Why Take a Chance?

epsilon-theory-why-take-a-chance-february-24-2015-casino

Vinny Forlano: He won’t talk. Stone is a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That’s the way I see it.
Vincent Borelli: I agree. He’s solid. An effin’ Marine.
Americo Capelli: He’s okay. He always was. Remo, what do you think?
Remo Gaggi: Look… why take a chance? At least, that’s the way I feel about it.

— “Casino” (1995)

epsilon-theory-why-take-a-chance-february-24-2015-casino-ace

Ace Rothstein: Four reels, sevens across on three $15,000 jackpots. Do you have any idea what the odds are?
Don Ward: Shoot, it’s gotta be in the millions, maybe more.
Ace Rothstein: Three effin’ jackpots in 20 minutes? Why didn’t you pull the machines? Why didn’t you call me?
Don Ward: Well, it happened so quick, 3 guys won; I didn’t have a chance …
Ace Rothstein: [interrupts] You didn’t see the scam? You didn’t see what was going on?
Don Ward: Well, there’s no way to determine that …
Ace Rothstein: Yes there is! An infallible way, they won!

— “Casino” (1995)

There’s only one question that matters in the Golden Age of the Central Banker: why isn’t QE working? Why hasn’t the largest monetary stimulus in the history of man – trillions of dollars of liquidity with trillions more euros and yen to come – sparked a self-sustaining recovery in the global economy?

If you’re a true-believer in modern economic orthodoxy or a central bank apparatchik the answer is simple: something must be getting in the way of our elegant theories of Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP), so if $4 trillion isn’t enough to break through to the Promised Land we better do $4 trillion more.

If you see the world through the lens of behavioral economics, however, you come to a very different conclusion. Something IS blocking the effectiveness of QE, but that something is human nature. Behavioral economics suggests that a little QE can change human behavior at the margins, but no amount of QE is enough to change human nature at its core.

The High Priests of the IMF, the Fed, and the ECB are blind to this because all of modern economic theory – ALL of it – is based on a single bedrock assumption: humans are economic maximizers. If something is good, then more is better and “MOAR!” is best. And if that assumption holds true, then QE works. You will indeed force productive risk-taking in the real world economy (more loans to small businesses, more growth-oriented investments in people and equipment, etc.) by making it increasingly difficult for investors to play it safe in capital markets (negative 10-year Swiss bonds, anyone?). But if that assumption is flawed, then you get exactly what we’re seeing: pervasive non-productive risk-taking in the real world economy (stock buy-backs, for example) and massive wealth transfers from savers to speculators in the capital markets.

Yes, we are maximizers of reward. But we are also minimizers of regret. That’s not because we are irrational or stupid, but because most of us draw on our portfolios for real world needs. Our investment portfolios are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We understand that a) periodic losses are inevitable in a risky investment portfolio, no matter how well it maximizes long-term gains, and b) if we’re unlucky and suffer losses such that our portfolios decline below a certain level, then we are faced with real world risks and tough real world decisions that overshadow whatever investment logic the Fed would prefer us to have.

Regret minimization is not just for financial investors. It holds true for investors of all sorts, from a CEO deciding how to allocate cash flows to a general deciding how to allocate troops to a farmer deciding how to allocate land. For all of these decision makers, it doesn’t matter how meager the reward of playing it safe might be if an unlucky roll of the investing dice would create existential risk. In the immortal words of “Casino” mob boss Remo Gaggi as he tacitly ordered a hit on a trusted lieutenant, “Look … why take a chance?”

To be sure, some investors are paralyzed by the unreasonable fear of rolling snake-eyes 500 times in a row. Still others, as we saw with the Swiss National Bank debacle, have no idea of the risks they’re taking when they intend to play it safe. Human behavior may be governed by concerns of risk and regret, but neither concept comes easily to us. All of us, no matter how comfortable we might be swimming in the ocean of randomness that surrounds us, occasionally channel our inner Don Ward, the hapless casino employee who thinks that it’s possible that three separate slot machine jackpots could trigger within minutes of each other simply by chance.

