That’s what Bill Gross is attacking in his latest monthly essay. Gross’s timing confuses some. PIMCO started adding an equity mutual fund division to its wide array of bond offerings just a few years ago. While one part of PIMCO tries to convince investors to buy its stock funds, Gross continues to argue that stocks will be a very poor investment in coming years. Stocks should return more than bonds over the very long term and probably will continue to do so, says Gross, But Gross says the 6.6% real return stocks delivered historically isn’t likely to be duplicated and neither is the wide gap between stock and cash returns. Gross believes capital has taken more of a share of profits than labor the last few decades and that won’t last. Also, stock returns have to be tied to the growth of GDP. If GDP remains at its below-average growth rate of the last few years, then stock returns almost have to return less than their long-term average.
Together then, a presumed 2% return for bonds and an historically low percentage nominal return for stocks – call it 4%, when combined in a diversified portfolio produce a nominal return of 3% and an expected inflation adjusted return near zero. The Siegel constant of 6.6% real appreciation, therefore, is an historical freak, a mutation likely never to be seen again as far as we mortals are concerned. The simple point though whether approached in real or nominal space is that U.S. and global economies will undergo substantial change if they mistakenly expect asset price appreciation to do the heavy lifting over the next few decades. Private pension funds, government budgets and household savings balances have in many cases been predicated and justified on the basis of 7–8% minimum asset appreciation annually. One of the country’s largest state pension funds for instance recently assumed that its diversified portfolio would appreciate at a real rate of 4.75%. Assuming a goodly portion of that is in bonds yielding at 1–2% real, then stocks must do some very heavy lifting at 7–8% after adjusting for inflation. That is unlikely. If/when that does not happen, then the economy’s wheels start spinning like a two-wheel-drive sedan on a sandy beach. Instead of thrusting forward, spending patterns flatline or reverse; instead of thriving, a growing number of households and corporations experience a haircut of wealth and/or default; instead of returning to old norms, economies begin to resemble the lost decades of Japan.