You Still Have Made a Choice: Things that Matter #2

Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers. They’re the time of the band. I don’t consider I should have as much recognition as say a brilliant guitar player. I think the best thing a drummer can have is restraint when he’s playing — and so few have today. They think playing loud is playing best. Of course, I don’t think I’ve reached my best yet. The day I don’t move on I stop playing. I don’t practice ever. I can only play with other people, I need to feel them around me.

— Ginger Baker (founder of Cream), from a 1970 interview with Disc Magazine

La cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont.
(Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.)

— Maurice Edmond Sailland (Curnonsky) — 1872-1956

There are those who think that life
Has nothing left to chance
A host of holy horrors
To direct our aimless dance

A planet of playthings
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
The stars aren’t aligned
Or the gods are malign
Blame is better to give than receive

You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice

 — Rush, “Freewill”, Permanent Waves (1980)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise, he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.

So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’

But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore, take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.

For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Bible, The Gospel of Matthew 25:14-30

This note was featured in Meb Faber’s book The Best Investment Writing – Volume 2, alongside another Epsilon Theory note from Ben Hunt. Click here to get a copy.

I will never understand why more people don’t revere Rush.

With the possible exception of Led Zeppelin[1], I’m not sure there has been another band with such extraordinary instrumentalists across the board, such synergy between those members and their musical style and such a consistent approach to both lyrical and melodic construction. And yet they were only inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. A short list of bands and singers the selection committee thought were more deserving: ABBA, Madonna, Jackson Browne, the Moonglows, Run DMC. At least they got in when Randy Newman did. I remember the first time I heard YYZ, the Rush tune named after the IATA airport code for Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, pronounced “Why Why Zed” in the charming manner of the Commonwealth. It was then that I decided I would be a drummer. I did play for a while, and reached what I would describe as just above a baseline threshold of competence.

That’s not a throwaway line.

There’s a clear, explicit line that every drummer (hopefully) crosses at one point. A step-change in his understanding of the role of the instrument. The true novice drummer always picks up the sticks and plays the same thing. Common time. Somewhere between 90-100 beats per minute. Eighth note closed hi-hat throughout. Bass drum on the down and upbeat of the first beat. Snare on second down beat. And then it’s all jazzy up-beat doodling on the snare for the rest of that bar until the down beat of four. Same thing for three measures, and on the fourth measure it’s time for that awesome fill he’s been practicing. I don’t know how many subscribers are drummers, but I assure you, literally couples of you are nodding your heads.

The fills and off-beat snare hits are all superfluous and not necessary to the principal role of a drummer in rock and roll: to keep the damned beat. But there are a number of reasons why every neophyte does these same things. Mimicry of more advanced players who can do the creative and interesting things without losing the beat, for one. We see Tony Williams, John Bonham, or Bill Bruford and do what it is we think they are doing to make the music sound good. The amateur often also thinks that these are the necessary things to be perceived as a more advanced player, for another. He doesn’t just imagine that his mimicry will make him sound more like the excellent players, but imagines himself looking like them to others. More than anything, the amateur does these things because he hasn’t quite figured out that keeping a good beat is so much more important than anything else he will do that he’s willing to sacrifice it for what he thinks is impressive.

This thought process dominates so many other fields as well. Consider the number of amateur cooks who hit every sauce or piece of meat with a handful of garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, salt, pepper and cayenne, when the simplicity of salt as seasoning dominates most of the world’s great cuisine. There is an instinct to think that complexity and depth must come from a huge range of ingredients[2] or from complexity in preparation, but most extraordinary cooking begins from an understanding of a small number of methods for heating, seasoning and establishing bases for sauces. Inventiveness, creativity and passion can take cuisine in millions of directions from there, but many home cooks see the celebrity chef’s flamboyant recipe and internalize that the creative flourishes are what matters to the dish, and not the fact that he cooked a high-quality piece of meat at the right heat for the right amount of time.

If you’re not much of a cook, consider instead the 30-handicap golfer who wouldn’t be caught dead without a full complement of four lob wedges in his bag. You know, so that he can address every possible situation on the course. The trilling singer of the national anthem who can’t hold a pitch but sees every word of the song as an opportunity to sing an entire scale’s worth of notes. The karate novice who addresses his opponent with a convoluted stance. The writer who doesn’t know when to stop giving examples to an audience who understood what he was getting at half-way through the one about cooking.

I’m guessing at least one of these things pisses you off, or at the very least makes you do an internal eye roll. And yet, as investors we are guilty of doing this kind of thing all the time, any time the topic of diversification comes up.

It comes from a good place. We know from what we’ve been taught (and from watching the experts) that we should diversify, but we don’t have a particularly good way of knowing what that means. And so we fill our portfolios with multiple flavors of funds, accounts and individual securities. Three international equity funds with different strategies. Multiple different styles in emerging markets. Some value. Some growth. Some minimum volatility. Some call writing strategies. Some sector funds. Maybe some long/short hedge funds. Some passively managed index funds, some actively managed funds. Definitely some sexy stock picks. And in the end, the portfolio that we end up with looks very much like the global equity market, maybe with a tilt here or there to express uniqueness — that flashy extra little hit on the snare drum to look impressive.

This piece isn’t about the time we waste on these things. I already wrote a piece about that a few weeks ago. This is about the harm we do to our portfolios when we play at diversifying instead of actually doing it.

The Parable of the Two FA’s

So what does actually diversifying look like?

There are lot of not-very-useful definitions out there. The eggs-in-one-basket definition we’re all familiar with benefits from simplicity, which is not nothing. In addition, it does work if people have a good concept of what the basket is in the analogy. Most people don’t. Say you have $100, and you decide that a basket is an advisor or a fund. So you split the money between the two, and they invest in the same thing. You have not diversified[3]. The other definitions for diversification tend to be more complicated, more quantitative in nature. That doesn’t make them bad, and we’ll be leaning on some of them. But we need a rule of thumb, some heuristic for describing what diversification ought to look like so that we know it when we see it. For the overwhelming majority of investors, that rule of thumb should go something like this:

Diversification is reducing how much you expect to lose when risky assets do poorly or very poorly without necessarily reducing how much total return you expect to generate.

Now, this is not exactly true, and it’s very obviously not the whole definition. But by and large it is the part of the definition that matters most. The more nuanced way to think about diversification, of course, is to describe it as all the benefits you get from the fact that things in your portfolio don’t always move together, even if they’re both generally going up in value. But most investors are so concentrated in general exposure to risky assets — securities whose value rises and falls with the fortunes and profitability of companies, and how other investors perceive those fortunes — that this distinction is mostly an academic one. Investors live and die by home country equity risk. Period. Most investors understand this to one degree or another, but the way they respond in their portfolios doesn’t reflect it.

I want to describe this to you in a parable.

There was once a rich lord who held $10 million in a S&P 500 ETF. He knew that he would be occupied with his growing business over the next year. Before he left, he met with his two financial advisors and gave them $1 million of his wealth and told them to “diversify his holdings.”

He returned after a year and came before the first financial advisor. “My lord, I put the $1 million you gave me in a Russell 1000 Value ETF. Here is your $1.1 million.” The rich man replied, “Dude, that’s almost exactly what my other ETF did over the same period. What if the market had crashed? I wasn’t diversified at all!” And the financial advisor was ashamed.

Furious and frustrated, the rich man then summoned his second financial advisor. “Sir, I put your $1 million in a Short-Duration Fixed Income mutual fund of impeccable reputation. Here’s your $1 million back.”

“Oh my God,” the lord replied, “Are you being serious right now? If I wanted to reduce my risk by stuffing my money in a mattress I could have done that without paying you a 65bp wrap fee. How do you sleep at night? I’m going to open a robo-advisor account.”

Most of us know we shouldn’t just hold a local equity index. We usually buy something else to diversify, because that’s what you do. But what we usually do falls short either because (1) the thing we buy to diversify isn’t actually all that different from what we already owned, or (2) the thing we buy to diversify reduces our risk and our return, which defeats the purpose. There’s nothing novel in what I’m saying here. Modern portfolio theory’s fundamental formula helps us to isolate how much of the variation in our portfolio’s returns comes from the riskiness of the stuff we invested in vs. the fact that this stuff doesn’t always move together.

Source: Salient 2017 For illustrative purposes only.

The Free Lunch Effect

So assuming we didn’t have any special knowledge about what assets would generate the highest risk-adjusted returns over the year our rich client was away on business, what answer would have made us the good guy in the parable? Maximizing how much benefit we get from that second expression above — the fact that this stuff doesn’t always move together.

Before we jump into the math on this, it’s important to reinforce the caveat above: we’re assuming we don’t have any knowledge about risk-adjusted returns, which isn’t always true. Stay with me, because we will get back to that. For the time being, however, let’s take as a given that we don’t know what the future holds. Let’s also assume that, like the Parable of the Two FA’s, our client holds $10 million in S&P 500 ETFs. Also like the parable, we have been asked to reallocate $1 million of those assets to what will be most diversifying. In other words, it’s a marginal analysis.

The measure we’re looking to maximize is the Free Lunch Effect, which we define as the difference between the portfolio’s volatility after our change at the margin and the raw weighted average volatility of the underlying components. If the two assets both had volatility of 10%, for example, and the resulting portfolio volatility was 9%, the Free Lunch Effect would be 1%.

If maximizing the Free Lunch Effect is the goal, here’s the relative attractiveness of various things the two FA’s could have allocated to (based on characteristics of these markets between January 2000 and July 2017).

Volatility Reduction from Diversification — Adding 10% to a Portfolio of S&P 500

Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is not indicative of how the index will perform in the future. The index reflects the reinvestment of dividends and income and does not reflect deductions for fees, expenses or taxes. The index is unmanaged and is not available for direct investment.

The two FA’s failed for two different reasons. The first failed because he selected an asset which was too similar. The second failed because he selected an asset which was not risky enough for its differentness to matter. The first concept is intuitive to most of us, but the second is a bit more esoteric. I think it’s best thought of by considering how much the risk of a portfolio is reduced by adding an asset with varying levels of correlation and volatility. To stop playing at diversification, this is where you start.

Volatility Reduction by Correlation and Volatility of Diversifying Asset

Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is not indicative of how the index will perform in the future. The index reflects the reinvestment of dividends and income and does not reflect deductions for fees, expenses or taxes. The index is unmanaged and is not available for direct investment.

If You Choose not to Decide

If there are some complaints that can be leveled against this approach, two of them, I think, are valid and worthy of exploration.

The first is that diversification cannot be fully captured in measures of correlation. If you read Whom Fortune Favors, you’ll know that our code recognizes that we live in a behaviorally-influenced, non-ergodic world. While I think we’d all recognize that U.S. value stocks are almost always going to be a poor diversifier against global equities (and vice versa), clearly there are events outside of the historical record or what we know today that could completely change that. And so the proper reading of this should always be in context of an adaptive portfolio management process.

The second complaint, as I alluded to earlier, is the fact that we are not always indifferent in our risk-adjusted return expectations for different assets. I’m sure many of you looked at the above chart and said to yourself, “Yeah, I’m not piling into commodities.” I don’t blame you (I’m still not satisfied with explanations for why I ought to be paid for being long contracts on many commodities), but that is the point. Not owning commodities or MLPs because you don’t get them isn’t the same as not expressing an opinion. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

When investors choose to forgo diversification, on any basis, they are implicitly betting that decisions that they make will outperform what diversification would have yielded them. It may not be optimal to own the most diversified portfolio you can possibly own, because anti-diversifying decisions might, in fact, be worth it. But it is exactly that thought process that must become part of our code as investors. It’s OK to turn down a free lunch, but you’d damn well better know that what you’re going to spend your money on is better.

So how do you quantify that implicit bet? Again, the Free Lunch Effect gives us our easiest answer. Consider the following case: let’s assume we had two investment options, both with similar risk of around 15%. For simplicity’s sake we’ll start from our naïve assumption that our assets produce, say, 0.5 units of return for every unit of risk we take. If the two assets are perfectly uncorrelated, how much more return would we need to demand from Asset 1 vs. Asset 2 to own more of it than the other? To own 100% Asset 1?

Well, the chart below shows it. In the case above, if you invest 100% of your portfolio in Asset 1, an investor who thinks about his portfolio in risk-adjusted terms is implicitly betting that Asset 1 will generate more than 3% more return per year, or an incremental 0.21 in return/risk units. If the assets are less similar, this implicit view grows exponentially.

Implied Incremental Return Expectation from Overweighted Asset

Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is not indicative of how the index will perform in the future. The index reflects the reinvestment of dividends and income and does not reflect deductions for fees, expenses or taxes. The index is unmanaged and is not available for direct investment.

A Chain of Linked Engagements

If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next, but instead succumb to the idea that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves, we are liable to regard them as windfall profits.

— On War, Carl von Clausewitz

The point of this note isn’t to try to convince you to focus your portfolio construction efforts on higher volatility diversifiers like those highlighted earlier (although many of you should). It’s also not to argue that maximizing diversification should be your first objective (although most of us are so far from the optimum that moving in this direction wouldn’t hurt). It is to emphasize that portfolio construction and the decisions we make are a chain of linked engagements. It is to give you pause when you or your client asks for a ‘best new investment idea’. If your experiences are like mine, the question is nearly always expressed in isolation — recommend me a stock, a mutual fund, a hedge fund. These questions can never be answered in isolation. If you really must tinker with your allocation, sure, I can give you my view, but only if I know what else you own, and only if I know what you intend to sell in order to buy the thing.

Anyone who will make a recommendation to you without knowing those things is an idiot, a charlatan, or both.

Most of us, whether we are entrenched in financial markets or not, think about our decisions not in a vacuum but in terms of opportunity cost. If we buy A, we’re giving up B. If we invest in A, we’re giving up on B. If we do A, we won’t have time for B. Opportunity cost is fundamental to thinking about nearly every aspect of human endeavor but for some reason is completely absent from the way many investors typically think about building portfolios.

Look, if you didn’t completely follow where I was going with Whom Fortune Favors, I get it. Telling you to think about risk and diversification separately is more than a little bit arcane. But here’s where it comes together: an investor can only make wise decisions about asset allocation, about selecting fund managers, about tactical bets and about individual investments when he has an objective opportunity cost to assess those decisions against that allows him to make his portfolio decisions intentionally, not implicitly. That opportunity cost is the free lunch provided by diversification.

If we take this way of thinking to its natural extreme, we must recognize that we can, at any point, identify the portfolio that would have provided the maximum diversification, at least using the tools we’ve outlined here. For most periods, if you run through that analysis, you are very likely to find that a portfolio of those assets in which every investment contributes a comparable amount of risk to the whole — a risk parity portfolio, in other words — typically provides something near to that maximum level of diversification. I am not suggesting that your portfolio be the maximum diversification portfolio or risk parity. But I am suggesting that a risk parity portfolio of your investable universe is an excellent place to use as an anchor for this necessary analysis.

