Amazon, Facebook and the Modern Trust [the ET Zeitgeist]

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.


Amazon.com’s Ad Prices Could Soar Next Year [Fox Business]

There’s even an opportunity for Amazon to develop its own ad optimization tools like Facebook or Google.

As advertisers see improved return on investment from their optimization efforts, they’ll be willing to spend more per impression or click.

This is a story that I’ve heard Howard Lindzon (@howardlindzon) tell a dozen times …

Back in the olden days, and by that I mean 2012 or thereabouts, Facebook didn’t charge nearly enough for its ad inventory. With a pretty modest budget, a start-up company with a mass-appeal product or service (LifeLock, for example) could get a stellar reach into a crazy number of households.

Those days are long gone. Today you can still get a good reach into whatever number of households you want by advertising on Facebook, but there are no more bargains to be had. Want a crazy number of households? Then it’s going to cost you a crazy amount of money.

From a narrative perspective, what I find interesting is how Facebook’s price increases were implemented under the narrative of “optimization”, as if Facebook were doing you a favor by raising their prices so much.

Sure, the ads today are more targeted and (maybe) more effective, but the price increases and supply decreases are FAR GREATER than the (maybe) improved efficacy. That’s what it means to have pricing power, and that’s what it means – in the modern sense of the word – to have narrative power.

To date, Facebook has been really good at understanding narrative power from the perspective of intellectual property.

But also to date, Facebook has been really terrible at understanding narrative power from the perspective of government and the regulatory State.

Now Amazon is following in Facebook’s footsteps, both in its utilization of the narrative power of “optimization” and in its utilization of the raw pricing power of a monopoly.

Both Facebook and Amazon are smiley-face monopolists, claiming a narrative of efficiency and competition when nothing could be further from the truth. The only difference is that I suspect Amazon will be really good at the regulatory-compliant narrative, too.

No matter.

Time to break up the trusts. Again.


Never Run the Same Gag Twice [The ET Zeitgeist]

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.


It’s Never Been Easier to Be a C.E.O., and the Pay Keeps Rising [New York Times]

In our annual ranking, we’re used to seeing paydays so big that they’re difficult to comprehend. But 2018 posed a problem on an entirely new scale. The pay package Tesla promised to Elon Musk was so large, we had to add an extra dimension to the chart below to display it accurately.

You don’t run the same gag twice. You run the next gag. – Ocean’s Eleven

It’s the best line in a movie full of great lines.

Elon is running the next gag.

A Song of Ice and Fire


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required):  A Song of Ice and Fire


Every winter, we lose something here on Little River Farm. It’s like a tithe that nature takes, year after year after year. This winter was particularly tough. Polar vortex and all that, I suppose.

None of the bees made it.

Sigh. I’ve lost hives before. It happens. But it’s never easy. Never anything but sad. They work SO HARD at staying alive through a New England winter and they’re all boxed away for months and you can’t open the hive to check on them because that would weaken them for sure and it wouldn’t do any good anyway and so you wait and you worry and you do all you can to set up windbreaks and you don’t know if they’re hanging in there and it finally gets warm enough to crack open the hive and get them some help and … death. Nothing but death.

Always go to the funeral.

We respect our animals in life and in death. Especially in death. So I remove the bee husks and the old comb and I make a small fire and I give them to the flames. Because it doesn’t seem right to put bees into the ground. They are of the air in life, and they should be of the air in death.

And we begin again. Always.

But this isn’t a note about beginning anew after a polar vortex of a winter. Well, it kinda is, so hold that thought in the back of your head. But the narrative structure for this note isn’t about winter and ice and the tithe of death. It’s about winter and ice and the miracle of life.

There were two animals I was certain the winter would take from us, and those are the goldfish that live in the horses’ outdoor water trough. Yes, we put goldfish in the water trough last spring. The horses are careful not to eat them or drink them in, and the goldfish are great at keeping the trough clean. Not industrially clean, of course, but fingernail clean. The way a real, living farm should be.

I figured this was a brick of ice in the dead of winter. I figured there was no way on god’s green earth that two little fish could sit outside in what amounts to a big pail of water through a Connecticut winter. Good lord, we had DAYS and DAYS of sub-zero temperatures this January. And yet … there they were, glints of orange-red swimming around in the trough here in late March.

A miracle? Yes. But not the kind of miracle you’re thinking of. Not the miracle of some sort of cryogenic suspension, where the goldfish are like Captain America, thawed out from a giant block of ice after 40 years, ready to pick right back up fighting supervillains or eating algae or whatever it is one does after resurrection.

No, the miracle here is the non-linear nature of water.

See, we all know that when gases or liquids get colder, they get denser. They get heavier. The molecules in the gas and the liquid are less energetic as they cool off. They bounce around less. They sink. This is why pool water and lake water and ocean water gets colder the deeper you go. It’s a perfectly linear relationship … the colder the water, the heavier the water … the colder the water, the more it sinks.

But when water gets to 4 degrees centigrade, this nicely linear relationship between temperature and density stops happening. In fact, it REVERSES. It’s not only non-linear, it’s non-monotonic (a ten-dollar word that means reversal). As water gets colder than 4 degrees centigrade, it no longer gets heavier. It no longer gets denser. It no longer sinks.

Instead, this miraculous substance called water gets lighter as it nears its freezing point. It’s still a liquid. There are no solid ice crystals forming here that have a different density than liquid water. It’s still exactly the same substance in form and chemistry and everything else at 3 degrees centigrade as it was at 4 degrees centigrade, but somehow it is now lighter than it was before. And so it rises. And it rises still more at 2 degrees centrigrade. And still more at 1 degree centigrade. And so ice does not form at the bottom of a Connecticut pond or lake or water trough, but instead forms at the top of a Connecticut pond or lake or water trough, where it forms an insulating barrier against the cold air reducing the liquid water temperature still further. That’s how the goldfish survived. There was liquid water at the bottom of that deep horse trough, even as the polar vortex raged above.

Without this non-linear, non-monotonic property of water, life as we know it would hardly exist.

Every Ice Age would be every bit as much an extinction event as a giant meteor of death. Every lake or pond above or below a certain latitude would be as lifeless as the moon.

It’s a miracle of life that liquid water – the foundation of life on our planet – gets lighter instead of heavier right before it changes state into solid ice.

There’s no reason why this non-linear property of water should exist.

And yet it does.

If you were predicting the behavior of water from a theory of thermodynamics, there is no way you would predict 3-degrees cold water would be lighter than 4-degrees cold water.

And yet it is.

Facts don’t care about your feelings? Yeah, yeah … cute. Here’s the far more serious truth:

Facts don’t care about your theories.

The only way to learn the non-linear nature of water is through empirical observation, through actually living with water and ice rather than simply theorizing about water and ice. Because once you SEE that very cold water becomes lighter rather than heavier, then you KNOW that there must be something WRONG with your theory of thermodynamics, because this behavior is IMPOSSIBLE within a theory of thermodynamics. There must be something ELSE acting on the behavior of water than thermodynamics, something BIGGER and more FUNDAMENTAL than thermodynamics.

In the case of H2O, it’s the asymmetric positioning of the two hydrogen atoms connected to the single oxygen atom. It’s the atomic structure of the water molecule that creates the miracle of life.  

Same thing with economics.

Because money, like water, is non-linear.

Because you think you can explain and predict human behaviors around money based on a macro theory of monetarism (the supply and price of money), and usually that’s true, but sometimes it’s not.

Because there is a more fundamental theory of money – an atomic structure theory of money based on human risk-taking and human social narratives – that subsumes and improves on your macro theory of monetarism.

Does lowering the price of money from 8% to 7.5% create more risk-taking? Does it increase the velocity of money through the real economy as corporate and household risk-takers are willing to borrow and spend and invest MORE at 7.5% than they were at 8%? Yes.

How about lowering the price of money from 7.5% to 7%? Yes.

7% to 6.5%? to 6%? to 5.5%? to 4%? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

It’s a nicely linear relationship.

It’s exactly as one would predict from a theory of molecules and thermodynamics monetarism and macroeconomics.

So I understand why central bankers believe that lowering the price of money from 1% to 0.5% would act on risk-taking in the same linear fashion. And from 0.5% to 0%. And in the case of Europe, from 0% to negative interest rates, and from slightly negative interest rates to really negative interest rates. They have a linear theory of monetarism and macroeconomics. Lower interest rates have a specific and direct relationship with risk-taking economic behavior and expectations. The lower the interest rate, the greater the spur to “inflation”, by which central bankers mean risk-taking economic behavior.