Fortunately, a branch of game theory called “Minimax Regret” can help apply analytical rigor to both our human nature and our human failings. As the name implies, the goal of Minimax Regret is to minimize the maximum regret you might experience from a decision choice. Developed in 1951 by Leonard “Jimmie” Savage – a colleague of John von Neumann and Milton Friedman, and in general one of the most brilliant American mathematicians of the 20th century – the Minimax Regret criterion is widely used in fields as diverse as military strategy and climate science … any situation requiring a choice between extremely costly options and where the results of your decision will not become apparent for years. Are you listening, Mr. Draghi?

Unfortunately, I’m certain that neither Mr. Draghi nor the other High Priests of monetary policy are listening at all. We seem destined to learn the hard way … once again … that you can’t change human nature by government fiat. But individual investors and allocators can listen and learn from these old good ideas, and that’s how you survive the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

I wrote an introductory note about Minimax Regret strategies in October 2013 (“The Koan of Donald Rumsfeld”), and – seeing as how Central Bankers outside the US are doubling down on the QE bet – it’s time for me to dust off this line of analysis. I think that Minimax Regret is the right micro toolbox to go along with the macro toolbox of political analysis (see “Finest Worksong” and “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey” for recent notes on this thread), and together they create the Adaptive Investing framework that’s at the heart of a practical Epsilon Theory perspective. I’ll be putting some Minimax Regret resources on the website over the next few weeks, along with some brief email and Twitter distributions to guide the effort. If you’re not already an email subscriber or Twitter follower, now would be a good time to sign up.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16262/

The Effete Rebellion of Bitcoin

epsilon-theory-the-effete-rebellion-of-bitcoin-february-17-2015-heat

Neil McCauley: We want to hurt no one! We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money. Your money is insured by the federal government, you’re not gonna lose a dime. Think of your families, don’t risk your life. Don’t try and be a hero!

“Heat” (1995)

epsilon-theory-the-effete-rebellion-of-bitcoin-february-17-2015-butch-cassidy

Butch Cassidy: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.
Guard: People kept robbing it.
Butch Cassidy: Small price to pay for beauty.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)

epsilon-theory-the-effete-rebellion-of-bitcoin-february-17-2015-hans-gruber

John McClane: Why’d you have to nuke the whole building, Hans?
Hans Gruber: Well, when you steal $600, you can just disappear. When you steal $600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead.

“Die Hard” (1988)

epsilon-theory-the-effete-rebellion-of-bitcoin-february-17-2015-the-town

“The Town” (2010)

epsilon-theory-the-effete-rebellion-of-bitcoin-february-17-2015-point-break

“Point Break” (1991)

epsilon-theory-the-effete-rebellion-of-bitcoin-february-17-2015-dark-knight

“The Dark Knight” (2008)

Cobb: What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient…highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.

– “Inception” (2010)

Jimmy Dell: I think you’ll find that if what you’ve done for them is as valuable as you say it is, if they are indebted to you morally but not legally, my experience is that they will give you nothing, and they will begin to act cruelly toward you.
Joe Ross: Why?
Jimmy Dell: To suppress their guilt.

“The Spanish Prisoner” (1997)

“Is it true that you shouted at Professor Umbridge?”

“Yes.”

“You called her a liar?”

“Yes.”

“You told her He Who Must Not Be Named is back?”

“Yes.”

“Have a biscuit, Potter.”

J.K. Rowling, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2003)

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)

I really can’t think about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.

Suzanne Collins, “Catching Fire” (2009)

In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runway American dream.

At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines.

Sprung from cages out on Highway 9,

Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and steppin’ out over the line.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run” (1975)

So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. 

Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.

Albert Camus, “The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt” (1951)

I used rebellion as a way to hide out. We use criticism as fake participation.

