Bill Gross: Economy’s six-pac has become a one-pac

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Bill Gross, co-founder and co-CIO of PIMCO, is to my mind one of the shrewdest money men around. His monthly Investment Outlook newsletter therefore always makes for thought-provoking reading. The latest edition is no exception.

The following are a few excerpts from the October report:

“The midsection of a 67-year-old is not a pretty sight. No matter how many sit-ups I do during my daily workouts there are no six-pacs there, or anywhere in the vicinity for that matter. I can’t even get a one-pac going. Perhaps that’s because so many Budweiser six-packs made their way downstream over the past half century or so. In any case, not being able to avoid seeing my spare tire, I take my wife Sue’s advice when it comes to weighing herself – do it only first thing in the morning. In this case, there is the additional appeal of lights being dim and if I can creep past the bathroom mirror while turning my head the other way, then all the better.

“I will say that I have lots of company – the fifties being the approximate age when the muffin top seems to magically appear. Even a “man-man” like Arnold Schwarzenegger is not immune. I saw him in a bathing suit in Hawaii five years ago and I can report that the arms and well the tummy had a certain flabby-like quality to them that was unlike any terminator I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Actually Jack LaLanne, now passed, was about the only aging male specimen I can recall who managed to beat the bulge. Still, he only did it by pulling barges with his teeth from Alcatraz to the San Francisco mainland. Betcha his choppers were no pretty sight even if they were still there at 80. In addition, all the vegetable juice he promoted is not my style, nor can I imagine being able to drink it down with a smile like he pretended to do on TV. I think I’d prefer the laxative I have to gulp before my colonoscopy tests. Whatever.

“The midriff “bulge” would be a rather kind description of today’s debt crisis. No muffin top there – if anything, sovereign balance sheets resemble an overweight diabetic on the verge of a heart attack. Still, if global policymakers could focus on structural as opposed to cyclical financial solutions, New Normal growth as opposed to recession might be possible. Several of the structural roadblocks have been publically identified by myself and Mohamed El-Erian over the past several years: 1) Globalization has hollowed developed economy labor markets, 2) technology has outdated entire industries that produce physical as opposed to “cloud”– oriented goods and services – books, records, postal letters and DVDs among the most recent dinosaurs, and 3) an aging demographic is now favoring savings as opposed to consumption in almost all developed nations.

“It has been these three structural hurricanes that have led to our economy’s six-pac becoming a one-pac over the past several decades.

“If structural solutions are not put in place, a six-pac market observer should look at both stocks and bonds as rather flabby knock-offs of their former selves; no resemblance at all to Jack LaLanne but more to a 55-year-old terminator grown fat and rendered out of shape by years of neglect and perhaps greed for short-term profits as opposed to long-term balance. There are no double-digit investment returns anywhere in sight for owners of financial assets. Bonds, stocks and real estate are in fact overvalued because of near zero percent interest rates and a developed world growth rate closer to 0 than the 3 – 4% historical norms. There is only a New Normal economy at best and a global recession at worst to look forward to in future years. A modern day, Budweiser-drinking Karl Marx might have put it this way: ‘Laborers of the world, unite – you have only your six-packs to lose.” He might also have added, “Investors/policymakers of the world wake up – you’re killing the proletariat goose that lays your golden eggs.’”

Sources: Bill Gross, PIMCO – Investment Outlook, October 2011.

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