If you don’t favor it for various reasons (e.g. using volatility as a proxy for risk is the devil, it’s just levered bonds, etc.), then find your home portfolio that accomplishes similar goals in a way that is rules-based and sensible. Maybe it’s the true market portfolio we highlight in I am Spartacus. If you’re conservative, maybe it’s the tangency portfolio from the efficient frontier. And if you’re more aggressive, maybe it is something closer to the Kelly Optimal portfolio we discussed in Whom Fortune Favors. From there, your portfolio construction exercise becomes relatively simple: does the benefit I expect from this action exceed its diversification opportunity cost?

How do you measure it? If you have capital markets assumptions or projections, feel free to use them. Perhaps simpler, assume a particular Sharpe Ratio, say 0.25 or 0.30, and multiply it times the drop in diversification impact from the action you’re taking. Are you confident that the change you’re making to the portfolio is going to have more of an impact than that? That’s…really it. Now the shrewd among you might be saying, “Rusty, isn’t that kind of like what a mean-variance optimization model would do?” It isn’t kind of like that, it’s literally that. And so what? We’re not reinventing portfolio science here, we’re trying to unpack it so that we can use it more effectively as investors.

Recognize that this isn’t just a relevant approach to scenarios where you’re changing things around because you think it will improve returns dramatically. This is also a useful construct for understanding whether all the shenanigans in search of diversification, all that Chili P you’re adding, are really worth the headache. Is that fifth emerging markets manager really adding something? Is sub-dividing your regions to add country managers really worth the time?

In the end, it’s all about being intentional. With as many decisions as we have to manage, the worst thing we can do is let our portfolios make our decisions for us. Given the benefits of diversification, investors ought to put the burden of proof on anything that makes a portfolio less diversified. In doing so, they will recognize why this code recognizes the intentional pursuit of real diversification as the #2 Thing that Matters.


[1] I don’t want to hear it from the “but they stole people’s music and weren’t super nice about it” crowd. Zep played better rock and roll music than anyone before or after, and it’s not even close.

[2] And it can. Pueblan and Oaxacan cuisine feature moles with extraordinary complexity that does come from the melding of a range of seasonings and ingredients. Traditional American chilis, South Asian curries and soups from around the world often do as well. Dishes en croute (e.g. pate en croute, coulibiac, etc.) are notoriously tricky, too.

[3] Cue the fund-of-funds due diligence analyst pointing out that we would have, in fact, diversified our fraud risk. Die on that hill if you want to, friend.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/15907/

Whom Fortune Favors: Things that Matter #1, Pt. 2


Click here to read Part 1 of Whom Fortune Favors


Fook: There really is an answer?

Deep Thought: Yes. There really is one.

Fook: Oh!

Lunkwill: Can you tell us what it is?

Deep Thought: Yes. Though I don’t think you’re going to like it.

Fook: Doesn’t matter! We must know it!

Deep Thought: You’re really not going to like it!

Fook: Tell us!

Deep Thought: Alright. The answer to the ultimate question…of Life, the Universe, and Everything…is… “42”. I checked it thoroughly. It would have been simpler, of course, to have known what the actual question was.

— Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As investors, our process is usually to start from the answer and work our way back to the question. Unfortunately, the answers we are provided are usually pre-baked products, vehicle types or persistent industry conventions, which means that the answers we get when we actually focus on the questions that matter may be counterintuitive and jarring. The entire point of developing a personal code for investing is knowing which questions matter and ought to be asked first, before a single product, vehicle or style box gets thrown into the mix.

The purpose you undertake is dangerous.’ Why, that’s certain. ‘Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 3, Hotspur

Thomasina: When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?

Septimus: No.

Thomasina: Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.

Septimus: No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it forever. This is known as free will or self-determination.

Thomasina: Septimus, do you think God is a Newtonian?

Septimus: An Etonian? Almost certainly, I’m afraid. We must ask your brother to make it his first enquiry.

Thomasina: No, Septimus, a Newtonian. Septimus! Am I the first person to have thought of this?

Septimus: No.

Thomasina: I have not said yet.

Septimus: “If everything from the furthest planet to the smallest atom of our brain acts according to Newton’s law of motion, what becomes of free will?”

Thomasina: No.

Septimus: God’s will.

Thomasina: No

Septimus: Sin.

Thomasina (derisively): No!

Septimus: Very well.

Thomasina: If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so clever as to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.

Septimus (after a pause): Yes. Yes, as far as I know, you are the first person to have thought of this.

— Tom Stoppard, Arcadia, (1993)

On this most important question of risk, we and our advisors often default to approaches which rely on the expectation that the past and present give us profound and utterly reliable insights into what we ought to expect going forward. As a result, we end up with portfolios and, more importantly, portfolio construction frameworks which don’t respect the way in which capital actually grows over time and can’t adapt to changing environments. That’s not good enough.

Most of these notes tend to stand on their own, but this one (being a Part 2) borrows a lot from the thinking in Part 1. If you’re going to get the most out of this note, I recommend you start there. But if you’re pressed for time or just lazy, I wanted you to take away two basic ideas:

  • That the risk decision dominates all other decisions you make.
  • That the risk decision is not exactly the same as the asset class decision.

Children of a Lazier God

Before I dive into the weeds on those ideas, however, I want to tell you about a dream I have. It’s a recurring dream. In this dream, I have discovered the secret to making the most possible money with the least possible effort.

Hey, I never said it was a unique dream.

It is, however, a unique investing case. Imagine for a moment that we had perfect omniscience into returns, but also that we were profoundly lazy – a sort of Jeffersonian version of God. We live in a world of stocks, bonds and commodities, and we want to set a fixed proportion of our wealth to invest in each of those assets. We want to hold that portfolio for 50+ years, sit on a beach watching dolphins or whatever it is people do on beach vacations, and maximize our returns. What do we hold? The portfolio only needs to satisfy one explicit and one implicit objective. The explicit objective is to maximize how much money we have at the end of the period. The implicit objective is the small matter of not going bankrupt in the process.

This rather curious portfolio is noteworthy for another reason, too: it is a static and rather cheeky case of an optimal portfolio under the Kelly Criterion. Named after John Kelly, Jr., a Bell Labs researcher in the 1950s, the eponymous criterion was formally proposed in 1956 before being expanded and given its name by Edward O. Thorp in the 1960s. As applied by Thorp and many others, the Kelly Criterion is a mechanism for translating assessments about risk and edge into both trading and betting decisions.

Thorp himself has written several must-reads for any investor. Beat the Dealer, Beat the Market and A Man for All Markets are all on my team’s mandatory reading list. His story and that of the Kelly Criterion were updated and expanded in William Poundstone’s similarly excellent 2005 book, Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casinos and Wall Street.  The criterion itself has long been part of the parlance of the professional and would-be professional gambler, and has also been the subject of various finance papers for the better part of 60 years. For the less prone to the twin vices of gambling and authoring finance papers, Kelly translates those assessments about risk and edge into position sizes. In other words, it’s a guide to sizing bets. The objective is to maximize the geometric growth rate of your bankroll — or the expected value of your final bankroll — but with zero probability of going broke along the way. It is popular because it is simple and because, when applied to games with known payoffs, it works.

When we moonlight as non-deities and seek to determine how much we ought to bet/invest, Kelly requires knowing only three facts: the size of your bankroll, your odds of winning and the payout of a winning and losing bet. For the simplest kind of friendly bet, where a wager of $1 wins $1, the calculation is simple: Kelly says that you should bet the difference between your odds of winning and your odds of losing. If you have a 55-to-45 edge against your friend, you should bet 10% of your bankroll. Your expected compounded return of doing so is provably optimal once you have bet against him enough to prove out the stated edge — although should you manage to reach this point, you are a provably suboptimal friend.

Most of the finance papers that apply this thinking to markets have focused on individual trades that look more or less like bets we’d make at a casino. These are usually things with at least a kinda-sorta knowable payoff and a discrete event where that payoff is determined: a single hand of blackjack, an exercise of an option, or a predicted corporate action taking place (or not taking place). It’s a lot harder to get your head around what “bet” we’re making and what “edge” we have when we, say, buy an S&P 500 ETF instead of holding cash. Unless you really are omniscient or carry around a copy of Grays Sports Almanac, you’re going to find estimating the range of potential outcomes for an investment or portfolio of investments pretty tricky. Not that it stops anyone from trying.

Since I don’t want to assume that any of us is quite so good at algebra as to write the formula for all the future, at a minimum what I’m trying to do is get us to think about risk unanchored to the arbitrarily determined characteristics and traits of asset classes. In other words, I want to establish an outside bound on the amount of risk a person could theoretically take in a portfolio if his only goal was maximizing return. Doing that requires us to think in geometric space, which is just a fancy way of saying that we want to know how the realization of returns over time ends up differing from a more abstract return assumption. It’s easy enough to get a feel for this yourself by opening Excel and calculating what the return would be if your portfolio went up 5% in one year and down 5% in the next (works for any such pair of numbers). Your simple average will always be zero, but your geometric mean will always be less than zero, by an increasing amount as the volatility increases.

So, if we knew exactly what stocks, bond and commodities would do between 1961 and 2016, what portfolio would we have bought? The blend of assets if we went Full Kelly would have looked like this:

Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only.

Only there’s a catch. Yes, we would have bought this portfolio, but we would have bought it more than six times. With perfect information about odds and payoffs, the optimal bet would have been to buy a portfolio with 634% (!) exposure, consisting of $2.00 in stocks, $3.21 in bonds and $1.13 in commodities for every dollar in capital we had. After all was said and done, if we looked back on the annualized volatility of this portfolio over those 50 years, what would we have found? What was the answer to life, the universe and everything?

44. Sorry, Deep Thought, you were off by two.

Perhaps the only characteristic of this portfolio more prominent than its rather remarkable level of exposure and leverage, is its hale and hearty annualized volatility of 44.1%. This result means if all you cared about was having the most money over a 50+ year period that ended last year, you would have bought a portfolio of stocks, bonds and commodities that had annualized volatility of 44.1%, roughly three times the long-term average for most equity markets[1], and probably five times that of the typical HNW investor’s portfolio.

And before you go running off to tell my lovely, charming, well-dressed and distressingly unsusceptible-to-flattery compliance officer that I told you to buy a 44% volatility super-portfolio, allow me to acknowledge that this requires some… uh… qualification. Most of these qualifications are pretty self-explanatory, since the whole exercise isn’t intended to tell you what you should buy going forward, or even the right amount of risk for you. This portfolio, this leverage and that level of risk worked over the last 50 years. Would they be optimal over the next 50?

Of course not. In real life, we’re not omniscient. Whereas a skilled card counter can estimate his mathematical edge fairly readily, it’s a lot harder for those of us in markets who are deciding what our asset allocation ought to look like. Largely for this reason, even Thorp himself advised betting “half-Kelly” or less, whether at the blackjack table or in the market. When asked why, Thorp told Jack Schwager in Hedge Fund Market Wizards, “We are not able to calculate exact probabilities… there are things that are going on that are not part of one’s knowledge at the time that affect the probabilities. So you need to scale back to a certain extent.”

Said another way, going Full Kelly on a presumption of precise certainty about outcomes in markets is a surefire way to over-bet, potentially leading to a complete loss of capital. Now, scaling back is easy if we are starting from an explicit calculation of our edge as in a game of blackjack. It’s not as easy to think about scaling down to, say, a Half Kelly portfolio. There is, however, another fascinating (but intuitive) feature of the Kelly Optimal Portfolio that allows us to scale back this portfolio in a way that may be more familiar: the Kelly Optimal Portfolio can be generalized as the highest return case of a set of portfolios generating geometric returns that are most efficient relative to the risk they take[2].

This may sound familiar. In a way, it’s very much like a presentation of Markowitz’s efficient frontier. Markowitz plots the portfolios that generate the most return for a given unit of risk, but his is a single-period calculation. It isn’t a geometric approach like Kelly, but rather reflects a return expectation that doesn’t incorporate how volatility and non-linearities impact the path and the resulting compound return. There have been a variety of academic pieces over the years covering the application of geometric returns to this framework, but most have focused on either identifying a single optimal geometric portfolio or on utility. Bernstein and Wilkinson went a bit further, developing a geometric efficient frontier.

All of these analyses are instructive and useful to the investor who wants to take path into account, but because the efficient frontier is heavily constrained by the assumed constraint on leverage, it’s not as useful for us. What we want is to take the most efficient portfolio in geometric terms, and take up or down the risk of that portfolio to reflect our tolerance for capital loss. In other words, we want a geometric capital market line. The intuitive outcome of doing this is that we can plot the highest point on this line as the Full Kelly portfolio. The second, and perhaps more satisfying outcome, is that we can retrospectively identify that scaling back from Full Kelly just looks like delevering on this geometric capital market line.

The below figure plots each of these items, including a Half Kelly portfolio that defines ruin as any scenario in the path in which losses exceed 50%, rather than full bankruptcy. The Half Kelly portfolio delivers the highest total return over this period without ever experiencing a drawdown of 50%.

Source: Salient, as of December 31, 2016. For illustrative purposes only.

When we de-lever from the Full Kelly to Half Kelly portfolio, we drop from a terrifying 44% annualized volatility number (which experiences an 80% drawdown at one point) to 18.5%, closer to but still materially higher in risk than most aggressive portfolios available from financial advisors or institutional investors.

This can be thought of in drawdown space as well for investors or advisors who have difficulty thinking in more arcane volatility terms. The below exhibit maps annualized volatility to maximum loss of capital over the analysis period. As mentioned, the 50% maximum drawdown portfolio historically looks like about 18.5% in volatility units.

Source: Salient, as of December 31, 2016. For illustrative purposes only.

For many investors, their true risk tolerance and investment horizon makes this whole discussion irrelevant. Traditional methods of thinking about risk and return are probably serving more conservative investors quite well. And there are some realities that anyone thinking about taking more risk needs to come to terms with, a lot of which I’m going to talk about in a moment — there’s a reason we wanted to talk about this in geometric terms, and it’s all about risk. But for those with a 30, 40 or 50-year horizon, for the permanent institutions with limited cash flow needs, it’s reasonable to ask the question: is the amount of risk in the S&P 500 Index or in a blend of that with the Bloomberg Barclays Aggregate Bond Index the right amount of risk to take? Or can we be taking more? Should we be taking more?

Did you think that was rhetorical? Nope.

Many investors can – and if they are acting as fiduciaries probably ought to — take more risk.

If every hedge fund manager jumped off a bridge…

This may not be a message you hear every day, but I’m not telling you anything novel. Don’t just listen to what your advisors, fund managers and institutional peers are telling you. They’re as motivated and influenced by career risk concerns as the rest of us. Instead, look at what they’re doing.

The next time you have a conversation with a sophisticated money manager you work with, ask them where they typically put their money. Yes, many of them will invest alongside you because that is right and appropriate (and also expected of them). But many more, when they are being honest, will tell you that they have a personal account or an internal-only strategy operated for staff, that operates at a significantly higher level of risk than almost anything they offer to clients. Vehicles with 20%, 25% or even 30% volatility are not uncommon. Yes, some of this is hubris, but some of it is also the realization on the part of professional investors that maximizing portfolio returns — if that is indeed your objective — can only be done if we strip back the conventions that tell us that the natural amount of risk in an unlevered investment in broad asset classes is always the right amount of risk.