Chuck Palahniuk, “Choke” (2001)

One of the first Epsilon Theory notes I wrote, and the one that really put this effort on the map, was about the modern meaning of gold. “How Gold Lost Its Luster” argued that gold today is not a currency or some sort of store of value; instead, it is an effective insurance policy against central bank error. That’s an Important Thing, just not as important as it used to be or as its more ardent proponents would have you believe. Today’s note is about the meaning of Bitcoin. Not its technical construction or its formal market interactions, but the behavioral WHY that gives Bitcoin its ultimate value. I caught a lot of flak for “How Gold Lost Its Luster”, and I expect some multiple of that for this note. So be it. The core tenet of Epsilon Theory is to call things by their proper names, even if that’s not the best way to make friends here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

Like gold, Bitcoin is neither a currency nor a store of value. Bitcoin is the cautious expression of a rebellious identity. Using Bitcoin is an effete act of rebellion, a weak signifier of resistance like wearing a hoodie or getting a tattoo that’s well covered by your work clothes. Bitcoin is fashion, more than a fad but less than lasting. Now fashion can be lucrative and fashion can be fun. Fashion is one of those intersections of art and commerce that I personally find fascinating (go ahead, quiz me on “Project Runway”). But fashion is not an Important Thing. Sorry, but it’s not.

As for the blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin and is trumpeted as both an Important Thing and the Next Big Thing in every venture capital conference of the past two years, it’s a modern twist on the “technology” of the letter of credit. Color me unimpressed.

Strong words. Let’s dig in.

Bitcoin’s greatest attribute – its independence from every manner of organized social control – is also its fatal flaw. Bitcoin is a bearer bond. We all know what a bearer bond is, because we’ve all watched heist movies like “Heat” and “Die Hard”. Bearer bonds are the MacGuffin of choice for so many screenwriters because they side step all of those annoying plot questions when it comes to the logistics of stealing cash ($600 million in $100 dollar bills weighs more than 6 tons) or fencing stolen goods. By definition, there’s no registered owner of a bearer bond. If you possess it, you can trade it for value without your trading partner worrying about whether or not you are the “rightful” owner.

Bearer bonds have a very similar legal foundation to a bank letter of credit, where the bank will release the contracted funds to anyone who presents the documents required by the letter of credit, regardless of whether or not there was fraud or theft associated with the underlying real-world transaction or sales contract. This so-called “abstraction principle”, where the bank is only responsible for validating the documents defined in the letter itself and has no responsibility for validating the underlying transaction, is what makes a letter of credit work. The abstraction principle limits the liability of the letter issuer when faced with an unscrupulous beneficiary (the person receiving cash from the issuer) and places that liability squarely on the applicant (the person giving cash to the issuer in exchange for the letter). For those who are interested in such things, the abstraction principle is a fundamental concept in German common law and has lots of interesting twists and implications. I can just imagine some clever merchant guild master of the Hanseatic League coming up with this idea in the 13th century and transforming international commerce for the next 1,000 years.

The abstraction principle is Bitcoin’s fatal flaw. If I possess the private key associated with a Bitcoin address, then I can trade that Bitcoin with any counterparty for value without the counterparty worrying about whether or not I am the “rightful” owner of the Bitcoin. The private key is the only “document” required to satisfy the abstraction principle at the legal heart of Bitcoin, and so long as that document is not forged (which is what blockchain is very good at preventing) then the Bitcoin issuer has absolutely zero liability to any party in a Bitcoin transaction, including the “rightful” owner of the Bitcoin. ALL of the liability associated with unscrupulous presentation of the documents associated with a beneficiary claim on a Bitcoin credit rests with me, the rightful owner of that Bitcoin. I have absolutely zero recourse if my private key is lost or stolen. I am, to use the technical texting acronym, SOL.

As you might imagine, banks don’t go out of their way to inform you of the liability assignments associated with the abstraction principle, and neither do Bitcoin service providers. It’s not that they hide any of this, but they also know full well that the legal principles surrounding letters of credit and Bitcoin are entirely foreign to our common experience. They know full well that our behavioral expectations in this regard are almost entirely determined by our experience with credit cards and cash accounts – two bank-issued products underpinned by radically different legal principles.

