When Non-News Becomes Fiat News

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.


Image result for hong kong residential real estate

Want to know what common knowledge about the paramount importance of the China Trade War looks like in financial media?

Hong Kong Clashes Put Brakes on Property Boom [Dow Jones]

The headline is ominous.

“Hong Kong’s formidable property market is straining, as protest pressures add to those created by an escalating U.S.-China trade spat and slowing global growth.”

OK, strong lede. I can tell this one’s gonna be juicy.

“The city has been hit by a “perfect storm” of trade tensions and spiraling protester-police clashes, Wharf Real Estate Investment Co. Chairman Stephen Ng told media earlier this month. He said sales at the company’s two flagship malls, Times Square and Harbour City, had suffered.”

It’s happening, people!

“The impact on the residential sector has been smaller. At the city’s top 10 private housing estates, homeowners sold 19 apartments in the first four weekends of August, four more than in the same period a year earlier, Centaline Property Agency data shows. The company said sales picked up during the most recent weekend, aided by anticipation of persistently low interest rates and after some homeowners reduced prices.”

“The realtor’s Centa-City Leading index, a gauge of used home prices, has fallen by 1.1% in seven weeks, after hitting a record high in late June.”

Wait, what?

“Still, Louis Chan Wing-kit, Centaline’s Asia-Pacific vice chairman, said many prospective buyers had canceled viewing tours, as protests disrupted transport and dented investor sentiment. Weekends are prime time for both viewings and the biggest protests.”

This…this is a story about canceled open houses?

Look, Lord knows that we’ve all learned that under the right circumstances, any drop in real estate prices can be a big deal (something something Gaussian copula). There are times when a 1.1% drop in some real estate markets would shock the world. But home prices in a market like Hong Kong behave like risky assets, not just in their natural volatility but in their beta to junior securities in related markets. And with all that’s going on in that neck of the woods right now? Yeah, maybe another 2016 is in store. Or another 2017. No idea.

I also know that a market slowing down after years of roaring growth is a story.

But this piece doesn’t sit at the top of the Zeitgeist because it seeks to tell the story of a market that has flattened after an almost uninterrupted decade of growth. It sits at the top of the Zeitgeist because it strains to find powerful connections to as many negative events as possible when the connections – a couple tough weekends for open houses, really? – are banal, at best. It could serve as a thesaurus for negative media coverage of an issue. Rattled. Outbreak. Diminish. Dented sentiment. Perfect storm. Positives are dismissed as “much-hyped.” It closes with a fiat tell – good ol’ nonetheless – which leads to an almost reluctant closing.

“Nonetheless, analysts don’t expect too severe a pullback. Supply remains tight, and a currency peg to the U.S. dollar means local interest rates track those in the U.S., which helps keep mortgage costs down.”

“Mr. Chan at Centaline, and Will Chu, property analyst at CGS-CIMB Securities, both said they expect home prices to fall in the second half, bringing price growth for the whole year to about zero.”

The point isn’t that there is nothing interesting going on in Hong Kong real estate from an investment or social perspective. The point is that when the narrative is that China Trade War is the only thing that matters, our consumption of media tells every story almost completely through the lens of that narrative, with all of its baggage and all of its dire implications.

If you feel your information being drawn toward the gravity of China Trade War language, simply knowing – as my childhood taught me – is half the battle. Consider how it affects your thinking. Consider how it might affect the thinking of others. Clear eyes.

You Can’t Take It Back


Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. On the weekend, however, we run the same analysis on…well, everything else. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.



A chorus of boos echoed through Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday.

This was a strange thing.

It was strange because it was a pre-season game. You don’t usually hear boos or cheers of any magnitude at these games. They are low-energy exhibitions played mostly by athletes who won’t make the team.

It was strange because this was Indianapolis. Not Philly or New Jersey, where they’d boo the Dalai Lama just because some guy cut them off in traffic earlier. Or for no reason at all.

Strangest of all, the booing didn’t come after a bad call by a referee. It didn’t come after an especially poor play. It wasn’t a response to poor effort on the field, poor play-calling, or any of the usual reasons for this kind of outburst. It came as the players walked off the field and was directed at the home team’s franchise quarterback – Andrew Luck.

The media had just leaked moments before that Luck had retired at the age of 29, you see.

Andrew Luck retires, appears to be savagely booed by Colts fans in Indy after stunning news breaks during game [CBS News]

The backstory – there’s always a backstory – is that Luck was mentally and physically exhausted after years dealing with and rehabbing from a nagging, persistent cascade of injuries from playing football. A kidney laceration. Torn cartilage in multiple ribs. Concussion(s). Torn abdominal muscles. Torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. And now a lingering strain of something in his calf and ankle. These are just the ones that made the list, things that kept Luck out of games. They don’t include the scrapes, bumps, stingers, bruises, cuts and (probably) more than a couple seeing-stars episodes that he was able to fake the sideline medical staff into ignoring.

No need to deify or lionize here. Luck knew what he was getting into by playing football. He made a lot of money. He’s not asking anyone to shed tears for him. His body and brain were telling him it was time to go, even if it was 10 years before anyone thought he would. And go he did.

Leave aside for a moment that we’re talking about cheering for the color of shirt on a field most associated with the city where we or our parents got offered a job. There might be a couple people who booed Andrew Luck who still revel – or at least still agree – with what they did. But I don’t think it’ll be very many. I think there are a few thousand people who woke up Sunday morning feeling like garbage. I think they’ll remember that they booed one of their favorite team’s best players ever in a special, iconic moment where they should have been cheering. Over time some of those brains will allow ego to overwrite reality with stories like, “It all happened so fast, and we were just responding out of raw emotion”, or “Actually, I was booing because he made his decision so late, when our team couldn’t do anything about it.” Typical brain doing typical self-preservation stuff.

Amid the clamor of a booing crowd, it is easy to convince ourselves that “Andrew Luck deserves our boos” has become common knowledge simply because we see a lot of people in our immediate vicinity expressing it. In our social and professional communities built around some shared value, philosophy or idea, we often do the same kind of thing. We would have zero trouble surrounding ourselves with enough people to convince us that the reasons to believe a stock is a long-term zero or that bitcoin is going to a million by 2025 were common knowledge. Doing the same in political sub-communities would be even easier.

You can explain a lot of this as the emotional, behavioral, adrenal response of herd behaviors. Sure.

But the more pernicious effects, and the ones which are usually marshaled in attempts to tell us how to think, are the ostensibly intellectual ones. We really start to convince ourselves that a narrative is at play on which we must act now.

Some days, y’all, it’s just worth remembering: You can’t take it back.

Food Innovation Meets Financial Innovation

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.


In one of our most-read notes ever – Too Clever By Half – Ben gave a succinct definition of financial innovation:

Financial innovation is always and in all ways one of two things — a new way of securitizing something or a new way of leveraging something.

We are now securitizing wokeness. Behold:

Beyond Meat investment frenzy paves way for Wall Street’s first vegan ETF [CBS News]

The U.S. Vegan Climate ETF, which is expected to launch next month, will likely be the first that investors are served up.

OK, so maybe that’s not a precise definition of what’s happening – although in fairness, I’m still not sure I know what a “Vegan Climate” is. Still, it follows a pretty common pattern for the pop-up thematic funds. Jam some buzzwords into a fund name (check), push it to market as quickly as possible (check), and find a way to get some media attention from an outlet that has no earthly idea how many funds like this are born, live and die in a single week (check).

If you’re feeling like this is creeping into the zeitgeist, well, you’re right. That’s why it’s in our Zeitgeist feature: The language in this article was among the most highly connected to that of all financial news published in the last few days. You probably remember a couple days ago when the Times and some other outlets picked up the Business Roundtable’s meta-game positive announcement about ‘stakeholders.’ I’ll withhold the snark. Read the thing and make up your own mind.

OK, maybe a little Fiat News-related snark: have you ever seen a piece about Big Corporate CEOs in which these were the pictures selected? The cool, soothing backdrop? These are not your father’s Rich, Evil, Old Dudes. These are Wise, Confident, Trustworthy, Responsible Executives. Well, everybody except for Larry, I guess. Can’t a guy catch a break?

