Sheep Logic

These are baby-doll Southdowns, and yes, they’re exactly as cute as they look in this picture. We only have four today on our “farm”, as sheep have a knack for killing themselves in what would almost be comical fashion if it weren’t so sad. We keep them for their so-so wool, which we clean and card and spin and knit. It’s so-so wool because the Southdowns were bred for their meat, not their fleece, and I can’t bring myself to raise an animal for its meat. Well, I could definitely raise birds for meat. Or fish. But not a charismatic mammal like a baby-doll Southdown.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about sheep over the years. They are never out of sight of each other, and their decision making is entirely driven by what they see happening to others, not to themselves. They are extremely intelligent in this other-regarding way. My sheep roam freely on the farm, and I never worry about them so long as they stay together, which they always do. But if I only count three in the flock, then I immediately go see what’s wrong. Because something is definitely wrong.

That’s the difference between a flock and a pack. A flock is a social structure designed to promote other-awareness. It has no goals, no coordinating purpose other than communication. A flock simply IS. A pack, on the other hand, is a social structure designed to harness self-aware animals in service to some goal requiring joint action — the raising of cubs, the hunting of meat, etc. Both the flock and the pack are extremely effective social structures, but they operate by entirely different logics.

We think we are wolves, living by the logic of the pack.

In truth we are sheep, living by the logic of the flock.

Jealousy, turning saints into the sea
Swimming through sick lullabies
Choking on your alibis
But it’s just the price I pay
Destiny is calling me
Open up my eager eyes
Cause I’m Mr. Brightside
 The Killers, “Mr. Brightside”

It was only a kiss. Leave it to a Las Vegas band to write the best song ever about the most powerful other-regarding emotion — jealousy. That’s Laurence Fishburne as Othello on the left and Kenneth Branagh as Iago on the right, actors’ actors both.

Gary Coleman:Right now you are down and out and feeling really crappy
Nicky:I’ll say.
Gary Coleman:And when I see how sad you are
It sort of makes me…
Happy!
Nicky:Happy?!
Gary Coleman:Sorry, Nicky, human nature-
Nothing I can do!
It’s…
Schadenfreude!
Making me feel glad that I’m not you.
― Avenue Q (2003)

There’s no way that a grown-up musical with Sesame Street puppets should work, but Avenue Q does. “Schadenfreude” is my favorite tune from the show, as well as the second-most powerful other-regarding emotion that drives our world.

Jukeboxes made a nice comeback when the user interface started showing you what other people had chosen to play, both in the past and coming up.

Once you start looking for the Jukebox Effect — the intentional effort to force you into other-regarding flock behavior — you see it everywhere.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)

I’ve got an unexpurgated print of this card sitting on my desk. A prey animal like a rabbit would find Watership Down unrecognizable. Not because reality is any less dominated by fang and claw, but because the protagonists are protagonists, driven by independent will and self-regarding decision making. It’s a Hero’s Journey, which makes it a great read but poor rabbit socio-biology.

Roy:I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.
― Bladerunner (1982)

The movie Bladerunner was based on the Philip K. Dick novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and inherent in the question is the reason we root for the androids over the humans. It’s the same reason we root for Hazel and the other intrepid rabbits of Watership Down. They’re dreaming and striving for a better life. They’re fighters. They have gumption.

In reality, neither sheep nor rabbits nor androids have gumption.

Deckard:She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
Tyrell:I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
Deckard:I don’t get it, Tyrell.
Tyrell:How many questions?
Deckard:Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
Tyrell:It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
Deckard:[realizing Rachael believes she’s human] She doesn’t know.
Tyrell:She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard:Suspect? How can it not know what it is?
― Bladerunner (1982)

That’s the Big Question. How can we not know what we are? it not know what it is?

Better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.

Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945)

Donald Trump retweet (Feb. 28, 2016)

Really? I’ll take the 100 years, thank you very much. Life is too precious, and this, too, shall pass.

Such a vainglorious statement by such a preening man. Mussolini, that is. Find a film clip and watch how he uses his hands.

Our compliance departments require us to say that retweets are not endorsements. But of course they are.

The copycat phenomenon is real. As more and more notable and tragic events occur, we think we’re seeing more compromised, marginalized individuals who are seeking inspiration from those past attacks.

Andre Simon, head of FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit 2 (Threat Assessment)

Mass shooters are not Lone Wolves. They are Lone Sheep.

Tom Junod at Esquire featured FBI agent Andre Simon in his must-read 2014 article, “A Radical New Look at Mass Shooters.” Three years later and we’re still having the wrong debate, focusing on gun control rather than mental health and intervention. Why? Because the gun control debate has enormous political efficacy for both the Left and the Right, where the mental health debate has none. Steve Bannon’s fondest dream is for Democrats to make Federal gun control a key issue in the 2020 electoral cycle. We are, YET AGAIN, being intentionally shepherded by political entrepreneurs into a pernicious Competitive Game of domestic identity politics.

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

Matthew 10:16

There’s no domesticated animal species that has had more of a reputational fall from grace than the sheep. To call someone a sheep today is just about the worst insult there is. To call someone a sheep is to call them stupid and — more pointedly — stupidly obedient and in thrall to some bad shepherd.

It wasn’t always this way. Jesus isn’t insulting you when He calls you a sheep. The point of all those Biblical allegories isn’t that sheep are stupidly obedient or easily led, but that the healthy life of a willful sheep requires a good shepherd.

Ask anyone who actually keeps sheep. Sheep are weird. Sheep are evolved to have a very different intelligence than humans. But sheep are not stupid. Sheep are not obedient. And sheep are definitely not easily led.

Of course, no one except a dilettante farmer like me keeps sheep today, so all of the Old Stories about sheep and shepherds have lost their punch. They’ve all been diminished through the modern lens of sheep-as-idiot-followers.

Today most people dismiss the notion that good shepherds — i.e., individuals with expertise and wise counsel in some difficult to navigate field like … I dunno … investing — exist at all. And they utterly reject the idea that it’s actually okay not to have a fully formed and forcefully held opinion on anything and everything, that it’s not a sign of personal failure to say “I don’t know” and follow another’s lead.

It’s not just the media careers and media business models that are built on the notion of the Constant Hot Take — an unending stream of contrarian opinions expressed in the most incendiary way possible, solely for the entertainment value of contrarian opinions expressed in the most incendiary way possible — it’s the millions of hours that so many non-media civilians will spend engaged on Twitter or Facebook or whatever to construct their own steady stream of Hot Takes and bon mot responses. All tossed out there like bottles into the vast social media ocean, never to wash up on any inhabited shore, lost in some great Sargasso Sea of impotent and forgotten texts.

Why? Why does @RandoBlueStateLawyer with 45 followers spend the better part of every afternoon thinking about his next brilliant riposte to the latest Republican Hot Take on Obamacare reform? Why does @RandoRedStateRetiree spend every evening working himself into a MAGA apoplexy that can only be sated by retweeting his 19,001st Hannity blurb?

To answer that question, I want to go back to the Old Stories. I want to share with you what sheep are really like.

Sheep are evolved to have a specific type of intelligence which has the following hallmarks.

  • Enormous capacity for other-regarding behaviors. Sheep are unbelievably sensitive to what other sheep are doing and their emotional states. If another sheep is happy — i.e., it’s found a good source of food, which is the only thing that makes a sheep happy — then every other sheep in the flock is filled with jealousy (there’s really no other word for it) and will move in on that good thing. If another sheep is alarmed — which can be from almost anything, as bravery is not exactly a trait that tends to be naturally selected in a prey species — then every other sheep in the flock is immediately aware of what’s going on. Sometimes that means that they get alarmed, too. As often, though, it’s just an opportunity to keep going with your own grazing without worrying about the alarmed sheep bumping into your happy place.
  • Zero altruism and overwhelming selfishness. The most popular misconception about sheep is that they are obedient followers. It’s true that they’re not leaders. It’s true that they are incredibly sensitive to other sheep. But it’s also true that they are the most selfish mammal I’ve ever encountered. They don’t lead other sheep or form leadership structures like a pack because they don’t care about other sheep. Every sheep lives in a universe of One, which makes them just about the most non-obedient creature around.
  • The determination to pursue any behavior that meets Hallmark #1 and #2 to absurd ends, even unto death. My worst sheep suicide story? The first year we kept sheep, we thought it would make sense to set up a hay net in their pen, which keeps the hay off the ground and lets the sheep feed themselves by pulling hay through the very loose loops of the net. Turned out, though, that the loops were so loose that a determined sheep could put her entire head inside the net, and if one sheep could do that, then two sheep could do that. And given how the hay net was hung and how these sheep were sensing each other, they started to move clockwise in unison, each trying to get an advantage over the other, still with their heads stuck in the net. At which point the net starts to tighten. And tighten. And tighten. My daughter found them the next morning, having strangled each other to death, unable to stop gorging themselves or seeking an advantage from the behavior of others. The other sheep were crowded around, stepping around the dead bodies, pulling hay for themselves out of the net. That was a bad day.

In both markets and in politics, our human intelligences are being trained to be sheep intelligences.

That doesn’t make us sheep in the modern vernacular. We are not becoming docile, stupid, and blindly obedient. On the contrary, we are becoming sheep as the Old Stories understood sheep … intensely selfish, intensely intelligent (but only in an other-regarding way) and intensely dogmatic, willing to pursue a myopic behavior even unto death.

Why are we being trained to think like sheep? Because sheep are wonderful prey animals. They pay the rent with their fleece, and when push comes to shove you can eat them, too. Plus they’re not helpless prey animals. Sheep are quite competent and rather self-sufficient prey animals, which from a smart owner’s perspective is really what you want. If sheep were truly docile and stupid, then they’d be way too much trouble to keep. Nope, with sheep you can let them wander around all day and do their thing. Just keep them from killing themselves in some really stupid accident and you can harvest them for years and years and years.

How are we trained to think like sheep? By the rewards we receive from our modern social institutions for other-regarding flock behaviors like jealousy (feeling sad when others are glad) and schadenfreude (feeling glad when others are sad), and by the penalties we receive for self-regarding pack behaviors like honor and shame. If you’ve ever kept a pack animal like a dog, you know how clearly they can experience a sense of shame, that feeling when you believe you’ve let the pack down through your personal failure. Sheep have no shame. Not a bit. Shame requires self-evaluation and self-judgment against some standard of obligation to the pack, concepts which would make sheep laugh if they could. Sheep are enormously other-aware, but never other-obliged. They’re high-functioning sociopaths, shameless creatures of jealousy and schadenfreude, which is exactly the type of human most purely designed to succeed in the modern age.

The mechanism for all this sheep training, particularly in our investment lives, is what game theory calls the Common Knowledge Game. Once you start noticing it, you will see it everywhere.

I’ve written about the Common Knowledge Game a lot in Epsilon Theory, starting in the original “Manifesto” and continuing with notes like “A Game of Sentiment” and “When Does the Story Break”. But let’s review this core game of sheep logic one more time, with feeling. So here’s the classic thought experiment of the Common Knowledge Game — The Island of the Green-Eyed Tribe.

On the Island of the Green-Eyed Tribe, blue eyes are taboo. If you have blue eyes you must get in your canoe and leave the island the next morning. But there are no mirrors or reflective surfaces on the island, so you don’t know the color of your own eyes. It is also taboo to talk with each other about eye color, so when you see a fellow tribesman with blue eyes, you say nothing. As a result, even though everyone knows there are blue-eyed tribesmen, no one has ever left the island for this taboo. A Missionary comes to the island and announces to everyone, “At least one of you has blue eyes.”

What happens?

Let’s take the trivial case of only one tribesman having blue eyes. He has seen everyone else’s eyes, and he knows that everyone else has green eyes. Immediately after the Missionary’s statement, this poor fellow realizes, “Oh, no! I must be the one with blue eyes.” So the next morning he gets in his canoe and leaves the island.

But now let’s take the case of two tribesmen having blue eyes. The two blue-eyed tribesmen have seen each other, so each thinks, “Whew! That guy has blue eyes, so he must be the one that the Missionary is talking about.” But because neither blue-eyed tribesman believes that he has blue eyes himself, neither gets in his canoe the next morning and leaves the island. The next day, then, each is very surprised to see the other fellow still on the island, at which point each thinks, “Wait a second … if he didn’t leave the island, it must mean that he saw someone else with blue eyes. And since I know that everyone else has green eyes, that means … oh, no! I must have blue eyes, too.” So on the morning of the second day, both blue-eyed tribesmen get in their canoes and leave the island.

The generalized answer to the question of “what happens?” is that for any n tribesmen with blue eyes, they all leave simultaneously on the nth morning after the Missionary’s statement. Note that no one forces the blue-eyed tribesmen to leave the island. They leave voluntarily once public knowledge is inserted into the informational structure of the tribal taboo system, which is the hallmark of an equilibrium shift in any game. Given the tribal taboo system (the rules of the game) and its pre-Missionary informational structure, new information from the Missionary causes the players to update their assessments of where they stand within the informational structure and choose to move to a new equilibrium outcome.

Before the Missionary arrives, the island is a pristine example of perfect private information. Everyone knows the eye color of everyone else, but that knowledge is locked up inside each tribesman’s own head, never to be made public. The Missionary does NOT turn private information into public information. He does not say, for example, that Tribesman Jones and Tribesman Smith have blue eyes. But he nonetheless transforms everyone’s private information into common knowledge. Common knowledge is not the same thing as public information. Common knowledge is information, public or private, that everyone believes is shared by everyone else. It’s the crowd of tribesmen looking around and seeing that the entire crowd heard the Missionary that unlocks the private information in their heads and turns it into common knowledge.

The important thing is not that everyone hears the Missionary’s words. The important thing is that everyone believes that everyone else heard the Missionary’s words, because that’s how you update your estimation of everyone else’s estimations (why didn’t that blue-eyed guy leave the island? I know he heard the news, too … hmm … but that must mean that he, too, saw a blue-eyed guy … hmm … oh, snap.). The power source of the Common Knowledge Game is the crowd seeing the crowd, and the dynamic structure of the Common Knowledge Game is the dynamic structure of the flock. There’s no purposeful objective that animates a flock the way it does a pack, which is why you famously have people describing the “madness of crowds.” But it’s not madness, and it’s not chaos, either. A crowd is the communication mechanism for the Common Knowledge Game, with clear rules and strategies for playing and winning.

Understanding the Common Knowledge Game has been the secret of successful shepherds since time immemorial, in business, politics, religion … any aspect of our lives as social animals. The only difference today is that technological innovation provides a media toolkit for modern shepherds that the shepherds of the Old Stories could only dream of.

This is why sitcom laugh tracks exist. This is why performances, whether it’s an NFL game or Dancing with the Stars, are filmed in front of a live audience. This is why the Chinese government still bans any internet pictures of the Tiananmen Square protests, with their massive crowds, more than 20 years after they occurred. This is what John Maynard Keynes called the Newspaper Beauty Contest, which he believed (and demonstrated) was the secret to successful investing through the 1930s. This is how Dick Clark built a massive fortune with American Bandstand. He didn’t tell Middle America what music to like; he got a crowd of attractive young people to announce what music they liked (“it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, I give it a 94, Dick!”), and Middle America took its cues from that. Not only is that all you need to motivate sheep, it’s far more effective than any efforts at direct influence.

This is why executions used to be held in public and why inaugurations still are. This is why Donald Trump cared so much about the size of his inauguration crowd. This is why he’s always talking about the viewership and ratings of his televised appearances. Trump gets it. He understands what makes the Common Knowledge Game work. It’s not what the crowd believes. It’s what the crowd believes that the crowd believes. The power of a crowd seeing a crowd is one of the most awesome forces in human society. It topples governments. It launches Crusades. It builds cathedrals. And it darn sure moves markets.

How do we “see” a crowd in financial markets? Through the financial media outlets that are ubiquitous throughout every professional investment operation in the world — the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, CNBC, and Bloomberg. That’s it. These are the only four signal transmission and mediation channels that matter from a financial market Common Knowledge Game perspective because “everyone knows” that we all subscribe to these four channels. If a signal appears prominently in any one of these media outlets (and if it appears prominently in one, it becomes “news” and will appear in all), then every professional investor in the world automatically assumes that every other professional investor in the world heard the signal. So if Famous Investor X appears on CNBC and says that the latest Fed announcement is a great and wonderful thing for equity markets, then the market will go up. It won’t go up because investors agree with Famous Investor X’s assessment of the merits of the Fed announcement. The market will go up because every investor will believe that every other investor heard what Famous Investor X said, and every investor will be forced to update his or her estimation of what every other investor estimates the market will do. It doesn’t matter what the Truth with a capital T is about the Fed. It doesn’t matter what you think about the Fed. It doesn’t matter what everyone thinks about the Fed. What matters is what everyone thinks that everyone thinks about the Fed. That’s how sheep logic, aka the Common Knowledge Game, works in markets.

So who owns us market sheep? The controllers of any Common Knowledge Game are the Missionaries, and the eternal Missionaries are the political executive and the market sell-side. Politicians and brokers have understood the power of this game for thousands of years, which makes the Street and the White House the constants as you examine the history of American sheepification. But they’re not the most powerful Missionaries of the modern age. No, that honor goes to our central bankers, relative newcomers to the Game, but quick studies all the same.

In his last Jackson Hole address, Ben Bernanke extols the virtues of their “communication tools”, carefully constructed media messages designed to alter investor behavior, messages that he says have been their most effective policy tools to date. Interest rates may hit a lower bound of zero, and asset purchases may lose their punch, but investors can ALWAYS be “guided”. The architect of this new and powerful toolkit? Vice Chair Janet Yellen, natch. Forward guidance and what the Fed calls communication policy are the very definition of Missionary statements, and our utter absorption in what everyone believes that everyone believes about the Fed’s impact on markets IS sheep logic.

Think that the Fed will go back to their old taciturn ways, content to let their actions speak louder than their words? Think again. Here’s Ben Bernanke again, this time in his final speech as Fed Chair:

The crisis has passed, but I think the Fed’s need to educate and explain will only grow. When Paul Volcker first sat in the Chairman’s office in 1979, there were no financial news channel on cable TV, no Bloomberg screens, no blogs, no Twitter. Today, news, ideas, and rumors circulate almost instantaneously. The Fed must continue to find ways to navigate this changing environment while providing clear, objective, and reliable information to the public.

Active central bank Narrative construction in the service of their policy goals is a permanent change in our market dynamics. The introduction of such a powerful new weapon in the Fed’s policy arsenal can no more be removed than mustard gas or tanks could be removed from national arsenals after World War I. Market prices may be mean-reverting, but “innovation” in the service of social control never is.

What do the Missionaries get out of this? What’s our equivalent of wool and mutton? It’s low volatility. It’s the transformation of capital markets into a political utility, which is just about the greatest gift that status quo political interests can imagine. When Donald Trump and Steve Mnuchin talk about the stock market being their “report card”, they’re just saying out loud what every other Administration has known for years. Forget about markets, our entire political system relies on stocks going up. If stocks don’t go up, our public pension funds and social insurance programs are busted, driving our current levels of wealth inequality from ridiculously unbalanced to Louis XVI unbalanced. If stocks don’t go up, we don’t have new collateral for our new debt, and if we can’t keep borrowing and borrowing to fuel today’s consumption with tomorrow’s growth … well, that’s no fun, now is it?

The flip side to all this, of course, is that so long as stocks DO go up, nothing big is ever going to change, You say you want a revolution? You’re a MAGA guy and you want someone to drain the Swamp? You’re a Bernie Bro and you want the rich to “pay their fair share”? Well, good luck with any of that so long as stocks go up. It’s a very stable political equilibrium we have today, full of Sturm und Drang to provide a bit of amusement and distraction, but very stable for the Haves.

And that brings us back to @RandoBlueStateLawyer and @RandoRedStateRetiree, fighting the good fight on Twitter or Facebook or wherever, speaking their Truth to their audience of dozens. They’re smart guys. Politically engaged guys. They’re angry about the mendacity of the Other Side. In another day and age they’d slam the newspaper down on the table and tell the dog what a fool that darn Truman was. Maybe write a strongly worded letter to the editor. But today they are consumed by this modern equivalent of writing a letter to the editor. They are immersed in the world of the Constant Hot Take, morning, noon and night. Why? Because Common Knowledge Game. Because they see a crowd responding to a crowd, and they are hard-wired to join in. Because it makes them feel good about themselves. Because they’ve been turned into other-regarding sheep even as they think they’re being self-regarding wolves.

In the same way that the modern story of what it means to be a sheep — docile, obedient, stupid — is totally wrong, so is the modern story of what it means to be a wolf. We think of a wolf as the epitome of rapacious independence, but wolves, like all pack animals, are far less independent (and far less greedy) than your average sheep. Unlike sheep, wolves can act outside of their group because they’re not consumed by other-regarding behavior, but those actions are ultimately in service to the pack. A sheep always acts within its group, but it’s never in service to the flock, only to its own needs.

Look, I’ll admit that I’m talking to myself as I write these words. I spend WAY too much time on Twitter, justifying it to myself in any number of ways, when in truth it’s the functional equivalent of a meth habit. At least it’s not as tough on the teeth. My wife is hooked on Facebook, my kids on god knows what social media platforms …. I’m not so naïve as to think that the answer to our collective sheepification is just to put the devices down. No, we’ve got to shift the way we use this stuff, not quit it cold turkey.

So what do we do? We stop pretending to be fake wolves and we start acting like real ones. We stop acting like animals of the flock and we start acting like animals of the pack. We reject the other-regarding emotions of jealousy and schadenfreude. Yes, even in our tweets (gulp!). We embrace self-regarding emotions like honor and — here’s where I’m going to lose everyone — shame.

Yes, we need a lot more shame in the world. The loss of our sense of shame is, I think, the greatest loss of our modern world, where — to retweet myself scale and mass distribution are ends in themselves, where the supercilious State knows what’s best for you and your family, where communication policy and fiat news shout down authenticity, where rapacious, know-nothing narcissism is celebrated as leadership even as civility, expertise, and service are mocked as cuckery. Or to put it in sheep logic terms: the tragedy of the flock is that everything is instrumental, including our relationship to others. Including our relationship to ourselves.

Why do we need shame? Because with no sense of shame there is no sense of honor. There is no mercy. There is no charity. There is no forgiveness. There is no loyalty. There is no courage. There is no service. There is no Code. There are no ties that bind us as citizens, as fellow pack members seeking to achieve something bigger and more important than our ability to graze on as much grass as we can. Something like, you know, liberty and justice for all.

Any coin worth having has two sides. A shameless politics has no honor. A riskless market has no reward. Oh, the Missionaries will tell you that there’s honor in the shameless politics and reward in the riskless markets, and for all the high-functioning sociopaths out there I’m sure that’s true, But if you’re not totally sheepified yet, if your goal is still honorable service to your clients or your partners or your family or your nation or your species — whatever your pack may be — then you know that this is NOT true. You know that shame and risk can be deferred or displaced but never wiped clean, no matter how many Supreme Court Justices you appoint and no matter how many all-time highs the stock market hits. You know that a reputation is like a tea cup; once broken you can glue it back together, but it will always be a broken tea cup. You know that the only game worth playing is the long game.

This is the Age of the High-Functioning Sociopath. This is the Age of Sheep Logic. We have to survive it, but we don’t have to succumb to it. How do we Resist? Not by switching out blue Missionaries for red Missionaries or red Missionaries for blue Missionaries. Not by switching out one bad shepherd for another bad shepherd. We don’t have to play that game! We resist by changing the System from below, by carving out local spheres of action where we are relentlessly honorable and charitable, relentlessly un-sheeplike. We resist by Making America Good Again, one pack at a time, which is a hell of a lot harder than making America great ever was. We resist by doing right by our clients, even if that means getting slapped around by supposedly riskless markets and shameless politics. Even if that means losing clients. Even if that means losing our jobs.

A good shepherd once said that whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. Of course, I also knew a good Dungeonmaster who said that being lawful good didn’t mean being lawful stupid, and turning the other cheek always seemed to be kinda stupid to me. Kinda sheeplike. But then I started keeping sheep, and my perspective changed. Sheep would never turn the other cheek. But a wolf would. A wolf would take a hit for the pack. It’s the smart play for the long game. As wise as serpents, you might say.