Inflation not being spurred? Lower the price of money more.

Inflation still not being spurred? Lower the price of money still more.

Inflation STILL not being spurred? Lower the price of money MOAR.

But it’s not working, people. Lower and lower interest rates are demonstrably not spurring risk-taking economic behavior in the real economy. Lower and lower interest rates are empirically not spurring inflation.

When the price of money gets really cold low, like close to zero degrees percent low, risk-taking behavior changes. The rational risk-taker in a zero interest rate world does NOT invest in property, plant and equipment. The rational risk-taker does NOT borrow more and spend more to invest in the future. No, the rational risk-taker believes the central bankers who say that interest rates will be ultra-low forever and ever amen, that future growth rates are moribund and miserable, that our world persists in a long gray slog of deflation just as far as the eye can see.

What do rational risk-takers do in a zero interest rate world? They buy back stock. They buy profitless revenue. They engage in financialization.

They minimize risk and maximize return. They are greedy AND they are fearful. They demonstrate the atomic behavior of rational greedy/fearful human beings since the dawn of freakin’ time.

THIS is water.

This is profit margin without labor productivity growth.

This is the zombiefication and the oligarchification of the US economy.

This is the smiley-face perversion of Smith’s invisible hand and Schumpeter’s creative destruction.

This is the profoundly repressive political equilibrium of an entrenched State and entrenched Oligarchy that masks itself in the common knowledge of “Yay, capitalism!” and “Yay, military!” and “Yay, college!“.

That’s a thick layer of ice above us, growing thicker by the day. But we are still the goldfish on Little River Farm, still swimming in a small pocket of water, not yet encased in a solid block of ice. We aren’t yet the bees. Not yet. What must we DO to avoid the bees’ fate? What must we DO to end this winter that is imposed on us?

We have to Break the Wheel.

We have to break the tyranny of ideas that nudge us into service to the entrenched State and the entrenched Oligarchy, without replacing those ideas with a tyranny of our own.

How do we do THAT?

Well … I know it’s all the rage to rip the Benioff/Weiss screenplay in the post-George RR Martin seasons. I’m pretty bummed myself. But this line by Tyrion in the finale shows the way.

What unites a people? Armies? Gold? Flags?

Stories.

There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.

How do we Break the Wheel?

Not by revolution. Not by dragon fire. It didn’t work for Daenarys, and it won’t work for us.

We break the wheel with a better story, with a better theory.

Because that’s what a theory is … a story about how the world works.

By the way, this is how science works. By the way, it’s always science that breaks the wheel.

The story of the Masters is that the market is a macro clockwork machine, governed by linear, mechanistic “laws”. I have a better story.

I tell you that the market is a BONFIRE.

From We’re Doing It Wrong:

Fire is not magic. Fire is not somehow separate from science or rigorous human examination. We know how to start fires. We know how to grow and diminish fires. We know how to put fires out. In a technical sense, Ray Dalio, you can classify fire as a machine.

But you’d never think that you could possess an algorithm that predicts the shape and form of a bonfire.

You’d never think that if only you stared at the fire long enough, and god knows humans have been staring at fires for tens of thousands of years, that somehow you’d divine some formula for predicting the shape of this or that lick of flame or the timing of this or that log collapsing in a burst of sparks.

No human can algorithmically PREDICT how a fire will burn. Neither can a computer. No matter how much computing power you throw at a bonfire, a general closed-end solution for a macro system like this simply does not exist.

But a really powerful computer can CALCULATE how a fire will burn. A really powerful computer can SIMULATE how a fire will burn. Not by looking for historical patterns in fire. Not by running econometric regressions. Not by figuring out the “secret formula” that “explains” a macro phenomenon like a bonfire. That’s the human way of seeing the world, and if you use your computing power to do more of that, you are wasting your time and your money. No, a really powerful computer can perceive the world differently. It can “see” every tiny piece of wood and every tiny volume of oxygen and every tiny erg of energy. It “knows” the rules for how wood and oxygen and heat interact. Most importantly – and most differently from humans – this really powerful computer can “see” all of these tiny pieces and “know” all of these tiny interactions at the same time. It can take a snapshot of ALL of this at time T and calculate what ALL of this looks like at time T+1, and then do that calculation again to figure out what ALL of this looks like at time T+2.

This is an atomic theory of markets. This is the intuition and the technology roadmap to provide a better theory. It’s not that macroeconomics and monetarism are wrong … there’s no such thing as right or wrong when it comes to theory. It’s that macroeconomics and monetarism are not as USEFUL a theory as one formed organically from the risk-taking economic behaviors of actual economic actors.

Look, central bank cultists will never change their beliefs that they are the thin blue line between order and chaos, or that academic economics is the One True Path for enlightenment and the maintenance of that thin blue line. Change isn’t going to come from attacking the Fed or from a snarky blogger. I mean, I did just call them cultists.

No, no …  change will come from a Fed economist reading this note (on her gmail account, of course) and dropping the assumption – because it IS an assumption – that, for all prices of money, there is a monotonic relationship between change in the price of money and change in the velocity of money employed for productive economic purposes. Change will come from this economist allowing for the possibility of a non-linear and non-monotonic relationship between interest rates and inflationary behaviors at very low interest rates, loosening her stochastic assumptions accordingly, and then TESTING this possibility against the actual empirical evidence of the past ten years. Change will come from this economist presenting her findings from within the proper academic forms as an extension and progression of what came before, so that the institutional imperative to self-servingly mansplain our place in the world (you’re welcome!) can be maintained.

Daenarys and her city-destroying dragons couldn’t break the wheel. Moana and her Maui-tolerating wayfinding could.

In a thousand small steps … this is how theory changes. This is how science advances. This is how progress is made. This is how the story that we tell ourselves about who we are evolves into something that subverts institutions from within, not something that attacks institutions from without.

As below, so above.

To be honest, it’s a longshot that we’ll be able to pull this off. After all, we’re not characters in a Disney movie. Or even an HBO show.

One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote a lot about theory and non-linear systems and humanity’s place in all that. You wouldn’t know it from a cursory read, because he could spin a yarn, but that’s what most of his books are about. Cat’s Cradle is the novel most obviously connected to my particular theme, as the plot is driven by the invention of a substance called ice-nine, an isotope of water that freezes at room temperature and replicates itself in any ordinary water it touches, thus spreading ice throughout all the liquid water in the world. You know, kinda like negative interest rates.

Along the way to the end of the world, there’s a nihilist religion called Bokononism to explore, with this wonderful quote:

The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”

It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.

This is it: “Nothing.”

Vonnegut would probably say we don’t stand a chance against the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy, armed to the teeth with narrative-controlling instruments that promote their Wheel-preserving ideas, convincing us to sign away our autonomy of mind.

Like how the narrative of Yay, capitalism! subverts our liberty (and responsibility) to Make.

Like how the narrative of Yay, military! subverts our liberty (and responsibility) to Protect.

Like how the narrative of Yay, college! subverts our liberty (and responsibility) to Teach.

Yeah, he’s probably right.

But then again, Kurt, why did you write?

It’s why I write, too.

I’m publishing this note on Memorial Day for a reason. You get it. I know you do.

We are the human animal.

We are non-linear.

We ARE a song of ice and fire.

It’s a song that has built cathedrals and fed billions and taken us to the moon.

It’s a song that can do all of that and more … far, far more … if only we remember the tune.

The Pack remembers.

Yours in service to the pack, – Ben


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required):  A Song of Ice and Fire


Going Gray

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.


Huawei Founder Says U.S. Won’t Disrupt Business As Analysts Warn Of Sales Slowdown [Forbes]

The U.S. Commerce Department has deemed Huawei a threat to national security, and banned the company and almost 70 of its affiliates worldwide from acquiring U.S. technology without government approval. On Monday, Huawei was granted a 90-day reprieve that allows the company to continue purchasing American goods for its existing handsets and broadband networks until Aug 19.

Ren Zhengfei is 74 years old, yet like all septuagenarian and octogenarian Chinese potentates, he has jet-black dyed hair. But is that a wisp of gray in this picture? I kinda think it is. That’s a big deal in China … they call it “going gray” … when you’ve been disavowed by The Powers That Be and they take away your hair dye. Because you can’t be rehabilitated from that.