Credit card issuers have made a simple deal with the US government. Bank issuers can charge outrageous fees and rates of interest on their revolving loans, but they do NOT enjoy the protection of the abstraction principle on the underlying transactions made with these loans. If someone steals my credit card, then my maximum liability is $50. Period. The bank will undoubtedly try to shift a portion of the liability onto the merchant accepting the stolen “document”, particularly with a card-not-present transaction, but it is illegal for the bank to push more than $50 of the liability onto me, no matter how careless or stupid I was in losing the keys to my revolving credit account. This is why credit card issuers are so quick to freeze your account when you go on vacation and start charging in person (card present) in a new locale. They couldn’t care less about “looking out for you”. It’s entirely an effort to limit their liability at the expense of your convenience.

It’s a little more complicated when it comes to your cash accounts, because any nation’s currency is, in effect, a form of bearer bond. Neither the cash in my wallet nor the cash in my checking account is registered to me, and whoever possesses those physical cash bills can trade them for value without the transaction counterparty worrying about whether or not the possessor was the rightful owner of those bills. That’s not to say there are no limitations or liabilities associated with cash acceptance by a transaction counterparty – this is the entire purpose of anti-money laundering (AML) regulations and other capital controls – but on a fundamental level the abstraction principle is in effect here, as the currency issuer bears zero liability if my “documents” (the cash bills) are lost or stolen.

Or at least that’s the way it was back when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were out robbing banks. Whether Butch and Sundance stole cash or gold nuggets from the vault made absolutely no difference to the owners of that cash or gold. Whatever you had on deposit with the local bank was almost always uninsured, recoverable only if you put together a posse and got your money back from Butch and Sundance directly. Some banks maintained “blanket bonds” that would insure accounts from fraud and theft, but far more often these provisions were honored only in the breach.

That all changed with the Banking Act of 1933 (establishment of the FDIC and deposit insurance), the Banking Act of 1935 (essentially all banks under FDIC jurisdiction), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Act of 1950 (codification of our current system). Now obviously these laws and the entire notion of deposit insurance came out of the massive spate of bank failures associated with the Great Depression, not because we were overrun with bank robbers, and even today the FDIC does not directly insure deposits against theft and fraud. But with the FDI Act of 1950, the FDIC was empowered to require regulated banks (which means essentially all US banks) to maintain sufficient blanket bond coverage to make cash account holders whole (up to FDIC limits) for almost any source of loss. More importantly, for the past 60+ years the FDIC and every other organ of government has promoted the idea that, without exception, no one can lose a dime in an FDIC-insured account. Our government has well and truly become an insurance company with an army attached, to use the phrase popularized by Paul Krugman, and nowhere is this set of behavioral expectations more solidly ensconced than in the cash deposits of US banks. It’s no wonder we all have a soft spot in our hearts for the plucky thieves in bank heist movies. Whatever they’re stealing, it’s no skin off our collective noses.

There’s one more piece of legislation relevant to our story, and that’s the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982.  This was the final nail in the coffin for the issuance of corporate and municipal bearer bonds in the US, as it eliminated the corporate issuer’s tax deduction for interest payments and the muni purchaser’s federal tax exemption for interest received. Both tax advantages were preserved for registered bonds, of course. I say of course because the US government, regardless of political party (the 1982 Act was in Reagan’s first term), has been trying to eliminate bearer bonds for a looooong time. Why? Because the US government believes that bearer bonds are at best a gift for criminal enterprises and at worst actively subversive. Whether this belief is right or wrong (and I think it’s mostly right), the notion that the US government will do anything to help a modern twist on the bearer bond under ANY circumstances is absolutely ludicrous.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with an extremely elegant credit instrument that is almost immune to forgery or government registration, but because of this immunity it is permanently trapped by the abstraction principle within the world of bearer bonds and letters of credit. As such, Bitcoin is the apple of every criminal’s eye. Every modern day Butch and Sundance, every Neil McCauley, every Hans Gruber is trying to steal your private key. Some will succeed through violence and intimidation. More will succeed with words rather than guns, using what cybersecurity experts call social engineering. If you’ve never seen David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner”, now would be a good time.

