What a Good-Looking Question: Things that Don’t Matter #2

Peter Griffin buys a tank.

Peter Griffin: What can you tell me about this one?

Car Salesman: Oh, that’s just an old tank I use for those commercials where I declare war on high prices. Now about that sedan…

Peter Griffin: Hang on there, slick. Now I see your game. We come in here wanting a practical car, but then you dangle this tank in front of me and expect me to walk away. Now, I may be an idiot, but there is one thing I am not, sir, and that, sir, is an idiot. Now, I demand you tell me more about this tank!

Car Salesman: Well, if you’re looking for quality, then look no further.

Peter: That’s more like it! Tell me, what are the tank’s safety features?

Car Salesman: What a good-looking question. Three inches of reinforced steel protects your daughter from short-range missile attacks.

Peter: I see. And does the sedan protect against missiles?

Car Salesman: It does not.

Family Guy, Season 5, Episode 3, “Hell Comes to Quahog”

There was an unclouded fountain, with silver-bright water, which neither shepherds nor goats grazing the hills, nor other flocks, touched, that no animal or bird disturbed not even a branch falling from a tree. Grass was around it, fed by the moisture nearby, and a grove of trees that prevented the sun from warming the place. Here, the boy, tired by the heat and his enthusiasm for the chase, lies down, drawn to it by its look and by the fountain. While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, that is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.

Flat on the ground, he contemplates two stars, his eyes, and his hair, fit for Bacchus, fit for Apollo, his youthful cheeks and ivory neck, the beauty of his face, the rose-flush mingled in the whiteness of snow, admiring everything for which he is himself admired. Unknowingly he desires himself, and the one who praises is himself praised, and, while he courts, is courted, so that, equally, he inflames and burns. How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool, how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see, he plunged his arms into the water, but could not catch himself within them! What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.
― Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me. You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!

Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

Crowd: Yes! We’re all different!

Man: I’m not.

Crowd: Shhh!

Life of Brian (1979)

There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanized iron, but every man there knows about coffee — what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought — and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.

― C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law: Or the Pursuit of Progress

One of our portfolio managers at Salient started his career working the desk at a retail branch of a large financial services firm in Braintree, Massachusetts. He likes to tell the story of “Danny from Quincy” (pronounced Qwin’-zee). Danny is a rabid Boston sports fan who frequently called in to a local sports talk radio show. Your mind may have already conjured an image of our protagonist, but for the uninitiated, American sports talk radio is community theatre at its most bizarre (and entertaining), its callers a parade of exaggerated regional accents shouting really awful things at no one in particular. Local sports talk radio is even more of an oddity, since on the clear fundamental question, that is, which team everyone supports, practically all parties involved agree.

Lest Bostonians feel singled out, this phenomenon is infinitely transferable. In Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas City and Oakland, it is much the same. In each, the listener can expect the same level of anger, whether it is shouting about things everyone listening agrees on, like the ‘fact’ that the NFL has always preferred Peyton Manning to Tom Brady and that Deflategate just boiled down to jealousy, or relatively petty items of disagreement, like the ‘fact’ that Belichick reached on a player in the draft who would have been available in the 4th or 5th rounds when what they really needed was help at defensive back.

When Danny from Quincy wandered into our colleague’s Braintree branch, Danny’s voice was distinctive enough that he was immediately recognized. From their conversation, it was clear that this happened to Danny all the time. Here was a local celebrity minted by nothing other than the fact that he could shout agreed-upon concepts at the loudest possible volume and with proper non-rhotic diction.

It is hardly a novel observation that disputes among those who agree on the most critical questions and disagree on details are often among the most violent. After all, more died in the disputes between French Catholics and Huguenots alone than in all three of the Crusades. And it took twice as long for John Lennon and Paul McCartney to get in a recording studio together after the Yoko Ono Experience than it took for King George III to receive John Adams as ambassador after the Treaty of Paris. As investors, however, we have turned this seemingly normal human behavior into an art form.

There are all sorts of social and psychological reasons why we so enjoy wallowing in issues of lesser import with those with whom we otherwise largely agree. One of the main reasons is that big, important issues — the ones that divide us into broad groups — tend to be either issues outside of our control, or complex and more difficult to understand. By contrast, the smaller, less important issues are more likely to be understood by a wider range of people. Or at least they are more familiar.

In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson’s eponymously titled book Parkinson’s Law: Or the Pursuit of Progress dubbed this phenomenon the Law of Triviality. In referencing the work of a finance committee, it concluded that “…the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” In other words, the more trivial something is, the more time we are likely to spend discussing it.

In his book, Parkinson dramatically reenacts the three agenda items before a finance committee: a $10 million nuclear reactor, a $2,350 bicycle shed and a $57 annual committee meeting refreshment budget. As you might expect, the details of a plan to build a nuclear reactor would fall well outside the abilities of even sophisticated committees, and even for those members with some sophistication, the task of bringing legitimate concerns or questions before an otherwise unknowledgeable group is daunting. In Parkinson’s example, the knowledgeable Mr. Brickworth considers commenting on the item but “…does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know.” He concludes that it is “better to say nothing.”

The item passes after two and a half minutes of discussion.

The next item before the committee is the discussion of a committee to build a bicycle shed for clerical staff. The discussion includes a range of topics, from cost to necessity to the choice of construction materials. As Parkinson puts it, “A sum of $2,350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for 45 minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.” It is not difficult to guess where the meeting goes from there. It becomes a multi-hour marathon discussion of the $57 coffee budget, which leads to a demand for additional research and a subsequent meeting.

This dynamic should be familiar to almost anyone in the investment industry. Whether you are a financial advisor, institutional allocator, professional investor or just an individual trying to navigate the waters of an industry seemingly designed with the purpose of confusing investors, you’re at risk of more than a few Bike Shed discussions.

The code-driven investor doesn’t waste his time on the Things that Don’t Matter.

The Biggest Bike Shed of them All

Problematically, the biggest, most egregious Bike Shed probably dominates more discussions between asset owners (individuals, institutional investors) and asset managers than anything else: talking stocks.

Stop for a moment and take an inventory. If you’re an individual investor, think about your last meeting with your financial advisor. Financial advisors, pension fund execs, endowment managers, think about your last meeting with your fund managers. How much of the meeting did you spend talking about or listening to them talk about stocks and companies? A third of the meeting? Half? More? Maybe you were well-behaved and focused on things that matter, but let’s be honest with each other. We all talk about stocks way too much and we know it.

It makes me think a bit about doctors in the post-WebMD era. Once upon a time, an experienced and well-trained physician could practice medicine with deference — almost a sort of detached awe — from the patient. That is, until the internet convinced every one of us who ran in sheer terror from the syllabus for organic chemistry that we have every bit as much skill as a doctor in diagnosing ourselves with every kind of malady. For the professional investor — especially the professional investor in common stocks — this has been the case for centuries. There is no profession for which the lay person considers himself so prepared to succeed as in the management of stock portfolios.

Lest you feel any empathy for the professional in this case, our layperson isn’t entirely wrong. Not because he has some latent talent but because the average stock portfolio manager probably doesn’t. This shouldn’t be provocative. It also isn’t an opinion, as Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama famously said, and as I rather less famously agreed in I Am Spartacus. It’s math. To pick winners and losers in the stock market is a zero-sum game, which means that for every winner who is overweight a good stock, there is a loser who is underweight. And both of them are paying fees.

As I wrote previously, it is true that this notion is driven by a narrow capitalization-weighted view of the world. It also doesn’t take into account that investors with different utility functions may differ in what they consider a win. Yet the point remains: so long as math is still a thing, on average, active managers won’t outperform because they can’t. This is a big reason why over long periods only 3% of mutual fund managers demonstrate the skill to do so after fees (Fama & French, 2010).

But the question of whether we ought to hire active stock managers isn’t even the Bike Shed discussion — after all, the phony active vs. passive debate took the top spot on this ignominious list. Instead, the mistake is the obscene amount of time we as investors spend thinking about, discussing and debating our views on individual stocks.

So why do we spend so much time doing this?

Well, for one, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Whether we are investors on our own behalf or professionals in the industry, dealing with financial lives and investments can be drudgery. As individuals, it’s taxes and household budgets and 401(k) deferral percentages and paying people fees. As professionals, it’s due diligence and sales meetings and prospectuses and post-Christmas-party trips to HR training. Daydreaming about a stock where you really feel like you have a unique view that you haven’t heard from someone else is a blast by comparison.

Fun aside, familiarity plays an even more significant role. Each investor encounters companies with public stocks as a consumer and citizen on a daily basis. We are familiar with Apple because we buy their phones and tablet devices. We know Exxon because we have a friend or family member who works there. We work at another pharmaceuticals company and we think that gives us an edge in understanding Merck.

It is so important to recognize that these things give you an edge in talking about a stock, but absolutely zero advantage in investing in one. Lest we think that something is better than nothing, in this case, that is decidedly not so. When we know nothing, and know that we know nothing (h/t Socrates) about a company that will matter to its stock, we are far more likely to make sensible decisions concerning it, which typically means making no decision at all. When we know nothing and think we know something valuable, we are more likely to take actions for which we have no realistic expectation of a positive payoff. But it’s worse than taking a random uncompensated risk, because this kind of false-knowledge-driven investing also engenders all sorts of emotional and behavioral biases. These biases will drive you to hold positions longer than you should, ignore negative information and all other sorts of things that emotionally compromised humans do.

We also spend time doing this because talking about companies and stocks gives us a sort of feeling of parity that we usually don’t feel when we’re talking to our fund managers and financial advisors. These guys are often some of the smartest people we get to talk to. It can be intimidating. We look for any common ground we can find. We love being told we asked a very good or smart question. Strangely, my questions were much smarter when I worked at a $120 billion fund than since that time. I must have gotten stupider.

In case this is hitting a bit too close to home, let me assure you that you are not alone.

Before I was an asset manager — when I represented an asset owner — I was occasionally invited to speak at conferences. One such conference was in Monaco. Now, our fund had an investment with a hedge fund based there and given the travel expenses associated with conducting diligence meetings in Europe, combining the two made good fiscal sense. It also meant that our usual practice of conducting diligence in pairs wasn’t really feasible. So, I was running solo.