You think I’m kidding. But I’m not.

Here’s Bo Xilai, party secretary (i.e., mob boss) of Chongqing, a city with a metropolitan area roughly equal in size to New York.

And here’s Bo Xilai at his murder trial in Beijing.

Pro tip: Bo Xilai’s real crime was not murder. Although … that, too.

How will you know when China is backing down from a national security-oriented trade war with the US?

When Ren Zhengfei is photographed with gray hair.


Narrator: The cause-and-effect was, in fact, that simple

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.


The Fed Is Likely to Make an ‘Insurance’ Rate Cut [Bloomberg]

With the bond market pricing in at least one interest-rate cut by the Federal Reserve this year, there’s a debate whether such a move would only serve to benefit riskier assets. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Ester George recently said lower rates might spur asset price bubbles, create financial imbalances and eventually lead to a recession. Perhaps, but the cause-and-effect isn’t that simple.

Narrator: The cause-and-effect was, in fact, that simple.

The Zeitgeist – 5.22.2019

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


May 22, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Go Wide, Not Deep [Morningstar]

We think core menus should be wide, not deep—that is, menus should offer exposure to a wider array of investments but not multiple options for the same asset class (with the potential exception of an active and passive option). The idea is to offer a range of investments that will better help participants achieve their retirement goals. We think it’s important to give participants access to funds with unique risk characteristics so they can supplement allocations in their other accounts (such as an IRA) as well as give a financial advisor (who is not associated with the plan) the ability to design a portfolio inside the plan. These funds can also be used by in-plan advice providers, such as managed accounts, to build better portfolios.

Retirement plan menus are ground zero for what is delightfully referred to as “choice architecture” … steering and nudging you into making the “right” choice.

If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
― Don Draper

Ad men understand “choice architecture”. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel.

I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.
― Vito Corleone

Mob bosses understand “choice architecture”. An offer you can’t refuse is what game theorists call a Hobson’s Choice, part of a more general class of games that includes ultimatums and dilemmas.

Like all ad men and mob bosses, Morningstar is in the choice architecture business.

And yes, there’s an Epsilon Theory note for that:


Analysts Make Research Cooler, Wonkier and Bespoke to Lure Cash [Bloomberg]

As the industry wrestles with the problem of making money on its own, the stage is set for podcasts and novella-length thematic analyses.

Yes, please.

“Luring cash” … FFS, people.


Quality corn stover in high demand [Hay and Storage]

I went back down through the line and took a closer look at the corn stover quality in the back row that had not sold yet. One load in particular caught my eye. After confirming there was no mustiness, mold, or mildew on the crinkled corn husks, I asked Eric Motter of Myerstown to share how he produced his 7,500-pound load of 3×3 bales weighing a little over 500 pounds each.

He planted the third week of May and the Roundup Ready hybrid only received manure. I could clearly see the corn held its color until harvest and it yielded well. No foliar fungicide was applied.

I have no idea why an article from Hay and Storage was linked so centrally to financial media, but I am so happy that it is!

Of course, I actually DO have an idea why farm esoterica is a central narrative in financial media today, as farmers are the casualties of this trade war.

It’s not just the corn crop that has only received manure this season.


US stocks have crushed their European peers by 76% over the past decade. Here’s what Goldman Sachs says needs to happen for Europe to flip the script. [Business Insider]

Saved you a click.


Global markets are rallying after Trump tempers his Huawei ban after ‘big reality check’ [Business Insider]

US, European, and Asian stocks rose on Tuesday after Trump tempered his Huawei ban.

The Chinese telecoms giant can buy US products to maintain its networks and release software updates, but it can’t buy American components for new devices.

“This latest move by Trump shows just how haphazard his policies are and also how pervasive Huawei goods and technology are,” said Jasper Lawler, head of research at London Capital Group.

This was the actual graphic associated with this Business Insider “article”. It’s a stock photo from Getty, and I suppose it’s what you get when you search for “Yay, Huawei!”.

And then there’s the obligatory anti-Trump commentary from some London dude, criticizing the “haphazardness” of US policy. As always, there’s no parody like self-parody.


The Zeitgeist – 5.21.2019

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


May 21, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Washington’s Huawei reprieve triggers relief rally in bruised EU chip stocks [Reuters]

Shares in European semiconductor companies, one of the most sensitive sectors to the global trade tensions, recovered from their worst day in 4-1/2 months on Tuesday after the White House backtracked overnight on tough limits on China’s Huawei.

If you’re playing this game out of necessity … my condolences.

If you’re playing this game out of choice … you’re nuts.


Rise in CMBS IO Loan Issuance Surpasses Pre-Recession Levels, Worrying Some in the Industry [NREI]

Competition that is fueling a spike in interest-only (IO) loan issuance is drawing mixed responses from industry observers. Some view the spike as a worrisome rise in risk that could come back to bite borrowers if 10-year loans mature in a higher interest rate market. Others see IO loans as an opportunity for borrowers to take advantage of healthy lender competition for high quality deals.

Things you see at a top …


Institutional Investors Think They’re Ready for the Next Downturn [Institutional Investor]

Eighty-seven percent of the 75 institutional investors surveyed by Wilshire Associates say they are more or “far more” prepared for a bear market than in 2007, according to a statement Monday from the consulting firm. About 95 percent of investors are at least “somewhat confident” in their readiness to steer through market volatility, while 39 percent feel “very confident,” Wilshire said.

And they’re right.

Not because they’re doing anything special or have any new awareness, but because central banks Will. Not. Allow. a 2008-style deflationary crisis to exist.

Everyone always prepares for the last war …


The Shocking Number of Americans Without a Retirement Account [Fox Business]

According to the Aspen Institute, close to 6 in 10 working-age Americans do not have a retirement account. Sadly, the Aspen Institute also warns that things are likely to get worse due to the changing nature of work.

“Sadly.”

The American worker is the proverbial boiled frog. Or Milton from Office Space. Same thing.

And yes, there’s an Epsilon Theory note for that. First read this:

And then read this:

Money quote:

Over the past eight years we have thrown our money into relatively unproductive activities (experiential consumption), and we have thrown our bodies into relatively unproductive jobs (experiential production).

It’s as if we’ve intentionally returned to the recommended farming practices of Cato the Elder in 200 BC, where instead of a tractor with a 43 horsepower engine to get the work done, we’ve got “a foreman, a foreman’s wife, ten laborers, one ox driver, one donkey driver, one man in charge of the willow grove, and one swineherd”. Because god forbid we miss out on the experience of being a swineherd. Hey, with modern technology, you can drive for Uberherd swine whenever you like. Just imagine the personal satisfaction, not to mention all that extra cash, that comes with “being your own boss” as an on-demand swineherd.

It’s as if we’ve intentionally returned to the recommended farming practices of Cato the Elder because it IS intentional.


Why High-Class People Get Away With Incompetence [New York Times]

In several experiments, researchers found that people who came from a higher social class were more likely to have an inflated sense of their skills — even when tests proved that they were average.

It’s the only possible outcome of the Lake Wobegon effect … where all of our children are above average. Now they’ve grown up believing that.


The Zeitgeist – 5.20.2019

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


May 20, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Planning to irrigate arid lands with produced water [Albuquerque Journal]

Encore Green Environmental is jockeying to become the first company to recycle oil-and-gas wastewater to irrigate arid lands in New Mexico.

The Wyoming-based company has developed a patent-pending process to identify all ingredients in oil-and-gas effluent, known as produced water, before sending it on for recycling. Through the process, the company tests and documents all changes in chemical content during treatment to assure compliance with regulatory standards. And it does detailed analysis of soil content and moisture levels in targeted arid areas to make sure recycled water matches the conditions and requirements of soil and vegetation before irrigating.

I have no idea if this is on the level or not. But I have a very strong idea that the ONLY solution to the environmental debacle that humankind is perpetrating on the Earth will come from procedural and bottom-up technological advances like this. Not from someone inventing cold fusion. Not from government-sponsored moon shots. But from new twists on old ideas, motivated by people wanting to do well for themselves by doing good for all of us.


Bonds aren’t a set-it-and-forget-it investment. Here’s what you need to know. [USA Today]

It’s an infomercial from Ken Fisher, who would famously rather die and go to hell than sell you an annuity, and who is a fairly profoundly weird dude. But he’s not wrong.

Today, your long-dated government bonds are a core holding. They should become a tactical holding.

