The Zeitgeist – 4.30.2019

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

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

April 30, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Market `Melt-Up’ Exposes Investor Gap, Bernstein Quants Say [Bloomberg]

Part of the reason behind our narrative research effort was our observation that most investment applications of NLP boiled down to sentiment scraping. We think it’s really tough to find a lot of value in most measures of sentiment alone, and the popularity of “most hated rally = future volatility” takes over the last few years has been a testament to that.

Far more tiresome, however, are the articles which exist to give you the “you could go with this, or you could go with that treatment.” Henceforth, when they show up in the Zeitgeist, they will receive the Christopher Walken treatment.

Flagship Argentine Airline Cancels Tuesday Flights Due to Strike [US News]

If you’ve been following along, you will have seen that labor disputes and labor costs have popped up with some regularity in our network graphs, both in the Zeitgeist and in our ET Pro monitors. In most cases, they are highly connected stories because of Fiat News techniques like the above, which selectively and casually attach issues like this to politics and elections.

What’s the key to spotting the technique? “As”

Yeah, it’s an innocent word in most usage, but it’s also a word which allows the author to juxtapose two concepts, events or statements in a way that isn’t wrong or non-factual or fake news, but which is clearly meant to communicate the author’s opinion about the relationship by forced proximity. Textbook Fiat News.

PetSmart’s Online Pet Company Chewy Files For IPO [IB Times]

No, I’m not going to make the obvious joke. I respect the ET audience more than that.

I will, however, allow you to delight with me in the determination by a team of financial writers and editors that it was newsworthy to note that the offering would be “made only by means of a prospectus.” Hard hitting stuff.

IPO documents filed by WeWork, shared office space giant [Fox Business]

Yes, IPOs have been a familiar face on the Zeitgeist, although WeWork has not gotten nearly the attention of Uber or Lyft in financial media, probably because it doesn’t sell a product directly to consumers in the same way.

Except in San Francisco, where this kind of thing is normal (h/t NickatFP).

Nokia: Another Ugly Quarter, But Is The Story Over? [Seeking Alpha]

Every once in a while, I am delighted to be reminded that both Nokia and Blackberry still exist (yes, I know that both companies have carved out different niches from their pre-iPhone, pre-Android identities, please don’t @ me).

But I couldn’t figure out why, exactly, Nokia was showing up as being so closely related to the overall network. Was it a topical relationship or a relationship of meaning? So here are some of the stories linked most closely by language to this one, the ones that are within a degree of ‘adjacency’ in the matrix used to construct the graph. Interpretations are my judgements:

  1. Coca-Cola and Pepsi: Endgame [Seeking Alpha] – Related because of the “story over” language, the general similarity in structure and language in Seeking Alpha-sourced pieces, and the comparable language relating Coca-Cola’s restructuring and where Nokia is as a company.
  2. Tradeweb Shares Slide as Wall Street Weighs in With Caution [Bloomberg]- Related because of some of the “fundamental value” and “unique asset” language and various sections conveying similar sentiments from analyst writeups.
  3. AMD’s Outlook Needs to be Better than its Results [Motley Fool] – Related both by meaning in its negative treatment of recent results, where the structure of the article is to tell the story, “It’s bad, but will it stay bad?”, as well as the retail-geared language that Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha share.

In short, my take is that the prevalence of this specific flavor of pieces – and those from professional analysts, as in the Bloomberg note – in the Zeitgeist is the nature of the “next big trade” being pitched right now. What is that next big trade/rotation being pushed? “Long high quality stuff that got hurt in the recent mixed earnings or which hasn’t fully participated in the 2019 bounce back.”

Profitable Giants Like Amazon Pay $0 in Corporate Taxes. Some Voters Are Sick of It. [New York Times]

This is a lede on a beautiful case study in Fiat News – a New York Times feature piece that reads like it was ghostwritten by a speechwriter for Bernie. Don’t gloat, Fox News fans. There’s a reason the Motley Fool / Fox Business always ends up on its own Zeitgeist cluster over in Cloud Cuckoo Land, too.

The most important thing we can demand from our media of all political persuasions is bright lines around opinion journalism. Feature journalism like this is where it first became commonplace to present opinions, judgments and subjective emotional responses to topics as facts.

Starry Eyes and Starry Skies

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required):  Starry Eyes and Starry Skies

Source: Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle

I remember when I first knew where I wanted to go to college.

I also remember the look on my dad’s face, sitting on a bed in the Holiday Inn in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I could tell he was struggling with whether we could manage it. It would mean taking out about $25,000 in federal loans in my name. About $60,000 in his. We had never even considered taking out loans for me to go to college before. This was more debt than the mortgage my family had taken out on our house. A campus visit and a childhood spent building up credibility as a sober-minded, serious kid later, and we would be in for 85 grand. If I could get in, I knew, I had to do it. I had earned it, you see.

No, I deserved it.

So did 45 million other starry-eyed young Americans. At the (often literal) push of a button, we created debt now amounting to more than $1.6 trillion out of the ether to give each of us what we declared we deserved: Validation. Credibility. Credentials. All we had to do was reach out and take it. All we had to do was believe the myth.

And yes, Virginia, the importance of post-secondary education in America IS a mythone of our most powerful.

No, that doesn’t mean that college and its attendant experience don’t hold intrinsic value. It also doesn’t mean that the credential offered by these institutions isn’t a real currency. It means that the Common Knowledge underlying that currency is far more powerful than whatever the truth about college is. It means that the stories we tell about college are more important in almost every way than the facts. It means that whenever we talk about college in America, we are nearly always talking about the meme of college!

College! is a meme of equality, something we raise our hands for because we believe in the importance of socioeconomic mobility, the American Dream.
College! is a meme of human progress, something we raise our hands for because we believe that expanding education, research and knowledge will power ingenuity, innovation and prosperity.
College! is a meme of meritocracy, something we raise our hands for because we believe that talent and hard work cross all biological, social, racial and gender boundaries, and that systems which reward merit permit the destruction of those artificial constraints.

The Myth of College is an idea which permits us to declare it to be synonymous with these principles. The consequence of this declaration is that we may also declare that any opposing idea denies those principles. You don’t hate equality, innovation and merit…do you?

We hold up our ‘Yay, College’ signs in the same way as we do ‘Yay, Military’, ‘Yay, Capitalism’ and ‘Yay, Equality’ signs, because not doing so is to say that we oppose the right-sounding principles that form the basis of the myth. And just like ‘Yay, Capitalism’, well…capitalizes on our desire to signal our deeply held belief in the power of rewarding economic risk-taking to convince us to permit distortions in economic risk-taking, ‘Yay, College’ exploits our belief in equality, innovation, merit and education to convince us to permit distortions in the capacity of our university and degree system to deliver ANY of those things.

The myth has also driven us to create a system of laws and policy that have, in turn, produced a very real student loan crisis. As a political issue, this is far more powerful and far more connected to the political zeitgeist of 2019 than most people want to believe. It is a case for Clear Eyes and Full Hearts.

The Value of College

Neither particularly clear eyes nor an especially full heart are needed to recognize that educational attainment has been on a steady, long-term rise in the United States for more than half a century. This is a good thing. In 1950, only 34% of American adults had finished high school. Today, that’s about how many have completed at least a bachelor’s degree program. There are all sorts of studies documenting other positive developments in educational attainment, too, not least the convergence of opportunities across gender and, to a lesser extent, across racial and socioeconomic boundaries.

But what is the right level? Leaving aside the Myth of College for a moment, do somewhere between a third and a half of jobs in the United States require what an undergraduate program teaches? I don’t know. Sorry. It’s not an objectively answerable question, and the responsiveness in what those programs teach to what is perceived as being needed complicates the question further.

I am happy, however, to give you my opinion. I think the number of people who need to attend college from a knowledge and skills perspective is far, far less than one-third of adults. Yes, engineering professions and those in biomedical and applied sciences require a base of knowledge that takes time to accumulate. Same for those preparing for post-graduate research and teaching roles across subjects. I think that you can make an argument for elementary and secondary education on the basis of the breadth of subject knowledge that is theoretically required, too. Based on 2016 data, those subjects account for about 22% of undergraduate degrees granted, plus however many you want to count as being necessary to refill post-graduate teaching posts – a vanishingly small figure.

In all, I am confident there is a vocational need for four-year college for no more than 10-15% of adults. Am I saying that the tens of millions of programmers, financial analysts, writers, designers, bankers, managers, accountants, product marketers and sales personnel out there could function at equivalent or higher levels with less than a year of focused vocational training, if such a thing existed? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Am I saying that only 10-15% of adults should go to 4-year universities? No!

Look, preparing for a career isn’t the only reason you might think about spending four years at a university. But most of the reasons we provide are also conflations of the type that are so common when we deal with other abstractions, myths and memes. In other words, because these ideas have become attached to the Myth of College, it takes little more than a rhetorical flourish to shut down criticism of the value of post-secondary education. Simply assert that someone who is skeptical of our approach to post-secondary education opposes these ideas!

What are these ‘conflations’ and ideas? How about ‘it’s about discovering yourself’, as if one couldn’t achieve that by traveling the world? I am sure you’ve heard ‘it’s about learning how to think critically’ or ‘learning how to problem solve in a group setting’ or ‘developing confidence and communication skills’, too, as if college is somehow better equipped than other settings to deliver these lessons. We are also fans of ‘it is an important opportunity to network’ or ‘to build lifelong friendships’, which are great, but also tautological rather than fundamental (i.e. college is important because others consider it important).

There is one reason – and in my opinion, one reason only – to attend college that does not relate to vocation, preparation for a life of research or teaching, or the fact that a critical mass of one’s age cohort is already there: 

Because college permits us to be wrong, offensive and awkward in exploration of new and uncomfortable ideas and knowledge in a setting with low consequences.

Now, you would be forgiven for wondering whether universities are committed to this one critical, indispensable function. I think most still are. This function alone, for many – for me – would justify the investment of 5% of life and 10% of lifetime earnings. It is huge. Truly. It also has almost nothing to do with why most people choose college. Even if we grant credit for ‘to be intellectually challenged and stimulated’ below, most of the reasons people go to college are either things 4-year college isn’t unusually well-suited to deliver, or else vocational in nature.

