Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gundlach's `No Normal' pressure cooker

Jeffrey Gundlach, the lone bond manager to beat Bill Gross in the past 5, 10 and 15 years, said there won’t be any “new normal” to guide investors until policy makers repair the damage caused by the financial crisis.

“I think ‘no normal’ is a good phrase, as opposed to ‘new normal,’ ” Gundlach, chief executive officer of DoubleLine Capital LP, said during an interview in his office in Los Angeles. “Some major policy shift has to happen that will turn everything on its ear. So this idea that we’ll go into some quasi-similar paradigm, some sort of new thing -- no way.”

Gross and Mohamed El-Erian, co-chief investment officers at Pacific Investment Management Co., use “new normal” as shorthand for their forecast that the U.S. will endure below- average economic growth of 2 percent or less for the next three to five years and unemployment peaking at 10.5 percent to 11 percent, from 9.6 percent in August. It’s entered the Wall Street lexicon to describe a post-crisis world in which the U.S. and Europe no longer offer the best investment prospects.

Gundlach, who until December managed the top-ranked TCW Total Return Bond Fund, doesn’t disagree with Pimco’s outlook. His point is that “new normal” fails to recognize that all previous economic and investment assumptions have been permanently altered by the financial crisis.

“Massive” policy changes will be required to bolster the economy and cut the U.S. budget deficit, projected to be at about $1.47 trillion, Gundlach said. The timing and nature of the potential regulatory changes are unpredictable, causing him to shorten the length of time he holds investments.

“You cannot go on with these policies for too very long,” said Gundlach, 50. “The problem is the debt burden is very high to begin with and it’s growing fast.”

The U.S. government will have to increase tax rates, now at historic lows, as it tries to reduce its budget deficit, Gundlach said. It will also have to wean itself from borrowing money to stimulate the economy, he said.

Pimco developed the concept of “new normal” about a year- and-a-half ago as an “attempt to move the general thinking beyond the notion that the crisis was a mere flesh wound, easily healed with time,” El-Erian, 52, said in an interview.

“The crisis cut to the bone, resulting from an extraordinary, multiyear period of debt and credit entitlement which was anything but normal,” he said.

New normal was less about what should happen than “what was likely to happen given our analysis of national and global factors,” El-Erian said.

In an April speech at Princeton University in New Jersey, Christina Romer, then head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said she found the fatalism of the new normal distressing. She said that shorter-term cyclical events such as the decline in demand for goods and services were the real drag on job creation.

“Unemployment is high fundamentally because the economy is producing dramatically below its capacity,” Romer said. “That is, far from being the new normal, it is the old cyclical.”

In September, as she exited the Obama administration, Romer said she had underestimated the severity of job cuts and that this “has not been a normal recession.”

Gundlach managed the TCW Total Return Bond Fund until Dec. 4, when he was ousted as chief investment officer of TCW Group Inc. after the company accused him of planning to start his own investment firm. Gundlach said he was fired to reduce expenses.

Co-manager Philip Barach and more than 40 members of Gundlach’s team followed him to DoubleLine, which started three fixed-income mutual funds and plans an exchange-traded fund focusing on emerging-market bonds. Assets in DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund, run by Gundlach and Barach, have grown to $2.7 billion since its inception on April 6, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

TCW Total Return under Gundlach averaged gains of 7.5 percent in the five years ended Dec. 4, topping Pimco Total Return Fund, which rose 7 percent in the same period. The TCW fund also beat Gross in the 10- and 15-year periods. He’s the only intermediate-term bond manager to post higher returns than Gross, 66, in each of the three periods, according to Chicago- based Morningstar Inc.

Pimco Total Return is the world’s largest mutual fund, with $252 billion in assets.

DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund has increased 15 percent from inception through Oct. 4, compared with 7.3 percent by Pimco Total Return, Bloomberg data show.

Gundlach, who is known for his expertise in mortgage-backed securities, was early to spot signs of trouble in the U.S. property market, and by August 2006 he had started a distressed real-estate fund to take advantage of declining prices. He correctly called an end to the five-year property boom and said falling real-estate prices would weaken the U.S. economy.

“He is considered a wunderkind in the bond-fund world,” Jeff Tjornehoj, a senior research analyst at fund researcher Lipper in Denver, said in an interview. “He’s not as well-known as Gross, but he’s well-respected, and part of that reputation comes from being at the right place at the right time.”

