“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
“What brought it on?”
“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)
What do socialism and modern monetary policy have in common? Magical thinking. For both, it’s true on the giddy years up, and it’s true on the sad years down.
If you’ve been reading my notes immediately before and after the June Fed meeting (“Tell My Horse” and “Post-Fed Follow-up”), you know that I think we now have a sea change in what the Fed is focused on and what their default course of action is going to be. Rather than looking for reasons to ease up on monetary policy and be more accommodative, the Fed and the ECB (and even the BOJ in their own weird way) are now looking for reasons to tighten up on monetary policy and be more restrictive. As Jamie Dimon said the other day, the tide that’s been coming in for eight years is now starting to go out. Caveat emptor.
The question, then, isn’t whether the barge of monetary policy has turned around and embarked on a tightening course — it has — the question is how fast that barge is going to move AND whether or not the market pays more attention to the actual barge movements than what the barge captain says. I promise you that the barge captains of both the Fed and the ECB believe they can tighten and taper without killing the market so long as they jawbone this constantly. This is the Common Knowledge Game in action, this is the Missionary Effect, this is Communication Policy … this is everything that I’ve been writing about in Epsilon Theory over the past four years! And as we saw with the market’s euphoric reaction to Yellen’s prepared remarks for her Humphrey-Hawkins testimony last Wednesday, which were presented as oh-so dovish when they really weren’t, this jawboning strategy could absolutely work. It WILL absolutely work unless and until we get undeniably “hot” inflation numbers — particularly wage inflation numbers — from the real world.
So what’s up with that? How can we have wage inflation running at a fairly puny 2.5% (Chart 1 below) when the unemployment rate is a crazy low 4.3% (Chart 2 below) and other indicators, like the NFIB’s survey of “Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill” (Chart 3 below) are similarly screaming for higher wages?
Chart 1: US Average Hourly Earnings, annual % change
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
Chart 2: US Unemployment Rate
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
Chart 3: NFIB Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
The answer, I think, can be found in Chart 4 below: vanishing labor productivity. Productivity is the amount of stuff that workers make (output) divided by the amount of time it takes them to make it (hours worked). You can have productivity growth for good reasons like in the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s (more stuff made per hour worked as companies invested in things like the personal computer or the Internet) or bad reasons like in 2009 and 2010 (massive layoffs, so making a bit less stuff but over waaay fewer hours worked).
Productivity growth for the right reasons (I know, I sound like a contestant on The Bachelorette) is just about the most important economic goal that policy makers have, because it’s how you get your economy growing in a sustainable, non-inflationary way, and for the past seven years we’ve had none of it. By the way, if new technologies were really responsible for keeping wage inflation down (something I hear all the time), we would have seen that through increasing labor productivity. We haven’t.
Chart 4: US Labor Productivity Growth (2-year moving average)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
This is a huge question for the Fed, maybe the biggest question they have. How is it possible — with the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of the world, with the easiest money to borrow that corporations have ever experienced, with all the amazing technological advancements that we read about day in and day out — that companies have not invested more in plant and equipment and technology to improve their labor productivity, to make more with the people they’ve got?
The answer, of course, is the answer that the Fed will never admit. The reason companies aren’t investing more aggressively in plant and equipment and technology is BECAUSE we have the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of the world, with the easiest money to borrow that corporations have ever seen. Why in the world would management take the risk — and it’s definitely a risk — of investing for real growth when they are so awash in easy money that they can beat their earnings guidance with a risk-free stock buyback? Why in the world would management take the risk — and it’s definitely a risk — of investing for GAAP earnings when they are so awash in easy money that they can hit their pro forma narrative guidance by simply buying profitless revenue? Why in the world would companies take any risk at all when the Fed has eliminated any and all negative consequences for playing it safe? It’s like going to a college where grade inflation makes an A- the average grade. Sure, I could bust a gut to get that A, but why would I do that?
How does this apply to wage inflation? It’s the same thing. Why in the world would a company pay up to fill a position when it’s a risk they really don’t need to take? Yeah, we’ve got job openings, and yeah, our skill positions are increasingly going unfilled, and yeah, we’d like to expand and grow … I suppose. But, hey, we’re hitting our numbers just fine as it stands and, if you hadn’t noticed, our stock price hit a new high yesterday. Why mess up a good thing?
How does this change? As the Fed slowly raises rates, as the barge slowly chugs down the tightening river, it will force companies to play it less safe. It will force companies to take on more risk. It will force companies to invest more in plant and equipment and technology. It will force companies to pay up for the skilled workers they need. You want wage inflation? You want productivity growth? Then raise rates!
And god forbid if we actually get a tax reform bill passed. That’s the off-to-the-races moment.
My point is a simple one. In exactly the same way that QE was deflationary in practice when it was inflationary in theory, so will the end of QE be inflationary in practice when it is deflationary in theory. That’s the real world impact I’m talking about, the world of wages and output and productivity. You know, the real world that used to be the touchstone of our markets.
And here’s my other point. In the Bizarro-world that central bankers have created over the past eight years, raising rates isn’t going to have the same inflation-dampening effect that it’s had in past tightening cycles, at least not until you get to much higher rates than you have today. It’s going to accelerate inflation by forcing risk-taking in the real world, which means that the barge is going to have to move faster and faster the more it moves at all. I think that today’s head-scratcher for the world’s central banks — why haven’t our easy money policies created inflation in the real world? — will soon be replaced by a new head-scratcher — why haven’t our tighter money policies tamed inflation in the real world?
My view: as the tide of QE goes out, the tide of inflation comes in. And the more that the QE tide recedes, the more inflation comes in. I know that this sounds like a nutty scenario today, with everyone talking about how inflation is dead and gone, and how the Fed will be “fighting” inflation by raising rates, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em. It’s a scenario that neither central banks nor markets have contemplated in any serious way, but it’s going to be a focus for Epsilon Theory.
I sat on the porch
Listened to the rain
Smoked a cigarette
And counted to ten
Oh no, here it comes again
That funny feeling
― Camper Van Beethoven, Oh No! (1985)
A quick post-Fed follow-up to “Tell My Horse”, the best-received Epsilon Theory note to date (thank you!). I’ll jump right into what I’ve got to say, without the usual 20 pages of movie quotes and the like. Well, I’ve got one quote above, because I can’t help myself. They’re the lyrics to the best break-up song ever, and they’re what Janet Yellen was singing to the market on Wednesday.
Let’s review, shall we? Last fall, the Fed floated the trial balloon that they were thinking about ways to shrink their balance sheet. All very preliminary, of course, maybe years in the future. Then they started talking about doing this in 2018. Then they started talking about doing this maybe at the end of 2017. Two days ago, Yellen announced exactly how they intended to roll off trillions of dollars from the portfolio, and said that they would be starting “relatively soon”, which the market is taking to be September but could be as early as July.
Now what has happened in the real world to accelerate the Fed’s tightening agenda, and more to the point, a specific form of tightening that impacts markets more directly than any sort of interest rate hike? Did some sort of inflationary or stimulative fiscal policy emerge from the Trump-cleared DC swamp <sarc>? Umm … no. Was the real economy off to the races with sharp increases in CPI, consumer spending, and other measures of inflationary pressures? Umm … no. On the contrary, in fact.
Two things and two things only have changed in the real world since last fall. First, Donald Trump — a man every Fed Governor dislikes and mistrusts — is in the White House. Second, the job market has heated up to the point where it is — Yellen’s words — close to being unstable, and is — Yellen’s words — inevitably going to heat up still further.
What has happened (and apologies for the ten dollar words) is that the Fed’s reaction function has flipped 180 degrees since the Trump election. Today the Fed is looking for excuses to tighten monetary policy, not excuses to weaken. So long as the unemployment rate is on the cusp of “instability”, that’s the only thing that really matters to the Fed (for reasons discussed below). Every other data point, including a market sell-off or a flat yield curve or a bad CPI number — data points that used to be front and center in Fed thinking — is now in the backseat.
I’m not the only one saying this about the Fed’s reaction function. Far more influential Missionaries than me, people like Jeff Gundlach and Mohamed El-Erian, are saying the same thing. If you think that this Fed still has your back, Mr. Investor, the way they had your back in 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016 … well, I think you are mistaken. I think Janet Yellen broke up with you this week.
The Fed is tightening, and they’re not going to stop tightening just because the stock market goes down 5% or 10% or (maybe) even 20%. Bigger game than propping up market prices is afoot, namely consolidating a reputation as a prudent central banker before the inevitable Trump purge occurs, and consolidating that reputation means keeping the evilest of all evil genies — wage inflation — firmly stoppered inside its bottle.
Let’s be clear, not all inflation is created equal. Financial asset price inflation? Woo-hoo! Well done, Mr. or Mrs. Central Banker. That’s what we’re talkin’ about! Price inflation in goods and services? Hmm … a mixed bag, really, particularly when input price inflation can’t be passed through and crimps corporate earnings. But we can change the way we measure all this stuff and create a narrative around the remaining inflation being a sign of robust growth and all that. So no real harm done, Mr. or Mrs. Central Banker.
Wage inflation, though … ahem … surely you must be joking, Mr. or Mrs. Central Banker. How does that possibly advance economic efficiency and social utility? I mean, even a first year grad student can prove with mathematical certainty that wage inflation only sparks a wage-price spiral where everyone is worse off. What’s wrong with you, don’t you believe in math? Don’t you believe in science? Hmm, maybe you’re just not as smart as we thought you were. But I’m sure you’ll be very happy as an emeritus professor at a large Midwestern state university. No, Ken Griffin is not interested in taking a meeting.
I know I sound like a raving Marxist to be saying this, that the Federal Reserve system and all its brethren systems were established specifically to serve the interests of Capital in its age-old battle with Labor. But yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Propping up financial markets? That’s a nice-to-have. Preserving Capital as the apex predator in our social ecosystem? There’s your must-have.
Whatever you think full employment might be in the modern age, 4.3% is at the finish line. And 4.1% or 3.9% or wherever the unemployment rate is going over the next few months is well past the finish line. You’re already seeing clear signs of labor shortages, particularly skilled labor shortages, in lots of geographies. Wage inflation is baked in, and modern populist politics make it impossible for corporations to play the usual well-we’re-off-to-Mexico-then card. Not that wages in Mexico or China are really that much better anymore, depending on what you’re doing, and there are inflationary wage pressures there, too.
Bottom line: I think that the Fed is going to do whatever it takes to prevent wage inflation from getting away from them, and shrinking the balance sheet is going to be a vital part of that tightening, maybe the most important part. Why? Because the Fed thinks it will push the yield curve higher as it lets its bonds and mortgage securities roll off, which will help the banks and provide an aura of “growth” and a cover story for the interest rate hikes. Otherwise you’ve got an inverted yield curve and a recession and who knows what other sources of reputational pain.
But here’s the problem, Mr. Investor. Ordinarily if the Fed was determined to take the punchbowl away by tightening monetary policy and raising interest rates, your reaction function was pretty clear. Get out of stocks and get into bonds. Wait out the inevitable bear market and garden-variety business cycle recession, and then get back into stocks. Or just ride your 60/40 vanilla stock/bond allocation through the cycle, which is the whole point of the 60/40 thing (even, though, of course, you’re really running a 95/5 portfolio from a risk perspective). But now you’re going to have both stocks *and* bonds going down together as the Fed hikes rates and sells bonds, in a reversal of both stocks *and* bonds going up together over the past eight years as the Fed cut rates and bought bonds.
Hmmm. ‘Tis a dilemma. What to do when indiscriminate long-the-world doesn’t work? What to do when nothing works? Maybe, with apologies to the old Monty Python line, active management isn’t quite dead yet. And just at the point of maximum capitulation to the idea that it is. Wouldn’t be the first time. In fact, that’s kinda how maximum capitulation works.
Is everything as neat and clean in reality as I’m making it out to be? Of course not. Other central banks are still buying bonds. Maybe global growth pulls everything through. Maybe President Pence/Ryan/whoever-is-fourth-in-line pushes through all the tax cuts and regulatory rollback and infrastructure build programs that your little old capitalist heart desires. Plus, this isn’t some cataclysmic event like “China floats the yuan” or “Italy has a bad election”. It’s a slow burn.
But I think that if your investment mantra is “don’t fight the Fed”, you now must have a short bias to both the U.S. equity and bond markets, not the long bias that you’ve been so well trained and so well rewarded to maintain over the past eight years. This is a sea change in how to navigate a policy-driven market, and it’s a sea change I expect to last for years.
I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it. ―Harry Truman (1884 – 1972)
As far as I was concerned, his decision was one of non-interference — basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans. ―Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (1896 – 1970), commanding officer of the Manhattan Project, discussing Truman’s okay to drop atomic weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Ah,” she cried, “you look so cool!”
Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.
“You always look so cool,” she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby” (1925)
And that was the end of the party. When Tom Buchanan saw.
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
― William Shakespeare, “King Lear” Act 1 Scene 4 (1606)
Once-revered central bank failed to foresee the crisis and has struggled in its aftermath, fostering the rise of populism and distrust of institutions.
Theology, sir, is a fortress; no crack in a fortress may be accounted small.
― Arthur Miller, “The Crucible” (1953)
Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.
The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.
That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer. But can you tell me the name of a classical Greek shoemaker?
― Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005)
That last, one of my all-time favorite quotes, was in response to a shoe manufacturer who asked why Miller’s job should be subsidized while his was not. Miller’s finest accomplishment: when McCarthy and crew forced him to testify in their Communist witch hunt, he refused to name names. Miller was a leftie and a huge ego. And a freedom lover. Imagine that.
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look
Some with a flattering word
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword
― Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898)
We’ll get the kiss, not the sword. Don’t know when, but it’s going to kill this market that the Fed loves.
In 1969, Graham Allison published an academic paper about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he turned into a 1971 book called Essence of Decision. That book made Allison’s career. More than that, the book provided a raison d’être for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, which — combined with Allison’s fundraising prowess — transformed a sleepy research institute into the most prominent public policy school in the world.
The central idea of Essence of Decision is this: the dominant academic theory to explain the world’s events is a high-level, rational expectations model based on formal economics, a theory that ignores the impact of bureaucratic imperatives and institutional politics. If you look at the Cuban Missile Crisis through all three lenses, however, you get a much better picture of what actually happened in October 1962. In fact, the more you dig into the Cuban Missile Crisis, the more it seems that the actual people involved (on both sides … Allison wrote a follow-up edition in 1999 when Russian archives opened up post-Gorbachev) made their actual decisions based on where they sat (bureaucracy) and where they stood (internal politics), not on some bloodless economic model. Publicly and after the fact, JFK and RFK and all the others mouthed the right words about geopolitical this and macroeconomic that, but when you look at the transcripts of the meetings (Nixon wasn’t the first to tape Oval Office conversations), it’s a totally different story.
Allison’s conclusion: the economic Rational Actor model is a tautology — meaning it is impossible to disprove — but that’s exactly why it doesn’t do you much good if you want to explain what happened or predict what’s next. It’s not that the formal economic models are wrong. By definition and by design, they can never be wrong! It’s that the models are used principally as ex-post rationalizations for decisions that are actually made under far more human, far more social inputs. Any big policy decision — whether it’s to order a naval blockade or an air strike on Cuba, or whether it’s to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima AND Nagasaki, or whether it’s to raise interest rates in September or December or not at all — is a combination of all three of these perspectives. But for Allison’s money, we’d do better if we focused more on the bureaucratic and political perspectives, less on the rational expectations perspective.
What follows is my analysis of the Fed’s forthcoming decision on interest rates from a bureaucratic and an internal politics perspective. Seen through these lenses, I think they hike. Maybe I’m wrong. These things are always probabilistic shades of gray, never black and white. But what I’m certain about is that the bureaucratic and internal politics perspectives give a different, higher probability of hiking than the rational expectations/modeling perspective. So heads up.
First the bureaucratic perspective.
What I’m calling the bureaucratic perspective, Allison calls the “Organizational Behavior” perspective. His phrase is better. It’s better because entities like the Federal Reserve are, of course, large bureaucracies, but what we’re trying to analyze here is not the level of do-nothing inertia that we usually associate with the word “bureaucracy”. What we’re trying to analyze is the spirit or culture of the organization in question. What is the institutional memory of the Fed? What do personnel, not just the Fed governors but also the rank-and-file staffers, believe is the proper role of the institution? Most importantly, how do these personnel seek to protect their organization and grow its influence within the jungle of other organizations seeking to grow their influence?
The spirit, culture, and personnel composition of the modern Federal Reserve is almost identical to that of a large research university. That’s not a novel observation on my part, but a 30-year evolution commonly noted by Fed watchers. Why is this important? It’s important because it means that the current marriage between Fed and markets is a marriage of convenience. As an organization, the Fed doesn’t really care whether or not markets go up or down, and as an institution it’s not motivated by making money (or whether or not anyone else makes money). Like all research universities, the Fed at the organizational level is motivated almost entirely by reputation. Not results. Reputation. A choice between “markets up but reputation fraying” and “markets down but reputation preserved” is no choice at all. The Fed will choose the latter 100% of the time. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. From a bureaucratic perspective, the Fed absolutely Does. Not. Care. whether or not the market goes up, down, or sideways. When they talk about “risk” associated with their policy choices, they mean risk to their institutional reputation, not risk to financial asset prices. And today, after more than two years of a “tightening bias” and “data dependency”, there’s more reputational risk associated with staying pat than with raising rates in a one-and-done manner.
Why? Because the public Narrative around extraordinary monetary policy and quantitative easing has steadily become more and more negative over the past three years, and the public Narrative around negative rates in particular is now overwhelmingly in opposition. When I did my Narrative analysis of financial press sentiment surrounding Brexit prior to that vote, I always thought that would be the most hated thing I’d ever see. Nope. I’ll append the Quid maps and analysis at the end of this note for those who are interested in digging in, but here’s the skinny: the negative sentiment around negative rates is now greater than the negative sentiment around Brexit. The public Narrative around ever more accommodative monetary policy has completely turned against the Fed. And they know it.
I think that Summers has been emboldened and Hilsenrath has been turned because they’re picking up on the same sea change in public opinion that the Quid analysis is identifying with more precision. For Hilsenrath, here’s the centerpiece of his j’accuse: a long-running Gallup poll asking Americans to rate the relative competence of federal agencies. Yep, that’s right, the Fed — which used to have a better reputation than the FBI and NASA — is now at the absolute bottom of the heap, dragging behind (by a significant margin) even the IRS! It’s one thing to bring up the rear in 2009 polls, what with the immediate aftermath of the deepest recession in 70+ years. But to still be at the bottom in 2014 after a stock market triples (!) and The Longest Expansion In Modern American History™? Incredible. And the most recent poll was in 2014. If anything, the Fed’s reputation is even lower today. I mean … this is really striking, and I can promise you that none of this is lost on the current custodians of the Fed’s prestige and reputation. Or, like Summers, the wannabe custodians. If you’re a professional academic politician like Summers, you can smell the blood in the water.
How Americans Rate Federal Agencies Share of respondents who said each agency was doing either a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job, for the eight agencies for which consistent numbers were available.