I don’t mean that you sell them tomorrow. I don’t mean that you sell them next week or next month or next year. In fact, if we get a deflationary shock from a Fed-driven recession, a China-driven global credit freeze or an Italy-led Euro crisis, you’re going to want to buy more. This “tactical holding” will be a very large chunk of your portfolio. But make it a tactical holding. Make it something that you are willing to sell. Without hesitation. Without losing your nerve.


Save the Buyback, Save Jobs [Journal of Applied Corporate Finance]

Too Many Companies Are Paying Too Much for Stock Buybacks [Fortune]

Booking Holdings Is Gobbling Up Stock [Seeking Alpha]

I’m not going to give any quotes from these articles, because there’s nothing here you haven’t read umpteen times before. My point here is that whatever you might think about stock buybacks, it really doesn’t matter what you think.

This is now an issue dominated by common knowledge – what everyone thinks that everyone thinks.


Uber, Lyft and Pinterest prove that private investors are sucking up all the value [CNBC]

Marc Andreessen called “the effective death of the IPO” in 2014 and said that with high-flying tech companies staying private longer, “gains from the growth accrue to the private investor, not the public investor.”

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures told CNBC the following year that these late-stage IPOs mean “all of the gains are captured among a very small cohort of people.”

In 2016, Alex Mittal of FundersClub wrote that today’s top tech companies are raising gobs of private cash, “leaving the bulk of returns out of public investors’ reach.”

These are the very people that benefit from companies who stay private longer while their valuations skyrocket, because they’re the early investors. They get to ride the valuation up from the millions to $10 billion, $20 billion or $50 billion and then sell their shares to the masses of public market investors who are thirsting for the next Amazon or Google.

The headline is hyperbolic and silly, but what Andreessen and Fred Wilson are saying is not.

What’s the dominant institutional investment narrative today?

Private > Public

It’s really as simple as that, and there are zero signs of this abating or reversing. On the contrary …


Schools Teach Civics. Do They Model It? [Education Week]

But by late 2017, seniors at the high school had grown frustrated by the school’s limited extracurriculars, lack of spirit activities, and punishments for late homework. Inspired by pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s widely covered “take a knee” protests, they decided to press their case through a small but significant act of civil disobedience.

During morning assembly on Sept. 28 of that year, the school’s 15 or so seniors sat down quietly, rather than recite VPA’s “challenge,” a pledge in which they commit to do their best for “myself, my family, my school, and my community.” Some lowerclassmen followed suit.

“We just didn’t like how we were being treated,” recalled Beverly Felipe, a student plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It was very unfair. We wanted some change in the school and we were hopeful that it was going to happen.”

Punishment for late homework! Lack of spirit activities! The horror!

This article gets it all wrong of course. The school’s response in bringing down the hammer IS the teachable moment. And a good one, too.

Know who else talks like this? The guy in the White House.


It was already a proud day for these new college graduates. Then a billionaire told them he’s paying off their student loans [CNN]

Of course I love what Robert Smith did!

My favorite part is the pressure this puts on other billionaires when they get an invite from alma mater.

Then again, most billionaires are high-functioning sociopaths, so they truly believe that their words and moving speeches are reward enough for graduates.


The Zeitgeist – 5.17.2019

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


May 17, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

FEDS 2019-036: Optimal Inflation Target with Expectations-Driven Liquidity Traps [The Fed]

Our main finding is that even a very small probability of expectations-driven liquidity traps (LTs) nontrivially lowers the optimal inflation target. Under various calibrations of the model, a 0.1 percent (quarterly) probability of falling into expectations-driven LTs typically lowers the optimal inflation target by more than 1 percentage point. With a 0.5 percent probability of expectations-driven LTs, the optimal inflation target is typically slightly negative.

How about if you’re already in an expectations-driven liquidity trap?

This is most interesting and important Fed paper I’ve read in years. I know, I know … a low bar, and of course it’s written in the guild cant of academic economics, which is to say it’s barely readable at all.

But FINALLY we are giving the drivers of financialization a name.

Good and important work from Taisuke Nakata and Philip Coyle.

Me, today.


Lighter Capital Closes Over 500 Rounds of Revenue-Based Financing for Tech Startups [Press Release]

“Revenue-Based Financing is popular with entrepreneurs because it combines the best aspects of debt and equity,” said BJ Lackland, CEO of Lighter Capital. “Like equity, there’s a deep alignment between the investor and entrepreneur toward growth. However, the difference with this funding model is the entrepreneur doesn’t give up control or ownership in the same way they would to angels and VCs. This provides entrepreneurs greater options as they continue to grow their businesses.”

Lighter Capital’s fintech platform pulls in 6,500 data points to analyze startups quickly and reduce entrepreneurs’ time to raise funds by over 90%. The company uses proprietary algorithms to determine a credit rating and data science to predict a startup’s revenue growth, with 97% accuracy, on average. By using objective, data-driven practices, Lighter Capital provides $50K-$3M in funding to a broad array of tech startups, promoting diversity of ideas, perspectives and leaders — ensuring that strong, creative thinkers have access to the resources they need, when they need them.

The “best of debt and equity” AND “proprietary algorithms”. It’s a Mister Wonderful bot!

File this under Things You Only See At A Top.


Farmers turning to bankruptcy must consider options [Farm Progress]

Chapter 12 offers relief from a critical issue for many farms — capital gains taxes. Back in the 1980s, when farm values fell, selling land didn’t bring much of a tax burden as a farm “rightsized.” Today, land values are up, and a farmer who bought land at $1,500 per acre could see values as high as $10,000 per acre for that ground. To sell some under bankruptcy would mean a capital gains tax bill on that $8,500 difference, which put farmers under significant pressure. That was rectified in 2017, and if a farm can file under Chapter 12, the capital gains tax on land sold can be deprioritized and discharged as unsecured credit. That can provide a soft landing for a farm trying to get its balance sheet back in order.

But that $4.411 million debt ceiling to filing is a hindrance. Swanson, the Wisconsin attorney, notes that the nature of dairies has changed over the years. A 500-cow operation is considered a smaller family farm. Yet with that many animals, as well as the parlors and crop-raising equipment it takes to run that farm, crossing the debt limit isn’t hard. “You look at what a tractor costs, or 100 acres or a good parlor,” Swanson observes.

Peiffer explains that the U.S. House and Senate are working on a measure that would raise that limit to $10 million, which would be a boon to some farms that right now would have to file under different bankruptcy chapters. “Half the farmers that come into my office are too big to qualify for Chapter 12, but they’re still family farms in my mind,” he says.

I was going to write another snarky Animal House riff, but changed my mind.

Email your House Rep. Call your Senators. Raise the limit on Chapter 12.


Dismantling the Myth of ‘The Heartland’ [New York Times]

In the end, Hoganson is not overturning the heartland myth to demonstrate that Midwesterners are cultivated citizens of the world, but rather to prove that they are, and always have been, “agents of empire.”

If the Midwest was once a place to indulge in fantasies of innocence and escapism, it is now regarded as the locus of our worst tendencies as a country, a dead zone to offshore national guilt. It is the place we turn to in our darkest hours, to discover what lies in our own hearts.

LOL. NYT gonna NYT.

Bill de Blasio winning those Midwestern hearts and minds one camo-wearing diner patron at a time.


Whataburger exploring sale, company confirms after hire of Morgan Stanley [Dallas Morning News]

Citing a source, Reuters reported that the privately held company’s value could top $6 billion.

The Business Journal reported that Whataburger posted sales of more than $2.2 billion in 2017, citing trade publication QSR. The figure placed the chain 22nd among QSR’s 50 biggest limited-service restaurants based on sales, above others such as Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr. and Five Guys.

If you’re not part of the Whataburger Revolution, you have no idea what you’re missing.


The Zeitgeist – 5.15.2019

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


May 15, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Stocks Stabilize as U.S.-China Trade War Enters New Stage [NY Times]

Still, the tone across financial markets was positive.

The original headline was ‘Stabilize’; it’s since been changed to ‘Rebound’.

You see this sort of revisionism a lot these days. Of course, if it had been anyone but the NYT, they would have used ‘Recover’ instead of ‘Stabilize’ and ‘Soar’ instead of ‘Rebound.

We’re only in the Denial stage of the market grief cycle regarding the potential death of a US-China trade deal.