Source: Hobson’s International Student Survey, 2017

If that’s one part of the story, we can find a lot of the rest in selected degrees. In the 19th Century, American universities were institutions that turned liberally educated student-philosophers into lawyers and clergy. In the early-to-mid 20th Century, American universities swapped out clergy for businessmen, and started teaching women to be teachers, but otherwise were much the same. Today? American universities are officially in the business of vocational training for white-collar professions.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics (categories by Epsilon Theory)

The Co-Option of Credential

Except even that isn’t exactly true. Here is what I think is true:

The Myth of College is that it grants invaluable life experience, broadened horizons and deeper skills that no other 4-year experience for a young adult could match.

The Zeitgeist of College is that it is now (grudgingly) really about preparing workers for long and prosperous careers.

The Reality of College is that it sells a license to use a credential.

What do I mean by a credential? I mean the portfolio of Useful Signals that are sent by the achievement of a university degree. Beyond the attachment to the ideals of the Myth of College, much of that signal, I think, exists in our Common Knowledge about what traits a student needs to be admitted to that particular degree-granting institution. You know, intelligence, creativity, breadth of talents, work ethic, having the correct parents and grandparents, things like that. Much of whatever is left exists in the signal from completing the degree. Can you follow instructions? Are you comfortable pulling all-nighters? How do you feel about sitting at a desk with a laptop for 60 hours a week?

And no, like the related question of what share of jobs truly requires the skills gained in four-year college, the question of the share of the observable value of a college degree we can attribute to skill gain vs. credential is neither provable nor falsifiable. So, doubt it and tout the anecdotally valuable lessons of a college education all you want.

But if you do doubt it, you’ll have to explain why all the private equity partners, lawyers, former actors and celebrities caught up in the admissions scandal paid that kind of money to get their kids admitted. Would you have us believe it’s because they really wanted little Jimmy to discover who he was? To be able to recall Black-Scholes on demand? You’ll have to explain, as Bryan Caplan suggests in The Case against Education, why, if the value of college is really in the knowledge and experience, more locals don’t just audit lectures to reap all the benefits. You won’t get caught. I promise. You’ll have to explain the sheepskin effect, why college graduates out-earn high school grads as janitors and bartenders, and all sorts of other things, too.

Regardless of whether you think a degree is valuable because of some intrinsic skill and knowledge gain, or because of the signal value of the credential it offers, the degree itself IS unquestionably valuable. It is socially, economically and politically valuable. And despite all the growth in degrees granted by US universities, the income premium those degrees offer has been stable. College grads earn about 75-80% more than their high school graduate peers.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, FRED

Except there’s a problem with this, too.

There is an income premium from university degrees, but also emerging evidence of an evaporating wealth premium after we have adjusted for family size and life cycle. The below exhibit comes from research conducted by the St. Louis Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability. White college graduates born in the 1980s and afterward do make more money than their high school-only peers, but it isn’t translating into net worth in the same way that it did for prior generations at comparable life and family stages.  

Source: Center for Household Financial Stability

Things are even worse for college-educated black Americans. On the basis calculated by the St. Louis Fed, cohorts beginning as early as the 1960s have enjoyed almost no net worth advantage against their high school-educated peers.

Source: Center for Household Financial Stability

Why did the erosion in college’s net worth premium begin earlier for minorities? There are probably a lot of reasons, ranging from fewer investment services offered to underbanked black communities for much of this period, to predatory lending practices that have routinely sucked wealth out of those communities on a disproportionate basis. What most whites consider standard financial services products have simply not been available on the same basis to blacks and Hispanics.

But I think there’s more to the story – and this IS a story I’m telling you, not a fact. I think that the growth in credentialism has also created an arms race among institutions and a greater separation of the credential value of so-called elite institutions from the rest. I think that legacy policies and other admissions structures have effectively shut many minorities out of capturing this premium. And there IS a premium to getting Team Elite stamped on your passport.

Source: Washington Post, Wonkblog

But leave net worth differences between demographic groups in each age cohort aside. Are the post-1980 cohorts intrinsically lazy, irresponsible and unwilling stewards of assets? Or is there, perhaps, a less stupid (if still only partial) explanation for the slow disintegration of the college degree net worth premium?

Source: Epsilon Theory, NACE/CRB, National Center for Education Statistics

What Happened to College?

So how and why did the college credential rapidly grow, then lose its power to drive differences in wealth, all while keeping all the attendant mythology intact?

The credential value of the university degree became Common Knowledge at the same time that the economic means to significantly expand secondary and post-secondary education in the US became a reality, and at the same time that agricultural and manual labor went into secular decline.

Good-intentioned Americans who wanted their children (parents) or their charges (educators) to experience better, more prosperous lives rightfully and justifiably celebrated college specifically – and education more broadly – as the engines which produced social mobility, wealth, career prospects and lifestyles that were better than those experienced by each generation’s parents

Similarly good-intentioned Americans went into public office with visions of expanding this dream to include more and more people for whom these early efforts were insufficient. We created lending programs, guarantees and a system of laws to permit the extension of almost limitless credit to aspiring students and their families – and to make much of that debt nearly impossible to discharge. Because everyone deserves to go to college.

In doing all of this, the values we ascribed to ‘college’ became narrative. That narrative became the Zeitgeist. That Zeitgeist became the Myth of College. And in our obsessive celebration of the Myth of College instead of the direct celebration of its wondrous underlying traits, we unwittingly granted our university system unabridged letters patent to oversee the right of Americans to earn a good living.

In short, we created a guild. You know, what the Romans called ‘collegia.’

Like guilds, our universities set the terms of trade in their credentials. They decided who could participate and who could not. They accumulated power and prestige through levies assessed on any who wished to practice a trade for which they held the patent. No, our modern guilds couldn’t keep us from learning what they knew – give me three weeks, kids, and I’ll teach you what you need to know to be a banking analyst –  but they could absolutely withhold their credential, the thing which allowed those trades to be practiced.

What did they do with this power, you ask?

They did this. They extracted every ounce of the credential premium for themselves as a license fee.

Don’t blame the parents, guidance counselors and high school principals who genuinely wanted their kids to have better lives than they did (even if some of their other behaviors belie that sentiment). Don’t blame the good-intentioned politicians who saw expanding this dream as good public policy. Don’t even blame the universities for simply following the opportunity the market provided. Okay, blame them a little bit. But truly, blame all of us. Because it really took all of us to create the Common Knowledge which imbues our most prized traits in a single social institution.

And no, college debt isn’t the sole cause of whatever is (not) happening to the net worth of college graduates. Timing of favorable investment environments, the inability of these generations to acquire real estate assets, and the concentration of jobs with these remarkable income differentials in cities with extreme rent costs all play a role, too. Obviously. Still, feel free to take “We didn’t JUST create a system to extract wealth premium from college students through debt-fueled, brutal college cost inflation, we ALSO pulled forward financial asset returns to benefit existing asset owners through the use of extreme monetary policy and extracted a portion of that wealth premium through NIMBY housing policies in every major US city outside of Texas” for a test spin and see how it feels.

The worst part, at least in my book, is that each one of these actions has abused our collective belief and trust in beautiful principles attached to our various cultural myths (Yay, Capitalism! Yay, Local Culture! Yay, Home Ownership! Yay, College!) to permit interference in those markets designed to suit one social group over another.

People, we sold a generation of starry-eyed students a ceiling on their potential and called it a starry sky.

What Happens Now?

Now we’ve got to figure out what to do about the hell we created on the paving stones of good intentions.

What are those problems?

  1. Unnecessary Productivity Loss: We lose an average of 2-3 years of productive, asset-building, creatively valuable years of happiness and freedom across each generation of Americans by effectively forcing millions of Americans to pay a toll to post-secondary educational institutions that they neither need nor wish to pay.
  • Constraining Paths to Prosperity: Through hundreds of billions in non-dischargeable debt, we are stifling the traditional paths to prosperity for just about anyone who won’t inherit money from their parents, or who doesn’t strike it rich in an entrepreneurial venture.
  • Distortions Relating to a Generational Wealth Gap: We are creating a generational wealth gap that presents meaningful risks to various capital and non-financial asset markets, and most importantly, entrepreneurial risk-taking.
  • Hampering Household Formation: We are piling on top of already challenged demographic trends with an additional bias toward later and less frequent household formation, which has both social and economic implications.  

Some people of a similar political persuasion to me would say the right answer is to do nothing. It’s sad, sure, but all those people signed on the dotted line. The market says this is what a degree is worth, and so families can choose to pay it or not. Either way, they live with the consequences. I hear you. I paid my college loans and feel the temptation to go full geroff-my-lawn about those grousing today. Except there is nothing natural about this market. The price students paid / are paying for these credentials is a reflection of decades of public policy permitting and encouraging the extension of credit for college to anyone and everyone who requests it. The demand side of the market has been aided by the artificial impact of twelve years of publicly funded curricula, messaging and ‘education’ designed explicitly to feed as many students as possible to the guilds of post-secondary education. It is a distorted market. 

Others, like Senator Warren, have said that the solution is ‘jubilee’, to make college free (or much cheaper) and to permit the discharge of significant quantities of debt. There are shades of MMT here, and you will hear some make the very stupid argument that the important thing is that the proposal isn’t really an outlay but rather the elimination of a non-cash government asset. Oof. Look, this is a good-intentioned policy that sees the plight of tens of millions of Americans and searches for a direct solution. I’m empathetic. Proposals like Warren’s would begin to address some of the structural problems created by historical government interference in the market for education noted above. We can’t pretend the money comes from nowhere – no matter how you look at it, it would be a tax on asset owners. It’s a tough thing for me to get me to believe that layering on more public policy will ever fix the distortions caused by public policy, but maybe it’s time for an intergenerational compact – a Boomer-Millennial summit of sorts to figure out how we share responsibility and commitment here.

Alas, it’s moot, anyway. The Jubilee proposals don’t just fail to get to the root of the problem. They exacerbate it – grievously. The biggest underlying social problems above are (1) that we are railroading entirely too many students into college programs whose skill gains could be provided much more efficiently in alternative, less time-consuming and less expensive ways than four years at Whatever Private College, and that (2) a combination of public policy and our collective cultivation of the Myth of College have permitted guild-like universities to raise tuition to demand a kingly share of any wealth premium offered by the credentials they confer. The debt problem is a problem in-itself, but it is also a subsidiary problem caused by these two problems. Guess how much the like of Bucknell, Tufts and SMU will adjust their planned annual tuition hikes over time in response to a policy providing $50,000 in debt jubilee or college cost reductions? If you answered $50,000 (or more), you win a free subscription to Epsilon Theory. Congrats.