It’s time to be wolves. Not as devourers, but as animals that know honor and shame. It’s time to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. It’s time to remember the Old Stories. It’s time to find your pack.

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I’m Not Predicting, I’m Observing

George Soros has a great line, one that I’ve stolen many times: “I’m not predicting. I’m observing.” We really don’t have a crystal ball, and it really is a dumb idea to pretend that we do. But what’s not dumb is to keep your eyes and ears open, observing both what the world is telling you (playing the cards) and what other market participants are telling you (playing the players), and reacting accordingly. That’s the heart of tactical investing.

What I’m observing today is that the European *story* is broken. I’m not saying that real world European companies are broken or that real world European economies are broken. In both cases, a few are but most aren’t. What I’m saying is that the buy-Europe!™ story that has been pitched by the sell-side ad nauseam for the past six months is broken and that these stocks are defenseless against the steady stream of anti-Europe political news we are going to endure for the next eight weeks.

Here’s the S&P 500 Index (“SPX”) in white, German DAX Index (“DAX”) in green, and Stoxx 600 Index in red over the past six months:

Source: Bloomberg, as of 02/26/17. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is not indicative of how the index will perform in the future. The index reflects the reinvestment of dividends and income and does not reflect deductions for fees, expenses or taxes. The indices are unmanaged and are not available for direct investment.

Yes, the DAX has outperformed the SPX over the past six months. Why? Because every sell-side strategist and his cousin has been pounding the table that Europe is recovering and Europe is cheap and why worry about all those elections, anyway, because even if Le Pen wins it’ll just be like Brexit and everything will be fine.

The truth is I don’t know whether or not Le Pen will win in France this May. I don’t have a crystal ball. But what I do know is that nothing is happening between now and those elections that makes it less than a 50/50 coin toss whether Le Pen wins. There’s going to be a steady stream of negative press about all of the candidates from now until then, the difference being that core Le Pen supporters, like core Trump supporters, don’t care about the negative press. There is no story that could make these stocks go UP, but there will be plenty of stories that can make these stocks go DOWN.

And yes, I know that for “patient, long-term investors” and all the Warren Buffett wannabes out there, what happens over the next eight weeks doesn’t matter a bit, and if European stocks go down it just means that they’re even more “on sale”. But what I also know is that whenever I read a sell-side note talking about why something is a buy *today* for “patient, long-term investors”, that’s typically a signal to start shorting whatever they’re pitching. What I also know is that it’s a lot easier to be Warren Buffett when you’ve got $100 BILLION in more-or-less permanent capital from your insurance float. Good for him. Ain’t my situation. I’m guessing it isn’t yours, either.

But the risk here isn’t just a temporary blip on the European horizon. Here’s a picture of 2-yr French bond yields to 2-yr German bond yields (yellow), 2-yr Italian bond yields to Germany (red), and 2-yr Spanish bond yields to Germany (green) over the past six months. If you lived through the summer of 2011, this chart should give you a shiver.

Source: Bloomberg, as of 02/26/17. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

This is telling you that bond markets are starting to get really nervous about Europe and the stability of the Euro system, and the time frame of their nervousness is over the next two years. Could all this blow over if we get a market-friendly political result in May? Absolutely. And if that happens, maybe I’ll buy Europe THEN. But until then, I’ll listen to what the bond market is telling me over whatever Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and the rest of our sell-side friends is pitching me. I’m not predicting. I’m observing.

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The Evolution of Competition

Death inspires me
Like a dog inspires a rabbit.
― Twenty One Pilots, “Heavydirtysoul” (2017)

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
― Sigmund Freud, who probably never actually said this (but should have)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a fight with my wife, spoiling an otherwise wonderful night out, and email spats with two of my best and oldest friends. It was about Trump, of course. Not directly, but always on some silly tangential issue like “Should Sally Yates have resigned instead of countermanded an executive order on the basis of her personal beliefs?” or, better yet, “Is Lady Gaga authentic?” In each case, I didn’t recognize that we weren’t really talking about what I thought we were talking about, and by the time I did recognize the real issues, I was already too far down the path of combative Ben (think Bruce Banner but without the green skin) to care. Not my finest moments.

I suspect a lot of Epsilon Theory readers have had similar individual experiences of late. Certainly it seems that our collective experience as a nation and political society is breaking down this way.

What I want to write about today is not the specifics of this policy or that policy. It’s not to make an argument of any sort. It’s to write about argumentation itself, and the way in which the GAME of our politics and our society has shifted. Yeah, I know this is all very meta and has zero direct impact on your investing or portfolio decisions. But it’s actually the only thing that I think really matters for our social lives, including our lives as citizens and as investors, because it’s only by recognizing the game that we’re playing that we can survive it. Together. Maybe.

The most widely read Epsilon Theory note ever was “Virtue Signaling: Or Why Clinton is in Trouble”, published last September, where I wrote about why I thought Hillary could lose the election. The argument was that this was a turn-out election for a handful of swing states, and Democrats were all too keen to proclaim their political virtue by being anti-Trump in easy places like the Huffington Post or California metro advertising markets, where lots of like-minded Democrats would see them, rather than to barnstorm FOR Clinton in places where unlike-minded Democrats would see them, like Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin. Hubris, thy name is Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the DNC cartel.

But here’s what I wrote about Trump in that note:

Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

Blowing up our international trade and security games with Europe, Japan, and China for the sheer hell of it, turning them into full-blown Competition Games … that’s really stupid. But we have a nasty recession and maybe a nasty war. Maybe it would have happened anyway. We get over it. Blowing up our American political game with citizens, institutions, and identities for the sheer hell of it, turning it into a full-blown Competition Game … that’s a historic tragedy. We don’t get over that.

Geez. Like anyone else with a public persona, I loooove being right. But I didn’t expect to be this right, this quickly. The election of Trump IS breaking us, and not because of the specifics of his policies or whether they’re right or wrong or anything like that. It’s breaking us because of the nature of repeated-play competitive games and the shifting meaning of cooperation.

That first bit — the nature of repeated-play competitive games — is a mouthful. All it really means, though, is that our real-life social interactions, whether in politics or markets or everyday life with our family and friends, are never a single, solitary game. We play the same core game over and over and over, each single interaction setting the stage for the next, and what we really should be concerned about is the overall pattern of the entire set of interactions. That’s real life, as opposed to some 2×2 matrix of Cooperate/Defect like you’d see in a game theory textbook.

And famously, repeated plays can help improve competitive games that otherwise end up in a sad equilibrium, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A political scientist named Robert Axelrod (not to be confused with David Axelrod of Obama campaign and CNN fame … this is a different guy) wrote a really influential book back in 1984 called The Evolution of Cooperation, where he showed that a cooperative but non-patsy player (i.e., willing to cooperate first and reluctantly forgive an opponent’s occasional defection) would, over time, find enough similarly “nice” players to create an ecosystem of cooperators and dominate, over time, those not-so-nice players who were looking to WIN BIGLY in every single interaction. Axelrod’s book was one of the most popular political science books of the past 40 years, and it spawned a cottage industry of academics looking to expand this insight in theory and practice. It’s a powerful idea because it’s a hopeful idea for nice people. If only us nice people can signal each other and band together, why golly, this proves that there’s nothing we can’t overcome together in this mean old world.

Unfortunately, the evolution of cooperation through adopting “nice” strategies is not a particularly robust finding. Or rather, it’s robust, but only in a particular subset of competitive games and only if the players agree on the meaning of cooperation. For example, if you’re playing a game of Chicken over and over again rather than a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma over and over again, being nice and forgiving doesn’t work very well. At all. Google “Sudetenland 1938” if you don’t believe me. In fact, the entire concept of repeated-play doesn’t fit neatly with the competitive game of Chicken, which is a problem because it’s the dominant competitive game form in the modern world, both internationally and domestically. It wasn’t always this way, particularly in our domestic politics. But it sure is now.

The fundamental reason that a repeated-play cooperative strategy doesn’t work in a game of Chicken is that the meaning of cooperation is different in this class of games. You see it in the title of the game itself. If you cooperate in a game of Chicken — i.e., you’re driving your tractor straight on at Kevin Bacon’s pick-up truck and you veer off from the looming crash, or you and James Dean are racing towards a cliff and you put on your brakes first — you are the LOSER. You are the COWARD. That becomes your identity and your reputation, which means that others will now treat you like a loser and a coward in the games that they play with you in the future. Compare that to the meaning of cooperation in a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, where cooperation — i.e., you refuse to rat out your partner and cut a deal for yourself at his expense — means that you are STRONG and LOYAL. The words and the examples used to illustrate bloodless, mathematical game theoretic matrices are not accidental! If we believe that our identity is at risk in a repeated-play competitive game, we behave very differently than if it’s not. More to the point, we should behave differently if our identity is at stake. It’s the rational thing to do. If Trump inspires you like a dog inspires a rabbit, then you should never cooperate if it’s a game of Chicken with his tribe and you should always cooperate if it’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with your tribe. Maybe you’ll crash the car in this particular game of Chicken and maybe your partner will rat you out in this particular game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. But your identity and reputation will be strengthened, not damaged, for the next game you play with the other tribe or within your own tribe. And there’s always another game.

Okay, Ben, fair enough. We don’t want to be cowards but we still want to think of ourselves as nice. For the big identity-is-at-stake games, we should play nice strategies within our own mob and play mean strategies with the other guys. Got it. But how do we avoid crashing the car in our everyday lives? How do we avoid talking past or yelling at our friends, family, and fellow citizens with whom we share so much common ground on the really big ideas of what it means to be Americans or, more fundamentally still, a good human being?

Well … first off I’m going to suggest that we should all prepare for impact. The evolution of competition and the success of “mean” strategies in games like Chicken is at least as robust as the evolution of cooperation and the success of “nice” strategies in games like Prisoner’s Dilemma. Once you introduce, say, mustard gas into the trench warfare game, it doesn’t just un-introduce itself on its own. These bells are really hard to un-ring, and it typically takes a lot of car crashes on both sides before you get a peace treaty and a chance to rebuild a cooperative game structure. That’s at least four mixed metaphors, but you get what I mean. And unfortunately, all of these metaphors apply just as aptly to a social structure of family and friends as to a social structure of a political party or an entire nation. The evolution of competition is a powerfully contagious virus, and it hops easily from a big tribe like a nation to a small tribe like a family.

But I do have two suggestions to limit the damage that the evolution of competition inevitably spews in its wake.

First, whatever competitive social interaction we’re having, at whatever level we’re having it, the most important thing in that interaction is to figure out the meaning of cooperation for yourself and whoever you’re dealing with. Otherwise you’re going to find yourself playing a different game from the other person, and that never ends well. This is a tough piece of advice to follow (myself included!) because we assume that whatever our “identity weighting” might be for a given issue, the person or group we’re interacting with attaches that same meaning. So, for example, if you voted for Clinton as an affirmation of a personal identity that rejects the racism and sexism you see in Trump, your natural assumption is going to be that anyone who voted for Trump similarly did so as an affirmation of a personal identity, but one that accepts racism and sexism. Or vice versa. Or whatever. We’ve all seen a dozen variations of this theme over the past eight weeks, and we’ve all (yes, every single one of us) engaged in it, as well. This sort of projection is an innate behavioral bias of the human animal. I get it. But it is also entirely wrong-headed when it comes to complex and over-determined social behaviors like voting. Or buying a stock. Believe it or not (and many people reading this note won’t), behaviors like voting or purchasing or speaking or tweeting are not necessarily markers of personal identity. Maybe they are, and when they are they MUST be respected if you care about having a peaceful social interaction. But maybe they aren’t. And that must be respected, too.

Second, it’s crucial to recognize that not all political arguments or competitive games are really existential in nature or fraught with questions of identity. Not every tweet is a constitutional crisis. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. This is also a tough piece of advice to follow (also myself included!) because the ringleaders of the various Team Elite cabals, whether it’s the Trump Plutocrats or the Davos Globalists or the Central Bank Mandarins or the NeoCon Spymasters or whoever, are working diligently day in and day out to convince you that it is. That every action or statement by the other ringleaders is an OUTRAGE. That this is how Hitler got started or how liberty is lost.

Of course, the really scary thing is that this IS how Hitler got started and it IS how liberty is lost, it’s just not clear to me which of our contending factions or geographies is supplying the 21st century version. History rhymes roughly; it doesn’t repeat neatly.

Meanwhile the barrage of fiat news and alternative facts continues from all sides unabated. We are caught in the crossfire of the “mean” strategies implemented by the various factions as they quite rationally engage in a massive repeated-play game of Chicken, where winning means mobilizing the hearts and minds of the cannon fodder. And by cannon fodder I mean us.

It’s the oldest saying in poker, and one I can’t repeat often enough. If you’ve been playing poker for 30 minutes and you don’t know who the sucker is … it’s you. We are — all of us, without exception — being played. That doesn’t mean we stop playing the game, whether it’s the game of markets or the game of citizenship. It means, though, that we resolve not to be the sucker. That we turn a clear eye to the stories that others tell us and the stories that we tell ourselves. That we demand to be treated as the rightful, autonomous owners of our identities, and we extend that right to others.

Know thyself.

Treat others as you would have them treat you.  

Pretty good advice 2,000 years ago in some pretty hard times. Pretty good advice today.

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The Art of the Probe

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-cincinnati-kid

Slade: How the hell did you know I didn’t have the king or the ace?
Lancey Howard: I recollect a young man putting the same question to Eddie the Dude. “Son,” Eddie told him, “all you paid was the looking price. Lessons are extra.”
― “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-lanceyThere are only two great movies about poker — Rounders, which everyone knows, and The Cincinnati Kid, which no one knows. Steve McQueen is the Kid and Edward G. Robinson is the Old Pro, Lancey. When I was a younger man, I rooted for the Kid. Today … I’m pulling for Lancey all the way.

Slade: Six stacks, is that right, Shooter?
Shooter: Six.
Slade: Well, we’ve been playing 30 hours… uh, that rate, six thousand, that makes roughly, uh, $200 an hour. Thank you for the entertainment, gentlemen. I am particularly grateful to Lancey, here; it’s been a rewarding experience to watch a great artist at work. Thank you for the privilege, sir.
Lancey Howard: Well now, you’re quite welcome, son. It’s a pleasure to meet someone who understands that to the true gambler, money is never an end in itself, it’s simply a tool, as a language is to thought.
“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-lardner

Money is to gambling as a language is to thought. What a line!

Screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the Hollywood 10 who refused to be rats for the House Un-American Activities Committee in McCarthy days. Lardner was blacklisted and sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress.

True courage comes at a heavy price. Some will be willing to pay that price over the next four years.

And some won’t.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-melba

[Shooter’s wife Melba is altering a jigsaw puzzle piece with a nail file]
Shooter: Melba, why do you do that?
Melba: So it’ll fit, stupid.
Shooter: No, I’m not talking about that. What I’m asking is … do you, uh, have to cheat at everything?
Melba: At everything?
Shooter: Yes. At … solitaire. I’ve yet to see you play one game of solitaire without cheating.
Melba: So what?
Shooter: Look, you’re just cheating yourself, don’t you understand? You’ll be the loser, no one else but yourself! … You’ve ruined the puzzle, now, that doesn’t go in there.
[She forces the altered piece into place]
Melba: Does now.
“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

I’ve known more than a few economists who had more than a little Melba in them. Quants, too. That’s Ann-Margret as Bad Girl Melba, by the way, and Karl Malden as the cuckolded Shooter. ‘Nuff said.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-goethe

Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

A gambit risks a pawn for advantage later in the game. The word is derived from the Italian gamba (leg), from a wrestling move with a similar sacrifice.

In chess as in life — the only way to defeat a gambit is to accept it.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-kennedy

Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.

Nikita Khrushchev, 1963

Without wishing to trade hyperbole with the Chairman, I do suggest that he reminds me of the tiger hunter who has picked a place on the wall to hang the tiger’s skin long before he has caught the tiger. This tiger has other ideas.

John F. Kennedy, 1961

Sieges and blockades are game theory in practice, on both sides of the wall.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-general-giap epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-general-siege

Photo of North Vietnamese General Giap, taken during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In anticipation of a full-scale assault, the French took up positions (marked in green on the map) on a series of fortified hills. Rather than attack en masse, however, Giap set up artillery positions east and north of the French fortifications and wore the French down with artillery fire combined with constant probing skirmishes. In investing, I always try to think: WWGGD?

I’ve written a lot about The Common Knowledge Gamehere, here, and here – because it’s the game of markets, i.e., it’s the central contribution of game theory to understanding how markets work. I’ve also written a lot about new technologies and new perspectives – here, here, and here – that help us see The Common Knowledge Game in action. Today I want to take a different cut at this topic: how can you be a better game-player? What are some specific strategies one can adopt to play the game of markets more effectively?

There’s a concept in poker that’s a useful introduction to what I want to talk about. It goes by lots of different names, but I’ll call it The Probing Bet. The idea is that you make a raise or otherwise take the initiative in a signaling interaction because, as you’ll hear time after time if you talk to good poker players, you need to find out “where you stand” in that particular hand. The betting behavior of the other poker players sitting around the table from you is like the betting behavior of the other investors sitting around the market from you: it’s over-determined, which is a $10 word that means there are far more possible explanations of what actual cards might be driving that betting behavior than are required to explain the behavior fully (see “The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil” for an investment example).

In other words, there might be six different basic card combination categories that an opponent might hold, each of which — if you were playing that hand — has some percentage likelihood of prompting you to duplicate that opponent’s betting behavior. But if you add up those percentage likelihoods across the six different categories, you get a number way higher than 100%. As a result, if you’re trying to reverse engineer in your mind what cards your opponent might be holding, it’s really difficult to come up with anything interesting or informative. It’s difficult and not terribly fun, so most poker players don’t even try. Most poker players only play their own hand. Period. They know their own hand’s strength in an absolute or non-strategic sense, and they know what cards need to show up for them to have a really killer hand. But that’s all they really know, so their betting behavior is directly connected to the non-strategic strength of their hand, coupled with some loose sense of whether they want to play “tight” (bet per the book odds of hitting that killer hand) or “loose” (bet more than the cards justify in an absolute sense in order to set up a bluff or maybe just get lucky).

The average poker player is fascinated by his own cards. Every deal unlocks a world of seemingly endless potential, and almost all of the mental energy at a typical poker game is consumed by thoughts of “how am I going to represent my hand to my opponent?” In sharp contrast, precious little mental energy is spent asking “how can I learn more about how my opponent is representing his hand?”, even though the latter question is FAR more useful to answer. Why more useful? Because just as you are fascinated by your cards, so is your opponent fascinated by his cards. In a game of ubiquitous self-absorption, even a little bit of other-awareness goes a really long way.

What you need to whittle down an over-determined behavior is The Probing Bet, something out of the ordinary that intentionally puts capital at risk in order to narrow down the likely range of hands your opponent might hold. The Probing Bet isn’t designed to represent or signal anything about your hand (which right there makes it a foreign concept to the vast majority of players). It’s a bet designed to get more information about your opponent’s hand and the way he plays it, and it’s something you might do regardless of what cards you have in your hand. Importantly, The Probing Bet in and of itself has a negative expected return. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that’s as true in poker as anywhere else. If you want more information, you have to pay for it, and the cost is the potential loss of The Probing Bet. You should gladly pay that cost, however, if the additional information garnered from The Probing Bet increases the expected return of the entire deal (or future deals!) by an even greater amount.

You can find the concept of The Probing Bet in every classic game. In chess, it’s the gambit, the intentional risking of a pawn that accepts a limited loss in the short term to win a more valuable positional advantage over the entire course of the game. When offered a gambit, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t accept the offered pawn, you don’t get the piece and you lose the positional advantage anyway. But if you do accept the pawn, your degrees of freedom going forward are sorely limited. On balance, when offered a gambit you have to take it. Chess is a game of informational initiative, and playing a gambit grabs that initiative with both hands. At a cost.

You similarly find the concept of The Probing Bet in every game of nations, and it’s here that we can start making the connection (please!) to the game of markets. I know this sounds weird, but I’ve always found international maritime law to be a place where the game of nations gets crystalized in really interesting ways. Why? Because international law in general is just a short cut to equilibrium outcomes that you’d otherwise need to fight a war to arrive at — which is to say that international law is, in a very real way, MADE of game theory — and maritime law in particular has seen thousands of years of every imaginable strategic interaction in a clean and ordered way. So bear with me as I shift the metaphor from poker to naval blockades and the role of non-belligerent neutral parties. Trust me, there’s a decent payoff here.

Let’s say you’re Neutral Nation and you want to send a ship full of wheat across the ocean to Market Nation and sell it there. You’re one of many neutral nations and you don’t have a huge combatant navy, just lots of cargo ships and lots of wheat to sell. Unfortunately, Market Nation is at war with Banker Nation. Now you don’t have a dog in that fight; all you want to do is make money. But before you send your ship on its merry way, you are informed by Banker Nation’s ambassador that they have declared a blockade on Market Nation, that the list of contraband materials includes wheat, and that they are asserting the right to stop, search, and seize any neutral ships headed for Market Nation carrying such contraband. What do you do?

For a blockade to be valid under international law, two conditions must be fulfilled. First, it must be communicated to you, which in this case it clearly was (interestingly, it doesn’t have to be communicated directly, but can be understood to have been communicated “through the notoriety of the fact”, which is a fancy way of saying Common Knowledge). Second — and this is the important part — it must be an effective blockade for it to be legally binding on you, the neutral party. In other words, Croatia can’t declare a neutral party-binding blockade on Italy because it doesn’t have enough warships to cover all of the Italian ports and make that blockade effective. So if Banker Nation is some weakling, you have every right to say that you don’t recognize their blockade as effective, and any action they might take against your ships will be treated as an illegal seizure and a potential act of war. In game theory we would call this a trivial case, in that the game play is obvious — you and every other neutral country ignore the “blockade” and it collapses immediately.

But let’s say that Banker Nation has a decent-sized navy, maybe even a large navy. Let’s say that Banker Nation is able to put a warship or two around most of Market Nation’s ports most of the time. Is that an effective blockade? Banker Nation will represent that it is. Banker Nation and its ambassadors will tell you that they have an impenetrable wall of warships covering every square inch of Market Nation’s coastline. You know that this isn’t true, but you don’t know how true it is. When they say that they have an effective blockade, are they covering 100% of the ports 80% of the time? 60% of the ports 60% of the time? Does their coverage ratio go up over time? Down? Whatever the port coverage ratio might be, is that enough for you to consider the blockade “effective” and keep your cargo ships at home? The problem you face as Neutral Nation is the same problem faced by The Cincinnati Kid: the statement “my blockade is effective” is as over-determined as an opening bet in a game of Five Card Stud. You don’t know what cards Banker Nation is really holding.

So here’s what you don’t do as Neutral Nation. You don’t send cargo ship after cargo ship sailing blindly to Market Nation in the hopes that a few of them will slip through. You don’t fight the Fed Banker Nation! But what’s also a mistake is to accept the efficacy of Banker Nation’s blockade as a permanent state of the world or just on their word, even though that’s what most neutral countries will do.

So what DO you do? Let’s put this (finally!) in the context of an actual investment scenario. The ECB has famously said that they will do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro system intact. They have proclaimed unlimited resolve to purchase government and corporate debt to accomplish their goals. They have, to stick with the naval warfare metaphor, announced an effective blockade of fundamental market pressures associated with the common currency and the sovereign debt of currency bloc members. Would the Spanish 10-year bond trade 90 basis points tighter than the U.S. 10-year bond if the ECB weren’t patrolling the waters of sovereign rates markets? Please.