The Pivot In U.S.-China Trade Policy May Herald Long-Term Tension [Seeking Alpha]

Additionally, and importantly, years of negotiating with China have left bipartisan scars in Washington. U.S. negotiators feel that many previous negotiations have played out in a similar fashion: lots of talk, promises of concessions, and perceived advancement, followed by equivocation and backpedaling when the time actually came for China to deliver. While other administrations have pursued a more patient approach, Trump (and many other policymakers in Washington) seems to have little tolerance for this now and is willing to take a more direct approach.

Lastly, China trade issues play well with Trump’s base politically, so keeping them in the headlines as the 2020 campaign season intensifies could have benefits for the president.

Not quite sure why PIMCO is now a Seeking Alpha contributor with 306 followers, but whatevs.

From a narrative perspective this is interesting to me because PIMCO is definitely a Missionary, and the more Missionaries who take this stance, the sooner we advance along the Kubler-Ross scale.


How Viable Are AOC’s Green New Deal Energy Proposals? Just Ask Europe [Fortune]

No country on Earth has tried to implement all the Green New Deal ideas at once—it’s a policy smorgasbord heaving with environmental, social and stimulus-related offerings. Critics have painted the resolution as radical, but many of its social elements are so common in Europe they’re almost taken for granted, such as universal healthcare. And two of its energy-related proposals have started to become reality there, too. Europe has, in essence, tested the viability of transitioning to renewable energy and making houses more energy efficient. And the results of those experiments are worth inspecting, particularly when it comes to timing and the question of jobs.

Honestly, I was expecting this article to be a fountain of Fiat News. It’s not. The simple fact is that we CAN implement many of the Green New Deal policies if we choose to do so, at the cost of structurally lower economic growth, higher taxes across the board, and greater political polarization.

It’s a political choice FOR a widening gyre.

Which is why I think it’s got legs. Because as much as we all tsk-tsk about the center not holding, we can’t take our eyes off the political entrepreneurs spinning us into oblivion.


Trump says he’ll meet with China’s Xi amid intensifying trade fight [CNN]

The article itself is nothing … a regurgitation of everything else you’ve read over the past few days. But I couldn’t stop staring at this picture of Larry Kudlow.

There’s a famous body of work on how serving as President ages you in office. Here are the three most recent ex-Presidents, with the photo on the left as they entered the White House and the photo on the right as they left.

My strong sense of the Trump White House is that The Donald will look exactly the same when he leaves as when he entered. It’s the people working for him that age in dog years.


Many Americans Will Need Long-Term Care. Most Won’t be Able to Afford It.; the new old age [NY Times]

The United States, unlike many Western democracies, has never created a broad public program covering long-term care. Medicare pays for doctors, hospitals, drugs and short-term rehab after hospitalization — not for independent or assisted living.

That could change one day — imagine a new Medicare Part LTC — but “that will be incredibly difficult to achieve politically,” Ms. Pearson said.

Ehh … not that difficult. Before it’s all said and done, the Boomers are going to pull forward every bit of national wealth for the next 100 years to service their needs.


The Zeitgeist – 5.14.2019

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


May 14, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Trade-War Safety Zone Seen in Asian Cub Market Favored by Trump [Reuters]

Vietnam, deemed worthy of a special mention by Donald Trump Monday, is already proving an outperformer, with its stocks losing 2% compared with 5% for the broader emerging-market index last week. The U.S. president warned that unless China accedes to his demands, its trade will flow into Vietnam and other countries.

Brazil and Ukraine are also being sized up as beneficiaries of the standoff between the world’s two largest economies as investors pursue war-proof strategies and places to escape the worst weekly losses in global stocks since December.

This sort of blue sky projection lasts until China starts talking about devaluing its currency. Again.

And then all EMs will tank, especially these “Asian cubs”. Again.


Starbucks Completes Issuance of Third and Largest Sustainability Bond [Press Release]

As with the two previously issued Sustainability Bonds, funds will support ethically sourced coffee. The scope includes purchasing coffee that is verified by Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices; the continued development and operation of Farmer Support Centers and agronomy research and development centers in coffee-growing regions around the world; and new and refinanced loans to coffee farmers made through Starbucks $50 million Global Farmer Fund.

The 30-year Sustainability Bond is part of a larger bond offering of $2 billion, with another $1 billion bond issued for general corporate purposes including the repurchase of common stock as part of the previously communicated $25 billion shareholder return target. The issuance is in line with Starbucks commitment to a leverage cap of 3x lease-adjusted EBITDAR and a minimum credit rating of BBB+Baa1.

I couldn’t find any information on pricing or the coupon associated with this $1 billion, 30-year note, although the prior 10-year $500 million offering went out at 2.45%.

ESG comes to corporate finance.


Cotton Drops by Exchange Limit as U.S.-China Tensions Escalate [Bloomberg]

The U.S. is the world’s top cotton shipper and more than three-quarters of the domestic crop goes into exports, which are heavily dependent on China. Escalations in the trade war come at a time when expanding production meant American inventories were forecast to reach a decade high.

Don’t worry, Mr. Cotton Farmer, I’m sure the USDA will designate you as a Patriot Farmer.


Goldman Says Trade-War Escalation to Drive U.S. Inflation Higher [Bloomberg]

President Donald Trump’s latest tariff increase on Chinese goods will drive up the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of underlying inflation, and a further escalation of the trade war will have an even greater impact on prices as well as economic growth, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Will be proclaimed as “transitory” by the Fed.

So it doesn’t exist.


Cheaper drugs would lead to fewer new drugs [Albuquerque Journal]

You’re a wise and careful person, so you calculate your likely expenses and how much you can charge for your tender young lambs. The math says sheep farming will offer you a tidy little living. But just as you’re about to commit, the government announces price controls on lamb, which will eliminate your profits. Do you still open the sheep farm?

I get so depressed when self-styled libertarians (in this case the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle) shill for oligarchic corporate interests that have captured huge swaths of the regulatory state.

As if Big Pharma’s profit margins aren’t created and maintained by government policy in the first place.

I never know if they’re just mailing it in or if they’re on the make.


$1.2 trillion in stock market value lost so far from trade war sell-off with more expected [CNBC]

You never see how much was “added” to stock market value on a big up-day like today.

That’s intentional, of course, part and parcel of the creation of tiny-hurdles-of-worry.


In the Flow – You Are Here, May 2019

Each month we update our five narrative Monitors and summarize the main findings from each.

The big reveal for May? There’s a tremendous amount of narrative complacency out there, particularly on Trade and Tariffs, which means this market has a long way down if the narrative focuses on negotiation failure. It’s not focusing there yet, but that’s what you want to watch for . . .

 

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The Zeitgeist – 5.13.2019

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


May 13, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Farmer financial pain continues from trade fallout [Farm Futures]

A record crop of both corn and soybeans in 2018 has Bible left holding 20-25% of his 2018 corn crop, and 5% of soybeans. Yet going into 2019, he’s forward priced only about 20% of his soybeans and roughly the same amount for his corn.

Hindsight is always easier, as Bible said he should have mitigated risk a little bit better. However, based on the information he was getting from the administration he felt fairly confident that a deal was going to be reached with China by now. With reports that China would buy “tremendous” amounts of corn and soybeans being leveraged to help bring some equilibrium to the trade imbalance, he was hopeful. “When you’re getting that kind of information, you have confidence, whether right or wrong, that things are soon to be better. We’re not seeing that come to fruition unfortunately,” Bible said.

Cheer up, Farmer Bible! I’m sure that the crack team at USDA has a great plan in the works to buy up all your soybeans and corn and give it away to the poors.

Flounder: Will that work?

Otter: Hey, it’s gotta work better than the truth.


Goldman Sachs’ glitzy new trading floor; Billionaire real-estate investor Sam Zell says now is ‘the time to accumulate capital’ [Business Insider]

Goldman Sachs’ glitzy new London trading floor is the size of a soccer field — but traders worry they’ll be ‘caged in like battery hens’

Sounds fair.


Private equity’s allure poses big risks for the stock market and its investors in the next recession [CNBC]

The transition is already underway and according to asset manager AllianceBernstein, won’t be ending soon. In a note to clients this week, the firm outlined an upcoming decade in which the “main expression of active investing” is in private markets.

I think the A/B note is absolutely right, and it’s part and parcel of a core change in the investment Zeitgeist, as capital markets are transformed into political utilities.

But this isn’t a “risk” for the stock market, and the rationales trotted out in this CNBC article (vanishing liquidity! more volatility!) make zero sense and have even less connection to the point of the original A/B note.