On Tuesday, I attended the conference, giving speeches to other asset owners about what effective diversification in a hedge fund portfolio looks like, and then speaking later on a panel to an audience of hedge funds on how to present effectively to pension fund prospects. I could barely leave the room without a mob of people looking for a minute of my time or a business card, and friends, I’m not a particularly interesting public speaker. I felt like a big shot.

On Wednesday, I met our fund manager for lunch. I don’t remember the name of the venue, but it was attached to some Belle Époque hotel with a patio overlooking the Mediterranean. From the front of the hotel, we were ushered through a sort of secret passageway by a tuxedoed man who, when we arrived at the patio, was joined by three similarly attired partners who proceeded to lift and move a 400-some-odd-pound concrete planter that isolated the table we would be sitting at from the rest of the patrons. When we had passed by and sat down — not without a Monsieur-so-and-so greeting and obsequious bow of the head to my host — they then lifted and returned the planter to its place and disappeared.

The gentleman welcomed me to his city graciously in Oxbridge English, but I knew from my notes that he spoke Italian, German and French as a native as well. I think he was conversant in Dutch and several other languages besides. He was an activist investor, and had such a penetrating understanding of the companies in which he invested (usually no more than 5 or 6 at any time) that I could tell immediately I was several leagues out of my depth. He was so intimately familiar with the tax loss carryforward implications of eight potential cross-border merger partners for a portfolio financial services holding that I deemed it impossible he didn’t sport an eidetic memory.

By the time I had finished a cup of bisque and he had finished (food untouched) passionately discussing solutions to flawed regulator-driven capital adequacy measures, I was so thoroughly terrified of this brilliant and just disgustingly knowledgeable man that I couldn’t help but grasp at the thing I knew I could hang with him on. I wasn’t going to be the sucker at this table!

“So, what about your position in this British consumer electronics retailer?”

And down we go into the rabbit hole, Alice. Ugh.

Look, we’ve all been there. Or maybe it’s just me and none of you have ever felt intimidated and stupid and reached out for something, anything. Either way, it’s so critical that you know that your fund manager, even your financial advisor, loves it when you want to talk stocks. Loves. It. He loves it because he knows his client will have some knowledge of them, which gives him a chance to establish common ground and develop rapport with you. It keeps the meeting going without forcing him to talk about the things he doesn’t want to talk about, namely his performance, his fees and how he actually makes money for his clients.

It’s a great use of time for him — he’s selling! — and an absolutely terrible use of time and attention for you, the investor. If they drive the conversation in that direction, stop them. If you commit an unforced error and try to get them to sell you the tank instead of the sedan, stop yourself.

Why It Doesn’t Matter

But is thinking about your individual stock investments and those made on your behalf really always such a terrible use of time? Even though I asked the question I just answered in a rhetorical way that might have indicated I was going to change my mind and go a different direction here, yeah, no, seriously, it’s a ridiculously bad use of time. Let me be specific:

If you are spending more than a miniscule fraction of your day (say, 5% of whatever time you spend working on or talking to people about investments) trying to pick or talk about individual stocks, and you are not (1) an equity portfolio manager or (2) managing a portfolio with multiple individual stock positions that are more than 5% of total capital each, this is absolutely one of the Five Things that Don’t Matter.

Why? The answer has more to do with the nature of stock picking than anything else, but in short:

  1. You probably don’t have an edge.
  2. Even if you do, being right about it won’t necessarily make the stock go up.
  3. And even if it sometimes did, it wouldn’t matter to your portfolio.

There are empirical ways to tell you how hard it is to have an edge. Academics and asset managers alike have published innumerable studies highlighting the poor performance of active equity managers against broad benchmarks and pointing out the statistical inevitability of outliers like Buffett or Miller. But you’ve probably already read those, and if you’re like me you want to know why. So here’s why it’s so damned hard.

There are only two possible ways to outperform as a stock-picker:

Method 1: Having a different view about a company’s fundamental characteristics than the market expects, being right, and the market recognizing that you are right.

Method 2: Having a view that market perception about a company will change or is changing, estimating how that will impact buying and selling behaviors, and being right.

That’s it. Any investment strategy that works must by definition do one of these things, whether consciously or subconsciously. Deep value investors, quality investors, Holt and CFROI and CROCE aficionados, DDM wonks, intrinsic value guys, “intuitive” guys, day traders, the San Diego Momentum Mafia, quants — whatever. It’s all packaging for different ways of systematically or intuitively cracking one of these two components in a repeatable way.

The problem for almost all of us — individuals, FAs, fund managers, asset owners — is that we want to think that doing truly excellent fundamental analysis guided by a rigorous process and well-constructed models is enough. Friends, this is the fundamental message of Epsilon Theory, so I hope this doesn’t offend, but fundamental analysis alone is never enough to generate alpha.

This is what leads us to focus our efforts vainly on trying to find the most blindingly intelligent people we can find to build the best models and find that one-off balance sheet detail in the 10-K notes that no one else has found. We’re then disappointed after three straight years of underperformance, and then we fire them and hire the next rising star. It is what leads us to spending time researching companies ourselves, evaluating their new products, comparing their profitability ratios to those of other companies, and the like.

This isn’t to say that fundamental analysis doesn’t have value to a valid equity investment strategy. It certainly can and may, but as a necessary but insufficient component of Method 1 described above. The missing and absolutely indispensable piece is an accurate picture of what the market actually knows and is expecting for the stock, and how participants will react to your fundamental thesis being correct.

This is where (probably) you, I and the overwhelming majority of fund managers and financial professionals sit. We may have the capacity to understand what makes a company tick, how it works. We may even be able to identify the key variables that will determine its success. But when it comes to really assessing what the next $500 million of marginal buyers and sellers — you know, the people who determine what the price of the thing actually is — really think about this stock and how they would respond to our thesis being right, I believe we are typically lost. We’ve built a Ferrari with no tires to grip the road. A beautiful, perfectly engineered, useless masterpiece of an engine.

This is one of the reasons I think that platforms that canvass the views of the people that mostly closely influence the decision-making framework of buy-side investors (i.e., sell-side research) are one of the rare forms of true and defensible edge in our industry. It’s also why I think highly of quantitative investors who systematically exploit behavioral biases that continuously creep into both Methods above over time. It’s why statistical arbitrage and high-speed trading methods work by focusing on nothing other than how the marginal buyer or seller will implement a change in their views. It’s why I think you can make an argument for activist investing on the basis that it takes direct control of both a key fundamental factor and how it is being messaged to market participants. It’s also why we’re so excited about the Narrative Machine.

But it’s also why — despite my biases toward all things technological — I also retain respect for the rare instances of accumulated knowledge and intuition about the drivers of investor behavior. I can add no thoughts or added value concerning the most recent allegations against him, but Lee Cooperman is the best case study I can think of for an investor who gets Method 1. This is a man who defines old school in terms of fundamental analysis. He sits at a marble desk, shelves behind him bedecked with binders of his team’s research and Value Line books flanking a recording studio-style window looking out on his trading floor. His process leverages a large team of hungry young analysts in a classic you-propose-I-dispose model. So yes, the fundamental analysis is the centerpiece. But in my opinion what set him and his returns apart was his ability from 50 years in this city, training or working with half of his competitors, to understand how his peers — the marginal buyer and seller — would be thinking about and would respond to what he discovered in his team’s fundamental analysis.

Ladies and gents, if you think the savvy kid from the Bronx who gets people in an intuitive sense doesn’t occupy a prominent seat at this table, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

But even so, let’s daydream. Let’s imagine that you are, in fact, Leon-effing-Cooperman in the flesh, with all his skills and experience. But instead of holding his relatively concentrated book, you’re holding what you and I probably own or advise for our clients or constituents (or at least should): some form of a balanced and diversified portfolio. Even if you knew that you were good at this one part of the game, would it even matter?

Sadly, not really.

You see, in a typical diversified investor’s portfolio, the idiosyncratic characteristics of individual securities — the ones driven by the factors truly unique to that company — are unlikely to represent even a fraction of a fraction of the risk an investor takes.

Consider for example a generalized case where an investor built a portfolio from an index portfolio — say US stocks — and a separate “tracking error” portfolio. This is kind of what we’re doing when we select an active manager. Even with relatively robust expectations for tracking error and the unrealistic assumption that all of the tracking error came from idiosyncratic (those unique to that security) sources with no correlation to our equity portfolio, the bets made on individual stocks account for less than 10% of total risk.

Percent of Portfolio Risk from Active Risk

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 03/31/2017

Now think about this in context of our larger portfolio! In practice, most stock discussions take place in context of multi-manager structures or portfolios, in which case the number of stocks will rise and the level of tracking error will fall even further than the above. To take that even further, the majority of the sources of that tracking error will often not be related so much to the individual securities selected by the underlying managers, but a small number of systematic factors that end up looking like equity risk, namely (1) a bias to small cap stocks and (2) a bias toward or away from market volatility.

In the context of any adequately diversified portfolio, stock picks are a Bike Shed. If it is your job in the context of a very large organization to evaluate the impact of active management, you may bristle a bit at this. I remember how I justified it to myself by saying, “Well, I’m only talking about stocks this much because I want to get a picture of how she thinks about investing, and what her process is.” That’s all well and good, if true. Even so, consider whether the discussion is really allowing you to fully determine whether the advisor or fund manager has an edge under the Methods described above.

For the rest of us, spending time thinking about, discussing and debating your stock picks or those of your advisors is almost certainly a bad use of time, no matter how enjoyable. That’s why it sits at #2 on our Code’s list of Things that Don’t Matter. And if you still think we’ve given fund managers too much of a pass here, you’ll find more to like at #3.

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Information, Please.

On episode 19 of the Epsilon Theory podcast, Dr. Ben Hunt is joined by Rusty Guinn, Salient’s executive vice president of asset management. Picking up from their last conversation on fake news, Ben and Rusty consider the kinds of information that we have at our disposal and if we are asking the right questions in our analysis — or just searching for the answers we want.

2016-07-et-podcast-itunes 2016-07-et-podcast-gplay 2016-07-et-podcast-stitcher

Salient and Other Just-So Origin Stories (by Jeremy Radcliffe)

I grew up in Houston wanting to be a general manager of a professional sports team. My 7th-grade buddies and I were some of the first ever fantasy sports players back in the mid-80s, except back then it was called Rotisserie Baseball (Daniel Okrent literally wrote the book on how to play, and his first league draft was held at Rotisserie Bird and Beef in NYC — here’s a great article on the origin story of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry).