But at the same time, the ECB is facing extraordinary and escalating pressure on the home front — the politics of member states and their willingness to participate in a common currency system that clearly has big winners (Germany) and big losers (Italy). 2016 was rocky enough from a political perspective, but 2017 shapes up to be a real doozy, with elections in France and Germany and probably Italy … the three sine qua non countries of the eurozone. As the home front deteriorates, the ECB is going to be hard-pressed to maintain its fleet of announced balance sheet expansion programs, much less the mythical dreadnaughts of the OMT program and other super-warships that are supposedly waiting in the wings should the blockade start to fail. Draghi and the rest of Banker Nation will never admit the deterioration in the cards that they hold, but we know it’s happening. What we don’t know is how bad the deterioration actually is. What we don’t know is what has to happen before Common Knowledge shifts from “yes, the blockade is effective so don’t even try to act against the ECB” to “no, the blockade is no longer effective so let’s go do what we’ve gotta do to protect our capital and make some money if the euro isn’t going to make it.”

What we do know, however, is how the Common Knowledge Game works. We know that we need to watch for a Missionary statement — typically from a status quo-breaking politician — that creates new Common Knowledge in opposition to the old Common Knowledge. We know that we need to watch for how this Missionary statement is repeated and amplified (or not) by other Missionaries — other politicians, famous investors, prominent journalists, etc. We know that this war of beliefs and memes is every bit as fierce as a war of bullets, and that it isn’t just difficult, but is impossible to predict the winning belief through traditional econometric analysis (in the lingo, it’s a multiple-equilibrium game).

Since we can’t predict where we’re going to end up in the Common Knowledge Game (and I really can’t emphasize this point strongly enough … the past is a terrible predictor of the future when it comes to multiple-equilibrium games), we have to constantly assess where we are as the game unfolds. How do we do that? By making occasional Probing Bets. By placing capital at risk to see “where we stand” in the strategic dynamic of the game of markets. By experiencing the reaction of the ECB and other investors, large and small, to a potential volatility catalyst like an Italian election.

Some investors make big Probing Bets. They’re called Bond Vigilantes, and they’ve been cowering in the tall grass since 2012 when Draghi proclaimed “whatever it takes”. But they’re still there, biding their time. Just wait. In 2017 they’ll be back. Many of these game players are Missionaries themselves, and they pack an extra punch in the game-playing as a result.

But you don’t need to be a hedge fund Master of the Universe to make a Probing Bet, although maybe we should take the capitalization off and call these probing bets. You just need to get in the game. I’d like to tell you that you can figure out where we are in the euro game by watching from the sidelines and letting others place Probing Bets, but I can’t. My strong belief is that you have to live an investment before you can gain useful information from the experience. And it’s got to be a high enough cost so that you pay attention. As Old Pro Lancey would say, you can’t just pay the looking price. Does it have to be a cost in actual dollars and cents? No, although that’s a really good attention-grabber. The real price you must pay for a probing bet is even more precious than money — time. That’s the price that most of us find hardest to pay, which is why I think it makes all the behavioral sense in the world to couple it with real money. No one uses the free gym in an apartment complex.

And now for the big finish. I’ve used a macro trade (the ECB and what’s in store for the euro) as my example of the useful role of probing bets and the investment managers who play those cards, because that’s the investment arena that I play in. The exact same logic applies to ALL investment arenas and ALL active managers. What’s the big mistake that investors are making with their single-minded and headlong pursuit of passive investment strategies in the form of ETFs, index funds, and the like? Passive strategies give you ZERO information about the strategic gameplay of markets. Passive strategies, by definition, cannot make a Probing Bet. Passive strategies, by definition, will be the last to know when the state of the world has changed and will be the slowest to adapt. A portfolio composed of passive strategies is like the average poker player who just plays his own hand in a strategic vacuum. That can work out fine if you’re dealt nothing but great cards, a lot less well if you’re not.

That’s not to say that all active managers are effective information-seekers or strategic game-players. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, active managers and active investors are so-so game-players because they confuse caution with wisdom. It’s one thing — a perfectly reasonable thing — to create a cautious portfolio through low gross exposure or high levels of cash if your belief is that markets are more likely to go down than up AND you are placing probing bets to see if the market dynamic is somewhere other than where you think it is, i.e., more positive than you believe. And it’s also a perfectly reasonable thing to be all-in with your portfolio if your belief is that markets are likely to keep rocking AND you are placing probing bets to see if the market dynamic is somewhere other than where you think it is, i.e., more negative than you believe. What’s not so reasonable, I think, but I see every day (and I recognize from time to time when I look in the mirror!) is to take a big risk with a portfolio (and a high level of cash IS a big risk for a portfolio), without allocating a commensurate portion of my risk budget towards going the other way, towards gaining more information about how competing players are playing their hand, towards challenging my beliefs with real dollars and precious time.

And that, in a nutshell, is the best advice I’ve got for any game, whether it’s the game of poker, the game of chess, the game of nations, or the game of markets: act strongly on your beliefs, but don’t hold your beliefs strongly. That’s the cornerstone of Adaptive Investing.

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Virtue Signaling, or … Why Clinton is in Trouble

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-dukakis

Hillary Clinton would make a sober, smart and pragmatic president.

Donald Trump would be a catastrophe.

LA Times Editorial Board endorsement, September 23, 2016

Yep, gotta get me some of that pragmatism! It’s code for “typical lying politician”, and of course the LA Times knows it.

After opposing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants during the 2008 campaign, she now vows to push for comprehensive immigration legislation as president and to use executive power to protect law-abiding undocumented people from deportation and cruel detention. Some may dismiss her shift as opportunistic, but we credit her for arriving at the right position.

She helped promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an important trade counterweight to China and a key component of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia. Her election-year reversal on that pact has confused some of her supporters, but her underlying commitment to bolstering trade along with workers’ rights is not in doubt.

New York Times Editorial Board endorsement, September 25, 2016. Italics mine.

With passive-aggressive friends like these …

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-rosengren

As a result I am arguing for modest, gradual tightening now, out of concern that not doing so today will put the recovery’s duration and sustainability at greater risk, by generating the sorts of significant imbalances that historically have led to a recession.

Statement of Eric S. Rosengren, Commenting on Dissenting Vote at the Meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, September 23, 2016

It’s not just the number of dissents on last week’s FOMC vote, it’s the argument. Rosengren says the Fed is causing the next recession.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-ted-kennedy

Roger Mudd: Why do you want to be president?
Ted Kennedy: The reasons I would run are because I have great belief in this country, that is — there’s more natural resources than any nation in the world, there’s the greatest educated population in the world. It just seems to me that this nation can cope and deal with the problems in a way it has done in the past … and I would basically feel that it’s imperative for the country to either move forward, that it can’t stand still or otherwise it moves backwards.
CBS interview with Ted Kennedy, October 1979

And just like that, Kennedy was finished. My question for Yellen: why do you want to be Fed chair?

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-david-malki-cartoon David Malki, “In which War is waged”, September 13, 2016

I was in Los Angeles last week, and the Clinton anti-Trump TV ads were in heavy rotation. It’s not because the Clinton campaign is worried about the California vote, because if they were then the election would already be irredeemably lost. No, the ads are being run in the metro LA area so that Clinton supporters (and donors!) can feel good about themselves. It’s like throwing a massively expensive dinner party to congratulate yourself for all the money you’ve raised to feed the poor.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-time

Isaac: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Ya know? I read it in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, ya know, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to ’em.
Party Guest: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times, just devastating.
Isaac: Whoa, whoa. A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it.
Helen: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.
Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis.
Woody Allen, “Manhattan” (1979)

Epsilon Theory readers know where I stand on this. It’s just another instantiation of the Common Knowledge game, where everyone knows that everyone knows that John Oliver is funny, but no one actually thinks that he’s funny. Want to see effective (that is, subversive) political humor? Watch anything by Groucho Marx. Want to see ineffective (that is, status quo) political humor? Watch anything by these supercilious scolds. At least Samantha Bee gets the joke.

We do not place especial value on the possession of a virtue until we notice its total absence in our opponent.
― Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-trump

PolitiFact, a Tampa Bay Times site that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 2008 election, has rated 70% of the Trump statements it has checked as mostly false, false or “pants on fire,” its lowest score. By contrast, 28% of Clinton’s statements earned those ratings.

Michael Finnegan, LA Times “Scope of Trump’s falsehoods unprecedented for a modern presidential candidate”, September 25, 2016

The fact-checker’s inspirational battle cry: “Lying only 28 percent of the time!”

The people complaining about “false balance” usually seem confident in having discovered the truth of things for themselves, despite the media’s supposed incompetence. They’re quite sure of whom to vote for and why. Their complaints are really about the impact that “false balance” coverage might have on other, lesser humans, with weaker minds than theirs. Which is not just snobbish, but laughably snobbish.

So, shut up.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone “Stop Whining About ‘False Balance’”, September 16, 2016

Wait … Clinton apparatchiks are snobbish?  

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-shriver

As a lifelong Democratic voter, I’m dismayed by the radical left’s ever-growing list of dos and don’ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy. There are many people who see these frenzies about cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions and safe spaces as overtly crazy. The shrill tyranny of the left helps to push them toward Donald Trump.

Lionel Shriver, The New York Times “Will the Left Survive the Millennials?”, September 23, 2016

There are real bigots out there. Real misogynists. Real anti-Semites. Real alt-right “deplorables”. None of them are university professors. None of them are novelists. But if you want to see what the real thing looks like, just keep doing this sort of insanely misplaced virtue signaling.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-yoko-ono

I did not break up the Beatles. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to blame me for breaking the Beatles up, you should be thankful that I made them into myth rather than a crumbling group.

Yoko Ono (b. 1933)

Common Knowledge today: Donald Trump is the Yoko Ono of the Republican Party.

Common Knowledge tomorrow: Hillary Clinton is the Yoko Ono of the Democratic Party.

If you’ve ever played a team sport, you’ve experienced a game that was a mismatch on paper. Now usually that game goes according to form. The better team scores early and often, and the inferior team doesn’t sniff a win. But sometimes the game gets tight. Sometimes the better team makes a few unforced errors, and the inferior team capitalizes. Sometimes there’s a lucky bounce of the ball for the inferior team. And then another. And another.

There’s a moment in every game of this unexpected type — the upset in the making — when the individual players on the better team (call them the status quo team) begin to doubt. They feel the game slipping away, even though they know that they’re the better team. What happens to many players in that moment of doubt is, to use the game theoretic phrase, they decide to defect. It doesn’t mean that they quit. It doesn’t mean that they give up. In fact, without exception, they all believe that their team will still prevail. But they start to think about what a loss, however improbable, would mean for their personal, individual goals. They never even entertained those thoughts at the beginning of the game. It was all about the team, and a team victory would naturally go hand in hand with personal development and personal goals. But now … now that the unthinkable is suddenly thinkable … they start acting directly in favor of their own self-interest, not the team’s communal interest. They start signaling their virtue.

Virtue signaling is a behavior that visibly demonstrates the individual qualities of the player to some external audience, whether or not it improves the chances of the team to win. It’s not overtly detrimental to the team. In fact, for all outward appearances it’s rather supportive of the team. But it makes all the difference in the world if an offensive lineman is more concerned with making HIS block than protecting the quarterback no matter what. It makes all the difference in the world if a shooting guard is more concerned with meeting HIS scoring average than playing team defense. It makes all the difference in the world if a Democratic Party functionary is more concerned with tweeting HIS outrage at the latest nonsense that Trump is spouting than in volunteering for a get-out-the-vote effort in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Virtue signaling is an attempt to have your cake and eat it, too. If the team ends up winning … hey, I did my part. Didn’t you read that blistering anti-Trump op-ed piece I oh-so bravely penned in The New York Times? If the team ends up losing … hey, don’t look at me. Didn’t you read that blistering anti-Trump op-ed piece I oh-so bravely penned in The New York Times? It’s an entirely rational set of behaviors that seeks to insulate yourself from the inevitable blame game if things go wrong (the infamous circular firing squad of American party politics, particularly on the Democratic side) while still preserving your place in the victory parade if things go well.

If you follow football closely, you’ll hear a phrase that players and position coaches use in an entirely positive light: selling out. They don’t mean a sell-out in the way the phrase is generally used, either as a full house inepsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-cutler terms of ticket sales or, pejoratively, as a person who’s chosen money over authenticity. No, they mean it as a compliment. When you sell out on a play or a coach’s game plan, it means that you commit fully. It means that you are prepared to embarrass yourself by your single-minded pursuit of a team victory. It’s the absolute opposite of virtue signaling, and there is no higher praise for a teammate than to say he “sold out” in a game. I see no one willing to “sell out” for Clinton, and that tells me that, in a close game, she’s in a lot of trouble. If Clinton were an NFL quarterback, she’d be Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, a player who is infamously difficult for his teammates to support or rally around. No one has ever sold out for Jay Cutler. Now in his 11th season, Cutler’s teams have made the playoffs once. Once.

What I DO see for Clinton is virtue signaling galore among her supporters, including her own campaign staff. It’s the fact checking fetish. It’s the TV ad spend in safe states. It’s the damned-with-faint-praise and passive-aggressive endorsements. It’s the passion reserved exclusively for “outrage” over Trump’s intentionally outrageous statements and utterly absent for anything Clinton says. It’s all designed to signal to your tribe that you’re a good person because you’re against Trump. It’s not completely uncorrelated with getting Clinton elected … it’s not counter-productive, per se … but it’s not very productive, either. Why not? Because this is a turn-out election. The winner of this election will be whoever can get more of their tribe to the polls in swing states: Colorado, North Carolina … maybe Nevada … maybe one or two others. Period. This is not an election that will be decided by influencing undecided or “lightly decided” voters one way or another, because all of these voters are staying home on November 8th anyway. It’s an election that will be decided by motivating your base. Can fear of Trump motivate? Sure it can. But if Brexit taught us anything, it’s the limitations of a fear-based campaign, at least when the fear-mongers are the same smarter-than-thou elites who tsk-tsk their deep and abiding concern for the benighted masses from Davos or Jackson Hole. Status quo candidates don’t win on fear alone. They’re not the anti-party. There has to be a reason … a why … an anthem for rallying the troops. And that’s what’s missing from the Clinton campaign, in exactly the same way it was missing for Teddy Kennedy in 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Look, I get it. The Democratic candidate isn’t Clinton, it’s Clinton™. Having chosen (or more accurately, anointed) a profoundly hypocritical and opportunistic pragmatic candidate, Democratic mouthpieces are now in the uncomfortable position of manufacturing enthusiasm rather than channeling enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is something you can easily fake when you’re winning big. But when the game gets tight … when it looks like (gulp!) the game might go the other way … well, that’s when thoughts of self-preservation and virtue signaling start to creep into the most adamant Democratic partisan. In fact, particularly the most adamant Democratic partisans. They WANT to believe. But Clinton™ is just so hard to sell out FOR.

The concepts of cooperation and defection are at the core of game theory. Whether it’s a game of Chicken or Prisoner’s Dilemma or (below) Stag Hunt, the standard depiction of strategic decision-making is always a choice between cooperation and defection.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-cooperation-defection-chart

But it’s so important, I think, to recognize that defection isn’t always (in fact, usually isn’t) some grand gesture of rejection. Defection is a state of mind. Sure, when Never Trump Republicans come out and jump ship over to the Clinton camp, that’s an obvious defection. But it’s also a defection when Clinton advocates use all of their precious media time to rail and rail about how Trump is a more prolific liar than Clinton, because the subtext here is “my candidate is a liar, too”, and there’s nothing motivating about that. Here’s the big kicker: the virtue signaling “soft defector” is more damaging to the Clinton campaign than the turncoat “hard defector” is to the Trump campaign. Why? Because virtue signalers are rewarded by their own tribe, while turncoats are blasted. Virtue signaling is infectious. It spreads like the common cold. And because the psychic rewards from virtue signaling are so immediate and so powerful, it’s really, really hard to shake this disease from an organization. It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of psychic rewards in the decision-making of staffers and candidates alike.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-cruzDitto for psychic punishment. It’s impossible to overstate the human animal’s ability to rationalize an abdication of principle when his tribe showers him with disdain. It’s impossible to overestimate a political animal’s love of winning over anything else, including integrity. I mean, it’s amazing how Ted Cruz was delighted to be the standard bearer of the in-party opposition so long as it looked like Trump was going to be trounced. But then the polls turned up for Trump, and Cruz falls all over himself doing his best Chris Christie imitation. Just goes to show, there’s no mockery like self-mockery.epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-christie

Two final points. First, everything I’ve written about the soft defection that’s endemic within the Clinton campaign can be written about the Yellen Fed, too. God knows I’ve been railing about the Fed a lot in recent notes, though, so I’ll save that for another day.

Second, there’s always the risk that a note like this will be misinterpreted, that in critiquing the Clinton campaign I’ll be perceived as supporting Trump. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thoroughly despondent about the calcification, mendacity, and venal corruption that I think four years of Clinton™ will impose. I think as a candidate she’s a bizarre combination of Michael Dukakis and Teddy Kennedy, and I think as a president she’ll be an equally bizarre combination of Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding, both of whom presided over a fin de siècle global economic collapse. Gag. But I don’t think she can break us, not as a society, anyway.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-grant-cartoon

Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

The hallmark of a Coordination Game is that there are two equilibrium outcomes possible, two balancing points where the game is stable. Yes, one of those stable outcomes is mutual defection, where everyone pursues their individual goals and everyone is worse off. But a stable outcome of mutual cooperation is at least possible in a Coordination Game, and that’s worth a lot. Here’s a graphical representation of a Coordination Game, using Rousseau’s famous example of “the stag hunt”.

Fig. 1 Coordination Game (Stag Hunt)

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-hunt-together-alone-chart

The basic idea here is that each player can choose to either cooperate (hunt together for a stag, in Rousseau’s example) or defect (hunt independently for a rabbit, in Rousseau’s example), but neither player knows what the other player is going to choose. If you defect, you’re guaranteed to bag a rabbit (so, for example, if the Row Player chooses Defect, he gets 1 point regardless of Column Player’s choice), but if you cooperate, you get a big deer if the other player also cooperates (worth 2 points to both players) and nothing if the other player defects. There are two Nash equilibria for the Coordination Game, marked by the blue ovals in the figure above. A Nash equilibrium is a stable equilibrium because once both players get to that outcome, neither player has any incentive to change his strategy. If both players are defecting, both will get rabbits (bottom right quadrant), and neither player will change to a Cooperate strategy. But if both players are cooperating, both will share a stag (top left quadrant), and neither player will change to a Defect strategy, as you’d be worse off by only getting a rabbit instead of sharing a stag (the other player would be even more worse off if you switched to Defect, but you don’t care about that).

The point of the Coordination Game is that mutual cooperation is a stable outcome based solely on self-interest, so long as the payoffs from defecting are always less than the payoff of mutual cooperation. If that happens, however, you get a game like this:

Fig. 2 Competition Game (Prisoner’s Dilemma)

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-prisoner-cooperation-defection-chart

Here, the payoff from defecting while everyone else continues to cooperate is no longer a mere 1 point rabbit, but is a truly extraordinary payoff where you get the “free rider” benefits of everyone else’s deer hunting AND you go out to get a rabbit on your own. This extraordinary payoff is what Trump is saying is possible when he talks about America “winning” again. But it’s not possible. Not for more than a nanosecond, at least, because there’s no equilibrium there, no stability in either the upper right or bottom left quadrant. You want to pass a modern version of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act to “win” a trade deal? Knock yourself out. As in 1930, you’ll enjoy those benefits for about two months before every other country does the same thing against you. And in about 12 months, as in 1931, every bank that’s levered to global trade finance goes bust. Whee! There’s one and only one equilibrium in a competition game — the “everyone defect” outcome of the bottom right quadrant — meaning that once you get to this point (and you will) you can’t get out. The stability of the Competition Game is the stability of permanent conflict.

I’m no Pollyanna about the world. Not only do I think that the world is, in fact, described best as a Clash of Civilizations, but I also think that many of the cooperative international games we play as a country are inevitably heading toward a competitive dynamic, and this is at the heart of what I’ve described as the transformation of the Golden Age of the Central Banker to the Silver Age of the Central Banker. I get that. But it is insane to throw away the stable cooperative equilibrium we have with Japan and Europe and China in the international security game or the international trade game. Insane. If I’m China and Trump is elected, I don’t wait for him to fire the first shots in a trade war. I fire first, by floating my currency. That’s the Golden Rule of any competitive game: do unto others as they would do unto you … but do it first.

More importantly than what happens in any of these international games, however, is what happens in our domestic games. Blowing up our international trade and security games with Europe, Japan, and China for the sheer hell of it, turning them into full-blown Competition Games … that’s really stupid. But we have a nasty recession and maybe a nasty war. Maybe it would have happened anyway. We get over it. Blowing up our American political game with citizens, institutions, and identities for the sheer hell of it, turning it into a full-blown Competition Game … that’s a historic tragedy. We don’t get over that.

But that’s exactly what’s happening. I look at Charlotte. I look at Dallas. I look at Milwaukee. And I no longer recognize us.

I don’t think people realize the underlying fragility of the Constitution — the written rules to our American political game. It’s just a piece of paper. Its only strength in theory is our communal determination to infuse it with meaning through our embrace of not only its explicit rules, but also and more crucially its unwritten rules of small-l liberal values like tolerance, liberty, and equality under the law. Its only strength in practice is that whoever runs our Executive branch, whoever is our Commander-in-Chief, whoever is in charge of “law and order”, whoever runs our massive spy bureaucracy national intelligence service, whoever controls the legitimate use of deadly force and incarceration … that he or she believes in those unwritten rules of small-l liberal values like tolerance, liberty, and equality under the law. When you hear Trump talk about “loosening the law” on torture, or “loosening the law” on libel prosecutions of anyone who criticizes HIM, or the impossibility of a federal judge being able to rule fairly because his parents were born in Mexico … well, there’s no way he believes in those small-l liberal virtues. No way.

And yeah, I know what the supporters say, that he “really doesn’t mean what he says”, or that “once he’s elected he’ll listen to the right people and his views will evolve”, or — my personal fave — “it’s only 4 years, how bad can it be?” Answer: pretty damn bad. And yeah, I understand the argument on the Supreme Court. But what I’m talking about is bigger than the Supreme Court. A lot bigger.

I’m going to close this note with two pages from Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (in Cartoons), originally published in Look magazine in 1945. If you’ve never read The Road to Serfdom … that’s okay, most people haven’t. But do yourself a favor and at least read the Classics Comic Book version I’m copying from here. I’m not saying that Hayek was some Nostradamus and I’m not saying that history is repeating itself. But I am saying that Hayek was a really smart guy who believed with all his heart in small-l liberal virtues and keenly observed the politics of the world the last time we got into such a global mess. I am saying that history rhymes.

We’re in the middle of Cartoon #9 today. Our confidence in “the planners” — the central bankers of the world — has plunged over the last few months as the popular Narrative around negative rates and other extraordinary monetary policies is now more negatively skewed than the popular Narrative around Brexit.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-confidence-in-planners-fades epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-road-to-serfdom

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-trump-speechOver the next nine months we’re going to have national elections in three of the largest, most powerful countries in the world: the U.S., Germany, and France. We’ll have the equivalent of a national election in Italy, as well. Hayek believed that the inevitable result of those elections is Cartoon #10 — the coming to power of the strong man.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-happy-faceYeah, Ben, or the strong woman. You’re railing about Trump and his anti-liberal pseudo-fascist tendencies, but you’re giving Clinton a pass? Seriously? Doesn’t Hayek’s work apply to smiley-face authoritarians as well as Brown Shirts? Aren’t you just virtue signaling?

Heard.

But here’s the biggest difference. I know how to resist Clinton. It won’t be a fun four years, but — thank you, gridlock! — I don’t think she can mess things up so horribly that we can’t undo it, or at least prepare for the political battles to come. I don’t know how to resist Trump, and neither does anyone else, because we haven’t experienced this reactionary populist strain in American politics since … I dunno … the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s?

So what’s to be done? In investing, I’m just looking to survive the next four years, regardless of who’s in office. I’ve written a lot on what that means, most recently in “Cat’s Cradle”. In politics, I’m selling out for the Scottish Enlightenment and the small-l liberal values of tolerance, liberty, and equality under law. I’ve got some ideas on how to bring those political values into a world of Google, spy satellites, and PlayStation 4, so that’s what I’m going to write about. If there’s no home for these political values in the Republican or Democratic parties — and who in their right mind thinks there is — then I’ll find another home, another political party. I don’t think the Republican Party or the Democratic Party will be recognizable in four years, anyway — both of these bands are now structurally unstable, I just don’t know if the break-up is going to be like the Beatles or like Oasis — so I’ll be working with a new political landscape. But it’s time for a third party based on IDEAS, not on a billionaire’s personality. Imagine that.