Same thing with the widely admired investors, entrepreneurs and business operators. The individual stocks that represent their wealth are risky in a way that dwarfs most of what we would be willing to tolerate in individual portfolios. We explain it away with the notion that they are very skilled, or that they have control over the outcomes of the company — which may be true in doses — but in reality, they are typically equally subject to many of the uncontrollable whims that drive broader macroeconomic and financial market outcomes.

Then observe your institutional peers who are increasing their allocations to private equity and private real estate. They’re not just increasing because hedge funds have had lower absolute returns in a strong equity environment, although that is one very stupid reason why this is happening. It’s also happening because institutions are increasingly aware that they have limited alternatives to meet their target returns. While few will admit it explicitly, they use private equity because it’s the easiest way to lever their portfolios in a way that won’t look like leverage. In a true sense of uncertainty or portfolio level risk, when the risk of private portfolios is appropriately accounted for, I believe many pools of institutional capital are taking risk well beyond that of traditional equity benchmarks.

Many of the investors we all respect the most are already taking more risk than they let on, but explain it away because it’s not considered “right thinking.”

To Whom Much is Given

When we make the decision to take more risk, however, our tools and frameworks for managing uncertainty must occupy more of the stage. This isn’t only about our inability to build accurate forecasts, or even our inability to build mostly accurate stochastic frameworks based on return and volatility, like the Monte Carlo simulations many of us build for clients to simulate their growth in wealth over time. It’s also because the kinds of portfolios that a Full Kelly framework will lead you to are usually pretty risky. Their risk constraint is avoiding complete bankruptcy, and that’s not a very high bar. The things we have to do to capture such a high level of risk and return also usually disproportionately increase our exposure to big, unpredictable events. If you increase the risk of a portfolio by 20%, most of the ways you would do so will increase the exposure to these kinds of events by a lot more than 20%.

Taken together, all these things create that famous gap between our realized experience and what we expected going in. This is a because most financial and economic models assume that the world is ergodic. And it ain’t. I know that’s a ten-dollar word, but it’s important. My favorite explanation of ergodicity comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who claims to have stolen it from mathematician Yakov Sinai, who in turns claims to have stolen it from Israel Gelfand:

Suppose you want to buy a pair of shoes and you live in a house that has a shoe store. There are two different strategies: one is that you go to the store in your house every day to check out the shoes and eventually you find the best pair; another is to take your car and to spend a whole day searching for footwear all over town to find a place where they have the best shoes and you buy them immediately. The system is ergodic if the result of these two strategies is the same.

There are infinite examples of investors making this mistake. My mind wanders to the fund manager who offers up the fashionable but not-very-practical “permanent loss of capital” definition of risk, a stupid definition that is the last refuge of the fund manager with lousy long-term performance. “Sure, it’s down 65%, but that’s a non-permanent impairment!” Invariably, the PM will grumble and call this a 7-standard deviation event because he assumed a world of ergodicity. Because of the impact of a loss like this on the path of our wealth, we’ll now have to vastly exceed the average expected return we put in our scenario models in Excel just to break even on it.


“It’s not a permanent impairment of capital!”

It matters what path our portfolios follow through time. It matters that our big gains and losses may come all at once. It matters to how we should bet and it matters to how we invest. You cannot stir things apart!

So if you’ve decided to take risk as an investor, how we do avoid this pitfall? Consider again the case of the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur’s portfolio is concentrated, which means that much of his risk has not been diversified away. A lot of that is going to be reflected in the risk and return measures we would use if we were to plot him on the efficient frontier. That doesn’t necessarily mean his risk of ruin will appear high, and his analysis might, in fact, inform the entrepreneur that he ought to borrow and hold this business as his sole investment. He’s done the work, performed business plan SWOT analyses, competitor analyses, etc., and concluded that he has a pretty good grasp of what his range of outcomes and risks look like.

In an ergodic world, this makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, and we give ourselves due diligence gold stars for asking all the right questions. In a non-ergodic world, the guy dies using his own product. A competitor comes out of nowhere with a product that immediately invalidates his business model. A bigger player in a related industry decides they want to dominate his industry, too. And these are just your usual tail events, not even caused the complexity of a system we can’t understand but by sheer happenstance. For the entrepreneur, all sorts of non-tail events over time may materially and permanently change any probabilistic assessment going forward. How do we address this?

The first line of defense as we take more risk must be diversification. After all, there is a reason why the Kelly Portfolios distribute the risk fairly evenly across the constituent asset classes.[3]

Even that isn’t enough. Consider also the case of the leveraged investor in multiple investments with some measure of diversification, for example a risk parity investor, Berkshire Hathaway[4], or the guy who went Full Kelly per our earlier example, but without the whole perfect information thing. This investor has taken the opposite approach, which is to diversify heavily across different asset classes and/or company investments. His return expectation is driven not so much by his ability to create an outcome but by the exploitation of diversification. As he increases his leverage, his sensitivity to the correctness of his point-in-time probabilistic estimates of risk, return and correlations between his holdings will increase as well. In an ergodic world, this is fine and dandy. In a non-ergodic world, while he has largely mitigated the risk of idiosyncratic tails, he is relying on relationships which are based on a complex system and human behaviors that can change rapidly.

Thus, the second line of defense as we take more risk must be adaptive investing. Sometimes the only answer to a complex system is not to play the game, or at least to play less of it. Frameworks which adapt to changing relationships between markets and changing levels of risk are critical. But even they can only do so much.

Liquidity, leverage and concentration limits are your rearguard. These three things are also the only three ways you’ll be able to take more risk than asset classes give you. They are also the three horsemen of the apocalypse. They must be monitored and tightly managed if you want to have an investment program that takes more risk.

It’s not my intent to end on a fearful note, because that isn’t the point at all. More than asset class selection, more than diversification, more than fees, more than any source of alpha you believe in, nothing will matter to your portfolio and the returns it generates more than risk. And the more you take, the more it must occupy your attention. That doesn’t mean that we as investors ought to cower in fear.

On the contrary, my friends, fortune favors the bold.


[1] Back in 1989, Grauer and Hakansson undertook a somewhat similar analysis on a finite, pre-determined set of weightings among different assets with directionally similar results. Over most windows the optimal backward-looking levered portfolio tends to come out with a mid-30s level of annualized volatility.

[2] For this and the other exhibits and simulations presented here, I’m very grateful to my brilliant colleague and our head of quantitative strategies at Salient, Dr. Roberto Croce.

[3] And that reason isn’t just “we’re at the end of a 30-year bond rally,” if you’re thinking about being that guy.

[4] One suspects Mr. Buffett would be less than thrilled by the company we’re assigning him, but to misquote Milton Friedman, we are all levered derivatives users now.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/15947/

Whom Fortune Favors: Things that Matter #1, Pt. 1

President Camacho

Still, brave Turnus did not lose hope of seizing the shore first,
and driving the approaching enemy away from land.
And he raised his men’s spirits as well, and chided them:
‘What you asked for in prayer is here, to break through
with the sword. Mars himself empowers your hands, men!
Now let each remember his wife and home, now recall
the great actions, the glories of our fathers. And let’s
meet them in the waves, while they’re unsure and
their first steps falter as they land. Fortune favors the brave.’
So he spoke, and asked himself whom to lead in attack
and whom he could trust the siege of the walls.

— Virgil, The Aeneid, 10. 270-28

I had to take a verbal physical. A bunch of yes or no questions. But they were strangely worded, like, “Have you ever tried sugar… or PCP?”

— Mitch Hedberg

Imani: Am I not all you dreamed I would be?
Akeem: You’re fine. Beautiful! But if we’re going to be married, we should talk and get to know each other.
Imani: Ever since I was born, I have been trained to serve you.
Akeem: I know, but I’d like to know about you. What do you like to do?
Imani: Whatever you like.
Akeem: What kind of music do you like?
Imani: Whatever kind of music you like.
Akeem: I know what I like, and you know what I like, ’cause you were trained to know, but I would like to know what you like. Do you have a favorite food? Good! What is your favorite food?
Imani: Whatever food you like.
Akeem: This is impossible. I command you not to obey me.
— Coming to America (1988)

Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest reproduced in greater number than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man now began to favor different traits. While most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent, all signs indicated that the human race was heading in the opposite direction: a dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not make moral judgments. Evolution does not necessarily reward that which is good or beautiful. It simply rewards those who reproduce the most.

— Opening Narration, Idiocracy (2006)

Lepidus: What manner o’ thing is your crocodile?
Antony: It is shap’d, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just as high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
Lepidus: What colour is it of?
Antony: Of its own colour too.
Lepidus: ‘Tis a strange serpent.
Antony: ‘Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.
— William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 7
He ended frowning, and his look denounc’d
Desperate revenge, and Battel dangerous
To less then Gods. On th’ other side up rose
Belial, in act more graceful and humane;
A fairer person lost not Heav’n; he seemd
For dignity compos’d and high exploit:
But all was false and hollow; though his Tongue
Dropt Manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest Counsels: for his thoughts were low;
To vice industrious, but to Nobler deeds
Timorous and slothful: yet he pleas’d the ear,
And with perswasive accent thus began.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

For the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness.

— Thucydides, Funeral Oration for Pericles

They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.

— Career journeyman Oscar Gamble, when asked about the New York Yankees clubhouse

The reality show president and the High King of Ireland

If you’ve seen the film, you know why it has become so fashionable to talk about Idiocracy’s prescience. If you haven’t, a brief synopsis: the film tells the story of humanity many years in the future. In this future, humans are very stupid. The biggest celebrity is the resilient star of a hit reality show about a man subjected to repeated groin injuries. Farmers water their fields with an electrolyte-laden sports drink since, after all, as the Brawndo company clearly states, “it’s got what plants crave.” Plus, with that kind of television programming available, it’s not like you’re going to have time to read debates among historians about whether Scipio Africanus truly ordered the salting of Carthaginian fields.

Well, all that and they elected a wrestling and adult film star as president.

Don’t worry. I’m not going where you think I’m going with this, although I will admit that even though I threatened to write in President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho in two prior elections, when he actually appeared on the ballot I found it a bit more difficult to pull the lever.

So how did this happen (the movie plot, not Trump)? Well, the proximate cause proferred by the narrator is that all the smart, creative people saw overcrowding and a dangerous world and decided not to have kids. So it’s a gene pool argument. Underneath this purely genetic argument, however, lie truths about both evolution and social structures that form around and because of some of the trappings of genetics and lineage. From an evolutionary perspective, we are presented with the asymmetric potential of humanity that has solved most of its existential problems. If intelligence and creativity have little-to-no bearing on survival (more accurately, on a given human’s potential to procreate), what is the catalyst for the development of positive traits? Should procreation become associated with long-run maladaptive traits, however, the bigger issue becomes: how quickly do social power structures develop around and entrench those traits? How effectively do those structures prevent the emergence of adaptive traits when we need them again (e.g., knowing that you should probably just use water)?

You’re reading a note on a website long published with the header, “Politics trumps economics every time,” so I expect you won’t be surprised to learn that I think that over short periods of time, the pressure of the social structures is by far the stronger of these two dynamics. After all, the driving force behind the Idiocracy scenario is not entirely fictional. If you’ve participated in any sort of foray into genetic genealogy, you’ve seen the effect in action.

A few years back, a group of researchers from Trinity College Dublin identified that there was a strong relationship between certain genetic haplotypes and surnames that matched published lineages of a certain quasi-historical Irish king: the wonderfully named Niall of the Nine Hostages. Researchers found in subsequent testing of individuals with those surnames that many shared a mutation in their Y chromosome. At a location called 14902414 (don’t ask), where they expected to find guanine, which is what they’d find in researching any other human male they’d ever come across, they found adenine instead. We call this kind of mutation a “single nucleotide polymorphism.” These mutations are one of the most important ways we map the branching of lineages in male genetic history. Stable SNPs are passed down like a scar from generation to generation in a path-dependent chain.

Once this was discovered, we were off to the races in the usual ways. One of the largest DNA testing companies wasted no time in creating a special logo that was applied like “flair” to user accounts certifying them as a Descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages! If you’re one of the few million men who would test positive for this mutation, you can still scrape a bit of your cheek into a vial, send it in and then download and print a certificate attesting to this, although they’ve softened the language somewhat. As always, lineage and genetics are far more complicated than they appear on the surface, and subsequent research made it clear that the mutation happened centuries before this man would have lived, probably in Cornwall and not Ireland, and included all sorts of other lineages as well.

Even if the specifics were a bit off, there was a kernel of truth in this mode of thinking: in general, rich people with swords who could afford food had more children that didn’t die early, and their children had more children who didn’t die early. In addition to really bad genealogical practices, this is why everyone you meet who has done any research into their family has found some super-famous king or viscount or third earl of something-somewhere from whom they’re descended. It’s also why when a particular common lineage seems to spring out of a place and time, we are drawn to the notion of the fecund king, whether it’s Niall or, say, Genghis Khan. A 13th century peasant farmer probably didn’t have healthy kids, and if he did he probably didn’t keep exquisite written records of them. But in the short run, evolution is a fickle, funny, random thing. Does the success of the line of someone like Niall mean that it had some significant, genetically heritable trait that made its members more likely to thrive? It’s possible, of course, and in many cases throughout history it is certainly true — evolution is a thing, after all — but over shorter horizons it is natural variation and randomness that dominate.

Yes, Niall himself may have successfully overcome his opponents because he was predisposed to carry more muscle mass and greater range of motion in his arms, and your 12th great-grandfather, the Marquis of Accepting Internet Strangers’ Shoddy Research, may have risen to his position from obscurity because of his stunning intellect. But power structures like nobility and primogeniture1 aren’t necessary to protect the remarkable. They are necessary to protect the weaker links in the chain that come as a result of even more remarkable genetic variation, and the resilience of the line over time is functionally the strength of the power structure that supports it — and must support it in order to endure such variation. In short, those power structures — the ideas of nobility, genetic superiority and divine right — are just narratives. Very, very strong ones.

1Or at least patrilineality. Unlike a lot of Germanic cultures, Irish (and later Scottish) traditions favored Tanistry, under which a sept could allow any male descendant of a chosen accepted ancestor to become the Tanist, the heir apparent. Often it was simply the King’s eldest son, but not always.

From the very beginning of Epsilon Theory — but reaching its zenith with When Does the Story Break — these pages and our thinking have focused on the almost-shocking resilience of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about markets and investing. In that piece, we placed the focus squarely on the inflection point: what does it look like when the narrative changes? When do gentlemen stop wearing the wigs they wore for 150 years? When and why do they stop wearing hats? When will we all stop knowing that we all know that markets are policy-controlled? When will Mike Judge’s future humanity accumulate enough negative results from maladaptive traits that marginally superior traits become relevant to reproduction again (so that we don’t die out as a result of malnourishment and repetitive concussive injuries to the groin)?

For such a narrative to break, our private knowledge — a collective state of understanding of something so agreed-upon as to be considered fact — must be influenced by new public knowledge. When it’s a pervasive idea, it resolves to a strong equilibrium, like the information surfaces we talked about in Through the Looking Glass. And it requires an awful lot of information for a narrative like this to break.

It’s true for High Kings of Ireland and it’s true for investing.

What manner o’thing is your manna

Let me tell you about an especially stupid investing idea that has managed to survive for a very long time.

