By Ted Schwartz and Kevin Starkey
Bill Gross has always been one of the few voices that we at Capstone believe is worth listening to. The world’s largest fixed income manager got that way through solid performance over decades. His thinking is usually lucid and his worldview often intriguing. As other financial industry talking heads are peddling something and Bill sells fixed income, could he be selling something new?
That said, he seemed to fall off of a turnip truck this week. He forecasted anemic real GDP growth of 1.5% per year for the US for the next decade. We are not forecasters, so will not take issue with this gloomy forecast. However, he went on to say that “if real GDP grows at 1.5%, then a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds would probably grow at 1.5% as well.”
While GDP growth would certainly be correlated to expected stock returns, the 1:1 correlation that Mr. Gross throws in to the equation has been pulled from thin air. The long term growth rate of GDP is rather consistently around 3% per year. The long terms real return of stock is around 6.5% per year. In other words, stocks have historically grown at a rate far higher than GDP.
Why would this be true? Well, financial physics is about the basics of return on equity. As companies are already earning money every day as we enter Mr. Gross’ 1.5% decade, the companies have earning that are considerable to add to their bottom lines before we consider growth. Companies can 1) distribute money they earn through dividends; 2) they can use it for share buybacks that should increase stock prices; 3) they can use it for expansion, acquisitions, and debt reduction which should increase net earnings. All of these choices should yield shareholder returns well in excess of Mr. Gross prediction of GDP growth. So, even with his dire prediction, we may hope for returns that are rather paltry but well above Mr. Gross’ calculations. Stay tuned for the pitch!