The Greenback Effect

Tuesday, Sep 01, 2009

Warren E. Buffett is the chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway. He is the World's second richest man.

The United States economy is now out of the emergency room and appears to be on a slow path to recovery. But enormous dosages of monetary medicine continue to be administered and, before long, we will need to deal with their side effects. For now, most of those effects are invisible and could indeed remain latent for a long time. Still, their threat may be as ominous as that posed by the financial crisis itself.

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Washington’s printing presses will need to work overtime. Slowing them down will require extraordinary political will. With government expenditures now running 185 percent of receipts, truly major changes in both taxes and outlays will be required. A revived economy can’t come close to bridging that sort of gap.

Legislators will correctly perceive that either raising taxes or cutting expenditures will threaten their re-election. To avoid this fate, they can opt for high rates of inflation, which never require a recorded vote and cannot be attributed to a specific action that any elected official takes. In fact, John Maynard Keynes long ago laid out a road map for political survival amid an economic disaster of just this sort: “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.... The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.”

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Our immediate problem is to get our country back on its feet and flourishing — “whatever it takes” still makes sense. Once recovery is gained, however, Congress must end the rise in the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio and keep our growth in obligations in line with our growth in resources.

Unchecked carbon emissions will likely cause icebergs to melt. Unchecked greenback emissions will certainly cause the purchasing power of currency to melt. The dollar’s destiny lies with Congress.

The Greenback Effect, Warren E. Buffett, August 18, 2009 , http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/19/opinion/19buffett.html.

William (Bill) Gross is co-founder of Pacific Investment Management (PIMCO) -- the world's largest bond fund.

Of one thing you can be sure however: over the next several decades, the ability to make a fortune by using other people’s money will be a lot harder. Deleveraging, reregulation, increased taxation, and compensation limits will allow only the most skillful – or the shadiest – into the Balzac or Forbes 400.

Readers who are interested in such things as the Forbes annual list of hoity-toities will have noticed that more and more of them are global, not U.S. citizens. The U.S., in other words, is not producing as much wealth in proportion to the rest of the world. Its fortune-producing capabilities seem to be declining, which might suggest that its relative standard of living is doing so as well. If so, the implications are serious, not just for Donald Trump but for wage earners and ordinary citizens, as reflected in their income levels and unemployment rates.

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On the night of May 20, Standard & Poor’s announced a downgrade watch for the United Kingdom and since the U.S. and U.K. are Siamese-connected, financially-levered twins, the implications were obvious: the U.S. might be next. In the space of 48 hours, the dollar declined 2%, and U.S. stocks and long-term bonds were down by similar amounts. Such a trifecta rarely occurs but in retrospect it all made sense: a downgrade would cast a negative light on the world’s reserve currency, and since stocks and bonds are only present values of a forward stream of dollar-denominated receipts, they went down as well.

The potential downgrade, while still far off in the future in PIMCO’s opinion, seemed dubious at first blush. While country ratings factor in numerous subjective qualifications such as contract rights, military might, and advanced secondary education, the primary focus has always been on the objective measurement of debt levels, in this case sovereign debt, as a percentage of GDP.

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While policymakers, including the President and Treasury Secretary Geithner, assure voters and financial markets alike that such a path is unsustainable and that a return to fiscal conservatism is just around the recovery’s corner, it is hard to comprehend exactly how that more balanced rabbit can be pulled out of Washington’s hat.

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Five more years of those 10% of GDP deficits will quickly raise America’s debt to GDP level to over 100%, a level that the rating services – and more importantly the markets – recognize as a point of no return. At 100% debt to GDP, the interest on the debt might amount to 5% or 6% of annual output alone, and it quickly compounds as the interest upon interest becomes as heavy as those “sixteen tons” in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s famous song of a West Virginia coal miner.

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The immediate question is who is going to buy all of this debt? Estimates suggest gross Treasury issuance of up to $3 trillion this calendar year and net offerings close to $2 trillion – almost four times last year’s supply.

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The concern is that this can be accomplished in only two ways – both of which have serious consequences for U.S. and global financial markets. The first and most recent development is the steepening of the U.S. Treasury yield curve and the rise of intermediate and long-term bond yields. While the Treasury can easily afford the higher interest expense in the short term, the pressure it puts on mortgage and corporate rates represents a serious threat to the fragile “greenshoots” recovery now underway. Secondly, the buyer of last resort in recent months has become the Federal Reserve, with its publically announced and near daily purchases of Treasuries and Agencies at a $400 billion annual rate. That in combination with a buy ticket for over $1 trillion of Agency mortgages has been the primary reason why capital markets – both corporate bonds and stocks – are behaving so well. But the Fed must tread carefully here. These purchases result in an expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet, which ultimately could have inflationary implications. In turn, nervous holders of dollar obligations are beginning to look for diversification in other currencies, selling Treasury bonds in the process.

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The obvious solution to both dollar weakness and higher yields is to move quickly towards a more balanced budget once a sustained recovery is assured, but don’t count on the former or the latter. It is probable that trillion-dollar deficits are here to stay because any recovery is likely to reflect “new normal” GDP growth rates of 1%-2% not 3%+ as we used to have.

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Holders of dollars should diversify their own baskets before central banks and sovereign wealth funds ultimately do the same.

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Staying rich in the “new normal” may not require investors to resemble Balzac as much as Will Rogers, who opined in the early 30s that he wasn’t as much concerned about the return on his money as the return of his money.

PIMCO Investment Outlook 2009: Staying Rich in the New Normal, Bill Gross, June 2009, http://www.pimco.com/LeftNav/Featured+Market+Commentary/IO/2009/IO+June+2009+Staying+Rich+in+the+New+Normal+Gross.htm.

"Gross’ fund has returned 12 percent in the past year, outperforming 96 percent of its peers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg" (Bloomberg, August 19, 2009).