Riding the Cyclone

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some sort of chord that has been struck in Narrative-world.


A $1,800 Drop in Minutes: Bitcoin Volatility on Full Display    [Yahoo Finance]

Bitcoin soared as much as 39% this week to $13,852, the highest since January 2018. But it hit a brick wall around 4:30 p.m. New York time Wednesday, plunging more than $1,800 within about 10 minutes. Moments later, prominent cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase Inc. reported an outage on its consumer site, which was resolved in under an hour.

Swings continued Thursday, with the coin anywhere from down 15% to up 4.8%. It was down 15% to $11,111 as of 12:23 p.m. in New York. Volatility in Bitcoin is near the highest levels since early 2018, when the bubble was bursting.

Analysts said this was likely a sign of things to come.

Sorry, just couldn’t help myself when I grabbed this photo of the Cyclone rollercoaster. Had to isolate these two gents, not to diss but out of respect. This is authentic joy, in a world where that can be mighty hard to come by.

Hey, I’m Big Lou … I’m just like you. Except rollercoasters make me too dizzy to ride these days.

The rollercoaster nature of Bitcoin is a feature, not a bug.

It is not to be wished away or adulterated. It is to be celebrated. It is an integral and authentically joyful part of the experiential or performance art that IS Bitcoin.

People always think I’m trolling or dissing when I call bitcoin a work of art, but they couldn’t be more wrong. It is my highest praise. The creation of good art is – in my opinion – what we are put on this earth to do. It is our highest calling.

I’m totally serious about that, btw.

There is lasting value in good art, because it is a very scarce thing and it never gets used up. The notion that Bitcoin would ever “go to zero” is ludicrous. Good art is always worth something.

But how do we measure that something … how do we put a price on the value of good art at this particular moment in time? It’s a REALLY tough question.

Why? Because we don’t have a toolkit for it.

We have plenty of toolkits for measuring cash flows, both current and prospective. We have plenty of toolkits for measuring the “fundamentals” of this thing or that thing that we want to buy or sell. We can argue about whether the price we ask for this collection of fundamental metrics is too high, or whether the price we bid for this collection of fundamental metrics is too low, but there IS a shared conception – a common knowledge – for the process of pricing the value of “fundamentals”.

But there are no cash flows to art. There are no fundamentals to art. There is no common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows – on valuation metrics for art.

There is only story. There is only narrative. There is only how story and narrative make us FEEL.

Again, I don’t say this as a put-down. I say this in awe.

The price of Bitcoin, like the price of any great work of experiential or performance art, is entirely based on narratives.

The price of Bitcoin is entirely based on how these narratives make us FEEL.

Gold, too.

Over the past few months, we’ve developed a new toolkit for measuring stories and narratives, for moving beyond conditioning attributes like sentiment and identifying structural attributes like attention and cohesion.

It’s a major advance in what we call the Narrative Machine.

We first wrote about this new toolkit here, with an application to stock market sectors:

And most recently here, with the results of our test of that application:

We’re now ready to turn this toolkit on Bitcoin and gold, to see what the Narrative Machine can tell us about the price of both.


ET Election Index: The First Debate, Part 2

This content is related to the Epsilon Theory Election Index, a series we introduced here in hopes of better informing citizens and voters about the political narratives present in US national media.


With both cattle call Democratic debates in the books, what’s the narrative? What does everyone know that everyone knows? Below, as before, we examine our standard network graph, built on linguistic similarity to identify the internal consistency and attention on various topics and candidates

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Our takeaways from this coverage:

  • The narrative from the second part of the first debate boils down to two stories told frequently, with intensely linked language:
    • That the debates and the election are about identity narratives, the credibility / authenticity attached to them, and the ongoing negotiation of each candidate’s cartoon.
    • That Kamala Harris dealt Joe Biden a body blow.
  • Nearly the entire northeast quadrant of the graph is populated by social questions and identity: Buttigieg’s comments about what a Christian is and questions about his handling of the shooting of a black citizen by a white police officer in his town, Swalwell’s repeated references to generations and the passing of a torch, and above all, Harris’s jabs at Biden over bussing and his past association with segregationists.
  • As a related issue, we also note that the language (not topics, but affect) driving much of the clustering appears to be that of the verbal jabs and attacks delivered. Clusters typified by issue and policy response language (mostly on the far south axis of the visualization) are almost completely sundered and isolated from these much higher attention, more cohesive identity clusters.
  • The Biden narrative sentiment post-debate has been as negative as we have noted in our pre-debate narrative analyses.
  • In essentials, a lot of media wanted to talk about Harris and her jabs at Biden and a similar number wanted to talk about questions of identity and social fairness/equality. A very small number of articles, on the other hand, were devoted to discussions of policy. The overlapping language between those universes of articles was shrinkingly small.
  • What has the narrative not been?
    • Donald Trump, perhaps surprisingly. His tweets, reactions, and even any of the common linguistic references to Trump were almost completely divorced from the core content and narratives covering the debates.
    • Climate Change. So far, the stories being told about the debate-side of the election have been almost silent on this topic, although in fairness, it was not a major topic for questions.
    • Bernie Sanders. While front-and-center, with plenty of air time and a lot of prominent remarks, Sanders has captured almost none of the post-debate narrative. This is quite a turn from pre-debate media, which consistently published its most cohesive and high attention commentary about the Vermont Senator. Beyond this, despite it coming up as a topic, post-debate narratives don’t seem to be organized around the wealth/income inequality issue in the same way that media before has been.
  • Here are the five most on-narrative takes published about the first debate:

Narrative Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Being a full-time missionary – someone who leans on the power of memes and narrative to nudge others into some particular way of looking at the world – often requires a certain amount of sociopathy. Not always, of course. We’ve written several times about when and how we think narrative can be marshaled to serve worthier causes than the interests of a nudging oligarchy. To wit:

Still, it is no coincidence that when we run down our list of professions we collectively associate with corrupt, dishonest people, nearly every one is intrinsically dependent on selling you a story. And every one that isn’t is perceived as being corrupt because they are either seen as the source of that corruption in others (e.g. Lobbyists) or as the agent of structures seemingly designed to fail to live up to promised service standards (e.g. HMO Managers, Nursing Home Operators).

Source: Composite of 2016-2018 responses to Gallup’s Americans’ Ratings of the Honesty and Ethical Standards of Professions Survey

Not all storytellers are missionaries, of course. When we refer to missionaries, we are referring to a game theoretic concept. We mean the people who seek to steer and influence common knowledge – the things that we all know that everyone knows. That, or they’re people who are in a position where they can’t help but influence common knowledge, because their pronouncements are the kind that everyone knows that everyone else has heard. Presidents. Congressmen and women. CEOs. Celebrities. Tech visionaries. Major media personalities and outlets. Within just the investment community, there are similarly prominent voices. Fed Chairs. Activists. Celebrity PMs.

The sort of elective sociopathy that it takes to succeed as a self-interested missionary almost always rests on two malignant abilities: the willingness to stretch the truth, and the fortitude to stick with a story no matter how it goes wrong (or who it hurts). We’ve written a lot about the former.

We have written less about the latter, although it is a crucially important human tendency to monitor in ourselves and others all the same. The unwillingness to admit error is part of an equilibrium-maintaining strategy in a narrative-driven competitive game, and our susceptibility to it is a testament to the human animal as a living embodiment of Gell-Mann Amnesia. In short, we are built to empower unrepentant liars. More disconcertingly, in a widening gyre, those who cultivate the skill are more likely to rise to power of all varieties (yes, even more than normal).

When a missionary permits common knowledge about himself or his ideas to break – the veils of abstraction around their identity or the narrative they’ve promoted nearly always break, too. All of the once-removed models for how we saw and thought about the person and what they meant, the justifications we conjured for their behavior or actions, the cultural significance of believing the reports about them – all disappear almost immediately. Even when the same evidence or factual knowledge exists, absent an admission of error, we still find it brutally difficult to shed the abstractions which color our interpretations of whatever they are purported to be guilty of, especially if we have powerfully positive or negative opinions about the person.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s a fascinating little study on this topic from Richard Hanania at Columbia University’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies (h/t to Rob Henderson). The gist is this: if your standard is the public perception and credibility of the offender, apologies don’t work. They hurt.