Since we’ve covered dystopian fantasies, let’s imagine this stupid idea in context of something wonderful: let’s assume that we are 22 years old again, right out of college and talking to our first financial advisor about our 401(k) allocation. Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re a financial advisor yourself, an institutional allocator, an individual or a professional investor, you know what’s coming next. The book says 100% stocks. Maybe the home office dropped in some higher risk/return styles into their mean/variance model and so we probably get a dash of Chili P in the form of emerging markets and small caps too. All stocks, mostly U.S., with a bit more international, emerging markets and small cap than the average client. Sound about right?

Let’s unpack this advice. The financial advisor in this scenario is essentially telling his client the following:

I’m happy to inform you that the trillions of business decisions of billions of employees and managers of companies around the world, combined with the decisions of bankers who determined whether and how much to lend to those companies, the decisions of individuals who chose whether to buy or sell that company’s products, global weather phenomena, collective actions of terrorist groups, trillions of trading decisions made by computers and individuals alike on a microsecond-by-microsecond basis, the general pace of technological growth, the changing risk appetites of a dozen different classes of investors, the state of rule of law in various countries around the world, the changing policies of governments and central banks governing trade, commerce and financial markets, the current level of prices and valuations, and the way in which billions of individuals will perceive and estimate the outcomes of all of the above — that all these things together have conspired together to create an entity we call a stock, which, when taken in combination with a more or less arbitrarily determined number of other stocks and all of their differing characteristics, will create a stock market that just happens to have exactly the right amount of risk for you!

What a bunch of superstitious hogwash.

We treat asset classes like manna from heaven, preordained structures that were designed to meet our every need, in which the lowest-risk major asset class has just the right amount of risk for a retired person and the highest-risk major asset class is perfect for the most risk-seeking individual. The very idea pleases the ear because it asks little of us. You’ll eat your manna and like it! But be honest, can you think of anything else where the universe conspires so beautifully and elegantly to meet our needs?

Fortunately, at this point many investors at least pay lip service to the preeminence of asset allocation, but we often think of it in terms that commingle the types of risk we are taking and the amount of risk we take. We see this commingling — a thing we call asset classes, like broad definitions of stocks and bonds — as manna from heaven because we tend to inextricably link the concepts of asset classes with risk and return. We are trained by the investment industry to see our asset class decisions as a proxy for risk decisions. They aren’t, and the distinction matters.

It’s easy to get caught up in terminology and semantics here, so intead, think about the act of investing in its most fundamental sense. Strip away products, market conventions, regulation and structures like exchanges, even corporations. Investing is the act of using capital to buy an asset or pay expenses to support it. We invest so that we will either (1) produce income from the asset or (2) cause the asset to become more valuable in the eyes of other investors. In this sense we can think of our risk as the range of outcomes from (1) and (2) after considering the (3) nature of our claim on both. This is true for any investment.

What, then, is an asset class? Well, it’s a mostly sensible, if subjective, way to generalize how some investments are more like other investments. Asset classes define that similarity mostly in how their characteristics (1) and (2) above respond to the same stimuli. So ignoring that the right answer is, “because it’s just what we do”, why do we consider U.S. large cap stocks an asset class? Well, generally speaking, it should be because the things that cause risks to a company’s ability to generate earnings are pretty similar, and (rather self-prophesyingly) because the fact that it is considered an asset class influences how other investors are likely to respond similarly when they assess the value of all the other underlying constituents of the asset class.

In practice, however, the factors that influence the viability and the value of our claims on enterprises we invest in (i.e., companies, governments, properties, projects, etc.), and especially the magnitude of sensitivity to those factors, can be hugely variable within asset classes. TSLA and T theoretically have exposure to some of the same drivers of variability, but how much, really? Do people scale back their texting and phone plans during a recession? Eh, maybe. Do they stop buying $90,000 rolling batteries? Oh yeah. And yet, more often than not, investments like this move in sympathy. What is so fundamental about and shared within these asset classes that they can be aggregated like this? This is a critical thing to understand if you spend any time assessing risk or building portfolios:

The real reason that many investments behave like each other at all is that they are grouped into asset classes that most investors trade together.

It’s the sort of tautological, Schrodingeresque yarn that should be familiar to any Epsilon Theory reader: asset classes behave like asset classes because we treat them like asset classes. No matter how much we grouse about fundamentals not mattering, no matter how much we may wish this weren’t the case, it is. And it’s becoming truer as passive investing and indexing become more dominant. We may not think it be like it is, but it do.

If you find this dissatisfying, join the club. The cementing of this kind of mechanic is a big part of the hollow, petty, transactional, voodoo wasp-infested investing world we live in. I’m not asking you to pretend that it isn’t a thing. What I am asking you to do is consider whether it is right to anchor the way we think about portfolios and appropriate levels of risk for ourselves and our clients on the independent and recursively derived characteristics of “asset classes.”

In behavioral finance and cognitive psychology, this is a classic example of both the availability and anchoring heuristics. In the absence of a clear framework to assess how much risk we ought to take in our portfolios, we instead look at the continuum of risk/reward opportunities as expressed through these asset classes, whose risk characteristics are readily apparent — and available. We anchor on the “most risky” and “least risky” of those asset classes, and treat every individual as a relative or marginal analysis against those anchors. Thus, we arrive at all the variants of 60/40, 70/30 and 50/50 portfolios consisting of varying percentages of stocks and bonds. It’s a Coming to America conversation with every advisor: “How much risk is appropriate for a high-risk investor? Why, however much risk a broad market stock market index has.” “How much for a moderate risk investor? I don’t know, let’s add some bonds to whatever we just sold the last guy.”

The conflation of the types and amount of risk has other effects as well. A portfolio that is 80% bonds isn’t just less risky than a portfolio that is 80% stocks — it is also exposed to really different drivers of returns for what it holds. Thus, even in an asset class-conscious framework, the narrative holds. And it is a strong one.

Its missionaries take many forms: practitioners, econometricians, academics, and even regulators, who conduct all sorts of other analyses to support these conclusions. They anchor us to conventional definitions and groupings like asset classes, style boxes and the like, they take for granted assumptions (e.g., no leverage) that create massive bias in their conclusions, and they focus unerringly on improving utility theory to better understand what investors will do instead of identifying what they should do. In so doing they unwittingly conspire to force us into a set of investment options that reflect a sad mix of human behavioral tendencies, conclusions biased by massive abstractions and absurd faith in coincidences.

Have you ever tried sugar…or PCP?

I think it’s pretty unlikely this narrative goes anywhere any time soon. Its assumptions are too convenient, too perswasive, its conventions too embedded in product structure and regulation. Think Target Date funds, balanced funds and ’40 Act limitations. It’s also true that it can be pretty useful. As these pages have made clear, we have a pretty dim view of spending a lot of time sitting around talking stocks and we’re not in the business of wasting time on window dressing or fiddling. When we build portfolios, we use a lot of index-linked instruments — ETFs, futures, swaps — because they do a pretty good job of delivering many of the core sources of risk and return we want.

But believing in and using low-cost vehicles doesn’t require you to calibrate your whole framework of thinking around the characteristics of the indexes they track. So what is our framework? What will be robust to changing levels of risk and changing sentiment? What has a true north even when the drivers of asset classes are shifting? What allows us to answer something other than “Yes” or “No” when someone asks us whether we’ve ever tried sugar or PCP?

How much risk you take is probably the most important decision you will make as an investor. It is certainly the first decision you should make.

This is a deceptively simple point, but it matters. I am saying that before you spend a minute thinking about or designing an asset allocation, your complete focus should be on the quantity of risk you’re willing to take.

In some cases — decisions among similar asset classes — the risk decision is very obviously more important. This is most easily understood by example. Below we examine the risk and return of five different portfolios since January 2001 and rebalanced monthly:

  1. A portfolio invested 100% in the MSCI All Country World Index (“ACWI”)
  2. A portfolio invested 90% in ACWI and 10% in the S&P 500
  3. A portfolio invested 90% in ACWI and 10% in the MSCI Japan Index
  4. A portfolio invested 90% in ACWI and 10% in the MSCI Europe Index
  5. A portfolio invested 90% in ACWI and 10% in nothing (under a mattress)

Think of Portfolio 1 as our control. Portfolios 2, 3 and 4 represent — for the most part — an isolation of the “asset” dimension and an abstraction from risk. Portfolio 5 represents an isolation of the risk dimension. If we chose to overweight the U.S., Europe or Japan by 10% against a global market cap weighted index, the average difference in annualized return between the 10% overweight bets and the ACWI over this period was about 8 basis points. By contrast, taking off 10% of our risk took away about 30bp of return. Intuitively this is a function of the relative Sharpe ratios of various asset classes and how they differ, and so over different periods — such as ones in which the broad market was down — this analysis might have different signs. But over most of history and across most markets the magnitude, the importance of this decision, would be like what we show here.

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 12/31/16. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Certain performance information shown is compared to broad-based securities market indices. Broad-based securities indices are unmanaged and are not subject to fees and expenses typically associated with managed accounts or investment funds. Investments cannot be made directly in an index.

You could think about this in risk space as well. The volatility of the ACWI over this period was just under 16%, coincidentally not that far from what you would observe over many other long-term windows. In contrast, the volatility of the excess return between each individual market and the broad market — their tracking error — was always lower. On average using the U.S., Europe and Japan, the average tracking error is about 7.6%, less than half of the volatility of the market itself.

This analysis becomes a bit more convoluted if you’re comparing decisions across assets that tend to have very different amounts and types of risk — say, U.S. large caps and Treasurys. If we were able to achieve a similar level of risk from government debt, we’d see that the impact of the different types of risk becomes as significant as the risk decision itself. But even in this case, to get to a place where we are thinking in those terms, quantity of risk is our starting place. How much you own usually matters more than what you own.

For many investors, this is counterintuitive. It presents a strong contrast to the way in which many investors have taken advice from people like Peter Lynch and Warren Buffett, whose letters and books highlight the extent to which focusing on simple businesses they can understand or can “sketch with a crayon” has led to their own success. Much to Mr. Lynch’s dismay, for example, investors have often understood this to mean buying Procter & Gamble stock because they personally use a lot of Crest toothpaste and feel strongly that it’s a superior product to Colgate. I would extend this to include even the more sensible-sounding notion that a senior IT professional has some edge that should allow him to successfully manage a JNPR/CSCO pairs trade. Please.

Buffett and some others are probably an exception to our rule of thumb here, although only marginally so. Not because of his talent, but because of his extreme concentration. The idiosyncratic characteristics of the portfolio of companies in which he chooses to invest may sometimes be more different from those of other companies than the difference between holding the portfolio and holding cash. But that level of concentration is so extraordinarily rare among investors that I think it’s probably approximately correct to consider it irrelevant for our discussion.

So what am I saying to the “quality” and “buy what you know” investors? I am saying that unless you have a portfolio that is very concentrated in individual securities — by which I mean that more than 6 or 7% of your total net worth or investable assets are invested in an average stock or bond position — if you think that the unique characteristics of what you own are going to drive your success more than how much market risk you’re taking, you are wrong.

Measurement will be important as we walk down this road, but I don’t have a lot of interest in spilling more ink/electrons debating the best way to measure risk. We’ll get into it more in Part 2, but regardless of what measure for risk we choose, by and large, how much exposure we have to financial market risk will have more impact on our portfolio results than any other factor.

Primum non nocere

What does all this mean for the code-driven investor?

It means that anything lower in the priority must be considered in context of its impact on risk. This seems intuitive, but is extremely poorly understood. Take a look at this article from the world’s leading newspaper covering financial markets. Without tongue firmly planted in cheek, this author undertakes to compare hedge fund returns to private equity returns as part of explaining why private equity funds are raising so much more money. This is really stupid.

The first reason it is stupid is because the comparison is terrible. Most private equity — large buyout funds, anyway — is just levered stocks with high fees and a PM who calls himself a “deal guy” and wears Brioni instead of your long-only guy’s Brooks Brothers. It’s the exact same type of risk as mid-cap equities, and if it were in a constantly marked structure, it would demonstrate more risk than your average mid-cap equity benchmark. Not to be too on-the-nose about this, but hedge funds are usually hedged. Most try to avoid equity sources of risk, and almost universally avoid taking as much risk as traditional strategies. Evaluating and comparing absolute returns of these two assets because they’re both “alternatives” is like the guy with the butter-laden tomahawk ribeye gloating when I order the petit filet. Yes, we all saw the 26-ounce steak on the menu, guy.

The second and more disquieting reason it is stupid is because it’s kind of true. People and funds really are making this exact decision: to sell their hedge funds to fund private equity. At other times (usually after PE disappoints) they do the opposite. But I see decisions like this all the time. I see advisors trying to improve a client’s yield by swapping stocks for high yield. Selling their equity index fund to go into an unlevered low volatility equity fund. I see them going to cash because U.S. stocks feel expensive. I see them rotating from market-neutral hedge funds to high volatility CTAs and managed futures funds, or visa versa.  There are always good decisions why we don’t like Asset X and maybe some good reasons why we like Asset Y. But because our frameworks often don’t first think about the baseline expectations for risk and return for these assets, these decisions often fall victim to the pitfalls we highlighted in And They Did Live by Watchfires, where our temptation to tweak leads us to make small changes that have big unintended consequences. In a huge majority of cases, risk differences between assets will dominate the expected edge we have on views of the relative attractiveness of different types of return. More on this to come.

The other implication — and chief benefit — of starting the portfolio construction process with a risk target is that it frees us from the anchoring biases of a framework that begins from the arbitrarily determined characteristics of asset classes. That does place some onus on us to develop a view of the right amount of risk to take, of course. And while some of the techniques for developing such a view are standard fare, they also usually either revert to boundary constraints driven by asset classes and vehicles, or else focus on an exercise where the expected portfolio return just meets a return target or theoretically minimizes the probability of not reaching some horrifying outcome.

So, while I believe that your quantity of risk is the most important decision you can make, I can’t tell you how much risk you can tolerate. I can, however, generalize what I know many professional investors do in their personal portfolios:

  1. They take a lot more risk than you.
  2. They concentrate a lot more than you.
  3. The fact that they offer lower-risk products reflects their assessment of business risk, not investment merits.
  4. Tail risk becomes a much bigger consideration as we do more of #1 and #2.

I’ll be the first to say that the notion of “smart money” is mostly a myth, but there’s a reason why your fund managers behave like this. The notion that bonds are manna for conservative investors turns out to be just about right. Go figure. The idea that equities are manna for risk-seeking investors turns out to be pretty far off. For those of us in the risk-seeking camp, we need to start over on the question of the right amount of risk to take. For that, you’ll have to wait for Part 2.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/15996/

Chili P is My Signature: Things that Don’t Matter #5

Jesse After His Chili P Phase

Walter: Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?
Jesse: No. You flunked me, remember, you prick? Now let me tell you something else. This ain’t chemistry — this is art. Cooking is art. And the shit I cook is the bomb, so don’t be telling me…
Walter: The shit you cook is shit. I saw your setup. Ridiculous. You and I will not make garbage. We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised. No adulterants. No baby formula. No chili powder.
Jesse: No, no, chili P is my signature!
Walter: Not anymore.
Breaking Bad, Season 1, Episode 1

“There was only one decline in church attendance, and that was in the late 1960s, when the Vatican said it was not a sin to miss Mass. They said Catholics could act like Protestants, and so they did.“
— Rodney Stark, Ph.D.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

“I can’t do it if I think about it. I would fall down, especially if I’m wearing street shoes,” he said, laughing. “It wasn’t something I did because I wanted to. I didn’t even know I did that until someone showed me a video.”
— Fernando Valenzuela about his unique windup to the LA Times (2011)

Fernando-mania

Baseball was in the midst of a crisis in 1981.