Source: Gallup telephone polls, most recently 1,020 U.S. adults conducted Nov. 11—12, 2014, with a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points. As reported by the Wall Street Journal.
So what does all this mean for the September FOMC meeting?
Look … does “the market” want more and more supportive policy? Of course it does. We’re addicts. But if the Fed takes a dovish stance now — and anything less than a hike is going to be perceived as a dovish stance — from an organizational perspective the Fed is risking a lot more than a market sell-off from a rate hike. It risks being blamed for anything bad that happens in the economy going forward. This is the risk of being an unpopular political actor. This is the risk of losing your reputation for competence. The Golden Rule of organizational behavior is quite simple: there must ALWAYS be plausible deniability for culpability if something goes wrong. There must ALWAYS be some other political actor to blame. Unless the Fed takes steps now to stem the erosion in their reputation and their position in the public Narrative, they will own this economy and the downturn that everyone (including the Fed) suspects is coming.
By raising rates now, on the other hand, the Fed can declare victory. We achieved our dual mandates of price stability and full employment! Mission accomplished! And unlike George Bush and his infamously premature declaration of same, the Fed has someone to blame when the “mission” unravels (which of course it will) — those dastardly fiscal policymakers who didn’t follow up with structural reforms or pro-growth policies or whatever when they were elected this November. While the consensus view is that the Fed loathes to do anything to rock the market boat before the November election, in truth this meeting is the perfect time to act if your political goal is to declare victory and pass the buck. Hey, we did our part, says the Fed. Prudent stewards of monetary policy and all that. Now, about that consulting gig at Citadel …
That’s the bureaucratic or organizational perspective. Here’s the internal political dynamic as I see it.
An internal politics perspective is similarly driven by questions of reputation, but at the individual level rather than the organizational level. In an academic organization like the modern Fed, your internal reputation is based entirely on how smart you are, as evidenced by the research you do and the papers you write and the talks you give, not on how effective you are in any practical implementation of organizational aims. It’s not that the Fed or major research universities are intentionally ignoring or trying to put down practical implementations like teaching or outreach to commercial bank staffers, but every hour you spend doing that is an hour you’re not spending impressing your colleagues and bosses with how smart you are. It’s just how the internal political game is played, and anyone who has achieved any measure of success in an organization like this knows exactly what I’m talking about.
What this means in practice is that FOMC meetings are driven by a desire to form a consensus with the other smart people around the table, so that each of you is recognized by the other members of the consensus as being smart enough to be a member of the consensus. It’s the precise opposite of the old Groucho Marx joke: “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” Every FOMC member desperately wants to be a member of the club that would have him or her as a member, because it means that you’ve been recognized as one of the smart kids. The internal political dynamic of academic cultures like the Fed, at least at the highest levels of Governor to Governor interaction, is NOT antagonistic or divisive. On the contrary, it’s cooperative and consensus-forming.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Read this Jon Hilsenrath interview of St. Louis Fed Governor Jim Bullard again (I say again because I published it for other reasons in the last Epsilon Theory note, Magical Thinking), where Bullard describes this consensus building dynamic.
What kind of compromise would it take to get the FOMC to move in September? I mean, so the tradition is there’s some kind of — like you say, some kind of agreement. What would it take to get them there?
Well, I have no idea, so — and it’s really — it’s really the chair’s job to fashion that. But I will say that — I’ll talk historically about the FOMC, the kinds of things that the FOMC would do. You would trade off. You would say, OK, we could hike today, but then we’ll not plan to do anything in the future. That would be one way to — one way to go about a consensus. So that often happens on the FOMC. Or vice versa. If you read the Greenspan-era transcripts, he’ll do things like, OK, we won’t go today, but we’ll kind of hint that we’re pretty sure we’re going to go next time.
And so you get this inter-tempo kind of trade-off, and that often — that often is enough to get people to sign up.
So, hike today and then delay.
Or, no hike today and then no more delay.
Something like that.
Yeah, those kinds of trade-offs are, historically speaking — I’m not saying I know what Janet’s doing, because I don’t. But, historically speaking, those are the kinds of things that the FOMC has done.
I came up with my catchphrase for the — for the month. (Laughter.)
Those are great. That’s worthy of a T-shirt. (Laughs, laughter.) You could have one on the front and one on the back.
What Bullard is describing from a game theoretic perspective is a dual-equilibrium coordination game. Either it’s “Hike today and then delay” (Bullard’s preferred equilibrium outcome) or “No hike today and then no more delay”. Those are the two possible consensus outcomes. Both are stable equilibria, meaning that once you get a consensus at either phrase, there is no incentive for anyone to change his or her mind and leave the consensus. Importantly, both are robust equilibria in their gameplay, meaning that it only takes one or two high-reputation players in the group to commit to one outcome or the other in order to start attracting more and more reputation-seeking players to that same outcome. You can think of individual reputation as a gravitational pull, so that even a proto-consensus of a few will start to draw others into their orbit.
It’s always really tough to predict one equilibrium over another as the outcome in a multi-equilibrium game, because the decision-making dynamic is solely driven by characteristics internal to the group, meaning that there is ZERO predictive value in our evaluations of external characteristics like Taylor Rule inputs in 2016 or US/Soviet nuclear arsenals in 1962. (I wrote about this at length in the context of games of Chicken, like Germany vs. Greece or the Fed vs. the PBOC, in the note Inherent Vice). But my sense — and it’s only a sense — is that the “Hike today and then delay” equilibrium is a more likely outcome of the September meeting than “No hike today and then no more delay”. Why? Because it’s the position both a hawk like Fischer and a dove like Bullard, both of whom are high-reputation members, would clearly prefer. If one of these guys stakes out this position early in the meeting, such that “Hike today and then delay” is the first mover in establishing a “gravitational pull” on other members, I think it sticks. Or at least that’s how I would play the game, if I were Fischer or Bullard.
Okay, Ben, fair enough. If you’re right, though, what do we do about it? How are markets likely to react to the shock of a largely unanticipated rate hike?
In the short term, I don’t think there’s much doubt that it would be a negative shock, because as I write this the implied “market odds” of a rate hike here in September are not even 20%. My analysis suggests that the true odds are about three times that, as I give a slight edge to the “Hike today and then delay” equilibrium over “No hike today and then no more delay”. Do I think it’s a sure thing that they hike next week? Give me a break. Of course I don’t. But if I can be dealt enough hands where the true odds of something occurring are three times the market odds of something occurring …
The medium-to-long term market reaction to whatever the Fed decides next week is going to be driven less by the hike-or-no-hike decision and more by the Fed-directed Narrative that accompanies that rates decision. That is, if they hike next week and start talking about how this is the next step of a “normalization” process where the Fed will try to get rates back up to 3% or 4% in a couple of years … well, that’s a disaster for markets. That’s a repeat of the December rate hike fiasco, and you’ll see a repeat of the January-February horror show, where the dollar is way up, commodities and emerging markets are way down, and everyone starts freaking out over China and systemic risk again. But if they hike next week and start talking about how they’re rethinking the whole idea of normalization, that maybe rates will be super-low on a semi-permanent basis, or at least until productivity magically starts to improve … well, that’s maybe not such a disaster for markets. Ditto if they don’t hike next week. If the jawboning associated with a no-hike in September sets up a yes-hike in December as a foregone conclusion, that’s probably just as bad (if not worse) for markets than a shock today.
Of course, the Fed is well aware of the power of their “communication policy” and the control it exerts over market behavior. Which means that whenever the Fed hikes — whether it’s next week or next month or next meeting or next year — they’re going to sugarcoat the decision for markets. They’re going to fall all over themselves saying that they’re still oh-so supportive of markets. They’re going to proclaim their undying love for markets even as they take actions to distance themselves.
But here’s the thing. The Fed is now revealing its one True Love — its own reputation and its own political standing — and that’s going to be a bombshell revelation to investors who think that the Fed loves them. Investors are like Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. We’re married to this really swell girl, and we get invited to these really great parties, but then we see that Daisy is truly in love with Jay Gatsby, not us. And everything changes. Maybe not on the surface, but deep down, where it really matters. I’m not saying that the Fed abandons the markets. After all, Daisy stays married to Tom. But everything changes in that moment of realization that she truly loves someone else, not you, and that’s what the next Fed hike will mean to markets.
That’s when the party stops.
Appendix: Quid Narrative Analysis
For a recap of how I’m using the Quid tool kit to analyze financial media narrative formation and evolution, please refer to the Epsilon Theory note The Narrative Machine. Below are two slides from Quid providing a quick background on the process.
Here’s the network of all 941 Bloomberg articles over the past year mentioning negative rates, colored by topic cluster:
This is a prototypical focused narrative network, indicative of articles that are truly “about” negative rates, as opposed to articles about something else that provides the clustering characteristics and only mention negative rates in passing. So now let’s look at the same network, but colored by sentiment rather than by topic clustering.
Fully 50% of the articles are negative, 42% neutral, and only 7% are positive in their sentiment.
How does this compare to other Bloomberg networks and other sentiment scores? Horribly. The only subject issue that even comes close is Brexit, with 47% negative, 42% neutral, and 10% positive in the weeks leading up to the vote. Post-vote, the negative sentiment around Brexit drops to the mid-twenties.
To be sure, few topics associated with monetary policy have an overtly positive sentiment distribution, at least in recent years. For example, here’s a chart of the Quid sentiment scores for all Bloomberg articles mentioning Quantitative Easing (QE), by year over the past three years. The Narrative is steadily deteriorating, but we’re still not close to negative articles taking the lead over neutral articles.
Sentiment Scores for Bloomberg Articles Mentioning QE, by Year
9/13 – 9/14
9/14 – 9/15
9/15 – 9/16
One final network observation. Of the positively-oriented Bloomberg articles, they tend to cluster in the topic circled below. That topic? Gold. The articles have a positive sentiment because negative rates are great for gold prices. Of course, that’s a very negative thing from the Fed’s reputational perspective, which means that many of the articles that speak positively about negative rates are actually intimating something negative about central bankers! Bottom line: there is no more hated policy initiative in the world than negative rates.
Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving … on the road at night … I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The … flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.
Right. Well, I have to — I have to go now, Duane, because I … I’m due back on planet Earth.
“Annie Hall” (1977)
One of my all-time top-ten movie scenes. Of course, Duane ends up driving Alvy and Annie back to the airport that night. No one does crazy better than Christopher Walken. Except maybe the Fed’s #2, Stanley Fischer. We’re all just passengers in the backseat of the Fed-driven car.
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd … but, I guess we keep going through it because most of us … need the eggs.
“Annie Hall” (1977)
We’re all passengers in the backseat of the Fed-driven car, and we all suspect that our drivers might be high-functioning lunatics, and we’re all terrified about what they might do next.
But we need the eggs.
“What are the stars?” said O’Brien indifferently. “They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.”
“For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?”
Winston shrank back upon the bed. Whatever he said, the swift answer crushed him like a bludgeon. And yet he knew, he knew, that he was in the right. The belief that nothing exists outside your own mind — surely there must be some way of demonstrating that it was false? Had it not been exposed long ago as a fallacy? There was even a name for it, which he had forgotten. A faint smile twitched the corners of O’Brien’s mouth as he looked down at him.
“I told you, Winston,” he said, ‘”that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing: in fact, the opposite thing.”
― George Orwell, “1984” (1949)
As O’Brien patiently explains to Winston between torture sessions, or what we would call today “FOMC meetings”, Collective Solipsism is the voluntaryabdication of empirical and independent thought. But it’s not ordinary solipsism — a pathological egocentrism where reality is entirely defined by one’s own thoughts. Instead, Collective Solipsism annihilates one’s own thoughts and replaces them with state-sponsored thoughts. Your reality is just as fake. But you’re living someone else’s fantasy.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. … We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.
In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. … We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.
There was a level on which I believed that what had happened was reversible.
― Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005)
The best book I’ve ever read on the emotion of grief. Central bankers today are grieving the death of the so-called Great Moderation, and they are expressing their grief in the same way that Didion expressed hers — through magical thinking, through the pathological belief that if only the right words are said and the right thoughts are thought, then the dearly departed might walk through the front door and ask for his shoes.
What kind of compromise would it take to get the FOMC to move in September? I mean, so the tradition is there’s some kind of — like you say, some kind of agreement. What would it take to get them there?
Well, I have no idea, so — and it’s really — it’s really the chair’s job to fashion that. But I will say that — I’ll talk historically about the FOMC, the kinds of things that the FOMC would do. You would trade off. You would say, OK, we could hike today, but then we’ll not plan to do anything in the future. That would be one way to — one way to go about a consensus. So that often happens on the FOMC. Or vice versa. If you read the Greenspan-era transcripts, he’ll do things like, OK, we won’t go today, but we’ll kind of hint that we’re pretty sure we’re going to go next time.
And so you get this inter-tempo kind of trade-off, and that often — that often is enough to get people to sign up.
So, hike today and then delay.
Or, no hike today and then no more delay.
Something like that.
Yeah, those kinds of trade-offs are, historically speaking — I’m not saying I know what Janet’s doing, because I don’t. But, historically speaking, those are the kinds of things that the FOMC has done.
I came up with my catchphrase for the — for the month. (Laughter.)
Those are great. That’s worthy of a T-shirt. (Laughs, laughter.) You could have one on the front and one on the back.
Or a headline.
Well, that’s the St. Louis framework now, right?
Hike today and then delay.
Yeah. That’s what it would be, yeah.
But if you decide to use that, maybe you can credit — you know, include a little footnote to the Wall Street Journal.
Reading this transcript made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. And Bullard is the best of the lot. At least he’s honest about the intellectual poverty about the whole FOMC interest rate-setting exercise. They’re just making it up as they go along, a hallmark of magical thinking.
In point of fact magicians appear to have often developed into chiefs and kings.
― James George Frazer, “The Golden Bough” (1890)
Frazer’s book on the history and anthropological foundations of magic was a revelation to me when I first read it, as it was to as disparate a group of writers and poets as Yeats, TS Elliot, Freud, Hemingway, Joyce, and … Jim Morrison.
Courtier T.L. — Amid all the people starving, missionaries and nurses clamoring, students rioting, and police cracking heads, His Serene Majesty went to Eritrea, where he was received by his grandson, Fleet Commander Eskinder Desta, with whom he intended to make an official cruise on the flagship Ethiopia. They could only manage to start one engine, however, and the cruise had to be called off. His Highness then moved to the French ship Protet, where he was received on board by Hiele, the well-known admiral from Marseille. The next day, in the port of Massawa, His Most Ineffable Highness raised himself for the occasion to the rank of Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and made seven cadets officers, thereby increasing our naval power. Also he summoned the wretched notables from the north who had been accused by the missionaries and nurses of speculation and stealing from the starving, and he conferred high distinctions on them to prove that they were innocent and to curb the foreign gossip and slander.
― Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor” (1978)
If you can only read one book on the end of an ancien regime and the magical thinking that ALWAYS takes place in its wake, this is it. Kapuscinski chronicles the final years of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia from the inside out, interviewing dozens of courtiers to paint a first-hand portrait of an entire society lost in the fantasy world of Collective Solipsism.
Selassie and his Inner Party maintained the fantasy for years after it lost all connection with reality, so that a mighty fleet consisted of a single ship with a malfunctioning engine, promotions and medals were conflated with real-world power and influence, and bad people and bad ideas were constantly lauded and rewarded to keep hard questions from being asked.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for Selassie or for Ethiopia. In the words of another famous solipsist, Louis XV, “après moi, le deluge.” After Selassie came The Dergue. Think Pol Pot in committee form.
The last years of Selassie’s rule are more than a parable for our times … they ARE our times.
Magical thinking is a term of art in both clinical psychology and cultural anthropology, and it refers to the common belief among both children and “primitive” societies (yes, intentional quotation marks there to show my arched eyebrow at the word) that thinking the right thoughts or saying the right words can control the invisible forces that shape our world.
For example, as Jean Piaget (the father of developmental psychology) noted, children from the ages of 2 to 7 tend to have very little conception of real-world causality. Tell your four-year-old son that the family dog has died, and he is likely to a) blame himself for something he did or didn’t do for “causing” the death, and b) believe that there is some combination of proper words and proper thoughts and proper actions that can make the dog come back to life. That’s magical thinking. It’s a profoundly ego-centric conception of the world, and if you’re a parent you know exactly what Piaget is talking about. Every four-year-old child is an egomaniac, in the clinical, non-judgmental sense of the word.
It’s the same thing with what cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called “The Savage Mind” in his groundbreaking 1962 book. Societies without a causal explanation for, say, the weather will always construct some sort of combination of words and thoughts and actions to be performed by privileged caste members like priests or kings, through which the entire society convincesitself that humans exercise some sort of control over these incredibly powerful real-world forces and that they aren’t just buffeted this way and that by the inexorable might of a big bad world that really couldn’t care less about them. In fact, that’s the literal origin of the word “inexorable”, from the Latin in (not), ex (away), orare (to pray) — something that cannot be prayed away.
In early days of any human society, this sort of magic usually emphasizes some form of sympathetic or like-for-like object … for example, you might rub a banana-shaped crocodile tooth against a banana plant to make it bear fruit (I’m not making this up). Over time, however, the spellcasting caste and society at large convince themselves that you don’t really need actual crocodile teeth, but you can instead invoke the power of a crocodile tooth by calling it by its secret name. Maybe you need to write down that secret name using the secret language of the priests in order to make the spell work, but you definitely don’t need to go out and hunt down a real-world crocodile. It’s at this point that hunter/soldier-kings are replaced by academic/priest-kings … the pen is truly mightier than the sword, or at least writing “crocodile” carries a longer life expectancy than hunting crocodiles. Over still more time, the secret names and the secret language of the priest-kings become a vast edifice of magical thinking, an edifice that provides great comfort and stability to the entire society. Because there is nothing more important to societal stability than the belief that nature is under control. That the invisible forces of nature can, in fact, be prayed away.
Until they can’t. Until all the banana plants die because of some rare nematode infestation in the roots, and all the secret words and secret languages and even the “old magic” of the actual crocodile teeth are useless. They were useless all along, of course, as the banana plants would have borne fruit for the past 50 years with or without the spells, but hey … until this year there was a 98% correlation between the spells and a healthy banana crop! And my VAR was really quite negligible!
Okay, Ben, we see what you’ve done here. Yes, yes … quite droll, really … you’ve found a clever metaphor for railing against our central banker ruling class. Again. Thanks for the diversion, but now we need to get back to planet Earth. Important work to be done, and all that. Love your quotes, by the way.
Wait! This is not a metaphor. This is not an anthropological parable for our times. This IS our times. Want to see what a magic spell looks like? Here you go:
This is the Gaussian Copula spell. It’s what you write down to make sure that your AAA-rated slice of a massive bunch of mortgages pays you 6% a year with only an infinitesimal risk of default. It’s not a metaphor for a spell. It is an actual magic spell, exactly the same in form and function as the talismanic scripts written on, say, Egyptian funerary urns in 1000 BC to make sure that your body and soul get to the afterlife with only an infinitesimal risk of default.