Can the Racial Wealth Gap Be Closed Without Speaking of Race? [NY Times]

Elizabeth Warren wants to offer down-payment assistance to home buyers in formerly “redlined” neighborhoods where the federal government once denied access to mortgages. Cory Booker would like to create “baby bonds” that would be worth more to children in poorer families, helping them one day to buy houses or other assets.

Both presidential candidates say their proposals would aid in narrowing the enduring black-white wealth gap in America. But neither policy attempts to do that in the most direct way possible — by steering benefits to African-Americans.

Their ideas, along with several others that scholars advocate, are facing a tricky problem today. There’s growing momentum on the left to address the racial wealth gap. But the prospects for race-based policies before the Supreme Court are unpromising, and that’s unlikely to change with five conservative justices.

If there is a more Fiat News-loaded term than “scholars”, I am unaware what it might be.


Uber falls more than 7% in disappointing Wall Street debut [CNN]

After that mad dash to overhaul its business and go public, Uber ran into a different problem: the Week from Hell.

On Sunday, President Trump surprised investors by threatening to impose higher tariffs on China in a tweet. The market swung wildly amid concerns of an escalating trade war between the United States and China.

Then on Tuesday, Lyft reported its first earnings report since going public, which revealed more than $1 billion in losses during the first three months of this year. Lyft stock continued its decline the day after.

Uber picked a bad week to stop being private.


It’s Time to Break Up Facebook [NY Times]

Mark is a good, kind person. But I’m angry that his focus on growth led him to sacrifice security and civility for clicks. I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders. And I’m worried that Mark has surrounded himself with a team that reinforces his beliefs instead of challenging them.

The government must hold Mark accountable. 

Like every other oh-so-earnest opinion piece you see in the NYT, the author and the editor and the publisher think they’re being effective advocates for their preferred policy outcomes.

They’re not.

I’m VERY sympathetic to the idea that antitrust law should be used like a flamethrower against Big Tech and Big Banking, but this article made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

There are good reasons to apply antitrust law to Facebook. None of them have anything to do with Mark Zuckerberg.


The Zeitgeist – 5.9.2019

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


May 9, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

China Backtracked on Nearly All Aspects of U.S. Trade Deal [NY Times]

Process stories (what’s happening behind the scenes at the campaign / the White House / the locker room / the negotiations) are the original Fiat News. They are designed to make you angry and further the aims of whoever sourced the “reporting”.

Who benefits from making you angry at China and their “reneging” on a deal that never existed in the first place? Who benefits from a narrative of the Lying Enemy Abroad?

Think about that before you engage in your Two Minute Hate.

Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Or was it Eurasia? I don’t seem to remember so well these days.

The NYT is running hard with this story because they think it reflects badly on Trump. LOL. It’s HIS story.

More evidence that the NYT is the worst metagame player in the history of the world.


Trade Talks Have Two Key Implications for Markets [Bloomberg]

Each Word of Trump’s Tariff Tweets Wiped $13 Billion Off Stocks [Bloomberg]

How To Trade The China Trade War [Forbes]

Once more with feeling …

THERE ARE NO ODDS IN A GAME OF CHICKEN.

It’s not 50/50. It’s not 60/40. It’s not whatever you think they are. You have no edge and there are no odds in the China trade talks. Just stop it.


Delays to Brazil’s Pension Overhaul Raise Economic Concerns [Dow Jones]

“My costs have increased 20% [in two years] because of the stronger dollar,” Mr. Carvalhal said in a bare-bones office in his sprawling warehouse stocked with Argentine wine, German beer, Spanish cheese and other imports. “How can I pass that along to the consumer if the economy is tanking?”

The only bright spot for him and millions of other businesspeople and consumers comes from Brazil’s central bank, which on Wednesday is expected to hold its benchmark interest rate, known as the Selic rate, at the historic low of 6.5% where it has been at since March, 2018.

The dollar is now stronger than it was when the world was going to end in January 2016.

What do you think the odds are for a Shanghai Accord today? LOL.


Dimon Says Yields `Extraordinarily Low’, 4% Wouldn’t Be Bad [Bloomberg]

My president.


Lyft’s stock is plunging, flirting with a record low after its first public earnings report fails to impress investors [Business Insider]

I’m old enough to remember when a company wouldn’t go public until it was ready to rock with a stellar first public earnings report to confirm all those sell-side firms initiating coverage with a Strong Buy.


Business Genius Trump Lost More Money Than Anyone in America Between 1985-1994 [Rolling Stone]

Oooh, they’ve got him now! Burn … sick burn!

Yawn.


The Zeitgeist – 5.7.2019

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


May 7, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

May’s Market Outlook: It’s Too Quiet Out There [The Street]

Investment markets can be confusing. To try to cut through the chatter and investment slang, we present this monthly view to you. We want to give you a 50,000-foot view of market conditions updated as our view evolves. Currently, our Investment Climate Indicator remains at Stormy. Stormy means that bear market rules apply, and we believe could be a period of wealth destruction.

I used to watch Ernest Angley on Sunday morning TV in Birmingham, Alabama. Laying on hands, curing the sick, healing the lame … I’d call him a raccoon, but somehow that seems too kind. A raccoon’s raccoon.

Buffett is no raccoon. He’s a coyote. A coyote’s coyote, even. But there was something about this picture that triggered me.

I haven’t made the hajj to Omaha yet.

As for The Street … raccoons just as far as the eye can see.


Vanguard Fund Investors Get Control of Paying Taxes [Bloomberg]

Ever wonder why you don’t ever get hit with a year-end taxable gain from ETFs like you do with mutual funds?

But thanks to an obscure loophole in the tax code, ETFs almost always avoid incurring taxable gains.

The rule says that a fund can avoid recognizing taxable gains on an appreciated stock if the shares are used to pay off a withdrawing investor. The rule applies to both ETFs and mutual funds, but mutual funds rarely take advantage of it because their investors almost always want cash.

ETFs use it all the time, because they don’t transact directly with regular investors. Instead, they deal with Wall Street middlemen such as banks and market makers. It’s those firms, not retail investors, that expand the ETF by depositing assets or shrink it by withdrawing. These transactions are usually done with stocks rather than cash. The middlemen, in turn, trade with regular investors who want to buy and sell ETF shares.

Trading with middlemen presents ETFs a tax-cutting opportunity. Whenever one of these firms makes a withdrawal request, an ETF can deliver its oldest, most appreciated stocks, the ones most likely to generate a tax bill someday.

If the ETF wants to cut its taxes further, it can generate extra withdrawals just to harvest the tax break. A heartbeat is when an ETF asks a friendly bank or market maker to deposit some stock in the fund for a day or two, then take different stock out. Some critics call these trades an abuse of the tax code. But with the help of heartbeats, most stock ETFs, even ones that change holdings frequently, are able to cut their capital-gains taxes to zero.

Now Vanguard is using the same in-kind redemption / heartbeat trade to avoid taxable gains on most of their mutual funds.

How? By pairing the mutual funds with a sister ETF where they can do these legal (for now) variations-on-a-wash-trade.

But wait, there’s more. They’ve filed a patent on this.

So amazing that I’m not even mad.

This is the ET note on Vanguard. It’s a good read.


Why Investors Love Singapore’s Struggling Malls [The Straits Times]

Singaporeans aren’t spending like they used to, at least not in malls. There are too many already, and more are being built. But investors still have good reasons to back mall owners.

The city state has 6.1 million sq m of retail space, of which 8.7 per cent is vacant. Yet, companies are forecast to add a further 364,000 sq m, with the biggest chunk hitting the market this year. This is when online shopping is catching on, retailers such as Crabtree and Evelyn are closing physical stores, and rents are scraping the bottom.

Two years ago, the median tenant was shelling out $9.76 per sq m in the main shopping district of Orchard Road, when the going rate for category 1 offices was $8.65. Now, office rentals have zoomed to $10.18 – 30 cents more than top-grade retail space – while prospects for a spending recovery aren’t great. CapitaLand Mall Trust, the island’s biggest shopping mall landlord, classifies its tenants in 17 categories, out of which 11 – including supermarkets and department stores – saw sales fall for the first quarter from a year earlier. Telecommunications, home furnishings and music and video led with big double-digit declines.

Okay, I give up. What is the good reason for investors to back Singapore mall REITS?