And because Bitcoin is hated by governments, it’s all on you to maintain the security of your private key. There is no insurance here, either directly through deposit insurance or indirectly through a blanket bond required of federally regulated banks. There is no “forgot your password?” button to push here, no regulatory or enforcement agency that will vouchsafe a service provider.

For some, the constant liability risk generated by the abstraction principle is – as Butch Cassidy said – a small price to pay for beauty. But for anyone with a serious amount of money who’s not in a criminal enterprise, this is an intolerably risky legal no-man’s land. Look … there are good reasons why bearer bonds have gone the way of the dodo. Are they illegal? No. Do they have an insanely poor risk/reward profile as a central part of any investment portfolio? Yes.

So why is Bitcoin popular, at least on its appropriately small scale? Because it IS beautiful in its technological conception and execution. Because it IS independent from and mildly threatening to the Powers That Be. Because it IS associated (albeit indirectly and at a safe distance) with criminal venues like Silk Road. Bitcoin projects an identity of technological sophistication, bad boy savvy, and a healthy suspicion of Big Government in a safe, palatable manner. That’s an identity that many people (including me) find attractive and would like to take on. It’s an identity that mainstream corporations that sell to those people, like Dell and Microsoft, would like to take on. Bitcoin is a fashion statement. I don’t say that to be pejorative. I say that as high praise. It’s a brilliant marriage of art and commerce, and that’s a lot. Unfortunately that’s not enough for some.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16255/

First Known When Lost

epsilon-theory-first-known-when-lost-february-3-2015-edward-thomasI never noticed it until
‘Twas gone – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

– Edward Thomas, “First Known When Lost” (1917)

epsilon-theory-first-known-when-lost-february-3-2015-hal

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
Hal: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave Bowman: What’s the problem?
Hal: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
Hal: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman: I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.
Hal: I know that that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.
Dave Bowman: Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?
Hal: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.
Hal: Without your space helmet, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” (1962)

epsilon-theory-first-known-when-lost-february-3-2015-dorothy.jpg

We kill people based on metadata.
Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of the NSA and CIA

In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.
Banksy (2006)

I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private lives in public; they forget that invisibility is a superpower.
Banksy (2006)

Bene vixit, bene qui latuit. (To live well is to live concealed)
Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD)

The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door.
G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)

Last Thursday the journal Science published an article by four MIT-affiliated data scientists (Sandy Pentland is in the group, and he’s a big name in these circles), titled “Unique in the shopping mall: On the reidentifiability of credit card metadata”. Sounds innocuous enough, but here’s the summary from the front page WSJ article describing the findings:

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing Thursday in the journal Science, analyzed anonymous credit-card transactions by 1.1 million people. Using a new analytic formula, they needed only four bits of secondary information—metadata such as location or timing—to identify the unique individual purchasing patterns of 90% of the people involved, even when the data were scrubbed of any names, account numbers or other obvious identifiers.

Still not sure what this means? It means that I don’t need your name and address, much less your social security number, to know who you ARE. With a trivial amount of transactional data I can figure out where you live, what you do, who you associate with, what you buy and what you sell. I don’t need to steal this data, and frankly I wouldn’t know what to do with your social security number even if I had it … it would just slow down my analysis. No, you give me everything I need just by living your very convenient life, where you’ve volunteered every bit of transactional information in the fine print of all of these wondrous services you’ve signed up for. And if there’s a bit more information I need – say, a device that records and transmits your driving habits – well, you’re only too happy to sell that to me for a few dollars off your insurance policy. After all, you’ve got nothing to hide. It’s free money!

Almost every investor I know believes that the tools of surveillance and Big Data are only used against the marginalized Other – terrorist “sympathizers” in Yemen, gang “associates” in Compton – but not us. Oh no, not us. And if those tools are trained on us, it’s only to promote “transparency” and weed out the bad guys lurking in our midst. Or maybe to suggest a movie we’d like to watch. What could possibly be wrong with that? I’ve written a lot (herehere, and here) about what’s wrong with that, about how the modern fetish with transparency, aided and abetted by technology and government, perverts the core small-l liberal institutions of markets and representative government.