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have playing experience like Billy Beane or happen to work for a private equity gazillionaire who bought a team (Andrew Friedman, another Houstonian who ran the Devil Rays and now the Dodgers) or develop a deep understanding of statistics (Daryl Morey and Sam Hinkie of the Rockets), so I was never able to parlay my Apple IIe player value spreadsheets into a real-life GM job. However, I get to play GM in this business that we’ve built at Salient, and Ben’s not the only talent I can claim (some) credit for “drafting.” Thousands of you have already read “A Man Must Have a Code”, the fantastic debut piece from the head of Salient’s asset management business, Rusty Guinn, and we’re going to be featuring a select group of these other Ben-approved colleague-contributors.

I will never forget the first piece I read from Ben under the Epsilon Theory banner — it was called “How Gold Lost its Luster, How the All-Weather Fund Got Wet, and Other Just-So Stories.” By the end of the first page of the note, Ben had used quotes from J. Pierpont Morgan, Bob Prince of Bridgewater, and references to Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and Stephen Colbert to highlight the power of narratives.

The asset management firm that I co-founded in 2002, Salient, manages a risk parity strategy similar to Bridgewater’s All-Weather Fund, and I’d flirted with being a gold bug for a few years, so I was naturally drawn to this note; before I’d made it to the second page, I was hooked. I felt like I was reading the pre-ESPN, pre-HBO version of Bill Simmons, when he was the Boston Sports Guy. Ben was mixing pop culture, literature, history and science, all in an effort to help his readers understand what was driving our post-crisis financial markets.

And it wasn’t flash — it worked. I finally understood why I had been so puzzled – and wrong – about gold price movements for the preceding couple of years. And Ben’s comments on the All-Weather Fund evinced a solid understanding of the strategy, which was and has remained rare for financial media types.

So I called Ben and asked him to meet with me. He knew Salient, since we had been an investor in a hedge fund he managed while at Iridian, and after we flew him down to Houston to meet with our team, we convinced him to join our firm and help our portfolio managers better understand the macro side of the markets, and to continue to write Epsilon Theory to help investors across the world with the same thing.

Somehow, we’ve been working together now for more than three years, and the new Epsilon Theory site, developed in-house by our fabulous creative team, not only includes all of Ben’s previous notes with customized image collages, but serves as a home base for a broader group of contributors and readers as Epsilon Theory develops into a community for those of us interested in understanding what drives markets.

This new Epsilon Theory site is separate from our Salient mothership at www.salientpartners.com, but Ben remains a bigger part of Salient than he’s ever been, whether that’s in helping some of our other portfolio managers understand these markets or managing money himself on behalf of our clients. We’re committed to growing this Epsilon Theory community as a stand-alone site and hope you’ll not only continue to read and listen to Ben, but start to sample some of the other content we’ll be adding to the site, and of course help us grow this community of truth-seekers by spreading the word and inviting others to join us.

As far as what you can expect from me going forward as a contributor to Epsilon Theory, it’s important to me to follow the advice of Bill Belichik and “do my job” — so I promise to not to confuse the talent scout with the talent. However, if I have a skill set relevant to Epsilon Theory beyond talent-spotting, it’s in sharing or synthesizing some of the interesting news, articles and points of view I come across in my daily readings. I’ll be curating concise versions of my deep dives into a wide range of Epsilon Theory-esque subjects, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Just to give you a taste of the type of rabbit holes I’ll be going down, check out “The War on Bad Science” starting with Wired’s profile on John Arnold. The Houston billionaire and his wife are challenging the fundamental structure of how scientific research is conducted, and their foundation’s work has broad implications across the scientific spectrum, from nutrition to psychology. This thing goes deep, and it has the potential to shatter many of our preconceived, scientifically-approved notions of the world.

Stay tuned, friends.

With gratitude,

JR

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The Rabbit Hole: The War on Bad Science (by Jeremy Radcliffe)

If questioning everything you ever thought you knew about science sends you into a downward spiral of crippling anxiety, this may not be the Rabbit Hole for you.

A methodical dissection of the peer-reviewed studies underpinning all sorts of critical science (from fields as diverse as nutrition and psychology) reveals that they are likely highly flawed due to a combination of poorly-designed incentives and non-standardized, sub-optimal review processes.

Back in 2005, John Ioannidis of Stanford shocked the scientific community when he published his paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.

The first article I read on the topic put it a little more bluntly. From The Atlantic: “Lies, damned lies, and medical science.”

The Washington Post found that many scientific studies can’t be replicated.

That is, indeed, a problem, but the scientific method along with the web could be the fix.

Houston billionaire John Arnold and his wife Laura are challenging the fundamental structure of how scientific research is conducted. To quote Arnold, “A new study shows…” are the four most dangerous words.

But before you start thinking these scientists are just a few bad apples publishing a few bad papers, consider this sting operation on the fraudulent and predatory practices of open-access scientific journals. It’s madness.

You don’t even need to publish your study’s findings to make a global impact if you’re a savvy enough journalist, as John Bohannon found out when his article on a fraudulent study (chocolate aids weight loss) he conducted for a documentary on lax industry standards went viral.

Forget about fake news for a second and consider how much fake science we’re talking about here. I hope this dive down the rabbit hole of bad science inspires you to continue discovering and supporting truth-seekers in the scientific community and beyond.

Peace.
JR

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I Am Spartacus: Things that Don’t Matter #1

I am Spartacus!

Herald: I bring a message from your master, Marcus Licinius Crassus, commander of Italy. By common of His Most Merciful Excellency, your lives are to be spared! Slaves you were, and slaves you remain. But the terrible penalty of crucifixion has been set aside on the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.

Antoninus (Tony Curtis): I am Spartacus!

Other Slaves: I’m Spartacus!

— Spartacus (1960)

We are all active managers, friends. The sooner the better that we realize this and start focusing on the when and why it makes sense for investors, instead of wishcasting “good environments for active management” that don’t exist. While we may not be obscuring each other’s identities, it’s probably time for more of us to stand up and say, “I am an active manager!” Although, I suppose it is worth mentioning that shortly after this scene, Spartacus is forced to kill his best friend before being crucified.

“Active management is a zero-sum game before cost, and the winners have to win at the expense of the losers.”

— Eugene Fama, Ph.D., Investment News, October 7, 2013

Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?

The Dude: No, you’re not wrong.

Walter: Am I wrong?

The Dude: You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.

Walter: All right then.

— The Big Lebowski (1998)

“You heard about it? Yeah you had to.

Mm hmm I know you changed your mind,

You ain’t the only one with bad news.

I know that it made you feel strange, huh?

You was right in the middle complainin’

and forgot what you was cryin’ about.”

— Mystikal, “Bouncin’ Back” (2001)

Ahchoo: Look, Robin, you don’t have to do this. I mean, this ain’t exactly the Mississippi. I’m on one side. I’m on the other side. I’m on the east bank, I’m on the west bank. It’s not that critical.

Robin: It’s the principle of the thing.

— Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

It seems like every few years the debate on active vs. passive management comes back in full force — not that any of this is new, of course. DFA, Vanguard, and brilliant investors and writers like Charlie Ellis have been shouting from the mountaintop about what a waste of time active management is for decades now. So why the breathless excitement from the financial press on the topic this time? Mostly because they haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

Don’t mistake me: Charlie Ellis isn’t wrong. Jack Bogle isn’t wrong. Gene Fama isn’t wrong. But the basis for the broader active vs. passive debate is misleading at best, and outright fraud at worst. Let’s get a few objective, unequivocal facts out of the way about active management:

  1. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” environment for active management.
  2. Everyone — including you, dear reader — is an active investor.
  3. Costs matter. The rest of this debate is a waste of time.

This is why the debate over active vs. passive is #1 on my list of Things that Don’t Matter.

The myth of the good or bad environment for active management

Most investors have at least a passing familiarity with the notion of the zero-sum game. It is an academic and logically sound construct which says that if one investor is overweight or long a particular security relative to its market capitalization weighted share of that market, it stands to reason that another investor must necessarily be underweight or short.

This is true to the point of tautology, and there’s no disputing it. It’s true, and it’s used as the fundamental, deterministic argument for why active management can never  work. If every winner is offset with a loser and everyone is paying fees, over time the house is going to win. It’s also why Dr. Fama has famously and accurately said that if the data shows that active management is working, then the data is wrong.

But if this is the case, how it is possible that there are “good” or “bad” environments for active managers or stock pickers? Wouldn’t every environment just be equally bad to the tune of the drag from fees and expenses? If so, why are we talking about this historically bad period for fund managers?

The reason we are talking about it is that practically every study, allocator, advisor, researcher and article covering this topic considers passive management in context of a particular benchmark or index. However, not every pool of assets benchmarked against an index is necessarily seeking to outperform that index on an absolute basis. Even more to the point, these pools certainly don’t confine their investments to constituents of that index.

If you weighted each of the benchmarks used by investors, funds and institutions by the value of each of those pools of capital, you would end up with something that looked very different from the market capitalization of the world’s financial assets. By way of the most obvious example, I suspect that the total value of pools of capital that benchmark themselves formally against the S&P 500 Index (“S&P 500”) vastly exceeds the market capitalization of the S&P 500 itself. The value that does so informally is probably many multiples of that.

The way that this plays out in practice is surprisingly consistent. Consider a U.S. large-cap strategy. There are four biases that are ubiquitous — uniform might be nearer the mark — among both actively managed mutual funds and institutional separate accounts:

  • investments in small- and mid-cap stocks
  • investments in higher volatility / higher beta stocks
  • investments in international stocks
  • cash holdings

In other words, there is no good or bad environment for active management. There are good or bad environments for the relatively static biases that are almost universal among the pools of capital that benchmark themselves to various indices.

If you are an allocator, financial advisor or individual investor, you may have heard from your large-cap fund managers during the first half of 2016 how bad an environment it was for active management. Maybe they said that the market is ignoring fundamentals or that everything is moving together or that the market is adopting a short-term view.

That’s about 50% story-telling and 50% confirmation bias. It’s also 0% useful.