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Pressure and Time

epsilon-theory-pressure-and-time-june-7-2016-shawshank

Red: [narrating] In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I remember thinking it would take a man six hundred years to tunnel through the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved geology. I imagine it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really, pressure, and time.
Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
Andy Dufresne: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
Red: Forget?
Andy Dufresne: Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.
Red: What’re you talking about?
Andy Dufresne: Hope.
Red: Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.

– “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.

– Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)

Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it.

– Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

epsilon-theory-pressure-and-time-june-7-2016-pandora

Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;

the others have left and gone to Olympus.

Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,

and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.

– Theognis of Megara (c. 550 BC), writing more than 2,500 years before the Trump v. Clinton election.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Pandora” (1869)

A policy-controlled market, whether it’s today’s investment environment or the 1930s or the 1870s, places enormous pressure on investors … for yield and consistent return, to be sure, but even more so for a resurrection of the investment beliefs that held sway in “normal times”, for an escape from the prison of extraordinary monetary policy and its grip on market behavior. Pressure and time. That’s all it took for the Shawshank Redemption and that’s all it takes for our modern market redemption. Or it least that’s all it takes for the hope and the escape attempt. Let’s see if we’re as successful as Andy Dufresne.

When suitably crystallized, an investment hope takes on a different form. It becomes an investment theme. Today the investment hope that has crystalized into an investment theme is the notion that soon, just around the corner now, perhaps as a result of the next mystery-shrouded meeting of the world’s central bankers, perhaps as a result of the U.S. election this November, we will enjoy a coordinated global infrastructure spending boom. Of course, this isn’t deficit spending or another trillion dollar layer of debt, but is “investment in our crumbling infrastructure.” This isn’t a mirror image of China’s massive over-build in empty cities or of Obama’s shovel-ready infrastructure projects from 2009-2010, but is “really a free lunch“, to quote Larry Summers, where there’s never a Bridge-to-Nowhere or an Airport-of-One. Or so the Narrative goes.

A Narrative theme is a theme of hope, pure and simple. And because hope can and will emerge without any evidence or support from the real world, a Narrative theme can work from an investment perspective even if it’s a non-event in the real world or, stranger yet, an abject failure in the real world. In exactly the same way that you can invest alongside central bank efforts to prop up markets and drive asset prices higher without believing in your heart-of-hearts that anything these bankers say is even remotely true, so can you invest alongside a Narrative theme without believing a single word of the Narrative itself.

And to be clear, my personal belief is that Larry Summers and the rest of the “public infrastructure projects are great investments!” crowd are sniffing glue. You’re pulling forward future economic activity, that’s all. Read the latest from Howard Marks if you don’t believe me. I’m not saying that government spending is bad — on the contrary, government spending is absolutely necessary to preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and there’s certainly a societal “return on investment” from government spending — but don’t tell me that there’s this huge productivity-enhancing, non-quotation-marked economic return on investment generated by the government building stuff that the private sector doesn’t want to build. Don’t tell me that what China is doing with their infrastructure is “mal-investment”, but that if we do it … well, that’s different, because, you know, our infrastructure is “crumbling” instead of “gleaming” the way it is in … umm … China. Yes, LaGuardia is a miserable airport. So stipulated. But there are infinitely greater productivity gains to be had from changing our insane TSA regulations and reducing security lines than by building a new Terminal B. If you want a massive Keynesian deficit spending program on top of our massive current debt … fine, make the argument. There’s an argument to be made. But don’t put a specious “investment” wrapper around it.

epsilon-theory-pressure-and-time-june-7-2016-space-1999

But it’s exactly that specious wrapper — the Narrative — that makes all of this work as an investment theme. If a massive public works program were couched in its traditional Keynesian or neo-socialist form (you don’t see Bernie Sanders talking about the economic ROI of his infrastructure proposals), it wouldn’t have a chance with the Wall Street Journal crowd. But, hey, if a public works program is “a smart investment” … never mind that this is about as smart an investment as Moonbase Alpha (yes, I had the Space: 1999 lunchbox) or perhaps a gigantic hole in the ground … well, then, let’s muster up the usual suspects at CNBC and the Wall Street Journal op-ed staff to get behind this, and let’s convince ourselves that Donald Trump wouldn’t be a nut job president, even though every shred of evidence and plain common sense screams the contrary, because he’s, you know, a “builder.”

It’s all based on hope for real economic growth and an escape from policy-controlled markets, a hope that springs in every investor’s heart given enough pressure and enough time. It’s a hope that, as Sir Francis Bacon said, makes for a good breakfast but a bad supper. We’re in the breakfast phase of this Narrative theme still, as Missionaries (to use the game theory term) like Larry Kudlow beat the drum louder and louder for a big infrastructure spend, and it’s a drumbeat that will continue to grow until there’s a reality check or a powerful Missionary creating Common Knowledge to knock it back. That will be the dinner portion of this Narrative theme, and it will be an unpleasant meal. But I don’t see dinner being served until well after the U.S. election, no matter who takes the White House or how the balance of power shifts in Congress, and it might be a year or two later before the thin gruel of dashed hopes is served up to markets.

So even though I think this U.S. public infrastructure build has barely a whiff of merit from an economic policy perspective, even though I think its net effect once implemented will be to make the ultimate debt reset that much more horrific, I also think it’s a highly investable idea. Because that’s the way you play the Common Knowledge Game.

Common Knowledge is information that everyone believes everyone has heard. It’s why executions were once held in public, not so a big crowd can see the guy getting hanged, but so the crowd can see the crowd watching the guy getting hanged. It’s why political debates are filmed in front of a live audience. It’s why sitcoms have laugh tracks. It’s how a relatively small but highly televised protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square toppled Mubarak. It’s why the Chinese government still cracks down on media pictures of the Tiananmen Square protests, now more than 25 years old. Common Knowledge is the game theoretic concept behind the irresistible power of the crowd watching the crowd, and as a result Common Knowledge construction by governments, corporations, and yes, central bankers is one of the most potent instruments of social control on Earth.

The Common Knowledge Game is the game of markets, and it’s been internalized by good traders for as long as markets have existed. What you think about the market doesn’t matter. What everyone thinks about the market (the consensus) doesn’t matter. What matters is what everyone thinks that everyone thinks about the market, and the way you get ahead of this game is to track the “Missionary statements” of politicians, pundits, and bankers made through the four media microphones where the Common Knowledge of markets is created: The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, and CNBC. It’s what Keynes called The Newspaper Beauty Contest, and it drove the policy-controlled markets of the 1930s exactly as it drives markets today. Is it an easy game to play? Nope. But you don’t have to be a professional poker player to avoid being the sucker at your local game. You don’t have to be a wizard trader to be aware that the Common Knowledge Game is being played, and that it’s driving market outcomes.

Red and Andy survived more than 20 years in Shawshank prison because they never lost hope. But they were smart about the concept of hope. They didn’t let hope consume them to take stupid chances. In Red’s words, they never let hope drive them insane. That’s the same balancing act we all need to adopt here in Central Bank prison. Hope is a good thing. Hope is a human thing. But hope is also a social construct that is used intentionally by others to shape our behaviors, in markets as in life. That’s the awareness we need to be hopeful survivors here in the Silver Age of the Central Banker, and that’s the awareness I’m trying to create with Epsilon Theory.

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1914 is (still) the New Black

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.

Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924) 

In 1914, Europe had arrived at a point in which every country except Germany was afraid of the present, and Germany was afraid of the future. 

Sir Edward Grey (1862 – 1933) 

Last week’s email, “1914 is the New Black”, was the most widely read Epsilon Theory note to date, and given yesterday’s events it bears repeating, as the echoes of 1914 are growing louder and louder. We are, I think, likely embarked on the death spiral phase of a game of Chicken, just as in the summer of 1914. The stakes are, for now at least, not nearly as cataclysmic today as they were a century ago, but the social and political dynamics are eerily alike.

I’m often asked how to get a better take on a historical event like the lead-up to World War I, and the answer is that there’s no substitute for immersing yourself in what people were actually saying and writing at the time the events transpired. If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll pick a period that also attracted the attention of a gifted historian like a Robert Caro or a David McCullough. Second best, I’ve found, is to find a gifted editor or anthologist to smooth the path a bit. One such anthologist is Peter Vansittart, who collected a wide range of original texts in his classic books, “Voices: 1870 – 1914” and “Voices from the Great War”. I’ve taken some of those texts and appended them below. They speak for themselves, I hope, to illustrate the defining characteristic of a spiraling game of Chicken – all sides begin to speak in terms of “having no choice” but to take aggressive actions to defend their own interests.

Before the quotes, though, three other historical observations:

  1. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia – long seen as the proximate cause of World War I – was accepted by the Serbian government almost in its entirety. Unfortunately, that “almost” part made all the difference. An important anecdote to remember the next time someone calls your attention to Tsipras’s acceptance of 90% of the Eurogroup reform ultimatum.
  2. Anti-establishment voters are always underrepresented in establishment polls. Noted segregationist and Alabama governor George Wallace won the 1972 Democratic Party primary in Michigan despite showing third in polls. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista regime lost the 1990 Nicaraguan election by 10 percentage points to Violeta Chamorro despite leading by more than 10 points in every pre-election poll. The Syriza NO landslide was no surprise here, and this is an important phenomenon to keep in mind when you start to see opinion polls from Italy and France published over the next few days.
  3. Politics always trumps economics. My favorite 1914 quote in this regard is from Lord Cunliffe, governor of the Bank of England from 1913 – 1918, who famously declared that war was impossible because “The Germans haven’t the credits.” So what if Greek banks run out of euros? The Greek government will make their own, or maybe issue California-style IOUs and dare the Eurogroup to boot them out of the currency. If you think that an ECB squeeze can put this political genie back in the bottle, you’re making the same classic error as Walter Cunliffe did.

And now the quotes.

I held a council at 10:45 to declare war with Germany. It is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault. An enormous crowd collected outside the palace; we went on the balcony both before and after dinner. When they learned that war had been declared, the excitement increased and May and I with David went on to the balcony; the cheering was terrific

King George V (1865 – 1936) 

England alone carries the responsibility for peace or war, no longer us.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859 – 1941) 

In this most serious moment I appeal to you to help me. An ignoble war has been declared to a weak country. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure brought upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war, I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far. — Nicky

Tsar “Nicky” Nicholas II (1868 – 1918) in a letter to his cousin, Kaiser “Willy” Wilhelm II 

Now Tsarism has attacked Germany, now we have no choice, now there is no looking back. 

Kurt Eisner (1867 – 1919) 

Necessity knows no law; we must hack our way through. 

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856 – 1921) in a speech to German Reichstag 

The few neutral states are not sympathetic toward us. Germany has not a friend in the world, she stands utterly alone and has only herself to depend on. … How different it all was a few weeks ago, when we launched so brilliant a campaign – now a bitter disillusionment is setting in. And how much we shall have to pay for all that is being destroyed! 

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (1848 – 1916) in a letter to his wife 

In this war it is a question … of German civilization against barbarous Slavdom. 

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (1848 – 1916)

The year 1914 in America seemed the crest of a wave of passionate idealism among young people, and of passionate selfishness among middle-aged people. 

John Cowper Powys (1872 – 1963)

July 25: Unbelievably large crowds are waiting outside the newspaper offices. News arrives in the evening that Serbia is rejecting the ultimatum. General excitement and enthusiasm, and all eyes turn towards Russia – is she going to support Serbia? The days pass from 25 to 31 July. Incredibly exciting; the whole world is agog to see whether Germany is now going to mobilize.

July 31: Try as I may I simply can’t convey the splendid spirit and wild enthusiasm that has come over us all. We feel we’ve been attacked, and the idea that we have to defend ourselves gives us unbelievable strength … You still can’t imagine what it’s going to be like. Is it all real, or just a dream?
diary of Herbert Sulzbach, “With the German Guns” (1935) 

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1914 is the New Black

Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right … and who is dead.

“The Princess Bride” (1987) 

Time is a game played beautifully by children.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) 

How can you hide from what never goes away?

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC)

epsilon-theory-1914-is-the-new-black-june-29-2015-changeWhoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse.

– Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC)

Let me just say that I am very negatively surprised by today’s decisions by the Greek government. That is a sad decision for Greece because it has closed the door on further talks, where the door was still open in my mind.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of Eurogroup finance ministers

The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.

Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” (1985) 

I have always thought that in revolutions, especially democratic revolutions, madmen, not those so called by courtesy, but genuine madmen, have played a very considerable political part. One thing is certain, and that is that a condition of semi-madness is not unbecoming at such times, and often even leads to success.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) 

Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.

Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) 

epsilon-theory-1914-is-the-new-black-june-29-2015-powerIf you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.

– Frank Underwood, “House of Cards” (2013)

Nothing like a good Friday-after-the-close blockbuster to set the stage for an interesting week.

At 1am Saturday morning Athens time, the Greek government called for a nationwide referendum to vote the Eurogroup’s reform + bailout proposal up or down. The vote will happen on Sunday, July 5th, but Greece will default on its IMF debt this Wednesday, and as a result the slow motion run on Greek banks is about to get a lot more fast motion unless capital controls are imposed. If you want to get into the weeds, Deutsche Bank put out a note, available here, that I think is both a well-written and comprehensive take on the facts at hand. As for the big picture, I’ve attached last week’s Epsilon Theory note (“Inherent Vice“), as this referendum is EXACTLY the sort of self-binding, “rip your brakes and steering wheel out of the car” strategy I wrote about as a highly effective way to play the game of Chicken.

Look, I have no idea whether or not Tsipras will be successful with this gambit. But I admire it. It’s a really smart move. It’s a wonderful display of what de Tocqueville praised as the “condition of semi-madness” that was so politically effective in 1848, and I suspect will be today. Plus, you can’t deny the sheer entertainment value of hearing Dijsselbloem splutter about how he was open to a revised, revised, Plan X from Greece all along, if only Tsipras would continue with this interminable charade. “The door was still open, in my mind.” Priceless.

So long as Tsipras can avoid market anarchy and TV coverage of violent ATM mobs this week, I think the NO vote is likely to win. The referendum is worded and timed in a way that allows very little room for Antonio Samaras and other Syriza opponents to turn the vote into a referendum on the Euro itself, which has proven to be a successful approach in the past. Particularly as the Eurogroup rather ham-handedly denied the request for a one-week extension in the default deadline, the referendum is being framed by Syriza as what Cormac McCarthy called a “condition of war”, an over-arching game where “that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.” It may well be a close vote, but it’s hard to vote YES for a public humiliation of your own country under any circumstances, much less when that YES vote is being portrayed as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Here’s how I see the game playing out after the vote.

If Greece votes to accept the Eurogroup reform proposal after all, then the game of Chicken resolves itself within the stable Nash equilibrium of a shamed Greece and a triumphant Euro status quo. I would expect an enormous risk-on rally in equities and credit, particularly in Euro-area financials. Hard to say about rates … peripheral Euro debt (Italy, Spain) should rally, and German Bunds might, too, as the Narrative will be that Germany “won”. But reduction of systemic risk is a negative for any flight-to-safety trade, so this outcome is probably not good for Bunds in the long term, or US Treasuries over any term.

If Greece votes to reject the proposal, then either the game resolves itself within the stable Nash equilibrium of a shamed Euro status quo and a triumphant Greece (if the ECB and EU decide to cave to some form of the original Greek proposal), or we enter the death spiral phase of a game of Chicken, as all parties start to talk about how they “have no choice” but to crash their cars. That latter course is the far more likely path, I think, given how the various Euro Powers That Be are already positioning themselves. It’s all so very 1914-ish. Draghi’s cap on bank-supporting Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) is the modern day equivalent of Czar Nicholas II’s troop mobilization. Good luck walking that back.

If we go down the death spiral path and some form of Greek exit from the Euro-system, I expect the dominant market Narrative to be that Greece committed economic suicide and that the rest of Europe will be just fine, thank you very much. That should prevent a big risk-off market move down, or at least keep it short-lived (although you should expect Bunds and USTs to do their risk-off thing here). Unless you’re a hedge fund trying to make a killing on those really cheap Greek bonds you bought two years ago, there’s no reason to panic even if we’re on the death spiral.

Over time, however, I expect that dominant Narrative to be flipped on its head. Greece will quickly do some sort of deal with Russia (hard currency for port access?), and then the IMF will strike a deal because that’s what the IMF does. More and more people will start to say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad”, which is actually the worst possible outcome for Draghi and Merkel. At that point, you’ll start to see the Narrative focus on the ECB balance sheet and credibility, and as Italian and Spanish rates start to creep up and as the spread to Bunds starts to widen, people will recall that ECB QE only has national banks buying their own debt … the Bundesbank ain’t propping up Italian sovereign debt. I suspect it will be a slow motion contagion, all taking place in the Narrative and expressed in Italian, Spanish, and French politics over the next 12 months or so. The Red King will start to wake.

One last point on how the market Narrative will shift if we go down the death spiral path, and that’s the dog that will stop barking. The incessant and often silly focus on Fed “lift-off” is about to go on summer hiatus, which can’t happen soon enough for me. 

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Inherent Vice

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-nash

Nash: See, if I derive an equilibrium where prevalance is a non-singular event where nobody loses, can you imagine the effect that would have on conflict scenarios, arms negotiations …
Charles: When did you last eat?
Nash: … currency exchange …
Charles: When did you last eat? You know, food.
Nash: You have no respect for cognitive reverie, you know that?
Charles: Yes. But pizza – now pizza I have enormous respect for. And of course beer. [leaves]
Nash: [throws stuff down and follows] I have respect for beer. I have respect for beer!

“A Beautiful Mind” (2001), biopic of game theorist John Nash (1928 – 2015).

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-neumann

  1. If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.
  2. Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.
  3. There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.
  4. It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

– Four from John von Neumann(1903 – 1957), the father of modern game theory.

I’m interested in the fact that the less secure a man is, the more likely he is to have extreme prejudice.
– Clint Eastwood (b. 1930) 

Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.
Graham Greene, “The End of the Affair” (1951) 

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-hitlerIf freedom is short of weapons, we must compensate with willpower.

– Adolph Hitler (1889 – 1945)

One constant among the elements of 1914 – as of any era – was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.

– Barbara Tuchman, “The Guns of August” (1962)

In a significant move to deter possible Russian aggression in Europe, the Pentagon is poised to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic and Eastern European countries, American and allied officials say.

New York Times, “US Is Poised to Put Heavy Weaponry in Eastern Europe“, June 13, 2015

Be careful who you call your friends. I’d rather have four quarters than one hundred pennies.
Al Capone (1899 – 1947) 

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-james-deanWe are all impaled on the crook of conditioning.

– James Dean (1931 – 1955)

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-keatsThere’s nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music.

– John Keats (1795 – 1821)

Shasta Fay: I went on a boat ride.
Doc: A three hour tour.
Shasta Fay: They told me I was precious cargo that couldn’t be insured because of inherent vice.
Doc: What does that mean?
Shasta Fay: I don’t know.
Doc: Inherent vice in a maritime insurance policy is anything that you can’t avoid. Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters, and Doc wondered what that meant when it applied to ex old ladies.

“Inherent Vice” (2014)

I was at a conference, on deck for a presentation, and I had the chance to listen to the Q&A for the speaker ahead of me.

“Assuming no external shock, how much longer can this bull market run?”

The speaker, not exactly the most sparkling of raconteurs under the best of circumstances, first replied with the obligatory, “well, that’s a very good question”, and then proceeded to give a detailed, bone-dry explication of exactly how long he thought this market would run, the likely level of the S&P 500 top, and a few winning sectors and stock picks for good measure. It all sounded very smart, and I’m sure he was … smart, that is. But boy oh boy, if there were ever a living embodiment of von Neumann’s dictum that being precise is all too often a waste of time, this was it.

Because this wasn’t “a very good question”. It was, in fact, a pretty useless question, the functional equivalent of asking a botanist how big a tree can grow in the absence of storms, droughts, fires, blights, lightning, insects, or whatever. Answer: pretty darn big. Better answer: who cares? You don’t need my help with an investment strategy for a paradise scenario, any more than you need my help with an investment strategy for a doomsday scenario. But where we could all use some help is with an investment strategy for the Real World in-between paradise and doomsday. What we all need is a good perspective or vantage point for differentiating between this potential shock and that potential shock, for evaluating what signals to press and what signals to fade. It’s not a matter of predicting shocks, but rather a matter of reacting to incipient shocks smartly and strategically, of knowing, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Now that’s a good question, and it’s one that Epsilon Theory is well suited to take on.

There’s a specific sort of instability in the world today – a game theoretic instability – which means that it has an identifiable pattern and rhythm you can understand in order to improve your investment strategy. It’s the instability of the game of Chicken, and once you start looking for it, you will see it everywhere here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. Greece vs. the Troika? Chicken. Western sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine? Chicken. OPEC vs. US energy producers? Chicken. ECB vs. the Swiss National Bank? Chicken. Fed monetary policy communications to markets? Chicken. Abenomics? Chicken. US policy towards China? Chicken. ISIS vs. the world? Chicken.

Let me take a minute to describe why a game of Chicken is particularly and peculiarly unstable, because understanding the game’s dynamics is crucial for understanding how and why Chicken has become the defining strategic interaction of nations and institutions today, just as it was in the 1930s, the 1910s, and the 1870s. To make that description, I’ll be drawing on the concept of the Nash equilibrium, the most influential insight of mathematician John Nash, whose early career and lifelong struggle with mental illness was portrayed in the great movie “A Beautiful Mind”, and who was killed last month in a car accident at the age of 87 (I’d like to think that his not wearing a seatbelt while traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike was a game theoretic exercise, but that’s the Keats-ian Romantic in me talking).

The central idea of the Nash equilibrium is that a non-cooperative strategic interaction between players (for simplicity’s sake we’ll just talk about two player games, although the concept is applicable for any number of independent players) is in balance, i.e. in equilibrium, if neither player prefers to “move” from the current game position after consideration of both his preferences and potential moves AND his opponent’s preferences and potential moves AND the knowledge that both of you are thinking about the other in this manner. The Nash equilibrium takes seriously the notion that the other player is just as smart as you are and, as importantly, just as strategic as you are – meaning that both of you can look several moves ahead, and both of you are making moves that are contingent on the other player’s moves. Like all great ideas the Nash equilibrium seems simple at first blush, but it’s a deceptive simplicity, one that when applied rigorously can shed light on a raft of social interactions that otherwise seem irrational or unpredictable.

I’ll start with a common game that has a straightforward Nash equilibrium, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I’ve written about this game in several prior notes, so I won’t go into detail here about its meaning. It’s just an example to explain the nomenclature. Below is the standard way of depicting a game between two players – in this case you and Al Capone – with each player having two behavioral choices – in this case Silence or Rat – and with the game payoffs in red for you and green for Al. The infamous Prisoner’s Dilemma outcome, where both you and Al rat on each other even though you both suffer more than you have to, is marked with the light blue oval and is the stable Nash equilibrium.