Admission of error is the enemy of narrative.

Yes, there are consultants and others who counsel these people to admit error, but that isn’t because the apology will aid their public perception or any narrative that they are promoting. It is almost always because our taboos require the act of penance to permit others to do business / interact with that person again in an economic sense, which – since we’re talking about influential and famous people here – will almost always happen.

If we want to see more clearly through narrative abstractions, well, we can’t eliminate our sensitivity to those stubborn memes, but there are more lessons here for us as citizens and investors. There are things I think we CAN do:

  • We can seek to be wise enough to be more skeptical in general of those not given to admitting error.
  • We can seek to be wise enough to be more merciful in general to those who do.

It isn’t easy. It will make us vulnerable. We will get burned. But it IS one of those rare places where the often-conflicting philosophies of Clear Eyes and Full Hearts align.

ET Election Index: The First Debate

This content is related to the Epsilon Theory Election Index, a series we introduced here in hopes of better informing citizens and voters about the political narratives present in US national media.


With one debate down (and another to come tonight), we take a brief step back to look at how media are telling the story about the debate and its participants. As usual, we start with the network graph from our queries of national and local media, blogs and magazines published today about yesterday’s debates.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Our takeaways from this coverage:

  • In general, coverage has been pretty negative. Format, technical difficulties, reviews of individual performances, single-issue opinion writers upset that their issue didn’t get enough airtime, etc. Not unusual for debates to have these logistical criticisms pop up, but there really weren’t any positive language clusters. No shining stars or issues that really popped out consistently in media coverage.
  • The one possible exception might be Tulsi Gabbard, whose dedicated coverage has been more on-narrative than her pre-debate coverage has been at any point. While not polling in a place to make her a credible challenger at this point, we think (our opinion, not fact) that her willingness to speak brashly on military and police action is likely to be a continuing point of provocation for moderate, traditional Democratic candidates.
  • Other than round-up pieces, the most central clusters to the narrative emerging from the debates include language about (1) border detention, (2) gender and equality and (3) an economy that “isn’t working for everyone.”
  • As we’ve observed elsewhere, the narrative that continues to resonate and is most often and loudly repeated by missionaries in media uses the language of economic socialism and intense emphasis on the situations of poor and minority citizens.
  • Other wonkish topics and policies may matter to voters, but they aren’t – and we think, won’t – be the issues that come before citizens through the media.
  • Warren-relative language was ubiquitous throughout the clusters – so much so that there isn’t really a Warren cluster. They are ALL Warren clusters.
  • That doesn’t mean the coverage was universally positive or cohesive. Our general sense is that most media narratives were mixed on her performance, at best. Most used this as an opportunity to present some of the lower-polling candidates as “surprises” or “underdogs.”
  • As cringe-worthy and meme-worthy as many (including comedians and late-night hosts) found Beto’s unprompted Spanish response to be, coverage of it is peripheral to the narratives emerging from the debate. We have other reasons for concern about the trajectory of his candidacy, but we are sellers of the idea that this is a deadly issue.
  • Same goes for technical difficulties – both are just being treated as quirky side issues.
  • Here are the five most on-narrative takes published about the first debate:

Pirate Bay

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some sort of chord that has been struck in Narrative-world.


What Happens After Amazon’s Domination Is Complete? Its Bookstore Offers Clues   [NY Times]

“The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy” is a medical handbook that recommends the right amount of the right drug for treating ailments from bacterial pneumonia to infected wounds. Lives depend on it.

It is not the sort of book a doctor should puzzle over, wondering, “Is that a ‘1’ or a ‘7’ in the recommended dosage?” But that is exactly the possibility that has haunted the guide’s publisher, Antimicrobial Therapy, for the past two years as it confronted a flood of counterfeits — many of which were poorly printed and hard to read — in Amazon’s vast bookstore.

Mr. Kelly’s problems arise directly from Amazon’s domination of the book business. 

This is a flat-out damning article, relating example after example of Amazon screwing over legitimate authors on their industry-dominating online bookstore.

If you are (super) charitably inclined towards Bezos and team, you might characterize Amazon’s attitude as one of benign neglect to all the counterfeit books running rampant on the website. A fairer reading, though, would conclude that Amazon bears some civil if not criminal responsibility here, that the thievery they allow “is not really negligence on Amazon’s part. It is the company’s business model.”

Basically, The NY Times is accusing Amazon of being a slightly updated and more upscale version of Pirate Bay, the rogue Swedish website that would allow any cracked videogame or stolen content or counterfeit software app to be put up for download on its site. Worse, of course, Amazon is making hundreds of millions of dollars selling the counterfeit merchandise, as opposed to being engaged in free “performance art” as claimed by Pirate Bay.

So just to be clear … this article rings totally true to me.

I think that Amazon is a monopolist that routinely abuses its market position in exactly the way this article suggests – not as an accident, but as part and parcel of a rapacious business strategy.

But I also have to ask myself … why am I reading this article now? why does it seem like I am being told how to FEEL about Amazon in this article?

It raises the narrative hackles on my neck when I see a writer say “Lives depend on it.” in the opening paragraph about an online bookstore and their third-party distributors. I mean … if lives truly could be saved or lost in your use of an anti-microbial handbook, are you buying a discount copy from UsedText4u? Are we really saying that Amazon is, to use DoublePlusGood DemSocTalk, “putting lives at risk” by letting third-party distributors sell books without checking in advance – not in arrears or after complaints, but in advance – the provenance and quality of those books?

In fact, yes, that is exactly what this article is saying.

Setting up a quick process for authors and publishers to take down counterfeit books (Amazon’s Project Zero) is “an insult”. Yes, an insult. “Why should we be responsible for policing Amazon for fakes?” he said. “That’s their job.”

Again, I am NOT saying that nothing is wrong here. There is CLEARLY a problem here, and I TRULY feel bad for the authors/publishers of this book and every other book that’s being counterfeited or “summarized”. I am ANTI-Amazon, not pro-Amazon.

But this is Fiat News. This is an author who does not trust the reader to come up with the right conclusion, but believes it necessary to “shape” the reader’s “journey” through this story arc.

Barf.

The Fiat Newsiest part of this article? The title.

What Happens After Amazon’s Domination is Complete? Its Bookstore Offers Clues

There is nothing in this article other than a damning critique of the online bookstore. Nothing. The author, David Streitfeld, has written (and written well) an investigation of the bookstore’s business practices. Not to be outdone, however, the headline editor decides that this is not enough, that to fully communicate the horror that is Amazon we must extrapolate from the bookstore today to ALL of e-commerce tomorrow. Again, there’s absolutely none of this in the text of the article. But who reads the text of an article these days, anyway?

I dunno. At this point maybe I’m seeing fiat newsy ghosts and ulterior narrative intent even where they don’t exist. Maybe I’m so sensitized to the whole journalist-as-principal thing that I can’t read straight anymore. And I really am anti-Amazon.

But this is a hatchet job.

And I see this sort of writing EVERYWHERE.


We Didn’t Say it WASN’T a Press Release

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some sort of chord that has been struck in Narrative-world.


Discretionary Consumption Becomes Law In The Land Of Lincoln [Benzinga via Morningstar]

There are a couple reasons I’m intrigued by this story ranking so high on the Zeitgeist today. The first one is that weed stocks have been remarkably resilient as a part of the financial media Zeitgeist. My suspicion is that this is simply being driven by clicks, and if you write about weed and weed stocks, you’re going to get those clicks in ways that writing about, say, Clorox wouldn’t get you. Doesn’t hurt that Motley Fool’s business model, whatever it was originally, is now basically pitching investments cannabis ideas to your boomer relatives on Facebook, either.