Secret language no one can read or understand? Check. Not really comprehensible even by most magicians? Check. Administered by a privileged caste with appropriate pomp and ceremony? Check. Reflective of an innate human desire to control invisible forces that are, in fact, uncontrollable and inexorable, like death and business cycles? Check. Highly effective in motivating human behavior and supporting status quo political institutions? Check. And mate.
The Gaussian Copula spell wishes away the possibility of a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices (if you haven’t already, please read Felix Salmon’s 2009 Wired magazine article on the Gaussian Copula — “The Formula That Broke Wall Street” — my all-time favorite piece of financial market journalism). The magical thinking embedded in this spell is that a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices is not just unlikely, it is — literally — unthinkable. It is an incantation that generated enormous societal stability and wealth, creating out of whole cloth a belief that a $10 trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a T) asset class in residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) was a solid thing, a triumph of Science (why, just look at all those Greek letters and the mathematical stuff!), an example of man’s mastery over the invisible vagaries of nature.
And then we had a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices. Which broke our world.
Here’s another spell:
This is the Taylor Rule spell. It’s what you write down to make sure that the inflation rate in your economy goes up or down the way you want it to go up or down. There are lots of other spells that go along with the Taylor Rule spell for “controlling” inflation, but it’s the main one, I’d say. This is the spell that has created a $12 trillion asset class in negative yielding sovereign debt. Because, you know, the lower interest rates go, the more you’re going to borrow and spend, and the higher inflation goes. Right? Right?
If the Gaussian Copula is like a funerary spell, trying to assure investors that they will get to investor heaven like dead Egyptian Pharaohs were assured of getting to dead Egyptian Pharaoh heaven, the Taylor Rule is like a weather spell. When I read this from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough:
So in Scotland witches used to raise the wind by dipping a rag in water and beating it thrice on a stone, saying:
I knok this rag upone this stane To raise the wind in the divellis name, It sall not lye till I please againe.
I can’t help but think of Stanley Fischer, vice-warlock of the Fed coven, saying in Jackson Hole that we need thrice interest rate raises (one last December, two more this year) to quell the inflationary winds. Or raise them. Or whatever sort of weather that Fischer is trying to manufacture. It’s really hard to tell.
But here’s the kicker. When a spell doesn’t work, no one in the magically thinking society believes it’s because spell-casting itself doesn’t work. It means that the spell wasn’t performed properly. Either the priest-kings said the words wrong or they didn’t think the right thoughts or there’s some other invisible force that we need to propitiate first. So what always happens, and I mean “always” in the sense of This. Is. Human. Nature. and has been happening in a rhyming sense for tens of thousands of years across every human society that ever lived, is this:
In phase 1, the priest-kings try harder. They seek out purer ingredients for their spells. They speak more loudly, more convincingly, more stridently. If two crocodile teeth were used in the past, now they use four. Or eight. It’s not just “more”, it’s “MOAR!”. Often there’s an internal purge near the end of phase 1.
In phase 2, the priest-kings regroup and tweak the spell. Maybe instead of “targeting” (another word for “praying for”) a 2% inflation rate, we need to “target” a 4% inflation rate. Maybe we should change the magic word “inflation” to “nominal GDP growth” and see if that works any better. Sure, why not? This tweaking process has happened, it is happening now, and it will happen all the way to the bitter end. What will never happen is that the priest-kings quit. There’s always another tweak, always another word choice, always another order in which the words can be said.
In phase 3 — and this is where we are now in the historical process, somewhere near the end of phase 2 and the beginning of phase 3 — the priest-kings are challenged by a rogue priest in their midst (rare) or an alt-priest coming out of nowhere (common). By “nowhere” I mean that the alt-priest is an Other, whether that’s a foreign religion or a foreign geography or a foreign (i.e., non-priestly) caste. The alt-priest isn’t about tweaking the spell or casting it louder. He’s about doing an entirely different spell, and he’s about accusing the incumbent priests of incompetence or worse. The alt-priest is always a populist, and populism comes easy when the incumbent spells have been failing … and failing … and failing.
So what happens? It depends on reality. It depends on whether the banana plants get better on their own or if they die. If they get better on their own (and this happens more often than you might think), then the incumbent priest-kings remain. If the banana plants give up the ghost, then the incumbents are swept away. For future reference, this is what dead banana plants look like.
Interestingly — and this was Frazer’s big point in The Golden Bough — even if the incumbent mode of magical thinking survives, it’s necessary for societal stability to perform a public human sacrifice of the primary incumbent priest-king. The king is dead. Long live the king. Fortunately for all involved, human sacrifice today is a lot less literal than it was during, I dunno, the heyday of the Etruscans. A little public shaming, a tearful interview with Anderson Cooper, a quiet hermitage in the form of a deanship at a small New England college … yeah, that should do the trick.
The way this all plays out also depends on how deeply the incumbent priest-kings retreat into their fantasy world of tweaking spells and magical thinking, and that’s where I’m most concerned. The fact is that the global economy — particularly the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy — is more robust than the alt-priests tend to let on. Amazingly enough, the U.S. can still grow its way out of the massive debt we’ve taken on. I know … hard to believe. But it’s true. The power of compounding is truly inexorable, and it’s amazing what a steady 3.5% growth rate on a huge economic base can do to make manageable even trillions of dollars in debt. The rest of the developed world? Impossible to grow their way out of debt. They’re finished. Or rather, to use the lingo of my distressed debt friends, Japan and Europe ex-Germany are now “work-out situations”. But if the U.S. could just get out of its own way … if we could stop arguing about who gets to use what bathroom and start arguing about how to increase productivity (i.e., how to make technology a tool for humans doing more stuff rather than a replacement for humans doing stuff at all) … then we could actually come out of this okay.
I was dumbfounded by the stultifying, excruciating more-of-the-sameness that came out of Jackson Hole. Oh my god, are we really saying that the entire FOMC decision-making process comes down to whether there’s a good jobs report on Friday? Why don’t we just inspect the entrails of a goat? Are we really still arguing about one-raise-or-two when LIBOR is now pushing 90 basis points? Was there any mention — any mention at all — of LIBOR during the entire Jackson Hole meeting? Do these people, and it’s not just the central bankers themselves but all the courtiers — the journalists, the academics, the hangers-on — do they even recognize that a world exists outside of their imaginations and theories? Answer: NO.
Yep, at first I was disappointed in them. But on reflection I became more and more disappointed in us.
See, the problem isn’t with the Fed. They’re going to do what solipsistic, magical thinking priest-kings have done for ten thousand years … more of THAT. More solipsism. More magical thinking. More 4 year old egomaniacal determination that their spell casting efforts are the ONLY thing that stand between us and utter ruin.
No, the bigger problem is with us. The bigger problem is that we cannot imagine a solution for our current economic and political problems that does not rely on greater and greater state-directed spell casting. Monetary policy spells not working? Well, golly, I guess our ONLY alternative is to try some fiscal policy spells. Really? That’s the best we can come up with? I understand that this is what the courtiers are going to say. But I expect more from the rest of us. I expect more from myself.
Look, I get it. To riff on Woody Allen’s famous joke, we need the eggs. We need a stock market that goes up, not down. We need financial asset price inflation. We need the eggs so badly that we’re willing to support the magical thinking crew and smile at their courtiers even though we think they’re totally out of touch with reality. We’ve become so used to getting our eggs delivered on time and without fail that our first, second, and third responses are to ask for more magical thinking from the incumbent priest-kings, not less.
This is a dangerous, myopic game. Because we will get what we ask for. We will get more magical thinking. Only it won’t come just from the status quo magicians. It will also come from the alt-priests, some of whom will represent the absolute worst impulses of humanity. There are really bad ideas lurking on the wings today — there always are — but these really bad ideas about how human society should be organized always resurface and grow more powerful at times like this. Because it’s the old magic, an old magic that the human animal is hard-wired to respond to.
Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe the banana plants of global growth will turn green again, and we can have a grand celebration of the particular variant of the policy spell that was coincidentally cast at the same time. That could happen. As Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of 19th century Europe supposedly said, “there is a special providence for children, fools, and the United States of America.” Any portfolio manager with long enough tenure knows what it’s like to be bailed out by the market, and it’s a beautiful thing. Now we just need that to happen on a much larger scale.
But we should do better than just trust to luck. I’m not saying that we have to deny our human nature and stop believing in the act of spell-casting itself. I’m not (that) delusional. What I’m saying is that the more we embrace and encourage state-directed magical thinking, whether it’s of the monetary or fiscal policy sort, what we are actually doing is opening the city gates to the old evil magic and the alt-priests of fascism and totalitarianism. We don’t need the eggs that badly. What I’m saying is that we need to think less about Scottish witchcraft, a la Macbeth and James Frazer and Stanley Fischer, and more about the Scottish Enlightenment, a la David Hume and Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton. What I’m saying is that we need to focus on empiricism and on what works in the real world, not theory and what “works” as an equation. What I’m saying is that usually the better course of state-directed action is to do less, not more, and the better course of individually-directed action is to do more, not less. What I’m saying is that the old good magic of small-l liberalism and technological innovation in the service of man rather than the replacement of man is pretty darn powerful itself, and the stories still inspire. Let’s embrace and encourage THAT as we make our way through what is still a largely inexorable world.
It matters whether or not we call things by their proper names, because the words and the spells motivate human behavior like nothing else. It matters whether or not we sleepwalk our way through our own fin de siècle, because the really bad people and the really bad ideas that periodically wreck our world can’t be wished away. It matters whether or not we become courtiers ourselves, because the courtiers always fall the farthest. The problem with magical thinking run amok and its perpetuation of a fantasy world is that sooner or later the dream of the delusional king becomes a real world nightmare for real world people. It’s time to wake up.
You may just be a patsy, but you’re an important one. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a bigger crisis actor than you before. … This is for our country!
[Man in Bar shoots Gideon in neck, killing him]
— “Mr. Robot: eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1.tc” (2016)
Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? … It is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
— Gustave Gilbert, interview recording of Hermann Göring for “Nuremberg Diary” (1947)
Hermann Göring and the Nazis didn’t burn the Reichstag down in 1933. They left that to a simpleton Communist patsy (that’s him in the photo; quite the ur-terrorist, no?). But Göring and the Nazis used the Reichstag fire as their excuse to arrest thousands, establish Hitler as the Führer and unleash a decade-plus of fascist horror on Germany and the world. History is rhyming today, as it always does.
Hynkel, the dictator, ruled the nation with an iron fist. Under the new emblem of the double cross, liberty was banished, free speech was suppressed and only the voice of Hynkel was heard.
― Charlie Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (1940)
Just need a little hair dye on that Erdogan moustache, and I think we’re good to go.
You’re crazy. I know who I am. You’re trying to frame me. You’re trying to frame me. Cyphre, I know who I am. You murdered them people. I never killed nobody. I didn’t kill Fowler, and … and I didn’t kill Toots, and I didn’t kill Margaret, and I didn’t kill Krusemark, I didn’t kill no one!
I’m afraid you did, Johnny.
My name’s not Johnny!
All killed by your own hand. Guided by me, naturally. Frankly, you were doomed from the moment you slit that young boy in half, Johnny … for twelve years you’ve been living on borrowed time and another man’s memories.
― Alan Parker, “Angel Heart” (1987)
My favorite De Niro role, worth watching just for the fingernails and the way the man eats an egg.
I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me.
― Jagger and Richards “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)
Four people died at the 1969 Altamont concert, including a front row murder during the Stones set. It’s fun to strut on stage and sing about this stuff, until the Hells Angels show you what you’re singing about.
When you strike at a king, you must kill him. ― Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
Omar: Come at the king, you best not miss.
― David Simon, “The Wire” (2002)
Everything I know about politics, I learned from “The Wire”. That and a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard. But mostly “The Wire”.
I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.
― John Huston, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
I think it’s a guy thing, this willingness to be a patsy for a cause, be it love, or lust, or greed, or religion … or a political party. Don’t be a patsy. Be a Sam Spade. Be an Omar.
A “crisis actor” is a familiar theme in all sorts of conspiracy theories. Basically, the idea is that terrorist attacks and the like are false-flag operations, where nefarious government agencies kill their own citizens, directly or indirectly, in order to instill fear and maintain popular support for the smiley-face authoritarianism of the modern State. Crisis actors are the patsies hired by the agencies to weep and wail for the cameras, creating the initial Narrative of terror and supporting the follow-on Narrative of steely government resolve to track down the supposed bad guys.
As per usual with conspiracy theories, the specifics of their claims about crisis actors are nonsense. It’s not “the same girl” crying at Newtown and Orlando and Nice, as the photos on conspiracy websites claim. CNN isn’t a secret division of the CIA. Neil Armstrong really did walk on the moon.
Hermann Göring and Erdogan are crisis actors, pretending that the Nazis or the Islamists are the only force standing between the Motherland and political traitors within and abroad, pretending that their “emergency policies” are anything less than a permanent seizure of political control.
It’s oh so easy to look at what’s going on in Turkey and shake our heads and tsk-tsk that awful Erdogan and the awful anti-democratic things he’s doing over there. Because it IS awful. What’s happening today in Turkey is absolutely a carbon copy of what happened in Germany in 1933 with the Reichstag Fire, and every Western president and prime minister and chancellor and secretary of state and foreign minister — all of whom are mouthing the same diplo-speak pablum about the Islamist fascists of 2016 that their counterparts mouthed about the Nazi fascists of 1933 — will have the same stain on their souls. Not that I’m sure many of this 2016 crowd have a soul left to stain. As Gertrude Stein famously said about Oakland, and I’m saying about these crisis actors, there’s no there there. Whatever human beings they used to be, it seems they’ve been absorbed by their public cartoons, which is really just … sad.
But look homeward, angel. Look homeward, too.
Paul Krugman and Tom Friedman and Jim Cramer and their media Missionary kin are also crisis actors, pretending that the Brexit vote was a deluded, colossal mistake perpetrated on innocent UK voters by economic traitors within and abroad.
Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi and their central bank Missionary kin are also crisis actors, pretending that their “emergency policies”, now more than seven years old, are anything less than a permanent political shift in the global allocation of money and credit.
I mean, can’t we just stop these charades surrounding “the Horror of Brexit” and “data dependence”? Can’t we just admit that it’s all an exercise in — to use the Fed’s terminology — “communication policy”, where words are chosen for effect rather than to convey true belief or opinion … or what we would call in normal human interaction “lying”?
Of course we can’t. Whether you’re Göring or Erdogan or Yellen or Draghi, once you start weaving that tangled web of deception, you can’t un-weave it. Once you sell your soul to the Narrative Devil you can’t buy it back. Erdogan can’t walk his purge back even if he wanted to. Yellen can’t walk her dot plots and forward guidance back even if she wanted to. Draghi and Kuroda are never going to go on stage and shrug their shoulders and say “oops, sorry ‘bout that.” At least St. Louis Fed Governor Jim Bullard didn’t have to flee to Greece for his “failed dot plot coup”.
And yeah … I understand that I’m tarring central bankers and their fellow travelers with the fascist brush. Because the road to hell is paved with good intentions as well as bad. Because there IS a moral equivalence between the means used by Göring and Erdogan to accomplish their ends and the means used by central bankers to accomplish theirs. Do the differing ends and the better intentions matter? Of course they do. And that’s why Ben Bernanke gets $250,000 per speech and Hermann Göring got a cyanide pill in his prison cell. But the shared means of false Narrative and crisis acting matter, too, because they create a world of profound inauthenticity, where ALL public speech is deemed suspect and self-serving — because it is! — and where ANY public speech, no matter how demagogue-ish or false or borderline insane, is deemed functionally equivalent to any other speech. Because it is. It’s what I call Gresham’s Law of Narrative: inauthentic speech drives authentic speech out of circulation, just like bad money drives good money out of circulation. If the function of public speech is to persuade rather than inform — and that’s precisely the function of forward guidance and every other status quo political statement of the past seven years — then it’s just comical for those same status quo institutions to complain now that their political opponents are “lying”. No, they’re just more effective persuaders. They’re just better liars.
And yeah … I’m saying that the rise of Trump and Farage and Le Pen and their ilk is a direct consequence of the communication policy toolkit and the crisis acting employed by every Western central banker and politician over the past seven years. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
As for us investors … we’re the “poor slobs on a farm” that Hermann Göring talks about in his prison cell interviews during the Nuremberg Trials. We don’t want to go to war, whether it’s a real-life war like Erdogan is waging or an ersatz war like Yellen and Draghi are waging. As Göring said, the best outcome for us is that we get home to our farms alive. Why in the world would we sign up for that?
We sign up for it because we are biologically hard-wired over millions of years and socially soft-wired over tens of thousands of years to respond to Narrative. We are social animals in the scientific, technical sense of the phrase, and we — along with our termite, ant, and bee cousins — are the four most successful multi-cellular animal species on Earth because of it. The hallmark of what biologists call a eusocial species isn’t just that it communicates. It swims in an ocean of communication. It is evolved to be immersed in constant communication. How many waking minutes of every day are you away from some sort of message from other humans? Five? Ten? For me it’s however long my morning shower takes. That’s about it. Probably about the same amount of time that an ant or a termite goes without a message from another ant or termite. That’s the human animal for you … basically a giant termite with fire. As a eusocial species, we can no more ignore a message from Janet Yellen than an ant can ignore a pheromone from its queen. Not only can we not ignore it, but it WILL move us, in some small way, at least.
Thankfully, though, unlike an ant we have self-awareness. Or at least the capacity for self-awareness. We can recognize that this process of Narrative influence is happening to ourselves and to others, and we can resist if we choose to.
Now, we will probably go along with whatever the Narrative is suggesting we do, because that’s usually the smart play. We know that there are millions of other ants hearing the queen’s message, and we know that each of them will be moved by her message. Plus — and this is the big insight from game theory, the engine for all of these Common Knowledge behaviors — we know that all of the other ants are thinking about US in exactly the same way we are thinking about THEM. Knowing that, it is entirely rational for each of us to act AS IF the queen’s message is True with a capital T.
Okay, Ben, all very heroic and heartfelt, but what do we do?
Well… here’s what we don’t do. We don’t “fight the Fed”, and we don’t stick our head in the sand and pretend that the status quo Missionaries can’t construct highly investable rallies. You know, like the rally we’re experiencing right now. But by the same token we don’t allow ourselves to become a patsy for the Fed or the ECB or the DNC or the RNC or the WSJ or the NYT or CNBC or whatever other institutional collection of initials asks you to play the fool. We should never trust the Fed or any other Missionary, because one day we’re going to need to, if not fight them, then at least take ourselves off their battlefield.
I think what we need to DO is identify the potential political and economic catalysts coming down the pike and figure out which of these are potential Humpty Dumpty moments — crack-ups in the current system of global credit allocation that are too large for the central banks to piece back together again with their crisis acting and Narrative creation efforts. Then we need to track that Narrative effort so we can get the timing right on these massive catalysts. Because as any coup-launcher or Fed-fighter or volatility-embracer knows, if you’re wrong on timing … you’re just wrong. Starting with the next Epsilon Theory note — “The Narrative Machine” — I’ll be launching a new chapter in this project by demonstrating a set of tools for tracking Narrative evolution and impact. If you’re not yet on the direct distribution list, you can sign up here. I’m pretty excited about where this is going, and hope you’ll join me.