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-al-capone-chicken

The Rat-Rat outcome is a Nash equilibrium because you don’t want to change from Rat behavior to Silence behavior (moving from the bottom right quadrant to the upper right quadrant) because your red payoff declines from -5 to -10. Ditto for Al Capone. He’s not changing his behavior from Rat to Silence (moving from the bottom right quadrant to the bottom left quadrant), as his green payoff would be worse for making the move. More interestingly, the Rat-Rat outcome is a highly predictable Nash equilibrium because no matter what quadrant or combination of behaviors you and Al start with, the game always ends up in the bottom right quadrant. Why? Because this is a non-cooperative game. Even if you and Al start in the happy upper left quadrant of Silence-Silence, where there is a +10 total utility to the shared outcome, there’s no way for Al to prevent you from choosing Rat behavior and boosting your personal payoff from +5 to +10. That wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, but your choice to move from Silence to Rat is accompanied by Al’s payoff changing from +5 to -10, and that’s intolerable for him. So he decides to switch his behavior from Silence to Rat, to get out of what’s called the “sucker payoff” of the bottom left quadrant if that’s where you were planning to put him, or to put the sucker payoff of the upper right quadrant onto you if you were keeping your mouth shut after all. Of course, you are thinking about Al Capone in exactly the same way, and both of you know that both of you are thinking in this manner. All this combines to make the Rat-Rat outcome a very speedy equilibrium solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Now here’s the layout for the game of Chicken.

epsilon-theory-inherent-vice-june-22-2015-james-dean-chicken

You and James Dean are each driving your car towards the cliff’s edge, but unfortunately for both you and James there isn’t a single Nash equilibrium for this game. Obviously it’s disastrous for both of you to stay in the lower right quadrant where you’re both dead and leaving behind pretty corpses. But why should you stop your car and enter the stable but embarrassing Nash equilibrium of the upper right quadrant (-10 for you, +10 for him) when it would be just as easy for James Dean to stop his car and move both of you into the far more enjoyable and just as stable Nash equilibrium of the lower left quadrant? A game of Chicken has two Nash equilibria, each just as likely as the other, each just as “natural” an outcome as the other. This is the inherent vice of the game of Chicken – it is impossible to predict the outcome of the game by looking at the fundamentals of the game. It is inherently unpredictable – not because we don’t know enough facts about the situation or because we’re not smart enough to analyze the situation – but because it is the mathematical nature of this particular beast.

I’m often asked what I think the outcome of the negotiations between Greece and the Troika will turn out to be. Will Greece leave the Euro and default on its debt? Will Germany blink? And when I answer the question by saying that I don’t know, I can feel the disappointment. Don’t you even have an opinion, Ben? You seem to know a lot of the facts here, or at least you talk a good game about domestic Greek politics and multi-level game-playing. What good is game theory and all your knowledge if you can’t even handicap the odds of a Greek default?

Game theory is useful precisely because it tells me that there is no fundamentals-based or structural methodology to handicap the odds of a Greek default! Sometimes the answer to a mathematical question is the same as the answer to a prayer or the answer to a Magic 8 Ball: NO. There is no greater understanding possible here through the use of science and mathematics. To paraphrase Von Neumann again, get used to it.

In my stump speech about investing in the Golden Age of the Central Banker, I always start by making the distinction between decisions under risk and decisions under uncertainty. In a decision under risk, you know the possible outcomes of a decision and you have a rough sense of the probabilities to associate with those outcomes. In a decision under uncertainty, you either don’t know the possible outcomes or it’s impossible to assign meaningful probability distributions to those outcomes. What’s at stake in the distinction between the two? All of modern portfolio theory and all of mainstream macroeconomic theory and all of econometric modeling – ALL of it – is based on the assumption that everyone in the world is making decisions under risk. Violate that assumption – an assumption that is as deeply buried and indecipherably written within the edifice of academic economics today as the assumption that “a nationwide decline in home prices is impossible” was deeply buried and indecipherably written within the edifice of $10 trillion worth of residential mortgage-backed securities in 2008 – and your portfolio risk analysis suddenly has a hole big enough to drive a truck through. Game theory provides a perspective and a toolkit to distinguish between decisions under risk and decisions under uncertainty. It can’t work miracles by predicting the outcome of something that’s inherently unpredictable, but it can identify the situations that are unpredictable and suggest coping mechanisms for dealing with them. And that’s a lot. It can also highlight the situations where you have made a category error, where you have a misplaced confidence in your existing risk management toolkit or perspective. And that’s a lot, too.

So what does determine the outcome of a game of Chicken? Surely it’s not just a random outcome? Well, no, it’s not random, but you’re not going to like the answer I have for you any better. The game of Chicken is not a test of power and capabilities. It is a test of will. It is governed by constructed signals of resolve, control, and – occasionally – lack of control. It is governed by Narratives, particularly by political Narratives when the game is played on an international stage. Cooler heads rarely prevail in a game of Chicken, even if they’re objectively the stronger player. Because we’re all smart enough to know how to play the game, and because we know that the other players are going around and around in their heads trying to figure it out just like we are, the game of Chicken breeds insecurity, doubt, and miscalculation like no other. Play the game enough times and it will break you. It’s un-insurable, plagued by inherent vice, and that means that it’s un-investable, too.

I promised that game theory could provide some coping mechanisms for dealing with technically uncertain (as opposed to merely risky) investment or policy environments, and I’ll write briefly about three in this note. The first two are methods for gauging which equilibrium the game of Chicken is moving towards by evaluating the relative strength of the competing player Narratives. The third is a more general observation about gameplay and timing.

First, watch for acceleration and deceleration in behaviors, not absolute levels of speed. Technically speaking, second derivatives are always more influential than first derivatives as signaling devices because they contain more information (data that makes you change your mind; see “Sometimes A Cigar is Just a Cigar” for a primer on Information Theory), and third derivatives are even more powerful. More colloquially, it’s not whether your car is going faster than James Dean’s, it’s whether you are accelerating your speed more than James is accelerating his speed. Better yet, it’s whether you start to accelerate at a faster rate than you were a second ago. Remember, the game of Chicken is all about intentions and willpower, not capabilities and structure, and pressing down on the gas pedal is the only structural (or to use a $10 word, endogenous) method of communicating those intentions.

Three quick examples of the primacy of change (and change of change) in determining market outcomes in Chicken environments:

What was the Fed Narrative that brought markets back from the abyss in the spring and summer of 2009? Answer: “green shoots” – the notion that even though the US and global economy were still declining, they were getting worse at a decelerating rate.

What was the market reaction to Bernanke’s summer of 2013 Narrative that the Fed was not going to put on the brakes, but they were going to “ease off the accelerator” a bit? Answer: Taper Tantrum – a sharp decline in almost all asset classes in almost every market around the world, as investors reacted to the change in intentions signaled by the Fed (for more on this, see one of my first Epsilon Theory notes, “2 Fast 2 Furious”).

Now fast forward to today and ask yourself why we are NOT seeing a similar sell-off in global markets as the Fed very publicly goes about its business of preparing to raise short rates. Answer: because from a second derivative perspective putting on the brakes is the same thing as taking your foot off the accelerator. Deceleration is deceleration; you’re just crossing the zero-line when you put your foot on the brake. There is no essential change in intentions from the Taper Tantrum to today, and that’s why this Narrative-dominated market continues to set new highs.

Second, watch for self-binding behaviors, particularly suicidal self-binding behaviors. These are very powerful Narratives for signaling intentions, and they are variations of the classic Chicken-winning strategies of ripping your brakes or steering wheel out of the car, or acting so crazy that your opponent believes that you prefer death to defeat.

By suicidal self-binding behaviors I mean politically suicidal, like John Boehner’s go-to move in negotiations with the White House, where he “has no choice” but to take a hard line or else face a revolt from the Republican caucus, but I also mean physically suicidal. And before you say that this is only something that ISIS jihadists would do, consider that last week the US Defense Department floated a trial balloon in The New York Times saying that they were considering moving up to 5,000 US troops into Baltic and Eastern European countries. Now the press articles emphasized all the tanks and equipment that would be pre-positioned there, making it seem as if this would be a very potent fighting force, ready to take on a new Evil Empire if one materialized from Moscow. Please. These soldiers would be in Eastern Europe for exactly the same reason we stationed US soldiers in West Berlin during the Cold War: they are there to die. In the event of a Russian attack, their job is to be killed so that the resulting hue and cry would guarantee an all-out NATO military response. Sorry, but it’s true. It’s a classic “tripwire” strategy, and the thing about tripwires is that they have to be broken in order to work. Of course, the Russians know exactly what the moves are here, which makes them less likely to engage in full-frontal military actions in the first place, which is exactly the Pentagon’s goal. It’s an effective way of playing the game of deterrence, which is a form of Chicken, but less effective and more risky the deeper you place the tripwire into Russia’s sphere of influence. Color me nervous. Really, I don’t see how the game is worth the candle here.

On the flip side of the self-binding spectrum, intentional ambiguity can also be a very effective strategy for playing Chicken, particularly if you’re starting from a structurally stronger position than your opponent. What is not effective at all, however, is to switch back and forth between ambiguity and self-binding, as we have seen from time to time with the Fed (data dependence versus strong forward guidance) and constantly with this White House, particularly in its foreign policy.

Third, there is one redeeming quality about the game of Chicken – it takes a long time to play. Unlike the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where you typically get to the single Nash equilibrium so fast it makes your head spin (and usually too quickly to react effectively in your portfolio), Chicken players tend to have a mutual interest in pushing back the day of reckoning as much as they can. That’s because no matter how confident you are that you’re “winning” with your clever signals and Narratives, neither your true will nor your opponent’s true will are knowable or observable directly. Chicken is a game played through a glass, darkly. It’s ultimately as unpredictable for the players as it is for investors, and if there’s one group that hates unpredictability even more than professional investors it’s professional politicians.

The upshot of all this for investors is two-fold:

Take your time in dis-engaging from the game. Yes, a game of Chicken is inherently unpredictable and hence inherently un-investable, but you have plenty of time to exit. Moreover, the passage of time can often make the ultimate car crash much less painful. For example, while a Greek default and Euro exit will spark trouble no matter when it occurs, it’s absolutely less destabilizing today with most of the debt in the hands of the Troika than three years ago when that debt was spread all over the private banking sector.

Don’t freak out on any individual signal or Missionary statement, but don’t ring the all-clear bell, either. Because Chicken is a game of constructed signals and Narratives signifying hidden will and intentions, there’s almost always “room” for players to volley market-moving statements back and forth, regardless of the objective or structural characteristics at hand. In other words, it is virtually impossible for a single signal to push the outcome into either Nash equilibrium. When does time run out in a game of Chicken? When you see competing Narratives of “we have no choice” you’ve entered the death spiral phase of the game. That’s when it’s time to head for the hills, and quickly.

I’ll close this note with the same line that I find myself using over and over again. The Golden Age of the Central Banker is a time for investment survivors, not investment heroes, and the ubiquity of inherently unstable games of Chicken is a big reason for that advice. There’s no shame in picking your battles, in recognizing what’s investable and what’s not. There’s also no reason to panic. But it’s not easy to make that differentiation if you’re looking at an uncertain world through risk-colored glasses. Time for a new set of lenses, one that takes seriously the patterns of strategic interaction and behavioral dynamics that rocked the world in the 1870s, the 1910s, the 1930s, and … I suspect … the years immediately ahead of us.

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Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-freudNeurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.
Sigmund Freud (1886 – 1939)

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most useful in times of stress and darkness.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969)

Is everything connected, so that events create resonances like ripples across a net? Or do things merely co-occur and we give meaning to these co-occurrences based on our belief system? Lieh-tzu’s answer: it’s all in how you think.
“The Liezi”, ancient Taoist text attributed to Lie Yukou (c. 400 BC)

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bladerunner

Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
Deckard: I don’t get it, Tyrell.
Tyrell: How many questions?
Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
Deckard: [realizing Rachael believes she’s human] She doesn’t know.
Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?

– “Bladerunner” (1982)

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself.
“Is that all there is to a fire?”
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, “Is That All There Is?”, as recorded by Peggy Lee (1969)

I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.
Edwin A. Abbott, “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” (1884) 

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-wayansHomey don’t play that game.

– Damon Wayans, “In Living Color” (1992)

There’s only one question that matters today in markets: why is the government bond market going up and down like a yo-yo? How is it possible that the deepest and most important securities in the world are currently displaying all the trading stability of a biotech stock?

As with all market questions of singular importance and vast attention, these are questions of meaning. We seek the why and we seek the cause because we are desperate to understand what it means. We are – all of us – convinced that this market behavior must mean something profound. Surely this insane quivering within the bond market means that we are on the cusp of a quantum shift in the market landscape. Surely this is the rumbling of a deep tectonic plate that presages a massive earthquake. Surely, as more than one Master of the Universe proclaimed at SALT the other week, the long-awaited bear market in government debt is nigh.

Maybe. Or maybe all those Masters of the Universe are just talking their book. I know … shocking.

We are all market neurotics today, in the Freudian sense of the word, incapable of handling ambiguity in Narrative after 5+ years of global coordination and cooperation among The Monetary Powers That Be, 5+ years of being told by a monolithic Voice of Command how we should think about every single data point that crosses our Bloomberg screen. This is the most hated bull market in history, precisely because we all believe that it is a creature of policy and Narrative, and when the Voices are silent or they say conflicting things, we start to freak out. We run from pillar to post, getting whipsawed at every turn. Importantly, the whipsawing is occurring in the securities that are most closely linked to policy and Narrative – government bonds – and that’s why I believe that what we’re experiencing is more akin to neurosis than some shift in market fundamentals.

Here’s my point: volatility ≠ instability. Or more precisely, a system can be volatile or unstable in a local sense but highly stable in a global sense.

Unfortunately, however, because we live in the local rather than the global … because every bit of our modern financial services system, particularly financial media, is by business necessity focused on the local rather than the global … we are as unaware of our true positioning in the world as Rachael in “Bladerunner”. Or Deckard, who sure seems like a replicant to me. From a local perspective these bond market gyrations make it seem as if we are totally unmoored and markets are on the brink of some life-altering change. From a global perspective, however, this is a tempest in a teacup.Or to paraphrase the late, great Peggy Lee, is that all there is to a bond market fire?

Okay, Ben, that’s quite a mouthful: “unstable in a local sense but highly stable in a global sense”. Translation, please?

The Rosetta Stone here is Information Theory, and to introduce that it’s probably easiest if I quote directly and extensively from one of my very earliest Epsilon Theory notes, “Through the Looking Glass”. I wrote this almost exactly 2 years ago, back when I only had a few hundred readers, so it should be fresh for 99% of the audience. It’s a lot to digest, but I promise that you won’t see markets in the same way once you finish. Information Theory is, in fact, the beating heart of Epsilon Theory. That said, one of the beautiful things about releasing content into the wild is that readers can do with it what they will. For the TLDR / Short Attention Span Theatre crowd, click here to skip to the chase on page 10.

***

Defining the strength of a signal as the degree to which it changes assessments of future states of the world dates back to Claude Shannon’s seminal work in 1948, and in a fundamental way back to the work of Thomas Bayes in the 1700’s.  Here’s the central insight of this work: information is measured by how much it changes your mind. In fact, if a signal doesn’t make you see the world differently, then it has zero information. As a corollary, the more confident you are in a certain view of the world, the more new information is required to make you have the opposite view of the world and the less information is required to confirm your initial view. There’s no inherent “truth” to any signal, no need to make a distinction between (or even think of) this signal as having true information and that signal as having false information. Information is neither true nor false. It is only more or less useful in our decision-making, and that’s a function of how much it makes us see the world differently. As a result, the informational strength of any signal is relative. The same signal may make a big difference in my assessment of the future but a tiny difference in yours. In that case, we are hearing the same message, but it has a lot of information to me and very little to you.

Let’s say that you are thinking about Apple stock but you are totally up in the air about whether the stock is going up or down over whatever your investment horizon might be, say 1 year. Your initial estimation of the future price of Apple stock is a coin toss … 50% likelihood to be higher a year from now, 50% likelihood to be lower a year from now. So you do nothing. But you start reading analyst reports about Apple or you build a cash-flow model … whatever it is that you typically do to gather information about a potential investment decision.

The graph below shows how Information Theory would represent the amount of signal information (generically represented as bits) required to change your initial assessment of a 50% likelihood of Apple stock going up over the next year to a post-signaling assessment of some new percentage likelihood. These are logarithmic curves, so even relatively small amounts of information (a small fraction of a generic bit) will change your mind about Apple pretty significantly, but more and more information is required to move your assessment closer and closer to certainty (either a 0% or a 100% perceived likelihood of the stock going up).

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-new-signalOf course, your assessment of Apple is not a single event and does not take place at a single point in time. As an investor you are constantly updating your opinion about every potential investment decision, and you are constantly taking in new signals. Each new update becomes the starting point for the next, ad infinitum, and as a result all of your prior assessments become part of the current assessment and influence the informational impact of any new signal.

Let’s say that your initial signals regarding Apple were mildly positive, enough to give you a new view that the likelihood of Apple stock going up in the next year is 60%. The graph below shows how Information Theory represents the amount of information required to change your mind from here. The curves are still logarithmic, but because your starting point is different it now only requires 80% of the information as before to get you to 100% certainty that Apple stock will go up in the next year (0.8 generic bits versus 1.0 generic bits with a 50% starting estimation). Conversely, it requires almost 140% of the same negative information as before to move you to certainty that Apple stock is going down.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-new-signal-2What these graphs are showing is the information surface of your non-strategic (i.e., without consideration of others) decision-making regarding Apple stock at any given point in time.  Your current assessment is the lowest point on the curve, the bottom of the informational “trough”, and the height of each trough “wall” is proportional to the information required to move you to a new assessment of the future probabilities. The higher the wall, the more information required in any given signal to get you to change your mind in a big way about Apple.

Now let’s marry Information Theory with Game Theory. What does an information surface look like for strategic decision-making, where your estimations of the future state of the world are contingent on the decisions you think others will make, and where everyone knows that everyone is being strategic?

I’m assuming we’re all familiar with the basic play of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and if you’re not just watch any episode of Law and Order. Two criminals are placed in separate rooms for questioning by the police, and while they are both better off if they both keep silent, each is individually much better off if he rats his partner out while the partner remains silent. Unfortunately, in this scenario the silent partner takes the fall all by himself, resulting in what is called the “sucker pay-off”. Because both players know that this pay-off structure exists (and are always told that it exists by the police), the logical behavior for each player is to rat out his buddy for fear of being the sucker.

Below on the left is a classic two-player Prisoner’s Dilemma game with cardinal expected utility pay-offs as per a customary 2×2 matrix representation. Both the Row player and the Column player have only two decision choices – Rat and Silence – with the joint pay-off structures shown as (Row , Column) and the equilibrium outcome (Rat , Rat) shaded in light blue.

The same equilibrium outcome is shown below on the right as an informational surface, where both the Row and the Column player face an expected utility hurdle of 5 units to move from a decision of Rat to a decision of Silence. For a move to occur, new information must change the current Rat pay-off and/or the potential Silence pay-off for either the Row or the Column player in order to eliminate or overcome the hurdle. The shape of the informational surface indicates the relative stability of the equilibrium as the depth of the equilibrium trough, or conversely the height of the informational walls that comprise the trough, is a direct representation of the informational content required to change the conditional pay-offs of the game and allow the ball (the initial decision point) to “roll” to a new equilibrium position. In this case we have a deep informational trough, reflecting the stability of the (Rat , Rat) equilibrium in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-equilibriumNow let’s imagine that new information is presented to the Row player such that it improves the expected utility pay-off of a future (Silence, Rat) position from -10 to -6. Maybe he hears that prison isn’t all that bad so long as he’s not a Rat. As a result the informational hurdle required by the Row player to change decisions from Rat to Silence is reduced from +5 to +1. 

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-equilibrium-2The (Rat , Rat) outcome is still an equilibrium outcome because neither player believes that there is a higher pay-off associated with changing his mind, but this is a much less stable equilibrium from the Row player’s perspective (and thus for the overall game) than the original equilibrium.

With this less stable equilibrium framework, even relatively weak new information that changes the Row player’s assessment of the current position utility may be enough to move the decision outcome to a new equilibrium. Below, new information of 2 units changes the perceived utility of the current Rat decision for the Row player from -5 to -7. Maybe he hears from his lawyer that the Mob intends to break his legs if he stays a Rat. This is the equivalent of “pushing” the decision outcome over the +1 informational hurdle on the Row player’s side of the (Rat , Rat) trough, and it is reflected in both representations as a new equilibrium outcome of (Silence , Rat).

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-equilibrium-3This new (Silence , Rat) outcome is an equilibrium because neither the Row player nor the Column player perceives a higher expected utility outcome by changing decisions. It is still a weak equilibrium because the informational hurdle to return to (Rat , Rat) is only 1 informational unit, but all the same it generates a new behavior by the Row player: instead of ratting out his partner, he now keeps his mouth shut.

The Column player never changed decisions, but moving from a (Rat , Rat) equilibrium to a (Silence , Rat) equilibrium in this two time-period example resulted in an increase of utility from -5 to +10 (and for the Row Player a decrease from -5 to -6). This change in utility pay-offs over time can be mapped as:

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-row-playerReplace the words “Column Utility” with “AAPL stock price” and you’ll see what I’m going for. The Column player bought the police interrogation at -5 and sold it at +10. By mapping horizontal movement on a game’s informational surface to utility outcomes over time we can link game theoretic market behavior to market price level changes.

Below are two generic examples of a symmetric informational structure for the S&P 500 and a new positive signal hitting the market. New signals will “push” any decision outcome in the direction of the new information. But only if the new signal is sufficiently large (whatever that means in the context of a specific game) will the decision outcome move to a new equilibrium and result in stable behavioral change.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-behavioral-changeIn the first structure, there is enough informational strength to the signal to overcome the upside informational wall and push the market to a higher and stable price equilibrium. In the second structure, while the signal moves the market price higher briefly, there is not enough strength to the signal to change the minds of market participants to a degree that a new stable equilibrium behavior emerges.

All market behaviors – from “Risk-On/Risk-Off” to “climbing a wall of worry” to “buying the effin’ dip” to “going up on bad news” – can be described with this informational structure methodology. 

For example, here’s how “going up on bad news” works. First, the market receives a negative Event signal – a poor Manufacturing ISM report, for example – that is bad enough to move the market down but not so terrible as to change everyone’s mind about what everyone knows that everyone knows about the health of the US economy and thus move the market index to a new, lower equilibrium level.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-behavioral-change-2Following this negative event, however, the market then receives a set of public media signals – a Narrative – asserting that in response to this bad ISM number the Fed is more likely to launch additional easing measures. This Narrative signal is repeated widely enough and credibly enough that it changes Common Knowledge about future Fed policy and moves the market to a new, higher, and stable level.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-behavioral-change-3.jpgSo what is the current informational structure for the S&P500? Well, it looks something like this:

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-informational-structureThe market equilibrium today is like a marble sitting on a glass table. It is an extremely unstable equilibrium because the informational barriers that keep the marble from rolling a long way in either direction are as low as they have been in the past five years. Even a very weak signal is enough to push the marble a long way in one direction, only to have another weak signal push it right back. This is how you get big price movements “for no apparent reason”.

Why are the informational barriers to equilibrium shifts so low today? Because levels of Common Knowledge regarding future central bank policy decisions are so low today. The Narratives on both sides of the collective decision to buy or sell this market are extremely weak. What does everyone know that everyone knows about Abenomics? Very little. What does everyone know that everyone knows about Fed tapering? Very little. What does everyone know that everyone knows about the current state of global growth? Very little. I’m not saying that there’s a lack of communication on these subjects or that there’s a lack of opinion about these subjects or that there’s a lack of knowledge about these subjects. I’m saying that there’s a lack of Common Knowledge on these subjects, and that’s what determines the informational structure of a market.

***

I wrote all that right before the Fed’s Taper Tantrum in the summer of 2013, which can be understood using this Information Theory framework as a massive public relations effort by Bernanke et al to create a new Common Knowledge structure that would shape the informational contours of the market. The immediate signal of this initial effort at “communication policy” was a big red arrow pointing left, and almost all asset classes everywhere around the world took a dive as the strong signal sent the equilibrium marble skittering to the downside across the largely flat informational surface. But the longer term effect of communication policy was just as Bernanke hoped (and as he spoke about extensively in his farewell address as Fed Chair): it built an enormous Common Knowledge “wall” off to the downside left of the market informational surface – a Fed put based not on continued asset purchases, but on continued words of Narrative influence

Those words form the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, the overwhelming belief by market participants that central bankers in general, and the Fed in particular, determine market outcomes, and for the past two years this has been the only thing that matters in markets. I’ve been tracking and studying political Narratives for my entire professional career, close to 30 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a heck of a trick that Bernanke started and Draghi perfected and Yellen continues, and it’s the key, I think, to seeing recent bond market turbulence in the most useful perspective.