But I’m also fascinated by how often these Benzinga articles keep ranking as highly as they do. Every one we see is syndicated through Morningstar, reads like a news article, transitions to an obvious pitch, and never really discloses that it was really just a press release disguised as news. Is there any chance that the average person researching mutual funds on Morningstar.com, would know that? It’s really misleading, and really disappointing.

You rarely see a They Live meme-worthy transformation of newsy-looking content to pure pay-to-distribute opinion journalism in the course of a single piece, but well, here we are:

I suppose it goes without saying, but “Why am I reading this NOW?” should be your go-to on just about any site that syndicates content like this as news, sight-unseen. Add Morningstar to that list.

The ANDs of Asylum

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories. On the weekend, we leave finance to cover the last week or so in other shifting parts of the Zeitgeist – namely, politics and culture. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But these are articles that have struck a chord in narrative world. 


Bringing the Border to the Front Range [Boulder Weekly]

Increasingly rare, but powerful even so, are pieces which demonstrate high connectivity in narrative structure not because of their adherence to a particular common narrative, but because they connect otherwise disparate language with their own familiar language. It is the power of AND, a thing that most on-narrative journalism and writing misses, so caught up in hewing to some particular interpretation of facts.

This is one. It does not shy away from discussing conditions of detention facilities at the border.

AND it does not shy away from discussing an influx of asylum-seekers that is not a fantasy.

AND it tells both the stories of those who fear the current administration’s policy’s effects, and those who admit that, under some definitions, it is working.

The piece is feature journalism. There are opinions, affected language and structural decisions that convey a view in this piece. But broadly? This is gyre-closing, not gyre-widening work. No, it’s not about always naively presenting ‘both sides’. It’s about remembering that most of our complicated issues warrant far more ANDs.

Zeitgeist Narrative Map – Week of June 16 in Review

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

This is the map that links them all together for the week gone by.


Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory
  • The week’s macro focused news (NE quadrant) emphasized the Fed above all – for obvious reasons
    • We note, however, that China and trade were never far from the language used to discuss Fed policy
  • Language relating to Iran and oil prices was more connected than we would have expected. A little drilling down demonstrates that there is some active linking of ‘geopolitical risk’ and ‘wag the dog’ narratives around China, Iran and easy Fed policy
  • Beyond Meat’s adopted taxonomy is not even part of the go-go growth language cluster (NW quadrant). It’s in pure pitch-to-retail land (SW quadrant), through and through, a la Tesla. Proceed with caution.
  • As with almost every other network we observe, education and health care / health care cost-related language remains central to almost every graph
  • We were surprised to see Slack as disconnected from the rest of the language we would otherwise have expected to be related – whether growth or in retail-friendly momentum language – but that’s exactly where it was. Alone and on its own with only limited connection to any market narrative.
    • We are not sure what this says about the IPO frenzy or Slack as a business, but it isn’t being connected to bigger ‘thematic’ market commentary in the way other IPOs in the last year have

The Half-Happy Horror


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The Judgment of Solomon, Gaspar de Crayer (c.1620)

Optimization is a scourge.

I say this as someone who is as addicted to efficiency as anyone I know. I have a chart – not a mental chart, but an actual on-paper chart – of which of the three specific routes I should take to my office by day and time. I almost never schedule same-day meetings because I find it disruptive to planned periods of work on certain projects. I set up a mise en place for making Kraft Mac & Cheese for my kids, for God’s sake. My biggest average allocation to public markets in non-taxable accounts for several years has been to risk parity. Much of the rest has sat in systematic trend-following and behavioral premia strategies. I am an optimizer, y’all.

Yet I have also spent my career as an allocator to investment strategies observing what both explicit and implicit goal-seeking does to investors and their processes.

I’m not really talking about the robustness of objective-function optimized portfolios to changes in key variables or estimation methodologies, although just a shred of epistemic humility in portfolio construction would go a long way with some quants. I’m also not really talking about the mean-variance frontier-plotting and JP Morgan GTTM-driven Monte Carlo slides I see being put in front of clients (and which I have, from time to time, put in front of them myself). Feel seen? Throw a rock in the air and you’ll hit someone guilty.

But what I really mean is this:

Our need to manage common knowledge about multiple competing objectives in an optimization-centric framework makes us into professional cartoonists.

The Lip-Service Cartoon

I’m not saying anything outlandish here. If you’re a professional investor, you’ll be familiar with this – especially the lip-service cartoon. This is the one where we pretend – and ask everyone else to pretend – that our secondary and tertiary objectives or constraints are conveniently totally achievable without impacting our primary pursuit, even when they’re not.

I have written about this recently in context of post-secondary education, where optimization’s effects are obvious. The stories we tell about college are that it ought to serve three objectives, usually all at once:

  • College should broaden horizons, providing a foundation of historical, philosophical, aesthetic and scientific knowledge and the critical thinking needed to process problems raised by or answerable using that knowledge;
  • College should prepare students to enter and be successful in a profession; and
  • College should provide an environment for the socialization, personal growth and independence of young adults.

In practice, by any realistic measure of revealed preferences American universities don’t really optimize for any of these things. As we have argued, we think they mostly target maximizing the signal sent about the underlying intellectual, temperamental and socioeconomic and demographic traits of their degree-holders, because, well, that’s what our culture has permitted and what alumni donors demand.

Is it true that critical study of history, philosophy and language can improve the quality of thinking? Of course it is! If you’ve been reading Epsilon Theory very long, you will know that we believe the same Big Ideas tend to permeate almost every area of human activity, and that identifying those variants and their memetic attachments in the wild can be a meaningful advantage to our thinking. You’ll also know that we are passionate about the human importance of art and creation. The cartoon isn’t in recognizing the importance of these things. It isn’t even in recognizing that they may have some value for multiple objectives. The cartoon is in our pretense that coursework in music theory and the emergence of proto-Celtic language and cultures from other Beaker societies will be just as important to professional pursuits or personal growth of young adults as it is to living an enriched life. By corollary, however many hours you spend studying Kant, it won’t make you as good at your job as spending the same amount of time doing that job or preparing more directly for it.

To maintain the cartoon, we must pretend that it will.

Our pressure to create these cartoons can be traced to our sensitivity to common knowledge about those secondary and tertiary objectives that we are ‘balancing’. It is untenable – unacceptable – to be seen as not seeking out those objectives, and it is desirable under almost every governing narrative of the Zeitgeist to be seen as pursuing them. The inevitable result is that they get only as much of our energy and attention as is necessary to maintain the cartoon.

If you want to see this in financial markets, look no further than the methods your value managers provide for avoiding value traps (which will, I assure you, be disregarded as not being relevant in this particular case when it suits them), most ESG overlays, and almost every risk report provided by a non-integrated risk team to the portfolio management team. Pro-tip: the more a PM you are interviewing goes on about how much having daily access to these risk statistics has really changed their thinking, the more full of shit they are.

In fairness, it isn’t that they’re lying – it’s that the cartoon permits them to act as if the balancing of multiple objectives is serendipitously bereft of any tradeoffs. Their process is just that good.

The Measurement Cartoon

Sometimes our cartoon isn’t that we wave our hands at potential tradeoffs between our objectives, pretending that some magical alignment of our ideas permits the kind of synergy never found in nature. Instead, the cartoon is the pretense that we have the capacity to measure what those trade-offs are, even when we don’t.

The most inevitable cartoons of this variety, I think, are those built around liquidity. Our industry gets the occasional reminder that liquidity matters, such as with the recent Woodford business in the UK, or the Third Ave blow-up a few years back. After those events, there’s usually a 12-18 month cycle in which people Really Care about it. They add a few more questions to their DD questionnaires, and once the answers from fund managers congeal around some standardized answer, the questions largely stop, other than in the most perfunctory way. That is, until the SEC passed 22e-4, a rule establishing the requirement for a liquidity risk management program for open-end investment companies. It requires the mapping and publishing of position liquidity in four different categories.