In an overwhelming majority of cases, that environment is simply one in which either small-caps underperformed or high beta / high-risk stocks did.

From the same investor vantage point, the second half of 2016 probably looked different. We often say that we don’t have a crystal ball, but I have a very reliable prediction about your annual reviews with your U.S. large-cap managers. They may inform you that “fundamentals started mattering again” in the second half of the year. The market started paying attention to earnings quality and management decisions and [insert generalization that will fill up the allotted time for the meeting here].

No they didn’t.

Small-cap and high-beta or high volatility stocks bounced back really hard. When you do your review with your active small-cap managers, you may be surprised when they, on the other hand, are doing so poorly relative to their benchmarks. Why? Because small-cap managers manage portfolios that are typically above the market cap of the Russell 2000 Index (“Russell 2000”) and nearly uniformly underperform when small-cap is trouncing large-cap.

Let’s take a look at how and why this is. The chart below splits up every month from January 2001 through January 2017 by the spread between the return of the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500. The chart plots the average excess return of each of the funds in the Morningstar Large Blend category against the S&P 500 by how pronounced the difference between small- and large-caps was for the period. In other words, what we’re looking at is whether large-cap funds have done better or worse vs. the S&P when large-caps are outperforming small-caps in general.

The results are stark. In the bottom decile of months for the large vs. small spread (i.e., the 10% of months where small-caps do the BEST), large-cap blend managers outperform the S&P by an annualized rate of just over 4%. By contrast, in the top decile for large-cap vs. small-cap, they underperform by an annualized rate of nearly 5%!

Those bad environments for stock picking your fund managers are so fond of telling you about? They’re only bad because almost all of your active managers are picking riskier stocks and putting small- and mid-caps in your large-cap fund.

Sources: Bloomberg, Ken French U.S. Research Returns, Morningstar as of 01/31/17. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Unfortunately for those of you who breathed a sigh of relief in August and September of 2016 because your active managers were ‘working’ again, this doesn’t necessarily mean your fund manager had a flash of brilliance from the patio of his Southampton rental. Low beta just spat up all the excess returns it generated in the first half of the year.

These kinds of biases are not confined to large-cap U.S. equity managers, of course. As mentioned, your small-cap managers are usually going to get smoked when small-caps are roaring. Your international equity managers are all buying emerging markets stocks around the edges of their portfolios (that’s why they were geniuses until the last three years or so, and now we think they’re stupid). Your fixed income guys are often just about all doing “core plus” even if they don’t say so on the wrapper. Your long/short equity and event funds have persistent sectoral biases.

Every category of active management has its own peculiar but fairly persistent bias against its benchmark.

OK, so active managers have consistent biases. So what? It still rolls up to the same zero-sum game, right? Yes, but it’s useful to think about and understand what’s going on underneath the hood. Namely, since we know that actively managed large-cap mutual funds and institutional separate accounts are usually underweight mega-caps, large-caps and lower risk stocks relative to the passive universe, we must fill in the gap: who is overweight these stocks to offset?

The answer is, well, strategies other than large-cap strategies, or ones that are not benchmarked to the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 Index (“Russell 1000”). That can include a wide variety of vehicles, but at the margin it includes (1) hedge funds, (2) individual or corporate holders of ‘un-benchmarked’ securities portfolios and (3) portfolios that are targeting a sub-set or variant of the large-cap universe. Clearly it also includes all sorts of strategies benchmarked to other markets entirely, one of the most common examples being multi-asset portfolios. As illustrated in the exhibit below, the S&P 500 is very obviously not completely owned by pools of capital that are benchmarked to the S&P 500.

For illustrative purposes only.

Hedge funds provide us with the most exaggerated example of one of the ways this happens. Let’s presume that large-cap mutual funds are underweight low volatility mega-cap stocks to the tune of $50 billion.

Now let’s examine two cases — in the first case, $25 billion in hedge fund capital is deployed to buy all $50 billion of that on a levered long basis. In the second case, $100 billion of hedge fund capital is used, meaning that the funds chose to hold 50% cash and spent the remaining 50% on the mega-cap stocks.

If the S&P 500 is up and a particular publication wants to talk about hedge fund returns, they’re going to talk about the first scenario as a heroic period of returns for hedge funds. In the second scenario, hedge funds are a scam run to prop up the richest 1%. Neither is true, of course — well, not on this basis alone, at least — because the benchmark isn’t capturing the risk posture that an investor is using as part of its asset allocation scheme to select that investment — in this case a long/short hedge fund.

Consider as well that many of the strategies that are ‘filling in’ for active large-cap managers’ underweights to Johnson & Johnson and ExxonMobil do so in tactical or multi-asset portfolios, many of which are going to be compared against different benchmarks entirely. Still, others may be executed under minimum volatility or income equity mandates. When you consider that the utility functions of investors in these strategies may be different, and that one investor may reasonably emphasize risk-adjusted returns rather than total returns, or that two investors might have meaningfully different needs for income in context of their overall financial situation, the argument starts to get very cloudy indeed.

There is no such thing as a passive investor

So when faced with an income objective like the example above, the response of many in the passive management camp is typically some form of, “Well, just buy more of a passive income equity fund, or move more money to bonds.”

It is this kind of argument that exemplifies why this active vs. passive debate feels so phony, so contrived. As it is too often applied, the mantra of passive management emphasizes avoiding funds that make decisions that many those allocators/advisors/investors will then make themselves and charge/pay for under the guise of asset allocation.

If a fund manager rotates between diversified portfolios of stocks, bonds, credit and other assets based on changing risks or income characteristics, he gets a Scarlet A for the vile, dastardly active manager he is. If an investor or allocator does the same thing by allocating between passively managed funds in each of those categories, he posts about it on Reddit and gets 200 up-votes.

If a fund manager invests in a portfolio of futures (lower cost passive exposure than ETFs, by the way) to reach a target level of risk and diversification without trying to pick individual securities at all, just go ahead and tattoo the “A” on their deserving forehead in permanent ink. If an investor or allocator does the same thing to build a portfolio that is equally or more distinct from a global cap-weighted benchmark using more expensive ETFs, we can only celebrate them and hope they pen a scathing white paper on the systemic risks embedded in risk-targeted investment strategies.

Everyone is often doing the same things — and usually paying for it — in different ways. To paraphrase Ahchoo (bless you), some of you are on the east bank and some of you are on the west bank. But this ain’t exactly the Mississippi. It’s not. That. Critical.

What IS critical is understanding why this debate occupies such an august (notorious?) spot on this list of Things that Don’t Matter. And here it is: I am fully confident that not a single passive investor owns a portfolio of global financial assets in the respective weights of their total value or market capitalization. Instead, they allocate away from the cap-weighted global financial assets standard based on (1) their risk appetite, (2) in order to better diversify and (3) to satisfy certain personal goals around income and taxes.

Let’s put some figures on this. Using a basic methodology from public sources (while acknowledging without having access to his letters that Paul Singer has adopted a similar approach) as of the end of 2015 or 2016 — we’re talking big numbers here, so the timeliness isn’t that important — global investable assets look something like the pie chart below.

Sources: BIS, Savillis, World Bank. For illustrative purposes only.

Yes, there’s overlap here. Yes, if you added in capital raised to invest in private companies it would add another 1.2% to equities, and including insider holdings in private companies would expand this more (although debatably). It also doesn’t include a range of commodities or commodities reserves because of the (generally) transitive nature of the former and indeterminate nature of the latter. But it’s good enough for our purposes. So does your portfolio look like this? If not, let me be the first to initiate you into the club of active managers.

Every investor is an active investor when it comes down to the major dimensions of asset allocation: risk, diversification, income and liquidity. Eliminating strategies as “Active” because they seek to manage risk, improve diversification, increase income or take advantage of greater (or lesser) liquidity is wrong-headed at best and hypocritical at worst. Most of all, it harms investors.

The S&P 500 example is not universally applicable, of course. Public large capitalization stocks are well-covered by indices, and so index funds that track the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 are generally sound examples of vehicles seeking to avoid the pitfalls of the zero-sum game. That is not always the case, however.

One example of this I like to use is the Alerian MLP Index. It is a perfectly acceptable representation of the energy MLP market, and deserves credit for being the first to track this growing asset class. It tracks 50 key constituents with around $300 billion in total market cap. The overall universe of listed midstream energy companies, however, is closer to 140-150 and sports a market cap of nearly $750 billion. There are several index funds and ETFs that track the index, and dozens of so-called actively managed funds that include a higher number of securities that look rather more like the cap-weighted market for energy infrastructure!

A more mainstream example of this might be the Dow Jones Industrial Index, famous for being used by CNBC every day and by a professional investor for the last time in the mid-1950s. This index of 30 stocks covers only a fraction of the breadth of listed stocks in the U.S. with meaningfully different characteristics on a dozen dimensions, and is tracked by a “passive” ETF with roughly $12 billion in assets. Meanwhile, lower cost large-cap mutual funds and accounts with 120 holdings built to deliver higher than typical income at a lower volatility than the market are “actively managed.” To make matters more complicated, many asset classes that are a meaningful — and diversifying — part of the cap-weighted global market simply do not have passive alternatives.

There is a wonderful local convenience store chain called Wawa where I went to college. I had a…uh…friend whose laziness was so well-developed that his diet was entirely driven by what was available at Wawa. If they didn’t have it, he didn’t eat it. Now, there are all sorts of delightful things to be had there, so don’t get me wrong. But if you’ve got something other than hot dogs, ham sandwiches or Tastykake Krimpets on your mind, you’re out of luck.

I’m sorry to say that the Index Fund Wawa is fresh out of vehicles owning securities issued by private companies, listed securities in certain niches of the markets (e.g., preferred securities in real estate) with meaningful diversification and income benefits, less liquid instruments and others unable to be held in daily or continuous liquidity vehicles. Many of these strategies have significant diversification potential and roles within portfolios. Many are often highly effective tools for adding income, efficient risk mitigation or other characteristics to portfolios. Many may even have higher expected returns or risk-adjusted returns. But you’ll have to leave the Wawa to get them.

None of this even begins to venture into hedge funds and other alternative strategies, and how they ought to be considered in context of the overall debate. To be sure, the answer is probably to observe that the same criticisms and defenses that can be brought to bear against (or on behalf of) active management apply to strategies like this as well.

