No more reversion to the mean?–Mohamed El-Erian (I)

“uncertainty changing investment landscape”

The other day I was paging through some old newspapers that I never got to during August (yes, I read the business news on paper).  Sometimes it gives you a sense of perspective to read, a couple of weeks after the event, what trivial things people were thrilled or fearful about at a certain moment.  But mostly I got lazy when the weather got hot and read novels instead of news.  So I was catching up.

I ran across an article from August 2nd with the above title in the Financial Times. It was written by Mohamed El-Erian and Richard Clarida, a professor of economics at Columbia.  Mr. El-Erian is the chief executive of the mammoth bond manager Pimco and an occasional columnist for the FT; Mr. Clarida consults for Pimco.

I usually skip over what Mr. El-Erian writes.  It typically reflects the economic consensus.  Besides that, Mr. El-Erian has seldom been known to use one small word when six or eight big ones will do the same job.  He’s also the public marketing face of Pimco, so we know in advance what his investment conclusion will be namely:

–The global economic landscape will be bleak for many years to come.

–Therefore bonds, even at today’s super-expensive levels, are still a buy; stocks, which are the same price today as a decade ago and the cheapest they’ve been vs. bonds for sixty years, are still a sell.  Pimco’s only change to this mantra over the past year or so has been to kick dividend paying stocks off the approved list.

Nevertheless, I did read this piece.  Despite the fact Mr. El-Erian comes to his usual (horribly incorrect, in my opinion) conclusion about stocks and bonds, I’m glad I did.  For once, Mr. El-Erian wrote something really thought provoking.

I’m going to write about this in two posts.  Today I’ll outline what Mr. El-Erian says.  Tomorrow I’ll write about where I disagree.

the article

The article makes five points.  Four of them are different facets of the same idea–that the disinflationary era that began with the appointment of Paul Volcker as Fed chairman in the US almost thirty years ago is over.  As a result, we can no longer depend on continuingly rising bond prices and falling yields to bail us out of investment mistakes.  Investors have to rethink and retest their strategies.

That isn’t the interesting part.  Equity investors have been soulsearching about excessive leverage and unwarranted risk-taking since the collapse of the Internet bubble in 2000.  (If so, how did the financial meltdown happen?  Investors made three basic mistakes:  we assumed the banks’ accounting statements were reasonably accurate; we wildly overestimated the capabilities and appetite of the regulators to enforce banking and securities laws; and we attributed to bank managements a level of integrity and risk-management competence that most American industrialists possess but many in this industry didn’t.)

The intriguing point is Mr. El-Erian’s first, that “investing on ‘mean reversion’ will be less compelling” in the future.  He implicitly describes the (bond) investing process over the past twenty-five years as having two steps:

–determine the consensus economic forecast, and

–find securities whose valuations imply an outcome that deviates markedly from the consensus.  If the imbedded expectations are too pessimistic, buy the security; if they are too optimistic, sell it short.

Why won’t this work anymore?  In the past, a compilation of expectations from professional economists would form a bell curve, with the areas at and around the mean having very high probability.  The “tails” of the distribution, that is, the forecasts that deviate a lot from the consensus, were short and stubby, that is, highly unlikely and increasingly so the farther away from the consensus they were.

Today, the compilation of forecasts looks less like a bell with a sharp, fat peak in the middle, and more like a straight line with a small bump up in the center.  The economic situation around the world is so uncertain, and the policy actions governments may take to stabilize their countries so unpredictable, that there is, in effect, no solid macroeconomic consensus to bet against.  Not only that, but the more extreme “long tail” outcomes, both bad and good, have become much more likely.

What do you do in a world like this?  Mr El-Erian’s answer is (surprise, surprise)–buy bonds, sell stocks.  You do so because (government) bonds are liquid and default-free.  Therefore, they protect you against the world going to hell in a handbasket.  I guess this means individual investors haven’t been panicking over the past year or more but responding rationally to the current situation by dumping their stocks and embracing bonds.  I suppose that if you really wanted to secure yourself against the worst, you should also think about a cabin in the woods, stocked with freeze-dried food and near a good source of water, maybe with a bow and arrows in case you need to hunt.  Maybe people are.

I’m with Mr. El-Erian up until his conclusion, with which, to put it mildly, I disagree.  Not so surprising, since I’ve spent all my investing life on Wall Street.  The real question, the thought-provoking aspect of the article I’ve linked to above, is to be able to say why I disagree.  What’s wrong with what he’s saying?

More tomorrow.

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