In this case, we have a rule requiring the creation of a cartoon, and lest anyone is laboring under any delusions here, that’s exactly what investors will get. I’ve provided below a helpful example of the rule, its standards, the cartoon responses investors will receive and the real response investors would get if the industry were concerned about telling them the truth:

The point, of course, is not that liquidity isn’t important. When it matters, it matters a lot. And when it matters a lot, things are happening that are often not quantifiable in ways that will make sense under any objective quantification scheme in a normal environment. Asset class flows, manager-specific flows, market direction and available position-level liquidity are all pro-cyclical. As has almost always been the case, these cartoons will tell a happy story about liquidity to investors…until it’s too late. In other words, the value ascribed to a liquidity bucket is an ephemeral, practically useless figure that gives false comfort and context to manager and investor alike.

There are other examples of how we optimize for multiple objectives by turning a complicated secondary objective that deserves our respect into a cartoon we hand over to ALPS, BNY or our internal risk management team. Highly leveraged funds whose managers have ever uttered the words ‘Cornish-Fisher expansion’ to a client, you are correctly detecting side-eye. In all such cases, there’s nothing disqualifying or wrong about using guideposts or systematic measures, but when we optimize for some key objective (return or volatility-adjusted return) and explain away others (maintaining adequate liquidity) by constructing a cartoon to ‘measure’ them away, we’re gonna have a bad time.

The Mitigant Cartoon

In still other circumstances, we know that we can’t measure a secondary thing we care about, so the hand-waving takes a different form. We don’t have measurements. We have mitigants.

To be fair, mitigants are real things. AND they are often the basis of cartoonish abstractions that allow us to dismiss important things we ought to honestly, fully consider. We know that excessive leverage and concentration in this strategy creates potentially outsized risks to the portfolio, but worry not: in portfolio transparency we have a powerful mitigant. We know that there’s an unusual capital structure which could permit the intentional impairment of our class of interest, but the principal is a public personality with long-term clients in the same class. These are strong mitigants, you see.

The problem with mitigant cartoons – and what distinguishes them from actual mitigants, is that they are among the most basic tools of confirmation bias. They provide ready answers to our concerns which, like our other cartoons, miraculously seem to support the unbridled pursuit of whatever our primary objective was in the first place.

When we build too much of our thinking around optimization instead of good-faith, knowingly messy, honest evaluation of conflicting facts and circumstances, we will inevitably find that all of our problems become just-so stories. They will perfectly explain, measure or mitigate away the things we have to be seen to care about but don’t. They will perfectly support our single-minded pursuit of the things we do care about.

The Half-Happy Horror

Look, the idea here isn’t that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. An incredible share of life is obviously about finding balance between conflicting things, priorities and ideas – whenever it’s possible to do that, that is. The idea also isn’t that we shouldn’t adopt systematic methodologies -quite the opposite, as I frankly think these tendencies to optimize are stronger for those who don’t constrain their processes to rules (yes, it is clearly quite possible to systematize predispositions in such rules, too).

The idea is simply that optimization of decisions involving multiple objectives and constraints – whether fully systematic, rules-based or discretionary – is the kind of thing that should always cause the responsible investor and citizen to step back. Especially when the alternative is often a solution that will make everyone half-happy, which in a zero-sum game is no solution at all.

What can that person do?

  • We can (try to) be honest with ourselves. If we have a constraint, a risk, or a secondary objective in our strategy we’re trying to balance with another, are we giving them lip service? Are we draping them in unwarranted quantification so that we can consider them ‘solved’? Are we clothing them in ‘mitigants’ so that we can check the box and move on?
  • We can focus on ANDs. The language we use to talk about multiple objectives often betrays our attention and the considerations we would just as soon wave our hands at. In my experience, it is critically important to start from a place that considers all facts as ANDs, rather than presuming their relationship to one another.
  • We can try to simplify our decisions. Where possible, simplifying decisions and our responses to them so that we truly can focus on a narrower set of objectives – not through abstraction, but in truth – can help a great deal. With portfolios, maintaining a lens to conceptualizing pools of capital as serving discrete objectives can be an effective management tool.

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A Modern Vocational Curriculum

When I wrote Starry Eyes and Starry Skies a few weeks back, I made the argument that adequate vocational training for just about every financial services job I could think of would take several months (at most). A few readers asked me why I didn’t think that a longer, more in-depth liberal arts education had value. They clearly didn’t read the piece.

Still, it’s worthy of an answer: I do think it has value. But its value is caught up in the conflicted mess of the three products being sold by American universities: mind-expanding liberal education, vocational training and credibility signaling. We do no service to those whose jobs will ultimately never require them to use even the most modest insights or critical thinking gained from detailed study of Dostoevsky by forcing them to do so for four or more years. We likewise do no service to those who would learn for learning’s sake and yet subject them to four years of watered down classes that have to justify their value in some vocational or competitive signaling sense against other departments or institutions.

When you try to solve for multiple problems, you are almost always solving for only one.

A few other readers who actually read the piece asked me what I thought that truncated vocational training would look like. More recently, the CEO of Presto, a hospitality technology company, posted a similar, if more general question. Specifically, he asked:

If you could redesign college education for smart people who don’t know what they want to be, what would it look like?

His answer was quite good. I just have a different take. So here’s my answer: an intensive set of three separate quarterly sessions over a period of nine months, structured not to identity what is most important but to target the fundamental modern skills that are not necessarily more easily acquired in a work-place setting, and which provide the easiest ramp for additional hard- and soft-skill development in other areas once in that professional environment. It is an important distinction, because in almost every case, the most important determinants of success will have little to do with curriculum and knowledge, and far more to do with temperament, values and natural abilities in a range of different areas.

The topics excluded in the curriculum are left out for very different reasons. You don’t include econometrics because it’s useless unless you plan to become a graduate-level economist. You don’t include a productivity software class because two weeks of Excel without a mouse in your first job will do a better job of it. You don’t include an ethics course because if you are prone to unethical behavior, it sure as hell ain’t gonna be a class that changes that.

I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments how much you hate it.


Quarter 1

Quarter 1, Module 1: Professional Writing

Good writing is the rarest skill among young professionals I have hired. It is also the trait shared among those who progressed quickly in accomplishment and responsibility.

  • Short-form writing:
    • Extracting and synthesizing key information
    • Bulletized / short-form writing
    • Note-taking
    • Email / slack-style
  • Long-form writing:
    • Technical
    • Analytical

Quarter 1, Module 2: Calculus

I’ll get the most argument on this one. But y’all, there really are a lot of jobs that benefit from understanding the calculation and implications of rates of change. You need more math than high school gives you.

  • Limits, integrals and derivatives
  • Differential equations
  • Optimization and graph construction

Quarter 1, Module 3: Fundamental Managerial and Financial Accounting

Every graduate who might work in some kind of business or non-profit (which is, as it happens, just about all of them) should be able to read and largely understand its financial statements, and should have some sense of how to build a similar financial statement for a household or small enterprise.

  • Ledgers, accounts, line items, debits and credits
  • Accruals and cash
  • Assets, liabilities, equity, income and expenses
  • Standardized structure (IS/BS/CF)

Quarter 1, Module 4: Interviewing, Public Speaking and Debate

Most university graduates are terrible extemporaneous, prepared, ad hoc and informal verbal communicators.

  • Basic formal logic
  • Research, preparation and performance techniques
  • Interview question formulation, conducting
  • Email, phone, conference call, video call, and meeting-size variable etiquette
  • Practical settings

Quarter 2

Quarter 2, Module 1: Capital Markets

You could call this corp fin, too, but importantly. the right course design here needs to emphasize far more about fund-raising, sources of capital and project/investment return evaluation, and far less about valuation techniques and grinding out WACC calculations. In short, a young professional should know what ROI means, the kinds of decisions that improve it, and the kinds of manipulation that others will practice to make it look improved. They should also know what secondary financial markets are and how they work at a high level.

  • Forms, sources and costs of capital
  • Returns and project evaluation
  • Capital structure optimization, credit and risk
  • Secondary markets

Quarter 2, Module 2: Statistics and Probability

  • Conditional probabilities
  • Measuring relationships, regression, optimization
  • Measuring central tendency and distribution characteristics
  • Interpretations, esp. applicability of generalized measures

Quarter 2, Module 3: Programming in Python

This will change at some point in the future. For now, any graduate of any post-secondary program purporting to have vocational influence should be at least proficient in the structure, syntax and methods of Python programming.