But to a great extent for hedge funds (and to a lesser one for traditional strategies), there are potential sources of return that may be consistently exploited that have nearly the same empirical and fundamental underpinnings of market exposure as a source of potential return. At their core — and consistent with how we discuss them in Epsilon Theory — they are almost universally an expression of human behavior. Whether expressed through premia to value, momentum or carry premia, or else biases investors have toward quality, lottery payoffs, liquidity and the like, the great irony is that the most successful actively managed strategies are those that exploit the fact that many investors are often drawn to the appeal of active management under the guise of ‘beating the market.’

For this reason, it is somewhat baffling to see the disdain with which passionate passive investors treat many alternative strategies. If we believe that active management can persistently lead investors to predictable bad outcomes driven by understandable behavioral biases and responses to information, why would we be averse to approaches that seek to exploit this? Most investors can, however, see the forest for the trees on this issue. That is the reason why, despite the contraction in actively managed strategies more broadly, most projections for the market for liquid alternatives posit a doubling of assets in the space between 2015 and 20201.

1Both PWC and McKinsey’s work on this topic comes highly recommended.

Costs matter (and the rest of this debate is a waste of time)

Now admittedly, I have waited quite a long time to talk about one of the principal concerns around many actively managed strategies: cost.

In coming around to this critical consideration, it is worth circling back to the indisputable fact that Bogle, Fama and Ellis are right. Trying to beat the market in most markets by being overweight the right stocks and underweight the right stocks is a loser’s game. Doing that and paying fees for it makes it an expensive loser’s game. The reality is that investors need to put the pitchforks away and ask themselves a set of simple questions when considering actively managed funds:

  • Portfolio Outcomes: For a fund that is making active decisions that I would be responsible for in my asset allocation, like risk targeting, biasing toward income and yield or improving portfolio diversification, do the benefits justify the cost?
  • Incomplete or Non-Existent Indexes: When an active fund provides better diversification or coverage of an opportunity set, or covers an investment universe that is not investable through passive solutions, do the benefits justify the cost?
  • Exploiting Bad Behaviors: When investing to exploit the behaviors of other investors who are trying to beat the market to increase returns or improve risk-adjusted returns of my portfolio, do the benefits justify the cost?

It shouldn’t be any surprise that this will often lead you to the same conclusion as a passive management zealot, because adding value that justifies the cost on the above dimensions is still really hard. Active management should be evaluated with the same critical eye and cost/benefit analysis every one of us use when we make active decisions in our portfolio design and asset allocation. But because it won’t always be the case, the process matters, and the code you follow to draw your investment conclusions matters.

The active vs. passive debate, on the other hand, does not. Enough.

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Mailbag: Life in Trumpland

The best part about this job, other than being recognized in random bars by 50-year old financial advisors who are always good to buy me a drink (hey, you take your celebrity where you can), is the correspondence with readers. I began writing Epsilon Theory 3+ years ago from a pretty dark place, and it’s still where I end up a lot of the time. But from the outset I started getting emails from really smart people, truth-seekers all, making their way in this world of mendacity and inauthenticity without succumbing to it, and it’s given me — if not an optimism — then at least the occasional absence of despair about the world my daughters will inherit.

I try to respond to all the notes I receive, but what usually happens is that the really good ones — the ones that require more than a flip answer — end up being marked unread and shunted to the “need response” folder on Outlook, only to die a lingering death of inattention over the following weeks. Ultimately I just mark the entire folder as read and let them pass on to the Great Archive in the sky, as it’s the only way I can live with the guilt. So to all of those Jacobs and Williams of the world … I am truly sorry.

As a partial repentance, if not solution, I’m going to make a regular habit of what I always found to be the most enjoyable part of Bill Simmons’ Sports Guy blog — the reader Mailbag. Geez, I miss the old Bill Simmons. Like Simmons of old, I’ll try to keep it entertaining rather than pedantic, and to that end I’ll sprinkle in some of the haters, as I find them occasionally fun when they’re not threatening rape or murder (Bill Simmons never had to deal with the Zerohedge commentariat). As it happens, I got more than the usual quota of great emails from my most recent note “The Evolution of Competition,” my take on the political and social polarization running rampant in Trumpworld. So without further ado …

I forwarded your note to my better half and she thought it was really good, BUT…

from your note: “…If you cooperate in a game of Chicken — i.e., you’re driving your tractor straight on at Kevin Bacon’s pick-up truck and you veer off from the looming crash…”

She needs you to rethink some things, and after she explained the facts to me, I thought it might be important for you (although I’m sure you have already heard from many of your 40-something-female-readers-who-have-watched-Footloose-multiple times!)

  1. They were BOTH on tractors.
  2. And this is the bender for your game analysis. Kevin Bacon tried and FAILED to jump off his tractor. He was FOILED by his shoe lace and thus WON the game of chicken BY ACCIDENT. Very interesting.

I’m gonna need some follow up from you on this one Ben, as she is leaning on me pretty hard to let you know that you’re not done with this Footloose incident!!

John

A lot of games of Chicken are won by accidental (or intentional) incompetence. For example, if I see that Kevin Bacon is stuck on his tractor and can’t possibly jump off even if he wanted to, then my only rational choice … the only way to avoid MY death in a crash … is to jump off my tractor. By limiting his competence and degrees of freedom, Kevin Bacon paradoxically becomes more powerful in a game of Chicken.

A variation on this theme is to convince your opponent that you’re not necessarily powerless to decide otherwise, but that you’re so mentally incompetent that you really don’t care if you live or die. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon famously played this “madman” strategy (in the form of being crazy enough to launch nukes even if it drew China and USSR into war) to get the North Vietnamese government to attend peace talks in Paris.

 Good piece. Decency and ability to stay above the fray is almost non-existent at this point. Not to be nerdy but I keep replaying the Star Wars quote “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause” (About the only good thing that came from those terrible prequels.).

– Victoria

That’s a good quote! As for the quality of the prequels … I mean, obviously you’re right. I can’t remember any of the Episode 1-3 quotes because I hear everything in a Jar-Jar Binks accent. And the acting … well, let’s be generous and call it Godfather 3 Sofia Coppola-esque. But isn’t it time for a bit of perspective on the entire canon? In meme terms, I think “Star Wars” is the functional equivalent of “Ronald Reagan”, in that both have evolved into expressions of almost pure nostalgia. Fun fact: the word “nostalgia” derives from the Greek nostos (return home) and algos (pain). There’s a wincing quality to so much about the Star Wars movies and the Reagan Administration, but it’s completely trumped by some sort of warm fuzzy emotional balm. I’d like to figure out how to bottle that.

 Nice job. Were you pro Gaga or anti Gaga? Your readers deserve to know!

Ian

I was anti-Gaga in the ET note “American Hustle” for what I saw as pretty profound inauthenticity around the U.S. election. But how about that SuperBowl™ performance, huh? I thought that was great. Seriously. And with game theoretic implications, too …

During the halftime show of the Super Bowl on FOX, after Lady Gaga’s performance, they went back to the studio and had someone ready to report on what the reaction to the halftime show was on social media. My immediate reaction – 1) How could I possibly trust FOX to give me an accurate take on the social media reaction to the halftime show that they just broadcast? 2) I don’t care. 3) Doesn’t anyone who does care (and is therefore already monitoring social media for themselves) already know?

Jay

Actually, I thought Fox was pretty brilliant in their coverage of Lady Gaga’s halftime show. They assumed that we were incapable of determining for ourselves whether or not it was a good performance until we were told by others (Missionaries in game theory terms) whether or not it was a good show. And they’re absolutely right. A classic example of The Common Knowledge Game in action.

 I am a pretty competitive person/athlete and always lost at Chicken versus my brother. I am still trying to repair the Chicken self-image.

– Kim

Me, too, and to my younger brother, to boot. Although I would bet he would say the same thing about me. It’s amazing how these social competitions in a Chicken format stick with us for a lifetime.

 Spot on. I’m doing daily battle with my family and best friends back home, and getting nowhere.

Drew

It’s the “back home” aspect of all this that’s particularly difficult on our social lives, I think. Geography has simultaneously become irrelevant with modern communication technology and the only thing that matters with the balkanization of economic opportunity.

 This guy is just butt hurt that Trump won. He is a delusional asshole. He thinks that what his side did was about is cooperation.

His idea of cooperation is me giving him half of my money and my wife giving him a *** while my kids wash his car.

In exchange he will offer my family some constructive criticism on how we can become better human beings.

Suddenly when I grab him by the back of his neck and throw him out of my house he finds my behavior objectionable.

What a douche.

– BarkingCat

Ah, the haters. I included this note because I think there’s an important point here. The meaning of Trump to BarkingCat is personal empowerment. Trump changes the story that this guy tells himself about himself, which is the most important story that we have!

In the mind’s eye of BarkingCat, he is now the powerful one, able to grab me by the scruff of my neck and physically throw me out of his house. It doesn’t matter that, in reality, the Takers and the Powerful are now more in control of his house and his real-world life than ever before. I mean, if you think we lived in a world of, by, and for the 1% before (and we did), you ain’t seen nothing yet. But the real-world impact of Trump isn’t what drives behavior. In politics as in markets, it’s always the story that drives our behavior, particularly the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

You know where I see this phenomenon a lot? In SEC college football. Some of the most virulent (and I mean that word in its clinical sense) fans of Alabama football have zero connection to the University of Alabama other than that they live in the same state as Nick Saban. But, like BarkingCat, they derive enormous personal empowerment and psychic benefit from a totemic connection to a powerful man. Roll Tide!

The premise is that all cooperation habits we’ve developed, our ways of getting along, are breaking down to be replaced purely with competition. If the premise were right, the rest of his argument might well follow. But the premise is wrong.

Trump found a NEW COALITION. He often speaks of the LOVE at his events. Trumpsters may compete in business, but basically we like each other and won’t tend to be all that cut-throat, most of us anyway. (Trump himself is more cut-throat than most of us. Look at how he’s dumped Giuliani and Christie now that he’s done with them. But that’s beside the point.) Within this new coalition, we are able to slough off some of the strange bedfellows we were put with before, to treat them in a more arms-length way. We have an alternative to the old coalitions the social engineers had cornered us into.