In the years prior, competition for talent in larger markets had driven player salaries higher and higher. This caused owners to seek increasing restrictions on free agency. The players’ union went on strike in June, right in the middle of the season. Fans were furious, and mostly with the owners, as is the usual way of things. We still hate millionaires, of course, but we positively loathe billionaires. While the strike ended by the All-Star break in early August, work stoppages and disputes of this sort have often been the signposts of baseball’s long, slow march to obscurity against the rising juggernaut of American football and the sneaky, if uneven, popularity of basketball. It was not a riskless gamble for either party, and as future strikes taught us, the aftermath could have gone very badly.

But not this time. You see, baseball had a secret weapon to quickly bring fans back after the 1981 strike: a “short fat dark guy with a bad haircut.” His name was Fernando Valenzuela.

Fernando was an anomaly in another long, slow march — that of baseball’s transition from a pastime to something more clinical, more analytical, more athletic. We were at a midpoint in the shift from the everyman-made-myth that was Babe Ruth or the straight-from-the-storybook folk hero like Joe DiMaggio to the brilliant, polished finished products of baseball academies today. Only a few years after 1981, we would see the birth of the new generation of uberathletes in Bo Jackson, a man who many still consider among the most gifted natural athletes in history. Only a decade earlier, the top prospect in baseball was one Greg Luzinski. The two weighed about the same. Their body composition was just a little bit different.

Fernando was certainly a physical throwback of the Luzinski variety, but so much more. He was a little pudgy. His hair was, long, shaggy and unkempt. More to the point, everything he did was inefficient, out of line with trends in the league. His windup was long and tortured, with a high leg kick that reached shoulder level in his early years and chest level in his older, slightly chubbier years. It featured an unnecessary vertical jerk of his glove straight upward near the end, and most uniquely, a glance to the heavens that became a signature of Fernando-mania. To stretch the inefficiency to its natural limits, his most effective pitch was a filthy screwball, a pitch that had been popular for decades but had already significantly waned by the early 1980s. Fathers and coaches taught their sons that it would hurt their arms (which a properly thrown screwball does not do), and by the late 1990s the pitch that ran inside on same-handed batters was all but extinct, except in Japan, where a very similar pitch called the shuuto continued to find adherents.

There were many reasons he captured the national imagination. He was a gifted Mexican pitcher in Los Angeles, a city full of baseball-obsessed Mexican-Americans and migrant workers. He was also truly marvelous as a 20-year old rookie in 1981. His stretch of eight games between April 9th and May 14th still ranks as one of the most dominant in history. Eight wins. Eight complete games. Five shutouts. Sixty-eight strikeouts. And that was how he started his career!(1)

But more than anything, I think, it was the pageantry and the spectacle of it all. The chubby, mop-top everyman who came out of nowhere with a corny sense of humor, who threw from a windup out of a cartoon, who threw a pitch that nobody else threw anymore. It was inefficient and ornamental and just so unnecessary — and we loved it. I still do. It was even how I was taught to pitch growing up. My father told me and instructed me to throw with “reckless abandon”, and so in my windup I would rotate my hips and point my left toe at second base before kicking it in a 180-degree arc at a shoulder level, nearly falling to the ground from the violent shift in weight after every pitch.

Alas, the efficiency buffs who disdained such extravagances were and are mostly right. While Valenzuela had a long and decent career, the greatest pitchers of the modern era — Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and especially Greg Maddux — all thrived on efficient mechanics and a focus on a smaller number of high quality pitches.(2) While a screwball is nice, and in many ways unique, it also isn’t particularly effective as a strikeout pitch in comparison to pitches with more vertical movement like, say, curveballs, split-finger fastballs or change-ups, or pitches that can accommodate lateral movement AND velocity, like sliders and cut-fastballs.

There’s a lesson in this.

As humans, especially humans in an increasingly crowded world where we can be instantly connected to billions of other people, the urge to stand out, to carve out a different path, can be irresistible. This influences our behavior in a couple of ways. First, it drives us to cynicism. Think back on the #covfefe absurdity. If you’re active on social media, by the time you thought of a funny #covfefe joke, your feed was probably already filled with an equal number of posts that decided that the meme was over, using the opportunity to skewer the latecomers to the game. Those, too, were late to the real game, which had by that time transitioned to new ironic uses of the nonsense word. A clever idea that is shared by too many quickly becomes an idea worthy of derision. And so the equilibrium — or at least the dominant game theory strategy — is to be immediately critical of everything.

It also makes us inexorably prone to affectation. We must add our own signature, that thing that distinguishes us or our product; the figurative chili-powder-in-the-meth of whatever our form of productive output happens to be.  Since we are all writers of one sort or another now, we feel this acutely in how we communicate. When part of what you want to be is authentic in your communication, our introspection becomes a very meta thing — we can talk ourselves into circles about whether we’re being authentic or trying inauthentically to appear authentic. But we’re always selling, and while our need for a unique message has exaggerated this tendency, at its core it clearly isn’t a novel impulse. People have been selling narratives forever. But if there’s a lesson in Epsilon Theory, surely it is that successful investors will be those who recognize, survive and maybe even capitalize on narrative-driven markets — not necessarily those whose success is only a function of their ability to push substance-less narratives of their own.

Perhaps most perniciously, our urge to stand out is also an urge to belong to a Tribe — to find that small niche of other humans that afford us some measure of human interaction while still permitting us to define ourselves as a Thing Set Apart. The screwball, the chili powder, the fancy windup, the obscure quotes about Catholicism from sociology Ph.D.s in your investing think-piece — instead of a barbaric yawp, it becomes a signal to your tribe. When pressed, our willingness to rip off the steering wheel and adopt a competitive strategy becomes dominant, a necessity. Lingering in the back of our heads as we go all-in on our tribe is the knowledge that our tribal leaders, no matter who they are, will sell us down the river every time.

In our investing lives, when we build portfolios, we know full well how many options our clients or constituents have, so these three competing impulses drive our behaviors: cynicism, affectation and tribalism. The cynical, nihilistic impulse shouts at us that nothing matters enough to justify risking being fired, and so we end up choosing the solution that looks most like what everyone else has done. That’s the ultimate equilibrium play we’re all headed toward anyway, right? The affectation impulse requires that we add a little something to distinguish us from our peers. A dash of chili powder. A screwball here or there, or an outlandish delivery to delight and astonish. Our tribal impulse compels us toward the right-sounding idea that makes us part of a group (I’m looking at you, Bogleheads). More frequently, we’re motivated by a combination of all three of these things in one convoluted, ennui-laden bit of arbitrary decision-making.

The real kick in the teeth of all this is that many of the things we are compelled to do by these impulses are actually good and important things, even Things that Matter. But because of the complex rationale by which we arrive at them (and other biases besides), we often implement the decisions at such a halfhearted scale that they become irrelevant. In other, worse cases, the decisions function like the tinkering we discussed in And They Did Live by Watchfires, potentially creating portfolio damage in service of a more compelling marketing message or to satisfy one of these impulses. In both cases, these flourishes and tilts are too often full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Too Little of a Good Thing

What, exactly, are we talking about? Well, how about value investing, for starters?

I think this one pops up most often as a form of the tribal impulse, although clearly many advisors and allocators use it as a way to add a dash of differentiation as well. Now, most of us are believers in at least a few investing tribes, each with its own taxonomy, rituals, acolytes and list of other tribes we’re supposed to hate in order to belong. But none can boast the membership rolls of the Value Tribe (except maybe the Momentum Tribe or the Passive Tribe). And for good reason! Unlike most investment strategies and approaches devised, buying things that are less expensive and buying things that have recently gone up in price can both be defended empirically and arrived at deductively based on observations of human behavior. The cases where science is really being applied to investing are very, very rare, and this is one of them. Rather than pour more ink into something I rather suppose everyone reading this believes to one extent or another, I’d instead direct you to read the splendid gospel from brothers Asness, Moskowitz and Pedersen on the subject. Or, you know, if you’re convinced non-linearities within a population’s conditioning to sustained depressing corporate results and lower levels of expected growth mean that such observations are only useful for analysis of the actions of an individual human and can’t possibly be generalized or synthesized into a hypothesis underpinning the existence of the value premium as an expression of market behavior, then don’t read it. Radical freedom!

What is shocking is how ubiquitous this belief is when I talk to investors, and how little investors demonstrate that belief in their portfolios. We adhere to the tribe’s religion, but now that it’s not a sin to skip out, we only attend its church on Christmas and Easter. And maybe after we did something bad for which we need to atone.

Value is the more socially acceptable tribe (let’s be honest, momentum has always had a bit of a culty, San Diego vibe), so let’s use that as our case study. Since I’m worried I’m leaving out those for whom cynicism is the chosen neurosis, let’s use robo-advisors to illustrate that case study. They’re instructive as a general case as well, since they, by definition, seek to be an industry-standard approach at a lower price point. Now, of the two most well-advertised robos, one — Wealthfront — mostly ignores value except in context of income generation. The other — Betterment — embraces it in a pretty significant way. I went to their very fine website and asked WOPR what a handsome young investment writer ought to invest in to retire around 2045. Here is what they recommended:

Source: Betterment 2017. For illustrative purposes only.

Pretty vanilla, but then, that’s kind of the idea of the robo-advisor. But I see a lot of registered investment advisors and this is also straight out of their playbook. It’s tough to find an anchor for the question “I know I want/need value, but how much?” As a result, one of the most common landing spots I see is exactly what our robot overlords have recommended: half of our large cap equities in core, and the other half in value. We signal/yawp a bit further: we can probably also afford to do it in the smaller chunks of the portfolios, too. Lets just do all of our small cap and mid cap equities in a value flavor. As for international and emerging equities, we don’t want to scare the client with any more line items or pie slices invested in foreign markets than we need, so let’s just do one big core allocation there.

I’m putting words in a lot of our mouths here, but if you’re an advisor or investor who works with clients and this line of thinking doesn’t feel familiar to you, I’d really like to hear about it. Because this is exactly the kind of rule of thumb I see driving portfolio decisions with so many allocators that I speak to. But how do we actually get to a portfolio like this? If you think there’s a realistic optimization or non-rule-of-thumb-driven investment process that’s going to get you here, let’s disabuse ourselves of that notion.

Could plugging historical volatility figures and capital markets expectations into a mean/variance optimizer get you to this split on value vs. core? In short? No. No, we know that this is an impossible optimizer solution because the diversification potential at the portfolio level — what we call the Free Lunch Effect in this piece — would continue to rise as we allocated more and more of our large cap allocation to a value style (and less and less to core). In other words, while the intuition might be that having both a core and value allocation is more diversifying (more pie slices!), that just isn’t true. In a purely quantitative sense, you’d be most diversified at the portfolio level with no core allocation at all!

Free Lunch Effect of Various Allocations to Large Cap Value vs. Large Cap Core in Example Portfolio

Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only.

If your instinct is to say that doesn’t look like much diversification, however, you’d be right as well. Swinging our large cap portfolio from no value to nothing but value reduces our portfolio risk by around 8bp without reducing return (i.e., the Free Lunch). That’s not nothing, but it’s damn near. The reason is that the difference between the Russell 1000 Value Index and the Russell 1000 Index or the S&P 500, or the difference between your average large cap value mutual fund and your average large cap blend mutual fund, is not a whole lot in context of how most things within a diversified portfolio interact. Said another way, the correlation is low, but the volatility is even lower, which means it has very little capacity to impact the portfolio. Take a look below at how much that value spread contributes to portfolio volatility. The below is presented in context of total portfolio volatility, so you should read this as “If I invested all 32% of the large cap portion of this portfolio in a value index and none in a core index, the value vs. core spread itself would account for about 0.1% of portfolio volatility.”

Percentage of Portfolio Volatility Contributed by LC Value-Core Spread

Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only.

Fellow tribesmen, does this reflect your conviction in value as a source of return? Some of you may quibble, “Well, this is just in some weird risk space. I think about my portfolios in terms of return.” Fine, I guess, but that just tells the same story. Consider how most value indices are constructed, which is to say a capitalization weighted splitting of “above average” vs. “below average” stocks on some measure (e.g., Russell) or multiple measures (e.g., MSCI) of value. We may have in our heads some of the excellent research on the value premium, but those are almost always expressed as regression alphas or as spread between high and low quintiles or deciles (Fama/French) or tertiles (Asness et al). In most cases they are also based on long/short or market neutral portfolios, or using methodologies that directly or indirectly size positions based on the strength of the value signal rather than the market capitalization of the stock. There are strategies based on these approaches that do capitalize on the long-term edge of behavioral factors like value. But that’s not really what you’re getting when you buy most of these indices or the many products based on them.(3)

So what are you getting? For long-only stock indices globally, probably around 80bp(4) and that assumes no erosion in the premium vs. long-term average. Most other research echoes this – the top 5 value-weighted deciles of Fama/French get you about 1.1% annualized over the average since 1972, and comparable amounts if you go back even further. Using the former figure, if you swung from 0% value to 32% value in your expression of your large cap allocation — frankly a pretty huge move for most investors and allocators — we’re talking about a 26bp difference in expected portfolio returns. Again, not nothing, but if our portfolio return expectations are, say, 8%, that’s a 3.2% contributor to our portfolio returns under fairly extreme assumptions.

Does this reflect your conviction in value as a source of return? No matter how we slice it, the ways we implement even fundamental, widely understood and generally well-supported sources of return like value seem to be a bit long on the sound and fury, but unable to really drive portfolio risk or return. Why is this so hard? Why do we end up with arbitrary solutions like splitting an asset class between core and value exposure like some sort of half-hearted genuflection in the general direction of value?

Because we have no anchor. We believe in value, but deep down we struggle to make it tangible. We don’t know how much of it we have, we don’t even know how much of it we want. We struggle even to define what “how much” means, and so we end up picking some amount that will allow us to sound sage and measured to the people who put their trust in us to sound sage and measured.

I’m going to spend a good bit of time talking about how I think about the powerful diversifying and return-amplifying role of behavioral sources of return like value as we transition our series to the Things that Matter, so I’ll beg both your patience and indulgence for leaving this as a bit of a resolutionless diatribe. I’ll also beg your pardon if it looks like I’ve been excessively critical of the fine folks who put together the portfolio that has been our case study. In truth, that portfolio goes much further along the path than most.

The point is that for various behavioral reasons, our style tilts like value, momentum or quality occupy a significant amount of our time, marketing and conversations with clients, and — by and large — signify practically nothing in terms of portfolio results. In case I wasn’t clear, yes, I am saying that value investing — at least the way most of us pursue it — doesn’t matter.

