Mohamed El-Erian Solves the Economics of Investing

The career of Mohamed El-Erian has been an interesting one. He started off

at the IMF, moved briefly into the world of banking, and then became the single

most important emerging-market bond investor in the world. Expectations were

that eventually he would end up either in charge of bond giant Pimco, or else

he’d take over the top job at the IMF. Instead, he took the job of running the

$30 billion Harvard endowment. With the IMF and World Bank evidently

still being carved up between Europe and the US, there’s a good chance that

the Egyptian El-Erian will stay in Cambridge indefinitely. And judging from

his FT

column today, he’s doing all the right things while he’s there.

To understand El-Erian’s sophistication, it’s worth comparing his outlook to

that of his Harvard colleague Larry Summers. Summers is an economist who has

a tendency to privilege theory over reality. In a recent

talk, he called himself a "chastened prophet" with regard to his

doom-mongering over the US current-account deficit — but then went straight

ahead and reiterated all his old warnings, saying that things were likely to

go very bad very quickly at some unspecified point in the future. Other economists

such as Robert

Reich take the same approach, talking about bubbles and how they’re destined

to burst.

El-Erian, on the other hand, is more nuanced in his outlook. He’s

not a bubble-spotter: you can’t be, in his job, since worrying too much about

bubbles bursting is exactly the kind of bearishness which prevents money managers

from outperforming. On the other hand, he’s not some kind of short-term momentum

trader, either, who will do very well until one day he blows up. Rather, he

takes a more sophisticated and layered approach to investing, which has served

him very well.

El-Erian sees one main factor driving up asset prices: the economically inefficient

allocation of capital by develping countries’ central banks. There’s no sign

at all of that coming to an end any time soon, which means, he says, that it’s

a sensible trade to be in for the time being:

In the short term, the phenomenon has significant momentum that can only

be derailed by a series of economic and technical dislocations. A single dislocation

will not suffice as illustrated by the temporary setbacks of May-June 2006

and February 2007.

El-Erian then puts on longer-term trades as well: what he calls "a strategic

asset allocation that emphasises secular themes". But he’s well aware that

he wants to make money on the way to his "long-term destination,"

and not just upon his arrival there. His proven ability to do so is what sets

him apart from his fellow economists, and makes him a first-rate investor.

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