Chief executives who are members of the Business Roundtable, include, left to right, front row: Julie Sweet of Accenture North America, Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, Tim Cook of Apple, Robert F. Smith of Vista Equity Partners of Austin. Back row: Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mary Barra of General Motors and Larry Fink of BlackRock.

Still, whether it’s metagame playing by CEOs vying to not get their birthday parties taken away by the next (or incumbent) administration, or strike-while-the-iron’s-hot launches of nominally thematic funds which end up just holding Apple and Microsoft anyway, the social and political perceptions of Wall Street and financial markets are very much in the Zeitgeist. In our parlance, ‘we’re going to do something about corporate responsibility’ is a cohesive narrative with moderate-to-high attention.

But like most ‘financial innovation’, SRI – oops, ESG – oops, ‘impact investing’ comes and goes from the zeitgeist with some regularity. Part of its coming and going are the inevitable claims by those involved that it will be different this time. People are finally ready! Y’all, I worked on M&A processes which included two of the bigger SRI shops in the US back in the mid-2000s. I’ve seen the CIMs, the internal and external marketing plans before. Same language.

But as we’ve highlighted in detail for our ET Pro subscribers, the rise and fall of these narratives is entirely pro-cyclical. When markets have been lulled into complacency by supportive policy and good long-term returns with no major drawdowns, this is the friendly form that financial innovation takes. When a shock to equity markets or the economy punches everyone in the mouth, boardrooms and investment committees alike go from woke-to-S-R-what in about five seconds flat.

None of that means this or anything else is a bad product or that it shouldn’t exist. I have no idea, and as long as it isn’t being sold with some mythical alpha argument, I have zero problem with a clear-eyed vegan climatologist buying a financial product to express something about themselves. I have zero problem with the person on the other end of that making a buck from it. Or for feeling good about it, for that matter.

But for FAs and others wondering if this is a forever thing, if we’re reaching a new normal on these issues, I wouldn’t pay attention to the ebbs and flows of financial narratives. I’d be laser focused on political narratives, and the extent to which wealth inequality politics are brought front-and-center. That’s where you’ll see this zeitgeist manifest in changes that really may influence your business and your day-to-day processes for working with families and individuals.

The World ‘Twixt Ought To and Is


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I don’t like the word ‘abstractions’ very much because most people don’t think in abstractions. That is too difficult for them. They think in stories. And the best stories are not abstract; they are concrete.

– Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

I remember that there was always a street preacher on the college green at Penn. Like all prophets in his own town, he was never well-received.

Now, this was back in the days before veganism and keto were really things, and I think Crossfit had only just been invented. So the only means available to students to scream into the void “I am myself!” and “I am very intellectual!” and “Somebody please notice me!” all at once without expending any real effort were smoking and militant atheism.

My God, did this man take some abuse. And by God did he earn it.

Not because he was the giant-offensive-placards kind of street preacher (he wasn’t). Not because he was the hell-and-damnation kind, either (he wasn’t). Because he had a knack for getting himself into debates with college students. Not only that – because he allowed the students to badger him into taking ridiculous and strident positions on irrelevant topics that irrevocably damaged whatever true purpose he sought to achieve.

I was there on the periphery of a small crowd of eager, dickish young minds one day when our preacher passionately described how dinosaur bones were put into the earth by God to confound the wisdom of man and test his faith. Some mustachioed tankie was really feeling his oats (again, avocado toast being some years away at this point) and engaged him on the specific mechanics of God’s intervention. How, exactly, do you think that God worked this miracle, minister? Does he intervene in real time with the instruments which measure the quantity of carbon-14? If so, are you specifically making the argument that God adjusts how both beta radiation measurement tools and spectrometers counting carbon-14 atoms function? Or is the composition of the bone itself changed?

Within any religious community, there are legalistic subcultures which find positively nonsensical hills like this to die on. Around those hills, all sorts of uncomfortably specific explanations to tie everything together are built as hedges, take root and flourish. Want a nonsensical pseudo-scientific analysis of ancient Greek vernacular to argue that the wine Jesus miraculously created was just non-alcoholic grape juice (lamest miracle ever, by the way) to justify prohibition-as-doctrine? Somebody will be your huckleberry. Want a church-run webpage which takes serious intellectual issue with a famous musical’s farcical contention that God would punish a five-year old for stealing a maple-glazed donut since God would clearly only punish the child if he were eight? Huckleberry.

For most people of faith, these behaviors are powerfully cringeworthy. For all the secular protestations of their acolytes, the communities built around financial markets and economics are no less religious. They are no less prone to building edifices of oddly confident and hyper-specific speculation around their pre-existing models for predicting behaviors. And for most professional investors, they ought to be no less cringeworthy.


Please be seated. Let us begin our sermon today with some soggy, religious garbage from Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman.

There’s been a lot of speculation about why the stock market reacts so strongly to trade policy news — way out of proportion to the direct economic impacts of Trump tariffs. Today’s surge after Trump’s decision to delay some tariffs deepens the mystery. The best going explanation of the tariffs/market link was that markets took tariff announcements as indications of broader decision process; to be blunt, how crazy Trump is. Hard-line announcements suggested more radicalism to come, softer announcements more rationality. But this was obviously a defensive move to avoid price hikes before Christmas, not a change in Trump’s world view or improvement in his decision-making. So why respond so strongly?

– Nobel Laureate Paul “Nobel Laureate” Krugman – who has a Nobel Prize btw – via Twitter (8.13.2019)

Now, this is extremely stupid.

I don’t mean to be mean to Dr. K, who is not stupid. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most very smart people tend to have deeply stupid opinions and ideas about a great many things. Sadly, many of those same opinions and ideas often become articles of faith over which that person drapes his reputation, intellect and mental models which successfully supported earlier ideas and opinions.

It is pretty easy to unpack the three articles of faith at play here. Krugman has in his head a model for which each of the following is true:

  • Daily marginal price-setting behaviors are predictable as the output of mostly-rational optimizers;
  • Trump is objectively crazy; and
  • Trump’s craziness is so profound (and market participants are so ill-disposed to care about anything else) that changes in Paul’s perception of that craziness can explain functionally all of the daily variance in asset prices.

Let no one tell you that living in 2019 is not a joy.

Consider: you, dear reader, can watch in real-time as a Nobel Laureate publicly grapples with confusion that a multi-trillion dollar market might deviate for a single day from his single variable, Perception-Of-Trump’s-Craziness-based model. Consider further that you may watch him work out – again, in full view of the public – that the market must clearly have overestimated the extent to which a simple Christmas reprieve on tariffs ought to have reduced the value of their Perception-Of-Trump’s-Craziness variable.

This is God-burying-dinosaur-bones-to-piss-off-Neil-deGrasse-Tyson level crazy. This is Jesus-becoming-the-hero-of-the-party with-grape-juice level nuts. This is God-punishes-eight-year-old-donut-thieves-but-not-five-year-olds level insane.

And yet this kind of bizarre model-clutching lunacy is not just a possibility. It is an inevitability when you live in a world of prediction, in which your aim is to find The Answer to questions for which even a shred of epistemic humility would tell you that your model is shit.

It doesn’t really help that we’ve created academic and professional environments in which we respond to models that don’t produce The Answer by making adjustments to reflect what they missed most recently, calling it Bayesian Updating, finding a time horizon, data set and parameters for which we can get an acceptable p-value, and publishing a new paper.

Or y’know, launching a new fund.


The prelates of the preposterous aren’t the only characters in our world, however. We also have to contend with the agnostic – the person whose response to the difficulty of knowing everything is to believe that we cannot possibly know anything. Epsilon Theory was founded to ceaselessly harass and make fun of the religious pole (which we hope you understand we mean in an entirely secular sense) but to offer hope to those drawn to the desperation of the agnostic pole.

We respect the difficulty of active management. In our own portfolios, we happily use index instruments in many markets. But we don’t believe that it is possible to be a passive investor any more than it is possible to be a passive citizen or a passive friend or a passive partner or passive father. We will make decisions, and those decisions will explicitly or implicitly express views about the world and the way that it works and is working.

We reject the learned helplessness of the Long Now.