How many things served us yesterday as articles of faith, which today are fables for us?
– Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays (1580)
That same night, I wrote my first short story. It took me thirty minutes. It was a dark little tale about a man who found a magic cup and learned that if he wept into the cup, his tears turned into pearls. But even though he had always been poor, he was a happy man and rarely shed a tear. So he found ways to make himself sad so that his tears could make him rich. As the pearls piled up, so did his greed grow. The story ended with the man sitting on a mountain of pearls, knife in hand, weeping helplessly into the cup with his beloved wife’s slain body in his arms.
– Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (2003)
A fable for our times, the ultimate disposition of extraordinary monetary policy. Bad news is good news until bad news is all we know. Global growth is the wife.
The idea of negative interest rates strikes many people as odd. Economists are less put off by it. … The anxiety about negative interest rates seen recently in the media and in markets seems to me to be overdone. Logically, when short-term rates have been cut to zero, modestly negative rates seem a natural continuation; there is no clear discontinuity in the economic and financial effects of, say, a 0.1 percent interest rate and a -0.1 percent rate.
Bernanke is right – economists are not put off by the idea of negative rates. And that’s exactly the problem. There’s a huge discontinuity between a 0.1 percent interest rate and a -0.1 percent interest rate, but economists don’t see it because it’s a BEHAVIORAL discontinuity. Positive rates permit investing behaviors based on fundamentals and compounding. Negative rates require investing behaviors based on hope for a greater fool.
My Sunday school teachers had turned Bible narrative into children’s fables. They talked about Noah and the ark because the story had animals in it. They failed to mention that this was when God massacred all of humanity.
– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (2003). The condescension of modern status quo Narrative construction is staggering. It’s a mistake to do this with kids, and it’s a bigger mistake to do this with voters and investors.
A major European power, a longtime defender of liberal democracy, pluralism and free markets, falls under the sway of a few cynical politicians who see a chance to exploit public fears of immigration to advance their careers. They create a stark binary choice on an incredibly complex issue, of which few people understand the full scope — stay in or quit the E.U.
– New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, doing his part to create a status quo protecting Narrative post-Brexit, where government “unforgivably” abdicated its responsibility by “allowing” foolish citizens who can’t possibly know their own self-interest to vote on something that’s “incredibly complex” and can only be understood by wise men … like Tom Friedman.
He spotted the entourage and security personnel that signaled another important person’s plane. With the temperature over 103 degrees, Mr. Clinton, rather than chatting on the scorching cement, climbed aboard to say hello to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
Simple Simon met a pieman,
Going to the fair;
Says Simple Simon to the pieman,
Let me taste your ware.
Said the pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny.
Said Simple Simon to the pieman:
Scram! Ya don’t get any! [throws pie in face]
You can learn a lot about political Narrative creation by looking at dominant forms of satire and comedy. Satire today is as arch and elitist as the status quo institutions it defends, in sharp contrast to the populist, slapstick comedy of the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. I’ll bet there’s a 99% correlation between UK Leave voters and people who think Benny Hill is funny, and the same between UK Remain voters and people who think John Oliver is funny. For the Tom Friedmans of the world, the solution is simple: “educate” people that John Oliver is hilarious, but you’re a racist dope if you laugh at Benny Hill. Yeah, that’ll work.
I wrote my way out of hell.
I wrote my way to revolution.
I was louder than the crack in the bell.
I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell.
I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well.
And in the face of ignorance and resistance,
I wrote financial systems into existence.
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference,
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance. – Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton (2015)
Why does “Hamilton” work? Because it’s not arch and it’s not elitist. Because it takes one of the most powerful and long-lived Narratives in modern history – the Founding Fathers – and tells the story without irony, without condescension, and without the (literal) whitewashing of other storytellers.
The Old Stories still work when you play them straight. Thank you, Lin-Manuel.
I am a dire wolf, prey-stalking, lethal prowler.
I am a hunter, horse-mounted, wolf-stabbing.
I am a horsefly, horse-stinging, hunter-throwing.
I am a spider, fly-consuming, eight legged.
I am a snake, spider-devouring, poison-toothed.
I am an ox, snake-crushing, heavy-footed.
I am an anthrax, butcher bacterium, warm-life destroying.
I am a world, space-floating, life-nurturing.
I am a nova, all-exploding… planet-cremating.
I am the Universe — all things encompassing, all life embracing.
I am Anti-Life, the Beast of Judgment. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds … of everything. Sss. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?
I am hope.
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (1991)
There was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below. What should he do? went the question.
And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.
The story had never made sense to him as a boy. It did now.
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)
The fin of any siècle is almost always a rough ride, even if we end up dreaming a better dream. In investing as in life there’s never enough time, and we are beset on all sides. Eat the strawberries.
Here’s my most basic view on everything that’s happening in the world right now, politically, economically, socially … all of it:the Fix is still in, but it’s getting harder and harder to maintain.
The Fix is the status quo, and it goes by different labels of identity depending on what you’re talking about. “European Union” is one of those labels. “Central Banking” is one. “Clinton” is another. They aren’t real things at all, but are statements of shared identity that channel our behavior in highly predictable patterns that are, in turn, highly useful to The Powers That Be, and are maintained by expressions of Common Knowledge such as “everyone knows that everyone knows that Brexit was a grievous mistake” or “everyone knows that everyone knows that low interest rates spur the economy.” Those expressions of Common Knowledge are also called Narratives, and the Narratives are dying.
And yes, I know that this all sounds suspiciously philosophical and divorced from our investing reality, but bear with me for a moment, because the punchline here is going to be that I think what I’m describing is the ONLY thing that matters for our investing reality. Our reality is not determined by the antics of the flesh-and-blood Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but by the status quo ideas and institutions represented by and threatened by the human-shaped cartoons we call “Hillary Clinton” and “Donald Trump”. To figure out what’s next for markets, we have to figure out why “Clinton” – shorthand for globalism (it’s not called The Clinton Global Initiative for nothing) and a sort of technocratic, condescending, principle-less, democracy-suspicious manner of governing – is failing. We have to figure out why Bill Clinton’s stroll across the Phoenix tarmac to chat up the Attorney General was a) reported at all, and b) greeted by derision and despair within his own party. If you don’t like my use of the label “Clinton” or if you think I’m being too political, replace it with “Brussels” or “Beijing”. It’s all the same thing, just three different shades of gray.
And I really couldn’t care less, professionally at least, what actually transpired between Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch, or what Hillary Clinton actually believed about her email security classifications. What I care deeply about, however, is how the Narrative around these events is being shaped and reshaped, because that Narrative will determine the path and outcome of every election and every market on Earth. And what I can tell you is that I am shocked by the diminishing half-life of status quo protecting Narratives, by the inability of Big Institutions and Big Money and Big Media and Big War and Big Academia to lock down an effective story that protects the State, even when their competition is primarily comprised of clowns (dangerous clowns, but clowns all the same) like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. There’s a … tiredness … to the status quo Narratives, a Marie Antoinette-ish world weariness that sighs and pouts about those darn peasants all the way to the guillotine.
We’ve seen this before. History is littered with failed Narratives, once-powerful arrays of Common Knowledge that somehow lose their ability to compel human behavior and eventually become mere myth. That’s where Narratives go to die. They become fables, stories that we chuckle at, stories that we shake our heads at and ask “did people really believe in all that?” Michel de Montaigne – who invented the essay as a literary form and was the first blogger, albeit more than 400 years before Al Gore invented the Internet – wrote about the devolution of faith to fable back in the 16th century. It’s a phenomenon as old as humanity itself. Manifest Destiny … Cultural Revolution … these were Narratives every bit as powerful in their day as European Union or Clinton in ours. Now they’re historical curiosities, something you come across on a Wikipedia bender.
John Gast, “American Progress” (ca. 1872)
Mao Zedong Thought poster (ca. 1970)
The rarity isn’t the Narrative that dies and fades into myth, but the Narrative that survives by re-inventing itself, by finding its words and stories repurposed and retold for a modern ear. For example, the Narrative of the American Founding Fathers is as potent today as it was 100 years ago, maybe more so, and that was before Hamilton gave it a new telling and a new power chord.
Why are the status quo protecting Narratives faltering so badly? I think it’s because status quo political and economic institutions – particularly Central Banks – have failed to protect incomes and have pushed income and wealth inequality past a political breaking point. They made a big bet: we’re going to bail-out/paper-over the banks to prevent massive losses in the financial sector, we’re going to inflate the stock market so that the household sector feels wealthier, and we’re going to make vast sums of money available for the corporate and government sectors to borrow really cheaply. And as the McKinsey chart here shows, by Q2 2014 they had largely succeeded on all counts, certainly in getting the corporate and government sectors to borrow trillions in new debt.
The result, or so the thinking went, of all this pump-priming or bridge-building or whatever metaphor you please would be for all four basic sectors of the global economy – households, corporations, governments, and financial institutions – to consume more and invest more and fail never, which would in turn create a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle of risk taking, real growth, and real wealth creation.
It was a reasonable bet to make. But the bet failed. Why? There’s a book or two to write on this, but I’ll sum it up this way: you can no more force corporations to invest for growth if they don’t believe it’s safe than you can force people to watch John Oliver if they don’t think he’s funny. Sure, they’ll tell you that they think he’s funny, because everyone knows that everyone knows that John Oliver is funny, and they need to go along with the Common Knowledge to be successful social animals. But in their heart of hearts, they don’t think John Oliver is funny. Now to be clear, I’m picking on John Oliver to make a point. Personally, I think he’s funny. Some of the time. Well … kind of funny. I guess. Okay, I don’t really think he’s very funny. Sorry. And the truth is that if you paid me to watch HBO, just as Central Banks are basically paying corporations to borrow money, I’m going to watch 20 Game of Thrones re-runs before I watch a single episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, just as corporations are going to buy back stock and hoard cash 20 times more than invest in new jobs or new equipment.
So what does this have to do with incomes? Two things.
First, little of the increased corporate or government borrowing trickled down into jobs or wage income growth. We’ve all seen the charts. Real wage growth is nonexistent in the Western world. Second, to make it feasible for corporations and governments to borrow these trillions of dollars in the first place, every bit of Central Bank balance sheet expansion (buying bonds) and balance sheet “twist” (buying longer duration bonds) and expansion of allowable securities for purchase (buying more kinds of bonds) and imposition of negative rates (charging you interest if you don’t buy longish-term bonds) was designed to – you guessed it – buy more bonds and thus drive up bond prices and drive down interest rates, particularly longish-term bond prices and longish-term interest rates. That’s great if you’re an investor looking for a percentage return on your bond portfolio. That’s terrible, however, if you’re an investor looking for an income from your bond portfolio. Over the past seven years, Central Banks have rewarded the return-seeking bond buyer many times over, and they’ve done nothing but punish the income-seeking bond buyer.
Put these two income squelchers together – zero wage income growth because corporations aren’t investing for growth and less-than-zero investment income growth because Central Banks have crushed rates – and you have a vast swath of the voting public in every developed nation on Earth that (rightfully!) feels aggrieved and left behind by the gleaming economic recovery that the status quo Narrative Missionaries tout at every turn. Notably, the failure of wage income growth skews younger and Democrat/left. The failure of investment income growth skews older and Republican/right. The status quo Narratives could survive (and have many times) an assault from one wing of the electorate or the other. But from both simultaneously? It’s going to be a close call.
But here’s the even larger problem lurking in the not-so distant future, and it’s found in the behavioral WHY of return-seeking bond buyers versus income-seeking bond buyers. These are two entirely different investorpopulations from a behavioral perspective, with different languages and different investment genotypes. When I hear an investor or financial advisor ask, “Why in the world would I buy a Swiss bond with a -0.5% interest rate?” I know that I’m talking to an income-seeking bond buyer. The return-seeking bond buyer, on the other hand, says “Hey, if you’re right about the world, those Swiss bonds currently yielding -0.5% are going to -1.0%, which means that the price is going up. Where can I buy one of those?”
The only rational owner of a negative rate bond is a pure return seeker; there are zero income seekers holding negative rate bonds. Why is this a problem? Because income seekers will continue to own bonds even if the price goes down (for a while, anyway; at the very least, they are sticky owners). Return seekers, on the other hand, are not sticky owners at all. They will only own a bond if they think that the price is going up – meaning in this case that yields will continue to become even more negative, i.e., that there’s a greater fool (probably in the form of a Central Bank) willing to pay higher and higher prices for these income-destroying bonds – and they will sell in a heartbeat if they think this dynamic is changing.
There is, to cop a phrase from the People’s Bank of China, a massive “one-way bet” on negative rate sovereign debt today. The momentum trade has crystallized to perfection in negative rate bonds, which has grown to become a $10+ trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a T) asset class. I think it’s the most crowded trade in the world from a behavioral or investment DNA perspective, and the moment you get even a whiff of the ECB or BOJ backing down from or reaching its limit of greater foolishness, you are going to get a rush to the exit on ALL sovereign bonds that will shake global capital markets to their core. It’ll be good times till then, as it always is, and I am seeing zero signs of Central Bankers backing down from their greater foolishness. But we have once again set up the global financial system as an inverted pyramid, with a $10 trillion asset class poised on a single, solitary piece of Common Knowledge —– what everyone knows that everyone knows. In 2008, the $10 trillion asset class of residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) was entirely based on the Common Knowledge that it was impossible to have a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices. When that Narrative failed, the entire inverted pyramid came crashing down. In 2016, the $10 trillion asset class of negative rate sovereign bonds is entirely based on the Common Knowledge that there is no limit to the greater foolishness of Central Banks. If this Narrative fails, the entire inverted pyramid will come crashing down again. Hence my punchline: monitoring this and related status quo protecting Narratives (like the concerted effort to paint Brexit as a one-off blunder, just like Bear Stearns was painted in 2008) is the only thing that really matters for our investment reality.
What to do? Convexity, convexity, convexity. Our portfolios should minimize the maximum risk the world actually presents, not maximize the reward our crystal ball models predict. Timing, timing, timing. We need to pay attention to what matters, and right now that’s all policy and all Narrative all the time. In a negative rate world, you’ve got to think in terms of catalysts, not “stocks for the long haul”. And one more thing. To paraphrase Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, if a four-year-old can’t understand what you’re doing in your portfolio, don’t do it. For me, that means real assets and real yield, fractional ownership in real companies with real cash flows from real economic activity with real people. You know, what a stock market used to mean before it became a Central Bank casino. For more on all these points, I’d point you directly to the recent Epsilon Theory notes “Hobson’s Choice“ and “Cat’s Cradle“.
I know that this all comes across as very negative about the world and our investing future, and that’s because it is. To use a poker analogy, we were dealt some bad cards, the Central Banks waaay overplayed the hand, and now we’ve got to figure out how to extricate ourselves without losing our entire stake. But is this a hopeless situation? No. The most important lesson I ever learned from my mentors in this business is this: always live to fight another day. We can do that. It won’t be fun and it won’t be pretty and we’ll have some scars to show for it, but we can do that. The useful lesson from the Biblical Flood Narrative isn’t a pleasant fable about Noah saving the cute and cuddly animals. The useful lesson is that hubris must be confronted, hope is always present, and that preparation and honest actions will see us through any storm. Yes, we can do that.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Brexit is a Bear Stearns moment, not a Lehman moment. That’s not to diminish what’s happening (markets felt like death in March, 2008), but this isn’t the event to make you run for the hills. Why not? Because it doesn’t directly crater the global currency system. It’s not too big of a shock for the central banks to control. It’s not a Humpty Dumpty event, where all the Fed’s horses and all the Fed’s men can’t glue the eggshell back together. But it is an event that forces investors to wake up and prepare their portfolios for the very real systemic risks ahead.
There are two market risks associated with Brexit, just as there were two market risks associated with Bear Stearns.
In the short term, the risk is a liquidity shock, or what’s more commonly called a Flash Crash. That could happen today, or it could happen next week if some hedge fund or shadow banking counterparty got totally wrong-footed on this trade and — like Bear Stearns — is taken out into the street and shot in the head.
In the long term, the risk is an acceleration of a Eurozone break-up, which is indeed a Lehman moment (literally, as banks like Deutsche Bank will become both insolvent and illiquid). There are two paths for this. Either you get a bad election/referendum in France (a 2017 event) or you get a currency float in China (an anytime event). Brexit just increased the likelihood of these Humpty Dumpty events by a non-trivial degree.
What’s next? From a game theory perspective, the EU and ECB need to crush the UK. It’s like the Greek debt negotiations … it was never about Greece, it was always about sending a signal that dissent and departure will not be tolerated to the countries that matter to the survival of the Eurozone (France, Italy, maybe Spain). Now they (and by “they” I mean the status quo politicians throughout the EU, not just Germany) are going to send that same signal to the same countries by hurting the UK any way they can, creating a Narrative that it’s economic death to leave the EU, much less the Eurozone. It’s not spite. It’s purely rational. It’s the smart move.
What’s next? Every central bank in the world will step up their direct market interventions, particularly in the FX market, where it’s easiest for Plunge Protection Teams to get involved. Every central bank in the world will step up their jawboning and “communication policy” to support financial asset prices and squelch volatility. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the Fed started talking about a neutral stance, moving away from their avowed tightening bias. As I write this, Fed funds futures are now pricing in a 17% chance of a rate CUT in September. Yow!
What’s the result? I think it works for while, just like it worked in the aftermath of Bear Stearns. By May 2008, credit and equity markets had retraced almost the entire Bear-driven decline. I remember vividly how the Narrative of the day was “systemic risk is off the table.” Yeah, well … we saw how that turned out. Now to be fair, history only rhymes, it doesn’t repeat. Maybe this Bear Stearns event isn’t followed by a Lehman event. But that’s what we should be watching for. That’s what we should be preparing our portfolios for.
How do we prepare? I’ve got Five Easy Pieces, five suggestions for surviving these policy-controlled markets, described at length in the Epsilon Theory notes “Cat’s Cradle” and “Hobson’s Choice“. Here’s the skinny:
Keep risk constant, not dollars.
Risk Balanced Strategies
Trend-following is a thing.
Managed Futures Strategies
Focus on catalysts.
Convex Strategies (Optionality)
Survive the politics.
Active Mgmt for Real Assets
Bottom line … if you ever needed a wake-up call that every crystal ball is broken and we are in a political storm of global proportions, today is it. That’s at least 3 mixed metaphors, but you get my point. Brexit isn’t a Humpty Dumpty moment itself, and I think The Powers That Be will kinda sorta tape this egg back together. But if there’s one thing we know about broken eggs and broken teacups and broken partnerships, it’s never the same again, no matter how hard you try to put the pieces back together. My view is that a Humpty Dumpty moment, in the form of a political/currency shock from China or a core Eurozone country, is a matter of when, not if. Tracking that “when”, and thinking about how to invest through it, is what Epsilon Theory is all about.
