Bill Gross: Recent Selloff in Bonds Like Battle of SommeVW Staff
Bill Gross commentary for August on the bond wars:
Adaptation is tantamount to survival in the physical world. So argued Darwin, at least, and I am not one to argue with most science and its interpretation of natural laws. Adaptation has been critical as well for the survival of countries during wartime, incidents of which I am drawn to like a bear to honey, especially when they concern WWI. Stick with me for a few paragraphs on this – the following is not likely to be boring and almost certainly should be instructive.
In the first decade of the 20th century, British war colleges and their generals were philosophically trapped by the successful strategies of a prior era – an era before the invention of a functional machine gun. They felt that machine guns might dampen the spirit of their fighting forces. What counted was the horse and the sword. Britain’s cavalry training manual of 1907 in fact stated that “the rifle or machine gun, effective as it is, cannot replace the devastation produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel.”
The British were to experience the horror of their inability to adapt at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. German and British lines were separated by only 300–400 yards and millions of pounds of barbed wire. After several weeks of intense mortar barrage, which the British felt would leave German trenches in shambles, the Brits were ordered to advance on the German lines – each three feet apart, at a deliberate pace, wearing 65 pounds of gear. The soldiers heard their generals’ whistle at the break of an early July dawn, climbed over the top and advanced slowly. They were accompanied by officers on horseback flashing steel sabers, confident that the charge would psychologically and then physically overwhelm the mortar-battered Germans in a matter of minutes.
Instead, they were met by 1,000 German machine guns. The Germans, it seems, had burrowed themselves for weeks, 50–100 feet underground, surviving the mortars relatively intact. And their generals were well-versed in British tactics – always charging at the break of dawn, always blowing loud shrieking whistles, always advancing three feet apart with horses and bayonets of a bygone era. But the Germans believed in machine guns, not horses. Within the first few minutes there were 30,000 dead and wounded. By the end of the day there was not a single British soldier alive that had penetrated German barbed wire. Machine guns cut them down like scythes harvesting wheat. The few that reached German trenches were incinerated by German flamethrowers, another 20th century technological invention. The Somme was the biggest disaster in the history of British arms, and perhaps history’s bloodiest single slaughter. During the extended battle, one million British and German soldiers were killed or wounded, yet it was Britain’s not Germany’s temporary Waterloo, based on their failure to adapt to a new age.
Now that bonds have suffered a near Somme-like defeat in the past few months, fixed income investors are concerned about their prior conceptions of bonds as an asset class – an asset that has historically provided reliable income and stable to higher prices. This concept has been more than validated over the past 30 years as the total return of long-term bonds equaled and even exceeded the performance of stocks for much of the time period. But now – with yields so low, and with a negative 3–4% two-month return for bond indices – investors wonder if the bond “horse and saber” has given way to the alternative asset “machine gun” of a new era.
Well, future performance on the battlefield is one thing – and I will attempt to analyze that in the next few pages. But there will always be a place for the bond market “army.” A significant portion of an institutional or individual’s portfolio will always require bonds.
Insurance companies, pension funds – all institutions with liability structures that require matched asset hedging require fixed income assets on the other side of their balance sheet. The recent several months’ experience of higher yields was, in fact, a blessing for them, as their future liabilities went down faster than the price of their bond assets did! Individuals with 401(k)s invested in bond mutual funds didn’t see it that way, although similar logic applies if they present-value their home mortgage liabilities. But I write not to praise higher interest rates, but to bury antiquated portfolio management strategies that would lose money because of them. I write to alert you to evolving thinking that might win this new war without causing you – the investor – to desert an historical and futurely valid asset class that we believe can still provide reliable income and hopefully steady returns even in the face of higher interest rates.
While PIMCO has been rather prescient at warning of New Normals and then predicting the inevitable turn of near zero percent yields, it is an open question whether we are still marching three feet apace with 65-pound backpacks into the face of 1,000 machine guns, or safely burrowed in fox holes with revised strategies adaptive to a new era. Trust me, no investment firm has given this transition more thought. While our strategic execution in May/June of 2013 can and has been publically faulted, we are confident that we know how to win this evolving bond war. We have spent months – indeed years – preparing for this new dawn. We intend for you – our clients – to be surviving veterans of this battle, not casualties. PIMCO will not go down at the Somme.
Here’s why, and here’s the logic behind our evolving future strategy. All investments, bonds included, have a number of modern-day weapons at their disposal which can be used to defend against higher interest rates, weapons that don’t necessarily go down in price as yields rise. These weapons can collectively be categorized as “carry.” Carry is really another word for yield, but it often comes in forms less obvious than a fixed semi-annual interest payment. Some carry does come in the form of maturity extension – the characteristic that most investors associate with bonds, and the one that can be easily cut down in an antiquated cavalry charge at near zero bound interest rates. When interest rates go up as fast as they did in early May, prices go down for long and intermediate maturity bonds, and the carry associated with maturity extension becomes akin to a horse charging a machine gun.
But bonds have other forms of “carry” that are not necessarily yield or interest rate dependent. Bonds issued by less than Aaa sovereign countries and all corporations have acredit spread that can provide a significant or even higher risk-adjusted carry than does maturity extension. These spreads might widen as interest rates rise, but historically they have not, acting as a diversifier rather than a bear market enhancer. Bonds also have avolatility premium that produces carry, a premium more susceptible to negative consequences if yields rise suddenly like May/June but not during a more gradual increase like one that PIMCO forecasts over the next few years. In addition, bonds have a carry component inherent in the yield curve itself, one which refers to choices between a bullet or a barbell strategy – the bullet providing historically more carry than the barbell under most market conditions. And a bond can be denominated in non-dollar currencies, all of which provide the potential at some point to enhance carry.
To briefly summarize: All bonds have carry in the following form:
1) Maturity risk
2) Credit risk
3) Volatility risk
4) Curve risk
5) Currency risk
It is, however, maturity risk that most investors fear most in their bond portfolios. It is the reason why bonds were such a successful competitor to stocks since 1981 as yields came down from 15¼% to 2½% in June of 2012. It is also the reason why returns have had a negative cast since then. What to do now?
Well as I argued in the opening paragraphs, there will always be a need for fixed income and therefore maturity extension in investors’ portfolios. Fixed liability institutions demand it and aging boomers worldwide require it. So let’s not compare a 5–10 year Treasury note to a British horse. Still, in a rising interest rate environment over time, a portfolio manager might rely less on maturity “horses” and depend more on the “machine guns and flamethrowers” associated with credit, volatility, curve and currency.
Now at first, second or third blush this might seem rather obvious. Gross may have taken many of you through a WWI moment only to confirm what many of you have already figured out. Your reallocations to unconstrained strategies, alternative asset, and even lower duration portfolios are ongoing, and it is those products that predominantly contain non-maturity extension carry. If you are leaning in that