Paradoxically, real estate investment trusts (Reits) that own malls are outperforming the benchmark Straits Times Index. Interest rates may be a part of the story. With global rates expected to stay lower for longer, a 5 per cent dividend yield on CapitaLand Mall’s shares implies a near 3 percentage point spread on 10-year Singapore government bond yields.

Wheeeeee!


As Public Pensions Pile on More Risk, Returns Don’t Follow [Bloomberg]

Pro-tip: when a financial reporter uses the phrase “so-called alternatives” in the lede, it’s always a train wreck.


TA Associates Closes Thirteenth Flagship Private Equity Fund with $8.5 Billion of Commitments [Press Release]

TA Associates,a leading global growth private equity firm, today announced the first and final closing of TA XIII with total commitments at its hard cap of $8.5 billion. Launched in the first quarter of 2019, TA XIII was oversubscribed and exceeded its original $7.5 billion target.

Wheeeeee!


Blackstone Hires Goldman Alum for New Social Good Initiative [Bloomberg]

Blackstone Group LP hired Tanya Barnes, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., to lead a new impact investing strategy, as pension plans and other institutions seek to put money into more businesses with social and environmental benefits.

Blackstone’s impact initiative will fall under its Strategic Partners group, run by Verdun Perry, and focus on investments advancing health and well-being, financial access, sustainable communities and green technologies, according to the New York-based firm. Along with direct investments, the strategy will include co-investing with other managers making socially conscious bets, Barnes said.

Ah, to live in a world where the phrase “socially conscious bets” can be uttered without a shred of embarrassment. Glorious!


Trump’s Tariff Tweets Do the Markets a Big Favor [Bloomberg]

President Donald Trump’s threat on Sunday to levy additional tariffs on Chinese goods because of the slow pace of trade talks sent the S&P 500 Index down by as much as 1.61 percent before it recovered to end lower by a less jarring 0.45 percent on a report that a delegation of Chinese officials still plan to travel to Washington this week to talk trade. The initial decline was painful, for sure, but cathartic as well, in that it should act as a sort of reset and make the market healthier following a nearly unimpeded trek upward this year. 

I wonder if today was a “healthy pause”, too.

Every now and then my old firm would hire an analyst who would tell me that he was “glad” the stock we owned (and he covered) was down, because now “we could buy more”.

There’s only one proper response to this.

“Not counting today, how long have you worked here?”


Wage Growth, Groucho Marx Edition


This is an ET Professional note, and for the next few days we’re making it available to everyone to review.

Every week, ET Pro subscribers get something like this – an original piece of research and analysis with a perspective that you can’t find anywhere else.

Every month, ET Pro subscribers get updated narrative data and analysis on five core market risk monitors – Inflation, Central Bank Omnipotence, Trade & Tariffs, US Fiscal Policy, and Credit Cycle.

We’ve had what I think are some important breakthroughs on how to apply natural language processing (NLP) to investment research, and we think it’s something that every portfolio allocation, wealth management and active investment team can find useful, particularly for risk management.

ET Pro is the only place we provide direct access to our research.

The ET Pro service is $2,950/yr, with a 30-day full refund trial period, and we’re happy to work through a soft dollar provider. Any remaining time on an ET Premium subscription will be applied as an upgrade. We’ve designed ET Pro to be used by investment teams, allowing up to three simultaneous log-ins with the same credentials, and of course we’re happy to discuss more specific research applications and how you might incorporate them into your current investment or allocation processes.

You can see the ET Pro homepage here, and you can find more information on an ET Pro subscription here. Questions? Email us at info@epsilontheory.com.


Wage Growth, Groucho Marx Edition

The Secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.

These are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I’ve got others.

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.

A child of five could understand this. Send me someone to fetch a child of five.

Last March, I wrote a long note on the cartoon that labor statistics present, called The Icarus Moment. To set the scene:

Once you start looking for these cartoons, you will see them EVERYWHERE.

It’s not a Karl Marx world of alienation. It’s a Groucho Marx world of alienation.

The cartoon of our monthly theater regarding labor statistics, particularly wage growth, rests in the fact that they are reported as hourly wages. Even though the majority of wages in 2019 America are paid biweekly against an annual salary, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports ALL of our wages as if they were paid hourly. Why? Because in 1915 America, when the theater of labor statistics began, this was how most people got paid. Even today, the abstracted idea of hourly wages connects with people more effectively than the abstracted idea of weekly wages. Put that together with bureaucratic inertia, and that’s why this cartoon exists.

But here’s the problem with the hourly wage abstraction. It requires introducing a new data estimation into the mix, one that has nothing (or at least very little) to do with the real-world concept we’re trying to represent, which is whether you’re taking home more money today than you did this time last year. That additional layer of abstraction is the average length of the work week.

The root data collected by the BLS consists of the weekly wages paid by US businesses to their employees. That number is then divided by the total number of people being paid, and the result is the average weekly wage for Americans. Here is that abstracted data for the past 7+ years.

source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

But instead of reporting the annual percentage change on a month-to-month basis, the BLS also calculates the “average work week” so that they can maintain the cartoon of hourly rather than weekly wage reporting. Here is that abstracted data.

source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

For the past 7+ years, the average work week has averaged 34.45 hours, with a range from 34.3 hours to 34.6 hours. That’s 2,067 minutes, ranging from 2,058 minutes to 2,076 minutes. Here’s a graph of that.

source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epsilon Theory

This is not a variable. This is a constant.

From a statistical perspective, given the inherent errors of measurement, any month-to-month difference of 6 minutes here or 6 minutes there is a totally random event.

Measured changes in the average work week are not real.

And yet they have very real effects on the narrative.

Here’s the year-over-year wage growth data from the singly-abstracted measure of weekly wages:

source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

These are the “true” results, or at least the most basic abstraction of what we’re after.

And now here’s the year-over-year wage growth data from the doubly-abstracted measure of hourly wages:

source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

These are the results that are reported to us and create the political and investment narrative.

And now here’s the difference in the two data series, with weekly wage increases subtracted from hourly wage increases. The numbers here are how much the reported wage growth result overstates or understates the actual wage growth result.

source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epsilon Theory

In 2016, reported wage growth massively overstated actual wage growth. Wage stagnation going into the 2016 election was actually much worse than you were told. Did this make a difference in the Midwestern states that swung the election, in that actual labor conditions were worse than everyone thought they were? I think yes.

In 2018, reported wage growth massively understated actual wage growth. Wage growth all last year was actually much better than you were told. Did this make a difference in the current Fed/Wall Street/White House narrative that inflation is dead and the easy money punchbowl can be maintained without consequence? I think yes.

What does all this mean for our investments? Here’s the money quote from The Icarus Moment:

Honestly, I still don’t have a good answer to this question.

Do I invest on the basis of what I can see happening in real-world or do I invest on the basis of what I can see happening in narrative-world?

Ultimately, I STILL think that real-world wins out.

But the path for that … the timing of that … it’s utterly narrative dependent.

Groucho would understand.


The Zeitgeist – 5.6.2019

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


May 6, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory


Everything You Missed At This Weekend’s Berkshire Hathaway Meeting [Fortune]

Warren Buffett and his business partner Charles Munger held court for more than five hours at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, fielding questions from shareholders and imparting their views with their usual wisdom, wit and down-to-earth personalities.

It’s like in Frank Herbert’s Dune books where Leto Atreides ultimately becomes a near-immortal sandworm.

The transformation of Warren Buffett into a near-immortal cartoon is now complete.


Coursera Gets $103M in Series E from New and Existing Investors [Press Release]

Since raising a Series D in June 2017, Coursera’s learner base has grown from 26 million to 40 million. The 3,200 courses and 310 Specializations available on the platform are increasingly stackable, enabling learners to acquire new skills and earn valuable credentials while also building a pathway towards a full degree. The portfolio of degrees on Coursera has also grown to 14 world-class degrees from the top universities in high-demand areas of business administration, data science, computer science, and public health.

The business model isn’t about knowledge, it’s about credentialing.


How To Solve America’s $100 Trillion Problem Of Wealth Inequality [Forbes]

It turns out that maximizing shareholder value as reflected in the current stock price was not only bad morally and socially: it was also bad economically and financially. It doesn’t work, even on its own terms.

Why have so many of the biggest and most respected companies in America gotten involved in wealth extraction on such a massive scale? Why is it still tolerated by regulators?