The Magically Disappearing Diversifier

The time we spend fussing around with miniscule style tilts, however, often pales in comparison to the labor we sink into our flourishes in alternatives, especially hedge funds. Some of this time is well-spent, and well-constructed hedge fund allocations can play an important role in a portfolio. When I’m asked to look at investors’ hedge fund portfolios, there are usually two warning signs to me that the portfolios are serving a signaling/tribal purpose and not some real portfolio objective:

  1. Low volatility hedge funds inside of high volatility portfolios that aren’t using leverage
  2. Hedge fund portfolios replacing Treasury or fixed income allocations

Because of the general sexiness (still, after all these years!) of hedge fund allocations to many clients or constituents, the first category tends to be the result of our affectation impulse. We want to add that low-vol, market-neutral hedge fund, or the fixed income RV fund that might have been taking some real risk back in 2006 when they could lever it up a bajillion times, not because of some worthwhile portfolio construction insight, but perhaps because it allows us to sell the notion that we are smart enough to understand the strategies and important enough to have access to them. Not everyone can get you that Chili P, after all. In some cases, sure — we are signaling to others that we are also part of that smart and sophisticated enough crowd that invests in things like this. In the institutional world, where it’s more perfunctory to do this, it’s probably closer to cynicism: “Look, I know I’m going to have a portfolio of low-vol hedge funds, so let’s just get this over with.”

For many clients and plans — specifically those where assets and liabilities are mostly in line and the portfolio can be positioned conservatively, say <10% long-term volatility — that’s completely fine. But for more aggressive allocations, there is going to be so much equity risk, so much volatility throughout the portfolio, that the notion that these portfolios will serve any diversification role whatsoever is absurd. They’re just taking down risk, and almost certainly portfolio expected returns along with it. Unless you feel supremely confident that you’ve got a manager, maybe a high frequency or quality stat arb fund, that can run at a 2 or 3 Sharpe, it is almost impossible to justify a place for a <4% volatility hedge fund in a >10% target risk portfolio. They just won’t move the needle, and there are better ways to improve portfolio diversification, returns or risk-adjusted returns.

The second category starts to veer out of “Things that Don’t Matter” territory into “Things that Do Matter, but in a Bad Way.” More and more over the last two years, as I’ve talked to investors their primary concern isn’t equity valuations, global demographics, policy-controlled markets, deflationary pressures, competitive currency crises, protectionism, or even fees! It’s their bond portfolio. The bleeding hedge fund industry has been looking for a hook since their lousy 2008 and their lousier 2009, and by God, they found it: sell hedge funds against bond portfolios! Absolute return is basically just like an income stream! There seems to be such a strong consensus for this that it may have become that cynical equilibrium.

No. Just no.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of a bond/deflation allocation for almost any portfolio. This is an environment that prevails with meaningful frequency that has allowed the strong performance of one asset historically: bonds, especially government bonds (I see you with your hands raised in the back, CTAs, but I’m not taking questions until the end). The absolute last thing any allocator should be thinking about if they have any interest in maintaining a diversified portfolio, is reducing their strategic allocation to bonds. I’ll be the first to admit that when inflationary regimes do arrive, they can be long and persistent, during which the ability of duration to diversify has historically been squashed. The negative correlation we assume for bonds today is by no means static or certain, which is one of the reason I favor using more adaptive asset allocation schemes like risk parity that will dynamically reflect those changes in relationship. But even in that context, the dominance and ubiquity of equity-like sources of risk means that almost every investor I see is still probably vastly underweight duration.

Now many of us do have leverage limitations that start to create constraints, and so I won’t dismiss that there are scenarios where that constraint forces a rational investor not to maximize risk-adjusted returns, but absolute returns. I’m also willing to consider that on a more tactical basis, you may be smarter than I am, and have a better sense of the near-term direction of bond markets. In those cases, reducing bond exposure, potentially in favor of absolute return allocations, may be the right call. But if you have the ability to invest in higher volatility risk parity and managed futures, or if you have a mandate to run with some measure of true or derivatives-induced leverage, my strong suspicion is that you’ll find no cause to sell your bond portfolios in favor of absolute return.

Ultimately, it’s hard to be too prescriptive about all this, because our constraints and objective functions really may be quite different. To me, that means that the solution here isn’t to advise you to do this or not to do that, except to recommend this:

Make an honest assessment of your portfolio, of the tilts you’ve put on, and each of your allocations. Do they all matter? Are you including them because of a good faith and supportable belief that they will move the portfolio closer to its objective?

If we don’t feel confident that the answer is yes, it’s time to question whether we’re being influenced by the sorts of behavioral impulses that drive us elsewhere in our lives: cynicism, affectation and tribalism. In the end, the answer may be that we will continue to do those things because they feel right to us and our clients. And that may be just fine. A little bit of marketing isn’t a sin, and if your processes that have served you well over a career of investing are expressed in context of a particular posture, there’s a lot to be said for not fixing what ain’t broken. There’s nothing wrong with an impressive-looking windup, after all, until it adversely impacts the velocity and control of our pitches.

What is a sin, however, is when a half-hearted value tilt causes us to be comfortable not taking advantage of the full potential of the value premium in our portfolios. When the desire to get cute with low-vol hedge funds causes us to undershoot our portfolio risk and return targets. Perhaps most of all, when we spend our most precious resource — time — designing these affectations. We will be most successful when we reserve our resources and focus for the Things that Matter.


(1) Please – no letters about his relief starts in 1980. If MLB called him a rookie, imma call him a rookie.

(2) Probably the only exception in this conversation is Randy Johnson, who, while mostly vanilla in his mechanics, would probably get feedback from a coach today about his arm angle, his hip rotation and a whole bunch of other things that didn’t keep him from striking out almost 5,000 batters.

(3) As much as marketing professionals at some of the firms with products in this area would like to disagree and call their own product substantially different, they all just operate on a continuum expressed by the shifting of weightings toward cheaper stocks. Moving from left to right as we exaggerate the weighting scheme toward value, the continuum basically looks like this: Value Indices -> Fundamental Indexing -> Long-Only Quant Equity -> Factor Portfolios

(4) Simplistically, we’re just averaging the P2 and half of the P3 returns from the Individual Stock Portfolios Panel of Value and Momentum Everywhere, less the average of the full universe. An imperfect approach, but in broad strokes it replicates the general half growth/half value methodology for the construction of most indices in the space.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16031/

And They Did Live by Watchfires: Things that Don’t Matter #4

Oliver Bird

There are two kinds of stories we tell our children. The first kind: once upon a time, there was a fuzzy little rabbit named Frizzy-Top who went on a quantum, fun adventure only to face a big setback, which he overcame through perseverance and by being adorable. This kind of story teaches empathy. Put yourself in Frizzy-Top’s shoes, in other words.

The other kind: Oliver Anthony Bird, if you get too close to that ocean, you’ll be sucked into the sea and drowned! This kind of story teaches them fear. And for the rest of their lives, these two stories compete: empathy and fear.

Oliver Bird, Legion, Chapter 4 (2017)

Skinner: What are you doing in here?
Linguini: I’m just familiarizing myself with, you know, the vegetables and such.
Skinner: Get out. One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know!
— Ratatouille (2007)

It’s four in the morning, and he finds himself drawn to a hotel and casino that has been out of style for thirty years, still running until tomorrow or six months from now when they’ll implode it and knock it down and build a pleasure palace where it was, and forget it forever. Nobody knows him, nobody remembers him, but the lobby bar is tacky and quiet, and the air is blue with old cigarette smoke and someone’s about to drop several million dollars on a poker game in a private room upstairs. The man in the charcoal suit settles himself in the bar several floors below the game, and is ignored by a waitress. A Muzak version of “Why Can’t He Be You” is playing, almost subliminally. Five Elvis Presley impersonators, each man wearing a different colored jumpsuit, watch a late-night rerun of a football game on the bar TV.

A big man in a light gray suit sits at the man in the charcoal suit’s table, and, noticing him even if she does not notice the man in the charcoal suit, the waitress, who is too thin to be pretty, too obviously anorectic to work Luxor or the Tropicana, and who is counting the minutes until she gets off work, comes straight over and smiles. He grins widely at her, “You’re looking a treat tonight, m’dear, a fine sight for these poor old eyes,” he says, and, scenting a large tip, she smiles broadly at him. The man in the light gray suit orders a Jack Daniel’s for himself and a Laphroaig and water for the man in the charcoal suit sitting beside him.

“You know,” says, the man in the light gray suit, when his drink arrives, “the finest line of poetry ever uttered in the history of this whole damn country was said by Canada Bill Jones in 1853, in Baton Rouge, while he was being robbed blind in a crooked game of faro. George Devol, who was, like Canada Bill, not a man who was averse to fleecing the odd sucker, drew Bill aside and asked him if he couldn’t see that the game was crooked. And Canada Bill sighed, and shrugged his shoulders, and said. “I know. But it’s the only game in town.” And he went back to the game.

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires…
— George Gordon, Lord Byron, Darkness (1816)

A Year Without Summer

In 1816 — 200 years ago — much of the world was experiencing a “Year without Summer.” We now know this was a result of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano on the sparsely populated Indonesian island of Sumbawa, an eruption which sent some 38 cubic miles of rock, ash, dust and other ejecta into the atmosphere. For reference, that’s roughly 200 times the volume of material ejected in the eruption of Mount St. Helens, but only a tenth or so the size of the Lake Toba explosion off Sumatra that some researchers believe caused one of the most perilous bottlenecks in human genetic history.

At the time in 1816, the world didn’t know the cause. Well, except for maybe the people living on Sumbawa. The effects, on the other hand, couldn’t be missed.

In New England, the clouds of ash that blocked the sun led to remarkable drops and extraordinary variations in temperature and precipitation. In the Berkshires, there was a deep freeze in May. It snowed in Boston as late as June 7. Cornfields in New Hampshire were ruined by frost on August 14. The Dartmouth College campus was blanketed by snow as late (early?) as September. It caused as near a true famine as the U.S. has ever experienced. Hardy crops — some strains of wheat, potatoes and the like — got most of the nation through the year, as did a culling of wild game that likely came as a bit of an unpleasant surprise to the squirrels, hogs and possums that were usually spared a place on the American table.

The situation was not much better in Western Europe, where average temperatures fell as much as 3-4°C. On the British Isles, failed wheat and potato crops meant famine for much of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Germany had food riots. And in Switzerland, where Lord Byron was in residence with Shelley, the constant rain and cold led each to create a great deal of poetry, which, depending on your opinion of early romanticism, was either more or less catastrophic than the torrential rains that accompanied it. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Byron was inspired to write about the heat death of the universe some 35 years before Lord Kelvin proposed it rather more formally (and perhaps less melodramatically).

Byron’s poem, Darkness, envisions a world in which the sun has been extinguished, in which morning never comes. In this time of desperation, the world is literally tearing itself apart. Palaces are ripped to pieces for firewood, forests are set alight and people gather “round their blazing homes” just so they can see their own hands, and the faces of their family and friends. Everything the world has built is pulled apart piece by piece in search of a solution to the problem of darkness.

The stories we tell about such times of desperation tend to fall into the two archetypes Jemaine Clement’s character describes in Legion: stories of fear and stories of empathy. Byron gave us a story of fear. Empathy stories, on the other hand, follow the usual trope of necessity as the mother of invention. But even this is often just a fear story with a different outcome, not uncommonly summoning a sort of deus ex machina. Luke listening to Obi Wan’s disembodied voice instead of the computer as he aims his last shot at the Death Star. Gollum showing up to bite off Frodo’s ring finger and take a dive into Mt. Doom, saving the hobbit from the now too-strong temptation to wear the ring and return it to Sauron. And maybe there’s a story where Byron’s humanity finds a real solution to the coming darkness instead of tearing their homes and businesses apart looking for something else to burn.

The investment environment we face is not so dire as all this, but it does feel a bit grim, doesn’t it? Market returns have continued to defy the odds, but the data, our consultants, our advisors, our home offices and our instincts are telling us that the combination of demographic slowing, stagnant productivity, limited debt capacity, low rates and high valuations isn’t going to end well. Or at a minimum, we remain optimistic but confused. I’m sure we’ve all asked or heard clients and constituents asking us, “What the hell do we invest in when everything is expensive and nothing is growing?” In this call to action, are we successfully turning this into an empathy story? Or are we just ripping apart our homes for tinder so that it looks like we are doing something?

When it’s hard to see what’s two feet ahead of our own noses, when the game feels rigged, sometimes it feels like we have no choice but to stay at the table and play. After all, it’s the only game in town. And so instead of walking away and taking what the market gives us, we tweak, we tilt, we “take chips off the table,” we “go all in” and we hack, hack, hack at the beams and joists of our own homes for the great bonfire.

This bias to action is a road to ruin. That’s why the endless tweaking, trading and rebalancing of our portfolios takes spot #4 on our list of Things that Don’t Matter.

Of Priuses and Passive Investors

In 2011 a group of researchers at Berkeley examined an age-old question: are rich people driving expensive cars the asshats we all think they are? The findings? Yes, indeed they are! The study found that drivers of expensive cars were three times more likely than drivers of inexpensive cars to fail to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks requiring it, and four times more likely to go out of turn at a stop sign. The team performed similar tests in other non-traffic areas (e.g., cheating at games of chance, etc.) that arrived at the same conclusion, and furthermore identified that simply making people believe that they were part of the 2% Club made them behave more rudely.

My favorite discovery from the research was the odd outlier they discovered: the moderately priced Toyota Prius. Fully one third of Prius drivers blew by intrepid Berkeley grad students (taking a night off from throwing trash cans through the windows of some poor Wells Fargo branch, perhaps) who stepped into a busy crosswalk for science. This put it very near the top of the tables for rudeness. Most of you will recognize this as our old friend moral licensing: the subconscious tendency to feel empowered/entitled to do something bad, immoral or indulgent after having done something to elevate our estimation of our own value. The Prius owner has earned the right to drive like a jerk, since he’s saving the world by driving a hybrid car, after all. Alberto Villar of Amerindo Investment Advisors, who was the largest opera donor since Marie Antoinette, could easily justify stealing his clients’ money to make good on charitable pledges. Of course I can eat that Big Mac and large fries when I sneak over to the McDonald’s across the street from our San Francisco office — I ordered a Diet Coke, after all.

And so on behalf of insufferable hipsters, fraudulent philanthropists and Big Mac dieters everywhere, I would like to extend a gracious invitation to our club: ETF investors who pride themselves on being passive investors while they tactically trade in and out of positions over the course of the year.

Now there’s a lot of old research protesting too much that “ETFs don’t promote excessive trading!” A cursory review of news media and finance journals will uncover a lot of literature arguing exactly that, although the richest studies are several years old now. You’ll even find some informing you that leveraged ETFs aren’t being abused any more. Those of you who are closest to clients, are you buying what the missionaries are selling on this one?

I hope not.