By rejecting that learned helplessness and embracing that we are all active investors, however, we will inevitably discover that there is an embedded layer of belief at work in nearly every investment strategy – a phantom model which exists between the ought to of our investment philosophy and the is of its results. That layer is, very simply, what we believe will cause an actual person (or computer programmed by a person) participating in the price-setting process for a security to change what price they are willing to pay or accept for that security.

The fundamental investor has in their head a model of the world in which they may predict how prices will change based on some assessment of the business today and in the future. Even beyond any fallibility in their own assessments and predictions, the phantom model between ought to and is – for them – is a set of assumptions about what other investors care about, what kind of information they will respond to, and over what time horizon.

Many of those strategies systematic and discretionary alike can be shown to work over many markets and many horizons. And yet, every investor with a shred of intellectual honesty will admit their concerns when going live with some new approach:

I am worried that the conditions under which I built the case for my strategy, whether the mental models and discretionary heuristics built over a long, successful career, or the systematic backtests I similarly produced, are a reflection of some state of the world that will not be the future state of the world.

Our skepticism about backtests, simulations and historical results is our acknowledgment of the phantom model in an emotional sense, to be sure. But it must also be an intellectual acceptance of the massive mathematical erosion in true explanatory power when our partially correlated models pass through an additional layer of partial correlation. We can’t always explain it away with “over a long enough time horizon” hand-waving in defense of our management fee annuity stream.

(Apologies if you did not know before now that the people who run money for you refer to you as an annuity stream. They do. Not figuratively. They literally say that in meetings.)

The problem for active investors (i.e. all investors), the problem I grappled with for so much of my career, and the problem I still grapple with at times in my own mind, is how to demonstrate epistemic humility about this loss in explanatory power without descending into agnostic nihilism. I have come to believe that there are three – and only three – ways:

  1. Parsimony – Adopting extraordinarily high standards and requirements for the addition of a model or framework for making predictions. This is the contribution of the AQRs and Bridgewaters of the world.
  2. Ensembles – Incorporating ensembles of models to composite concepts without excessive reliance on any one framework. This is the contribution of Two Sigma, our friends at Newfound and the discretionary work products of a small number of especially process-oriented minds.
  3. Concretion – Reducing the number of layers of abstraction between process and models on the one hand, and the Thing for which they are a representation, on the other.

Why do we study common knowledge – narratives? Because we think that studying, identifying and measuring the existence and effects of narratives can be a force for concretion of our investment theses. Can broader adoption of narrative analysis techniques, in fact, deliver on the promise of concretion? Can we better understand how, when and why different facts and events will matter to the marginal market participant in the price-setting process?

I don’t know. I think so. Our historical examinations of the question have produced promising results, but I fear that I am still an agnostic nihilist at heart.


Now, if you are thinking that narrative-as-force-for-concretion is a contradiction, then very well, it is a contradiction. Narrative is an abstraction from the real world, from cash flows, and from the long-term value creation potential of assets and intellectual property. But Narrative is also a concretion of the observable evidence of what the crowd believes that the crowd believes, what they care about and what they are paying attention to.

We are large, we contain multitudes, et cetera et cetera.

Soros’s quip about observing instead of predicting – that is concretion. It is a kind of process which permits decision-making based on observation, with fewer phantom models ‘twixt ought to and is. Taleb’s famous observation “don’t tell me what you think – show me your portfolio” is concretion, too, albeit a concretion of the phantom model of the language we use to describe why we own something. It is an indictment of manager surveys and the like, which are reflections of first level thinking rather than the thinking that drives actual asset price-determining decisions at the margin.

But while the Taleb heuristic is effective as a thought experiment into the importance of skin in the game, it is less useful (and was never intended) as a specific model for understanding the spread-crossing tendencies and response profiles of various investors to new information. For one, as anyone who has examined the positions of fund managers very often will tell you, someone’s positioning will often tell you a great deal about their constraints, their obligations and their boss’s predispositions, and often very little about why their view of price would change in the presence of new information. For another, because a portfolio is a complex thing, two sensible investors may be equally long or short a position for different reasons that would precipitate massively different responses to new information. Knowing what someone’s portfolio looks like is concretive in terms of language, but not at all in terms of a model for predicting future asset prices.

So why the focus on defining narratives through financial media, which we all know to be riddled with Fiat News, often conflicted and frequently produced in service to its purported subject matter? Because it is the only world in which we learn what everyone wishes everyone else to believe. Because it is the only world in which we know what everyone else knows, because we know that they have seen the top-fold of the WSJ and the Dear Sirs of the Financial Times.

Because it is our best chance to map the world ‘twixt ought to and is.


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ET Election Index: July 31, 2019

This is the fourth installment of Epsilon Theory’s Election Index. Our aim with the feature is to lay as bare as possible the popular narratives governing the US elections in 2020. That includes narratives concerning policy proposals and candidates found in the news, opinion and feature content produced by national, local and smaller outlets.

Our goal is to make you a better, more informed consumer of political news by showing you indicators that the news you are reading may be affected by (1) adherence to narratives and other abstractions, (2) the association/conflation of topics and (3) the presence of opinions. Our goal is to help you – as much as it is possible to do – to cut through the intentional or unintentional ways in which media outlets guide you how to think about various issues, an activity we call Fiat News.

Our goal is to help you make up your own damn mind.

Our first edition covered April 2019, and included detailed explanations of each of the metrics we highlight below. If this is your first exposure to our narrative maps, analysis or metrics, we recommend that you start with that primer.


Election Narrative Structure as of July 31, 2019

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Commentary on Election Narrative Structure

  • We officially think there is a 2020 election narrative.
  • The common knowledge is that the 2020 election is a referendum on race, gender and identity.
    • This doesn’t mean we agree or disagree with this characterization.
    • This means that this is what everyone thinks everyone thinks the election is about, at least as promulgated by US political media.
  • Every highly connected cluster in the narrative structure from the month of July is charged with and defined by this language.
  • Asylum seekers and immigrants, the black vote, the narrative of electability surrounding women and gay candidates, and ‘the white vote from the rust belt’ loom large in the center of and in connections between nearly all 2020 election coverage.
  • Sentiment in coverage has also started to crystallize in a more dramatic way:
    • Sen. Harris and Biden have taken the raw end of this exchange, and in a more coherent, higher attention way than before.
    • In contrast, Sanders and Warren have received glowingly positive language in their media coverage.
  • We also note that Trump himself has begun to insert his presence into the narrative structure, despite being less present on the formal campaign trail.

Candidate Cohesion Summary

Commentary on Candidate Cohesion

  • Post-debate Sen. Harris has a much more coherent narrative structure than in prior months. Unfortunately – as noted shortly – it is one loaded with negative language, especially relating to Harris’s law enforcement background and spars with former VP Biden.
  • Biden’s coverage has been similar to Harris’s: more coherent, but coherent in its skepticism that he is a candidate that can win, skepticism that his record is sufficiently progressive to energize the Democrat base, and skepticism that he will address the race, gender and other identity issues lying at the center of the 2020 election zeitgeist.
  • Sen. Warren is a bit of an enigma. In many ways, her narrative strikes us as a “poor man’s Sanders” – less internally cohesive, less in tune with the zeitgeist, and positive…but not quite as positive as Sanders. But qualitatively, she is increasingly entangled with the same anti-corporate power, anti-inequality base and narratives that are most strongly associated with Sen. Sanders.
  • As per usual, media accounts of Gabbard and Yang are indifferent, varied and largely presented in context of other candidates. After the shock of a surprisingly positive performance in initial debates, Buttigieg content has reverted back to prior incoherent mixtures of general “round-up” content and narrow issue pieces.
  • The media seems to regard O’Rourke with a collective “meh”. They know who he is, and they’ll cover him, but the days of magazine covers and strong common knowledge about what “Beto means” appear to be gone for the time being.