Everything I wrote about the informational surface of the equity market in early summer 2013 is exactly applicable to the informational surface of the bond market in early summer 2015. The bond market today is like a marble sitting on a glass table. There are very few informational structures or barriers to keep the price of US bonds from skittering this way or that, within a price range as expressed in yield terms of, say, 2.25% and 1.85% on the 10-year bond. This is what always happens when the Fed comes out and says that it’s increasingly “data dependent” …our local equilibria become much less stable when the Fed says that it hasn’t made up its collective mind about the pace or scale of monetary policy shifts.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bond

With an informational structure like this, the 10-year bond could trade anywhere on this segment of the price line. Moreover, it takes a signal with precious little information to change people’s minds about whether the US 10-year should yield 1.90% today or 2.20% tomorrow. Precious little information means just that – precious little information – and it’s a classic mistake to infer grand theories or reach sweeping conclusions on the basis of precious little information. Don’t do that.

Because here’s the thing: the informational surface is only flat in this immediate vicinity of current bond prices. There are enormous Common Knowledge walls just off to the left and just off to the right of the price line segment shown above, Common Knowledge structures created by the entirely successful efforts by central bankers to mold investor behaviors and by the entirely unsuccessful efforts by central bankers to fix the real economy.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bond-3I really can’t emphasize this point too strongly – monetary policy since March 2009 has created a phenomenally stable global equilibrium in both markets and the real economy, an equilibrium that since the summer of 2013 no longer depends on massive asset purchases by the Fed. 

Does the stability of the global equilibrium require someone to be making asset purchases, if not the Fed then the ECB or BOJ? To some degree I’m sure it does. But then I remember that Draghi’s mere words and an OMT program constructed out of whole cloth were sufficient to save the Euro in the summer of 2012. My strong sense is that the launching of central bank asset purchase programs may move the entire informational structure farther along to the right of the price line (higher prices, lower yields), and vice versa leftwards along the price line if the programs stop, but they don’t diminish the Common Knowledge structures themselves. Maybe the locally unstable price range of the US 10-year as expressed in yield terms goes to 2.75% – 2.35% if the ECB were to summarily stop its asset purchase program, but I still think you have an extremely stable global informational structure on either side of that new range, whatever it is. Among market participants today there is almost unanimity of belief that central bankers Will. Not. Allow. a global recession to occur, much less a deflationary equilibrium. But at the same time there is also almost unanimity of belief that central bankers Can. Not. Create. a global recovery, much less an inflationary equilibrium. That unanimity of belief establishes a global informational equilibrium of unparalleled strength and stability, or at least unparalleled in my experience.

And that leads me to my other main point: a highly stable equilibrium cuts both ways, for good and for bad. Another way of saying that you’re in a highly stable equilibrium is to say that you’re well and truly stuck. Yes, there are HUGE informational barriers to prevent economic behaviors that would create a recession in the US or horribly crush any major market or asset class. But by the same token, there are also HUGE informational barriers to prevent economic behaviors that would spark robust growth in the US or wildly elevate any major market or asset class. I’m not saying that the doomsday or heavenly scenarios are impossible. I’m saying that it would take an almost unimaginably large amount of new information to change people’s minds about what everyone knows that everyone knows about markets today, for either scenario to occur. Could happen. But I really don’t think that’s how you want to place your bets. My money is on the long grey slog of the Entropic Ending.

I know it sounds weird for me to say that we’re living in a deep, deep valley with giant mountains on both sides of us when it feels like we’re a marble sitting on a glass table, but that’s exactly the mixed metaphor that I think accurately describes our lives as investors here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.  I know it sounds weird to think that we could be living in that deep, deep valley and yet be completely oblivious to its existence, completely convinced that the narrow field of view foisted on us day in and day out by the business imperatives of the financial services industry, especially financial media, is the only possible field of view. But myopically focused on what we are told to focus on is exactly how we humans (and replicants, too, I suppose) tend to live out our lives. Shifting our perspective to take a more global view, whether that’s on the dimension of time or emotion or, yes, asset price levels, is probably the most difficult thing any of us can hope to achieve, and it will always be an imperfect shift at best. Yet it’s never been more important to make that effort, else we allow our innate search for meaning to be subverted by mass-mediated, faux-authentic signalers that profit from making us look over here rather than over there. And I’m not just talking about market signals. It’s EVERY expression of power in the modern age – financial, political, legal, medical, etc. – that suffers from this mass-mediated form of social control, this manipulation of the Common Knowledge game. The human animal is a social animal. We are biologically evolved over millions of years to infer meaning from social signals. We swim in a sea of socially constructed signals, and we can no more ignore the words of Yellen or CNBC or a Master of the Universe than an ant can ignore the pheromones of her queen. We can’t ignore the words. But we can recognize them for what they are. We can ask ourselves “Is that all there is?” and take a more global view.

Sometimes there’s significance in signs and portents. Sometimes there’s real meaning to be gleaned from careful study of localized phenomena, from the interpretation of immediate events to generate far-reaching conclusions. Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and that’s how I’m thinking about recent gyrations in the bond market.

One final point, perhaps the most important one I’ve got, and it’s addressed to everyone who asks questions like “so, Ben, when do you think the Fed is going to raise rates?” or “so, Ben, where do you think the price of oil goes from here?” The answer: I don’t know and I don’t really care. Seriously. These are unanswerable, entirely over-determined-in-retrospect questions, and the worst possible thing you can do with an unanswerable, entirely over-determined-in-retrospect question is to try to answer it in deterministic fashion! The popular fetish with demanding an Answer with a capital A to this sort of question is a crystallization of the market neurosis that afflicts us in the Golden Age of the Central Banker, and it’s the quickest path I know to poor investing. 

What I DO care about is Adaptive Investing. What I DO care about is understanding the informational structures of the market that determine the likely market price reaction to some new signal, whether that’s a Yellen speech, an earnings report, or technical trading data. Trying to predict what that signal is going to be or when that signal is going to come is a losing proposition. Sorry, but I don’t play that game. And neither should you. My god, we need more pundit predictions about the Fed or oil prices like we need an asteroid to crash into the Earth. What we need is an investment and allocation STRATEGYfor whatever comes down the pike, whenever it occurs. That’s exactly what an Information Theory perspective on markets can provide. Take another look at this informational surface.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bond-2

This graph says nothing about when and what the Fed will do. It says everything about how to THINK about the bond market in a dynamic, non-myopic way, about how to prepare for probabilistic waves of new signals and how to react once they hit. There’s an entire investment and asset allocation strategy embedded in this graph, and I think it’s the most useful contribution I can make with Epsilon Theory, far more than adding one more voice to the cacophony of Fed “predictions” that drive our collective market neurosis. We are slowly being driven nuts by the paradoxes and ambiguities of the Golden Age of the Central Banker, a maddening time in the truest sense of the word, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s coping mechanisms or business models for dealing with this clinically insane market environment. I submit, however, that our mental health and financial health are best served by taking a strategic view of markets, a view that engages with the game without succumbing blindly to it. That and a regular dose of Epsilon Theory.

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It’s Still Not About the Nail

Reader reaction to the March 31 Epsilon Theory note, “It’s Not About the Nail”, was probably the strongest and most positive for any note to date. The message in a nutshell: financial advisors of all stripes and sizes would be well-served to do more than serve up old-school diversification platitudes in this Brave New World of a bull market that everyone hates, and the behavioral insights of regret minimization are an effective framework for making that adaptation.

This is a message that bears repeating, and thanks to Institutional Investor that’s what’s happening. A condensed version of “It’s Not About the Nail” can be found on the Institutional Investor website here, that piece will appear in the print magazine later this month in their “Unconventional Wisdom” column, and I’ve appended it below.

I think the reason this message strikes a chord is that it not only puts into words what a lot of people are feeling in an inchoate fashion, but also suggests a toolkit for improving the strained dialog between advisors and investors. It’s possible to take our tried and tested (but tired) notions of portfolio construction and energize them with the tools of game theory and behavioral economics, so that we get to the meaning of words like “diversification” and “de-risking”.

In the note I presented one way of thinking about all this in simple graphical terms, by taking the historical risk and reward of a portfolio or a subset of a portfolio and just seeing what the impact of a diversifying strategy would actually have been as seen in risk/reward space.

epsilon-theory-its-still-not-about-the-nail-april-14-2015-historical-risk-reward

The goal here is to move the original portfolio (the gold ball) up and to the left into the green triangle that marries both the traditional meaning of diversification (maximization of reward per unit of risk) and the behavioral meaning of de-risking in a bull market (minimization of the risk of underperformance). There ARE strategies that accomplish this goal, but the trick is finding the strategies that do this for the actual portfolio you have today, not some hypothetical portfolio or index.

We’ve built a set of tools at Salient within our systematic strategies group to analyze the historical impact of a wide range of diversifying strategies from a wide range of asset managers on actual portfolios, and then to map the impact of various diversifying strategies in risk/reward space. It’s not rocket science, and I’m sure any number of Epsilon Theory readers could develop a similar toolkit, but we’ve found it to be a very useful process for not only evaluating, but also communicating how diversifying strategies can make an existing portfolio better for an investor’s needs. Sometimes Salient strategies show up well in this analysis; sometimes they don’t. If you’re familiar with the Progressive Car Insurance commercials with Flo, you get the idea.

If you’re an investment professional and/or financial advisor with a portfolio you’d like to have analyzed in this manner, reply to this email or drop me a note at bhunt@salientpartners.com , and I’d be delighted to set it up for you.

As with all things Epsilon Theory-related, there’s no fee or obligation associated with this analysis. Thanks again to my partners and colleagues here at Salient for their commitment to releasing useful intellectual property into the wild. I think it’s a smart, non-myopic view of what it means to be an asset manager in the modern age, but a rare bird nonetheless.

All the best,
Ben


There’s a massive disconnect between advisors and investors today, and it’s reflected in both declining investment activity as well as a general fatigue with the consultant-client conversation. Consultants continue to preach the faith of diversification, and their clients continue to genuflect in its general direction. But diversification as it’s currently preached is perhaps the most oversold concept in financial advisor-dom, and the sermon isn’t connecting. Fortunately, behavioral economics offers a fresh perspective on portfolio construction, one that lends itself to what we call Adaptive Investing.

Investors aren’t asking for diversification, which isn’t that surprising after six years of a bull market. Investors only ask for diversification after the fire, as a door-closing exercise when the horse has already left the burning barn. What’s surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking, similar in some respects to diversification but different in crucial ways. What’s also surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking rather than re-risking, which is what you’d typically expect at this stage of such a powerful bull market.

Why is this the most mistrusted bull market in recorded history? Because no one thinks it’s real. Everyone believes that it’s a by-product of outrageously extraordinary monetary policy actions rather than the by-product of fundamental economic growth and productivity — and what the Fed giveth, the Fed can taketh away.

This is a big problem for the Federal Reserve, as its efforts to force greater risk-taking in markets through large-scale asset purchases and quantitative easing have failed to take hold in investor hearts and minds. Yes, we’re fully invested, but just because we have to be. To paraphrase the old saying about beauty, risk-taking is only skin deep for today’s investor, but risk-aversion goes clear to the bone.

It’s also the root of our current adviser-investor malaise. How so? Because de-risking a bull market is a very different animal than de-risking a bear market. As seen through the lens of behavioral economics, de-risking is based on regret minimization (not risk–reward maximization like diversification), and the simple fact is that regret minimization is driven by peer comparisons in a bull market. In a bear market your primary regret — the thing you must avoid at all costs — is ruin, and that provokes a very direct physical reaction. You can’t sleep. And that’s why de-risking Rule No. 1 in a bear market is so simple: Sell until you can sleep at night. Go to cash.

In a bull market, your primary regret is looking or feeling stupid, and that provokes a very conflicted, very psychological reaction. You want to de-risk because you don’t understand this market, and you’re scared of what will happen when the policy ground shifts. But you’re equally scared of being tagged “a panicker” and missing “the greatest bull market of this or any other generation.” And so you do nothing. You avoid making a decision, which means you also avoid the consultant-client conversation. Ultimately everyone — advisor and investor alike — looks to blame someone else for their own feelings of unease. No one’s happy, even as the good times roll.

So what’s to be done? Is it possible to both de-risk a portfolio and satisfy the regret minimization calculus of a bull market?

In fact, our old friend diversification is the answer, but not in its traditional presentation as a cure-all bromide. Diversification can certainly de-risk a portfolio by turning down the volatility, and it’s well suited for a bull market because it can reduce volatility without reducing market exposure. The problem is that diversification can take a long time to prove itself, and that’s rarely acceptable to investors who are seeking the immediate portfolio impact of de-risking, whether it’s the bear market or bull market variety.

What we need are diversification strategies that can react quickly. That brings me back to adaptive investing, which has two relevant points for de-risking in a bull market.

First, your portfolio should include allocations to strategies that can go short. If you’re de-risking a bull market, you need to make money when you’re right, not just lose less money. Losing less money pays off over the long haul, but the path can be bumpy.

Second, your portfolio should include allocations to trend-following strategies, which keep you in assets that are working and get you out of those that aren’t. The market is always right, and that’s never been more true — or more difficult to remember — than now in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

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It’s Not About the Nail

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-yodaDo, or do not. There is no try.”

– Yoda, “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.
Soren Kierkegaard, “Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” (1843)

The only victories which leave no regret are those which are gained over ignorance.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
Arthur Miller, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” (1991)

Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)

One can’t reason away regret – it’s a bit like falling in love, fall into regret.
Graham Greene, “The Human Factor” (1978)

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-cash.jpgI bet there’s rich folks eatin’

In a fancy dining car.

They’re probably drinkin’ coffee

And smokin’ big cigars.

Well I know I had it comin’.

I know I can’t be free.

But those people keep-a-movin’

And that’s what tortures me.

– Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955)

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-paul-ankaRegrets…I’ve had a few.

But then again, too few to mention.

– Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra “My Way” (1969)

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Omar Khayyam, “Rubaiyat” (1048 – 1141)

You can tell it any way you want but that’s the way it is. I should of done it and I didn’t. And some part of me has never quit wishin’ I could go back. And I can’t. I didn’t know you could steal your own life. And I didn’t know that it would bring you no more benefit than about anything else you might steal. I think I done the best with it I knew how but it still wasn’t mine. It never has been.”
Cormac McCarthy, “No Country for Old Men” (2005)

Jesse: Yeah, right, well, great. So listen, so here’s the deal. This is what we should do. You should get off the train with me here in Vienna, and come check out the capital.
Celine: What?
Jesse: Come on. It’ll be fun. Come on.
Celine: What would we do?
Jesse: Umm, I don’t know. All I know is I have to catch an Austrian Airlines flight tomorrow morning at 9:30 and I don’t really have enough money for a hotel, so I was just going to walk around, and it would be a lot more fun if you came with me. And if I turn out to be some kind of psycho, you know, you just get on the next train.

Alright, alright. Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me, y’know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.

Celine: Let me get my bag.

Richard Linklater, “Before Sunrise” (1995)

For it falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
While it was ours.
William Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing” (1612)

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30” (1609)

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-nirvanaNo, I don’t have a gun.

– Nirvana, “Come As You Are” (1992)

I spend a lot of my time speaking with investors and financial advisors of all stripes and sizes, and here’s what I’m hearing, loud and clear. There’s a massive disconnect between advisors and investors today, and it’s reflected in both declining investment activity as well as a general fatigue with the advisor-investor conversation. I mean “advisor-investor conversation” in the broadest possible context, a context that should be recognizable to everyone reading this note. It’s the conversation of a financial advisor with an individual investor client. It’s the conversation of a consultant with an institutional investor client. It’s the conversation of a CIO with a Board of Directors. It’s the conversation of many of us with ourselves. The wariness and weariness associated with this conversation runs in both directions, by the way.

Advisors continue to preach the faith of diversification, and investors continue to genuflect in its general direction. But the sermon isn’t connecting. Investors continue to express their nervousness with the market and dissatisfaction with their portfolio performance, and advisors continue to nod their heads and say they understand. It reminds me of Jason Headley’s brilliant short film, “It’s Not About the Nail”, with the advisor reprising Headley’s role. Yes, the advisor is listening. But most find it impossible to get past what they believe is the obvious answer to the obvious problem. Got a headache? Take the nail out of your head. Nervous about the market? Diversify your portfolio. But there are headaches and then there are headaches. There is nervousness and then there is nervousness. It’s not about the nail, and the sooner advisors realize this, the sooner they will find a way to reconnect with their clients. Even if it’s just a conversation with yourself.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-nail

Investors aren’t asking for diversification, which isn’t that surprising after 6 years of a bull market. Investors never ask for diversification after 6 years of a bull market. They only ask for it after the Fall, as a door-closing exercise when the horse has already left the burning barn. What’s surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking, similar in some respects to diversification but different in crucial ways. What’s surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking rather than re-risking, which is what you’d typically expect at this stage of such a powerful bull market.

Investors are asking for de-risking because this is the most mistrusted bull market in recorded history, a market that seemingly everyone wants to fade rather than press. Why? Because no one thinks this market is real. Everyone believes that it’s a by-product of outrageously extraordinary monetary policy actions rather than the by-product of fundamental economic growth and productivity, and what the Fed giveth … the Fed can taketh away.

This is a big problem for the Fed, as their efforts to force greater risk-taking in markets through LSAP and QE (and thus more productive risk-taking, or at least inflation, in the real economy) have failed to take hold in investor hearts and minds. Yes, we’re fully invested, but only because we have to be. To paraphrase the old saying about beauty, risk-taking is only skin deep for today’s investor, but risk-aversion goes clear to the bone.

It’s also the root of our current advisor-investor malaise. De-risking a bull market is a very different animal than de-risking a bear market. And neither is the same as diversification.

Let’s take that second point first.

Here’s a simple representation of what diversification looks like, from a risk/reward perspective.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-rewardFor illustrative purposes only.

The gold ball is whatever your portfolio looks like today from a historical risk/reward perspective, and the goal of diversification is to move your portfolio up and to the left of the risk/reward trade-off line that runs diagonally through the current portfolio position. Diversification is all about increasing the risk/reward balance, about getting more reward per unit of risk in your portfolio, and the goodness or poorness of your diversification effort is defined by how far you move your portfolio away from that diagonal line. In fact, as the graph below shows, each of the Good Diversification outcomes are equally good from a risk/reward balance perspective because they are equally distant from the original risk/reward balance line, and vice versa for the Poor Diversification outcomes.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-2

For illustrative purposes only.

Diversification does NOT mean getting more reward out of your portfolio per se, which means that some Poor Diversification changes to your portfolio will outperform some Good Diversification changes to your portfolio over time (albeit with a much bumpier ride).

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-3

For illustrative purposes only.

It’s an absolute myth to say that any well-diversified portfolio will outperform all poorly diversified portfolios over time. But it’s an absolute truth to say that any well-diversified portfolio will outperform all poorly diversified portfolios over time on a risk-adjusted basis. If an investor is thinking predominantly in terms of risk and reward, then greater diversification is the slam-dunk portfolio recommendation. This is the central insight of Harry Markowitz and his modern portfolio theory contemporaries, and I’m sure I don’t need to belabor that for anyone reading this note.

The problem is that investors are not only risk/reward maximizers, they are also regret minimizers (see Epsilon Theory notes “Why Take a Chance” and “The Koan of Donald Rumsfeld” for more, or read anything by Daniel Kahneman). The meaning of “risk” must be understood as not only as the other side of the reward coin, but also as the co-pilot of behavioral regret. That’s a mixed metaphor, and it’s intentional. The human animal holds two very different meanings for risk in its brain simultaneously. One notion of risk, as part and parcel of expected investment returns and the path those returns are likely to take, is captured well by the concept of volatility and the toolkit of modern economic theory. The other, as part and parcel of the psychological utility associated with both realized and foregone investment returns, is captured well by the concepts of evolutionary biology and the toolkit of modern game theory.

The problem is that diversification can only be understood as an exercise in risk/reward maximization, has next to nothing to say about regret minimization, and thus fails to connect with investors who are consumed by concerns of regret minimization. This fundamental miscommunication is almost always present in any advisor-investor conversation, but it is particularly pernicious during periods of global debt deleveraging as we saw in the 1870’s, the 1930’s, and today. Why? Because the political consequences of that deleveraging create investment uncertainty in the technical, game theoretic sense, an uncertainty which is reflected in reduced investor confidence in the efficacy of fundamental market and macroeconomic factors to drive market outcomes. In other words, the rules of the investment game change when politicians attempt to maintain the status quo – i.e., their power – when caught in the hurricane of a global debt crisis. That’s what happened in the 1870’s. That’s what happened in the 1930’s. And it’s darn sure happening today. We all feel it. We all feel like we’ve entered some Brave New World where the old market moorings make little sense, and that’s what’s driving the acute anxiety expressed today by investors both large and small. Recommending old-school diversification techniques as a cure-all for this psychological pain isn’t necessarily wrong. It probably won’t do any harm. But it’s not doing anyone much good, either. It’s not about the nail.

On the other hand, the concept of de-risking has a lot of meaning within the context of regret minimization, which makes it a good framework for exploring a more psychologically satisfactory set of portfolio allocation recommendations. But to develop that framework, we need to ask what drives investment regret. And just as we talk about different notions of volatility-based portfolio constructions under different market regimes, so do we need to talk about different notions of regret-based portfolio constructions under different market regimes.

Okay, that last paragraph was a bit of a mouthful. Let me skip the academic-ese and get straight to the point. In a bear market, regret minimization is driven by existential concerns. In a bull market, regret minimization is driven by peer comparisons.

In a bear market your primary regret – the thing you must avoid at all costs – is ruin, and that provokes a very direct, very physical reaction. You can’t sleep. And that’s why Rule #1 of de-risking in a bear market is so simple: sell until you can sleep at night. Go to cash. Here’s what de-risking in a bear market looks like, as drawn in risk/reward space.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-4

For illustrative purposes only.

Again, the gold ball is whatever your portfolio looks like today from a historical risk/reward perspective. De-risking means moving your portfolio to the left, i.e. a lower degree of risk. The question is how much reward you are forced to sacrifice for that move to the left. Perfect De-Risking sacrifices zero performance. Good luck with that if you are reducing your gross exposure. Average De-Risking is typically accomplished by selling down your portfolio in a pro rata fashion across all of your holdings, and that’s a simple, effective strategy. Good De-Risking and Poor De-Risking are the result of active choices in selling down some portion of your portfolio more than another portion of your portfolio, or – if you don’t want to go to cash – replacing something in your portfolio that’s relatively volatile with something that’s relatively less volatile.

In a bull market, on the other hand, your primary regret is looking or feeling stupid, and that provokes a very conflicted, very psychological reaction. You want to de-risk because you don’t understand this market, and you’re scared of what will happen when the policy ground shifts. But you’re equally scared of being tagged with the worst possible insults you can suffer in our business: “you’re a panicker” … “you missed the greatest bull market of this or any other generation”. Again, maybe this is a conversation you’re having with yourself (frankly, that’s the most difficult and conflicted conversation most of us will ever have). And so you do nothing. You avoid making a decision, which means you also avoid the advisor-investor conversation. Ultimately everyone, advisor and investor alike, looks to blame someone else for their own feelings of unease. No one’s happy, even as the good times roll.

So what’s to be done? Is it possible to both de-risk a portfolio and satisfy the regret minimization calculus of a bull market?

Through the lens of regret minimization, here’s what de-risking in a bull market looks like, again as depicted in risk/reward space:

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-5

For illustrative purposes only.

Essentially you’ve taken all of the bear market de-risking arrows and moved them 45 degrees clockwise. What would be Perfect De-Risking in a bear market is only perceived as average in a bull market, and many outcomes that would be considered Good Diversification in pure risk/reward terms are seen as Poor De-Risking. I submit that this latter condition, what I’ve marked with an asterisk in the graph above, is exactly what poisons so many advisor-investor conversations today. It’s a portfolio adjustment that’s up and to the left from the diagonal risk/reward balance line, so you’re getting better risk-adjusted returns and Good Diversification – but it’s utterly disappointing in a bull market as peer comparison regret minimization takes hold. It doesn’t even serve as a Good De-Risking outcome as it would in a bear market.