It’s not that we’re complacent about our personal information. On the contrary, we are obsessed about the personal “keys” that are meaningful to humans – names, social security numbers, passwords and the like – and we spend billions of dollars and millions of hours every year to control those keys, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands of other humans. But we willingly hand over a different set of keys to non-human hands without a second thought. 

The problem is that our human brains are wired to think of data processing in human ways, and so we assume that computerized systems process data in these same human ways, albeit more quickly and more accurately. Our science fiction is filled with computer systems that are essentially god-like human brains, machines that can talk and “think” and manipulate physical objects, as if sentience in a human context is the pinnacle of data processing! This anthropomorphic bias drives me nuts, as it dampens both the sense of awe and the sense of danger we should be feeling at what already walks among us. It seems like everyone and his brother today are wringing their hands about AI and some impending “Singularity”, a moment of future doom where non-human intelligence achieves some human-esque sentience and decides in Matrix-like fashion to turn us into batteries or some such. Please. The Singularity is already here. Its name is Big Data.

Big Data is magic, in exactly the sense that Arthur C. Clarke wrote of sufficiently advanced technology. It’s magic in a way that thermonuclear bombs and television are not, because for all the complexity of these inventions they are driven by cause and effect relationships in the physical world that the human brain can process comfortably, physical world relationships that might not have existed on the African savanna 2,000,000 years ago but are understandable with the sensory and neural organs our ancestors evolved on that savanna. Big Data systems do not “see” the world as we do, with merely 3 dimensions of physical reality. Big Data systems are not social animals, evolved by nature and trained from birth to interpret all signals through a social lens. Big Data systems are sui generis, a way of perceiving the world that may have been invented by human ingenuity and can serve human interests, but are utterly non-human and profoundly not of this world.

A Big Data system couldn’t care less if it has your specific social security number or your specific account ID, because it’s not understanding who you are based on how you identify yourself to other humans. That’s the human bias here, that a Big Data system would try to predict our individual behavior based on an analysis of what we individually have done in the past, as if the computer were some super-advanced version of Sherlock Holmes. No, what a Big Data system can do is look at ALL of our behaviors, across ALL dimensions of that behavior, and infer what ANY of us would do under similar circumstances. It’s a simple concept, really, but what the human brain can’t easily comprehend is the vastness of the ALL part of the equation or what it means to look at the ALL simultaneously and in parallel. I’ve been working with inference engines for almost 30 years now, and while I think that I’ve got unusually good instincts for this and I’ve been able to train my brain to kinda sorta think in multi-dimensional terms, the truth is that I only get glimpses of what’s happening inside these engines. I can channel the magic, I can appreciate the magic, and on a purely symbolic level I can describe the magic. But on a fundamental level I don’t understand the magic, and neither does any other human. What I can say to you with absolute certainty, however, is that the magic exists and there are plenty of magicians like me out there, with more graduating from MIT and Harvard and Stanford every year.

Here’s the magic trick that I’m worried about for investors.

In exactly the same way that we have given away our personal behavioral data to banks and credit card companies and wireless carriers and insurance companies and a million app providers, so are we now being tempted to give away our portfolio behavioral data to mega-banks and mega-asset managers and the technology providers who work with them. Don’t worry, they say, there’s nothing in this information that identifies you directly. It’s all anonymous. What rubbish! With enough anonymous portfolio behavioral data and a laughably small IT budget, any competent magician can design a Big Data system that can predict with 90% accuracy what you will buy and sell in your account, at what price you will buy and sell, and under what external macro conditions you will buy and sell. Every day these private data sets at the mega-market players get bigger and bigger, and every day we get closer and closer to a Citadel or a Renaissance perfecting their Inference Machine for the liquid capital markets. For all I know, they already have.