Candidate Sentiment Summary

Commentary on Candidate Sentiment

  • Sens. Warren and Sanders – perhaps unsurprisingly, given July’s emphasis on health care – were head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates in terms of coverage sentiment.
  • This is standard fare for Sanders at this point, but only a June/July development for Warren, who appears to have attracted meaningfully more positive language from political media accounts.
  • Yang and Buttigieg were the only other candidates whose language we would regard as positive.
  • Gabbard, Biden and Booker have cemented their place in the cellar. Media accounts of their candidacies are routinely negative, emphasize electability concerns, highlight conflicts/spats with other candidates, and bring out claims of hypocrisy.
  • For this reason, we would be very cautious in our consumption of Gabbard, Biden, Sanders and Warren news, where we think that emerging narratives have made it more likely that ‘news’ content will be infected with affect and affected framing, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Candidate Attention Summary

Commentary on Candidate Attention

  • As noted before, Harris is very much in line with the July election Zeitgeist, but we regard this as a function of negative coverage. We think that undecided voters should tread carefully when consuming and reading ‘news’ about Sen. Harris, whose jabs at Biden were quickly transformed into claims of hypocrisy, assertions of a weak position to argue on issues of inequality (i.e. “Kamala was a cop!” narratives), and unelectability concerns.
  • Buttigieg has faded from connection to the language used about the election as quickly as he rose, which is not uncommon for strong debate performers who were previously minor candidates.
  • It is Beto whose disconnection to the zeitgeist has been more striking.
  • We note that Warren’s attention scores remain low, despite positive sentiment and cohesion. We think (this is our judgment / opinion, not something present in the data) that this is a function of two things:
    • Many of the positions Warren is associated with, Sanders is more associated with. In coverage, this means that Sanders tends to get the lion’s share of relationship to these key electoral issues.
    • Warren’s status as a policy wonk has meant that she has focused less on the race, gender and identity issues that we argue represent the 2020 election zeitgeist.
  • For better or worse, if Warren were to refocus efforts on participating more actively in the identity-related narratives that we believe represent the common knowledge about what the 2020 Election “is about”, we think she would emerge further as a leading candidate.
  • In the meantime and absent that change, based on our views about the influence of media-driven common knowledge effects, we think that among major candidates, Sanders will outperform most expectations, and that Biden will continue to converge to his more negative narrative.
  • This also means these are the candidates where we would be most cautious that media sources might be influencing how they want us to think about the news pertaining to them.

Does It Make a Sound?

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): Does It Make a Sound?


This is Hong Kong right now. The image is powerful. The audio is more powerful.

The people in this image and this video are singing “Do you hear the people sing,” from Les Mis. It is a common protest song, but not the kind of thing that is allowed in 2019 China. If you know the curtain-dropping line from the play, you’ll know why:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again

– Les Miserables (1980)

Here is a video of police firing rubber bullets at well-prepared protesters.

Here is an article from the South China Morning Post discussing the aggressive use of tear gas to break up the protests.

Hong Kong protests: police under fire as viral video shows elderly residents of Yuen Long care home suffering from effects of tear gas [South China Morning Post]

The article is, of course, pure fiat news, an opinion piece that presents itself as a news update. The headline is selective and emotionally charged. The images are selected to evoke a particular response. Even when we agree with the narrative it is promoting – especially when we agree – fiat news should always give us pause.

But they aren’t the only ones creating narratives here. The protesters are, too. Singing “it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again” is beautiful narrative creation. Standing peacefully, armed against tear gas and bullets with spray guns, umbrellas and plywood shields? Brilliantly disarming tear gas canisters with cones and water guns? This is Holy, Rough and Immediate theater, all at once.

And it is amazing.

If you’re reading this, you probably know more about what’s going on in Hong Kong than just an airport shutdown. Like us, you’re probably Very Online, a ravenous consumer of global news. But for most of the country it is a different story.

Here, for example, is the front page of CNN.com as of 7:00 AM CT this morning. Dig a little bit and you’ll find something about the Hong Kong protests. Only don’t look for a story about self-determination, disenfranchisement or extradition. You’ve got to look for a story about how this might affect you, fellow American. Found it yet?

MSNBC’s front page has nothing. Zilch. Lots to say about Russia, though.

If you’re willing to scroll down past fiat news send-ups of Comey and Cuomo, Fox will give you a similar angle to CNN. At least they acknowledge the protests. Unfortunately, in doing so their headline writer unwittingly reveals a bit too much about US missionaries’ awareness of the protests: in short, they have not been paying attention to them for the months, not days, that they have been going on.

The Wall Street Journal puts it figuratively above-the-fold – they’ve got a good Hong Kong bureau – but again, the headliner news story is how this will affect your travel plans and the next two weeks of volatility in your portfolio. It IS a financial paper, so some grace is warranted here. Many of their reporters are doing good work. If you’re looking for someone to follow, @birdyword is a good choice.

The New York Times gives the “airport thing” top billing, too, but the nature of their coverage (presented cheerfully next to “What Would Sartre Think about Trump-Era Republicans”) would easily pass CCP censors. Every piece and every blurb being promoted is about the disruption being caused by the protests, and about the damage being done by them.

ET followers and subscribers – especially on social media – have been openly predicting over the last few days how quickly the Epstein case or the Hong Kong protest situation will fade from the zeitgeist, from the narratives about what’s going on in our world.

They won’t fade.

No, not because they’re powerful or timeless. They won’t fade because they don’t exist.

There is no narrative, no common knowledge in the US about these protests. American media have largely stopped covering them, and they aren’t written about as a “connected issue” for other topics. They have rarely, if ever, been connected to language used to discuss trade disputes with China. They aren’t related to the three or four articles grudgingly discussing the Uighur muslim reeducation villages they’ve set up (shh!). But this isn’t just US media. It’s politicians, too, who seem loath to tie anything of everyday significance to what’s happening over there.

The only reason at all the protests are getting coverage is in context of reports about Asian stocks and reports about flights in and out of Hong Kong. That’s it. From Quid, below we present a network graph of the last two days worth of all global news. In bold at the extremity of the northeast quadrant are the entirely peripheral, unconnected, paltry collection of articles about these protests.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

I’m sure we will get a lot of “isn’t a clear-eyed view of the protests that they are unlikely to be successful” or “this will all be counterproductive” takes, which are very on-narrative responses. They also might not be wrong.

But wherever self-determination and resistance to the encroaching power of the state and oligarchical institutions find expression, there should our full hearts be also.

And our full voices.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): Does It Make a Sound?

Big Tech Anti-Trust Narratives: Deteriorating but Disconnected

As part of our narrative monitoring process, we occasionally receive requests for analysis of specific narratives. We also make our own anecdotal observations about what feels to us like an emerging narrative. Both sources have led us to explore the structure of anti-trust and monopoly/oligopoly narratives in the US technology sector.

Definitions first:

  • This is an exploration of the existence, affect/sentiment, cohesion and attention being paid to the topic in financial media.
  • Cohesion measures how internally similar the language in articles discussing anti-trust and monopoly risks and claims about the tech sector has been over some period.
  • Attention measures how similar the language in those articles is to the broader universe of articles discussing the tech sector and tech stocks more broadly.
  • Sentiment is a basic measure of the affect value of the language used. In short, are the articles negative or positive?

Volume

While not a part of how we think about narrative structure, it’s still useful to understand how much is being written about a topic. If nothing else, frequency is usually the thing that sparks our awareness that a topic may be part of the Zeitgeist.

If you’ve noticed an uptick in discussion of ‘tech monopolies’, you are not imagining things. The volume of coverage this year has increased. Our dataset includes 708 unique such articles from January 2019. By June 2019 that number had risen to 2,700 before settling slightly at 2,200 in July. The increase has been steady, but most took place in connection with coverage of the 2020 Elections and Democratic debates.


Sentiment

The sentiment of articles published become consistently more negative over the course of 2019, in no small part (we think) to the increasingly aggressive tenor of criticisms from both the political left and right as part of the 2020 campaign.

The scale below runs between -1 and 1, where -1 would indicate that 100% of articles used language which, on balance, carried negative affect. Technology industry coverage tends to be positive, but even if that weren’t the case, a sentiment shift of this magnitude would still be significant.


Fiat News

Fiat News is our measure of the use of explanatory / opinion / causality language in articles about a topic. It is usually very stable, and is most informative – we think – at inflection points. The percentage of articles about “big tech monopolies’ which have included Fiat News language has been creeping higher for most of 2019.


Cohesion

As with negative sentiment and fiat news content associated with Anti-Trust narratives, the cohesion of Big Tech anti-trust content has risen meaningfully in 2019. When people write about the topic, they are increasingly writing the same things, using the same arguments and same language. This is typically our first stop when seeking to identify an emerging narrative.