  • Structure and syntax, objects and classes
  • Libraries, API and packages
  • Functional programming
  • Data integration
  • Intro to ML, NLP, Tensorflow, etc.

Quarter 2, Module 4: Modern Sectors, Industries and Trade

Macroeconomics curricula are only slightly less useless for most students than microeconomics versions. The gap left for most students by removing them, however, is a simple, if detailed survey of what kinds of companies are out there, what their business models are, how they integrate, who their vendors and customers are, how they make money and how they fund themselves.


Quarter 3

Quarter 3, Module 1: Project / Experiment Management

The skill at organizing projects and resources is a technical one useful to almost any entry-level professional role. It is also a philosophical one that is critical to growth in managerial or leadership positions.

  • Workflows and dependencies
  • Timing, resource allocation
  • Organizational design
  • Conventions for group communication, meetings, logistical planning
  • Marketing experiment design and execution

Quarter 3, Module 2: Databases and Data Analysis

Most skill with data analysis tools and techniques will be best developed in a working environment on live projects. But fundamental knowledge here is important to building those skills.

  • Data classification, ordering and storage
  • Data retrieval, metadata and queries
  • Common data analysis techniques and packages
  • Applied statistical techniques

Quarter 3, Module 3: Business Law

The first job a graduate has should not be the first time they’ve read a contract, encountered its peculiar terms of art, navigated between defined terms and a contract body, or seen disclaimers, indemnities or closing conditions.

  • Torts and contracts
  • Regulation, regulators and SROs
  • Universal principles, esp. fraud

Quarter 3, Module 4: Hospitality

No fourth module this quarter. Instead, everyone works a food service job.

No, I’m not kidding.

Classes on sales are nonsensical gobbledygook, but the idea is right. It’s just something that can only be captured in a practical setting. If most graduates lack anything as much as they do writing and general communication skills, it is an understanding of how to respond with grace under pressure. It is the realization that one is always, always selling in every direction in any professional setting. It is a mentality that emphasizes hospitality, a much better and more comprehensive concept than client service or customer service models.

All told, with decent instructors, I’d be happy to put up a graduate of this program of equal natural abilities against a graduate of any undergraduate program in the country.


It’s unrealistic, I suppose, to consider that we will be able to break the stranglehold that signaling-based institutions have on structuring an expensive four years that functionally serves only a portion of students at all, and almost nobody well. Still, it is worthwhile for us to go through thought experiments like this, if only to perform self-evaluations, give thought to how we structure our professional education programs within our businesses, and how our own children’s educations are going.

It is also important for us to consider how we can make it feasible for a true, liberally minded, horizons-expanding education to exist without the frequently oppositional aims of signal-maximizing and vocational preparation. You won’t be surprised to hear that I think it starts younger, with less reliance on the system or with more reliance on the Pack.

Yeah, we’ve got a lot more to say about this.

That Time I Bought Blockbuster Debt

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some sort of chord that has been struck in Narrative-world.


GameStop Wants to Be the ‘Local Church’ of Gaming   [Fortune]

“We had a massive diversification strategy [previously], but the new management team, under George Sherman, our new CEO, is myopically and maniacally focused on gaming,” he says. “We need to…focus on becoming a cultural center for gaming….If [E3] is the Vatican [of gaming], why aren’t we the local church?”

“Something Wall Street doesn’t understand is lower income gamers are a massive, massive audience and GameStop does a yeoman’s service in serving that customer,” he says. “That customer typically pays in cash. That customer doesn’t have massive bandwidth in their home. That customer is a value shopper.”

– Frank Hamlin, Gamestop EVP

That customer also plays Fortnite for free.

The worst investment I ever made in my hedge fund – and by worst investment I mean by an order of magnitude – was buying Blockbuster junior debt. Sure, we bought it at a really steep discount, so that it was yielding something like 25%. Sure, we “did our homework”, as our analysts constructed beautifully detailed cashflow models and projections. Sure, I talked myself into believing that Blockbuster could construct a new narrative about its future, as I “sat down with management” for the umpteenth time and they demonstrated their Netflix-beating streaming app.

I think they made three quarterly payments on the debt before it all came unglued and Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Carl Icahn, who owned a lot of equity and was a big reason why we thought this could work, ended up controlling the senior debt, too, and pushed his liquidation plan through. The junior debt was totally wiped out.

What’s the biggest lesson I learned, other than it’s not enough to be in the same general vicinity as Carl Icahn, but that you better be in exactly the same security with exactly the same seniority or you will get fucked?

Secularly declining companies ALWAYS run out of time.

Management is not lying to you. It’s probably a really good plan. It could probably work out fine … IF they are given enough time. But they won’t be. Particularly when it’s the second turn-around plan.

There are just too many Carl Icahns out there.

See, Carl Icahn doesn’t care about The Company. He doesn’t care about The Plan. He cares about His Money, and he knows that it’s a Big World with lots of opportunities for His Money. So what is Carl Icahn’s attitude and message to every management team he’s ever been involved with?

Tick-tock.

I say this with admiration, not as a slight, as there are so many valuable permutations to both understanding this investment perspective in others (play the player, not the cards!) and adopting this investment perspective in myself (opportunity cost is everything!).

It was one of the most expensive lessons of my investing career. And worth every penny.


In the Trenches: Cake


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What’s next for U.S. equity markets, and what historical analogs might provide some insight? There are plenty of bullish pundits citing renewed monetary policy easing as a catalyst for higher equities – some even suggesting a melt-up could yet occur. While a surprise (at least to us) cut this week could propel equities higher for one last gasp, I’d not chase. Since my 2019 Outlook, I’ve been suggesting a ‘tale of two halves’ narrative for risk assets.[1] In it, my team and I described a first half characterized by a correlated risk-on resulting from improved central bank communication, more reasonable valuation, and more favorable optics around China trade. This has largely occurred. In particular, our mid-year target for the S&P 500 was and remains 2,800, while our year-end target remains well below street consensus at 2,500.

The recent rally in U.S. equities is largely a result of market participants believing they can have their rate-cut cake and eat it, too.

Market participants’ Pavlovian response to a cut of any kind – regardless of context – has been well reinforced over the past ten years. As my team and I have pointed out, and as Figure 1 illustrates, a cut now would bode ill (as a signal rather than a cause) for the U.S. economy over at least the next year. Will the Fed cut in June? While in play, we don’t think the Fed will cut, as it would amount to preemptive action.[2] There are three relevant precedents upon which market participants have relied to justify such preemptive Fed action.

Some argue that market conditions are analogous to 1995, when the Fed cut preemptively. I disagree. In our BIG Picture piece entitled Fed Reaction Function (dated April 20, 2019), my team and I presented our view that current conditions did not resemble 1995, and we continue to hold that view. As Figure 2 shows, when the Fed decided to cut in 1995, economic conditions were significantly worse than they are today. ISM manufacturing was deep in contraction, and at 5.6%, the unemployment rate was significantly higher than it is today. That said, the view has consistently been that the Fed will cut if equity markets risk-off by more than 15% or if there is a hard turn in the economic data, neither of which have occurred quite yet. Such conditions will likely manifest later in the year, especially if rates markets are as predictive as we think they are. It’s a matter of when – not if.

Eurodollar futures markets (ED1 – ED3 = 40bps) are implying an 80% chance of two cuts between June and December. This suggests the Fed is too tight relative to economic conditions (Figure 3). The correlation between 10-year rates and ISM manufacturing show that ISM will move into contraction in the near future (Figure 4). Nonetheless, we don’t believe that the Fed will move before that happens – nor should it. The equity markets and rates markets are severely disconnected, and that disconnect is the result of expectations for market intervention from the Fed, upon which markets have become far too reliant. My expectation is that equity market volatility will precede the Fed’s next move. Certainly, with the S&P 500 at ~2,900 amidst a global slowdown and flat U.S. earnings, the risk-reward appears poor to owning U.S. equities.