– Artichoke

Coalitions are constantly reconfiguring themselves on the basis of shared interests. There are millions of people who have always despised the right but lo, in the past few months the right has popped up as the counterculture. It’s now anti war and pro labour. It’s all about free speech and diversity of thought. The left is now the establishment and is making a big effort to crack down on the counter culture that it brands as racist and attacks with violent thugs.

Amazing really, the right is now about peace love and togetherness and the left is angry decisive and hatefilled.

I don’t hate my colleagues for having opposed Trump, but I dare not say I supported him or they would hate and ostracise me. That’s why Trump is always speaking about love. Because hate is on the other side.

Strange days. Everything is the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. People need to understand this.

– Beijing Expat

I gotta say, this was the most unexpected thread in the comments and email I received, this notion that there’s all this Love with a capital L embedded in Trump-the-man and Trump-the-movement.

I think what’s going on here is an expression of the same emotions that you see in oral histories of any protest movement. Why do people go march in the streets and stop traffic and maybe break some windows (literally or figuratively)? Because it’s FUN. There’s an enormous sense of camaraderie and excitement derived from sticking it to the Man, whether you’re in Berkeley, California in 1968 or Mobile, Alabama in 2016.

Just don’t confuse tribal attachment with Love. Because your tribal leaders, whether you’re on the left, the right, or wherever, will eventually sell you down the river. Every single time.  

I think he was trying not to offend and that’s why he could never fully approach his point. He just took swats and glancing blows. I find it offensive.

– IndyPat

Blood alone turns the wheels of history.

– IndyPat

Two brief comments from a guy who believes that “blood alone turns the wheels of history” but is offended by my tone in an email.

You’re delusional. You need to read, “The Art Of The Deal,” and “The Art Of The Comeback” to get better informed about Trump. CNN and MSNBC are not good sources. For instance Trump fixed the Wollman Rink in NY City after the city gov’t had screwed it up for 6 years at a cost of $9M in tax payer money. Trump VOLUNTEERED to fix it. He did it under schedule (given 6 months) and budget (given $3M). I would call that a win-win. It is more than a win-win, it was a game changer that traditional accounting methods don’t credit Trump with the true impact. Traditional methods would say he saved a mere $0.6M (his cost was $2.4M) because traditional accounting does not include the $9M wasted by the gov’t not to mention the 6 years.

You no doubt see that somehow as a win-lose or a lose-lose. The Trump approach broke the status quo paradigm that just was not working and was very expensive. He brings that same game to the stifling U.S. gov’t bureaucracies and international agreements. I anticipate change in those areas that you can’t begin to comprehend and with your poor accounting practices of what counts as win and what counts as a lose you are way off base. Apparently you think it is a win-win to run the U.S. international policies through the Clinton Foundation where motives are clearly self-serving rather than out in the open via the State Dept.

The depth of your ignorance on the Trump business style is breathtaking. Your assumptions on how well the system was working pre-Trump is much like Mayor Koch who screwed up the Wollman Rink for 6 years. Koch thought things were just fine. And your assumptions on Trump being win-lose or lose-lose are equally naive.

– Anonymous

The Wollman Rink. Ed Koch. Hilarious. This guy “knows” Trump by reading Trump’s books, and thinks I’m ill-informed.

 I’ve been reading Epsilon Theory for a while now. I find your material thoughtful, often brilliant, always entertaining.

Recently you have put forth a few ideas that to me seem biased and confuse cause and effect.

I think that the idea that this country has up to now been playing a politically cooperative game is quite simply wrong. For the last two presidencies there has been virtually no cooperation between the two political parties. Neither party has any inclination nor any motivation to play a politically cooperative game. This is what must be changed and this is the challenge for America. But I digress.

I believe that there are two distinct and opposing views for the future direction of the country. Let’s call these agendas. One agenda is to move toward a “Great Society”, now probably more correctly termed a “Global Great Society”. The other agenda is to remain an autonomous country with the personal freedoms, rights, and responsibilities we have always expected as Americans.

Trump is not a great divider who somehow maneuvered his way to the presidency and is ushering in political non-cooperation. Trump is the effect, the pushback against one agenda by voters with a different agenda who have come to realize that this is indeed a non-cooperative political game. The election of Trump simply illustrates that voters have come to realize that we are already deeply entrenched in a non-cooperative political game.

– Bill

I get your point, but I disagree. Trump didn’t just stumble onto a non-cooperative political game in full bloom. He’s a remarkable political entrepreneur who recognized, accelerated, and transformed the zeitgeist. I mean, look at the Republican primary. This wasn’t some grand struggle between globalist Great Society oligarchs and hardscrabble defenders of liberty (and if it were, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that Trump is the latter rather than the former). Trump rolled the field of fellow Republicans because he played the game differently. His gameplay was always Defect and never Cooperate, which was totally new, totally effective, and totally irreversible. It’s like Napoleon (another remarkable political entrepreneur) and the levée en masse (mass conscription). Once Napoleon invented the draft and put a couple of hundred thousand troops on the battlefield, every other country had to follow suit, transforming the game of international conflict forever. One thing I’ve noticed among both Trump haters and Trump lovers: they usually don’t give him enough credit. He’s more than a symptom.

You should go back to writing about investments. Your biases continue to direct you.

The move from Cooperation to Competition (in this case) has proceeded from two conservative realizations:

  1. That the veneer of cooperation maintained by liberals is false; that the Left has been competing all along. ‘Nice’, cooperative public television is about as even-handed as Pol Pot, and just as willing to dictate your life.
  2. That there CANNOT be a balance in benefits arising from the arrangement of cooperation, because of fundamentally different values.

Trump is their big F U to the perceived hypocrisy of continuing to cooperate (even if they don’t like him).

Many Europeans are arriving at the same conclusion.

– Anonymous

What was the pro-Trump “conservative realization” in the Republican primary? That he was tougher on conservative shibboleths like public television or Planned Parenthood or Great Society programs than his competitors? Please. This notion that Donald Trump is somehow the great flowering of the conservative movement is just pure revisionist hokum.

I’ve enjoyed reading your column over the years but you are seriously disappointing me lately. I can understand your left leanings make it difficult to grasp how at least one half of your readers feel, but to put something in writing as vile as the statement “So, for example, if you voted for Clinton as an affirmation of a personal identity that rejects the racism and sexism you see in Trump, your natural assumption is going to be that anyone who voted for Trump similarly did so as an affirmation of a personal identity, but one that accepts racism and sexism.”, is totally uncalled for and extremely offensive not just to President Trump, but to all of us who supported a change from the Elite Class we’ve been forced to stomach for the past 20 years.

I’m sorry you’re not comfortable now. Welcome to my world for the past twenty years.

– John

You’ve totally missed my point. I wrote this note because I am so effin’ tired of being called a racist or a sexist because I don’t think that Donald Trump is evil incarnate. There are MILLIONS of people in this country who think that I am a bad human being because I don’t hate Trump. And by the same token, there are MILLIONS of people in this country who think that I am a bad human being because I don’t think that Hillary Clinton is evil incarnate, either. That’s why I wrote this note.

I didn’t vote for Trump (nor Clinton … left prez line blank) because I think he takes us from the frying pan into the fire. But I do understand that we’ve been in a frying pan for 24+ years.

I don’t see Hitler.

– Brendan

Neither do I. I think Trump is a narcissist and an ass, not a Fascist. Like most people in the financial services world, I deal with narcissists and asses every day … they’re not Hitler clones because the only thing they’re really true-believers about is their own self-aggrandizement. Steve Bannon? There’s more than a little Big Lie and Fascism in his self-avowed “economic nationalism”, but he can’t front the band, so he’s no Hitler. Elizabeth Warren? I dunno. More the Madame Defarge type, knitting by the guillotines. Mark Zuckerberg, though, now embarked on his ‘listening tour” through America? Bears watching. Yes, I went there. Big Brother tech plus smiley-face billionaires scare me that much.

There is an old saying that really applies these days. I believe it was from Benjamin Franklin or my mother. “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” Unfortunately people don’t let facts get in the way of the Truth.

– Anonymous

Agreed (although I thought it was MY mother).

Your note describes what happens to society, including the best educated, when philosophy disappears. And when 95 million+ people are boycotting the workforce.

Too much time on your hands? Then pay attention to Drudge, ZeroHedge, Huffington Post, etc. Or Ashley Judd, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell. Or Hannity. Supposedly smart, educated people react what’s going on as if they are watching pro wrestling.

No schooling in or acquaintance with philosophy? Then react to all these mindless, emotion-laden messages like a puppet on a string, unable to resist any impulse to react or comment. We should be dropping Meditations from helicopters.

– Orville

Helicopter Meditations instead of helicopter money? Yes, please.

Once again another good piece. I have seen the same in myself, the question I’ve been thinking is how does it end? or what comes next? You used car crashes, good analogy. I hope society is not using Takata airbags.

– Anonymous

I’m totally stealing that line.

Well done on a tough topic. I am reminded a bit of the religious discussion, where you believe that anyone who doesn’t agree with you burns in hell forever. Somehow, we have to find a way to discuss “my truth” while recognizing “your truth”.

Mick

Yes, there are clear parallels between what we’re experiencing as a society today and any religious schism. Not sure what the equivalent of the Peace of Westphalia will be for us, but that’s what it’s going to take for us to get out of this.

Started re-reading Virus of the Mind at 4:00 this am. Some dangerous “memes” are replicating themselves.

– Mike

Virus of the Mind is a 2011 collection of essays on memes, including (perhaps confusingly) the Richard Dawkins essay, “Viruses of the Mind,” that pretty much started the conversation. Required reading.

It seems to me that the Trump phenomena (there are many) are moving us towards the kind of crisis outcome that Neil Howe and William Strauss write about in The Fourth Turning. We only have to wait till the mid-20’s to see the rebuilding of the national and international organizations to allow the next flourishing. Sadly, the crisis usually culminates in a war – if it has to happen this time, let’s hope it is a small one with no big bangs!

– Neil

I get more questions and comments about The Fourth Turning than any other book. It’s also required reading, although I remain … not suspicious … but unconvinced that demographic and super-cyclical transitions are investable ideas in any meaningful way. Meaningful to me, anyway.

