Pimco’s Gross warns U.S. losing its edge

December 1, 2010, 9:49 PM UTC

Reports of the dollar’s death may be exaggerated, but everyone’s favorite bond guru wants to remind you that the prognosis is still not looking good.

Pimco’s Bill Gross said in his monthly investment commentary Wednesday that America’s leaders don’t seem to realize it, but the country faces a competitiveness crisis that if left unaddressed will further hollow out a rusting jobs base and erode U.S. wealth – including the value of the greenback.

Dollar benefits from euro stress

While Fed chief Ben Bernanke has been trying to do the things in his limited power to get the economy going again, elected leaders have failed to confront the very real issues that have been driving jobs over seas, Gross writes. Over time, this failure will erode the advantages that have served the United States so well, he contends.

We will more than likely continue to “level the playing field” via currency devaluation and an increasing emphasis on trade barriers and immigration, as opposed to constructive policies to make this country more competitive in the global marketplace.

If so, investors should recognize that an emphasis on currency depreciation and trade restrictions are counter to their own interests. Not only would their dollar-denominated investments lose purchasing power over time from a global perspective, but they would do so also via a policy of near 0% interest rates, which are confiscatory in real terms when accompanied by positive and eventually accelerating inflation.

In addition, although corporate profits are in many cases broadly diversified across national borders, there should be little doubt that the objective of tariffs and trade barriers is to advantage domestic labor as opposed to domestic capital; profits, therefore will ultimately not benefit.

This is only the latest elaboration on a theme Gross has been sounding for several months. His argument makes sense — though in the latest instance of the market staying irrational longer than you can stay solvent, it comes on a day when Bloomberg is pointing out that the dollar was the best-performing financial asset last month.

The widely lambasted U.S. currency rose 5%, beating stocks (down 2%), bonds (down 1%) and even mighty, mighty commodities (flat). This in a month that was supposedly characterized by mass revulsion to Bernanke’s pledge to buy more Treasury bonds in coming months to support a soft U.S. recovery.

The dollar’s rise is no doubt mostly explained by the resumption of the bond market feeding frenzy in Europe.

But it has echoes of the action in Treasuries over the past few years, which has been characterized for the most part by rising bond prices even as skeptics scream from the rooftops that the sky is about to fall on the world’s most profligate nation.

In one rather risible example, investor turned author turned expert-about-everything Nassim Nicholas Taleb announced in February that “every single human being” should be short Treasury bonds, thanks to the unsound policies of Bernanke and President Barack Obama.

Since then, the yield on the 10-year Treasury has dropped by almost a full percentage point, meaning those who were betting against the bonds have lost a great deal of money.

Slightly more profitable has been Gross’s call in October that the U.S. bond market was about to turn into a turkey shoot. Since he issued that comment, Treasury yields have risen slightly and prices have correspondingly fallen.

With no shortage of bond market buckshot flying across the Atlantic, it may be a while before Gross’s warnings come home to roost. But the longer the competitiveness can gets kicked down the road, the bigger the reckoning we’ll eventually face.