Looking at another potential historical precedent, I also do not believe that the current situation is analogous to the early 1970s when President Nixon appointed Arthur Burns as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. While we will leave the reader to his or her own conclusions about the similarities between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, it would appear that Chairman Powell is far less naïve than the academic, Burns. On February 1, 1970, Burns, known as a Republican loyalist, took office. Preceding the 1972 election, Nixon is alleged to have instructed Burns to cut rates.  Burns lowered funds starting in mid-1971 from 5.75% to 3.5% into March of 1972; GDP growth picked up to 5.6 % in 1972 from 3.3% the year prior. Inflation rates rose to 5.3% from 3.6%. This may have helped exacerbate the impact of the oil shock, which occurred as a result of an OAPEC oil embargo, which was retaliation for U.S. aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. While clearly there was a complex brew of potential causes, this policy period was followed by a considerable amount of asset volatility.

Lastly, the kind of central bank coordination that occurred in February 2016 at G20 is unlikely. Recall the backdrop from 2015 into 2016. A burgeoning China slowdown and fears of an aggressive devaluation of the yuan catalyzed two selloffs – one in late summer of 2015 and the other in early 2016. Complicating the U.S. backdrop was a U.S. earnings recession and a rise in default rates amongst energy companies that risked sparking a broader U.S. default cycle.  The G20 meeting that year was in February in Shanghai. At the time, my team and I failed to appreciate just how aggressive and coordinated the global central bank policy response would be. After a largely correct markets call for 2015, we failed to pivot bullishly enough on this stimulus. Could we be making the same mistake here? We don’t think so.

For one thing, global central bank balance sheets are no longer expanding in aggregate. Figure 5 shows that 2015 equity market volatility (green lower panel) was quickly suppressed by an expansion of global central bank balance sheets (on a stable Fed balance sheet). Now conditions are quite different with the ECB no longer buying new bonds and the Fed selling its holdings. While rates volatility caused by higher rates has abated this year, rates are considerably higher here in the U.S. than in the rest-of-the-world and most developed market central banks remain on hold after only recently being in normalization mode.[3] Lastly, there is no longer a post-crisis chorus of Kumbayah coming from world leaders. Instead, the world’s largest economies are embroiled in what appears to be a prolonged trade war. This makes coordination more difficult especially because many central banks are not independent of the governments engaged in the trade dispute. Lastly, we do not think the Fed wants to hand President Trump a rate cut into the G20 meeting simply because he asked for it. There must be an objective basis for Fed action.

Conclusion

Will we see a change in Fed’s modus operandi in June that results in a cut? We believe a cut in June would require a philosophical change in approach, as we would take it to be a preemptive move influenced by the executive branch. This is why June is such an important meeting. Were it to cut, policy would begin the slide down a slippery slope – a slide back to ZIRP and back to QE (quantitative easing). While we hold the unfortunate belief that all central banks will be at zero interest rates and aggressive QE (including the Fed) in the not-so-distant future, we also think the Fed wants to resist moving in that direction too quickly. Why? For one, the Fed understands the inadvertent redistributive effects of its policy decisions.

Wages compensate labor. Interest compensates owners of capital – credit investors, in particular. As a result, rate cuts, which set the cost of capital, implicitly make a wealth redistribution decision from credit investors to labor (in the form of lower unemployment). Moreover, not only do central bank decisions lead to wealth redistribution from creditors to labor, but low rates typically also discriminate against credit investors in favor of equity capital providers (as the ‘Fed model’ implicitly acknowledges). Moreover, a central bank decision to maintain low rates effectively discriminates against retirees in need of income; thus, there is an additional, unintended demographic consequence. Overall, current workers and equity investors tend to be favored over retirees and credit investors.

The unintended redistributive impact of Fed (and all central bank rate policy) comes largely without explicit legislative authority outside the Federal Reserve Act. Thus, in our view, the Fed still recognizes that the bar for central bank action in a capitalist economy should be relatively high. Historically, the Fed has generally viewed it as such through its data dependent approach and through its mandate to “maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.”[4] We would also note that “moderate long-term rates” seems to exclude both extremely high rates as well as extremely low rates. With the current condition of policy (as shown by Figure 6), the Fed would appear not to have cause to act just yet. Indeed, it’s our view that the Fed will eventually be compelled to move back to ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) over the course of the next couple of years as yet lower rates are required to maintain even the most meager of growth rates. Because we believe the Fed wishes to maintain precedent as well as its independence, it will remain reactive to the data – at least for June – but the data continues to evolve as we foresaw it in the beginning of the year.


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[1] The 2019 Outlook was published on January 4th, 2019.

[2] To be clear: I do think U.S. economic conditions will warrant a Fed cut in late summer and another in fall. My team and I have been arguing strenuously since mid-year 2019 that global economic conditions were beginning to deteriorate and the U.S. economy would follow late this year.

[3] While true, the lean is clearly much more dovish than just a month ago, and emerging market central banks have already started to move with Russia, for example, cutting for the first time in 2-years.

[4]  Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy, adopted effective January 24, 2012; as amended effective January 29, 2019.


Democracy Dies with Dancing


Qatar, a country without a free press, hosts a D.C. party celebrating…the free press [Washington Post Magazine]

When a sitting president repeatedly calls your industry the ‘enemy of the people’, I think you can be forgiven some dramatics about the importance of and threats to mass media outlets. Newspapers and cable TV news are not ‘the press’. although they constitute a meaningful portion of it, so there’s some abstraction being done here, but again, not inappropriately so. At least in my judgment.

AND I think that a lot of the reason for the newfound religious belief in the importance of the first amendment among some press types has more to do with opposition to a deeply disliked and antagonistic president than it does with any sort of widespread passionate, principled belief in the fundamental value of freedom of expression. To wit, this article sends a journalist into a Washington D.C. party sponsored by notorious journalist-squelcher Qatar. Hilarity ensues.

Utter horseshit, of course. I’m not a media member in any accepted sense of the word, but even I know that Qatar routinely shuts down critical media. You’d have to be living under a rock in the industry not to. But in a world of narrative, it’s important to drape our preferences in the most politically acceptable and emotionally charged memetic impulses available to us. We’re banking the unbanked! We’re protecting the poor students punitive damages would adversely impact! We are crusaders for free speech!

Y’know, unless there’s a good DJ.

After All, We Are Not Communists


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If Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York, then he must share them, or let us others use them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly he can present a bill for such services; after all… we are not Communists.

– Don Barzini, “The Godfather” (1972)

I catch a lot of grief for all of the Godfather references I make, but for men of a certain age it remains the most powerful cinematic if not cultural touchstone we’ve got. It’s also just really good narrative art.

This dinner of the Five Families is the heart of the Godfather story arc. It’s where Vito realizes the scope and power of the plot against him (“It was Barzini all along!”), and where he sets in motion a strategy of revenge and redemption that plays out over a decade through his son, Michael.

Vito Corleone played a mean metagame, the big picture game-of-games that can define a life. Vito was a clever coyote who, unlike most clever coyotes, didn’t allow himself to be blinded by the passion of whatever immediate game was thrust upon him, but was able to excel in the long game. In this case, the really long game.

What drove Vito in his metagame play?

What was his motivation?

“I worked my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all of those big shots.”

Same.

I was at a dinner of about 20 Epsilon Theory pack members down in Houston last month. I’ve been doing a couple of these meet-up dinners of late, and I intend to do a lot more over the next 12 months. I got a question at this dinner that I had never been asked before, a question that – like Vito’s dinner with the other Dons – forced me to crystallize my metagame.

Hey, Ben, I think what you’re saying about society and politics and finding your pack is really important, and you say it really well. Why are you wasting your time talking so much about markets and investing? Why aren’t you writing full-time about what’s truly important?

It’s a question that I’ve thought about a ton, but never talked about publicly. So here goes.