Even when some of the original studies were published (most of which said that mutual funds were held around three years on average, while ETFs were held about two-and-a-half years), it was plainly evident to anyone who works with consumers of ETFs that basing claims on the “average” holding behavior was a poor representation of how these instruments were being held and traded. The people with skin in the game who weren’t selling ETFs were aware that holders fell by and large into three camps:

  1. The long-term holders seeking out market exposure,
  2. The speculators trading in and out of ETFs to generate additional returns, and
  3. The increasingly sad and depressing long/short guys shorting SPY to hedge their longs, telling the young whippersnappers stories from a decade ago about “alpha shorts” before yelling for them to get off their lawn.

Source: Morningstar. For illustrative purposes only.

The mean holding period in the old research was still pretty long because Group 1 was a big group. I think that it was also because a lot of the ETF exposure that Group 2 was swinging around was in smaller, niche funds or leveraged ETFs. Both of these things are still true. They’re also becoming less true. A few weeks ago, Ben Johnson from Morningstar published this chart of the ten largest ETFs and their average holding period. There’s all sorts of caveats to showing a chart like this — some of the causes of ETF trading aren’t concerning — but if SPY turning over every two weeks doesn’t get your antennae twitching, I’m not sure what to tell you.

There are a lot of reasons to believe that we are lighting our houses on fire with the almost comically active use of “passive” instruments, and trading costs are one of them. Jason Zweig wrote an excellent piece recently highlighting research from Antti Petajisto on this topic. Petajisto’s work in the FAJ estimates that “investors” may be paying as much as $18 billion a year to trade ETFs. Zweig, perhaps feeling rather charitable, concedes that as a percentage of overall trading volume, this number isn’t really all that high. And he’s technically correct.

But who cares about trading volume, at least for this discussion, which isn’t really about the liquidity of the market? If — as so many investors and asset managers are fond of saying — the ETF revolution is but a trapping of the broader active vs. passive debate (insert audible yawn), we should really be thinking of this in terms of the asset size of the space. And in context of the $3 trillion, give or take, that is invested in ETFs, $18 billion is a LOT. It’s 60bp, which would be a lot even if it weren’t impacting investors who often make a fuss over whether they’re paying 15bp or 8bp in operating expenses.

And then there’s taxes. Now, actively managed strategies, especially those implemented through mutual funds, have plenty of tax issues and peculiarities of their own. But the short-term gains taxable investors are forcing themselves into by timing and day-trading ETFs are potentially huge.  If we assume, say, a 6% average annual portfolio return, the investor who shifts 100% of his return from long-term gains into short-term gains is costing himself 60-120bp per year before we consider any time value or compounding effects of deferring tax liabilities. Given that the largest ten ETFs all have average holding periods of less than a year, this doesn’t seem to be all that inappropriate an assumption.

The growing Group 2 above, our day traders — oops, I mean, our “passive ETF investors” — may be giving away as much as 1.2%-1.8% in incremental return. Those fee savings sure didn’t go very far, and the direct costs of all this tinkering may not even be the biggest effect!

Every piece of data on this topic tells the same story: when we try to time our cash positions to have “ammo to take advantage of opportunities,” when we decide a market is overbought, when we rotate to this sector because of this “environment” that is about to kick off, when we move out of markets that “look like they’ve gotten riskier,” when we get back in because there’s “support” at a price, we are burning down our houses to live by watchfires.

There are two ways in which we as investors do this, one familiar and one less so.

Of Clients and Crooked Card Games

First, the familiar. We stay in the crooked game because it’s what’s expected of us. It’s tempting to think of the desire, this inclination toward constant “tactical” trading as an internal impulse. A response to boredom or, perhaps, an addiction to certain of the chemical responses associated with winning, with risking capital, even with losing. I think that’s probably true for some investors. I know that when I sat in an allocator’s seat, when I heard a portfolio manager tell me he had “fallen in love with the market” when he was six years old and started trading options with his dad when he was 10, I didn’t see that as a particularly good thing. One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know.

But just as often, the impulse to stay in the game is external, and that pressure usually comes from the client. I’m empathetic to it, and it’s not unique to our industry.

Have you ever sent a document to a lawyer and gotten no comments back? Have you ever visited a doctor and gotten a 100% clean bill of health with no recommendations? Have you ever taken your car to a mechanic and had them tell you about just the thing you brought it in for? Have you ever consulted with a therapist or psychiatrist who didn’t find something wrong with you, even if they had the bedside manner to avoid using those exact words? It isn’t just that those folks are being paid for the additional services they’re proposing. There is a natural feeling among professional providers of advice that they must justify their cost to their clients even if the best possible advice is to do nothing.

The result is that the crooked card game usually takes three different forms, which, in addition to all the fees and tax impact discussed above, may add risk and harm returns for portfolios in other ways as well:

  • The Cash Game: When investors feel concerned about the timing of their entry into markets, the direction of markets, upcoming events, or some other factor and temporarily sell investments and go to cash, they’re playing the Cash Game. I recently had a meeting with an intermediary who had recently launched a system to integrate all client holdings (including accounts held away). Their initial run identified average aggregate cash positions of more than 15%!
  • The PerformanceChasing Game: I’ve talked about this ad nauseam in prior notes. We investors find all sorts of vaguely dishonest ways to pretend that we aren’t just performance-chasing. It doesn’t work, and a goodly portion of the damage done by tinkering and “tactical” moves is just performance-chasing in guise, even if we are high-minded enough to pretend that we’re making the decision because “the fund manager changed his process” or euphemistically inclined enough to say the investment “just wasn’t working,” whatever that means.
  • The In-Over-Our-Heads Game: Still other games are essentially designed to “fleece the odd sucker,” causing investors to seek out hedges and interesting trades to take advantage of events and “low cost” insurance for portfolios. As a case study, please take a gander at the size and volume of instruments and funds tracking the VIX. Please look at the return experience of holders of those various instruments. It’s not the vehicles themselves that are flawed, but the way in which these markets prey on misplaced expectations of investors that they know when insurance is cheap or expensive. As a quick test: if you can’t define gamma without looking it up on Investopedia, you probably shouldn’t own any of these instruments, much less be flopping in and out of them. This concept is broadly transferable to a variety of things investors do to “hedge” — buying S&P puts, buying short ETFs, etc.

I know I’m not treading new ground here. Borrowing from the work done in a thorough survey on the literature that itself concludes a 1.0% impact from the ways in which investors trade in and out of funds, the figures are pretty consistent. The folks over at Dalbar concluded in 2016 that investors in equity mutual funds underperformed equity indices by 3.5% over the last 20 years, 1.5% of which they attribute to “panic selling, exuberant buying and attempts at market timing.” Frazzini and Lamont previously estimated 0.85%. In 2007, Friesen and Sapp said 1.56%. We’ve got something for hedge fund investors, too.

You’ve heard this story before. So why am I telling you this?

Because when I meet or speak with investors, I often worry that when they think about dominant narratives and observations about human behaviors, they are focused on identifying tradable trends and signals. In rare cases, that is a worthwhile endeavor. And we’ve made no secret that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about the Narrative Machine — after all, if we believe that investors systematically make mistakes that cost them returns and money, it should be possible to identify ways to capitalize on the actions taken by others.

But far more often, the message from the analysis of prevailing narratives is to back away from the table. Investors I’ve spoken to in the past few years have heard a voice of caution against rotating away chunks of portfolios that by all rights ought to be invested in bonds based on flimsy rationale like, “rates couldn’t possibly get lower!” I’ve likewise cautioned against haphazardly fleeing equity markets into cash on the basis of historically high valuations, perceived political turmoil and the like. There will come times where it may be right to make strong positive observations on opportunities for tactical allocations, but as in all decisions we make when investing, it is imperative that we be aware that the hurdle for staying at the table to play the only game in town is very high. Our skepticism about opportunities to play it should be extreme.

Of Bambi and Battle Tanks

Since I’m advising you to be skeptical, I’ll forgo the apocryphal (it’s real to me, dammit!) story I was going to tell at this point in my little piece. I was going to tell you a story my brother told me once about a high school classmate, an M1A1 Abrams tank and a whitetail deer. It is apparently not normal in polite company to discuss the disintegration of adorable animals, and so I won’t unless you buy me a drink (Lagavulin and water, please). What I will do is highlight that the often-overlooked pitfall of the tinkering mentality is the tendency to use very big tools to accomplish very small things, for which the intended aim is almost always overwhelmed by the unintended consequence. Pointing a 120mm smoothbore cannon at a tiny animal isn’t going to shrink the explosion it causes. Likewise, pointing a major change in risk posture or asset allocation at an event we’re a bit nervous about isn’t going to change the fact that we’ve made a change to some very fundamental characteristics of the portfolio.

This happens all the time.

In the last year, I’ve met with advisors, allocators and investors convinced of the inexorable, unstoppable, indomitable rise of interest rates who exited their government and investment-grade bond portfolios — in many cases, the only remnant of their portfolio standing against them and a downturn in risk assets — in favor of higher yielding equity portfolios that wouldn’t be as exposed to the environment they expect. I’ve seen investors leaving passive equity allocations in favor of concentrated private deals because they are concerned about the broader economy’s impact on stocks. I’ve seen investors switch asset classes because they didn’t like the manager they were invested with.

There may be reasons for some of those views, and in some cases even for acting on them. But I am always concerned when I see changes like that unaccompanied by consideration of the magnitude of the unintended consequences: are we still taking the right amount of risk? Are we achieving adequate diversification? As we close out the list of Things that Don’t Matter, I look forward to publishing our list of things that actually DO, because these questions play prominently. There is hope. There are things we can do, and most of them will run contrary to our instincts to take rapid, “nimble” action in our portolios.

Within that thread of hope, a plea first to readers who prefer poetry: that we feel disillusioned or confused about the outcomes for markets does not mean we ought to be more active, more nimble in modifying our asset allocation, however good and wise those things sound when we say them to ourselves and our clients. All the data tell us that we are likely to find ourselves warming our hands at a watchfire before long. To those who prefer poker: you don’t have to play the game. It is OK to step away from the table, walk back to the elevator bank and call it a night, to take what the market gives us.

Make no mistake: the alternative is worse. It’s an expensive alternative. It’s often a risk-additive alternative. It’s a tax-producing alternative. It’s an alternative that frankly most of us just aren’t in a position to successfully execute. There is a reason that most global macro and GTAA hedge funds hire traders who have success in individual markets, even individual types of trading strategies within individual markets. It’s because being able to effectively determine when to switch among managers, among asset classes and among drivers of risk and return is very, very hard. The data bear this out, and no matter how hard we feel like we have to do something, it won’t change the fact that lighting our house on fire isn’t going to make the sun come back.

Understanding the dominant impact of narratives in markets today doesn’t mean abandoning our well-designed processes and our work determining asset allocation, risk targets and portfolio construction in favor of a haphazard chasing of the narrative-driven theme for the day. It means that human behavior and unstructured forms of information should — must — increasingly play a role in the structure of each of those processes in the first place.

After all, all investing is behavioral investing. Anyone who tells you different is either incompetent, selling something or both. One of the most pointless such behaviors — our unquenchable desire to act — nearly completes our list of the Things that Don’t Matter.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16058/

Break the Wheel: Things that Don’t Matter #3

Daenerys and Tyrion

King George III:

They say George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away
Is that true?
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
I’m perplexed.
Are they gonna keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?
If so, who’s next?
There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large…

― “Who’s Next”, Hamilton (2015)

Sean Maguire: Hey, Gerry, In the 1960s there was a young man that graduated from the University of Michigan. Did some brilliant work in mathematics. Specifically bounded harmonic functions. Then he went on to Berkeley. He was assistant professor. Showed amazing potential. Then he moved to Montana, and blew the competition away.
Gerry Lambeau: Yeah, so who was he?
Sean: Ted Kaczynski.
Gerry: Haven’t heard of him.
Sean: [yelling to the bartender] Hey, Timmy!
Timmy: Yo.
Sean: Who’s Ted Kaczynski?
Timmy: Unabomber.
 Good Will Hunting (1997)

Chef: Oh Lord have mercy. Children, children! No no, you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t you see, children? You have the heart, but you don’t have the soul. No, no. Wait. You have the soul, but you don’t have the heart. No, no. Scratch that. You have the heart and the soul, but you don’t have the talent.

South Park, Season 8, Episode 4

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
 Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5    

Daenerys Targaryen: Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell — they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top and on and on it spins crushing those on the ground.
Tyrion Lannister: It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.
Daenerys: I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.
 Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 8 (2015)

The King is Dead

Some six centuries ago, European monarchies adopted the practice of declaring, “The King is dead! Long live the King!” upon the death of a monarch. In films and other adaptations, we usually get only the latter half of the expression, but there is clever intent buried in the repetition: there is to be no interregnum. When the old king dies, the new king immediately ascends with all his power and majesty, and probably most of his enemies as well. It is an instantaneous change not only in the power structure of a nation, but also in the mindset of any number of subjects, who have little time to lament the amount of time and effort they had spent fawning over and currying favor with the old king. They have to reset immediately: I’m sure this king will be better, much wiser, much less murderry. That sort of thing.

Our human nature helps us adapt. As Ben has pointed out numerous times, we want to believe.

We want to believe that this king will be different, and we’re usually instantly willing to reup on our social contract with him, giving up inalienable rights for the benefit of his wisdom and authority (or something). We want to believe that President Trump will be different, that he will finally turn over the tables in the Capitol and chase corrupt, conflicted, five-term congressmen into the reflecting pool with a whip. We want to believe that this time a friend/partner/spouse is done lying/cheating/hurting us. We do all this despite every bit of evidence telling us that what we believe is so unlikely as to be unworthy of mention.

And my goodness, we want to believe that the guy running this fund is going to be loads better than that idiot we just fired.

Sure, we’ve read Murder on the Orient Express, Charlie Ellis’s brilliant 2012 FAJ submission highlighting just how badly institutions pick funds and how badly they time it. We’ve seen the statistics. We’ve seen our own P&L and those of people we think highly of. More often than not, it doesn’t matter because we want to believe. In many cases because picking these funds is our job, we have to believe.

Epsilon Theory readers, my kids eat because I’m a fund manager. Mostly hot dogs and Kraft macaroni & cheese, but they eat. So it pains me to tell you that the amount of time, personnel and attention we all spend picking, talking to, debating and stressing over fund managers is ridiculous. This is why picking fund managers comes in at #3 on our list of Things that Don’t Matter.

So why doesn’t it matter?

Because just about all of us suck at it.

I’m being a bit hyperbolic. But only a little bit.

Earlier this month, Cliff Asness from AQR wrote a beautiful rant directed mostly at Rob Arnott from Research Affiliates and maybe a bit at the fine folks over at Bloomberg. No, it wasn’t a charming comparison of their luxuriant grey beards, but a debate about claims of data mining. Arnott and the story maybe not-so-indirectly imply that Cliff and AQR are insufficiently critical of data mining techniques among fund managers, to which Cliff offered his…uh…rather pointed rejoinder.

For the record, Cliff’s right on this one. I have either been a client or competitor of AQR/AMG in every year of my career, and there’s not a firm in the world that more rigorously — maybe even rigidly, at times — applies the scientific method to investing. (Hell, if I’m telling you to stop focusing on picking fund managers, I might as well pitch you on a competitor while I’m at it.)

So what’s Arnott’s beef? A legitimate one, even if AQR is about as far as you can get from being guilty of it. The idea is that a lot of fund managers out there, especially some of those of the quantitative or quantamental (ugh) persuasion, are engaging in shoddy, non-scientific research.