PS — for some earlier Epsilon Theory notes on Europe, all of which are highly pertinent today, see:
“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .” “And?” “No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”
The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it: “Nothing.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)
Negative rates are ice-nine. If you don’t know what ice-nine is, read the book. Spoiler alert: the world ends.
TIAA will end the voluntary expense waiver on the CREF Money Market Account by April 14, 2017. This decision was reached after ongoing discussions with the TIAA and CREF boards, as well as our state insurance regulator. It is anticipated that unless interest rates rise sufficiently, one or more classes of the CREF Money Market Account may have negative yields after the waiver ends.
TIAA Plan Update Review Guide 2016 [italics mine]
A great Hope fell You heard no noise The Ruin was within.
Admit it. You assume her poetry is soft because she’s a woman and writes about flowers. Read it again. Emily Dickinson is a total badass. You don’t even feel the slice of her work, but then you see the blood.
I saw her today at the reception In her glass was a bleeding man She was practiced at the art of deception Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands You can’t always get what you want You can’t always get what you want You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometimes you just might find You just might find You get what you need – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (1969)
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is changing its characterization of the U.S. macroeconomic and monetary policy outlook. An older narrative that the Bank has been using since the financial crisis ended has now likely outlived its usefulness, and so it is being replaced by a new narrative. The hallmark of the new narrative is to think of medium- and longer-term macroeconomic outcomes in terms of regimes. The concept of a single, long-run steady state to which the economy is converging is abandoned, and is replaced by a set of possible regimes that the economy may visit. Regimes are generally viewed as persistent, and optimal monetary policy is viewed as regime dependent. Switches between regimes are viewed as not forecastable.
Jim Bullard’s resignation letter here in the Silver Age of the Central Banker, as he adopts the game theoretic concept of minimax regret theory and the postmodern social theoretic concept of narrative construction.
Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind;
– William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)
Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood’s best work. I experience this movie so differently today, as the father of four teenage daughters, than I did watching it as a young man. In investing as in life, we all love and lose. The question is how you deal with it.
If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment. – Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862
In his classic work on game theory, “The Strategy of Conflict”, Nobel Prize winner Tom Schelling begins by writing about cooperative games, where players are trying to arrive at a common outcome for a mutual benefit. This is a different class of games from the competitive games like Chicken and Prisoner’s Dilemma that we usually consider when we think about game theory, but in truth it’s the cooperative games that account for so much more of our daily lives and social interactions. For example, driving on the right-hand side of the road (or the left-hand side in the UK) is an example of a cooperative game equilibrium. The only thing that matters is that we agree on which side of the road we drive on, not that my preferred side or your preferred side ends up being the final choice.
The most interesting cooperative games are those where — unlike driving conventions — we don’t have a government or other authority telling us what our agreement should be. Even more interesting are those games where we can’t communicate directly with the other players to talk through the appropriate equilibrium behavior that works for all concerned. For example, let’s say that a friend and I agree to meet in New York City at 1 pm tomorrow. Unfortunately, we neglected to agree on a location to meet, and now I have absolutely no way to communicate with my friend, or vice versa. What do we do?
As Schelling writes, almost everyone will, in fact, meet their friend successfully tomorrow at 1 pm in New York City. Where? By the big clock in the middle of Grand Central Station. Why? Because there is Common Knowledge — something that everyone knows that everyone knows — to guide both me and my friend to this outcome. Now Schelling doesn’t call it Common Knowledge — he calls it a focal point — but it’s exactly the same thing. And once you start looking for focal points that drive our strategic behavior in the cooperative games that comprise our daily social lives, you see them everywhere.
Okay, Ben, all kinda interesting, but what’s the point? The point is that when governments undertake emergency actions and extraordinary policies, they obliterate the focal points that make our cooperative games of investing and market making possible.
Specifically, extraordinary monetary policy has obliterated the focal points of price discovery. When you no longer have Common Knowledge regarding the price of money, you don’t have Common Knowledge regarding the price of anything. For more than seven years now, investors have been sitting down at the poker table ready to play the cards they’re dealt, only to find that central bankers with infinitely high stacks of chips have sat down at the table, too. And as any experienced poker player knows, the cards are meaningless if you tangle with an opponent like this. Maybe you think that was a bad flop. Maybe you think Nestle investment grade debt is worth 99 cents. But what you think about valuation and intrinsic worth Does. Not. Matter. when the infinite stack player says with his inexhaustible string of bets of massive size that this was actually a wonderful flop and that Nestle investment grade debt is actually worth $1.10 and the Emperor is actually wearing a beautiful suit of clothes. The very act of stock-picking or bond-picking or security selection in general has become nothing more than a bad joke in vast swaths of global markets. It’s a crooked game — a moke’s game — but it’s the only game in town.
Specifically, extraordinary regulatory policy has obliterated the focal points of liquidity. When you no longer have Common Knowledge regarding the ability of banks to make markets and hold an inventory of securities, you don’t have Common Knowledge regarding the liquidity of anything. The market risk from a Brexit “Leave” vote, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the real economy, and next to nothing as a signal or precedent for the core currency union of the EU. Instead,the market risk from a Brexit “Leave” vote is a liquidity shock in currency, rates, credit, or derivative securities that sets off a chain reaction of liquidity shocks across global risk assets. This sort of liquidity shock is temporary, to be sure, but that’s no consolation at all if you find yourself stopped out of a position. When trillions of dollars in risk assets move by several percentage points because a few thousand quid switched from one line or another in a UK betting parlor, or because the latest online poll with suspect (to be kind) methodology is printed by a tabloid … you can’t tell me that market liquidity and structural normalcy is more than skin deep. We swing from pillar to post and endure mini-Flash Crashes on a regular basis because too often the act of making a market in, say, equity index volatility is a potential career-ender for anyone sitting on a bank trading desk, and that’s entirely the result of unintended consequences from financial regulations like Dodd-Frank.
It’s the combination of focal point obliteration, from both monetary policy and regulatory policy sources, that creates the most powerful and destructive earthquakes in our investment landscape. For example, I’m often asked if I think that negative rates will ever come to the U.S. My answer: they’re already here by proxy (U.S. Treasury rates are so low today because German Bunds are negative out to 10 years duration), and negative rates will hit the U.S. in earnest and in practice early next year. How? Major U.S. money market fund providers like TIAA-CREF have already announced plans to stop providing fee waivers as new regulations force fund type consolidation, which will create negative rates in the safe, liquid funds that remain. It’s baked in. It’s going to happen. As George Soros is fond of saying, I’m not predicting. I’m observing. And nothing will ever be the same. If you think that the current anguished cries from savers and retirees and public pension plans are loud now … if you think that the rewardless risk of modern markets can’t get any worse … well, just wait until your money market fund starts charging you interest for the privilege of investing your cash in short-term government obligations. Just wait until Nestle floats a negative interest rate bond. Just wait until borrowing money, not lending money, becomes a profit center. Just wait until the entire notion of compounding — without exaggeration the most important force in human economic history — is turned on its head and becomes a wealth destroyer.
You know, I’ve written a lot of Epsilon Theory notes over the past three years. As I figure it, about three novels’ worth and just over the halfway mark of War and Peace. But in all that time and across all those notes I’ve never felt so … resigned … to the fact we are ALL well and truly stuck. The Fed is stuck. The ECB and the BOJ are stuck. The banks are stuck. Corporations are stuck. Asset managers are stuck. Financial advisors are stuck. Investors are stuck. Republicans are stuck. Democrats are stuck. We are all stuck in a very powerful political equilibrium where the costs of changing our current bleak course of ineffective monetary policy and counter-productive regulatory policy are so astronomical that The Powers That Be have no alternative but to continue with what they know full well isn’t working.
It’s through this lens of resignation that I think we should view one of the most fascinating Missionary statements of the past 20 years, St. Louis Fed Governor Jim Bullard’s latest paper, where he says that the entire exercise of Fed guidance and dot plots and planning for interest rate increases and interest rate normalization is a complete and utter waste of time. In fact, he goes farther than that. Bullard writes that forward guidance is actually highly counter-productive and credibility destroying, because it teases us with the notion that normalization is possible, when, in fact, absent some deus ex machina miracle, it’s not. My god, you think I’m a downer? This is the President of the St. Louis Fed, saying that everything the FOMC has been doing for the past four years is just a bad joke! Or as Vonnegut would say, there’s “no damn cat and there’s no damn cradle” in the oh-so-complex hand weaving that Bernanke and Yellen have crafted with forward guidance, no matter how hard we look. The Emperor has no clothes.
What Bullard wrote is a letter of resignation. Not just a letter of resignation in the sense of quitting one’s job (although that, too … if you’re not going to play the game you were appointed to play, if you’re just going to pick up your dot plot and go home, then you should actually go home), but more importantly in the emotional sense of resignation to one’s fate. It’s a capitulation, a recognition that the U.S. is well and truly stuck in the current macroeconomic regime of low growth + massive debt + insanely low interest rates, and there’s nothing the Fed can do in terms of jawboning or “communication policy” or forward guidance to get us out. So, Bullard says, let’s stop this charade of dot plots and just admit the truth: rates are not going up, maybe not EVER, until something beyond the Fed’s control shocks the world into some other macroeconomic regime.
By the way, here’s the problem with what Bullard is saying: the current regime/stable equilibrium of low growth + massive debt + negative interest rates isn’t something that just “happened”. It’s not like the Fed woke up one morning to find that some terrible houseguest soiled the sheets and overfed the dog and left a lit cigarette smoldering in the trash can. Please. Here’s a 4-year chart of the VIX, looking for all the world like a Whack-a-Mole game, as every surge in volatility is met with a mallet strike of Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAPs), forward guidance, or (outside the U.S.) interest rate cuts well past the zero-bound.
Over the past four years, we haven’t seen the VIX stick over 20 for more than 2 months. Compare this to the seven year period of Sept. 1996 – Sept. 2003, where the VIX was almost never below 20.
Granted, there were some scary market moments from late 1996 through late 2003, but it’s not like the past four years have been a walk in the park. I don’t think anyone can deny that we are living today in a different regime or state of the world, where volatility is simply not allowed to raise its ugly head as it always has in the past. That’s the Entropic Regime in a nutshell — volatility is not allowed to reach historically normal levels. Not allowed by whom? By central banks, of course. S&P 500 down 8%? Gasp! We must provide more accommodation! The macroeconomic regime that Bullard finds so objectionable and resistant to any policy choices was created lock, stock, and barrel by the Fed and their regulatory cousins. They weren’t trying to lock the world into the Entropic Regime, a long gray slog where neither recession nor real growth appears, and maybe the world would have been even more wrecked if they had taken a different path, but they did what they did all the same.
My issue with Bullard is neither his assessment of the current macroeconomic regime nor the silliness of forward guidance and Fed communication policy. I am in violent agreement with Bullard in his recognition of the power of Narrative and the simple fact that all of our crystal balls are broken. But don’t tell me that the Fed “has no choice” but to accept the current macroeconomic regime, because they DO have a choice. The Fed giveth. The Fed can taketh away. It’s just a very, very, very painful choice that the Fed would have to make in order to taketh away, full of loss assignment and bankruptcy and status quo shattering. It’s a very brave choice they would have to make, a Volcker-esque choice they would have to make. And that’s why I don’t think they will ever do it.
So we’re left with Hope, hope that a miracle occurs after the November election to change our current political regime of decay and macroeconomic regime of low growth + massive debt + negative interest rates. Politically on the left, it’s hope that Hillary Clinton isn’t really as venal and principle-less and in-the-bag for Big Money and Big War as she seems. Politically on the right, it’s hope that Donald Trump doesn’t really mean what he says about Muslims and Hispanics and judges and torture and libel and debt and women and and and.On both the left and the right, it’s hope that the election will yield some massive Keynesian public infrastructure spending spree, where our “crumbling roads and bridges” are made whole, where every city gets a football stadium for the local billionaire’s use, and where high-speed rail and gleaming airports usher in a new age of productivity and easy trips to Grandma’s house. Truly, as Voltaire’s Pangloss would say, this is the best of all possible worlds.
But hope, of course, is not a strategy. What do investors and advisors and voters — The Non-Powers That Be — DO when the entire world is stuck in a powerful negative equilibrium, when we are presented with nothing but miserable choices, at the ballot box and public markets alike? How can we find “compensation in our disappointment”, to quote Thoreau? Or to be slightly more modern in our references, let’s accept that we can’t get what we want. Can we at least get what we need?
To answer that question, at least from an investment perspective, I need to go back to the big Epsilon Theory note I wrote earlier this year, “Hobson’s Choice.” I’m not going to repeat much of that here (at 26 pages long, it’s a bit of a tome), except to say that it’s as close to an Epsilon Theory investment strategy as I can convey in this public venue. But here’s the skinny, with what I call Five Easy Pieces for the Investment World As It Is.
We’re in a storm.
Mind your sails.
We’re in a game.
Play the player.
We’re in a negative carry world.
Think like a short seller.
We’re in a policy-driven market.
Don’t trust the models.
A policy-controlled market is next.
Look to real assets.
In and of themselves, admonitions like “Mind your sails” may not sound like much, but I promise they make sense in context. Here’s what they mean translated into market behaviors.
Mind your sails.
Keep risk constant, not dollars.
Play the player.
Trend-following is a thing.
Think like a short seller.
Focus on catalysts.
Don’t trust the models.
Look to real assets.
Survive the politics.
Now the point of “Hobson’s Choice” is that these behaviors I’m describing, like “Keep risk constant, not dollars”, are new ways of describing good old-fashioned investment ideas that just so happen to conflict with other investment ideas that have become rote articles of faith in our modern, overly equity-centric vision of what it means to be a “good” investor. For example, I think that it’s nuts to stay fully invested in the stock market through thick and thin, and I would love to embrace that most-hated epithet in investing today: market timer. (Shudder!) But I can’t SAY that I’m a market timer, any more than I could say that I’m a libertarian or that I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry or that my wife and I homeschool our children … no, no, you wouldn’t take me seriously if the conversation about politics or books or education were framed in this way. It’s the same with investing. In the immortal words of John Maynard Keynes, “it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally” (and for an Epsilon Theory twist, I’d add, “and if you fail unconventionally, then your reputation is really dead”), which means that even if you agreed with me on the virtues of market timing, you’d never adopt a strategy based on market timing, because it would be way too risky from a social perspective. I mean, just imagine the shame if your client or wife or partner thought you were a … again, I can hardly bring myself to write the words … market timer. Oh, the humanity!
So let’s change the conversation. I’m NOT a market timer. Nope, not me. Instead, I’m a risk balancer. I have fewer dollars in the market when risk goes up, and I have more dollars in the market when risk goes down. Will I be over-invested in the market when it hits a top and rolls over? Yep. Will I be under-invested in the market when it hits bottom and turns up? Yep. But I’m going to be adding to my dollar exposure all the way up and I’m going to be subtracting from my dollar exposure all the way down. I’ll take those odds. And just imagine if I did this risk balancing thing across asset classes, or maybe across yield-oriented strategies. Hey, now.
Here are the broad categories of strategies that the Five Easy Pieces market behaviors imply.
Keep risk constant, not dollars.
Risk Balanced Strategies
Trend-following is a thing.
Managed Futures Strategies
Focus on catalysts.
Convex Strategies (Optionality)
Survive the politics.
Active Mgmt for Real Assets
Is this a comprehensive list? Of course not. But it’s a start. Over the next few months I’ll try to take each topic in turn and dig into the specifics, or at least as much of the specifics as I’m allowed in this very public setting. Some of the topics have already been discussed at some length in prior notes (for Convex Strategies, for example, be sure to read one of my personal Epsilon Theory faves, “I Know It Was You, Fredo”), others will be largely starting from scratch or going in a new direction from the past. If you’re a professional investor or allocator and want to dig in more deeply than what you read in these pages, don’t hesitate to reach out.
You know, Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her almost 1,800 (!) poems while she was alive, and if not for a determined sister with a narrow interpretation of Dickinson’s final wishes (she asked for her correspondence to be burned, and it was, but she didn’t specifically say anything about the box of poems next to her letters), all of this genius work would have been lost. In Dickinson’s day, there was way too much intermediation and way too many barriers between author and audience. We got lucky. Today, there’s way too little intermediation and way too few barriers between author and audience, such that all of us are inundated with “content” and “marketing collateral”, to use the lingo. Dickinson’s challenge was standing up. My challenge is standing out. Thanks to all of you who have actively spread the word about the Epsilon Theory project and helped build the vibrant community that we have today. Keep those cards and letters coming (I really try to respond to everything I get), and please check out theEpsilon Theory podcasts when you get a chance. It feels like we’re just getting started, and that’s something that warrants Hope, indeed.
Twain spent 11 years writing his final novel, “The Mysterious Stranger”, but never finished it. The book exists in three large fragments and is Twain’s darkest and least funny work. It’s also my personal favorite.
Stanley: I thought you were called Lucifer.
George: I know. “The Bringer of the Light” it used to be. Sounded a bit poofy to me. Everything I’ve ever told you has been a lie. Including that.
Stanley : Including what?
George : That everything I’ve ever told has been a lie. That’s not true.
Stanley : I don’t know WHAT to believe.
George : Not me, Stanley, believe me!
A must-see movie, and I don’t mean the 2000abomination with Brendan Fraser, but the genius 1967 version by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Plus Raquel Welch as Lust. Yes, please.
Henry Hill: Ladies and gentlemen, either you are closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community!
The Music Man (1962)
The Pied Piper legend, originally a horrific tale of murder, finds its source in the earliest written records of the German town of Hamelin (1384).
The story begins: “it is 100 years since our children left.”
As Tolstoy famously said, there are only two stories in all of literature: either a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Of the two, we are far more familiar and comfortable with the first in the world of markets and investing, because it’s the subjectively perceived narrative of our individual lives. We learn. We experience. We overcome adversity. We get better. Or so we tell ourselves.
But when the story of our investment age is told many years from now, it won’t be remembered as a Hero’s Journey, but as a classic tale of a Mysterious Stranger. It’s a story as old as humanity itself, and it always ends with the same realization by the Stranger’s foil: what was I thinking when I signed that contract or fell for that line? Why was I so naïve?
The Mysterious Stranger today, of course, is not a single person but is the central banking Mafia apparatus in the US, Europe, Japan, and China. The leaders of these central banks may not be as charismatic as Robert Preston in The Music Man, but they hold us investors in equal rapture. The Music Man uses communication policy and forward guidance to get the good folks of River City to buy band instruments. Central bankers use communication policy and forward guidance to get investors large and small to buy financial assets. It’s a difference in degree and scale, not in kind.
The Mysterious Stranger is NOT a simple or single-dimensional fraud. No, the Mysterious Stranger is a liar, to be sure, but he’s a proper villain, as the Brits would say, and typically he’s quite upfront about his goals and his use of clever words to accomplish those goals. I mean, it’s not like Kay doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into when she marries into the Corleone family. Michael is crystal clear with her, right from the start. But she wants to believe so badly in what Michael is telling her when he suddenly reappears in her life, that she suspends her disbelief in his words and embraces the Narrative of legitimacy he presents. I think Michael actually believed his own words, too, that he would in fact be able to move the Family out of organized crime entirely, just as I’m sure that Yellen believed her own words of tightening and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel in the summer of 2014. Ah, well. Events doth make liars of us all.