But wait, you say, can’t government regulators do something about this? I suppose they could, but it seems to me that government agencies and regulatory offices are far more concerned about their own data collection projects than oversight of private efforts to absorb our behavioral keys. For one such project, read this Jason Zweig “Intelligent Investor” column in the Wall Street Journal from last May (“Get Ready for Regulators to Peer Into Your Portfolio”). I was happy to see that Congressman Garrett, Chair of the relevant Financial Services Sub-Committee, raised his hand to delay this particular data collection project, at least temporarily, last October. But it’s only a delay. The bureaucratic imperative to collect as much data as possible – for no other reason than that they can! – is too great of an irresistible force to contain for long. And once it’s collected it never just goes away. It sits there in some database, like a vault full of plutonium, just waiting for some magician to come along. In the Golden Age of the Central Banker, where understanding and controlling market behavior is at the heart of regime survival, this data is quite literally priceless. That’s why I get so depressed about these government data collection programs. Despite everyone’s best intentions, I fear that the magic is too easy and the political pay-off is too enormous not to uncork the bottle and unleash the genie at some point.

So what’s to be done? Big Data technology cannot be un-invented, insanely powerful private entities are collecting our data at an exponential clip, government regulators are fighting the last war instead of preparing for this one, and we are hard-wired as human beings to have a blind spot to the danger. Maybe the best we can do is come to terms with our loss and prepare ourselves as best we can for the Brave New World to come. I’ve become a fan of Paul Kingsnorth, an ardent environmentalist (profiled last year in a fascinating NYT Magazine article) who reached just that conclusion about his nemesis, global industrialization and the ruin of the natural world. His conclusion: the war is already lost and we are deluding ourselves if we think that any of our oh-so-earnest conservation or sustainability or green projects make any difference whatsoever. Instead, Kingsnorth writes, better to work on your scythe technique and spend quality time with your family on a little farm in Ireland.

But I think there’s a better answer.

I started this note with a poem by Edward Thomas, who uses the imagery of the English countryside to express loss and remembrance. Like the beautiful grove of trees Thomas writes about, many of the beautiful things we take for granted in our small-l liberal world are only noticed after we see them suffer the woodsman’s axe.

Thomas was killed in action at the Battle of Arras in World War I. He was 39 years old, survived by his wife and five children. Two years earlier, he had enlisted as a private in the British Infantry, joining a regiment known as the Artists Rifles. I know it sounds really bizarre to the modern ear for a middle-aged family man, an author and literary critic no less, volunteering to fight as an infantry private in a horrific war to defend another country. But it wasn’t just Thomas. Over 15,000 men served in the Artists Rifles over the course of World War I, the majority of them men of similar position and social status as Thomas – creative professionals, doctors, lawyers, and the like. Imagine that … 15,000 highly educated and successful men, volunteering to slog it out in the trenches of an absolutely brutal war, sacrificing everything for what they understood as their duty to their families and their countrymen. And sacrifice they did: 2,003 killed, 3,250 wounded, 533 missing, 286 prisoners of war. John Nash’s masterpiece of the Great War, “Over The Top”, commemorates a December 1917 counter-attack (Thomas had died 6 months earlier) by the 1st Battalion (really a terribly under-sized sub-battalion) of The Artists Rifles. Of the 80 men in the 1st Artists Rifles, 68 were killed or wounded within minutes.

epsilon-theory-first-known-when-lost-february-3-2015-nash

John Nash, “Over the Top” (1918) 

Now this may sound really sappy, but if men like Edward Thomas – who saw clearly and experienced keenly how modernity and mass society were agents of loss in their world – could still find it within themselves to sacrifice everything to fight what they considered to be the good fight … well, how can we who are similarly positioned today not make a minute sacrifice to do the same?

What is that good fight? It’s resisting the bureaucratic urge to gather more data for more data’s sake. It’s shouting from the rooftops that anonymous data does NOT protect your identity. Most of all, it’s recognizing that powerful private interests are taking our behavioral keys away from us in plain sight and with our cooperation. Just that simple act of recognition will change your data-sharing behavior forever, and if enough of us change our behavior to protect our non-human keys with the same zeal that we protect our social security numbers and passwords, then this battle can be won.
Like all battles, though, there’s no substitute for numbers. If you share the concerns I’ve outlined here, spread the word …

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16251/