Attention

The most interesting observation from the narrative structure, however, is that this otherwise negative, fiat news-laden, cohesive story about Big Tech and claims being made about its monopolistic / oligopolistic / anti-competitive behavior, has actually faded from the structure of narrative about these companies in financial markets-focused media.

In other words, when we examine how closely related anti-trust narratives are to the stories being told about Big Tech stocks, the answer we get is: not very, and less than at the beginning of the year.

The graph below shows the narrative structure around tech stocks within broader stock market-focused financial media. The dark/bold nodes are anti-trust / monopoly nodes. In short, this remains a peripheral narrative.

Conclusions / Commentary

  • We have some views on the extent to which various technology companies are, in fact, demonstrating monopolistic/oligopolistic behavior. It is not difficult to argue that this is taking place in advertising markets, for example. None of the above reflects these views.
  • We likewise have practically zero view (at this stage, anyway) and zero edge on the odds of any action that might be taken against these companies.
  • We DO think the lack of attention makes this theme as a catalyst to a portfolio position less attractive than usual.
  • On the other hand, for an asymmetry-driven thesis, we would argue that the risk of a increasingly negative, cohesive narrative coalescing around some of the large technology stocks is being substantially underdiscounted. We would expect emergence of this narrative into market common knowledge to have a significant impact, although as noted above, nothing here gives us any edge/insight into predicting the odds of that taking place.

The Country HOA and other Control Stories

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): The Country HOA and other Control Stories


Ahchoo: You don’t have to do this. Look, this ain’t exactly the Mississippi. I’m on one side, see? I’m on the other side. I’m on the east bank. I’m on the west bank. It is NOT that critical.

Robin of Locksley: Not the point! It’s the principle of the thing.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I visited my parents in Texas last week.

They live on the periphery of Houston exurbs and East Texas country, although – and this is not unusual for Texas – their home is in a development. What’s more, it is a development with an HOA. The kicker is that it is a gated HOA. My parents couldn’t care less about whether the community is gated or not. This just happened to be where they found the home where they knew they wanted to retire.  

But still, there’s a gate.

The nearest business – other than a gas station at the highway exit to get there – is a web-based thing some guy runs out of his house selling pretty rocks and healing crystals. The next closest are a lumber yard and two feed stores. Town doesn’t really have any crime to speak of. Doesn’t really have many people to speak of, for that matter.

And of course they change the code every couple of months. Just to be safe. So when I pulled up in the rental Hyundai with my wife and boys at, oh, around 9 PM, well, I had the wrong code. I sat there texting my dad for the new one, but my dad’s about as good at checking his phone as yours. No joy. Luckily, after a few minutes, some good ol’ boy in a white pickup pulled up. So I looped around the little island in the median where the gate control machine was positioned and got behind him.

He pulled through and did something I never thought I’d see. He stopped. Right past the opened gate. I mean that literally. He inched his truck forward so that there was a hair’s breadth between his tailgate and the now-closing community gate. He wasn’t going to let me in. Not only that. He waited, not for the gate to close completely, but for some new development in this high stakes drama of a family with two kids in car seats clearly visible to him as we looped around, parked in a purple SUV trying to get into a residential neighborhood in a crimeless community. Did he call the police? Did he summon the rent-a-cop working the HOA circuit checking on the length of everyone’s front lawns to make his way post-haste to enforce the community’s important security precautions?

I didn’t end up finding out, because I got the code from my parents and was able to open the gate. As soon as it opened, our knight on his shining white steed proceeded to his house. I hope his family was all present to hear this first rendition of his stirring tale of heroism.

Now, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Rusty, this doesn’t sound that strange. Maybe there have been break-ins, and he’s just being conscientious of his neighbors.” I would be open to both of those arguments (I probably wouldn’t, actually – gated communities are uniformly ridiculous) if I didn’t have more information:

  1. There is no continuous wall extending from the gate around any portion of the development. The gate is completely ornamental and isolated.
  2. There are two other roads – one through a junk yard and another through a neighboring RV community, which connect to the community and are open at nearly all times to all comers willing to subject themselves to 1-2 minutes of inconvenience.
  3. The gates are wide open and unmonitored every day between 8 AM and 5 PM.

I understand the intent of the gate. It’s an inward-facing narrative, a story to tell people living there that their community is a refuge, a place they can come home to without fear. There is (yes, still) some prestige attached to living in a gated community, and some people derive some pleasure from that. I’m not saying I agree with any of this, or that all of the people living there care about these things, but it isn’t hard to grok the intent.

What was so shocking to me was that someone actually believed in the gate.

The driver of that pickup truck would have blithely entered his community behind a smash-and-grab robber entering when most smash-and-grab robbers do (i.e. during daylight hours when people aren’t there to make it inconvenient) without a second thought. He would never dream of monitoring ingress past this high security feature to the south (pictured below). Probably hasn’t spared a single thought for the two neighboring and connecting properties.

But boy, when someone was trying to get in under a certain of circumstances over which he had some direct control, his hackles were up. He knew his duty.

It shouldn’t have been shocking to me. This good ol’ boy isn’t strange. He’s all of us, as investors and citizens alike.  

Even when we know something is a story written for us, that we are being told how to think or feel about something to serve someone else’s purposes, there is a visceral, emotional part of us that wants to believe it. Needs to believe it. We yearn to see it as an echo of some truth rather than a construction, and when some paltry data emerges to confirm it, it becomes almost irresistible. And when it is something where part of the narrative is control?

There’s a reason why investors loved high-net long/short equity for so many years. Even after they had experienced bad results. Even after they figured out that the incentive fee-on-beta thing was too high a hurdle for even the most gifted stock picker. We wanted to believe the story, and the idea that doing so gave us the ability to be both long or short, to vary our net exposures to respond to market opportunities. Nevermind that we’d never found anyone who was good at those things. It was a story we wanted to believe. More importantly, it was a Control Story.

It was the same thing back when every big asset allocator rotated from the usual awful MSCI macroregional classifications to ACWI and “Global Equities” about ten years ago, and then started rotating back to the old schemes after a couple more years of dominant US equity returns. Gotta be able to more easily overweight the asset classes that did really well in recent years, after all. The story was that managers would have all these levers to pull – Sectors! Countries! Currencies! Cash! Stocks! Even when we know in our heart of hearts that everyone is terrible at making each of these decisions (yes, the exception you’re thinking of in your head is terrible at it, too), it is still a story we want to believe. It is a Control Story.

I leave you to muse about how this could be applied to the stories behind growth PE and buyout funds in 2019.

You and I – and the cowboy in the white pickup – we’re vulnerable to Control Stories because we believe that we and our advisors will make decisions that matter. We will make better use of flexibility, options and control than others. And no matter how much we know in our heads and show in our actions that this is just an ornamental gate built to tell us a story, we will actively seek out ‘evidence’ to prove what we want to believe. If you seek out evidence in that way, you will always, always find it.

So how do we spot gates to a Country HOA in our portfolios, our frameworks and our daily conversations? Here’s a few that spring to mind:

  1. “Multiple Ways to Win” is always and everywhere a Control Story.
  2. Decisions that are designed to allow you to take more risk elsewhere are always Control Stories.
  3. Arguments for transparency and what we will do with it are Control Stories.

You’ve probably got a dozen more. Pop them into the comments below!

No, not every Control Story is wrong. Still, Clear Eyes means dialing up our skepticism when we hear them.

Especially when it’s a story we are telling ourselves.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): The Country HOA and other Control Stories

A Cartoon in Three Parts

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.


We use the term cartoon a lot. Perhaps some definitions are in order.

When we call something a cartoon on Epsilon Theory, what we mean is an active attempt to create common knowledge about what a thing means, or alternatively what matters about that thing. When Nike embraced Kaepernick, they actively sought to create polarized knowledge about what buying Nike products or stock meant. They succeeded. I’d argue that Chick-fil-a has done the same, albeit somewhat more subtly. In our own industry, Vanguard has done this, too, by cultivating a belief that index investing was a synonym for low cost investing. It isn’t.

Yes, brand is a kind of cartoon.