I don’t have a full answer, because I can’t have a full answer. The student loan crisis is the kind of Big Deal that requires us to come together to decide what our compact with one another is going to be, if it’s possible for us to do that kind of thing any more. I will tell you that I think any real answer that isn’t just good-sounding election season political theater will have at least these traits:

  • Moves college lending outside of government purview and off government balance sheets;
  • Permits charging off college debt and really, truly assigns those losses to capital; and
  • Extracts cost limitation agreements and expanded commitments to fund underserved / lower income student costs from universities in exchange for the ability to retain not-for-profit status.

And yes, I’m dead serious about that last one. I believe challenging the assumption of university entitlement to not-for-profit status is the sine qua non of ANY solution to the student loan crisis.

As for the Myth of College? I don’t know how we move away from it. Y’all, both conservatives and progressives love to talk New Artisans and the Glories of Welding. One group just talks about it over a beer at the bar, and the other listens to it on This American Life. Same damn thing. But rejecting credentials remains a for-thee-and-not-for-me kind of thing. There IS no first-mover advantage to saying that you and yours are choosing to build lives based only on true things like what you know and how hard you work rather than a credential. Clear eyes, folks. This is another competition game, another stag hunt.

Whatever we decide, the issue IS coming to a head. I worry that it is going to come to a head in the ‘just do something’ variety that will lead us to a policy error which aggravates the core problem instead of resolving it. Education, colleges and the student loan crisis sit at the very center of our non-financial zeitgeist. Below is a network map of all the non-financial articles in the LexisNexis Newsdesk database over the last year, arranged by the similarity in the use of language. The highlighted cluster in the right graph? That central cluster is the one that’s all about education, colleges and student loans.

Quid Network Graph – Non-Financial Stories (4.20.18 – 4.20.19)

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

The language we use to write and speak about education is powerfully connected to everything else we write and speak about for two reasons. First, it is powerfully connected because education is topically connected. Health care institutions are attached to colleges. University research studies influence industry, technology and commercial research. Graduates take jobs in industry. But its powerful connection is also the result of similarity in the meaning we attach to education, and how that meaning is shared with topic-crossing ideas like justice, creativity, discipline and progress.

That is what I mean by the Myth of College. It’s a real thing, and it will take all the full hearts we can manage to dispose of it. It is no trivial task to do those things while celebrating the principles like innovation, creativity, hard work, passion, equality and opportunity that we have attached to the Myth of College as synonyms, principles which we have allowed the credential to parade as part of itself. It will be the work of a generation. Our grandchildren are worth the effort. They deserve it.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required):  Starry Eyes and Starry Skies

The Zeitgeist Weekend Edition – 4.27.2019

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

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

April 27, 2019 Narrative Map – Non-Financial Articles

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

A couple observations:

  • A word of warning to those campaigning: Other people don’t care as much about the Mueller Report as you probably think they do.
  • Same thing on NBA playoffs (sorry, Jeremy).
  • The most central topics to our non-financial Zeitgeist are: Crime, Fine Arts and Food / Restaurants. Do with that what you will.

The New ‘Stop Resisting’ [Lew Rockwell]

Three thoughts:

  1. I’m as surprised as you to see a Lew Rockwell blog popping to the top of the Zeitgeist. I have no clever explanation for this (except #3 below).
  2. I had to look up AGW (no, Urban Dictionary, I don’t think it’s that), until I realized that it was assumed in the article that we would get it from the use of the expression “armed government worker.” The emergence of niche community language is fascinating. More on this later.
  3. There’s a wonderful nexus between parts of the left and right on the issue of government-sponsored violence and skepticism of the motivations of, well, armed government workers – never better explained than in this SNL sketch from a few years back.

The Government Shouldn’t Keep the Public in the Dark Just Because Private Companies Ask It to [ACLU Blog]

When it rains, it pours, I guess.

There is some relationship between this topic and one that came up on the regular Zeitgeist about two weeks ago. The earlier article was an opinion piece which argued for the public disclosure of every American’s federal taxes. This one from the ACLU advocates shutting down the tool commonly used by private entities to thwart FOIA-based efforts to disclose data about their government relationships.

Similar, but different.

From a principles (i.e. non-legal) perspective, entering into a voluntary commercial relationship with the government, unlike the involuntary relationship involved in paying taxes under threat of imprisonment, seems to justify public disclosure of much of the nature of that relationship. There is still a Take Back Your Data argument to be made here, but in my opinion it leads toward ‘Be really, really sure before you do business with your government.’

Might be worth reviving the role of the dairyman [Marietta Daily Journal]

Yes, it’s the environmental angle that pushed this one up the list – plastic-bashing is very on-Zeitgeist – but let’s take a moment to sit and appreciate the national treasure that is opinion writing in local newspapers.

Countries buying the most weapons from the US [MSN]

Seems fine.

Beyond the Troll Bridge [Dirtrag]

Source: Brett Rothmeyer, Dirtrag Magazine

I am always reassured when I see discussions of nature, beauty, food, beer and good company rise to the top of the Zeitgeist. It’s hard to feel the pull of the Widening Gyre when you are spending your time and energy on tangible things, things that can’t be abstracted outside of how we describe them after the fact.

This is a travel blog, a trip seen through the eyes and experience of a mountain biking enthusiast, and worth the 5-10 minutes it will take you to read.

It was the perfect solution to The Banks music venue. Until the neighbors found out. [Cincinnati Enquirer]

Feature journalism is always perilous.

Feature pieces are, in a way, the original form of Fiat News. The idea behind a piece like this is to present news in an engaging narrative format that isn’t necessarily expressing opinions directly, but which also doesn’t necessarily purport to take the objective tone we’d expect from standard news reporting. In other words, the GOAL of these pieces is to take us on an emotional journey.

It was the case for this same media outlet’s piece on working class lives in Cincinnati suburbs that popped up in a prior Zeitgeist, and it’s the case here.

The civic problem – and this is true for Explainers and Analysis journalism, too – is that the lines between these pieces and news reporting are fading, or have already faded. I don’t think a reader or consumer of this piece would know, except by vigilance, that they were reading a piece of feature journalism which the author has very clearly structured to tell a particular story he favors. Indeed, the masthead highlights the section in which the article lives. This story is explicitly marked as a part of their news coverage.

The verdict? Yeah, even this harmless-sounding regional fare is Fiat News.

Broadway Revival of Beauty and the Beast in the Works [Playbill]

I saw the original Beauty and the Beast on Broadway coming up on two decades ago. I thought – and still think – it was the worst thing I’d ever seen.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked the movie as a kid. I celebrate Tim Rice’s entire catalog. But the actor playing the Beast sang with the most affected, melodramatic, wide-as-a-Mack-truck vibrato I’d ever heard. It was so silly, such a caricature that I initially thought he was joking. I choked back a laugh when I looked around and saw that everyone else was on the edge of their seats. Rapt.

I had taken my mother and sister, and fully expected that we would all talk about Beast and his ridiculously over-the-top singing style after the end of the show. Before I could open my mouth, I could see that they were in tears, overwhelmed by the beauty of the whole affair. So like any decent human being, I shut my damn mouth.

I told my wife this story later, and with a bit of googling she discovered that the guy playing the role when I took in the show was…super famous. Like, THE guy associated with some of the biggest roles on Broadway.

Friends, the languages we speak – I mean actual languages, the languages of value or growth investing, the languages of liberty and equality, and yes, stylistic languages like the peculiar Broadway style of singing – are powerful forces of both affinity and alienation, depending on our proficiency with them. There’s nothing wrong with liking to see the world through the particular lens of abstraction that is your favored language, but if I learned anything from the Worst Show I Ever Saw, it’s that unchecked cynicism about other languages is neither a source of happiness nor a sign of sophistication.

The Zeitgeist – 4.22.2019

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

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

April 22, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

How to Align Sales Compensation with Strategic Goals [Inc]

Did this intro whet your appetite for more, or what?

I think executives in the investment industry spend more time engaging consultants and bending the ear of friends and former colleagues about sales compensation structures than they do on any other topic. The advice always looks something like this article: excessively general, descriptive and non-prescriptive. Or, alternatively, extremely circumstantial and non-transferable.

The problem is that visions of incentivization, cost variability and scale in sales are generally right-sounding nonsense. In other words, you don’t get real downside protection when sales just aren’t happening for one reason or another. You’re going to have to come up with non-commission bonuses, equity or other incentives to fill the gap or people will leave. And it’ll be your best salespeople who leave first. Always.

Two pieces of advice from my experience on sales compensation for fund management companies:

  • You will always be upset with what you have to pay salespeople, and they will always be upset with how you pay them. This will be true no matter how many glitteringly general Inc articles you read.
  • You will always be forced to raid margins to pay a baseline commission to keep people in bad times. Better to pre-negotiate this and get something for it (reducing top-end commission levels, shrinking trail percentages) than to do it for free when it inevitably becomes a necessity. If anyone tells you that salespeople who desire downside protection are adversely selected, feel free to tell them that I personally told them they were full of crap.

Merger Talks of Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank Roil Emotions [New York Times]

This story continues to sit at the top of the Zeitgeist. I suspect it will stay for a while. Why? Well, banks, for one. Because ECB influence remains at a high attention level, for another. But also because it has taken on an increasingly employee stakeholder-oriented emphasis in media coverage. I would guess that employee and job cuts language play a more significant role in the narrative of DB/CBK in financial media today than the basic stability of the European financial system.

And with signs as good as that, it’s no wonder. It’s good in English, but if there really is a literal German version of the English expression “blue bloods”, you’ve also got a possible blut/tut/gut rhyme that makes it work on a lot of levels.

Excellent cartooning, unnamed Commerzbank employee.

Improving investor behavior: Managing your time like money [Denver Post]

When it comes to finance columns that rise to the top of our Zeitgeist measures, I’m usually dual wielding snark cannons.

But I didn’t hate this.

What I didn’t realize when I had no money was how much the use of money beyond a certain point is almost exclusively to regain time. A financial adviser who has the kind of relationship with a client that allows them to begin to discuss wealth in functional terms is doing their job well.

And I do think there is a rising “What the hell am I doing with all my time?” ennui in the Zeitgeist that has contributed to the placement of this article in our little list. It should place it similarly in the minds of financial advisers looking for better conversations with their clients.

Stock Investors Reluctant to Return to Japan Despite Rally [Bloomberg]

If you’ve been reading Epsilon Theory long enough, then your “cartoon” alarm bell was going off when you read the headline, and long before you got to the real piece de resistance.

