Treasuries with sovereign bonds of potentially higher quality. Germany looks interesting to us. Germany has problems, but it's in a much better budget situation than the U.S. because of a constitutional amendment three months ago that forces a balanced budget in four years.
Given all the crosscurrents, what will the investor's world like in the years ahead?
In a new "normal" world growth will be half of what it was, profit growth will be half of what it was and returns on almost all assets — including bonds — will be half of what we've grown used to. Further, the U.S. economy and other [developed] economies have provided as a whole 7% to 9% returns over the past 10, 20 years, and investors got used to that. That's one of the reasons why states and pension funds with the long-term liabilities matched to expectations for double-digit types of returns are facing problems; now they are suddenly having to come to grips with the potential reality of half-sized returns. I think increasingly in 2010 the market will begin to adjust to that.
Over the past six to nine months, the 60% pop off the bottom not just for stocks but for high-yield bonds, etc., is indicative of a return in perspective to the old normal as opposed to the new normal. We think that 2010 will be tempered, and that doesn't mean bear markets but it does mean a growing realization that we have a lot of problems and the markets aren't necessarily priced for it.
Would a second federal stimulus package improve your outlook?
It would help the economy and if applied through Fed programs in terms of outright purchases of assets, yes, I think it would help the markets. I do sort of expect another stimulus program in 2010 at some point but it can't be a big one because the American public and indeed the rest of the world is increasingly demanding some type of fiscal discipline.