Thursday, September 17, 2009


Analyzing why people play golf is like exploring the intricacies of string theory – there are so many permutations lacking scientific observation that physicists or golfers can pretty darn well say anything they like and the explanation might stick. When it comes to whacking that little white ball, the possibilities are nearly endless: People play to relax, to be with friends, to get close to Mother Nature, to enhance business connections, to compete and excel. Gosh, I don’t know, the Zen explanation for why we play golf could even resemble the old saw about climbing a mountain: People golf because it’s there. Whatever the reason, it is the most frustrating, damnable game ever conceived – alternately elevating and depressing you within the span of mere minutes. I love golf. No, I hate it.

Personally, the reason that golf draws me to its intricate web of psychological entrapment is epitomized by a simple six-inch trophy: a chartreuse ball resting on top of its ebony base, preening on a bookshelf in the family room at our desert home. Its inscription reads, “Hole in one, March 15th, 1990, 14th hole Desert Course, 155 yards.” Well and good, I suppose – the ace of my life – except it wasn’t. It was the ace of my wife. Above the inscription rests the name Sue – not Bill – Gross. It was a great shot but it wasn’t my shot, and I guess therein lies the explanation for why I continue to tee it up.

Actually, two years ago I did tee it up in the sweltering 105° June heat of the Palm Springs desert. No one, of course, was crazy enough to be with me including my “ace” role model wife who was sipping a cool lemonade in the comfort of our air-conditioned home. Now, there is an “unwritten” rule in golf that in order to be official, a hole-in-one has to be witnessed, and that you have to play a full 18 holes. Otherwise, I suppose, you could stand on the tee with a bucket of balls and hit hundreds or thousands until one of the little guys went in – whatever. The fact is, on this particular day, I was playing only one ball, but I was alone, and – good God! – it went in! The trophy with ebony base and spanking white Titleist ball would read: “Hole in one, June 7th, 2007, 17th hole, Mountain Course, 139 yards.” Or was it? Does a falling tree make a sound in the middle of a forest if no one’s there? Is a hole-in-one a hole-in-one if no one else saw it? I say emphatically – yes! That damn ball went in and later that day Sue agreed with me (although she had a funny look in her eye – especially since she didn’t know a thing about the rules of golf). No one else though. No one else agrees with me. Not a soul. I suspect they’re jealous and, in fact, I’ve seen a few of them hitting buckets of balls at dusk from that very same tee when they think nobody’s looking. I’m watching, though, which brings up a funny question. If they sunk one, would theirs be a hole-in-one because I was a witness? Like I said – a damnable game.

Well, the surprise is that there’s been a significant break in that growth pattern, because of delevering, deglobalization, and reregulation. All of those three in combination, to us at PIMCO, means that if you are a child of the bull market, it’s time to grow up and become a chastened adult; it’s time to recognize that things have changed and that they will continue to change for the next – yes, the next 10 years and maybe even the next 20 years. We are heading into what we call the New Normal, which is a period of time in which economies grow very slowly as opposed to growing like weeds, the way children do; in which profits are relatively static; in which the government plays a significant role in terms of deficits and reregulation and control of the economy; in which the consumer stops shopping until he drops and begins, as they do in Japan (to be a little ghoulish), starts saving to the grave.

This focus on the DDRs – delevering, deglobalization, and reregulation – may be conceptually understandable, but nevertheless still a little hard to get one’s arms around. Why would they necessarily lead to a new, slower growth normal? A little easier to grasp might be the following approach, which feeds off the same concept, but which extends it a little further by suggesting
that DD and R lead to a number of broken business or economic models that may forever change the world we once knew and make even Barton Biggs a chastened adult.

They are as follows:
1) American-style capitalism and the making of paper instead of things. Inherent in the “great moderation” of the past 25 years was the acceptance of a sort of reverse mercantilism. America would consume, then print paper assets and debt in order to pay for it. Developing (and many developed) countries would make things, and accept America’s securities in return. This game is over, and unless developing countries (China, Brazil) step up and generate a consumer ethic of their own, the world will grow at a slower pace.

2) Private vs. public-driven growth. The invisible hand of free enterprise is being replaced by the visible fist of government, a temporarily necessary, but (if permanent) damnable condition
itself in terms of future growth and profits. The once successful “shadow banking system” is being regulated and delivered. Perhaps a fabled “110-pound weakling” may be an exaggeration
of where our financial system is headed, but rest assured it will not be looking like Charles Atlas anytime soon. Prepare to have sand kicked in your face, if you believe you are a “child of the bull market!”

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