The economist Joseph Schumpeter once remarked that the “top-dollar rooms in capitalism’s grand hotel are always occupied, but not by the same occupants”. There are no franchises, he intoned – you are king for a figurative day, and then – well – you move to another room in the castle; hopefully not the dungeon, which is often the case. While Schumpeter’s observation has obvious implications for one and all, including yours truly, I think it also applies to markets, various asset classes, and what investors recognize as “carry”. That shall be my topic of the day, as I observe the Pacific Ocean from Janus’ fourteenth floor – not exactly the penthouse but there is space available on the higher floors, and I have always loved a good view. Anyway, my basic thrust in this Outlook will be to observe that all forms of “carry” in financial markets are compressed, resulting in artificially high asset prices and a distortion of future risk relative to potential return that an investor must confront.
Experienced managers that have treaded markets for several decades or more recognize that their “era” has been a magnificent one despite many “close calls” characterized by Lehman, the collapse of NASDAQ 5000, the Savings + Loan crisis in the early 90’s, and so on. Chart 1 proves the point for bonds. Since the inception of the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate or Lehman Bond index in 1976, investment grade bond markets have provided conservative investors with a 7.47% compound return with remarkably little volatility. An observer of the graph would be amazed, as was I, at the steady climb of wealth, even during significant bear markets when 30-year Treasury yields reached 15% in the early 80’s and were tagged with the designation of “certificates of confiscation”. The graph proves otherwise, because as bond prices were going down, the higher and higher annual yields smoothed the damage and even led to positive returns during “headline” bear market periods such as 1979- 84, or more recently the “taper tantrum” of 2013. Quite remarkable, isn’t it? A Sherlock Holmes sleuth interested in disproving this thesis would find few 12-month periods of time where the investment grade bond market produced negative returns.