There are other kinds of cartoons, too. Not every company is a consumer product company for which a polarizing political statement will have the effect that Nike’s did. Instead, these cartoons exist in financial terms. The company doesn’t tell you what their brand means. Instead, they tell you which metric about their company or stock really matters. It’s a tougher game to play, because – at least superficially – there are theoretically people who couldn’t care less what management thinks. Back when they still existed, we called these people ‘value investors.’ But the whole game of cartoons is the creation of common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows – and even if you know that cyclically-adjusted net unique monthly eyeballs is not a Thing, your own time horizons as a fund manager / analyst probably won’t permit you to ignore the two layers below you in the Keynesian Beauty Contest that believe that everyone else believes it is a Thing.

The “Top Line” cartoon is a simple, successful example of this kind of thing. So long as the underlying products – and sources of cheap capital – support it, the Top Line cartoon can be sustained for a very long time. Many of the other examples (we usually pick on Salesforce.com) look far more like examples of reductio ad absurdum than the Top Line cartoon’s gentle story-telling. The tell-tale signs, I think, are esoteric, business-specific metrics or accounting treatments over which management has substantial control and the public limited visibility.

The language of these cartoons is, in fact, so indicative that our own NLP analysis tends to arrange guidance, statements and financial results from heavily cartoonified companies into very distinct clusters. These are the articles which don’t so much publish management’s discussions about the business or financial results as much as they do about the measures being promoted by management (or in some cases, the sell side) as the right way to understand that company’s results.

The success of cartoon management has been such that these clusters have grown to dominate the news and company-produced content in many of the economic sectors we track. This is part of the zeitgeist. And today, it is really part of the Zeitgeist. To wit, the second most closely connected article to all other financial markets articles published in the last day or so comes from an industry that is almost entirely built upon a foundation of cartoon management.

Aurora Cannabis’ Guidance Was ‘Manna From Heaven’, Cannabis One CEO Says [The Street]

It’s a short video and a short article, but if you grew up listening to earnings calls in which management teams protested their indifference to short-term opinions floating around the market in favor of long-term growth opportunities, you’ll be delighted to hear how this has changed. Manna from heaven isn’t a monumental growth opportunity or a phenomenal new product or research breakthrough. Manna from heaven is now the relaxation of negative short-term narrative pressures on stock price.

The number three article in our ranking this morning is a defense of one of the oldest forms of cartoonification – the clever use of accounting to present results in a particular light. And so it is linked to all those other cartoon-creation articles by language. What language? Misleading. Accounting. Inflated. Adjusted. And “reaffirmation of guidance”, a precious term which often seems to cover all sins.

Australia’s Treasury Wine rejects report alleging it inflated profit [Reuters]

And when the belief in a cartoon fails, how far can you fall? Pretty far. This is the fifth most connected article in today’s Zeitgeist run (and for those inevitably curious at what I skipped over today, it was an Art Cashin “whistling past the graveyard” piece and a Cramer “what I learned from soft pretzels” article – you’re welcome).

Care.com Founder to Step Down as CEO Months After WSJ Report [WSJ]

No, of course cartoonification doesn’t always mean taking a creative interpretation of inventory accounting rules or their application. It doesn’t mean fraudulent representations about fundamental business practices. Sometimes it really is just telling people “the right way” to think about your company, product, results, or even yourself. For that reason, we think that anyone and any company who doesn’t see controlling their cartoon as part of their job is making a mistake. Narrative isn’t evil, even if it is used a vessel for many evils.

But much of the impulse behind cartoon creation is the same as the impulse behind other drivers of the Long Now. It is behind what some of us unserious people mean when we insist on using the term financialization. No, not the idiotic meme of “things mean rich people do to make money for shareholders instead of supporting this social value I hold!” We mean the things which people allocating capital have incentives to do because those incentives align with maximizing the current perception of value rather than actual long-term value.

Financialization – again, in our own use of the term – is little more than a belief that there are incentives to deploy capital and labor resources to ends other than long-term value creation, that our present always-on media, social landscape and transformation of financial markets into political utilities aggravate those incentives, and that this might be bad.

The Long Now is how this tendency permeates not only financial markets but our personal financial decisions, friendships, life decisions, political engagement and cultural participation.

Cartoons are the engine behind both.

Clear eyes – control your cartoon.

Full hearts – control the extent to which controlling your cartoon may be keeping you from pursuing things of lasting value.

The Last Chance

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.


The John Walker, Last Cask – the final release of The John Walker. An elegant, triple-matured whisky including rare expressions from ‘ghost’ distilleries. Beautifully presented in a handmade Baccarat crystal decanter, with a bespoke design by Hand Engraver of Glass to Her Majesty the Queen, Philip Lawson Johnston.

There are a lot of angles we could take here.

Advertising and PR isn’t always missionary behavior, although its primary aim is usually similar. Companies want to cultivate common knowledge about a brand or a product. Talking about that would be, if you’ll forgive the expression, very on-brand for us.

We could write about the power of luxury and act-as-if narratives in context of Fiat World and the Long Now. Pretty on-brand there, too.

But neither of those on-brand takes is why we’re featuring this press release.

The Last Chance to Taste an Icon of Scotch Whisky [Press Release]

We are featuring this press release because the language it uses makes it the single most connected article in all of financial media today. Not a trade war article. Not a Trump politics article. Not the Fed. Not NIRP. Not currency wars.

Whisky.

And not just any whisky. An absurdly expensive, Rube Goldberg blended construction of old whiskies (not even sure it qualifies as Scotch, actually – a lot of non-barley grain). I love whisky, but have never had this one – it’s $4,000 a bottle, y’all – so maybe it really is some kind of ambrosia. But the main feature here is the use of really old barrel staves, only so many of which exist. It’s a thing which isn’t very likely to impart much of interest to the beverage, but is certainly rare. Because it is designed to be rare.

The reason this sits at the top of our Zeitgeist is because there are few narratives that define that Zeitgeist more than narratives of scarcity and access. Whether think-pieces on expanding definitions of Qualified Purchasers or Accredited Investors to give more investors access to alternatives, or discussions of scarcity in context of Bitcoin, or pension plans discussing why they’re trying to get access to higher capacity mid-market growth / accelerator funds pretending to be venture capital, this language is everywhere.

But there are whiskies that are rare because they have been aged in a barrel made from staves with limited availability and poured into a custom crystal decanter which is then lovingly placed into a burled wood box, all of which are designed to create scarcity, and there are whiskies that are rare because there is a natural lack of something desired. Oh sure, a 1966 Springbank Local Barley or, say, one of the last releases from the now-shuttered Port Ellen are still speculative investments. You are still betting, in the end, on how much someone else values a thing of which there is only so much to go around. Anyone who tells you there’s a whisky in the world for which the drinking experience is worth $4,000 more than comparable options has lost the plot.

But it is different. Of course it’s different. When things really get hairy, the attention paid to the narrative of scarcity is still dependent on the narrative of desirability of the scarce thing.

If you are sold investments on the basis of that scarcity – or told that you should pay this fee or that on a basis of scarcity or access – beware the similarity in language between the true and counterfeit. Not all scarcity and access is created equal, even if the language used to describe them is.

US Fiscal Policy Monitor – 7.31.2019

We received a couple comments from readers that they found the different presentations for the charts and for the raw signal data for Sentiment and Attention confusing. Thanks! And we agree. It’s confusing.

We’ve accordingly updated July monitors below so that (1) sentiment charts show the same rolling 3-month values we provide in the data spreadsheet rather than our spot calculations and (2) the attention charts show fixed historical values as per the data file, rather than a dynamically updated series to reflect the changing long-term average. No changes to the raw XLS data.

If you would still like to see the faster/dynamic presentations of the signal data, let us know. Otherwise, our plan will be to keep it as simple as possible.


Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • There is no Fiscal Policy, Deficit or Austerity narrative, except perhaps the narrative that these things “no longer matter’
  • European financial media are actively writing with grief about the austerity programs put in place in Greece, for example.
  • The brief cohesion bump from the 2018 election and early primary platform discussions has since fallen to floor levels.
  • Likewise, the positive sentiment attached to stories about MMT, Green New deal and social safety net expansions has fallen away with the fading popularity of those articles.
  • We accordingly think that investment theses based on fiscal policy, budgets or government debt levels would need very powerful catalysts to be investable.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment


Key Articles

The Hill’s Morning Report: Trump walks back from ‘send her back’ chants [The Hill]

The losing proposition of reparations [The Hill]

Mulvaney Says Trump Will Sign Budget Deal [Politico]

The Trumpification of the Federal Reserve [New York Times]

Trump adds $4.1 trillion to national debt. Here’s where the money went [AOL]

Trade and Tariffs Monitor – 7.31.2019

Editor’s Note (8.21.2019):

We received a couple comments from readers that they found the different presentations for the charts and for the raw signal data for Sentiment and Attention confusing. Thanks! And we agree. It’s confusing.

We’ve accordingly updated July monitors below so that (1) sentiment charts show the same rolling 3-month values we provide in the data spreadsheet rather than our spot calculations and (2) the attention charts show fixed historical values as per the data file, rather than a dynamically updated series to reflect the changing long-term average. No changes to the raw XLS data.

If you would still like to see the faster/dynamic presentations of the signal data, let us know. Otherwise, our plan will be to keep it as simple as possible.


Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • Three things happened to Trade and Tariffs narratives in July, leading up to a rather eventful start to August:
    • Attention remained at record high levels under our measure. The supreme importance of the Trade War remains THE market narrative.
    • Our spot measure of sentiment rose, as expectations of a thawing / cooperative resolution generally strengthened.
    • Cohesion continued its fall, as (1) new voices, including Chinese perspectives, entered the fray with different narratives and (2) topics veered toward Brexit and US/EU trade issues.
  • The result was that, while by no means complacent, markets entered August with what we think was a more-confident-than-warranted view of the general direction of the US/China Trade War, which remains a Game of Chicken. As we said in June, take risk on their unpredictable outcomes at your own peril.
  • We recommend reviewing Ben’s brief note sent on Monday, August 5th for our views updated following the early month volatility.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment


Key Articles

Chinese stocks are a buy even without a trade deal, says top emerging market fund manager [CNBC]

Beto O’Rourke begins filling in the blanks on the economy, taxes and entitlements [CNBC]

US-China trade war has had limited impact on semiconductors, says industry expert [CNBC]

Foreign purchases of American homes plunge 36% as Chinese buyers flee the market [CNBC]

Trade war fallout on China is not as bad as the numbers imply, Stephen Roach suggests [CNBC]

Central Bank Omnipotence Monitor – 7.31.2019

Editor’s Note (8.21.2019):

We received a couple comments from readers that they found the different presentations for the charts and for the raw signal data for Sentiment and Attention confusing. Thanks! And we agree. It’s confusing.

We’ve accordingly updated July monitors below so that (1) sentiment charts show the same rolling 3-month values we provide in the data spreadsheet rather than our spot calculations and (2) the attention charts show fixed historical values as per the data file, rather than a dynamically updated series to reflect the changing long-term average. No changes to the raw XLS data.

If you would still like to see the faster/dynamic presentations of the signal data, let us know. Otherwise, our plan will be to keep it as simple as possible.


Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.

  • As expectations of a US rate cut became unanimous into late July, attention to central bank omnipotence narratives actually fell slightly from our June measure.
  • To be clear, the volume of central bank coverage increased substantially, but the language used to discuss markets began to diverge from this language.
  • Sometimes this takes place because of complacency – attention falls because common knowledge treats it as self-evident – but we don’t think that’s what happened here.
  • As we have discussed the last few months, we think that central bank narratives have begun to integrate with trade narratives in some ways that have caused pure “Fed put” discussions to fade to the background.
  • The narrative of central banks is not just “puts on financial markets” – the narrative is increasingly “tool of currency wars”, a shift that has also reduced cohesion of these narratives. It hasn’t darkened our view of the common knowledge in the Fed/ECB/Central Bank put – yet.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment


Key Articles

One Bad Leveraged Loan Isn’t a Liquidity Scare [Bloomberg]

Asias factory activity shrinks, U.S.-China trade truce fails to brighten outlook [Reuters]

Rates Traders Are Camped on Either Side of Big Divide Over Fed Cuts [Bloomberg]

Powell Suggests Fed Embarking on 1990s-Style Mini Easing Cycle [Bloomberg]

New man on the board to clean up Deutsche Bank’s act [Reuters]

Inflation Monitor – 7.31.2019

Editor’s Note (8.21.2019):

We received a couple comments from readers that they found the different presentations for the charts and for the raw signal data for Sentiment and Attention confusing. Thanks! And we agree. It’s confusing.

We’ve accordingly updated July monitors below so that (1) sentiment charts show the same rolling 3-month values we provide in the data spreadsheet rather than our spot calculations and (2) the attention charts show fixed historical values as per the data file, rather than a dynamically updated series to reflect the changing long-term average. No changes to the raw XLS data.

If you would still like to see the faster/dynamic presentations of the signal data, let us know. Otherwise, our plan will be to keep it as simple as possible.


Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.

  • Already paltry attention to inflation narratives eroded further in July, with almost no focus from major financial media or market participants.
  • Cohesion likewise remains at low levels. There is no single story being told and repeated about inflation.
  • To the contrary, there is tremendous topical and linguistic divergence in discussions of inflation.
    • There remains a powerful and persistent political narrative around localized costs of drugs, education and health care.
    • There is also a persistent narrative around the absence of wage inflation.
  • We would describe this as the current, complacent narrative structure: “There is no inflation, we expect no inflation, and it isn’t influencing markets.”

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment


Key Articles

Bond yields are falling to record lows as investors pull back from risky assets [CNBC]

Jim Cramer gives 5 reasons why Wednesday’s rally wasn’t an ‘engineered’ bubble [CNBC]

Pakistani traders strike over IMF austerity measures [Reuters]

Earnings calls ‘painting a picture of an economy hampered by trade uncertainty’ [CNBC]

Powell says ‘uncertainties’ have increased chances of a rate cut [CNBC]

Threat Display

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.


This intimidating stance is enough to make even the most inquisitive bird move away

After a competitive game has gone on long enough, when we are all so tired of hearing the constantly changing stories, we all start to wishcast a little bit. We either see light at the end of the tunnel or we see one party being pushed to the brink. And we usually see whichever one best reflects the way our portfolios are positioned.

It is certainly the case that a competitive game CAN be made into something else. We argued at various points in late 2018 and early 2019 that existential / political rhetoric was coming dangerously close to transforming the US/China Trade War into a different kind of game. But as recently as the report we published in July, we warned that treating Game of Chicken rhetoric like existential escalation was a mistake:

The cohesion of these narratives, however, has fallen fairly sharply. We don’t think this means that it isn’t dominating the market’s attention – we think it means that more missionaries are joining the fray to promote their own narrative.

For now, we are not seeing the same existential saber-rattling. It is a short period, so we would not overreact. Still, some aspects of a now-global narrative war begin to look more like a Game of Chicken again. Take risk on their unpredictable outcomes at your own peril.

ET Pro Trade and Tariffs Monitor – 6.30.2019

Welp.

That hasn’t meant any fewer articles pushing a particular view on the calculus of the trade engagements, however, or how Tweets and threats influence the posture of each participant. Here’s one such piece that sat at the very top of the Zeitgeist this morning:

Trump Is Pushing China Ever Closer to the Edge [Bloomberg]

Only days after the U.S. and China described their first return to the trade negotiating table since May as constructive, Donald Trump shattered the truce by announcing new 10% tariffs on Chinese goods ranging from smartphones to children’s clothing.

Source: Bloomberg

Extra credit for spotting the Fiat News angle here.

“The renewed standoff throws up in the air how the trade talks can proceed: Both sides were due to meet in Washington in September. Observers said it dims any prospects for a near-term breakthrough and sets the ground for a protracted dispute between the world’s two biggest economies.

Yet Trump’s hawkish stance only extends so far. Asked by reporters on the situation in Hong Kong, he labeled the recent protests “riots,” adopting the language used by Chinese authorities and suggesting the U.S. would stay out of the issue.

The escalation was swift and unexpected. Walking it back may not be as easy.