Properly implemented, the scientific method is a deductive process in which a researcher starts from a question he wishes to answer, forms a hypothesis around that question and then deductively produces predictions that he tests in order to validate (fine, “not reject”) the hypothesis and its related or subsequent predictions.

The very fair criticism of data mining is that it works in reverse, and in doing so, doesn’t work at all: it starts with the testing and ends with the hypothesis and predictions. This practice, whether consciously or unconsciously applied, is a big part of the replication crisis in academia and the poor performance of investment strategies that don’t bear out their backtests.

Data mining was one of the earliest forms of scientification — putting scientific terms, a systematic-seeming process and a presentation with a bunch of PhDs around a framework that is… well… bullshit. This trend is something we have talked about a lot on Epsilon Theory podcasts. From “Fact Checking”, to dumb ideas from brilliant men like Tyson’s “Rationalia”, to the fallacy-laden idea that opposition to specific policies directed at climate change as ineffectual constitutes disbelief in the fundamental science, scientification is on the rise. We are right to worry about this with our fund managers.

But here’s the real problem: as allocators, we are way, way worse. Just about every manager selection process I’ve ever seen, and some that I have even designed, are plagued by data mining and non-deductive reasoning.

The examples are many, and in almost every case they demonstrate explicit data mining. Now, usually they do so with some small modification to make it look less blatant — you know, since we’ve all read enough to at least want to not look like we’re just hiring the manager with the best performance. I’ve seen all sorts of these kinds of second-derivative screens, which are the allocator’s version of the payday lender setting rates by zip code and pretending they’re not preying on a particular demographic (zip codes are just numbers!). Instead of looking for top quartile managers, we’re looking for the ones with the best downside capture ratios. The best batting average. The best Sortino. The best Jensen’s alpha. The best residual alpha from our proprietary multi-factor model. Or my favorite, looking for good long-term performance and patting ourselves on the back about ignoring poor short-term alpha. Unfortunately, manager alpha — like many sources of returns — tends to mean-revert over longer periods (>3 years) and continues to trend over shorter ones (<1 year).

It isn’t that I’m taking special issue with any one of these metrics or the many tools allocators use to build portfolios. In fact, many of these are exactly the type of tools that I have used and continue to use in portfolio construction, since the general character and correlations of excess returns can be persistent over time. But I am taking issue with their use in selecting and predicting ex ante the existence of some quantity of alpha, for which they are all mostly useless. As an industry we embrace this pretense that “Manager A has alpha” is a valid hypothesis, and that by pursuing various types of analysis of returns we are somehow scientifically testing that hypothesis.

No, no, no! That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

Source: xkcd.com.

To start with a hypothesis that Manager A has alpha is begging the question in the extreme. This is equally true if we’re approaching it from the more strictly scientific “null hypothesis” construction. There is no economic or market-related intuition underlying the theory. If we start with the same premise for every manager (i.e., whether he has alpha) and analyze the returns, whether quantitatively or qualitatively, to reject or not reject the hypothesis, we are not doing scientific research. We are data mining and putting a scientific dress on it. And when our experience doesn’t match the research, we almost always come up with the same reason for firing them: they deviated from their process.

It’s a self-preservation thing, of course. We weren’t wrong. The manager just changed! He deviated from his process! Firm disruption! How could I have known?

In most cases, we probably couldn’t. We have a lot of fun on the Epsilon Theory podcast at the expense of the low replication rates of much of the research that happens across many fields right now, but those rates have nothing on the horror show that is financial markets research. (I say that, but the University of Wisconsin did accept a dissertation that was “an autoethnographic study of used-kimono-wearing as experienced by a folklorist… after inheriting a piece that had belonged to her grandmother.” Replicate that!)

Even well-defended factors and return drivers are often not robust to modest changes in methodology, shifts in in-sample vs. out-of-sample periods and the like. If those findings, which can be tested across millions of data points across companies, markets and decades, lack robustness, how much more challenged are we in trying to scientifically and mathematically uncover who is a good manager and who is a bad one?

It’s no wonder that this process finds so many of us — financial advisors, institutional allocators and individual investors alike — repeating that old refrain again. My process was good. This manager deviated from their process. This new one will be better. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Spokes on a wheel, friends. Kings that are on top until they’re not. We’ve all tried to stop the wheel. How do we break the wheel?

A Return to Real Deduction

The first step is recognizing that a deductive process must start from real economic intuition. What does real economic intuition look like?

A theoretical belief about why you should be paid for investing in something.

This is true and rather well-accepted with respect to market exposure. Most of us have a pretty good idea why we get paid for owning stocks. We’re exposing ourselves to economic uncertainty, political systems and credit markets, inflation and all sorts of other subsidiary risks. Concluding that accepting these risks ought to earn a return is something I think most investors understand fairly intuitively. Most of us — although clearly fewer than with stocks — have a good sense of why we ought to be paid for holding bonds. Commodities? Less clear. (Something-something-backwardation, something-something-storage-premium.)

Rather than starting from returns and working backward, our goal should be to develop this kind of intuition for why we ought to get paid for the active risk our fund managers are taking. In a perfect world, before we ran a single screen, before we looked at a single slide deck, before we looked at a single performance number, we would sit down — like we’re doing here with this Code — and map out the things we believe we will or might be paid for.

Where do we start? Let’s walk down a simplified road from economic intuition through deductive reasoning to a familiar hypothesis in the illustration below.

Deductive Process for Identifying a Potentially Valid Strategy

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 04/21/17. For illustrative purposes only.

The economic intuition on the right should be familiar if you’re an Epsilon Theory reader. The deductions on each of the left and right side should look familiar if you’re a rabid Epsilon Theory reader, since they showed up as the two basic ways in which a stock-picker could outperform in “What a Good-Looking Question.” The hypothesis on the bottom right should be the most familiar of all: we’re basically conjecturing that buying cheap stuff works. Not our bit, but a good one!

Inserting economic intuition into those two deductions alone should get us a few dozen hypotheses. There truly are more things in heaven and earth that most of us are willing to dream in our returns analysis-oriented philosophy. Some of those should be well-worn and familiar, like value. Some may be more unique. Many will be flawed and — hopefully — dismissed before we do anything stupid with them.

Frankly and rather unfortunately, your only ability to test many of your hypotheses about fund managers is often going to be through qualitative mechanisms and through live experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t be scientific in your approach. In a perfect world you’d be able to approach a manager without knowing a lick about their performance, have an intellectual conversation about what it is that they do to make money, determine whether it lines up with one of the theoretical ways you think it may be possible to do so, and then evaluate their performance to see if it corroborates that. That’s in a perfect world.

But in an imperfect world, one of the main reasons obsessing over fund managers is one of the Things that Don’t Matter is that almost all practitioners shuffle through dozens of approaches to selecting funds. And almost all those approaches are variants of historical return analysis, or represent historical returns analysis in guise. There’s only one way out of this, and it may be an uncomfortable one:

We’ve got to stop using historical returns analysis for anything other than portfolio fit. Not use it less. Not use it smarter. Those are attempts to stop the wheel. We’ve got to break the wheel.

If we’re going to break the wheel, we must have a robust concept of the sources of return we’re willing to believe in, that we’re willing to develop a hypothesis around. We’ve also got to develop comfort with interview and evaluation techniques that go beyond asking about stocks. If our diligence process is not capable of identifying whether the manager can access that source of return that we believe in, then we have to change our process. We must change the questions we ask.

It’s easier to understand this for systematic managers because they fit neatly into a more behaviorally driven, scientific mindset. Figuring out that we believe in value and that a manager is accessing value credibly isn’t exactly rocket science. So let’s instead consider what is probably the most ubiquitous, hardest-to-crack example: the fundamental long/short equity manager. The stock picker. Assume you haven’t seen their returns (hah!). You’ve got an hour to figure out if they’re going to fit into a working archetype, if there’s a hypothesis to be drawn here. What do you do?

Here’s what you don’t do: you don’t let them walk through their deck. You don’t quiz them about their companies to see how intelligent or knowledgeable they are. They’re all going to be smart. The Unabomber was smart. In most cases, you probably don’t even let them talk about their overall investment philosophy, because they’re going to do it on their terms. Don’t look them in the eyes and pretend you’re going to be able to out them as someone who’s going to screw you over. It’s not possible. Instead, ask three questions:

  • How do you make money? Why should you outperform the market?
  • Ignore the first part of their response. Feel free to hum your favorite song from the Hamilton soundtrack in your head (Cabinet Battle #2, obviously), and when they finally get to the part where they say “mumble… mumble… rigorous bottom-up research…”, you’re back on! Interrupt them and say, “Yes, but why? Why are you and your team better at spotting things that the market misses?”
  • Let’s assume you’re right about all that. How do you get comfortable that it will work for the stock?

Then, and only then can we violate Things that Don’t Matter #2 and dive into a case study. Don’t let them tell you a stock story. Don’t let them give you the thesis. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a thesis (They should! They must!), but that’s the language of their process. Instead, take a position in the portfolio, and ask them how the position fits with their answers. How did you think you would make money on the stock? Was that a differentiated view? Why are you confident that your team is better at analyzing that characteristic of this company than the other 1,000,000 investors covering it? And how did you get comfortable that this thing you found would actually make the stock work, that it would influence the people who actually have to change the price of the stock by buying and selling?

And all this is not to prove a hypothesis, but to arrive at one in the first place. You see, none of this solves the problem that we all face as allocators to funds: there is almost never enough data to come to a firm statistical conclusion about whether a strategy is likely to outperform. For those of you — financial advisors and individuals, in particular — who must select funds without the benefit of meeting the people managing the funds, you are often even more hamstrung, since you are constrained to whatever information they are willing to provide you about their process and strategy. Sometimes it is possible to glean from the marketing materials whether there may be an alpha generative process buried in there, and sometimes it is not.

If we approach investing deductively, however, we at least have a chance of focusing on the few things that do matter, like whether the fund manager is doing any of the things that even have a chance of outperforming. Is this more deductive approach to fund selection enough? Is it worth it?

Sometimes. But in most cases, sadly, probably not.

I still need to buy 16 years’ worth of hot dogs and Kraft dinner, but I’ll level with you. In most cases, whether you pick this fund or that fund is not even going to register in comparison to the decisions you make about risk, asset allocation and diversification.

The stock example from “What a Good-Looking Question” is instructive here as well, and in an even more exaggerated way than for stocks themselves. While a 5% tracking error stock portfolio is not rare, a portfolio of multiple actively managed funds with that level of tracking error is exceedingly rare. If you are hiring three, four or more mutual funds, ETFs or other portfolios within an asset class like, say, U.S. stocks or emerging markets stocks, the odds in my experience are very strong that your tracking error is probably closer to 2-3%. The amount of risk coming from your managers’ active bets is probably less than 5%.

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 04/21/17. For illustrative purposes only.

In all fairness, some of this is the point of active management. Part of the reason that these numbers are so low in this hypothetical example is that “alpha” in this example is, by definition, uncorrelated to the market exposure. But remember our other lesson from “I Am Spartacus” — the tracking error of our fund managers is rarely dominated by uncorrelated sources of alpha, but comes more typically from the static biases managers have toward structural sources of risk and return.

You could make the argument that the incremental return is worth the effort, especially in an environment where returns to capital markets are likely to be muted. And that’s a reasonable argument. But it’s all a question of degree. Is that source of return, challenging as it is to find, elusive as it has proven, worth the resources, time and focus it receives in our conversations with our constituents? Our investment committees? Our boards? Our clients?

So why bother at all? This is just an argument to go passive, right?

Oh, God, no!

First, as you all know by now, we are all active investors because we all make active decisions on the most important dimensions of portfolio construction: risk, asset class composition and secondary objectives like income. But more importantly, this is a universal issue. Those of us who use passive strategies for some of our portfolios — which is probably all of us at this point — have as much to gain from this advice as any other. Just two weeks ago, I made a minor point at a dinner about how S&P futures exposure was actually cheaper than ETFs and ended up getting bogged down in a serious 10-15 minute discussion on the topic. You’ve probably observed similar discussions over which low-cost ETF or passive mutual fund is the best way to access this market or that. This obsession really does transcend party lines on the ridiculous active vs. passive bike shed debate.

Neither should this be seen as a repudiation of active management at all. Again, investors should often be working with fund managers and advisors that do things that fall under the umbrella of active management. It does make sense to exploit behavioral sources of return. It does make sense to identify the very rare examples of information asymmetry. It does make sense to pursue active strategies in markets where the passive alternatives are poor or structurally biased themselves. It does make sense to consider market structure and the extent to which forced buyers and sellers create long-term pricing opportunities. It does make sense to pursue cost-effective active approaches that deliver characteristics (risk, yield, tax benefits) that would otherwise be part of the asset allocation process.

But in pursuing those, this code would advise you of the following:

  • Be judicious in the time and resources devoted to this exercise vs. the big questions, the Things that Matter.
  • Eschew the use of backward-looking return analysis. Really avoid it as much as humanly possible until you are testing a legitimate, deductive hypothesis about why you think a fund manager might be able to add value.
  • Apply a deductive process to everything you do.

After all, a code would not be a code at all unless we intended to pursue it with intellectual honesty. Most of the industry’s experience selecting fund managers has relied on rather less rigorous standards. And so it goes that Picking Funds is #3 on our list of Things that Don’t Matter.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16093/

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

Peter Griffin buys a tank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Car Salesman: It does not.

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

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

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

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

Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

Crowd: Yes! We’re all different!

Man: I’m not.

Crowd: Shhh!

Life of Brian (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Biggest Bike Shed of them All

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why do we spend so much time doing this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why It Doesn’t Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, not really.

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

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

Percent of Portfolio Risk from Active Risk

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

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

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

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

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16113/

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

I am Spartacus!

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

Antoninus (Tony Curtis): I am Spartacus!

Other Slaves: I’m Spartacus!

— Spartacus (1960)

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

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

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

Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?

The Dude: No, you’re not wrong.

Walter: Am I wrong?

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

Walter: All right then.

— The Big Lebowski (1998)

“You heard about it? Yeah you had to.

Mm hmm I know you changed your mind,

You ain’t the only one with bad news.

I know that it made you feel strange, huh?

You was right in the middle complainin’

and forgot what you was cryin’ about.”

— Mystikal, “Bouncin’ Back” (2001)

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

Robin: It’s the principle of the thing.

— Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

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

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

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

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

The myth of the good or bad environment for active management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No they didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For illustrative purposes only.

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

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

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

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

There is no such thing as a passive investor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16134/

A Man Must Have a Code

The Wire

Mallow: It lacks glamour?

Jael: It lacks mob emotion-appeal.

Mallow: Same thing.

― Isaac Asimov, Foundation

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

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

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

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

― Billy Madison (1995)

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

Bart Simpson: Isn’t that the wrong way?

Homer Simpson as Max Power: Yeah, but faster!

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

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

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

Bunk: A man must have a code.

Omar: Oh, no doubt.

― The Wire, Season 1, Episode 7

What is your code?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does a code look like?

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

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

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

Okay, maybe a few funnel charts.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16146/