Gundlach wasn’t immune to fallout from the subprime- mortgage collapse, investing in securities that lost value during the crisis. Under Gundlach, TCW became the biggest manager of collateralized-debt obligations, with $41.3 billion under management as of Sept. 30, 2007, according to data from Standard & Poor’s. Gundlach has said his CDOs got out of high- risk home loans early in the credit crisis and missed the worst of the losses from those securities.

Confidence in financial markets collapsed in 2008 after the debt securities derived from defaulted properties -- many of which were purchased with subprime loans -- became so toxic that credit dried up for companies and individuals. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and ensuing panic-selling of all but the safest government bills and bonds prompted an unprecedented $1.49 trillion rescue of banks and the economy, now recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The economy grew at a 1.7 percent annual rate during the second quarter, compared with 3.7 percent in the first three months of the year, according to government data.

“The GDP isn’t really growing now, counting all this debt that is being used to prop up consumption over the short term,” Gundlach said.

That the stock market hasn’t declined this year amid predictions of a global economic slowdown and the debt crisis in Europe is “impressive” and signals demand from investors looking for higher returns as interest rates have hovered near zero for the last two years, Gundlach said.

The MSCI AC World Index has climbed 1.8 percent this year, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has advanced 2 percent.

Gundlach said he is less bearish on the market than he was in 2006 and 2007, largely because he was worried about the solvency of the nation’s banks and because securities were “egregiously overvalued.” The S&P 500 peaked at 1,565.15 in October 2007, falling to a low of 676.53 in March 2009.

Investor demand for dividend-paying stocks bears the hallmarks of the next investment “disaster,” he said.

“People that think dividend-paying stocks are a good bond surrogate are greatly mismatching the risk,” he said. “This has the characteristics of something that could potentially be a debacle.”

Gundlach said equities haven’t declined enough to be attractive investments, especially shares of investment banks such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. He compared bank stocks to those of airlines, as they haven’t made money for investors over the long term. In the past five years,airline stocks fell at an annual rate of 4.9 percent, compared with a decline of 11 percent for financial stocks.

“Banks and investment banks are horrible investments at the top of a debt cycle,” Gundlach said.

As concerns over regulation and the economy have increased, Gundlach said he’s investing in government bonds as well as mortgage-backed securities that will do well as they rebound from deeply discounted values. DoubleLine’s funds, including the Core Fixed Income Fund, haven’t completely sold holdings in 10- year Treasuries, which have the potential to do “reasonably well” in a weak economy where interest rates are low, Gundlach said. The securities can hold up in the event of deflation, which Gundlach said is a possibility.

The funds are also invested in non-guaranteed mortgage securities that Gundlach and his team believe are trading below what they are worth. These bonds, if purchased at the correct valuation, aren’t sensitive to interest-rate increases and inflation, or rising prices.

“It’s the ultimate inflation hedge,” Gundlach said.

In the past couple of months, DoubleLine also bought below investment-grade corporate bonds because they will be in favor for at least a year and yields are 7 percent to 8 percent. Gundlach doesn’t like junk bonds in the long term because there is risk of default, he said.

Gundlach, who joined TCW in 1985 as a quantitative analyst, later became a fund manager and was named chief investment officer of the Los Angeles-based company in 2005. TCW fired him last year, saying that Gundlach had threatened to leave and take key employees with him. Gundlach said he was dismissed so the company could cut costs.

TCW sued Gundlach and three other former employees in January, alleging they secretly downloaded proprietary information that was used to form DoubleLine. Gundlach has sued TCW, claiming he is owed as much as $1.25 billion in anticipated fee income, and said the allegations that he used information from TCW are untrue.

Assets in TCW Total Return, now managed by a team overseen by Tad Rivelle, have fallen by more than half to $5.3 billion since Gundlach’s departure. It has returned an average of 8.7 percent over the past five years.

DoubleLine started with backing from Howard Marks’s Oaktree Capital Management LP, a Los Angeles-based firm that focuses on high-yield and distressed debt. DoubleLine Total Return Fund had the fastest start for a mutual fund, according to Morningstar. It took 16 years for the TCW Total Return Bond Fund to reach $2 billion in assets under management, Gundlach said.

DoubleLine’s assets under management have risen to $5.5 billion, helping the firm turn profitable, according to Gundlach.

(Bloomberg, October 5, 2010)

No comments:

Post a Comment