The other day the Financial Times carried an op-ed column titled “We should listen to what gold is really telling us.” It was written by regular contributor Mohamed El-Erian, the marketing voice of bond fund giant, Pimco.
I usually skip over what Mr. El-Erian writes. His prose style is weak and the solution to every economic or financial worry he discusses is to buy more bonds. In this case, I made an exception. I was curious to see whether Pimco would be in the old-school camp that says gold is money or whether, like me, Pimco would maintain that it’s an industrial metal that new mine development has put into chronic oversupply (just like in the 1980s).
The article isn’t really about gold, though. It’s about the fact that when more money than is needed is sloshing around in the world economy–and central banks around the globe continue to print new money at a rapid rate–some (all?) of the excess finds its way into speculative investing. Sometimes, according to Pimco, even though the overall speculative tide has not yet crested, some prices become so divorced from reality that localized bubbles still burst. Three examples: gold, AAPL and FB.
At this point in the article, I thought what would come next would be an assertion that these three are harbingers of the behavior of all sorts of financial investments once monetary stimulus starts to be withdrawn. If so, I thought to myself, Pimco will have a hard time ducking the issue of the popping of the biggest bubble of them all, the bond market.
That’s not the tack Mr. El-Erian takes, though.
He asks what happens if all the global monetary stimulus fails to reignite economic growth. Put in a different way, what happens if world economies begin to roll over and enter recession? The money taps are already wide open, so there’s nothing central banks can do to cushion the fall. Fiscal policy is the only tool available. But that takes time to work–and requires well-functioning legislatures to understand what’s going on and act both appropriately and quickly. Fat chance.
This is a really scary scenario. There’s absolutely no current evidence I can see that it’s likely. El-Erian just poses the question and doesn’t say what he thinks.
Still, from a financial planning perspective, it’s something we all have to consider and be on the alert for the signs of. Of course, conveniently for Pimco, this is the only situation I can think of where it makes sense to be holding government bonds.
Japan just might give us a model for what would happen, if their economy fails to sustain any growth. I note they are already worried about volatility in interest rates. Of course, Japan has more debt to GDP than we do.
Thanks for your comment. I think you’re exactly right. As far as the US is concerned, the past quarter century in Japan–bungled fiscal policy resulting in deflation and no real growth for such a long time–is scary enough. Without structural reform from the Diet, which I’ll believe only when I see it, I don’t hold out much hope for Japan this time, either. The outcome could be very ugly.
I know that gold hasn’t been one of the most stable investments lately, but it still has apperciated about 500% since 2001.