Draw your own comparisons to this story arc of The Godfather, with investors playing the role of Kay and the Fed playing the role of Michael Corleone. I think it’s a pretty neat fit. It ends poorly for Kay, of course (and not so great for Michael). Let’s see if we can avoid her fate.
This is a -94% correlation, remarkably strong for any two securities, much less two – pipelines and the dollar – that are not obviously connected in any fundamental or real economy sort of way. But this is always what happens when the Mysterious Stranger comes to town: our traditional behavioral rules (i.e., correlations) go out the window and are replaced with new behavioral rules and correlations as we give ourselves over to his smooth words and promises. Because that’s what a Mysterious Stranger DOES – tell compelling stories, stories that stick fast to whatever it is in our collective brains that craves Narrative and Belief.
There’s nothing particularly new about this phenomenon in markets, as there have always been “story stocks”, especially in the technology, media, and telecom (TMT) sector where you have more than your fair share of charismatic management storytellers and valuation multiples that depend on their efforts.
My favorite example of a “story stock” is Salesforce.com (ticker CRM), a $55 billion market cap technology company with 19,000 employees and about $6.5 billion in revenues. I’m pretty sure that Salesforce.com has never had a single penny of GAAP earnings in its existence (in FY 2016 the company lost $0.07 per share on a GAAP basis). Instead, the company is valued on the basis of non-GAAP earnings, but even there it trades at about an 80x multiple (!) of FY 2017 company guidance of $1.00 per share. Salesforce.com is blessed with a master story-teller in its CEO, Marc Benioff, who – if you’ve ever heard him speak – puts forth a pretty compelling case for why his company should be valued on the basis of bookings growth and other such metrics. Of course, the skeptic in me might note that it is perhaps no great feat to sell more and more of a software service at a loss, particularly when your salespeople are compensated on bookings growth, and the cynic in me might also note that for the past 10+ years Benioff has sold between 12,500 and 20,000 shares of CRM stock every day through a series of 10b5-1 programs. But hey, that’s why he’s the multi-billionaire (and a liquid multi-billionaire, to boot) and I’m not. Here’s the 5-year chart for CRM:
Not bad. Up 138% over the past five years. A few ups and downs, particularly here at the start of 2016, although the stock has certainly come roaring back. But when you dig a little deeper …
There are 1,272 trading days that comprise this 5-year chart. 21 of those trading days, less than 2% of the total, represent the Thursday after Salesforce.com reports quarterly earnings (always on a Wednesday after the market close). If you take out those 21 trading days, Salesforce.com stock is up only 35% over the past five years. How does this work? What’s the causal process? Every Wednesday night after the earnings release, for the past umpteen years, Benioff appears on Mad Money, where Cramer’s verdict is always an enthusiastic “Buy, buy, buy!” Every Thursday morning after the earnings release, the two or three sell-side analyst “axes” on the stock publish their glowing assessment of the quarterly results before trading begins. It’s not that every investor on Thursday believes what Cramer or the sell-side analysts are saying, particularly anyone who’s short the stock (CRM always has a high short interest). But in a perfect example of the Common Knowledge Game, if you ARE short the stock, you know that everyone else has heard what Cramer and the sell-side analysts (the Missionaries, in game theory lingo) have said, and you have to assume that everyone else will act on this Common Knowledge (what everyone knows that everyone knows). The only logical thing for you to do is cover your short before everyone else covers their short, resulting in a classic short squeeze and a big up day. Now to be sure, this isn’t the story of every earnings announcement … sometimes even Marc Benioff and his lackeys can’t turn a pig’s ear of a quarter into a silk purse … but it’s an incredibly consistent behavioral result over time and one of the best examples I know of the Common Knowledge Game in action.
But wait, there’s more. Now let’s add the Fed’s storytelling and its Common Knowledge Game to Benioff’s storytelling and his Common Knowledge Game. Over the past five years there have been 43 days where the FOMC made a formal statement. If you owned Salesforce.com stock for only the 43 FOMC announcement days and the 21 earnings announcement days over the past five years, you would be UP 167%. If you owned Salesforce.com stock for the other 1,208 trading days, you would be DOWN 8%.
Okay, Ben, how about other stocks? How about entire indices? Well, let’s look again at that Alerian MLP index. Over the past five years, if you had owned the AMZ for only the 43 FOMC announcement days over that span, you would be UP 28%.If you owned it for the other 1,229 trading days you would be DOWN 39%. Over the past two years, if you had owned the AMZ for only the 16 FOMC announcement days over that span, you would be UP 18%. If you owned it for the other 487 trading days you would be DOWN 48%. Addition by subtraction to a degree that would make Lao Tzu proud.
I’ll repeat what I wrote in Optical Illusion / Optical Reality… it’s hard to believe that MLP investors should be paying a lot more attention to G-7 meetings and reading the Fed governor tea leaves than to gas field depletion schedules and rig counts, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em. In fact, if there’s a core sub-text to Epsilon Theory it’s this: call things by their proper names. That’s a profoundly subversive act. Maybe the only subversive act that really changes things. So here goes. Today there are vast swaths of the market, like emerging markets and commodity markets and industrial/energy stocks, that we should call by their proper name: a derivative expression of FOMC policy. Used to be that only tech stocks were “story stocks”. Today, almost all stocks are “story stocks”, and the Common Knowledge Game is more applicable to helping us understand market behaviors and price action than ever before.
You see this phenomenon clearly in the entire S&P 500, as well, although not as starkly with a complete plus/minus reversal in performance between FOMC announcement days and all other days. Over the past five years, if you had owned the SPX for only the 43 FOMC announcement days over that span, you would be UP 17%. If you owned it for the other 1,229 trading days you would be UP 28%. Over the past two years, if you had owned the SPX for only the 16 FOMC announcement days over that span, you would be UP 5%. If you owned it for the other 487 trading days you would be UP 2%.
What do I take from eyeballing these charts? The Narrative effect and the impact of the Common Knowledge Game have accelerated over the past two years (ever since Draghi and Yellen launched the Great Monetary Policy Schism of June 2014); they’re particularly impactful during periods when stock prices are otherwise declining, and they’re spreading to broader equity indices. That’s what it looks like to me, at least.
So what does an investor do with these observations? Two things, I think, one a practical course of action and one a shift in perspective. The former being more fun but the latter more important.
First, there really is a viable research program here, and what I’ve tried to show in this brief note is that there really are practical implementations of the Common Knowledge Game that can support investment strategies dealing with story stocks. I want to encourage anyone who’s intrigued by this research program to take the data baton and try this on your favorite stock or mutual fund or index. You can get the FOMC announcement dates straight from the Federal Reserve website. This doesn’t require an advanced degree in econometrics to explore.
I don’t know where this research program ends up, but it’s my commitment to do this in plain sight through Epsilon Theory. Think of it as the equivalent of open source software development, just in the investment world. I suspect it’s hard to turn the Common Knowledge Game into a standalone investment strategy because you’re promising that you’ll do absolutely nothing for 98 out of 100 trading days. Good luck raising money on that. But it’s a great perspective to add to our current standalone strategies, especially actively managed funds. Stock-pickers today are being dealt one dull, low-conviction hand after another here in the Grand Central Bank Casino, and the hardest thing in the world for any smart investor, regardless of strategy, is to sit on his hands and do nothing, even though that’s almost always the right thing to do. Incorporating an awareness of the Common Knowledge Game and its highly punctuated impact makes it easier to do the right thing – usually nothing – in our current investment strategies.
And that gets us to the second take-away from this note. The most important thing to know about any Mysterious Stranger story is that the Stranger is the protagonist. There is no Hero! When you meet a Mysterious Stranger, your goal should be simple: survive the encounter.
This is an insanely difficult perspective to adopt, that we (either individually or collectively) are not the protagonist of the investing age in which we live. It’s difficult because we are creatures of ego. We all star in our own personal movie and we all hear the anthems of our own personal soundtrack. But the Mysterious Stranger is not an obstacle to be heroically overcome, as if we were Liam Neeson setting off (again! and again!) to rescue a kidnapped daughter in yet another “Taken” sequel. At some point this sort of heroism is just a reflection of bad parenting in the case of Liam Neeson, and a reflection of bad investing in the case of stock pickers and other clingers to the correlations and investment meanings of yesterday.
The correlations and investment meanings of today are inextricably entwined with central bankers and their storytelling. To be investmentsurvivors in the low-return and policy-controlled world of the Silver Age of the Central Banker, we need to recognize the impact of their words and incorporate that into our existing investment strategies, while never accepting those words naïvely in our hearts.
Portion of original dot map by Dr. John Snow, the founding father of epidemiology, showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854. The visual representation of Snow’s data analysis convinced local authorities to shut down the contaminated public well at ground zero of the cholera outbreak, although it would be another 20 years before Snow’s arguments in favor of germ theory and a direct connection between cholera and fecal contamination of water supply would be widely accepted.
John Snow, “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” (1855)
Anscombe’s Quartet: four datasets that appear identical using summary statistical methods (mean, variance, correlation, linear regression), but are completely different in meaning and composition – a difference that is clearly revealed through visual inspection.
Frank Anscombe, “Graphs in Statistical Analysis” American Statistician v.27 no.1 (1973), drawing by Schutz
Charles Joseph Minard, “Carte Figurative” of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign (1869)
The Minard Map: a map of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, showing six distinct data dimensions (troop strength, temperature, distance marched, geographic latitude and longitude, direction of travel, location at event dates) in 2-dimensional form.
Mephistopheles:Here too it’s masquerade, I find: As everywhere, the dance of mind. I grasped a lovely masked procession, And caught things from a horror show… I’d gladly settle for a false impression, If it would last a little longer, though.
Edouard de Reszke as Mephistopheles
in Gounod’s opera “Faust” (c. 1880)
So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, Blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field From a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?
– Roger Waters, “Wish You Were Here” (1975)
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
– Saul Bellow, “To Jerusalem and Back” (1976)
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
– Upton Sinclair, “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked” (1935)
Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy” (1872)
To find out if she really loved me, I hooked her up to a lie detector. And just as I suspected, my machine was broken.
– Jarod Kintz, “Love Quotes for the Ages. Specifically Ages 19-91” (2013)
Edward Tufte is a personal and professional hero of mine. Professionally, he’s best known for his magisterial work in data visualization and data communication through such classics as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) and its follow-on volumes, but less well-known is his outstanding academic work in econometrics and statistical analysis. His 1974 book Data Analysis for Politics and Policy remains the single best book I’ve ever read in terms of teaching the power and pitfalls of statistical analysis. If you’re fluent in the language of econometrics (this is not a book for the uninitiated) and now you want to say something meaningful and true using that language, you should read this book (available for $2 in Kindle form on Tufte’s website). Personally, Tufte is a hero to me for escaping the ivory tower, pioneering what we know today as self-publishing, making a lot of money in the process, and becoming an interesting sculptor and artist. That’s my dream. That one day when the Great Central Bank Wars of the 21st century are over, I will be allowed to return, Cincinnatus-like, to my Connecticut farm where I will write short stories and weld monumental sculptures in peace. That and beekeeping.
But until that happy day, I am inspired in my war-fighting efforts by Tufte’s skepticism and truth-seeking. The former is summed up well in an anecdote Tufte found in a medical journal and cites in Data Analysis:
One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction. At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on half of the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death.” God, it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?”
The latter quality — truth-seeking — takes on many forms in Tufte’s work, but most noticeably in his constant admonitions to LOOK at the data for hints and clues on asking the right questions of the data. This is the flip-side of the coin for which Tufte is best known, that good/bad visual representations of data communicate useful/useless answers to questions that we have about the world. Or to put it another way, an information-rich data visualization is not only the most powerful way to communicateour answers as to how the world really works, but it is also the most powerful way to designour questions as to how the world really works. Here’s a quick example of what I mean, using a famous data set known as “Anscombe’s Quartet”.
In this original example (developed by hand by Frank Anscombe in 1973; today there’s an app for generating all the Anscombe sets you could want) Roman numerals I – IV refer to four data sets of 11 (x,y) coordinates, in other words 11 points on a simple 2-dimensional area. If you were comparing these four sets of numbers using traditional statistical methods, you might well think that they were four separate data measurements of exactly the same phenomenon. After all, the mean of x is exactly the same in each set of measurements (9), the mean of y is the same in each set of measurements to two decimal places (7.50), the variance of x is exactly the same in each set (11), the variance of y is the same in each set to two decimal places (4.12), the correlation between x and y is the same in each set to three decimal places (0.816), and if you run a linear regression on each data set you get the same line plotted through the observations (y = 3.00 + 0.500x).
But when you LOOK at these four data sets, they are totally alien to each other, with essentially no similarity in meaning or probable causal mechanism. Of the four, linear regression and our typical summary statistical efforts make sense for only the upper left data set. For the other three, applying our standard toolkit makes absolutely no sense. But we’d never know that — we’d never know how to ask the right questions about our data — if we didn’t eyeball it first.
The fact is that looking at data is an art, not a science. There’s no single process, no single toolkit for success. It requires years of practice on top of an innate artist’s eye before you have a chance of being good at this, and it’s something that I’ve never seen a non-human intelligence accomplish successfully (I can’t tell you how happy I am to write that sentence). But just because it’s hard, just because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to people and machines alike … well, that doesn’t mean it’s not the most important thing in data-based truth-seeking.
Why is it so important to SEE data relationships? Because we’re human beings. Because we are biologically evolved and culturally trained to process information in this manner. Because — and this is the Tufte-inspired market axiom that I can’t emphasize strongly enough —the only investable ideas are visible ideas. If you can’t physically see it in the data, then it will never move you strongly enough to overcome the pleasant fictions that dominate our workaday lives, what Faust’s Tempter, the demon Mephistopheles, calls the “masquerade” and “the dance of mind.” Our similarity to Faust (who was a really smart guy, a man of Science with a capital S) is not that the Devil may soon pay us a visit and tempt us with all manner of magical wonders, but that we have already succumbed to the blandishments of easy answers and magical thinking. I mean, don’t get me started on Part Two, Act 1 of Goethe’s magnum opus, where the Devil introduces massive quantities of paper money to encourage inflationary pressures under a false promise of recovery in the real economy. No, I’m not making this up. That is the actual, non-allegorical plot of one of the best, smartest books in human history, now almost 200 years old.
So what I’m going to ask of you, dear reader, is to look at some pictures of market data, with the hope that seeing will indeed spark believing. Not as a temptation, but as a talisman against the same. Because when I tell you that the statistical correlation between the US dollar and the price of oil since Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi launched competitive monetary policies in mid-June of 2014 is -0.96 I can hear the yawns. I can also hear my own brain start to pose negative questions, because I’ve experienced way too many instances of statistical “evidence” that, like the Anscombe data sets, proved to be misleading at best. But when I show you what that correlation looks like …
I can hear you lean forward in your seat. I can hear my own brain start to whir with positive questions and ideas about how to explore this data further. This is what a -96% correlation looks like.
What you’re looking at in the green line is the Fed’s favored measure of what the US dollar buys around the world. It’s an index where the components are the exchange rates of all the US trading partners (hence a “broad dollar” index) and where the individual components are proportionally magnified/minimized by the size of that trading relationship (hence a “trade-weighted” index). That index is measured by the left hand vertical axis, starting with a value of about 102 on June 18, 2014 when Janet Yellen announced a tightening bias for US monetary policy and a renewed focus on the full employment half of the Fed’s dual mandate, peaking in late January and declining to a current value of about 119 as first Japan and Europe called off the negative rate dogs (making their currencies go up against the dollar) and then Yellen completely back-tracked on raising rates this year (making the dollar go down against all currencies). Monetary policy divergence with a hawkish Fed and a dovish rest-of-world makes the dollar go up. Monetary policy convergence with everyone a dove makes the dollar go down.
What you’re looking at in the magenta line is the upside-down price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil over the same time span, as measured by the right hand vertical axis. So on June 18, 2014 the spot price of WTI crude oil was over $100/barrel. That bottomed in the high $20s just as the trade-weighted broad dollar index peaked this year, and it’s been roaring back higher (lower in the inverse depiction) ever since. Now correlation may not imply causation, but as Ed Tufte is fond of saying, it’s a mighty big hint. I can SEE the consistent relationship between change in the dollar and change in oil prices, and that makes for a coherent, believable story about a causal relationship between monetary policy and oil prices.
What is that causal narrative? It’s not just the mechanistic aspects of pricing, such that the inherent exchange value of things priced in dollars — whether it’s a barrel of oil or a Caterpillar earthmover — must by definition go down as the exchange value of the dollar itself goes up. More impactful, I think, is that for the past seven years investors have been well and truly trained to see every market outcome as the result of central bank policy, a training program administered by central bankers who now routinely and intentionally use forward guidance and placebo words to act on “the dance of mind” in classic Mephistophelean fashion. In effect, the causal relationship between monetary policy and oil prices is a self-fulfilling prophecy (or in the jargon du jour, a self-reinforcing behavioral equilibrium), a meta-example of what George Soros calls reflexivity and what a game theorist calls the Common Knowledge Game.
The causal relationship of the dollar, i.e. monetary policy, to the price of oil is a reflection of the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, nothing more and nothing less. And today that narrative is everything.
Here’s something smart that I read about this relationship between oil prices and monetary policy back in November 2014 when oil was north of $70/barrel:
I think that this monetary policy divergence is a very significant risk to markets, as there’s no direct martingale on how far monetary policy can diverge and how strong the dollar can get. As a result I think there’s a non-trivial chance that the price of oil could have a $30 or $40 handle at some point over the next 6 months, even though the global growth and supply/demand models would say that’s impossible. But I also think the likely duration of that heavily depressed price is pretty short. Why? Because the Fed and China will not take this lying down. They will respond to the stronger dollar and stronger yuan (China’s currency is effectively tied to the dollar) and they will prevail, which will push oil prices back close to what global growth says the price should be. The danger, of course, is that if they wait too long to respond (and they usually do), then the response will itself be highly damaging to global growth and market confidence and we’ll bounce back, but only after a near-recession in the US or a near-hard landing in China.
But that was a voice in the wilderness in 2014, as the dominant narrative for the causal factors driving oil pricing was all OPEC all the time. So what about that, Ben? What about the steel cage death match within OPEC between Saudi Arabia and Iran and outside of OPEC between Saudi Arabia and US frackers? What about supply and demand? Where is that in your price chart of oil? Sorry, butI don’t see it in the data. Doesn’t mean it’s not really there. Doesn’t mean it’s not a statistically significant data relationship. What it means is that the relationship between oil supply and oil prices in a policy-controlled market is not an investable relationship.I’m sure it used to be, which is why so many people believe that it’s so important to follow and fret over. But today it’s an essentially useless exercise in data analytics. Not wrong, but useless … there’s a difference!