You’re going to see a lot more of this sort of stuff going into the 2020 elections. It’s all part of the Zeitgeist to transform capital markets into political utilities, and it’s all based on that final, chilling question: “Why is it still tolerated by regulators?”

As if the core small-l liberal ideals of free markets and free elections were things to be doled out from a central pot.

As if our liberty extends only as far as the State tolerates it.

You think that this is the path to defeating the Oligarchy, but I tell you it only makes it stronger.


IPOs bring tax jackpot for California; can lawmakers resist? [Fox Business]

The state has a projected $21 billion surplus in the first year of Newsom’s administration, and that’s without factoring in money from the IPO wave. Former Gov. Jerry Brown began his administration with a deficit, and he frequently clashed with fellow Democrats who wanted to spend more while he wanted to save it.

As he left office, with the California economy humming, Brown warned Newsom might have a tough time convincing the Legislature not to drastically increase spending.

Did you know that California has a budget surplus? I didn’t.

The American entrepreneurial spirit and its resulting productive growth can survive ANYTHING … even the doubleplusgood CalSocs in Sacramento … even the Insane Clown Posse in the White House … even the Mandarins at the Fed.

It’s the only thing that keeps me from slipping into political despondency, and the next subject of a long-form ET note, “A Song of Ice and Fire”.


Junk bond market rally turns Chinese borrowers more aggressive [Reuters]

A surge in junk-rated bonds has made Chinese borrowers more aggressive, with select ones succeeding in cutting their costs for repaying bonds early, a change from standard practice that worries some investors and bankers.

Welcome to the Cov-Lite World.

Resistance is futile.


Market Fallout in Charts: Investors React to U.S. Tariff Threat [Bloomberg]

Stocks Slump as Trump’s Threat of New Tariffs Scares Investors [New York Times]

US-China Trade Talks Tensions Escalate As Trump Threatens 25% Tariffs On $200B Goods [IB Times]

Here’s the tweet that got everyone so exercised.

Wait … you mean that’s not the tweet?

No, I’m pretty sure it is. Or rather, from an Epsilon Theory perspective this tweet about the Kentucky Derby is exactly the same thing as the tweet about China tariffs.

If you’re buying or selling the market because the China deal is on or because the China deal is off, you’re no different from everyone who had a ticket at the Derby.


The Zeitgeist – 5.2.2019

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


May 2, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Facebook’s privacy push puts Messenger in the spotlight – but pitfalls abound [Fast Company]

Messaging apps are by nature places for more private interactions than open social networks. But will users trust Facebook to facilitate those experiences? And will Wall Street let it?

No and no. #SavedYouAClick


VEON Reports Good Q1 2019 Results [Press Release]

Best. Press. Release. Headline. Ever.


Building Unlisted Infrastructure Into Your Portfolio – Overcoming 4 Key Obstacles [Seeking Alpha]

Obstacles to investing in unlisted infrastructure

We see four categories of challenges that investors face throughout the lifecycle of creating and managing a private infrastructure allocation:

Constructing a diversified portfolio

Maintaining exposure

Handling the ongoing operational burden

Investing with discipline and flexibility


Each of these obstacles introduces execution risk and requires specialized capabilities to get right. Some investors have sufficient resources and skills in-house, but for those who don’t, leaning on the private-markets capabilities of an experienced third party may make sense. A skilled third party can streamline these challenges to establishing and maintaining a fully invested, diversified portfolio that is managed in real-time.

I wonder if Russell Investments is a skilled third party that can streamline these challenges for me?

Serious question, and I know that ET has a lot of readers at the asset management firms that place this sort of “content” … does this idiocy work? Ever? Does it generate a single new client or a dime in new revenue?

I’ve come to believe that hiring a team of “content specialists” and publishing claptrap like this is an intentional inefficiency. It signifies that you are such an important and well-established asset manager that you can afford to waste money publishing material that NO ONE reads or cares about.

Content placement is like the elaborate plumage of the male frigate bird. It is SO wasteful and extravagant that – in an economically perverse way – it demonstrates your evolutionary fitness.

I honestly think that’s the reason this stuff exists.


Apple eyes $1 trillion valuation as strong services, revenue forecast fuel comeback [Fox Business]


Top Apple analyst: The surge in services is not enough because 75% of Apple’s business likely to decline [CNBC]

Ditto for why the sell-side still cares about II ratings and “who’s the ax?” and all that stuff that hasn’t mattered for 20 years.

It’s plumage.


The Deadly African Virus That’s Killing China’s Pigs [Washington Post]

A deadly swine disease is spreading across eastern Asia, infecting thousands of pigs and threatening the world’s largest hog industry. Since emerging in China in August, African swine fever has been detected in neighboring Mongolia and Vietnam, increasing the chances of transmission to other countries. The first outbreak in Cambodia was reported in early April in backyard pigs, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Vietnam border.

Related image

That’s through November 2018.

And this is not just a China and Vietnam thing. Here’s an August 2018 map of outbreaks in Central Europe. It’s worse now.

Related image

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


The Zeitgeist – 5.1.2019

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


May 1, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Americans are spending on their dogs and cats like children. That’s a boon for Chewy [CNN]

Americans’ obsession with their pets is lifting Chewy, the online pet food and supply company.Chewy announced on Monday that it will go public. It chose a good time for its IPO: Chewy pulled in $3.5 billion in 2018, around a 65% increase from the year prior.

The Pets.com IPO in February, 2000 came to symbolize the tech bubble, and for good reason. This was a bullshit company to take public … negative gross margins, total sales of $7 million (that is not a typo) in its 12 months of operation. By November, 2000 the company was in liquidation.

Lots of people have forgotten that Jeff Bezos built Pets.com and was responsible for pushing this abomination onto the public.

I haven’t.


Wealthy California couple expected to plead guilty in college admissions scandal [USA Today]

Bruce and Davina Isackson … who have apologized publicly for their actions, have accepted deals with prosecutors pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. Bruce Isackson, the head of a Bay-area real estate firm called WP Investments, has also agreed to plead guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. for deducting the payments from their taxes as charitable contributions. 

Bruce and Davina Isackson love their children. Bruce and Davina Isackson would do anything for their children. Bruce and Davina Isackson get the joke. Bruce and Davina Isackson are rich.

The problem for Bruce and Davina Isackson is that they aren’t rich enough.


Equifax survey reveals saving is a challenge for most consumers [Press Release]

Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX), a global data, analytics and technology company, today released the results of its annual Financial Literacy Survey, in which nearly half of surveyed adults indicated they do not have enough savings to cover at least three months of living expenses. This percentage has increased 35 percent from 2018 among respondents ages 45 to 59 – with six in 10 consumers in this age group responding they lack an emergency fund.

In addition to lacking an emergency fund and enough savings to cover at least three months of living expenses, more than half of surveyed consumers (56 percent) said they don’t have any money left over at the end of the month. And while slightly more than 62 percent of surveyed consumers have created a budget over the past year, 35 percent of surveyed consumers admitted they are not saving for retirement – up from 29 percent last year.


Texas company Tellinga turns your life into a comic [San Antonio Express-News]

Combining the fun of a comic strip with the anticipation of waiting for something special to arrive in the mail, Tellinga (as in “telling a…”) bills itself as a way to turn personal stories into unique gifts.

I actually think this looks like a cute product. But here is where we are in 2019 business plans … snail-mail delivery is now a feature rather than a bug, as it creates “the anticipation of waiting for something special to arrive in the mail.”

Tom Sawyer was a piker.


Technisys raises $50 million to continue empowering banks with disruptive tech [Press Release]

It’s hard to win Buzzword Bingo in a 10-word headline, but here you go.


Warren Buffett gets in the middle of oil bidding war [CNN]

Occidental said Berkshire Hathaway would receive 100,000 shares of preferred stock that pay a sizable dividend of 8% a year [on $10 billion]. That compares with a roughly 5% dividend on Occidental’s common stock.

Existing Occidental shareholders could have their positions watered down because Berkshire would receive warrants to purchase up to 80 million shares of common stock. The warrants have an exercise price of $62.50, compared with the current price of about $59.

I think I saw that the preferreds can’t be bought back by Oxy for something like 10 years. LOL

What is shadow banking? THIS.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Hey, this is Uncle Warren’s true face, and I’m a fan of authenticity in all its forms and ways. But if you think poorly of a guy like, say, Ken Griffin because you think Citadel was “bailed out by the US taxpayer”, and you don’t think EXACTLY the same about Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway … then you’ve been played.