This is an entire article built on conclusions, quotes and second-degree projections that purport to be about ‘Japan’, but which are really about the methodology used to create this ‘gauge.’ It is a poll of managers. It adds adds up how many say they’re overweight Japan vs. how many say they’re underweight. The difference in those values is the gauge.

If your delusion that this cartoon tells you anything about anything other than the methodology employed persists for more than 6 hours, please call a doctor.

Friendable Enters into Agreement to Restructure Some $6.3 Million of Convertible Debt [Press Release]

I have no idea what Friendable is, but it sounds like a dating app. I’m…I’m still not sure. It’s either a dating app or an app that allows four late 20s strangers to ride bicycles together.

Source: The background on the Company’s website. Is this a date? This is a weird date. Do you have to swipe right on all of the bicylists or like, is 2 out of 3 enough?

I am not sure what it means that this is as highly connected to the rest of the financial markets narrative as it is.

I am also not sure who is advising a firm whose most likely exit is an acquisition to issue a press release announcing a restructuring and reduction of debt. But then I saw their prior press release on the company website, and it simply must be presented in all of its meta-game-less glory:

What possible purpose could publishing this press release serve? Whose idea was this?

Kona Grill Warns of Ch. 11 Possibility [Food News Feed]

I’m not knowledgeable enough about the restaurant business to tell a casual dining chain to start salting its pasta water, but I know enough to know that the above excerpt is pretty, pretty…pretty bad.

If you know anything else about Kona Grill, however, I doubt that this comes as a huge surprise to you. They built their model as an upscale (sic) casual alternative to fast food options at shopping malls, inclining in particular toward the “village square” type outdoor malls that popped up in wealthier suburban areas.

Funny thing is, I don’t know anyone who has ever been in a Kona Grill, a Bonefish Grill, a Black Walnut Cafe or any of the other fancy-signage casual chains accessible from faux cobblestone promenades in these outdoor malls. Don’t take this as casual suburban chain snobbery either. You’re reading from someone who has ordered from every page on the Cheesecake Factory menu, who can deftly navigate the balance between beer orders and Endless Shrimp refills at Red Lobster to ensure that the store comes out in the red on every such engagement. My preference for mediocre chicken parm that at least hasn’t been turned into a sloppy, soggy mess in a hotel pan at an ‘authentic’ Italian restaurant once single-handedly kept a Macaroni Grill location in business.

The death of the Kona Grills of the world, however it inevitably happens, will probably be a positive case of creative destruction. It is one of very few afforded to us recently by policymakers’ helicopter parenting, one of the many ways in which the prioritization of smoothing financial market outcomes – a primary aim of the transformation of capital markets into utilities – is destroying future economic value.

Source: The Company’s Website and also my personal hell

On the other hand, there’s enough anecdata from this Zeitgeist to convince me we ARE entering a bear market for late 20s commercial models who specialize in smiling at stuff that they shouldn’t be smiling at. Y’all all have full drinks. This new red concoction should not be exciting to you. It belongs to someone else at the bar. It means NOTHING to you.

This article from Deadspin didn’t actually make the top of the Zeitgeist. I just thought it was hilarious.

The Zeitgeist Weekend Edition – 4.20.2019

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

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

Full disclosure this week – these are not the explicit most-connected stories, but they are all among the top 20 out of about 433,000. Close enough for government work, I think. In any case, I found their similarities in subject matter striking, so I hope you’ll forgive me a bit of poetic license on the weekend.

The Long, Hard Road [Cincinnati Enquirer]

Maybe I was the only one who was reminded of Hillbilly Elegy when reading this piece, probably because it takes place in J.D. Vance’s hometown of Middletown, OH. Interestingly, Middletown was in some ways presented in that book as a kind of juxtaposition to the spirit of poverty present in the Kentucky hills that Vance’s family came from.

That text above isn’t from the Cincinnati Enquirer piece, but from a review of Vance’s book by Kevin Williamson. Like Williamson, I do believe that Vance’s 2016 book wasn’t really the story of poverty per se, but the story of the spirit of poverty, this suffocating force that crosses economic classes to drive people into unhappy lives through learned helplessness. The spirit of poverty is a real thing AND the effect of narrative missionaries who capitalize on the bitter realities of true poverty by politicizing it and abstracting it into oblivion. The inevitable result is the redefinition of poverty into the evil influence of outside forces, and never as even the partial result of bad luck, choices and mistakes. The only difference among the parties is who you picked as your outside forces – in the usual case, soulless corporations and unbridled capitalism, on the one hand, or foreign workers or minorities on the other.

This effect is worse in our permanently competitive political Zeitgeist. So, too, are some of the facts about poverty and the middle class, what with expanding corporate margins and all of the very real effects displayed in the excerpts from the Cincinnati Enquirer piece above. Things really aren’t great for the poor and the middle class in a lot of places, and for a hell of a lot of reasons. Not even in Vance’s Middletown, OH. But if what we are seeing in the world of narratives is any indication, our cycle of turning these people and their lives into props for our political plays is only going to get worse.

Health care. Education costs. Inequality. Real issues.

But you’re not going to hear about those things. You’re going to hear about how each politician and journalist wants you to think about those things. You’re going to hear about the policy idea which you will be expected to treat as synonymous with that issue, or else you clearly don’t care about it. It’s a damn shame, because we DO need to talk about all of this. Even those of us – like me – who think that state-designed solutions are nearly never the answer, who believe that a small group of really smart people thinking of solutions is inferior to allowing the emergence of undesigned orders – need to talk about it.

In the widening gyre, the suffering of the people is transformed through narrative into political power.

The people keep suffering.

The Black Church and the Black Revolution [Medium]

I am not going out on a limb, I think, to suppose that a middle-aged white guy with libertarian localist tendencies is not the intended audience for this Medium piece. I’d be lying if I told you I grokked much of what the author – a self-described Marxist-Leninist-Maoist – was getting at. But there are two things I thought worthy of note:

  1. Out of more than 433,000 articles in the NewsDesk database published over the last week that weren’t about financial markets, this was among the 10 most interconnected in terms of language. That means something.
  2. The long-term effects of the replacement of the Protestant Work Ethic with the Prosperity Gospel in huge swaths of the churchgoing community in the US have yet to be fully comprehended. My opinion? I think I know where much of the spirit of poverty in both Vance’s world and on the Long, Hard Road comes from, and the exploitation of these people by teachers of the mealy-mouthed, milquetoast non-gospel of prosperity is, in fact, among its causes.

In the widening gyre, the suffering of the people is transformed through narrative into political power.

The people keep suffering.

PHOTOS: Social media reacts to city honoring Joel Osteen's church for its Harvey recovery efforts 
Minister Joel Osteen holds >>See social media's reaction to news that the city was honoring Osteen's efforts  Photo: Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle">

The enduring lesson of the Rwandan genocide [Press Enterprise]

In the widening gyre, the suffering of the people is transformed through narrative into political power.

The people keep suffering.

Fixing the ‘Other’ Georgia [Valdosta Times]

The media should be our agent. They should be cutting off the oxygen to narratives built in service of manipulating people’s real problems in exchange for political power. Instead, they too often behave like principals, believing it is their job to build a particular strain of common knowledge. There is no better way to tell us to think than to tell us what “many people” think.

I’m not even sure what I think about what’s going on in The Other Georgia, because this journalist didn’t respect me or anyone else enough to let us decide for ourselves.

‘The Blackest Cloud’ [The Post-Journal (Jamestown, NY]

Ben wrote the below note about markets and investing, but its applicability is much broader.

Specifically, it is a reminder that the idea is not the thing. The courage to act is the thing.

In an existential trade, the COURAGE TO ACT is the thing. It’s the only thing.

How to Live Safely in a Wall Street Universe, by Ben Hunt (2019)

I think the same thing is true for our political, cultural and social lives. It’s what we mean when we say to Make America Good Again. It’s what we mean when we say to have Clear Eyes about those who would transform our fears and concerns about our fellow man into hatred and blame for The Other. It’s what we mean when we say to live with the kind of Full Heart that sends an army of volunteers with chainsaws, food and hands ready to work in a town devastated by a tornado.

The COURAGE TO ACT is ALWAYS the thing.

The Zeitgeist – 4.17.2019

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

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

April 17, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

JPMorgan Chase’s Numbers Belie Recession Coming [Forbes]

If you liked this, you’ll love the Marty’s 1975 financial markets classic…

Humble on Wall Street.”

AdvisorShares Launches Pure Cannabis ETF (Ticker: YOLO) [Press Release]


And yes, we had one of these yesterday, too. Cannabis articles punch way above their weight in narrative land. But whereas yesterday’s fund from Horizon went with a firm format ticker (HMUS should be a Near-East Staples Sector ETF), AdvisorShares went for the gusto with this one (pun withheld).

I previously favored Cambria’s registration of TOKE, but YOLO has just the right 2012 vibe to really make it sing for me.

And as Ben wrote yesterday, why the string of thematic ETFs? Because fees.

Veteran SPAC Sponsors Roll Out Fifth Vehicle [Deal Pipeline]

I actually don’t have a link to this article. The Deal routinely makes its full text available to LexisNexis Newsdesk, but doesn’t have a public-facing Google-searchable link for this one.

What I will do is show you the Quid network map of SPAC articles since the start of our news dataset in August 2013. A disconnected mess. In general, financial media don’t understand, don’t care, and don’t write about these things, except to dutifully cover the IPO if it has a noteworthy person attached.

I can think of several reasons why SPACs would contain language that connected them broadly to the Zeitgeist, and none of those reasons are especially good.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

A Deep Dive Into Chevron’s Fundamentals For Dividend Investors [Seeking Alpha]

One of the things that manifests clearly in the similarities between financial media articles over time, whether it’s professional publishers or Seeking Alpha contributions like this, is a pronounced orientation toward dividend and yield investing. Not only are they very common – broad media seeks an expansive retail base, after all – but extremely cohesive. Clusters of articles about dividend and dividend growth investing are almost always among the most internally consistent.

People know how to sell yield, and the ways that have always worked continue to work.

LACERA launches factor-based, bank loan searches totaling nearly $5 billion [P&I]

I don’t want to fall prey to Gell-Mann Amnesia here – I’ve been on the wrong end of inaccurate, misleading or incomplete coverage of public pension decisions before. With all that in mind, I will admit that this seems odd.