Of course, crude oil isn’t the only place where fundamental supply and demand factors are invisible in the data and hence essentially useless as an investable attribute. Here’s the dollar and something near and dear to the hearts of anyone in Houston, the Alerian MLP index, with an astounding -94% correlation:
Interestingly, the correlation between the Alerian MLP index and oil is noticeably less at -88%. Hard to believe that MLP investors should be paying more attention to Bank of Japan press conferences than to gas field depletion schedules, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.
And here’s the dollar and EEM, the dominant emerging market ETF, with a -89% correlation:
There’s only one question that matters about Emerging Markets as an asset class, and it’s the subject of one of my first (and most popular) Epsilon Theory notes, “It Was Barzini All Along”: are Emerging Market growth rates a function of something (anything!) particular to Emerging Markets, or are they simply a derivative function of Developed Market central bank liquidity measures and monetary policy? Certainly this chart suggests a rather definitive answer to that question!
And finally, here’s the dollar and the US Manufacturing PMI survey of real-world corporate purchasing managers, probably the most respected measure of US manufacturing sector health. This data relationship clocks in at a -92% correlation. I mean … this is nuts.
Monetary policy divergence manifests itself first in currencies, because currencies aren’t an asset class at all, but a political construction that represents and symbolizes monetary policy. Then the divergence manifests itself in those asset classes, like commodities, that have no internal dynamics or cash flows and are thus only slightly removed in their construction and meaning from however they’re priced in this currency or that. From there the divergence spreads like a cancer (or like a cure for cancer, depending on your perspective) into commodity-sensitive real-world companies and national economies. Eventually – and this is the Big Point – the divergence spreads into everything, everywhere.
I think this is still the only story that matters for markets.
Most importantly, though, I hope that this exercise in truth-seeking inoculates you from the Big Narrative Lie coming soon to a status quo media megaphone near you, that this resurgence in risk assets is caused by a resurgence in fundamental real-world economic factors. I know you want to believe this is true. I do, too! It’s unpleasant personally and bad for business in 2016 to accept the reality that we are mired in a policy-controlled market, just as it was unpleasant personally and bad for business in 1854 to accept the reality that cholera is transmitted through fecal contamination of drinking water. But when you SEE John Snow’s dot map of death you can’t ignore the Broad Street water pump smack-dab in the middle of disease outcomes. When you SEE a Bloomberg correlation map of prices you can’t ignore the trade-weighted broad dollar index smack-dab in the middle of market outcomes. Or at least you can’t ignore it completely. It took another 20 years and a lot more cholera deaths before Snow’s ideas were widely accepted. It took the development of a new intellectual foundation: germ theory. I figure it will take another 20 years and the further development of game theory before we get widespread acceptance of the ideas I’m talking about in Epsilon Theory. That’s okay. The bees can wait.
BOTOX® is the only FDA-approved, preventive treatment that is injected by a doctor every 12 weeks for adults with Chronic Migraine (15 or more headache days a month, each lasting 4 hours or more). BOTOX® prevents up to 9 headache days a month (vs up to 7 for placebo). BOTOX® therapy is not approved for adults with migraine who have 14 or fewer headache days a month.
– Allergan website, April 18, 2016
I’ve had four or five true migraines in my life, mostly from getting whacked on the head with something like a baseball or a sharp elbow in basketball, and I honestly can’t imagine how horrible it must be to suffer from chronic migraines, defined by the FDA as 15 or more migraines per month with headaches lasting at least four hours. So I was happy to see a TV ad saying that the FDA had approved Botox as an effective treatment for chronic migraines, preventing up to 9 headache-days per month. That’s huge!
But in the fast-talking coda for the ad, I heard something that made me do a double-take. Yes, Botox can knock out up to 9 headache-days per month. But a placebo injection is almost as good, preventing up to 7 headache-days per month.
Now 9 is better than 7 … I get that … and that’s why the FDA approved the drug as efficacious. Still. Really? Most of the reports I’ve read say that the cost of a Botox migraine treatment is about $600. That’s just the cost of the drug itself. So what the FDA is telling us is that a saline solution injection (costing what? $2) is almost 80% as effective as the $600 drug, so long as it was presented to the patient as a “true” potential therapy. If I’m an Allergan shareholder I’m thanking god every day for the placebo effect.
And not for nothing, but I’d really like to learn more about why Botox was NOT approved for migraine sufferers with fewer than 15 headache-days per month. If I were a gambling man (and I am), I’d be prepared to wager a significant amount of money that Botox significantly reduces headache-days at pretty much any level of chronic-ness, from 1 day to 30 days per month, but that at lower migraine frequencies a placebo is just as efficacious as Botox. In other words, I’d bet that ALL migraine sufferers would benefit from a $600 Botox shot, but I’d also bet that ALL migraine sufferers would benefit from a cheap saline shot so long as the doctor told them it was a brilliant new drug, and they’d get as much or MORE benefit from the cheap saline shot than from Botox if they’re “just” enduring eight or nine migraine headaches. Per month. Geez. Of course, there’s no economic incentive to provide the cheap placebo injection nor the unapproved (and hence unreimbursed) Botox shot if you have fewer than 15 headache-days per month. Bottomline: I’d bet that millions of people who don’t meet the 15 day threshold are suffering from terrible pain that could absolutely be alleviated at a very reasonable cost if it weren’t criminally unethical and (worse) terribly unprofitable to lie about the “truth” of a placebo treatment.
Of course, we have no such restrictions, ethical or otherwise, when it comes to monetary policy, and that’s the connection between investing and this little foray into the special hell that we call healthcare economics. The primary instruments of monetary policy in 2016 – words used toconstruct Common Knowledge and mold our behavior, words chosen for effect rather than truthfulness, words of “forward guidance” and “communication policy” – are placebos. Like a fake migraine therapy, the placebos of monetary policy are enormously effective because they act on the brain-regulated physiological phenomena of pain (placebos are essentially useless on non-brain-regulated phenomena like joint instability from a torn ligament or cellular chaos from cancer). Even in fundamentally-driven markets there’s a healthy balance between pain minimization and reward maximization. In a policy-driven market? The top three investing principles are pain avoidance, pain avoidance, and pain avoidance. We’re just looking to survive, not literally but in a brain-regulated emotional sense, and that leaves us wide open for the soothing power of placebos.
I get lots of comments from readers who don’t understand how markets can continue to levitate higher with anemic-at-best global growth, stretched valuation multiples, and an earnings recession in vast swaths of corporate America. This week I’m reading lots of comments post the failed Doha OPEC meeting that oil prices are doomed to see a $20 handle now that there’s no supply limitation agreement forthcoming. Yep, that’s the real world. And there’s zero monetary or fiscal policy in the works that has any direct beneficial impact on any of this.
But that’s not what matters. That’s not how the game is played. So long as the Fed and the ECB and the BOJ are playing nice with China by talking down the dollar regardless of what’s happening in the real world economy, then it’s an investable rally in all risk assets, and oil goes up more easily than it goes down, regardless of what happens with OPEC. The placebo effect of insanely accommodative forward guidance that has zero impact on the real economy is in full swing. Oil prices are driven by forward guidance and the dollar, not real world supply and demand. Every day that Yellen talks up global risks and talks down the dollar is another day of a pain-relieving injection, regardless of whether or not that talk is “real” therapy.
Does this mean that we’re off to the races in the market? Nope. The notion that we have a self-sustaining recovery in the global economy is laughable, and that’s what it will take to stimulate a new greed phase of a rip-roaring bull market. But by the same token I have no idea what makes this market go down, so long as we have monetary policy convergence rather than divergence, and so long as we have a Fed that loses its nerve and freaks out if the stock market goes down by more than 5%. So long as the words of a monetary policy truce hold strong, this isn’t a world that ends in fire and it isn’t a world that ends in ice. It’s the long gray slog of an Entropic Ending. Anyone else intrigued by the potential of a covered call strategy in this environment? I sure am.
The Silver Age of the Central Banker gives me a headache. I bet it does you, too. Let’s take our relief where we can find it, placebo or no, but let’s not mistake forward guidance for a cure and let’s not forget that sometimes pretty words just aren’t enough. The truth is that the global trade pie is still shrinking and domestic politics are still anti-growth in both the US and Europe. Neither math nor human nature gives me much confidence that the currency truce can hold indefinitely, and I still think that every policy China has undertaken is exactly what I would do to prepare for floating (i.e. massively devaluing) the yuan. It’s at moments like this, though, that I remember the short seller’s creed: if you’re wrong on timing, you’re just wrong. I don’t know the timing of the bigger headaches to come, the ones that words and placebos won’t fix. What I do know, though, is that an investable rally in risk assets today gives us some breathing space to prepare our portfolios for the even more policy-controlled markets of the future. Let’s not waste this opportunity.
“Happier Than A … ”
“Did You Know?”
“It’s What You Do”
“University of Farmers”
“That’s Not How It Works”
“Chicken Parm You Taste So Good”
We are supposedly living in the Golden Age of television. Maybe yes, maybe no (my view: every decade is a Golden Age of television!), but there’s no doubt that today we’re living in the Golden Age of insurance commercials. Sure, you had the GEICO gecko back in 1999 and the caveman in 2004, and the Aflac duck has been around almost as long, but it’s really the Flo campaign for Progressive Insurance in 2008 that marks a sea change in how financial risk products are marketed by property and casualty insurers. Today every major P&C carrier spends big bucks (about $7 billion per year in the aggregate) on these little theatrical gems.
This will strike some as a silly argument, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the modern focus on entertainment marketing for financial risk products began in the Great Recession and its aftermath. When the financial ground isn’t steady underneath your feet, fundamentals don’t matter nearly as much as a fresh narrative. Why? Because the fundamentals are scary. Because you don’t buy when you’re scared. So you need a new perspective from the puppet masters to get you to buy, a new “conversation”, to use Don Draper’s words of advertising wisdom from Mad Men. Maybe that’s describing the price quote process as a “name your price tool” if you’re Flo, and maybe that’s describing Lucky Strikes tobacco as “toasted!” if you’re Don Draper. Maybe that’s a chuckle at the Mayhem guy or the Hump Day Camel if you’re Allstate or GEICO. Maybe, since equity markets are no less a financial risk product than auto insurance, it’s the installation of a cargo cult around Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and Mario Draghi, such that their occasional manifestations on a TV screen, no less common than the GEICO gecko, become objects of adoration and propitiation.
For P&C insurers, the payoff from their marketing effort is clear: dollars spent on advertising drive faster and more profitable premium growth than dollars spent on agents. For central bankers, the payoff from their marketing effort is equally clear. As the Great One himself, Ben Bernanke, said in his August 31, 2012 Jackson Hole speech: “It is probably not a coincidence that the sustained recovery in U.S. equity prices began in March 2009, shortly after the FOMC’s decision to greatly expand securities purchases.” Probably not a coincidence, indeed.
Here’s what this marketing success looks like, and here’s why you should care.
This is a chart of the S&P 500 index (green line) and the Deutsche Bank Quality index (white line) from February 2000 to the market lows of March 2009.
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 3/6/2009. For illustrative purposes only.
Now I chose this particular factor index (which I understand to be principally a measure of return on invested capital, such that it’s long stocks with a high ROIC, i.e. high quality, and short stocks with a low ROIC, all in a sector neutral/equal-weighted construction across a wide range of global stocks in order to isolate this factor) because Quality is the embedded bias of almost every stock-picker in the world. As stock-pickers, we are trained to look for quality management teams, quality earnings, quality cash flows, quality balance sheets, etc. The precise definition of quality will differ from person to person and process to process (Deutsche Bank is using return on invested capital as a rough proxy for all of these disparate conceptions of quality, which makes good sense to me), but virtually all stock-pickers believe, largely as an article of faith, that the stock price of a high quality company will outperform the stock price of a low quality company over time. And for the nine years shown on this chart, that faith was well-rewarded, with the Quality index up 78% and the S&P 500 down 51%, a stark difference, to be sure.
But now let’s look at what’s happened with these two indices over the last seven years.
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 3/28/2016. For illustrative purposes only.
The S&P 500 index has tripled (!) from the March 2009 bottom. The Deutsche Bank Quality index? It’s up a grand total of 10%. Over seven years. Why? Because the Fed couldn’t care less about promoting high quality companies and dissing low quality companies with its concerted marketing campaign — what Bernanke and Yellen call “communication policy”, the functional equivalent of advertising. The Fed couldn’t care less about promoting value or promoting growth or promoting any traditional factor that requires an investor judgment between this company and that company. No, the Fed wants to promote ALL financial assets, and their communication policies are intentionally designed to push and cajole us to pay up for financial risk in our investments, in EXACTLY the same way that a P&C insurance company’s communication policies are intentionally designed to push and cajole us to pay up for financial risk in our cars and homes. The Fed uses Janet Yellen and forward guidance; Nationwide uses Peyton Manning and a catchy jingle. From a game theory perspective it’s the same thing.
Where do the Fed’s policies most prominently insure against financial risk? In low quality stocks, of course. It’s precisely the companies with weak balance sheets and bumbling management teams and sketchy non-GAAP earnings that are more likely to be bailed out by the tsunami of liquidity and the most accommodating monetary policy of this or any other lifetime, because companies with fortress balance sheets and competent management teams and sterling earnings don’t need bailing out under any circumstances. It’s not just that a quality bias fails to be rewarded in a policy-driven market, it’s that a bias against quality does particularly well! The result is that any long-term expected return from quality stocks is muted at best and close to zero in the current policy regime. There is no “margin of safety” in quality-driven stock-picking today, so that it only takes one idiosyncratic stock-picking mistake to wipe out a year’s worth of otherwise solid research and returns.
So how has that stock-picking mutual fund worked out for you? Probably not so well. Here’s the 2015 S&P scorecard for actively managed US equity funds, showing the percentage of funds that failed to beat their benchmarks over the last 1, 5, and 10 year periods. I mean … these are just jaw-droppingly bad numbers. And they’d be even worse if you included survivorship bias.
% of US Equity Funds that FAILED to Beat Benchmark
Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices, “SPIVA US Scorecard Year-End 2015” as of 12/31/15. For illustrative purposes only.
Small wonder, then, that assets have fled actively managed stock funds over the past 10 years in favor of passively managed ETFs and indices. It’s a Hobson’s Choice for investors and advisors, where a choice between interesting but under-performing active funds and boring but safe passive funds is no choice at all from a business perspective. The mantra in IT for decades was that no one ever got fired for buying IBM; today, no financial advisor ever gets fired for buying an S&P 500 index fund.
But surely, Ben, this, too, shall pass. Surely at some point central banks will back away from their massive marketing campaign based on forward guidance and celebrity spokespeople. Surely as interest rates “normalize”, we will return to those halcyon days of yore, when stock-picking on quality actually mattered.
Sorry, but I don’t see it. The mistake that most market observers make is to think that if the Fed is talking about normalizing rates, then we must be moving towards normalized markets, i.e. non-policy-driven markets. That’s not it. To steal a line from the Esurance commercials, that’s not how any of this works. So long as we’re paying attention to theMissionary’s act of communication, whether that’s a Mario Draghi press conference or a Mayhem Guy TV commercial, then behaviorally-focused advertising — aka the Common Knowledge Game — works. Common Knowledge is created simply by paying attention to a Missionary. It really doesn’t matter what specific message the Missionary is actually communicating, so long as it holds our attention. It really doesn’t matter whether the Fed hikes rates four times this year or twice this year or not at all this year. I mean, of course it matters in terms of mortgage rates and bank profits and a whole host of factors in the real economy. But for the only question that matters for investors — what do I do with my money? — nothing changes. Stock-picking still won’t work. Quality still won’t work. So long as we hang on every word, uttered or unuttered, by our monetary policy Missionaries, so long as we compel ourselves to pay attention to Monetary Policy Theatre, then we will still be at sea in a policy-driven market where our traditional landmarks are barely visible and highly suspect.
Here’s my metaphor for investors and central bankers today — the brilliant Cars.com commercial where a woman is stuck on a date with an incredibly creepy guy who declares that “my passion is puppetry” and proceeds to make out with a replica of the woman.
What we have to do as investors is exactly what this woman has to do: get out of this date and distance ourselves from this guy as quickly as humanly possible. For some of us that means leaving the restaurant entirely, reducing or eliminating our exposure to public markets by going to cash or moving to private markets. For others of us that means changing tables and eating our meal as far away as we possibly can from Creepy Puppet Guy. So long as we stay in the restaurant of public markets there’s no way to eliminate our interaction with Creepy Puppet Guy entirely. No doubt he will try to follow us around from table to table. But we don’t have to engage with him directly. We don’t have participate in his insane conversation. No one is forcing you keep a TV in your office so that you can watch CNBC all day long!
Case in point: if your conversation around actively managed stock-picking strategies — and this might be a conversation with managers, it might be a conversation with clients, it might be a conversation with an Investment Board, it might be a conversation with yourself — focuses on the strategy’s ability to deliver “alpha” in this puppeted market, then you’re having a losing conversation. You are, in effect, having a conversation with Creepy Puppet Guy.
There is a role for actively managed stock-picking strategies in a puppeted market, but it’s not to “beat” the market. It’s to survive this puppeted market by getting as close to a real fractional ownership of real assets and real cash flows as possible. It’s recognizing that owning indices and ETFs is owning a casino chip, a totally different thing from a fractional ownership share of a real world thing. Sure, I want my portfolio to have some casino chips, but I ALSO want to own quality real assets and quality real cash flows, regardless of the game that’s going on all around me in the casino.
Do ALL actively managed strategies or stock-picking strategies see markets through this lens, as an effort to forego the casino chip and purchase a fractional ownership in something real? Of course not. Nor am I using the term “stock-picking” literally, as in only equity strategies are part of this conversation. What I’m saying is that a conversation focused on quality real asset and quality real cash flow ownership is the right criterion for choosing between intentional security selection strategies, and that this is the right role for these strategies in a portfolio.
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. If you want market returns, buy the market through passive indices and ETFs. If you want better than market returns … well, good luck with that. My advice is to look to private markets, where fundamental research and private information still matter. But there’s more to public markets than playing the returns game. There’s also the opportunity to exchange capital for an ownership share in a real world asset or cash flow. It’s the meaning that public markets originally had. It’s a beautiful thing. But you’ll never see it if you’re devoting all your attention to CNBC or Creepy Puppet Guy.
Zero-sum, Elliot. You’re playing a game you already lost. You know I’m right. – “Mr. Robot” (2015)
You can have anything you want But you better not take it from me – Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (1987)
I’m not expecting it. I’m observing it. – George Soros, January 22, 2016
To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat — and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going. – Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle” (1906)
My whole theme is make America great again. We don’t win anymore as a country. We don’t win with trade, we don’t win with the military. … We’re going to make a great country again. We’re going to start winning again. We’re going to win a lot, it’s going to be a big difference, believe me. … I don’t mind trade wars when we’re losing $58 billion a year.
– Republican presidential debate transcript, February 25, 2016
The wages that high school graduates receive today are significantly less, whether you are white or black, than they used to be. Why is that? Because of a series of disastrous trade policies which have allowed corporate America through NAFTA and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China … [which] have enabled corporate America to shut down in this country, throw millions of people out on the street.