Now here’s the good news. There are diversification outcomes that overlap with the bull market Good De-Risking outcomes, as shown in the graph below. In fact, it’s ONLY diversification strategies that can get you into the bull market Good De-Risking area. That is, typical de-risking strategies look to cut exposure, not replace it with equivalent but uncorrelated exposure as diversification strategies do, and you’re highly unlikely to improve the reward profile of your portfolio (moving up vertically from the horizontal line going through the gold ball) by reducing gross exposure. The trick to satisfying investors in a bull market is to increase reward AND reduce volatility. I never said this was easy.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-6

For illustrative purposes only.

The question is … what diversification strategies can move your portfolio into this promised land? Also (as if this weren’t a challenging enough task already), what diversification strategies can work quickly enough to satisfy a de-risking calculus? Diversification can take a long time to prove itself, and that’s rarely acceptable to investors who are seeking the immediate portfolio impact of de-risking, whether it’s the bear market or bull market variety.

What we need are diversification strategies that can act quickly. More to the point, we need strategies that can react quickly, all while maintaining a full head of steam with their gross exposure to non-correlated or negatively-correlated return streams. This is at the heart of what I’ve been calling Adaptive Investing.

Epsilon Theory isn’t the right venue to make specific investment recommendations. But I’ll make three general points.

First, I’d suggest looking at strategies that can go short. If you’re de-risking a bull market, you need to make money when you’re right, not just lose less money. Losing less money pays off over the long haul, but the long haul is problematic from a regret-based perspective, which tends to be quite path-sensitive. Short positions are, by definition, negatively correlated to the thing that they’re short. They have a lot more oomph than the non-correlated or weakly-correlated exposures that are at the heart of most old-school diversification strategies, and that’s really powerful in this framework. Of course, you’ve got to be right about your shorts for this to work, which is why I’m suggesting a look at strategies that CAN go short as an adaptation to changing circumstances, not necessarily strategies that ARE short as a matter of habit or requirement.

Second, and relatedly, I’d suggest looking at trend-following strategies, which keep you in assets that are working and get you out of assets that aren’t (or better yet, allow you to go short the assets that aren’t working). Trend-following strategies are inherently behaviorally-based, which is near and dear to the Epsilon Theory heart, and more importantly they embody the profound agnosticism that I think is absolutely critical to maintain when uncertainty rules the day and fundamental “rules” change on political whim. Trend-following strategies are driven by the maxim that the market is always right, and that’s never been more true – or more difficult to remember – than here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

Third, these graphs of portfolio adjustments in risk/reward space are not hypothetical exercises. Take the historical risk/reward of your current portfolio, or some portion of that portfolio such as the real assets allocation, and just see what the impact of including one or more liquid alternative strategies would be over the past few years. Check out what the impact on your portfolio would be since the Fed and the ECB embarked on divergent monetary policy courses late last summer, creating an entirely different macroeconomic regimeSeriously, it’s not a difficult exercise, and I think you’ll be surprised at what, for example, a relatively small trend-following allocation can do to de-risk a portfolio while still preserving the regret-based logic of managing a portfolio in a bull market. For both advisors and investors, this is the time to engage in a conversation about de-risking and diversification, properly understood as creatures of regret minimization as well as risk/reward maximization, rather than to avoid the conversation. As the old saying goes, risk happens fast. Well … so does regret. 

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Why Take a Chance?

epsilon-theory-why-take-a-chance-february-24-2015-casino

Vinny Forlano: He won’t talk. Stone is a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That’s the way I see it.
Vincent Borelli: I agree. He’s solid. An effin’ Marine.
Americo Capelli: He’s okay. He always was. Remo, what do you think?
Remo Gaggi: Look… why take a chance? At least, that’s the way I feel about it.

— “Casino” (1995)

epsilon-theory-why-take-a-chance-february-24-2015-casino-ace

Ace Rothstein: Four reels, sevens across on three $15,000 jackpots. Do you have any idea what the odds are?
Don Ward: Shoot, it’s gotta be in the millions, maybe more.
Ace Rothstein: Three effin’ jackpots in 20 minutes? Why didn’t you pull the machines? Why didn’t you call me?
Don Ward: Well, it happened so quick, 3 guys won; I didn’t have a chance …
Ace Rothstein: [interrupts] You didn’t see the scam? You didn’t see what was going on?
Don Ward: Well, there’s no way to determine that …
Ace Rothstein: Yes there is! An infallible way, they won!

— “Casino” (1995)

There’s only one question that matters in the Golden Age of the Central Banker: why isn’t QE working? Why hasn’t the largest monetary stimulus in the history of man – trillions of dollars of liquidity with trillions more euros and yen to come – sparked a self-sustaining recovery in the global economy?

If you’re a true-believer in modern economic orthodoxy or a central bank apparatchik the answer is simple: something must be getting in the way of our elegant theories of Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP), so if $4 trillion isn’t enough to break through to the Promised Land we better do $4 trillion more.

If you see the world through the lens of behavioral economics, however, you come to a very different conclusion. Something IS blocking the effectiveness of QE, but that something is human nature. Behavioral economics suggests that a little QE can change human behavior at the margins, but no amount of QE is enough to change human nature at its core.

The High Priests of the IMF, the Fed, and the ECB are blind to this because all of modern economic theory – ALL of it – is based on a single bedrock assumption: humans are economic maximizers. If something is good, then more is better and “MOAR!” is best. And if that assumption holds true, then QE works. You will indeed force productive risk-taking in the real world economy (more loans to small businesses, more growth-oriented investments in people and equipment, etc.) by making it increasingly difficult for investors to play it safe in capital markets (negative 10-year Swiss bonds, anyone?). But if that assumption is flawed, then you get exactly what we’re seeing: pervasive non-productive risk-taking in the real world economy (stock buy-backs, for example) and massive wealth transfers from savers to speculators in the capital markets.

Yes, we are maximizers of reward. But we are also minimizers of regret. That’s not because we are irrational or stupid, but because most of us draw on our portfolios for real world needs. Our investment portfolios are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We understand that a) periodic losses are inevitable in a risky investment portfolio, no matter how well it maximizes long-term gains, and b) if we’re unlucky and suffer losses such that our portfolios decline below a certain level, then we are faced with real world risks and tough real world decisions that overshadow whatever investment logic the Fed would prefer us to have.

Regret minimization is not just for financial investors. It holds true for investors of all sorts, from a CEO deciding how to allocate cash flows to a general deciding how to allocate troops to a farmer deciding how to allocate land. For all of these decision makers, it doesn’t matter how meager the reward of playing it safe might be if an unlucky roll of the investing dice would create existential risk. In the immortal words of “Casino” mob boss Remo Gaggi as he tacitly ordered a hit on a trusted lieutenant, “Look … why take a chance?”

To be sure, some investors are paralyzed by the unreasonable fear of rolling snake-eyes 500 times in a row. Still others, as we saw with the Swiss National Bank debacle, have no idea of the risks they’re taking when they intend to play it safe. Human behavior may be governed by concerns of risk and regret, but neither concept comes easily to us. All of us, no matter how comfortable we might be swimming in the ocean of randomness that surrounds us, occasionally channel our inner Don Ward, the hapless casino employee who thinks that it’s possible that three separate slot machine jackpots could trigger within minutes of each other simply by chance.

Fortunately, a branch of game theory called “Minimax Regret” can help apply analytical rigor to both our human nature and our human failings. As the name implies, the goal of Minimax Regret is to minimize the maximum regret you might experience from a decision choice. Developed in 1951 by Leonard “Jimmie” Savage – a colleague of John von Neumann and Milton Friedman, and in general one of the most brilliant American mathematicians of the 20th century – the Minimax Regret criterion is widely used in fields as diverse as military strategy and climate science … any situation requiring a choice between extremely costly options and where the results of your decision will not become apparent for years. Are you listening, Mr. Draghi?

Unfortunately, I’m certain that neither Mr. Draghi nor the other High Priests of monetary policy are listening at all. We seem destined to learn the hard way … once again … that you can’t change human nature by government fiat. But individual investors and allocators can listen and learn from these old good ideas, and that’s how you survive the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

I wrote an introductory note about Minimax Regret strategies in October 2013 (“The Koan of Donald Rumsfeld”), and – seeing as how Central Bankers outside the US are doubling down on the QE bet – it’s time for me to dust off this line of analysis. I think that Minimax Regret is the right micro toolbox to go along with the macro toolbox of political analysis (see “Finest Worksong” and “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey” for recent notes on this thread), and together they create the Adaptive Investing framework that’s at the heart of a practical Epsilon Theory perspective. I’ll be putting some Minimax Regret resources on the website over the next few weeks, along with some brief email and Twitter distributions to guide the effort. If you’re not already an email subscriber or Twitter follower, now would be a good time to sign up.

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The Clash of Civilizations

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-course-of-empire

Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)

In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.

– Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996)

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.

– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

The argument now that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization trivializes Western culture. The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac. The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former.

– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-huntington

Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. 

– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

Q:     What do you think of Western civilization?
A:     I think it would be a good idea. 

– Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-happy-face

Adrian Veidt: It doesn’t take a genius to see that the world has problems.
Edward Blake: No, but it takes a room full of morons to think they’re small enough for you to handle.

– “Watchmen” (2009)

Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.

– Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451” (1953)

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-timeUpon learning of Cardinal Richelieu’s death, Pope Urban VIII is alleged to have said, “If there is a God, then Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.”
Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy” (1994)

Corrupt politicians make the remaining ten percent look bad.

– Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)

Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world. 

– Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)

The most fundamental problem of politics is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness. 

– Henry Kissinger, “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22” (1957)

Order should not have priority over freedom. But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy. 

– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

A more immediate issue concerns North Korea, to which Bismarck’s nineteenth-century aphorism surely applies: “We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.” 

– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.

– Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)

Isaac: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Ya know? I read it in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, ya know, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to ’em.
Party Guest: There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times, just devastating.
Isaac: Whoa, whoa. A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it.
Party Guest: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.
Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis.

– “Manhattan” (1979)

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-woody-allen

Lots of quotes this week, particularly from my two favorite war criminals – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger. Everyone has heard of Kissinger, fewer of Huntington, who may have been even more of a hawk and law-and-order fetishist than Kissinger but never sufficiently escaped the ivory towers of Harvard to make a difference in Washington. Like me, Kissinger bolted academia at his first real opportunity for a better gig and never looked back, which is probably why I always found him to be so personally engaging and fun to be around. Sam Huntington … not so much.

But Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument is not just provocative, curmudgeonly, and hawkish. It is, I think, demonstrably more useful in making sense of the world than any competing theory, which is the highest praise any academic work can receive. Supplement Huntington’s work with a healthy dose of Kissinger’s writings on “the character of nations” and you’ve got a cogent and predictive intellectual framework for understanding the Big Picture of international politics. It’s a lens for seeing the world differently – a lens constructed from history and, yes, game theory – and that’s what makes this a foundational topic for Epsilon Theory.

Huntington and Kissinger were both realists (in the Thucydides and Bismarck sense of the word), as opposed to liberals (in the John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson sense of the word), which basically just means that they saw human political history as essentially cyclical and the human experience as essentially constant. Life is fundamentally “nasty, brutish, and short”, to quote Thomas Hobbes, and people band together in tribes, societies, and nation-states to do something about that. As such, we are constantly competing with other tribes, societies, and nation-states, and the patterns of that competition – patterns with names like “balance of power” and “empire” and “hegemony” – never really change across the centuries or from one continent to another. Sure, technology might provide some “progress” in creature comforts and quality of life (thank goodness for modern dentistry!), but basically technology just provides mechanisms for these political patterns to occur faster and with more devastating effect than before.

The central point of “Clash of Civilizations” is that it’s far more useful to think of the human world as divided into 9 great cultures (Huntington calls them civilizations, but I’ll use the words interchangeably here) rather than as 200 or so sovereign nations. Those cultures – Western, Orthodox (Russian), Islamic, African, Latin American, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Buddhist, and Japonic – are persistent and profoundly influential in ways that national borders and national institutions aren’t. Huntington argues that these 9 cultures are the most meaningful current expressions of the human animal’s inherent social imperatives, and that the logic of competition between these cultures explains and illuminates human history far better than competing notions, particularly those (like Marxism and liberalism) that assume an up-and-to-the-right direction to the arrow of history.

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-map

Marxism and liberalism are inherently optimistic visions of human society. Things are always getting better … or they will be better just as soon as people wake up and recognize their enlightened self-interest … as ideas of proletariat empowerment (Marxism) or individual rights as instantiated by free markets and free elections (liberalism) inexorably spread throughout the world. For realists like Huntington and Kissinger, on the other hand, this is nonsense. Free markets and free elections are good things (as is proletariat empowerment, frankly), but these central concepts of liberalism only mean what we Westerners think they mean if they exist within the entire context of Western culture. To insert the practices and institutions of liberalism into the Sinic culture, for example, might look awfully pretty to the Western eye and fill us with righteous pride, but it’s just a veneer. It won’t stick. The West may very well want to impose the practices and institutions of free markets and free elections for its own self-interest, and China may want to adopt the practices and institutions of free markets (but not free elections) for its own self-interest, but the logic of self-interest is a VERY different thing than the triumphalist claim that the liberal ideas of Western free markets and free elections are “naturally” spreading throughout the world.

A brief aside here on the distinction between personal beliefs and useful models. I’m not saying that I believe that authoritarian regimes and jihadist despots have some sort of moral equivalence to liberal governments, or that human rights don’t matter, or any of the other tired bromides used to tar realists. On the contrary, I personally believe that everyone in the non-Western world would be better off … MUCH better off … if their governing regimes gave a damn about individual rights and liberties in the same way that ANY governing regime in the West does. I believe that the principles of liberalism are the best ideas on social organization that the human animal has ever devised, and I’d like to spread these ideals into every corner of the globe. And you know what? On a personal level, Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger believed exactly the same thing. Kissinger fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He won the freakin’ Bronze Star for his work tracking down Gestapo agents in Hanover. Does that sound like a moral relativist? Huntington served in the Jimmy Carter administration, for god’s sake. Talk about personal sacrifices …

But what a realist recognizes is that our personal vision of how we would like the world to be is not an accurate representation of The World As It Is, and – as Huntington wrote – it’s false, immoral, and dangerous to pretend otherwise. The World As It Is today includes the birth of an Islamic Caliphate, effectively erasing Western colonialist borders from Iraq to Syria to Libya as it spews anti-modern carnage. The World As It Is today includes the violent sundering of Ukraine along Orthodox/Western cultural lines. The World As It Is today includes an insane Sinic theocracy in North Korea with nuclear weapons. The World As It Is today includes a Japonic culture that is, in a very real sense, dying. Is a realist happy about any of this? Is a realist satisfied to shrug his shoulders and retreat into some isolationist shell? No, of course not. But a realist does not assume that there are solutions to these problems. Certainly a realist does not assume that there are universal principles like “free and fair elections” that can or should be applied as solutions to these problems. Some problems are intractable because they have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and are part and parcel of the Clash of Civilizations. They’re not going away no matter how hard some American President stomps his feet or how many drones he releases or how stern an op-ed piece is printed in the New York Times or how warm and fuzzy we feel when we see a picture of an Iraqi woman proudly displaying her finger freshly inked from voting. Yes, I know I’m an a-hole for criticizing the whole “purple revolution” thing. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

epsilon-theory-the-clash-of-civilizations-december-29-2014-purple

Kissinger wasn’t kidding when he said that there were two and exactly two solutions to international problems: 1) hegemony (i.e., empire) over the opposing Civilization, or 2) balance of power with the opposing Civilization. The problem, of course, is that Door #1 is awfully expensive. For example, if you’re not prepared to push Germany into recession and risk a lot of lives – and I mean a LOT of lives – by expanding the NATO umbrella over Ukraine, then there’s no way you’re going to reverse a basic balance of power reality like “Russia gets a warm water port on the Black Sea, no matter what the petty satraps in Kiev think about that”. Sorry, but that’s the “solution” if you’re not happy with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and I have yet to meet anyone who’s willing to pay that price. Are there aspects of The World As It Is where you ARE prepared to pay the high price of empire to prevent a balance of power equilibrium? It’s a short list for me, but yes, there is a list, headed by the preservation of Israel and South Korea as (largely) Western outposts in the middle of non-Western cultures. Is nation-building in Afghanistan on the list? Don’t make me laugh.

I think the crucial issue here (as it is with so many things in life) is to call things by their proper name. We’ve mistaken the self-interested imposition and adoption of so many Western artifices – the borders between Syria and Iraq are a perfect example, but you can substitute “democracy in Afghanistan” if you like, or “capital markets in China” if you want something a bit more contentious – for the inevitable and righteous spread of Western ideals on their own merits. This is a problem for one simple reason: if you think Something happened because of Reason A (ideals spreading “naturally” and “inevitably” within an environment of growing global cooperation), but it really happened because of Reason B (practices imposed or adopted out of regime self-interest within an environment of constant global competition), then you will fail to anticipate or react appropriately when that Something changes.

And here’s the kicker: change is coming. The Clash of Civilizations is not going to get better in 2015. It’s going to get worse. Why? Because for the past five years we have had a US government that was willing to pay the high price of empire to extend its monetary policy hegemony over the entire world to save the infrastructure of modern Western civilization: the US banking system and its collateral assets. Five trillion dollars later, the Fed has now declared victory and is demobilizing the QE troops. Is it a lasting victory? I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a useless question. In the immortal words of Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are, and the Fed’s record looks pretty darn good. So they’re declaring victory and that’s how it will go down in the history books. The better question is: what now? What happens in the rest of the world now that the peace-keeping and price-raising and prosperity-bringing delivered by five trillion dollars in asset purchases … stops?

Part of the answer – a small part of the answer – is that other central banks with printing presses will try to take up some of the slack. The BOJ will continue to weaken the yen and monetize the government’s debt, and the ECB will do the same thing, although they will do less and will be forced to jump through bizarre hoops to preserve the pleasant fiction that they’re not monetizing government debt. I say that this is a small part of the answer to the question of “what now?” – even though if you listen to the prognosticators in financial media you would think that this is the entire answer – because monetary policy divergence, as important as it is, pales in comparison to political divergence. I don’t think it’s an accident that Ukraine starts ripping itself apart as the largest monetary experiment in the history of man starts to wind down. Or that ISIS starts to remap the entire Middle East. Or that North Korea attacks Sony. Or that the price of oil drops by half as OPEC faces its greatest existential threat. Did the Fed cause these events? Of course not. But they’re not unrelated. They’re all part of the fabric of global deleveraging. This is what happens when you have a global debt crisis and politicians respond to maintain the status quo by any means necessary – the political center does not hold. Whether you’re talking about the 1870’s or the 1930’s or today, it’s always the same story … domestic coalitions and sovereign nations and international alliances that were held together by mutual absolute gains in the good times are driven apart by relative gains and losses in the bad times, and those domestic coalitions and sovereign nations and international alliances that bridge two ancient civilizations are thrown into the centrifuge most of all.

The market flash points for 2015 are not limited to the obvious suspects, like Ukraine and ISIS. In fact, most of the obvious suspects are not terribly impactful on major markets, and some have the perverse effect of providing “good news” for markets the worse their situation becomes. For example, to the degree that Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia damage German growth rates, the market believes that this forces still greater ECB market accommodation and direct propping-up of financial asset prices in the Eurozone. The non-obvious suspects I’m looking at are countries that, like Ukraine, find themselves with one foot in one civilization and one foot in another but, unlike Ukraine, are much more central to global markets. Those countries are Greece, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and South Korea. I wrote about Greece two weeks ago, so won’t repeat all that here. Turkey, Iran, and Egypt are all the same basic story – ancient civilizations that had their day in the sun many centuries ago and are now being consumed by the Borg-like entity that is Islam. Persia, the most potent of the three cultures, is completely lost. Egypt is lost but hasn’t realized it yet, like a chicken running around with its head cut off. Turkey, the least of the three, has adopted enough Western antibodies to provide some resistance, but it’s just a matter of time before it becomes the Sick Man of Europe once again. South Korea … judging from how little it is discussed in the Western press it sometimes seems like no one cares about South Korea, and that’s a mistake. No country on earth is split between more civilizations, and no country is as sensitive AND vulnerable to the clashes that are coming down the pike.

So … am I terrified by the Clash of Civilizations? Am I getting out of the market and running for the hills? No. Not yet, anyway. So long as the market is dominated by the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, any of these flash points that I’ve mentioned will inevitably be seen through the lens of monetary policy accommodation, making bad news in the real world good news for major stock markets, particularly here in the US. Global growth will get even more pathetic, of course, but that’s positive for major government bonds. Of all the flash points above I’m probably most concerned about Greece, but even then the concern is more for what Greece ultimately means for Italian politics than for what it means to Europe or major global markets directly.

What scares me about the Clash of Civilizations is that the three leaders of the three biggest civilizations – the US (Western), China (Sinic), and Russia (Orthodox) – will misplay their hands and take on another civilization directly or, worse, take on each other, and that will vaporize the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence in a nanosecond. The existential risk here for markets is not that China/Russia/Europe/America might “collapse”, whatever that means. No, the existential risk is that the great civilizations of the world will be “hollowed out” internally, so that the process of managing the ten thousand year old competition between civilizations devolves into an unstable game of pandering to domestic crowds rather than a stable equilibrium of balance of power. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of America’s finest diplomat since Benjamin Franklin, writing in his final book and delivering his most important warning.

Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. … 

Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool. 

– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

I can’t over-emphasize how important I think this passage is, and I’ll be returning to it again in future Epsilon Theory notes. For now, though, I’ll just introduce two key game theoretic concepts at the core of Kissinger’s warning.

First, the proliferation of the most dangerous game of all – Chicken. When Kissinger writes about how “the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits”, he’s talking about how ordinary diplomatic maneuvers can deteriorate into brinksmanship, the hallmark of the game of Chicken. I’ve written a little bit about this game in the context of the Fed-inspired “Taper Tantrum” in the summer of 2013, when Bernanke et al misread the market impact of a change in the acceleration of monetary easing, but that little episode will look like a gentle spring shower compared to the market storm that could result from a full-scale game of Chicken between, say, China and Japan over trade, exchange rates, and offshore oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. Chicken is such a dangerous game because it has no equilibrium, no outcome where all parties prefer where they are to where they might be. This constant cycling of one unstable outcome to another typically ends in disaster because the least worst outcome for each player – the “move” that each player makes to respond strategically to the other player’s most recent limit-testing actions – doesn’t remain constant but gets progressively worse over time. The game of Chicken is a mutual spiral into oblivion, and once you start down this road it’s really hard to stop because stopping means admitting defeat.

Second, the dumbing-down of all political games into their most unstable form – the single-play game. When Kissinger writes about how political leaders come to see “moments of decision as a series of isolated events”, he’s talking about the elimination of repeated-play games and shrinking the shadow of the future. Most games seem really daunting at first glance. For example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is famous for having a very stable equilibrium where everyone is worse off than they easily could have been with some very basic cooperation. But there’s a secret to solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma – play it lots of times with the same players. Cooperation and mutually advantageous equilibria are far easier to achieve within a repeated-play game because reputation matters. The shadow of the future looms large if you’re thinking not only about this iteration of the game and the moves ahead, but also about the next time you have to play the game, perhaps for larger stakes, and the next, and the next. Imagine if you sat down at a poker table, were dealt one hand, and were then informed that everyone would have to get up and find another table with new players, at which point only one hand would be dealt there, too. That’s a series of single-play games, and it’s just as unpleasant as it sounds, whether you’re playing poker or you’re playing politics.

It won’t surprise many regular readers of Epsilon Theory if I say that I think much of what Kissinger warns about – “societies driven by mass consensus”, “gestures geared towards passions”, “manipulation of information” – has now reached, if not its full fruition, then at least a new quantum level of advanced and ubiquitous practice. And not just in the US, but also Russia and China and everywhere in between. Twenty-three years after Sam Huntington first presented his “Clash of Civilizations” argument, the conditions for that realist confrontation to be terribly severe are finally met. 2014 wrote an unpleasant story of nascent international splintering and conflict. Unfortunately, I think it was just an introductory chapter in a much longer book.

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Signs and Portents

epsilon-theory-signs-and-portents-december-1-2014-the-omenYoung nanny: Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you.  