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it is that slow maybes are nearly always the worst way to make investment decisions. I know why, in my experience, someone would suggest a ‘paper portfolio’ trial period. Maybe the manager was small or new and an investment committee or Board member wanted to see more ‘live’ evidence before pulling the trigger. Maybe someone was on the fence and just needed a little more data to move them. I don’t know this firm, although the people are all FX Concepts alums, and anyone who hired hedge funds in the 90s or early aughts knew them. They were the kings of overlay, until, well, they weren’t.

But I can’t conceive of a world in which 6 months of data on the performance of a paper cash overlay strategy could do anything but deliver false comfort or false fear. A 6-month paper portfolio period is a process which institutionalizes randomness. Still, I don’t have all the details, and if there’s anything to be learned from our awareness of Fiat News, it’s that we very often are not getting all the relevant information. Maybe there’s a more sensible explanation.

US Congressional Divide [Business Insider]

This one didn’t come through the Quid analysis, but was brought to our attention by subscriber Matthew M. It’s a Mauro Martino visualization – very similar to the calculation and display methodology of our Quid network maps – of voting patterns in the US Congress.

The Widening Gyre.

Source: Business Insider


“Pan, who and what art thou?” he cried huskily.

“I’m youth, I’m joy,” Peter answered at a venture, “I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”

This, of course, was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.

Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, by J.M. Barrie (1911)

I have good stories from work. My wife’s stories are better.

The asset allocator’s seat gives you access to brilliant, interesting and occasionally unseemly characters. Being a cast member at Disney World, on the other hand, gives you access to creepy Disney Dads. In case you have ever wondered, no, you would not be the first dad to ask Alice that while taking a picture with your 8-year old daughter. Yes, that polite giggle is her way of telling you you’re a moron and that you should rethink your life choices.

The best stories, however, are less scandalous. They are also usually stories about what it is like to be – as they say there – a friend of Wendy, the precocious young woman at the center of the Peter Pan stories. Why? Because most cast member roles at Disney World are exactly what you would expect. Scheduled meal appearances. Character meetings and photo ops. Peter and Wendy do all that, too, sure. But most of what they do at Disney is whatever the hell they want. Try to catch their shadows in the brutally long lines for Peter Pan’s Flight. Jump the line for the Mad Tea Party, hop in a teacup with strangers and spin it until they turn green. Play pranks on other cast members.

Peter Pan and Wendy run free at Disney because no one would believe in them if they did anything else.

Disney has been doing some running free of its own – the stock had a big week last week when the company announced the launch details of Disney+, its dedicated streaming service. It popped by a little over 10% after the announcement – more than $20 billion in equity value – and hasn’t looked back since.


It certainly wasn’t because people didn’t know about Disney’s streaming plans. Disney has been extremely transparent about almost all the details throughout its development. We have known the service was in planning for years. We knew its name in November.  We knew about the massive investment in proprietary platform content, the new VP heading up the group, and the details of some of the individual programming planned in January. In LexisNexis Newsdesk’s database, between March 31, 2018 and March 31, 2019, there were more than 48,400 news articles, major blogs, press releases mentioning Disney and streaming.

Below is the full network of that last year of articles, dominated by comparisons of the services, speculation about the impact of Disney’s streaming service on other vendors and discussions of content.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

What are the most interconnected articles, which share the most language across topics about Disney and streaming?

Big tech stocks were crushed in December. Now they’re back [CNN, March 2019]

How Disney’s Investment in Streaming Will Affect Its Bottom Line [Motley Fool, Sep 2018]

Disney is set to dominate Netflix in the battle to be ‘the world’s leading content company’ [Business Insider, March 2018]

Audience demand for Netflix originals will soon pass demand for licensed TV shows and movies, and that’s great news for the streaming giant as competition heats up [Business Insider, December 2018]

Disney to Forgo $150 Million in Fiscal 2019 as it Prepares to Launch Disney Plus [Variety, February 2019]

In short, investors have been talking about Disney and streaming for a long time. They have been evaluating, comparing and thinking about the impact. They’ve been modeling the relative loss of high-margin licensing revenue against incremental costs of running a dedicated service. They’ve been speculating about all sorts of things, because there was a lot of detail out there to permit that speculation.

Except for one detail: the price. The only bombshell in the April announcement from Disney was that the service will launch at $6.99, right in the face of price hikes from its biggest competitor.

Now, I don’t think I (or anyone else) have a perfect sense of the price elasticity of demand on a Disney streaming service. But I will tell you what I think. I don’t think $6.99 is an earnings-maximizing price. I don’t think Disney thinks $6.99 is an earnings-maximizing price. I don’t even think $6.99 is an NPV-maximizing price, not even if we use the Amazing Amazon Algorithm to daydream about price hikes someday that will make it all worth it.

And I don’t think anyone else does, either. You don’t buy Disney on the announcement of a bargain basement streaming price because you plugged the number into your model and came out with a gorgeous new price target. If you did, you probably need to check your math. No, you do it because Disney is creating a powerful narrative that it will take market share. Because Disney is creating Common Knowledge that it will dominate streaming. Because Disney wants you to know that everyone else knows that it is now a Growth Stock – not in the constituent-of-the-Russell-1000-Growth-Index sense, but in the put-us-in-your-basket-with Netflix, Nvidia and Amazon sense. In the sense of the growth! meme.

And the growth! meme is Neverland, where all you need is a little faith, trust and pixie dust.

It is the land of Uber and the other unicorns, where the act of actually making money means that you have lost sight of the real goal: to utterly dominate an emerging market. I use the term emerging market intentionally, because that is exactly what ridesharing, streaming services, brute force protein folding and coin mining hardware, and buying-literally-everything-online-with-one-day-shipping are. Mature as some of them now are, they ARE still the new emerging markets, not only literally, but in the same way that we once allocated to “Emerging Markets”, not as a value or mean-reversion play, but as our speculative instrument. As our way to bet on the explosive potential of ideas and innovation and capital finding both, rather than tweaking some variable in a financial model. And with any such speculative instrument, they only work when we do not know in the least who or what they are (which is the very pinnacle of good form).

In other words, by saying ‘we don’t care about how much money we make on this right now’, Disney is reframing the discussion about the potential of this business to be limitless. To be whatever we can possibly imagine, because it could end up being anything, really. This is obviously just a variant of the don’t-change-the-growth-narrative-and-monetize-too-early game, of course, which obviously isn’t new. Companies have been at this for a long time.

What IS new and interesting to me is that a grown up, blue chip brand company with investors who care about about return on capital looks like they’re trying to find their way back to Neverland. I’m no prophet. I don’t know a damn thing about the streaming or media businesses that you don’t. I don’t have an edge here. But IF they manage it, I DO know this: Disney will be far from the last company looking to pull out a bit of pixie dust, to journey from the boring land of economic fundamentals to the land of growth! memes.

The Zeitgeist – 4.15.2019

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

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

April 15, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Investors Joining Saudi Stocks’ Big Moment Have to Pay a Premium [Bloomberg]

We rightfully emphasize the supreme importance of our asset allocation decisions. Yet as a group, we investors tend to apply an uncritical eye to asset classes, and accept them as they come to us. Questions we rarely ask in more than a perfunctory manner: Do they refer to any sensible organization of securities with similar underlying traits? Are they subject to features at the arbitrary power of an organization deciding where they belong? Does Saudi being moved from one index to another matter (yes!). Should it (no!)?

We will be writing a lot more in the coming months about how we think untethering from index provider-based constructs for asset classes will be an increasingly important asset allocation tool in the emerging Zeitgeist.

PG&E, BlueMountain in Talks Over Board Composition [Reuters]

I’m on record saying that one of my bigger manager diligence whiffs was not investing with ValueAct for what seemed to me to be good reasons at the time (i.e. small cap specialist with mission creep into mid- and big-caps, a very right-sounding story). They have done very nice work for their investors.

But I will never not hear of a nomination of Jeff Ubben to a board without playing the game I call “Jeff Ubben or Aaron Eckhart from Thank You For Smoking?”

Deutsche Bank-Commerzbank Deal May Rest on a Mountain of ‘Badwill’ [Dow Jones]

Yes, this is all very stupid, but look, ensuring the stability and liquidity of the most critical bank in the most important European economy DOES fall pretty squarely within the mandate of the ECB. As ridiculous as this sounds on paper, it is frankly a lot less ridiculous than some other things being considered. Still, ‘can we immediately capitalize the fact that the market knows we’re going to piss away the ‘value’ of these assets over time into a gain to help our capital ratios’ is a pretty bold move, Cotton.

Will Wall Street Lose Faith in Eager-to-Please Fed? [New York Times]

I believe this is the first use of ‘[The Fed] is out of bullets’ in a major publication in 2019. It is truly a red-letter day. Those of you in God’s Country may discharge your firearms in the air in celebration. The rest of you may non-threateningly wave a knife or other sharp object of less than 5″ in total blade length.

Europe putting venture capital back in the game [P&I]

We have covered the ebullient narratives about private equity and venture capital at some length over the last few months, especially in comparison to those no-good scoundrels in hedge funds. The Billions-Silicon Valley Effect, if you will (sorry, but except for punching that guy who drove your kid drunk, you’ve done hedge funds no favors, Captain Winters). It is easy to look at a story like this and conclude that it’s a secondary effect of too much capital chasing too few remaining opportunities. Everyone wants to get their big unicorn pop before it’s too late to make a career off of it.

And yet I will tell you this: If you want a dependable canary in the coal mine for what other big state, municipal and government pensions will do, you can do far worse than to watch what OMERS does. There is about a trillion of US pension money that relies on the freedom granted by OMERS’s management company structure (and that of a few similarly situated peers) to provide ‘legitimacy’ cover for things they want to do but can’t be the first.

Goldman Economists Say Trump Re-Election More Likely Than Not [Bloomberg]

If this were a live feature, I would allow you to select from an economist joke, a Goldman joke, or a Trump joke in this place. Instead, in the spirit of greatest movie celebrating the very in-the-current-Zeitgeist game of golf, you’ll get nothing and like it.

Everyone’s Income Taxes Should Be Public [New York Times]

Appelbaum’s arguments in favor of destroying the last vestiges of privacy in America all boil down to the same very dumb argument: ‘But think of what we could do with all the data!’