Something I wanted to share about Trump. He is the antithesis of orthodoxy. And this makes him dangerous given that all issues seem to be structured as binary choices between two different orthodoxies. Globalist v. Nationalist, Progressive v. Conservative, Anti-this v. Pro-that. It’s everywhere. But what I realized is that the Republican v. Democrat is not one of them. They are the same in fact.

– Sal

Spot on. I’ve written about this polarization and shift in political identification in a couple of notes. It’s not so much the growing distance between the median Democrat and the median Republican that’s worrisome for stable policy in a two-party system. It’s that voter self-identification is becoming more and more distinct from party self-identification, so that “Democrat” or “Republican” is no longer shorthand for a wide range of behaviors. The last time we saw this (and not just in the U.S.) was in the 1930s.

About 10 days ago, marveling and laughing at how everyone back home was going absolutely nuts, I had a Eureka moment. I realized that Trump viewed his Presidency as the biggest and most complicated turn-around in the history of the world. He is following the turn-around playbook exactly. Looking at what he does and how he does it, using this prism, everything falls into a logical pattern. It even becomes logically predictable.

– Anonymous

Interesting piece. I think you may be missing a subtlety with regards to Trump’s negotiating style. He tends to be a “hard out of the gate” negotiator. His process is to push the other side to the mental and emotional breaking point, then back off to assure a “deal” gets done. He has a certain intuitive ability to find out exactly how far he can push, then back off. He’s been operating this way for almost 50 yrs. in the most competitive real estate environment in the world – NYC. It’s not a game of chicken where he doesn’t care if the deal gets done, then he walks away leaving the other party so pissed-off that they refuse to ever do business with him again. If that were true, he would have pissed off everyone in NYC by now and would never get a deal done. His brash outward appearance is quite paradoxical when compared to his pragmatism. He is not a very ideological person. His ultimate goal in any transaction is to maximize efficiency. To make that omelet, you gotta break a few eggs

Now does that make him a likeable character? Hell no! I personally don’t like the guy, but I believe he is the right agent of change that was needed for the current context. In any complex dynamic system, change is only born out of extremes. We were at a point in time where the extreme of Globalism had run its course. As always happens, a counter-vailing force was introduced to send the persistence of Globalism into a bout of turbulence. Hopefully this leads to a new trend in the opposite direction, but that hasn’t materialized yet. We will deal with some anti-persistence (turbulence) for a while. That’s a good thing. Change (turbulence) is messy both intellectually and emotionally, but it’s a necessary pain we must transcend. As the turbulence subsides, a new trend will emerge and gain some of its own persistence. It’s a wild ride living on this rock hurtling 1,000 mph through space. Best bet is to hold on, and try to enjoy the ride/view.

– Mark

These are both smart emails. I put them together because they touch on the run-America-like-a-business meme. I get the appeal of that idea, and I think these readers are correct in that this is a big part of the story that Trump tells himself. I’m also sure that his negotiation style is very effective in business, particularly the NY real estate business (as Mark says, it’s straight out of a Roger Fisher “Getting to Yes” class). But I think it’s both an ineffective and highly damaging negotiation style when it comes to Madisonian political institutions, particularly when coupled with Big Brother tech and enormous concentrations of private wealth. That’s my big problem with Trump, and that’s what I mean when I say that he breaks us.

I suppose that the men we have elected as President are generally representative of our Zeitgeist. It may be at times that spirit is not very strong or clearly defined resulting in a sort of caretaker President. At other times, like now, it is pretty strong and sharply defined. Trump is a very real individual occupying the White House — and Mar a Lago, Trump Tower and whatnot. He also is the result of some sort of cumulative consensus about what matters, what should be done and how it should be done. This Zeitgeist concerns me more than the man because it amplifies him and possibly would continue on even if he doesn’t.

My fund of historic knowledge isn’t sufficient, but it is all I have. I’ve thought about how other so called developed nations that marched into totalitarianism moved back to more civil and pluralistic states. The only examples I’ve come up with where this happened peacefully are Spain and Portugal. And that took about six decades. Some might suggest Burma but I think that jury is still having lunch. Otherwise it seems that a comprehensive social collapse usually brought about by international or civil war has been required to exhaust the spirit of the totalitarian ghost and thoroughly discredit the ideas it promulgated. Germany, Italy and England (Cromwell) come to mind. Most of the others are still totalitarian.

I hope my paucity of historic information has obscured many shining examples of societies that awoke from their paranoid dreams of universal competition to remember the benefits of being nice and cooperative. I hope I’ve dramatically exaggerated the fix we are in. I hope…..

– Tom

I don’t think you’ve exaggerated the fix we’re in. Not at all. I think we’re more likely to see 21st century totalitarianism delivered with a smiley-face than a jackboot, but only because the technology of persuasion is that good. And I also think that the ultimate winners in this struggle for control is less likely to be Trump and his apologists than whoever leads the Thermidorian Reaction against Trump.

I have increased my conversation-avoidance skills (something as a libertarian / monetarists / Classical economics-leaning guy I had to learn to do to live in NYC) since the Trump election. As you note, today, everything is a trip wire.

Many years ago, I realized (1) you very, very rarely change people’s minds even a little bit, (2) I don’t really care that much if I do and (3) even if I did, it would not have any impact on changing anything in the world. Hence, I try not to talk with anyone, but a very small number of people, about, to be honest, anything that means anything as – probably should have started here – I’m tired of arguing (see points 1 – 3 as to why).

Hence, my day to day, which was always a bit of topic avoidance, has been in full-on topic-avoidance mode since the election.

I fear my exhaustion is only going to increase.

– Anonymous

People are quick to take offense (where none was intended) at the slightest indication I am not on board with their political or economic leanings. Not nearly as much “give and take”, but more “take it or leave it”. I find myself having to explain that certain economic/investment principles I hold dear are not an endorsement of Trump (or any political stripe) and that because I happen to eschew identity politics doesn’t make me a lesser human, it just means I hold that certain unintended consequences happen when following certain paths of behavior. Hard to believe that such innocuous sounding phrases can be “trigger words” for those who are seeking redress for slights no matter how small or unintended.

I’ve been called many names by people who either refuse to have rational discussions or refuse to consider views that are alternative to their own. When I explain the situation we are currently in, nationally, in terms of economic consequences (game theory is generally too far out there for the average citizen) and how I am trying to make a buck (no different than under the previous six administrations) for myself and for clients, I’m treated with borderline loathing and disdain.

There is a feral quality to the angst experienced by those who lost in this election, something I’ve not experienced before. Trying to maintain a level head and an even-handed view of the world has become its own challenge. My response has been to start at home (getting things straight with my wife about what a Trump presidency does and does not mean, news media hysteria to the contrary), then work on our circle of friends, all well-educated but deeply biased to the blue side of the ledger, both socially and politically. The experience with our friends was interesting in that they know and like me, personally, but it took a three hour dinner party and some follow up, to finally get through to them that Tweets do not policy make and reactions to same do not make good bases for decisions, economic or otherwise.

Thanks for the lucid and erudite essays. They help more than you know.

– Anonymous

I’ve anonymized these two emails as best I can because they speak for me and, I think, lots of others out there.

The last two lines in your piece, “Know Thyself” and “Treat others as you would have them treat you” are the essential wisdoms from two traditions – Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism attempts to guide a person seeking a true understanding and relationship with themselves and Christianity seeks to guide people toward a true, healthy relationship with others.

A minister I heard last summer (he was an old Episcopalian who formally taught at Harvard Divinity) lamented that we, our culture, has sunk toward the “morbid pursuit of advantage”. Which I find to be such a brilliant phrase that I have frequently recalled it. That is the Competition Game in a nutshell. Morbid – because it is ultimately deadly. Deadly to the soul and deadly to the culture.

Jon

The “morbid pursuit of advantage”. Yep, that’s our zeitgeist.

Thanks for this. It is exactly what I’ve been experiencing and have tried to formulate into words, and the words into actions.

Good lessons for us and our children, and sooner or later we will all be forced to hear it. Like it or not.

They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint. Isaiah 40. Keeps me focused on perseverance.

DL

Words into actions. Perseverance. Sounds like a plan.

Thank you for taking the time to write this and share your thoughts. After having read it only once, I don’t know what to say, but I do know what I am going to do. I am going to share this with my 14 year old daughter. I am certain that it will foster a meaningful discussion and teach us both a few things.

– Natalie

As many readers know, I have four daughters. I write Epsilon Theory for them. And now for Natalie’s daughter, too. This is how we keep the darkness at bay. One daughter at a time.

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A Man Must Have a Code

The Wire

Mallow: It lacks glamour?

Jael: It lacks mob emotion-appeal.

Mallow: Same thing.

― Isaac Asimov, Foundation

It is the artist’s function not to copy but to synthesize: to eliminate from that gross confusion of actuality which is his raw material whatever is accidental, idle, irrelevant, and select for perpetuation that only which is appropriate and immortal.

― William Ernest Henley, Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation

Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple “wrong” would have done just fine.

― Billy Madison (1995)

Homer Simpson as Max Power: Kids, there’s three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way!

Bart Simpson: Isn’t that the wrong way?

Homer Simpson as Max Power: Yeah, but faster!

― The Simpsons, Season 10, Episode 13 “Homer to the Max”

Bunk Moreland: So, you’re my eyeball witness, huh?  So, why’d you step up on this?

Omar: Bird triflin’, basically. Kill an everyday workin’ man and all. I mean, I do some dirt, too, but I ain’t never put my gun on nobody that wasn’t in the game.

Bunk: A man must have a code.

Omar: Oh, no doubt.

― The Wire, Season 1, Episode 7

What is your code?

A few years back I worked at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. I was responsible for hiring ostensibly sophisticated money managers—hedge funds and others generally regarded as some of the most intelligent people our society has to offer. But the most impressive people I worked with were not London-based portfolio managers but two of my fellow laborers. At a public pension plan in Austin. Go figure.

The first, Dale West, is still probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever worked with, and with my current partners Jeremy Radcliffe and Ben Hunt, would round out my fantasy Bar Trivia team, a list that unsurprisingly overlaps with my do-not-play-poker-with list. (No, in all seriousness, never play poker with Ben Hunt or Jeremy Radcliffe.) A former rising star in the Foreign Service posted in Bucharest, I’m pretty sure Dale was largely responsible for fomenting the overthrow of Ceaușescu, but he maintains that the most exciting thing he did was wire a report back to Washington about the grand opening of the first McDonald’s in Romania. He might also say he was still an undergraduate in Austin at the time. Likely story.