[she jumps off a roof, hanging herself] 
– “The Omen” (1976)  

epsilon-theory-signs-and-portents-december-1-2014-bag-of-bonesWhen one has little faith, one must survive from day to day signs.

– Stephen King, “Bag of Bones” (1998)

epsilon-theory-signs-and-portents-december-1-2014-batmanCriminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black,  terrible … a … a …  


– Bob Kane and Bill Finger, “Batman” (1939)

When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;

When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?

― William Shakespeare, “Richard II” (1595)

Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?

Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:

These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,

They do not point at me.

― William Shakespeare, “Othello” (1603)

Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.

― Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Like the criminals that Bruce Wayne fought as Batman, we investors are a superstitious, cowardly lot. We are constantly ascribing way too much import to this sign or that sign, constantly freaking out over the meaning and significance of this market event or that market event. It doesn’t help that the financial media world has devolved into fiefdoms of rah-rah soothsayers on the one hand and doom-seeing end-timers on the other, so that whatever our predispositions might be we can easily find Voices of Authority to read the entrails to our liking. And it really doesn’t help that we are in the midst of the greatest crisis of faith in the markets since the 1930’s, so that – as Stephen King wrote – we survive by looking for day-to-day signs to show us what to do.

And yet sometimes a little freaking out over the signs and portents is clearly the right thing to do. Sure, if your nanny declares her loyalty to your adopted-under-mysterious-circumstances devil-child as she hangs herself outside the nursery window it’s probably a case of mental illness, but I’d also listen a little more closely to what that pesky priest says. If you’re Pierce Brosnan in the “Bag of Bones” mini-series and you think that your dead wife is sending you cryptic messages via a handful of refrigerator magnets … well, maybe you should drive into town and buy more refrigerator magnets, see if she’s got anything interesting to say. If you’re Desdemona and you’re worried that Othello’s lip-biting is a sign that he’s about to fall into a jealous, murderous rage … well, maybe you should run out of the room instead of hanging around to see if you’re right.

It’s a tough call, evaluating what’s a “true” sign and what’s a “false” sign. Are we being foolish to sell our energy stocks after oil prices took another big hit, or are we reading the market’s tea leaves correctly and saving ourselves a lot of future pain? Are we acting as Shakespeare says any wise person would in a knowable and deterministic world, by putting on our cloaks as clouds appear and looking for the night as the sun sets? Or are we mistaking our play-acting market world for the real world, putting on our cloaks as the projectionist shows us a picture of clouds and looking for the night as the stage lights dim?

Here’s the Epsilon Theory answer: the latter mistake is 1,000 times more common than the former wisdom, and the vast majority of investors would be better off if they never read the newspaper and never turned on the TV. Why? Because what they think is a “sign” is actually a signal, neither true nor false in and of itself but only more or less influential in changing their mind and other investors’ minds about the world. (for more on signals and Information Theory, see “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Music of the Spheres”) Signals are constructed. Signals are malleable. And unless you are focused on how and why signals are constructed and shaped, you will be whipsawed. You will be shaken out. You will be roped in. You will catch a falling knife. Pick your own analogy or metaphor … there are a million to choose from and anyone who has spent any time at all in the market has experienced most of them. We’ve all been there.

Case in point: why are many investors puking energy sector stocks today? It’s not because they have a detailed cash flow model of the specific companies they’re selling and have calculated the incremental earnings impact of oil prices moving from a $70 handle to a $60 handle. It’s also not because there’s some credit freeze roiling financial markets and a careful balance sheet analysis shows imminent dividend cuts or debt stress throughout the sector. Will lower oil prices over a long period of time hurt earnings and crimp growth for the entire sector? Well, sure. That’s kinda what it means to invest in a cyclical stock, and if this comes as a surprise to you then I really don’t know what to say. Will lower oil prices over a long period of time create balance sheet distress in the energy sector’s more levered, go-go stocks? Absolutely. If you’re not stress testing the balance sheet, capital allocation, and distribution coverage models of the energy stocks you own, then you’re not doing your job as a risk manager. But neither earnings risk nor balance sheet risk explains why you see a spasm of energy sector selling today or back in October.

No, the selling is because the dominant Common Knowledge regarding energy sector stocks is that they move up and down with the price of oil. Common Knowledge is not what everyone knows; that’s the consensus. Common Knowledge is what everyone knows that everyone knows, and it’s the driving force behind the Game of Sentiment. Everyone knows that everyone knows energy stocks are tied to oil prices, we just took another sharp leg down in oil prices, and so energy stocks must be sold. The fact that energy stocks are down “proves” the relationship (a wonderful example of Soros’s concept of reflexivity), which adds to the selling. And “Even After Selloff, Energy Stocks Attract Few Buyers” because, as the WSJ breathlessly announces, “prices could soon plumb new depths.” Or not, but … hey, all the better to set-up that “rebound that no one was expecting” story. Until that story is written, any oil price increases are merely because “traders who had bet on lower prices locked in gains.” I find it awfully telling that this WSJ article now titled “U.S. Oil Prices Trade Higher After Selloff” was originally titled and archived as “Oil Slides as Market Struggles To Get Grip” (you can track URL’s to identify this stuff), but then the market failed to cooperate and they had to change the title!

A couple of Epsilon Theory points on all this.

The reality (not that it matters) is that energy stocks are barely correlated with the price of oil, and their correlation with each other is barely driven by oil prices. We’ve run some basic regression analyses on MLP portfolios, and since 2012 only about 7% of the total return profile of MLP’s can be “explained” (statistically speaking) by change in oil prices. The largest explanatory factor is just the S&P 500, with about 4 times the “power” of oil prices to predict MLP prices. My interpretation is not that a rising overall market is “causing” MLP stocks to work, but that the same non-fundamental monetary policy-driven forces that are driving up the overall market are also at work in the MLP space. MLP’s have both growth and yield – the two rarest things in a Fed-dominated world – so whatever market dynamics work for stocks overall have really worked for MLP’s.

For another perspective, take a look at this recent piece by Ed Tom and the Credit Suisse Equity Trading Strategy team, titled “What’s Driving Energy Sector Correlation? (Hint: It’s NOT Oil)”. Ed and his team do stellar econometric analysis of equity market derivative contracts, which means that their papers typically need some translation into plain English. Here’s the skinny: most investors think that energy stocks traded off in unison in October because they’re highly correlated to the decline in oil prices. Not true. Yes, there’s some correlation to oil, but what’s really driving this across-the-board decline is the fact that “long energy” has become a very crowded trade. So if you get a signal that spooks the long energy crowd, you’re going to get a mad rush of investors heading for the exit even if the signal isn’t truly that relevant for the fundamentals or the historical beta of energy stocks. When a trade is crowded on the long side, everyone has an itchy trigger finger to sell.

So what does matter? How can we improve our investing around energy sector stocks by thinking about oil prices as a malleable signal that drives sentiment dynamics (at least in the short and medium term) rather than as a deterministic and inexorable sign of things to come? I think what happens from here depends on the strategic interaction of four factors:

  1. How crowded is the trade (still)? The good news here is that the Credit Suisse team believes a lot of the air was let out of the long-energy crowded trade balloon in October. I think that’s probably true, although I certainly wouldn’t call it un-crowded. I also think there’s a tremendous amount of air in the more general “the Fed has got your back” crowded trade balloon, which is worrisome for all equity market sectors, including energy.
  2. What’s the investing DNA – value or growth – of the majority of energy sector holders? The notion of population dynamics and evolutionary theory is something I explored earlier this year in Epsilon Theory (here and here), and it’s a topic that I’m going to refocus on in 2015. The basic idea is that different investors have different linguistic grammars (value investors possess a mean-reversion grammar, while growth investors possess a momentum grammar), and that for a stock or sector to “work” you need the dominant Narrative grammar to fit the dominant investor type.
  3. How is the oil price Narrative framed – supply/demand fundamentals or monetary policy? I wrote about this at length in last week’s Epsilon Theory note, so won’t repeat all that here. Everything I wrote then remains true: the supply/demand fundamentals Narrative is now ascendant and I suspect will remain so for at least a couple of weeks, maybe longer. That’s important because at current supply/demand projections it’s hard (not impossible, but hard) for oil prices to get much below $70 and stay there for a long time if you believe in this Narrative. A fundamentals-driven “explanation” places a martingale on oil prices that does not exist with monetary policy-driven “explanations”.
  4. What will China and the US do with their monetary policy, and what will Saudi Arabia and Russia do with their foreign policy? Hey, your guess is as good as mine. I don’t have a crystal ball on outcomes or timing, but this is where my risk antennae are focused 99% of the time.

I don’t have settled answers to any of these questions. And I don’t have a predictive model (a risk-based econometric analysis), because not only don’t I have settled answers, but I don’t even have a sense of potential outcomes or rough probability distributions for #4. I know that’s unsatisfying to many readers (certainly it’s unsatisfying to me!), but you have to take what the market gives you, not what you wish were there. My goal is not to be a hero and make bold predictions in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. My goal is to be a survivor. My goal is to play the game a bit better than the crowd by paying attention to the construction and shaping of market signals, all the while keeping my attention focused on how politicians and bankers wrestle with a global debt crisis. Call it being reactive if you like. I prefer to call it Adaptive Investing, and that’s what I want to communicate with Epsilon Theory.

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Mike Tyson: Master Game Theorist

epsilon-theory-mike-tyson-master-game-theorist-november-6-2014-boxing

Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.
Mike Tyson

My long-term strategy turned into a 12-hour strategy.
“Survivor” contestant Dale, voted out in last week’s tribal council

Reality doesn’t interest me.
Leni Riefenstahl, acclaimed German film director and Nazi stooge

Ben, there is no such thing as a good redouble.
Grace Hunt, my grandmother, in a memorable bridge lesson

I’ve been wrestling with what to write about the Bank of Japan’s decision last Friday where … to use a ZeroHedge turn of a poker phrase … they went “all-in-er” on balance sheet expansion and monetary policy QE. It’s hard to find a middle ground here. On the one hand I could write a copycat oh-my-god-can-you-believe-what-these-madmen-are-doing note, but frankly I’m tired of being outraged, and I suspect most Epsilon Theory readers are, too. On the other hand, I really AM outraged by the increasing number of articles and emails I read where BOJ actions and Fed actions and ECB actions are celebrated in Leni Reifenstahl-esque fashion as some modern day Triumph of The Will, as if the symbolic projection of an unlimited, indomitable, and grandiose State were the highest possible achievement for political leaders. Yes, I just played the fascist card. I don’t think I’m wrong.

It was only after reading a quote from Nouriel Roubini – “They had no choice.” – that I had my hook on how to write this note. Because I think Nouriel is right, not in his evaluation of the objective parameters of the decision itself (I think he’s dead wrong on that score), but in how a slim majority of the BOJ perceived the decision at hand. I think the majority believed that they were forced to take this action, and I think that this perspective – when combined with some basic ideas from game theory – can shine some light on what might happen next.

In game theory, to say that “you have no choice” can mean one of three things.

First, it can mean that you have what’s called a “dominant strategy”, where regardless of what actions or decisions are made by other players in the game you are always better off to take a singular course of action. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky-hook was a dominant strategy in the game of basketball. No matter what his opponents did, no matter how tall they were, no matter how quick they were … Kareem could always get this shot off. He might miss the shot, but that was totally on him; a miss had nothing to do with his opponents. Dominant strategies are, as the name suggests, typically the purview of dominant players, which certainly doesn’t describe Japan in the Great Game of international politics, so I don’t think that’s a big part of what’s going on here.

epsilon-theory-mike-tyson-master-game-theorist-november-6-2014-basketball

Second, it can mean that you’ve discounted what’s called “the shadow of the future” to the point that if immediate exigencies point you in a singular direction … well, that’s the only direction you can imagine. I see this a lot in reality shows like “Survivor”, where contestants must “scramble” (to use the lingo) in a desperate effort just to last one more day in the game. As last week’s eliminated contestant Dale said, “my long-term strategy turned into a 12-hour strategy”. That’s what happens when the future is discounted severely, and I think that’s a significant piece of the BOJ decision last Friday. Even if you believe that current Japanese monetary policy creates a mighty thin tightrope over a mighty deep chasm filled with mighty hungry alligators a few years out, that means essentially nothing if you also believe that the immediate future is a political disaster without doing something in a big way. And if you’re a central banker that big something can only be more QE. It’s indicative of the degree to which monetary policy has been politicized – particularly in Japan – as central bankers now suffer from the same extreme myopia that elected politicians have always demonstrated.

epsilon-theory-mike-tyson-master-game-theorist-november-6-2014-survivor

Third, and I think predominantly in this case, it can mean that you’re not even playing a game, but that you are acting in a strategic vacuum where you are only considering your own preferences. We’ve all fallen prey to this fallacy … we plan and scheme and strategize to the nth degree, based on our own calculus of our own pluses and minuses associated with our own actions … and it all goes swimmingly until, as Mike Tyson so brilliantly put it, we get smacked in the mouth. We get popped really hard, and as we’re falling to the canvas we think “Oh yeah, I guess the other guy had a plan, too. Maybe I should have taken that into consideration.” Or as my grandmother put it when I got totally wiped out by her bridge cronies playing for a penny a point because I was solely focused on the strength of my own hand, “Ben, there is no such thing as a good redouble.” Best advice I ever got.
For five and a half years the BOJ has had a clear field to take whatever actions they wished without fear of some other, stronger central bank smacking them in the mouth. There has been a coordination of central bank purpose and effort that hasn’t been seen since … the 1985 Plaza Accords? Bretton Woods? Whatever your reference point might be from an economic history perspective, it’s been a very long time since we’ve seen such a very long period of such a non-strategic, we’re-all-in-this-together decision making backdrop for second tier central banks like the BOJ or the BOE. So it really doesn’t surprise me at all that the BOJ did what it did last Friday. Like you and me and market participants everywhere, the BOJ Governors have been very well trained to expect that the Fed has got their back, that they can act according to their own narrow and immediate self-interests without concern or fear that their actions will result in someone smacking them in the mouth.

Unfortunately for the BOJ, I think that this happy state of coordinated policy bliss ended about six months ago. I think that they have redoubled this particular contract as if they were playing bridge with doting grandparents rather than chain-smoking, penny-pinching old crones. I think that there is a clear and growing divergence between the US and the rest of the world when it comes to balance sheet expansion and monetary policy intentions, and I think that for China in particular this latest BOJ action is perceived as an aggressive provocation that must be responded to forcefully.

So what’s next? I’m waiting for China’s response. I have no idea whether the response will be (to use the political science terminology) symmetric or asymmetric in scale and delivery. That is, the response could be larger or smaller than the perceived provocation, and it may or may not be a response delivered through monetary policy. I have no idea exactly when the response will occur. But I have zero doubt that a forceful response is coming. I have zero doubt that Japan is about to get smacked in the mouth. And when that happens the monetary policy calculus in Japan … and the UK … and even the EU will take on a very different shape. The domestic political dictates may still overwhelm the international economic consequences of extraordinary monetary policy easing. In other words, Japan’s politicians (which surely includes the BOJ Governors) may still have a scrambling Survivor contestant’s view of the shadow of the future, where they’re just looking to live another day regardless of the long-term consequences. But they will no longer be making these decisions within a strategic vacuum. And that’s a very different – and more difficult – game to play.

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Calvin the Super Genius

epsilon-theory-calvin-the-super-genius-october-14-2014-cartoonPeople think it must be fun to be a super genius, but they don’t realize how hard it is to put up with all the idiots in the world.

― Bill Watterson, “Calvin And Hobbes”

Here is the most fundamental idea behind game theory, the one concept you MUST understand to be an effective game player. Ready?

You are not a super genius, and we are not idiots. The people you are playing with and against are just as smart as you are. Not smarter. But just as smart. If you think that you are seeing more deeply into a repeated-play strategic interaction (a game!) than we are, you are wrong. And ultimately it will cost you dearly. But if there is a mutually acceptable decision point – one that both you and we can agree upon, full in the knowledge that you know that we know that you know what’s going on – that’s an equilibrium. And that’s a decision or outcome or policy that’s built to last.

Fair warning, this is an “Angry Ben” email, brought on by the US government’s “communication policy” on Ebola, which is a mirror image of the US government’s “communication policy” on markets and monetary policy, which is a mirror image of the US government’s “communication policy” on ISIS and foreign policy. We are being told what to think about Ebola and QE and ISIS. Not by some heavy-handed pronouncement as you might find in North Korea or some Soviet-era Ministry, but in the kinder gentler modern way, by a Wise Man or Woman of Science who delivers words carefully chosen for their effect in constructing social expectations and behaviors.

The words are not lies. But they’re only not-lies because if they were found to be lies that would be counterproductive to the social policy goals, not because there’s any fundamental objection to lying. The words are chosen for their truthiness, to use Stephen Colbert’s wonderful term, not their truthfulness. The words are chosen in order to influence us as manipulable objects, not to inform us as autonomous subjects.

It’s always for the best of intentions. It’s always to prevent a panic or to maintain confidence or to maintain social stability. All good and noble ends. But it’s never a stable equilibrium. It’s never a lasting legislative or regulatory peace. The policy always crumbles in Emperor’s New Clothes fashion because we-the-people or we-the-market have not been brought along to make a self-interested, committed decision. Instead the Powers That Be – whether that’s the Fed or the CDC or the White House – take the quick and easy path of selling us a strategy as if they were selling us a bar of soap.

This is what very smart people do when they are, as the Brits would say, too clever by half. This is why very smart people are, as often as not, poor game players. It’s why there aren’t many academics on the pro poker tour. It’s why there haven’t been many law professors in the Oval Office. This isn’t a Democrat vs. Republican thing. This isn’t a US vs. Europe thing. It’s a mass society + technology thing. It’s a class thing. And it’s very much the defining characteristic of the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

Am I personally worried about an Ebola outbreak in the US? On balance … no, not at all. But don’t tell me that I’m an idiot if I have questions about the sufficiency of the social policies being implemented to prevent that outbreak. And make no mistake, that’s EXACTLY what I have been told by CDC Directors and Dr. Gupta and the White House and all the rest of the super genius, supercilious, remain-calm crew.

I am calm. I understand that a victim must be symptomatic to be contagious. But I also understand that one man’s symptomatic is another man’s “I’m fine”, and questioning a self-reporting immigration and quarantine regime does not make me a know-nothing isolationist.

I am calm. I understand that the virus is not airborne but is transmitted by “bodily fluids”. But I also understand why Rule #1 for journalists in West Africa is pretty simple: Touch No One, and questioning the wisdom of sitting next to a sick stranger on a flight originating from, say, Brussels does not make me a Howard Hughes-esque nutjob.

I am calm. I understand that the US public health and acute care infrastructure is light years ahead of what’s available in Liberia or Nigeria. I understand that Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas is not just one of the best health care facilities in Texas, but one of the best hospitals in the world. But I also understand that we are all creatures of our standard operating procedures, and what’s second nature in a hot zone will be slow to catch on in the Birmingham, Alabama ER where my father worked for 30 years.

The mistake made by our modern leaders – in every public sphere! – is to believe that they are operating on a deeper, smarter, more far-seeing level of game-playing than we are. I’ve got a long example of the levels of decision-making in the Epsilon Theory note “A Game of Sentiment”, so I won’t repeat all that here. The basic idea, though, is that by announcing a consensus based on the Narrative authority of Science our leaders believe they are stacking the deck for each of us to buy into that consensus as our individual first-level decision. This can be quite effective when you’re promoting a brand of toothpaste, where it is impossible to be proven wrong in your consensus claims, much less so when you’re promoting a social policy, where all it takes is one sick nurse to make the entire linguistic effort seem staged and for effect … which of course it was. The fact that we go along with a game – that we act AS IF we believe in the Common Knowledge of an announced consensus – does NOT mean that we have accepted the party line in our heart of hearts. It does NOT mean that we are myopic game-players, unerringly led this way or that by the oh-so-clever words of the Missionaries. But that’s how it’s been taken, to terrible effect.

I am calm. But I am angry, too. It doesn’t have to be this way … this consensus-by-fiat style of policy leadership where we are always only one counter-factual reveal – the sick nurse or the sick economy – away from a breakdown in market or governmental confidence. I am angry that we have been consistently misjudged and underestimated, treated as children to be “educated” rather than as citizens to be trusted. I am angry that our most important political institutions have sacrificed their most important asset – not their credibility, but their authenticity – on the altar of political expediency, all in a misconceived notion of what it means to lead.

And yet here we are. On the precipice of that breakdown in confidence. A cold wind of change is starting to blow. Can you feel it?

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The Game of Thrones and the Game of Markets

Two items for the mid-week.

First, an invitation to attend a Salient Webinar I’ll be presenting next Thursday, September 18th at 2pm ET, titled: “The Game of Thrones and the Game of Markets”. I’ll be tying together various threads from past Epsilon Theory notes, with the goal of showing how to listen to financial news and analysts to detect Narratives. Please note that the presentation is geared for financial advisors, brokers, and investment professionals, and it qualifies for one hour of CFP/CIMA®, CIMC®, or CPWA® CE credit if you care about such things. Invitation attached and registration link here.

Second, a few brief thoughts on an Epsilon Theory connection between modern capital markets and the NFL (and between Central Bankers and Roger Goodell). The connection is solipsism – a pathological egocentrism where reality is defined by an individual’s mental perceptions and constructs.

For individuals like Goodell and Yellen we’re talking about good old-fashioned individual solipsism. These are people who have never been proven wrong about anything in their professional lives. I know that sounds weird to professional investors and allocators, because we are demonstrably wrong about something every single freaking day, and it’s a hard concept to describe effectively to someone who’s never lived within a sheltered organization where empirical outcomes are either pre-ordained or immaterial. But both Goodell and Yellen have spent their entire professional careers as the modern equivalents of cloistered monks or nuns, the former within the Holy Order of the National Football League and the latter within the High Church of UC Berkeley. It’s wonderfully pleasant to live within these worlds without external consequence, where your mental constructs and pronouncements receive constant positive reinforcement, but the inevitable result is that you begin to believe that your mental constructs ARE reality. Roger Goodell truly believes that everything he has done and announced, most recently his appointment of an “independent” investigator, is obviously the right and correct course of action, and he has no idea why these actions and announcements are being questioned. He has no idea why his world is crumbling. Similarly, Janet Yellen is not being disingenuous when she talks about her ability to control “macroprudential” outcomes. In her mind (and in the minds of everyone else in today’s academic Fed), these theories ARE reality. Drain the $5 trillion in banking system reserves without market consequence? Sure, we’ve got a theory for that. No problem. As Yul Brynner would have put it in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”: So let it be written. So let it be done.

For social constructions like markets or professional sports leagues or any self-contained social world, we’re talking about a different version of solipsism – collective solipsism. I’ve written about this idea in the Epsilon Theory note “A Dogmatic Slumber”, so I won’t repeat all that here. Collective solipsism is what overwhelming Common Knowledge looks like. It’s the annihilation of an individual’s perception of reality in favor of a group perception of reality. It’s an entirely natural reaction of the human social animal to certain strategic interactions, i.e., games. It’s what I mean when I say that we are at an asymptotic peak in the social influence of the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. 

When does collective solipsism fail? When does the story break? When it comes into conflict with a larger external social structure, with a larger strategic interaction. The collective solipsism of the NFL crumbles when it runs headlong into the larger political and social structure of the United States, which – amazingly enough – has 300+ million citizens who don’t play Fantasy Football, who have no idea who Ray Rice is, who listen to owners Bob Kraft or John Mara and think they’re from Mars, and who don’t hang on every word of THE Commissioner. But they’ve all seen or heard about the video. They all care about the larger issue of domestic violence. They all think they’re being lied to. And there are powerful political and economic interests in the larger game who see this conflict as working to their advantage. That’s when the story breaks.

The collective solipsism of modern markets is a much bigger game still, and will require a much larger shock and external social structure to unwind the Common Knowledge structure at the heart of all this. I can’t tell you when any of this will happen, but there are only a few social structures large enough to fit the bill. There is no more important task for risk management than monitoring those structures, and that’s what I’m trying to do with Epsilon Theory.

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