My goal in all things, but especially my metagame, is to act non-myopically and in a way that treats others as autonomous ends in themselves. It should be your goal in all things, too. You know the drill … Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.

Acting with a full heart means two things: acting for Identity and acting for Cooperation.

Or as Socrates would have said, Know Thyself, and as Jesus would have said, Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

See, there’s really nothing new under the sun. Everything we write in Epsilon Theory has been written before – and better – by teachers who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. All you’re getting here is old wine in a new bottle. It’s just really, really great wine. And a half-decent bottle with Godfather quotes or farm animal stories on the label. You could do worse.

What’s my Identity?

I am a solver of puzzles and a player of games. This is who I have always been, from my first childhood memories. This is my motivation. This is my intrinsic spark and reward. This is my Aristotelian entelechy, to use a ten-dollar phrase. This is my I AM, to use the Epsilon Theory lingo.

The market is the biggest puzzle there ever was. That’s why I can’t stay away.

So in keeping with my Identity and our metagame at Epsilon Theory, today I want to share with you a puzzle that I think Rusty and I are solving. Not solved, because a) that’s impossible in a three-body problem like the market, and b) it’s still early days in the Narrative Machine research program. But we’ve completed enough testing and research to have convinced ourselves at least that we are onto something cool and important.

This is the market puzzle that we introduced in March with this note:

It’s our effort to apply our narrative research to an actual, honest-to-god practical investment question – can you measure the structure of financial media narratives in a way that gives a useful signal for underweighting or overweighting big market structures like S&P 500 sector ETFs?

At the conclusion of that note, after laying out our research thesis and the way we were operationalizing our tests, I wrote this:

So I’m not going to talk about results until I can do it without telling a story, until I can show you results that speak for themselves. It’s like the difference between qualitatively interpreted narrative maps and algebraic calculations on the underlying data matrix … the difference between what we THINK and what we can MEASURE.

I know, I know … kind of a tease. But today I think we have results that DO speak for themselves, so that’s what I’m going to let them do.

First a recap on our test procedures, although I’m going to keep this really brief because you can read more in “The Epsilon Strategy”.

In addition to measuring the Sentiment of each article within a batch of financial news articles (something everyone does and we think is better thought of as a conditioner of narrative than as a structural component of narrative), we also measure the “weight” of one narrative structure relative to all the other narratives within a universe of media – what we call Attention – and the “center of gravity” of a narrative structure relative to itself over time – what we call Cohesion.

These are massive data matrices that we are evaluating, so the narrative map visualizations that we often publish in Epsilon Theory notes should be thought of as tremendous simplifications (2-D flattenings of many-D matrices) of the measurements we’re taking here. Still, I’ll incorporate some visualizations where I can.

For example, on the left is a 2-D visualization of the Attention score of the Utilities sector in December 2014. Every faint dot (also called a node) in the graph is a financial media article talking about the S&P 500 in some way, shape or form. There are thousands of these nodes, of course, clustered by all the different topics that drove stock market narrative that month. The dark nodes, few and far between, scattered among several different clusters, are the articles that are about the Utilities sector.

On the right is a 2-D visualization of the same data query and the same data sources for January 2015. What’s pretty clear even in this inherently truncated visualization is that the narrative Attention paid to the Utilities sector – the amount of media drum-beating about the Utilities sector – is much higher in January than in December.

We think this is a short signal for February 2015, by the way.

To be clear, we have ZERO insight into the fundamentals of the Utilities sector going into February 2015. We are NOT actually reading any of these media articles, and we really DON’T CARE what everyone’s opinion about the Utilities sector might be. All we know is that the financial media is shouting at investors to focus their attention on the Utilities sector in January 2015 … or at least shouting in a relative sense to how they were talking about Utilities in the prior month … and we believe that all this shouting has an effect on investor behavior. We believe that investors probably plowed into the Utilities sector in January 2015, so we want to be short (or underweight) this overbought sector in February 2015.

We came up with eight testable hypotheses like this, based on states of the narrative-world as measured by Attention, Cohesion, and Sentiment, and we ran a five year backtest on each hypothesized strategy for its signals in overweighting or underweighting S&P 500 sectors on a monthly basis. Importantly, we came up with the hypotheses before we did any backtesting or simulations, and we did zero tweaking or retesting after we did any backtesting or simulations. These sector rotation strategies are deductively derived, based on our professional intuition of investor behavior and our professional knowledge of how the Common Knowledge Game works.

Also importantly, these are slow-twitch strategies, where we take our measurements at the end of each tested month to generate a signal for the following month. All of the financial media articles are publicly available. There’s no massaging of the data or change in the search queries over time. There’s no discretionary input. We are testing on the Select Sector SPDR ETFs, each of which have no appreciable liquidity constraints, and we take into account ETF fees in our performance simulations. We do not take into account trading costs, although we would expect these to be minimal.

Of the eight hypothesized narrative-driven sector rotation strategies, we found that six of them “worked”, meaning that in our backtest simulations they generated excess returns over the S&P 500 and had an information ratio > 0.6 (again, I’m going to let our findings speak for themselves, so if you need a primer on “information ratio” and some of the other terminology here, that’s on you). We then took a simple, non-optimized equal weighting of each of the six working strategies to create an unconstrained “Beta-1” portfolio strategy, meaning that we let the individual strategies do whatever they signaled as far as underweighting or overweighting the individual sectors relative to their baseline S&P 500 sector weights, and then we added whatever vanilla S&P 500 index long or short exposure was required to make a fixed portfolio net exposure of 100% long. So if you’re keeping track of these things, the unconstrained Beta-1 portfolio of strategies averaged about 12 separate sector signals per month, an average gross exposure of around 200%, and is the rough equivalent of a 150/50 strategy. 

Now before I show you the results of the portfolio simulation, I want to say the following really clearly. I’m not saying this as boilerplate, and I’m not saying this in tiny text or in ALL CAPS, both of which are signals for you to stop paying attention. These are simulated, backtested returns. You could not have invested in these strategies. You cannot today invest in these strategies. Even if you did, there is no guarantee your results would reflect those of the backtests I’m going to show you. We have treated all of this as a research puzzle we are trying to solve, and so should you.

We understand that many investors are not allowed to be short anything, even an S&P sector ETF, so we also modeled a constrained long-only portfolio of strategies, where we cap all underweights at zero exposure, creating a 100% gross exposure, 100% net exposure portfolio strategy, with no shorting of any sector ETF. As you would expect, the performance statistics are muted compared to the unconstrained version, but still quite powerful.

Crucially, these excess returns are uncorrelated to all major factor categories – Momentum, Value, Low Vol, and Quality.

So there you have it.

We think we are identifying a novel and predictive signal of investor behavior from our systematic measurement of narrative structure in publicly available financial media.

Now, savvy readers will note that I started this note by talking about metagames and Identity, but cut that discussion short to get into the meat of this investment research puzzle that I think we are solving. Savvy reader will ask themselves if there’s another shoe to drop here. Savvy readers would be right.

What’s my metagame?

Let’s start with this blanket statement: I will do anything for my pack. I’ll be the patsy. I’ll make unreasonable sacrifices. I’ll give away the store if that’s what’s required. But here’s the thing – my pack would never require this of me. At every level of my pack, from nuclear family to the ET epistemic community, we do unto each other as we would have each other do unto us.

To put it in Kipling’s poetic terms about the pack, we drink deeply, but never too deep.

To put it in Dungeons & Dragons terms, we are lawful good but not lawful stupid.

So hell yes, we’re going to charge money for access to and information about our investment research. Second Foundation Partners is a completely independent company. It’s me and Rusty doing a high-wire act with no net. Our research and puzzle-solving is not only an expression of our Identity … it’s also how we preserve our independence so we CAN write about more than markets and investing.   

If you’d like to draw water from this research well, you’ll need an ET Professional subscription. It’s the only place we will be sharing our insights and plans for developing the Narrative Machine for investment applications.

Because after all, we are not Communists.  