Source: Bloomberg

It’s here that the, ahem, news article goes astray in its analysis. Every author describing a Game of Chicken will be tempted at some point to identity the ‘point of no return’, some arbitrary place where ‘walking it back isn’t easy’. The temptation to be the one who called the ‘turning point’ is so alluring as to be almost completely irresistible.

Let’s say it together, with feeling: the odds of a Game of Chicken are unknowable. If you think you know where the parties stand, if you think you’ve figured out whose hand is stronger, if you think you know where each party’s leverage puts them, then you are wrong.

In our judgment, the threat of the transformation of the Trade War into a purely political game in which Trump and the CCP use it as club to stifle internal political dissent is absent from the narrative, killed stone dead by the US’s passivity on Hong Kong (perhaps the easiest opportunity to make political hay on China ever given a sitting US president).

This is and remains a Game of Chicken. This is a threat display.

Never mistake a threat display for a transformation in the type of game being played.


The Joy of Fiat News

Every morning, we run the Narrative Machine on the past 24 hours worth of financial media to find the most on-narrative (i.e. interconnected and central) stories in financial media. It’s not a list of best articles or articles we think are most interesting … often far from it. But for whatever reason these are articles that are representative of some chord that has been struck in Narrative-world. And whenever we think there’s a story behind the narrative connectivity of an article … we write about it. That’s The Zeitgeist. Our narrative analysis of the day’s financial media in bite-size form.

To receive a free full-text email of The Zeitgeist whenever we publish to the website, please sign up here. You’ll get two or three of these emails every week, and your email will not be shared with anyone. Ever.


There may not be a single news outlet on the planet that doesn’t dabble in Fiat News techniques from time to time. That is the nature of a competition game, after all – the rules are defined so that you either play or you lose.

But nobody – nobody – does Fiat News like the New York Times does Fiat News. Sure, CNN, MSNBC and Fox are a bit bolder, using every tool at their disposal to grey the line between analysis and news, to introduce affect into every term, to assign and present coverage that is at once entirely factual and entirely misleading. If we were being supremely charitable (and we won’t be – this is just a hypothetical), you might even argue that the Foxes and MSNBCs of the world are Not-Even-Fiat-News in some meta sense of the idea, simply because everyone knows that everyone knows that a decision to visit those pages is a decision to read a lot of opinions masquerading as news. They’re Not Even Pretending Anymore (TM), as someone might say, so if you’re reading them with any semblance of earnestness, you’ve basically given up.

But the sheer joy with which the Paper of Record publishes obviously affected content as news is a different thing entirely. And in their case, they really are still pretending. I am confident that this piece was published with a serious belief that it met news standards. I’m confident that view is still held. And yet.


Elizabeth Warren on a Wealth Tax [New York Times]

Look, we haven’t identified a systematic way to track down affect and intent in image selection, but to grossly paraphrase Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it. Let’s just say that the Times’s proprietary archive of GOP candidate images was somewhat less flattering. I won’t hold it against you if you disagree. This is clearly in Rusty’s-opinion-land.


“By now, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is known for being the candidate ready with a plan. But back in January, she was just getting her campaign started. And one of her very first proposals was to impose a wealth tax.”


But this isn’t. This is some sublime A-level Fiat News. The lede of the piece is an unclothed common knowledge missionary statement that communicates zero factual content and an assertion described as something that is ‘known.’ By whom? I dunno. Based on what? No idea. Maybe it’s true. It is certainly the impression that I have, but that raises some uncomfortable questions about how, exactly, ideas about what we all know we all know enter our collective subconscious. Hint: it’s pieces like this.


“When the United States government wants to raise money from individuals, it taxes what people earn — the income they receive from work or investments. But Ms. Warren wants the government to also tax the accumulated wealth — think stocks, real estate and retirement funds — held by the very richest Americans.”


This is not a Fiat News point, but an aside to say how delighted I am that anyone thinks ‘retirement funds’ represent a meaningful portion of this figure.


“It is expected to generate $2.75 trillion in revenue over a 10-year period — money that could help pay for expanded social programs.”


Passive construction probably isn’t halal with the style guide anyway. But when you omit the “who”, you aren’t just communicating vaguely. You are effectively presenting what amounts to an estimate, projection or judgment as a fact. The inclusion of the paired-up issue that follows is pure affect. Whether it’s Facebook Boomer Memes about “every dollar spent on X could have been spent on wounded veterans”, or a New York Times writer saying that we could use these taxes to expand social programs, you know you’re dealing with someone who wants you to draw a relationship between two things which does not exist.

That relationship is not intrinsic. Presenting it is an emotional appeal. Every time.

That’s what it means for someone who has a subtler grasp of the tools of Fiat News to tell you how to think.

There are plenty more to be found, but the last one may be the best.


“Well-funded opponents of the tax would be nearly certain to wage a legal battle against it.”


It’s obviously analysis rather than fact, but what is so marvelously plain about this statement is its intent to prime the pump on the issue. Before you hear any opposition, we want you to know that it is “rich people” who oppose doing all these good things.

Here’s the funny thing: putting aside big constitutional issues for a moment, I think that a wealth tax is generally better and more conducive to freedom than an income tax. It aligns better with what government ought to do, which is to act as an ongoing defender of the assets of its citizens against threats both internal and external. Paying like we would pay for insurance makes sense to me. The hilarious absurdity of any attempt to actually value what rich people own, however, means that I prefer to shift more of our tax structure to capital gains from income rather than try to pretend we know what someone’s private assets are worth year-to-year. It’s a view I think Ben shares, albeit in a more exaggerated way, perhaps.

In other words, this isn’t about us disagreeing with Warren, because in a lot of ways, we don’t. As always, this is about how we’re being told how to think. And it’s all the more seductive when it IS an idea we actually favor.


ETNA US Sector Observations – August 2019

These observations are a summary of the conclusions we draw from our research into certain of the narrative structures that we believe influence US equity markets. These observations are provided for informational purposes only and do not represent a recommendation or investment advice. These reflect the general views extracted from our research and not our opinion on what you, the reader, should do. Individuals and professionals alike should consider a range of issues before making any investment decision, including any related to the topics described below. There is no guarantee that any decision made using this information will work.

These are sector views and don’t reflect individual companies, but it’s worth repeating because we are so focused on eliminating any potential conflicts: Second Foundation doesn’t provide investment banking or other services to any of these issuers. We don’t permit trading of these instruments by employees, even though they are broad-market ETFs.


Comments

  • Our July ETNA Sector runs indicate a narrative of increasing coherence and rapidly accelerating attention around “rotation trades for a rate cut cycle!”
  • We are seeing the return of dividend and yield-pushing in financial media, sell-side and buy-side sources alike, which manifests in our data through the sectors which tend to be most closely associated with those profiles.
  • The result is a pretty stark view fading these now-common-knowledge narratives through their proxies in Staples, Health Care and Utilities in particular.
  • To a lesser extent, we think this may represent a fading of some “value rotation” narratives, but we’re less confident in their coherence.

ETNA US Sector Model Indications

Energy: Underweight

Utilities: Underweight

Information Technology: Overweight

Materials: Overweight

Industrials: Neutral

Consumer Discretionary: Neutral

Consumer Staples: Underweight

Health Care: Underweight

Financial Services: Neutral

Real Estate: Underweight

Communication Services: Neutral

Children of a Lesser Narrative

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

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


Why We Should Fear Easy Money [NY Times]

There’s an ET note for that.


There’s an ET note for that, too.


There’s an ET note for that, too, although we’d probably differ on the focus on bearish sentiment. The author is certainly right that these are possibilities, but we think the transformation of capital markets to utilities is a powerful, largely stable narrative.


You may not know his name if you aren’t in the money management industry, but Ruchir’s is a powerful missionary voice. Pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and others care what he says. They will repeat it to their boards. They’ll put it in their own words and call it their new outlook, or else they’ll put it in the ‘risks’ section of their 2020 strategic planning. That’s how narrative works.

Alas, this still isn’t the dominant narrative. Frankly, against the tide of ‘Financial Asset Appreciation = Economic Strength = National Strength’ memes promoted throughout political and financial media, it barely registers. Still, it’s gratifying to see some emerging coherence around these ideas, even if the piece had to summon the spectre of a crash to fit the Zeitgeist.