I also had the pleasure of working directly for Chief Investment Officer Britt Harris, one of the wisest men and investors I have known. Britt is a native of the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, and, like Ben and me he takes peculiar pleasure in the “I’m just a country boy” hustle familiar to all accomplished southern gentlemen. As an investor-cum-philosopher-cum-preacher, Britt was and is famous for imparting that wisdom in particularly pithy turns of phrase—Britticisms, if you will. One such Britticism was the idea that any person who wants to be consistently successful as a human being, and especially as an investor, must have a World View.

In this sense, having a World View means having a center—a core set of philosophies about how the world works, what is objectively true and false, and what actually matters. More importantly, it means internalizing these philosophies so that they are second nature—and so that they become a natural lens through which we judge the world, and which we can describe succinctly to those who ask. It means having a confident view concerning how we come to any measure of knowledge about investing and markets.

To those who have studied philosophy, yes, I’m basically describing an epistemology for markets. But out of respect for the hustle, let’s call it a Code.

Unlike in abstract philosophy, however, developing a complete, fundamental view of the basis of our knowledge about markets is actually not a particularly good use of time and effort. Rationalists might argue for building thorough foundational theories on the underpinnings of human behavior, the resultant evolution of economic and financial systems and how those interact to create trillions of discrete price discovery events. Empiricists might argue instead for an ex-post analysis of price response to various identified factors or stimuli in order to develop a forward-looking framework for similar responses to similar stimuli.

The problem with both approaches is two-fold: first, the forces and individuals that comprise financial markets are far too complex to think we can ever have complete knowledge about what drives them.  Second, even when we can develop acceptable models, humans create massive error terms that we lump into the epsilon of our model, to be ignored and abstracted from. This, of course, is the genesis of Epsilon Theory as a framework for investors.

In the face of overwhelming complexity and the constant exogenous shock of human stupidity, what does it mean, then, to have a World View? What does it mean to have a Code? From my perspective, it means three things:

  1. You have a clear set of investing heuristics that are, by and large, provably true (i.e., what risks will be taken, and why do you believe they will be compensated?)
  2. You have a process for implementing those heuristics and for handling their exceptions (i.e., how do I take those compensated risks?)
  3. You can absorb new facts into your framework without breaking it.

The right way, the wrong way and the Wall Street way

The investment industry has embraced this notion of Codes to varying levels of success.

The best examples are natural, organic expressions of why an investment company was formed in the first place. Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA), a Texas-based firm (sorry, California) we admire very much, came into existence as a commercial expression of the pioneering work on the value premium by Professors Gene Fama and Ken French. DFA doesn’t claim to have every answer to every question, but they claim to have one or two very big, important answers that matter an awful lot. And they built a firm and a Code around it.

Some Codes are willed into being by visionaries. The most famous such example is probably Bridgewater Associates, which is famous for discussing the “timeless and universal” principles that they believe underpin both the economy and financial markets. Above even these market-oriented principles, Bridgewater leans upon the principles established by Ray Dalio over many years, now compiled into a 100+ page tome. Not everyone may agree with all of the principles, but it is hard not to admire their Code and especially their commitment to it.

One family office in Ohio we think highly of has so embraced the importance of the processes that put their Code into action that firm policy dictates a regular verbatim reading of these policies and procedures as a group—aloud!

Most of the industry is less inspiring. I’ve met with hundreds of hedge funds, private equity funds, equity, fixed income and credit managers over the last decade as an allocator. Unfortunately, this experience provides very little to dispel the popular conception of Wall Street as being populated by charlatans or, worse, salesmen. Unfortunately, an entire mythology has formed around the ability of due diligence or manager selection teams to pluck out the good fund managers from the bad through huge checklists, data requests and face-to-face meetings where you can “look them in the eye” to find out whether they’re good or bad people and good or bad investors.

It’s all nonsense.

The sad reality – or the happy reality, for road-weary due diligence professionals – is that 90% of evaluating a fund manager can be boiled down to a single question: “How and why do you make money?”

When you ask this question, a fund manager with a Code’s eyes will light up. The one without will pause and give you a quizzical look. “What do you mean?” He was prepared to tell you about his investment philosophy. He was prepared to tell you about his investment process – he had the funnel graphic and everything! He was prepared to tell you which five names added the most to his P&L that quarter. He was prepared to tell you about the sector he moved from 2% to 4% overweight.

What he wasn’t prepared to do is tell you why any of that matters.

Rather than adopting a Code, individual investors, financial advisors and investment firms alike tend to try to define themselves by either a formal stated philosophy or some informal self-applied label of the type of investor they are. Invariably these descriptions are banal and infinitely transferable to the point of irrelevance.

I die a little bit inside when a fund manager tells me that his investment philosophy is something to the effect of, “We believe that our rigorous bottom-up, fundamental analysis process coupled with prudent risk management will allow us to produce above average risk-adjusted returns.” This kind of statement is the surest sign that a fund manager has absolutely no idea what he is doing that will actually make money, in addition to being a sign that he is probably spending half his day in committee meetings. That is, coincidentally, the only decision-making structure that could come up with such a ridiculously incoherent investment philosophy.

Slightly more frequently, the fund manager expresses his philosophy by communicating how he sees the world differently from everyone else by seeing it just like everyone else. “Wall Street is just focused on the next quarter—our philosophy is that we will win by having a longer-term perspective.” I might consider this a lovely Code if every other equity fund manager in New York hadn’t said the same thing to me earlier that week.

Often the response isn’t an attempt at philosophy but a reference to the size of a research team (i.e., look at our cube farm of disaffected millennials pretending to work on a dividend discount model while they look for tech jobs!), as if there were some self-evident transfer coefficient between headcount and returns.

In perhaps the most common case, the investor eschews the more formal philosophy statements in favor of the simply applied label, such as, “I’m a value investor.” This, of course, is another way to say that you like to buy things you think are cheap because you expect them to be more expensive later. In other words, you are an investor. Congratulations, your certificate is in the mail, and meetings are every other Thursday at the VFW hall. The number of fund managers who think this is an adequate description of how they generate returns, perhaps self-lauding their own simplicity in light of the perceived difference in the way everyone else sees the world, is absolutely staggering.

What does a code look like?

And yet the problem with these isn’t that they are bad philosophies. Okay, that’s part of the problem. But the real problem is that even if they were good, they wouldn’t be useful. And they aren’t useful because they aren’t measurable and because they don’t provide any mechanism for decision-making. In our view, to be successful a Code should be explicit in highlighting four key beliefs:

  1. The things that matter.
  2. The things that don’t matter.
  3. The things that don’t always matter, but which matter now.
  4. The process and tools you’ll use to focus on what matters and dispense with what does not.

It really is that simple. In future pieces, I will walk through my Code – our Code – in hopes that it will help to apply the principles of Epsilon Theory. And I promise—no funnel charts.

Okay, maybe a few funnel charts.

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I’m Not Predicting, I’m Observing

George Soros has a great line, one that I’ve stolen many times: “I’m not predicting. I’m observing.” We really don’t have a crystal ball, and it really is a dumb idea to pretend that we do. But what’s not dumb is to keep your eyes and ears open, observing both what the world is telling you (playing the cards) and what other market participants are telling you (playing the players), and reacting accordingly. That’s the heart of tactical investing.

What I’m observing today is that the European *story* is broken. I’m not saying that real world European companies are broken or that real world European economies are broken. In both cases, a few are but most aren’t. What I’m saying is that the buy-Europe!™ story that has been pitched by the sell-side ad nauseam for the past six months is broken and that these stocks are defenseless against the steady stream of anti-Europe political news we are going to endure for the next eight weeks.

Here’s the S&P 500 Index (“SPX”) in white, German DAX Index (“DAX”) in green, and Stoxx 600 Index in red over the past six months:

Source: Bloomberg, as of 02/26/17. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is not indicative of how the index will perform in the future. The index reflects the reinvestment of dividends and income and does not reflect deductions for fees, expenses or taxes. The indices are unmanaged and are not available for direct investment.

Yes, the DAX has outperformed the SPX over the past six months. Why? Because every sell-side strategist and his cousin has been pounding the table that Europe is recovering and Europe is cheap and why worry about all those elections, anyway, because even if Le Pen wins it’ll just be like Brexit and everything will be fine.

The truth is I don’t know whether or not Le Pen will win in France this May. I don’t have a crystal ball. But what I do know is that nothing is happening between now and those elections that makes it less than a 50/50 coin toss whether Le Pen wins. There’s going to be a steady stream of negative press about all of the candidates from now until then, the difference being that core Le Pen supporters, like core Trump supporters, don’t care about the negative press. There is no story that could make these stocks go UP, but there will be plenty of stories that can make these stocks go DOWN.

And yes, I know that for “patient, long-term investors” and all the Warren Buffett wannabes out there, what happens over the next eight weeks doesn’t matter a bit, and if European stocks go down it just means that they’re even more “on sale”. But what I also know is that whenever I read a sell-side note talking about why something is a buy *today* for “patient, long-term investors”, that’s typically a signal to start shorting whatever they’re pitching. What I also know is that it’s a lot easier to be Warren Buffett when you’ve got $100 BILLION in more-or-less permanent capital from your insurance float. Good for him. Ain’t my situation. I’m guessing it isn’t yours, either.

But the risk here isn’t just a temporary blip on the European horizon. Here’s a picture of 2-yr French bond yields to 2-yr German bond yields (yellow), 2-yr Italian bond yields to Germany (red), and 2-yr Spanish bond yields to Germany (green) over the past six months. If you lived through the summer of 2011, this chart should give you a shiver.

Source: Bloomberg, as of 02/26/17. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

This is telling you that bond markets are starting to get really nervous about Europe and the stability of the Euro system, and the time frame of their nervousness is over the next two years. Could all this blow over if we get a market-friendly political result in May? Absolutely. And if that happens, maybe I’ll buy Europe THEN. But until then, I’ll listen to what the bond market is telling me over whatever Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and the rest of our sell-side friends is pitching me. I’m not predicting. I’m observing.

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