It’s the same reason that free Facebook exists, and free Twitter, and every other service in which you, dear reader, ARE the product because of the value of your data. But instead of advertisers, the consumers of the Product of You in Appelbaum’s world are academia, special interest groups, pitchfork mobs, employers, neighbors with grudges, University admissions offices, lending institutions and journalists who have run out of Twitter posts from random accounts to build feature stories around. Think you get a lot of junk mail and robo-calls now? Think bigotry in lending, housing and admissions is a problem now? Think gerrymandering and selective doling out of local resources is a problem now? Think politically motivated use of the IRS and other government investigative agencies is a problem now? Think widespread depression and anxiety are problems now? Think political races go petty, personal and dirty now? Think the number of political and social ideas to engineer a society in one group’s image is dangerous now? Think the way in which missionaries work to divide us is perilous now?

If the hilariously predictable outcomes were not enough, the justification provided is even flimsier. “Income taxation is an act of government.” Please. If that were the nexus that justified public disclosure, then we ought to disclose the detailed records of every health service, diagnosis and prescription by individual affected by an ‘act of government’. Same for the transcripts and disciplinary records of every student at a public school or school receiving public funding. Hell, those would be GREAT datasets!

The fact that one is forced by threat of imprisonment into a transaction with the state doesn’t inherently warrant public disclosure. Nor does the usefulness of that data. Render your taxes unto Caesar – but keep the data about them to yourself.

The Zeitgeist Weekend Edition – 4.13.2019

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

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

The Future of Robots [New York Times]

If Ben were to add a fourth leg to his Changing Zeitgeist stool, I think that automation would be a strong candidate – not because I necessarily think that it will be the thing-that-changes-the-very-fabric-of-society that is so often hypothesized, but because the specter of its influence is so daunting that it lends itself perfectly to narrative construction.

It is a narrative shield for the oligopolist in defense of capital’s rising share of income. It is a narrative sword for the social engineer in public office to spur the masses into democratically voting for central planning.

In a sense, it it a sub-set of the transition to competition games. Ceteris paribus, having robots do things for us is a Good Thing. But in the same way that it is how humans will behave with one another in the presence of AI, rather than the direct actions of AI or the behavior of AI toward humans that interests me, the most interesting question to me is this:

How will automation influence how humans behave with other humans?

The BMW Z1 was everything great about the ’80s [BMW Blog]

BMW Z1 blue images 24 830x553

I had a girlfriend in high school whose father (a retired 60-ish IRS agent) drove a Z3. It promptly killed stone dead the short-lived infatuation I developed for BMW roadsters after the Z8 from The World is Not Enough. I will admit to its near-perfect proxy power for the ridiculous excesses of the 80s, however.

You can almost feel the JNKBNDS license plate that certainly adorned this car at one time.

The self-made man [Times Literary Supplement]

Frederick Douglass was a man who controlled his own damn cartoon.

If you’re making a Top 10 Americans list and Douglass doesn’t occupy a proud position on it, what are you even doing?

‘The Rise of Skywalker’ [Variety]

Disney has had a hell of a week – a big pop on announcing a thing that everyone knew would happen, where the only real surprise was setting a fabulously low price at which they won’t make any money. Which qualifies as a good thing in 1999 2019. Then they drop a Star Wars trailer.

For the most part, what Disney has done with the Star Wars property ought not to be a surprise to anyone who has watched what they did with Marvel. ‘Fatigue’ is just a thing that allows people to complain to other parents on Facebook about the 50th watching of Frozen, or for non-parents to go on Insta or Twitter to pretend they aren’t going to see Endgame because they’re so done with the tired superhero genre.

Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII was a cinematic disappointment. It turned the villain of VII into a pointless prop plucked out of the ether as a MacGuffin. It made a laughing-at-you joke of continuity tropes and fan service. The key characters – Rey, Finn and Poe – are all marvelous. But even if they weren’t, we are at the point where it doesn’t really matter. A Star Wars film is now an opportunity for a mirror or rage engagement.

So is this:

V | IV | VII | III | VI | VIII | II | I

The Moroccan Exception in the Arab World [New York Times]

It is 2019, and anti-Semites are still attacking synagogues.

It is 2019, and Coptic Churches in Egypt are being torched by the dozens.

It is 2019, and the Chinese government is functionally operating a regional concentration camp that they call the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in which a million Uighur Muslims are being subjected to constant surveillance, arbitrary detention, cultural destruction and reeducation.

It’s nice to see that the leaders of Morocco are charting a different path. At the same time, it is sad that they estimate that only 2,500 Jewish citizens remain within the kingdom.

The Google Blacklisting of The American Spectator [American Spectator]

Look, I don’t know how much fire there is to the smoke of Google’s parameterization and manipulation of search results, rankings and the like, especially in news. I suspect that it happens with some frequency, and yes, I think it is likely that certain political perspectives are more susceptible to this treatment, usually through an abstraction layer or two so that it isn’t transparent – the political equivalent of setting buy rates on car loans by purchaser zip code.

Still, I couldn’t help but get a chuckle out of this. Yes, that IS the kind of ad you see when you are Rusty, but the point is that this is being served up on their site by Google. Just perfect.

You cannot get away.

Still, we still aren’t seeing a lot of momentum around Google and Amazon trust-busting narratives. I think part of the reason – ironically – is that the current Republican president and the candidates of the Democratic party agree on whether Amazon, in particular, ought to be cut down to size. That may be the oddest reality of the widening gyre – that the lack of incentive to worry about issues that don’t produce political division means that policy actions with significant cross-party agreement are the ones that don’t happen.

Strange Bedfellows and Proxy Wars

Having been focused on our investment narrative research program, we have been a bit less constant in our published examinations of Fiat News. It has been a while, however, since we have seen a story in which perspectives do not fall along the dominant axis – the political left and political right, in the US – of the present widening gyre. The Julian Assange arrest is exactly that kind of story.

Truth be told, I’m not even sure what *I* think, so I’m not sure if I could tell you how to think about this issue even if I wanted to. But I will do my best to tell you how news outlets have been doing exactly that since the arrest of Julian Assange. Our analysis considers English-language articles published on 4/11 and 4/12. We first present the Quid network of this coverage, which relates the similarity of all of the articles by the language they use:

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

What do I see?

Unusually High Fiat News Coverage: Articles which use language from our list of “tells of Fiat News”, or news which may be factual but includes language that seeks to influence how the reader thinks about an issue, account for nearly half of all article output, well above the 30% level we see as a baseline from major wire services. US media coverage exceeds 50%. The articles from the network we’ve flagged as potential Fiat News can be seen visually below.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Heavy Explainer Activity in US Media: Part of the reason for the high Fiat News level is that a massive proportion of the US media output on Assange’s arrest has taken the form of “explainer” pieces that include “here’s why” and “what you need to know” language that is bluntly indicative of Fiat News. To some extent that is to be expected – these are the early days of an update to a story that has been dormant for some time. Still, the judicious reader will recognize that this presents a powerful opportunity for less principled journalists to frame their opinions in pieces that claim to be ‘news.’ The graphic below represents our identification of the articles that are performing “explainer” functions.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

A Generally Assange-Supportive Media in the US: Despite the more hawkish tone adopted by most US politicians, the language used by US media in most articles with opinion-expressive language has, in fact, been most similar to Snowden’s own “dark moment” language, which referred to the implications of Assange’s arrest on the freedom of journalism. Here are three of the Top 10 most influential and similar articles to the overall network.

A Generally Government Statement-Focused Media in the UK: The southwest quadrant of the graphic above is dominated by UK-based media reports which expend very little ink on the charges, detention, arrest procedures, asylum withdrawal or WikiLeaks’ past activities. They are dominated and made similar to one another by thorough inclusion of remarks from the Home Secretary (“Rightly Facing Justice”), Metropolitan Police and President of Ecuador (“Aggressive and discourteous behavior”), most of which are absent or limited outside of UK media.

Opportunistic Related-Issue Coverage: Right now, most coverage of the Assange issue, however, is being used as a proxy war for other matters. The bottom clusters on the map are coverage of the internal Ecuadorian politics of the withdrawal of Assange’s asylum. One of the largest and most highly connected clusters is the blueish gray cluster in the upper-right, which are articles referring almost exclusively to President Trump and his prior statements on WikiLeaks. A surprisingly large subset of coverage in the UK that did not simply print statements from the Home Secretary instead covered the views of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott (upper left).

Strange Bedfellows and Hypocrisy Narratives: But for WikiLeaks’s Clinton email involvement, coverage of the issue in the US would probably be much simpler. Instead, many usual law-and-order and national security hawks in office or in pundit seats have more favorable views of Assange, and many erstwhile free speech and press freedom advocates have soured. As the narratives here evolve, I expect the issue to fade somewhat from the news, but when it is resurrected, I suspect that it will probably be in the service of ‘gotcha’ games that align more closely with the usual battle lines of the widening gyre.

In short, my strong counsel to anyone who wants to learn more about the Assange case is to be very cautious about what they read. More than ever, the most powerful question we can ask – regardless of our perspective on an issue like this – is Why Am I Reading This Now?


In the spirit of our excitement about the first imaging of a black hole, I wanted to submit a brief today about the wonders of gravity. Except it wasn’t the gravity of a supermassive black hole with the mass of two-and-a-half billion suns that caught my eye. Instead, it was the gravity that fuels the poles of the widening gyre in our politics and culture, and an interesting new framing of its psychological and behavioral causes.

That novel framing comes from a new article in the journal published by the Association for Psychological Science (h/t @SteveStuWill). It is a survey piece, so it doesn’t publish any new findings. It does, however, organize recent research that posits the sources of similarity between extreme political opposites and differentness between those extreme groups and political moderates. Helpfully, it does so in a way that will be familiar to frequent readers of Epsilon Theory. In short, van Prooijen and Krouwel from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam describe these distinguishing traits as follows:

  1. Psychological Distress
  2. Cognitive Simplicity
  3. Overconfidence
  4. Intolerance (of other groups and opinions)

A separate four horsemen, if you will, which unite our political poles and separate them from the hollowed-out shell we used to call a political center.