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Election Rewind: June 2015

One of the questions that has come up from our ET Live! discussions about the 2020 elections is, “What would this have showed at this point in the last election?” It’s a good question, so we decided to take a look.

It so happens that May 2015 was a pivotal month in the GOP primaries. Now-president Trump was polling at low single digits, but that wouldn’t last for long. So what would you have seen in narrative structure that month? First, when looking at Attention – our measure for the external similarity of candidate-specific language used in media with the language relating to the election more broadly, you would have seen a few candidates who, despite widespread popularity, suffered from a narrative structure at odds with what the 2016 election was perceived to ‘be about.’ You also would have seen two candidates with middling single-digit poll numbers whose narratives in were media very in-line with what it was perceived to ‘be about.’

What about sentiment?

There is a tendency when we think about elections and politics to think about populations and what they care about. We build up predictive engines based on demographics, expressed preferences and revealed preferences on issues, responses to poll questions and other inputs. In general, those models are pretty good. Well, they’re OK.

We think that the time has come to stop predicting and to start observing – not what polls are saying or what our network of friends or social media followers are retweeting, but what the crowd thinks that the crowd thinks. We continue to think that the widest possible net of mass media, blogs and other primary content gives us the best window into observing that thing, which we call Common Knowledge.

Does this mean that Biden is Jeb, and that we can hand out the Carson, Cruz and Trump roles to some combination of Warren, Harris and Sanders? No. There are different circumstances for each (not least Sanders’s prior electoral history), and there are a lot of actual events that can still influence that common knowledge. But for now, what we can observe is that Biden is a poor fit for what everyone knows that everyone knows the 2020 election is about. We can similarly observe that Sanders in particular is a good fit for that common knowledge, with a hell of a lot of rah-rah cheering coming from the kinds of language used to cover him by the impartial media.

It means something for the way we consume information, if we want our own views to be less shaped by our intuitive ability to unwittingly internalize and co-opt that common knowledge as our own points of view.

It also means something for how we ought to anticipate primary season playing out.

Warren in June: Back in an Unflattering Spotlight


Warren Narrative Map as of May 31, 2019

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Warren Narrative Commentary

  • The lower attention level of Sen. Warren’s narrative compared to that of other top candidates is, we think, indicative of two patterns.
    • The first is that Warren’s campaign and its coverage have emphasized her role with respect to issues that are less relevant to overall election narratives. In particular, impeachment of President Trump continues to be an issue linked in media to Warren, but it is treated as a peripheral election issue in media, at best.
    • The second is that, even with respect to otherwise high attention topics like student loans, socialist or highly progressive policies, etc., the language used in coverage of Warren’s policy ideas treats her association with them as almost ‘accidental’.

  • In a sense, our opinion is that Sen. Warren’s attempts to balance support of centrists while still claiming the mantle of the ‘very progressive’ candidate – despite a track record that generally supports the latter contention – are not yet resonating in political media.

  • They are resonating more than Biden’s narrative, and we would not be surprised to see Warren take some of his early support.

  • As Sen. Warren’s very prominent senatorial activities take a backseat to campaigning over the coming months, we will be interested to see if the overall cohesion of and attention to her platform and candidacy improves from today’s somewhat fractured narrative.

  • If it is true that Warren’s best opportunities lie ahead in the more wonkish phases of the primary season, we would also counsel monitoring the sentiment of her coverage, which, while not as abysmal as Biden’s, has been increasingly negative over the course of 2019.

  • The leading women candidates – Harris and Warren – have both been treated to far more negative language in political media in recent months than all of their non-Biden counterparts. On that basis, we counsel care in consuming potentially affected / opinion-influenced news content about these candidates.

  • Topically, Warren appears to have attempted to carve herself out as THE anti-trust, anti-corporate power candidate, and as the solving-student-loans candidate. She’s been prominent with her plan on the opioid epidemic, too. But the media have not yet fully embraced the relationship between these topics and Warren’s policies. In other words, when they write about ‘the student loan crisis’, they only occasionally refer to Warren with language about her proposals. However internally coherent the platform may be, the link isn’t nearly as connected in media election narratives as, say, Sanders and healthcare.

  • These are both important issues to 2020 election narratives. We think closing the gap on her association with these issues would have a significant impact on the common knowledge promoted by media about her candidacy.

  • The Native American claims issue is still there, albeit in mostly right-leaning media. It also remains surprisingly central to discussions of Warren. But it has declined substantially in quantity, attention and cohesion over the last few months.

Warren Narrative Attention as of May 31, 2019

  • Whatever Warren Narrative exists is roughly average among candidates in terms of its consistency with broader election narratives and language.

  • This does, however, represent a meaningful increase over the last few months as campaign dialogue has moved away from new candidate announcements and back toward more issue-focused language that has tended to align well with Warren’s own coverage.

  • In fact, Warren trailed only Kamala Harris in our attention measure for the month of May alone. Unfortunately, that higher attention has not been accompanied by positive coverage.

Warren Narrative Cohesion as of May 31, 2019

  • Senator Warren’s narrative has been very consistent (note the tightness of the Y-Axis scale on the above graphic) throughout early 2019, and ranking in the top half of candidates but soundly behind that of Sen. Sanders.

  • The internal consistency of language used to describe Sen. Warren and her campaign has been moderate, but is probably being suppressed somewhat by her very public involvement in the US Senate and the added complexity of non-election issues on which she makes public statements.

  • Regardless of the causes, as with most other candidates, a Warren Narrative has not yet crystallized in media in the same way that a Bernie Sanders Narrative (or for that matter, a Joe Biden narrative) has.

Warren Narrative Sentiment as of May 31, 2019

  • While the data we are working with can’t ascribe intent, we do note that each of Harris, Warren and Gabbard have been soundly in the bottom 4 of sentiment for the second quarter of 2019 (joined only by Biden).

  • As important and central as sex and gender language have been thus far, it is striking that media accounts of the three most prominent woman candidates have tended toward such negative language in coverage.

  • We would be mindful of this in reading all of the coverage of these candidates, but in the case of Warren in particular, whose descent in sentiment has been so consistent, we would be doubly cautious of the influence of the revealed preferences, if you will, of authors and news outlets.

  • We also note that this has happened even as the broadly negative coverage of her prior comments about Native American ancestry have faded. This sentiment swing does not to be a feature of right-leaning publications alone.

The Not-So-Much War

Hedge funds and private-equity funds face tug-of-war over talent [Business Insider]

This blurb is from a BI daily round-up piece – if you’re a BI subscriber (LOL) you can access the full bit from the link.

The long and short of it is this: calling the fight between PE/VC and Hedge Funds over talent in 2019 a ‘tug-of-war’ is like calling the USWNT group stage match against Thailand last week riveting sports entertainment. I’ve been asked for advice from a lot of soon-to-be-alumni from my own alma mater over the last few years. I’ve done quite a few interviews of prospective students, too. It has been years – legitimately years – since I’ve heard the words “banking” or “hedge fund” in any of those conversations.

Public markets active management professionals are fighting a valiant rearguard action in narrative space (as they are in AUM space), but it’s a sure loser; that is, until the next liquidity crunch coincides with actual marks-to-market that remind us all what some of those ’06 vintage buyout or early 2000s VC funds looked and felt like.

I wouldn’t hold my breath. We’ll get our adversely selected candidate pools and like it.

Zeitgeist Narrative Map – 6.14.2019

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it.

But this is the map that links them all together.


Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory
  • Usual mix of core topics in financial media today, although extracted ngrams from the commentary cluster have tended toward terms like ‘defensive’, ‘bearish’ and ‘downside.’
  • Commentary is more closely related to the Fed Cut discussion language, indicating what we think is greater attention to these public market concerns than the more positive tech/health care/private equity chatter on the right hemisphere of today’s narrative map.
  • IPOs have faded from the radar a bit from summer in terms of quantity, but discussion of them is still intensely connected to the narrative of markets from a linguistic perspective.
  • Privacy and Big Tech break-up language, especially from the campaign trail, is starting to filter a bit more into financial media. It’s a narrative we’ll have our eye on.