The final three – Cognitive Simplicity, Overconfidence and Intolerance – strike me as being more descriptive than predictive, NTTAWWT. The underlying papers generally don’t make strong causal inferences (except, perhaps, among and between these traits), but simply observe the traits shared by members of polar political positions and differentiate them from those still seeking to engage in cooperative game-playing. I think the framework implies a set of simple, useful tells to identify those who are contributing to the ever-expanding tendency toward competitive game-playing in our politics and culture:

  1. Cognitive Simplicity: Does the speaker/writer consistently assert that problems on which there is significant disagreement are simple, black-and-white, and would be easy to solve if others weren’t so stupid/immoral/self-interested/corrupt?
  2. Overconfidence: Does the speaker/writer express unreasonable confidence in their knowledge about events, about how policies would function? Do they demonstrate any epistemic humility, or are they prone to declare debates “over?”
  3. Intolerance: Does the speaker/writer rely on expressions of fear of some group of people? Do they actively seek to constrain “acceptable” language and discourse?

It is actually the first trait, however, that interests me most (although I willingly admit, as you will see shortly, that I probably suffer from confirmation bias on this point). I think it is the one which most readily explains not only how the widening gyre manifests in our behavior, but also how it forms and expands. Psychological distress – as defined here – is ‘a sense of meaninglessness that stems from anxious uncertainty.’

Sound familiar? It should.

Here’s an exploration of how this anxious uncertainty, this sense of meaninglessness amplifies our sensitivity to being drawn into the widening gyre.

Here’s our discussion of how the creation of existential threats inevitably emerges as the universal narrative tool to exploit this anxiety, and the full hearts response:

Here’s our examination of the specific existential narratives of this widening gyre, which are the primary engines creating political extremes from psychological distress.

The Zeitgeist – 4.8.2019

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

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

April 8, 2019 Narrative Map – US Equities

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

How to Invest in Coffee Stocks [Motley Fool]

It isn’t until you start really digging into the meta-data of financial media on a daily basis that you realize just how dominated these channels are with book report-style articles which mix slightly dated facts and vanilla qualitative assessments with headlines that indicate that those things are guides on how to invest.

I know, I know, it’s Motley Fool, but there’s a reason this was such an interconnected topic. There is a lot of this kind of content out there, from a lot of publishers.

Whatever it takes, Part 2?: Five questions for the ECB [Reuters]

Anyone who caught the most recent ET Live!, and any ET Pro subscribers who have read our March monitors update know where Ben and I come out on this. The return of the central bank put is now part of common knowledge. We think a hawkish deviation on any of these questions would be treated as a meaningful surprise.

No, you don’t need 20 percent; How Chicago millennials are buying first homes with down payment programs [Chicago Tribune]

So stay with me here. We’re going to finance this customer in our sophisticated new lending structure, in which they’d just make the principal payments that would have been a down payment over time. No, no, it’s not a 100 LTV loan, it’s an 80 LTV loan, but where the down payment is made in installments over time…why are you looking at me like that, it’s genius!

More seriously, I am rarely certain how often the author of an article like this knows that their piece is just being used as an advertisement. This guy wants to open his origination funnel, and he found someone willing to print an ad without charging him for it. More power to him, I suppose.

Outside of the advertising portion of the piece, how about the meat of the topic? The intersection of student loan debt, housing prices and lifestyles available to Millennials relative to their parents’ generations is incredibly and consistently central to all media we review. Perhaps the only theme which weaves its way into more social, cultural and financial topics (other than pro- and anti-Trump politics) is health care and drug costs.

Namaste, Now Pay [New York Times]

This article scored near the top of our (1) list of interconnected financial services stories, (2) centrality ranking of Weekend Zeitgeist non-financial stories and (3) social engagement rankings of highly central stories over the last week. It really seems to touch a lot of nerves at once.

What I find most interesting, however, is that the response to discovering a MLM scheme is almost always the same: I can’t believe it would happen here, to something as pure as [Fill in the blank here]. Y’all, that’s the only way these things work in the first place. Can’t get your old high school friends to swallow their pride and hit you and rest of the class of 1994 up for money if they don’t believe in their heart-of-hearts that introducing you to this amazing new program is really an act of service to you.

Suspected Rhino Poacher Trampled by Elephants and Eaten by Lions in South Africa [Slate]

A white rhino is seen at the Kruger National Park on August 20, 2018.

Something, something, circle of life.

Ray Dalio: Wealth gap a “national emergency” [CBS News]

I know we are all supposed to hate billionaires now, and yes, I think it was just as big of a meta-game gaffe for Dalio to stick his head up at this place and time as I thought it was when Schultz did it.

But I like Ray. I like Howard, too, for that matter.

Still, you don’t get to argue for the easy money / easy credit policies necessary to facilitate a beautiful deleveraging, and then go on national television to decry the most direct result of those policies as a national emergency. I mean, you get to, but not if believability is something you still care about.

Principle 31.

The Love/Hate Cartoon

In case you were wondering, you and I play the role of Elmer in this cartoon.

I saw this chart below from a financial journalist – quite a good one, at that – last week.

The basic idea is to show how the underweights and overweights of mutual funds performed. It is not dissimilar from many research products promoted by the sell side covering this or that universe of active investors. Equity and quant research teams at practically every sell side house regularly publish similar research about how the biggest long and short positions of different active manager classifications have done.

These recurring pieces and the news articles which inevitably follow them are…insanely popular. The are a golden goose of nearly infinite financial news features, a regular source of eyeballs and clicks. So naturally, they usually escape the fine scrutiny of financial media. As for the rest of us, they feed our schadenfreude about the plight of fancy, high-priced hedge funds and how they’re often just as dumb as the rest of us, or when their ‘positions’ work, our suspicions that they are the result of the tools of the super-rich who don’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. They feed our condescending ‘retail money’ opinions about actively managed mutual funds, and how they’re just as dumb as we thought they were. The result is that they largely go unchallenged by nearly everyone. Mostly harmless, of course, but there are people – lots of people – who really look at these things.

I regret to inform you that just about every one of these pieces is a cartoon.

Abstractions of abstractions.

The most bizarre part of the whole affair, of course, is that it is the most ardent passive-or-die army – the people who should really know better – that seems so chuffed by the almost always negative conclusions of these pieces. Well, that just goes to show you why active management doesn’t work! No, it doesn’t. The problem with active management isn’t that active managers are especially dumb and prone to bad decisions. The problem with active management is that it asks us to pay fees to bet on a zero-sum game, which as Charlie Ellis reminds us, is definitionally a loser’s game.

Let’s cut through the cartoon to the question that will tell us what’s actually going on here: if active management is a zero-sum game, if all active positions net out to zero, why do all of these analyses manage to show large, residual biases in representations of a large bloc of the aggregate market?

There are three reasonable explanations for just about all of the deviations between these analyses:

  1. DataDriven: The researcher uses the data accessible to them, which often has embedded availability biases. Periodicity is almost always imperfect and its potentially inaccuracies assumed away. Available data frequently excludes derivatives / non-securities, which can be meaningful for certain strategy and vehicle types[1][2]. The universe of managers with good and representative information, especially among alternative vehicles, is incomplete, and total asset information even more so. They call their drawing “the stocks active investors love and hate right now”, but what you actually get is an artifact of the incomplete and biased data set available to the party performing the analysis.
  2. Methodological: Each such analysis reflects the scheme by which the tracked love/hate metrics are designed and weighted. Is it truly asset-weighted, or maybe they look at top 10 lists of holdings from funds of hugely variable size and simply count up how many filings referenced different names? How does it treat cash positions? How does it treat the implied positioning from option positions, if at all? They call their drawing “the stocks active investors love and hate right now”, but what you actually get is a drawing of a methodology with a non-representative and biased weighting scheme.
  3. Sub-Category Biases Categories like long-only active managers have persistent structural biases relating to the practices of active management that are necessary to produce active risk. The universe of US large cap funds, for example, will almost always be overweight mid- and small-cap stocks because meaningful overweights to mega-cap positions are either psychologically challenging or difficult to achieve without a significant reduction in position count or loss of ‘active-ness.’ There are similar such biases across other categories. Some of those biases may be the result less of tautology (i.e. to be active you must be…active) than of behavioral tendencies which vary among different classes of investors. But in any case, if we’re saying a class is consistently underweight, we have to know that somewhere out there, someone has got to be overweight. They call their drawing “the stocks active investors love and hate right now”, but what you actually get is a drawing of the things they always love and hate for structural reasons.

If you raise these points, you will very likely get a response that “all models have flaws” or maybe that “data is never perfect”! Ignore it. You don’t have to argue with someone explaining why it’s OK that their model predicts that 70% of outcomes are worse than the median. If you believe at all in the principles that underlie a belief in passive management, the zero-sum game is your rock. If someone can’t adequately explain why they are telling you a massive cross-section of financial markets is non-zero-sum, or if they can but can’t explain why the dimensions of that cross-section aren’t just a feature of persistent structural tendencies related to the definition of that cross-section, they simply don’t have information that is of any interest to you. And if they can? Then by all means, listen. There’s no reason why this kind of analysis can’t be useful.

But in almost every extant form, it is just sales and marketing.

These artfully constructed reflections of available data, sets of subjective methodologies and persistent structural biases in the composition of various investor universes are sold to you and me as reflections of how certain investors are playing this market, so maybe you’d like to call our desk and bet with them? Or maybe against them?

You see, the cartoon IS the point. Creating more internal natural variation, a more robust sense of winners and losers that you can bet on or against, IS the point. Telling you the truth about zero-sum games defeats the purpose.

[1] My favorite example is the periodic breathless piece about the ETFs disclosed as part of one Bridgewater’s portfolios, something that can tell you how they’re investing! Y’all. C’mon.

[2] It’s true as well that shorts and some derivatives can create distortions in the nexus between a zero-sum framework and portfolio results, but as is noted here, the accurate availability of those positions is brutally bad, which is the problem.

The Weekend Zeitgeist (3.31 – 4.6.2019)

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

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

Narrative Map – All US Non-Markets Stories (3.31.2019 – 4.6.2019)

The Times Can’t Let Go [Patriot Post]

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the most interconnected story to the narratives permeating all non-financial news is an opinion piece from a right-wing site about the Mueller Report. It could just as easily have been a left-wing opinion piece from, say, Mother Jones.

I hope you aren’t sick of them yet, because, unfortunately, these “the real story in the Mueller investigation” pieces aren’t going anywhere. They are the perfect fodder for the Widening Gyre because their contentions cannot be proved or disproved. The political right can and will contend that the entire affair was a media-fueled failure, and that the unwillingness of the media to own up to its role is the ‘real story’. The political left can and will contend that the investigation uncovered enough to make Trump unelectable, that there was collusion, even if the scope of the investigation couldn’t be definitive about it, that it’s really about the cover-ups and unwillingness to make all the materials public, etc. etc.

I’m not offering an opinion on the truth of either contention, just the observation that deeply-held, tribe-identifying, non-falsifiable claims are almost impossible to root out.

Echoes from under the stadium [BYU-Idaho Scroll]

Echoes from under the stadium

Why is this so interconnected? Well, if you can cram discussions of college football, religion, music and language (singing hymns in Spanish) into a short article, you’re going to find yourself connected to a lot of different topics.

I’ve told the story before of a man – Dr. Eph Ehly – who guest conducted a large choir I sang with in Texas. Dr. Ehly believed that the American folk song was fading from our cultural memory. He lamented it. His lament was for the loss of everyday musicality, the idea that singing was a thing people did when they worked, when they traveled, when they gathered socially. It was also a lament for the idea of a working cultural common knowledge, songs and poems and texts we all knew and expected that others would know (and know we knew).

Dr. Ehly made us learn and memorize about a dozen of those songs. As it happens, a number of years later I found myself in an inn in Austria where some local musicians and a bit too much wine all around ended with me trying to teach a group of marginal English speakers a couple verses of Oh, Shenandoah. It was only 15, 20 years ago that this happened – and yes, it really happened (hooray, cask wine!) – but it’s hard to imagine this kind of familiar/foreign experience happening today.

Hymns are a sacred thing, but they ARE the folk songs of a lot of American sub-cultures. I suspect that the knowledge of Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, and most spirituals are going the way of secular folk tunes. Would 25% of Americans know a verse by heart? Fewer? Still, this isn’t a “good old days” thing. I’d be positively thrilled with cultural common knowledge of something modern, something popular! But as it happens, I know only two examples of what I mean by a true Folk Song, a true Hymn, a holy, cultural, musical thing that has stuck around in spite of it all:

The first are Christmas carols.

The second? Pick a random little town in Texas, and go to the high school football stadium on a Friday night. Stand up in the bleachers whenever you feel like it, and shout out as loud as you can, “The stars at night are big and bright.”

How the Left Embraced Elitism [New York Times]

ALL populism leads to power vested in a political elite, David.

Let us not pretend that a sitting president pressuring the head of an ‘independent’ central bank to explicitly buttress asset prices is somehow exerting less concentrated power than a goofy environmental plan that will never get off the ground (and won’t even be the defining issue of 2020, which I increasingly expect will be health care / health insurance).

Number 9

The influence of the influencer [UMASS Daily Collegian]

Another college paper!

I don’t have much to say about the intent of the article itself, but the influencer is not a surprising interconnected topic. It touches the intersection of technology, media and business. As I’ve observed – and as part of our media and NLP research, researched – influential social media presences, I’ve discovered two things that were surprising, at least to me:

  1. The remarkable advertising revenue-generation potential of a successful social media-based influencer.
  2. The similarly remarkable difficulty (for those who have tried) faced by most social media-based influencers seeking to convert that marketing influence into more traditional forms of influence and power (e.g. corporate, political, etc.). Still very different signaling/credentialing worlds with different governing narratives.

The Evolution Continues: The Platformization of Marketing [CIO Review]

Sorry, that’s as far as I got before my Buzzword Bingo card was full. I’m gonna take my winnings and go play the nickel slots.

Seeking Tomorrow’s Masterpieces [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Ben and I have written about and are fascinated by art curation, despite the horrors of our art knowledge relative to other topics. Below are our trivia scores by category on Learned League, which I provide utterly without any authorization from Ben. I’m on the left, and he’s on the right. At least in the trivia world, we are uncultured swine. Third column gives our correct answers percentage. Brutal.

But we are still fascinated by the topic because of its credentialing structures, its missionaries, and the fact that the value of a painting, the designation of something as a masterpiece is a complete narrative construction. This is an entire industry built upon foundations of common knowledge and narratives!

To me there is so much that investors can and should learn from those who assess the value and marketability of visual art. While there are still some aesthetically minded folks like me who look at that blue clay bowl up there and say, like the uncultured swine we are, that it looks like something we made in elementary school art class, by and large art is an industry brokered by people who are much more aware and less embarrassed that they are playing a common knowledge game and not just ‘evaluating the artistic value’ of each piece. Everyone knows that it’s about convincing the right people and creating the right buzz and the right story about why something ought to be valuable.

That means that the games played are one level deeper into the Keynsian Newspaper Beauty Contest than what most people are playing in markets. It also means that the visible games in the art world look much more like the games played in finance that we prefer to imagine we are keeping a secret. You mean you own that stock in part because you believe other investors will begin appreciating some trait about it and buying into its Story? You rebel!

In other words, if you want to see what investors are doing in secret, watch what art investors do in the open.

Marvin Gaye: You’re the Man [All About Jazz]

Marvin Gaye: You're the Man

Why is the review of a previously unreleased 1972 album from Marvin Gaye connected to everything else in media in the last week?

Give the thing a listen and find out for yourself. Most (all?) of the songs were familiar to me and have been released on anthologies, but as a single composition the album is very fine. You could do worse on a Saturday in spring than listen to one of the finest voices ever recorded.

Credit Cycle Monitor – 3.31.2019

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.

  • We continue to see some complacency in most coverage of credit markets, with no hint of a narrative of systemic risk, slowdowns in lending, default concerns or ‘late-cycle’ at this point.
  • Discussions of credit markets in media continue to appear as derivatives of risky asset drivers more broadly, which is to say heavily influenced by central bank omnipotence narratives.
  • Even leveraged loans and buyout leverage highs are at the full periphery of the narrative structure – barely meriting a mention in most articles.
  • Other on-again / off-again topics like student loans and household borrowing remain muted and detached from the focus of discussions of the performance and positioning of credit investment strategies.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Fiat News Index

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Key Articles

Easy digital loans drive Kenyans into multiple debt

Opportunities In The 2X Leveraged High Yield ETN Sector

U.S. Corporate Debt Is on Fire This Year Thanks to Japan

China Feb new bank loans fall but policy support still on track

The Bomb That Blew Up in 2008? We’re Planting Another One

US Fiscal Policy Monitor – 3.31.2019

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.

  • It’s back to low cohesion of US fiscal policy narratives after an MMT-related hike, and as the campaign begins to spur divergent discussions.
  • We do think there IS a US Fiscal Policy narrative, although it is only modestly cohesive: “Debt doesn’t matter, so let’s do what we have to do to prevent [insert existential threat here].”
  • Issues that are moving closer to core fiscal policy and election narratives: Health care, health insurance spending, and student loans and indebtedness.
  • Issues that are moving further from the core narrative: Military spending and “The wall”, etc.
  • The core clusters are those where the gist is: “We aren’t spending enough”. Discussion of these new spending ideas in financial media is positive, driving a sharp increase in sentiment.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Fiat News Index

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Key Articles

Trump to Farmers: “LOVE YOU!” But I Still Want to Cut Your Subsidies

How Democrats can capitalize on Trump’s foreign policy malpractice

Trump’s Budget Asks for Nearly $300 Million to End the U.S. HIV Epidemic Within 10 Years

Debt-Ceiling Talks on Back Burner as Congress Blows Past Deadline

US Budget Deficit Hits Historically High Record In February

Trade and Tariffs Monitor – 3.31.2019

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.

  • While cohesion of Trade and Tariffs narrative remains high from a quantitative perspective, our evaluation of the language itself leads us to believe that it is decidedly complacent.
  • The existential language being used for months has faded, and the center of global trade and tariffs discussions in March wasn’t even the China-US trade discussions – it was Europe!
  • The narrative IS about cars and soybeans and farmers and blue collar workers again, and less about national security.
  • What does that mean?
    • It means that if you have a divergent (i.e. more negative) odds view on outcomes, you may have asymmetric payoff opportunities.
    • We still don’t think anyone ought to have strong confidence in such an view on the odds on outcomes.
    • But it does strike us as asymmetric for those capable of taking advantage of complacency about a positive US/China trade resolution.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Fiat News Index

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Key Articles

Big-Solar Owners Warn Patent Dispute Could Roil U.S. Sector

Factbox: EU preparations for no-deal Brexit

China’s Factories Are Struggling to Hire Enough Workers

Next 5 to 10 years could be ‘really tough’ for our competitors, VW chief says

‘Pervasive uncertainty’ pushes top central banks to patient stance

Central Bank Omnipotence Monitor – 3.31.2019

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.

  • We continue to think that Central Bank Omnipotence is the primary governing narrative of risky asset markets in the US: The Fed Put is Back.
  • We did see a slight reduction in narrative cohesion in March. The culprits? A significant shift in overall focus to ECB stimulus, and an increase in separation between Fed, ECB and BOE language.
  • Articles are currently treating each central bank’s policies distinctly as opposed to covering “central banks” more generally as had been common.
  • As policy narratives became distinct, the narrative of EM and Frontier as the most direct beneficiaries of Fed easing strengthened significantly.
  • As we discussed in our recent ET Live! event, we believe that the narrative supporting this dynamic is likely to shift – which is presently and increasingly a contrarian view.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Fiat News Index

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Key Articles

Fed’s Bowman sees echoes of 1980s crisis in current farm struggles

BlackRock makes case to own more U.S. TIPS

Cramer: Powell fixed his ‘rookie mistake’ and is now on the right path with rates

‘Wall of Money’ Is Heading for Emerging Markets, IIF Says

World-Beating Frontier Rally May Move to Local-Currency Bonds

Inflation Monitor – 3.31.2019

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.

  • Despite the December pivot and move toward easing, inflation language continues to be present, with moderate internal consistency.
  • As in February, despite the increase in cohesion, and despite our belief in the long-term shift in Zeitgeist toward inflation, we don’t think there is a coherent short-term inflation narrative at this time.
  • Equity market stories also remain largely distant from specific inflation discussions.
  • We continue to see unusually persistent inflation stories in health care, and to a lesser extent, education and transportation. This month also saw a significant and cohesive introduction of Africa and Latam inflation stories.
  • We have seen some increase in Fiat News, which we believe is being driven by election period health care cost inflation discussions. This is the narrative catalyst we would be watching most closely.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Fiat News Index

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Key Articles

Take Five: Take it easy, central banks – World markets themes for the week ahead

Visualizing U.S. Budget Gap That Scares Everyone Except Markets

Underlying Inflation Weakens as ECB Prepares for Crucial Meeting

MMT Has Been Around for Decades. Here’s Why It Just Caught Fire

Australia central bank calm as house prices skid, watching credit supply