– Democratic presidential debate transcript, February 11, 2016
You supported Obama’s trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, dozens of times. You even called it the “gold standard.” Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it.
Well, actually, I have been very consistent. … I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards. My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, “this will help raise your wages.” And I concluded I could not.
– Democratic presidential debate transcript, October 13, 2015
There is one great positive-sum game in all of human economic history — trade. But there are periods of time in human history when this core engine of growth and prosperity falters, when it becomes, at best, a zero-sum game of equal winners and equal losers. We are entering one of those times.
Why? Because this is what ALWAYS happens as independent nations struggle with the domestic political consequences of massive debt. Debt begets wealth inequality. Wealth inequality begets political polarization. Political polarization begets shocking electoral outcomes as the median voter theorem fails and shocking market outcomes as the central tendency fails. So go ahead … ask Nate Silver how well his electoral models are working. Ask any Fed staffer how well their econometric models are working. Democracy is hacked, not in the sense of some Mr. Robot f-society conspiracy, but in the sense of what Sen. Lindsey Graham appropriately calls “bats**t crazy” domestic political behavior, behavior that ALWAYS emerges under these circumstances. It happened in the 1870s. It happened in the 1930s. It’s happening today. As George Soros would say, I’m not expecting it. I’m observing it.
Under the strain of domestic policy errors and domestic policy uncertainty (uncertainty in the technical sense of the word, where neither outcomes nor probability distributions can be known), global trade volumes and global trade prices ALWAYS roll over. Again, this happened in the 1870s, it happened in the 1930s, and it’s happening today. And when this global economic pie begins to shrink, the strategic interaction between nations inexorably changes from a Cooperative game to a Competitive game (read “The Silver Age of the Central Banker” for more). This is the moment where trade activity — in goods, services, and capital — shifts from a positive-sum game to a zero-sum game, where domestic political institutions ALWAYS shift towards protectionist policies. In the modern context, this political shift takes place primarily in monetary policy, specifically monetary policy that impacts currency exchange rates. Why? Because currencies are the linchpin for both trade in goods and trade in capital. Currency intervention is the quickest and most direct way to protect your slice of a smaller and smaller pie, even though it’s exactly this currency intervention, when done by everyone, that is making the pie shrink. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how this politically-driven shift in the equilibrium payoffs of global trade and capital flows — and its expression in monetary policy focused on currency exchange rates — changes everything for investors.
But I also can’t tell you how this all ends up. I know this is a really disappointing statement I’m about to make, but the outcome of most Competitive Games is not predictable. And by “not predictable” I don’t mean that there’s an equal chance of this or that outcome. I mean that any attachment of any probability distribution to any set of potential outcomes just doesn’t work in a predictive sense. Or if it does work, then it worked by pure luck. For example, there are two equilibrium outcomes in a game of Chicken, but that doesn’t mean that each equilibrium is equally likely. It means that the entire concept of likelihood or probability functions has no meaning here (read “Inherent Vice” for more). It means that the entire econometric toolkit is about as useful as a socket wrench kit is useful in baking a cake. Again, I know how hard it is to wrap one’s head around this fact, and I know that many readers will just reject it out of hand. But it’s still true.
So I can’t tell you what the ultimate outcome of this Competitive Game between nations will be. But I can tell you what the process of this game will be. I can tell you what the dynamic of this game will be. I can give you a perspective that works for the times we’re in, and I can identify specific asymmetric risk/reward set-ups (but call them by their proper name — trades — not “investments”). That’s the most that is possible here, and I think anyone who says otherwise is mistaking luck for skill.
What is the dynamic of the Competitive Game of nations here in 2016? Specifically, what’s next? I think I can sum up my views in two pictures.
First, here’s a group shot from the G-20 meeting that just concluded in Shanghai. There’s Christine Lagarde of the IMF on the left, the belle of the ball … and then there’s Janet Yellen on the right, looking about as uncomfortable as it’s possible for a human to look.
[Photo: Rolex Dela Pena / AFP]
Frankly, as an American … and as someone who recognizes that the nature of the international game has changed from Cooperation to Competition … I’m pleased that Yellen isn’t all buddy-buddy with her fellow conferees. That’s no slight on Lagarde — her institution is intentionally designed to promote the Cooperation game, she offers carrots rather than swings a big stick, and it makes perfect sense that anyone who runs the IMF would be highly charismatic and the life of the party (true for her predecessor, DSK, too, although maybe he was too much the life of the party … just sayin’). Yellen, on the other hand, has no institutional mandate for international cooperation and swings the meanest stick, by far, in the global economy. Yellen is the big stack, to use a poker playing analogy (poker being a zero-sum game, of course), and short of wearing a hoodie and mirrored shades to convey intimidation and an intentional separation from the crowd — an effective big stack strategy, by the way — I can’t think of more effective game-playing body language than Yellen displays here.
So what’s next for this high-stakes poker game? A series of raises (in the poker sense!) from Europe and Japan, with the US calling and checking down every step of the way, until ultimately China goes all-in by floating the yuan or otherwise sharply devaluing their currency. Less metaphorically, that means I expect the ECB to lower its negative interest rates significantly this week, and the Bank of Japan will do … something … of similar or greater magnitude later in March. The US will be dragged from its current tightening bias to a neutral bias (maybe as early as the March meeting, but probably not), and then to an easing bias, and then to actual easing. But the US won’t be initiating any of these moves, they will be responding to the actions of the ECB and the BOJ.
That same dominant strategy exists for the US and China. For the US that means turning the monetary policy barge around from tightening to easing, and with every move Yellen makes, the dollar will go down, oil and commodities will go up, S&P 500 earnings will look better, and equity markets will rally. But it’s a short-term rally because this will only spark further currency-weakening actions by the ECB and the BOJ, starting another leg down in the protectionist spiral. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The big loser in this spiraling dynamic is China. To torture the poker analogy a bit more, they’re the short stack at this table — not from a purely economic perspective (that’s Japan), but from a political perspective (where Japan may actually be the strongest). It’s political strength that matters most in this game, and the Chinese political regime is existentially vulnerable to declining volumes of global trade. They have no choice but to go all-in here to spur exports and domestic industrial production, and at some point they will. There are several ways China can shove their chips into the pot, but my guess is that they go all-in by floating the yuan. That will be the risk-off moment of this or any other year, an atomic bomb of deflationary power, and I think it’s an easy putt from there to negative rates in the US.
Yes, that’s right. Negative rates in the US. It’s coming. It’s inevitable, really, not because the FOMC wants negative rates — they don’t — but because they must pursue negative rates out of national self-interest and sheer self-defense in a Competitive game where your adversaries (get used to that word) have rolled out the equivalent of mustard gas in the trench warfare that we’re going to endure.
And that brings me to my second photo that’s worth a thousand words, this from a recent meeting of Sweden’s central bank, prior to their February reduction of interest rates to -0.5%.
“We have become seasoned. Things which once made us say ‘oh my God’ don’t seem that dramatic anymore.”– Sweden Riksbank Deputy Gov. Per Jansson (on left)
[Photo: Associated Press]
I mean, this is what it’s come to, right? Where smirking Ph.Ds who have never spent a day of their adult lives outside of the governmental or academic womb, where earringed, pony-tailed apparatchiks who have never managed a dime, who have never counseled a retired couple trying to live on their savings, now unilaterally and without limitation make political decisions that determine the fate of that retired couple. Not just in Sweden, but everywhere in the world. Yeah, I shouldn’t mention the whole earring and pony-tail thing, but you know what? It’s an intentional statement of identity, an identity that I recognize from my decade as a political science professor, an identity that not only elevates elegant theory over practical experience, but more than that, dismisses practical experience as inherently inferior to the tenets of an academic faith. It’s the hubris, the overweening pride that oozes from this photo that makes me cringe. We’ve seen this movie before, and it always ends in tears. There’s a reason that Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and nowhere is pride more dangerous than when it comes to financial “innovation.” What the Gaussian copula was to securitized mortgages in 2008, negative rates are to monetary policy in 2016.
But here’s the thing, and this is true for any Competitive game, whether it’s poker or World War I or a Republican primary or strategic monetary policy — once one player enjoys some success with a new strategy or a new weapon, ALL players must adopt that strategy or weapon, regardless of whether or not a player thinks it’s distasteful or misguided. Even if you think you’re doing the wrong thing in the long run, if you don’t adopt the new strategy you’re going to lose in the short run, and that’s something no politician and no central banker can stomach. I’m reminded of the (in)famous line from Chuck Prince, former Citigroup CEO, in 2007: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” Just as all of the big banks were dancing to the music of Alt-A mortgages and trillions of dollars in mortgage-backed securitizations in 2007, so are all central bankers dancing to the music of negative rates and currency devaluation today. It was the rational move for Prince and Fuld and Thain and Mozilo then, and it’s the rational move for Yellen and Draghi and Kuroda and Zhou today. Once negative rates (or liar loans or Trump-esque campaign tactics) are introduced into the field of battle you can’t wish them away. You have to fight fire with fire until a big structure burns down, with the hope that at that point everyone can get together and rebuild. Or you can surrender. Welcome to the jungle.
The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must.
– Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War” (c. 400 BC)
Come Leonidas, let us reason together. It would be a regrettable waste. It would be nothing short of madness for you, brave king, and your valiant troops to perish. All because of a simple misunderstanding. There is much our cultures could share.
Haven’t you noticed? We’ve been sharing our culture with you all morning.
– “300” (2006)
We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
– Henry “The Mongoose” Temple, Viscount Palmerston (1784 – 1865)
Rick Grimes: [when he kills Shane] YOU made me do this! Not me! YOU did!
– “The Walking Dead” (2011)
“I should have thought,” said the officer as he visualized the search before him, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys – you’re all British, aren’t you? – would have been able to put up a better show than that – I mean –”
“It was like that at first,” said Ralph, “before things –”
As a result, an entire generation of investors (we investors live in dog years) has come of age in a market where fundamental down is up and fundamental up is down. What’s the inevitable market reaction to real world bad news – any bad news, regardless of geography? Why, additional accommodation by the monetary Powers That Be, united in their common cause to inflate financial asset prices through large scale asset purchases, must surely be on the way. Buy, Mortimer, buy! During the Golden Age of the Central Banker, monetary policy is truly a movable feast for investors.
But the Golden Age of the Central Banker has now devolved into the Silver Age of the Central Banker, and monetary policy is no longer the surefire tonic for investors it was even a few months ago. In less poetic terms, the Coordination game that dominated the strategic interactions of central banks from March 2009 to June 2014 is now well and fully replaced by a Prisoner’s Dilemma game in the long run and a game of Chicken in the short run. As a result, monetary policy is now firmly a creature of each nation’s domestic politics, and the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence is in turn devolving into a Narrative of Central Bank Competition.
Why the structural change in the Great Game of the 21st century? Because this is what ALWAYS happens during periods of massive global debt, as the existential imperatives of domestic politics eventually come to dominate the logic of international economic cooperation. Because this is what ALWAYS happens when global trade volumes roll over and global growth becomes structurally challenged.
Yes, that’s right, global trade volumes – not just values, but volumes, not just in one geography, but everywhere – peaked in Q3 or Q4 2014 and have been in decline since. That’s pretty much the most important fact I could tell you about this or any other period in global economic history, and yet it’s a fact that I’ve never seen in a WSJ or FT article, never heard mentioned on CNBC.
Using WTO data on seasonally-adjusted quarterly merchandise export volume indices, as of Q3 2015 (the last data point from the WTO), the US is off 1% from peak export volumes, the EU is off 2% (this is EU exports to rest of world, not intra-EU), Japan is off 3%, and China + Hong Kong is off 5%. That’s through Q3. Working from global trade value data, converting to local currencies, and making some educated guesses about price elasticity to estimate Q4 2015 volumes, I’m thinking that the US is now off 3% from peak volumes, the EU is off 2.5%, Japan is off 5%, and China + Hong Kong is off 7%.
Now those numbers probably don’t seem very large to you, and certainly in the Great Recession those numbers got a lot larger (about an 18% peak-to-trough decline in worldwide export volumes from Q2 2008 to Q2 2009). But it’s incredibly rare to see any sort of decline in export volumes, particularly a decline that’s shared by every major economy on Earth. In fact, you don’t get numbers like this unless you’re already in a recession.
For example, here’s a chart of quarterly US export data since 1993. Now this chart is showing total value of US exports, not volumes of US exports, but you get the idea. Over the past 20+ years, we’ve never had a peak-to-trough decline in exports like we’re seeing today that wasn’t part of a full-blown recession, and we’re getting close to a decline in values (but not in volumes) that rivals what we saw in the Great Recession. The next time someone tells you that there’s a 10% or 20% chance of a recession in the US in 2016, show them this chart. Export growth is THE swing factor in GDP calculations. I don’t care how consumer-driven your economy might be, it is next to impossible for a real economy to expand when your exports are contracting like this. The truth is that we are already in a recession i
n the US, and this notion that you can somehow divorce the overall US economy from the obvious recession that’s happening in anything related to global trade (industrials, energy, manufacturing, transportation, etc.) just drives me nuts. Yes, it’s a “mild recession” or an “earnings recession” (choose your own qualifier) because the decline in export values (i.e., profits and margins) has only started to show up as a decline in export volumes (i.e., economic activity and jobs). But it’s here. And it’s getting worse.
This is the root of pretty much all macroeconomic evils. If global trade volumes in Asia, the US, and Europe are contracting simultaneously, then global growth is contracting on a structural basis. Global contraction in trade volumes everywhere is exactly as rare as a nationwide decline in US home prices, and it’s exactly as mispriced from a risk perspective. The 2007-2009 nationwide decline in US home prices blew up trillions of dollars in AAA-rated residential mortgage-backed securities. A continued contraction in Asian, US, and European trade volumes will blow up whatever vestiges of monetary policy cooperation remain, and that’s a far bigger deal than US RMBS.
When global trade volumes contract, the domestic political pressure to raise protectionist barriers and seize a larger slice of a smaller trade pie becomes unbearable. That was true in the 1930s when protectionist policies took the form of tariffs and quotas, and it’s true today as protectionist policies take the form of currency devaluation and negative interest rates.
Here’s why. In Q4 of 2015, the value of German exports as measured in euros was actually up 0.5% over Q4 of 2014. But over the same time span the euro depreciated versus the dollar by more than 10%. As a result, the value of German exports as measured in dollars from Q4 2014 to Q4 2015 was also down more than 10%. But domestic German economic activity doesn’t take place in dollars, of course, it takes place in euros. In other words, the export-oriented sectors of the German economy feltokay in 2015, at least from a domestic political perspective. But if you had not enjoyed that euro depreciation against the dollar, German exports would have felt terrible, and there would have been significant domestic political consequences. We would all be reading today about “the industrial slowdown in Germany”, with scads of articles in the FT about how Merkel’s regime was losing popular support.
To be sure, the depreciation of the euro versus the dollar made everything that Germany imported that much more expensive. So this isn’t necessarily some profits windfall for German exporters, and if you’re the German equivalent of Walmart it’s a big problem. I’ve read a number of economists and analysts (not so much in regards to Germany but definitely in regards to China) say that this economic downside serves as an effective deterrent against rampant and competitive devaluations. Unfortunately, that’s pure nonsense.
Thinking of national governments as just another big company (or, in slightly more academic terms, conflating national competitiveness with private sector profit margins) is a classic mistake that investors and economists make when they analyze politics. Neither the German government nor the Bundesbank care about corporate profit margins! They care about economic activity. They care about keeping the factories running, with real people making real things that can be sold in the real world. A depreciating currency is, by an order of magnitude, the most effective weapon in any modern government’s arsenal for keeping the factories running, and when global trade starts to contract this weapon will be employedby any means necessary, regardless of the P&L consequences for the private sector. That includes the P&L consequences for the banks, by the way.
Now everything I just wrote about the domestic political dynamics of Germany, multiply it by 10 for Japan. Multiply it by 100 for China. Both China’s export volumes and export values are declining, and no matter how much domestic credit and currency they pump in (and god knows they’ve tried), there is no possible way to stimulate the domestic economy enough to pick up the slack from a declining export sector. This is a domestic political disaster, and getting those factories humming again is a domestic political imperative. At least if there’s a regime change in Germany, Merkel and Schäuble and Weidmann can all retire to their respective comfy chalets and pick up however many millions they like by hitting the speaker circuit. Somehow I doubt that those retirement options are available for senior Politburo members rousted in the middle of the night by a new Chinese regime. To get the factories hiring you need to sell more stuff. To sell more stuff you need to cut your prices. To cut your prices you need to devalue your currency. This is why China is going to float the yuan. Not because George Soros or Kyle Bass said they have to. Not even because their foreign reserves are by no means the fortress balance sheet they’re made out to be. No, China is going to float the yuan because they want to, because it’s clearly the winning move from a domestic political perspective.
Just like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was clearly the winning move from a domestic political perspective in 1930. Just like the anti-free trade diatribes by both the Republican and Democratic presidential frontrunners are clearly the winning moves from a domestic political perspective in 2016. This is … ummm … not good.
It’s not good because these winning moves from a domestic political perspective do not occur in an international vacuum. To the degree that these monetary policy decisions impact other countries – and when global trade volumes are shrinking these decisions impact other countries a lot – other countries are going to respond with their own “winning” moves from a domestic political perspective, and before long you have a competitive death spiral of monetary policy decisions that sound good when you’re making the decisions, but end up putting everyone in a worse position and shrinking the global trade pie even further.
But, Ben, our monetary policy leaders aren’t stupid. They know what happened in the 1930s just as well as you do. Don’t they see that there is a strategic interaction at work here – a game, in the formal sense of the word – that requires them to take into account other leaders’ decision-making within their own decision-making process, understanding (and this is the crucial bit for game theory) that the other leaders are making exactly the same sort of contingent policy evaluations?
Yes, of course the Fed can see that there’s a strategic interaction here, and of course they’re playing the game as best as they can. But they’re playing the wrong game. They’re still playing a Coordination Game, which is ALWAYS the game that’s played in the immediate aftermath of a global crisis like a Great War or a Great Recession. They have yet to adopt the strategies necessary for a Competition Game, which is ALWAYS the game that’s played after you survive the post-apocalyptic period.
Here’s what a Coordination Game looks like in the typical game theoretic 2×2 matrix framework. If you want to read more about this look up the “Stag Hunt” game on Wikipedia or the like. It’s an old concept, first written about by Rousseau and Hume, and more recently explored (brilliantly, I think) by Brian Skyrms.
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, so long as the payoffs from defecting are always less than the payoff of mutual cooperation. This is exactly the payoff structure we got in the aftermath of a Great Recession, as global trade volumes increased across the board, and every country could enjoy greater benefits from monetary policy coordination than by going it alone. As a result we got every politician and every central banker in the world – Missionaries, in game theory parlance – wagging their fingers at us and telling us how to think about the truly extraordinary monetary policies all countries adopted in unison.
But when global trade volumes begin to shrink, the payoffs from monetary policy defection are no longer always less than the payoff of monetary policy cooperation, and we get a game like this.
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 cooperation AND you go out to get a rabbit on your own. It’s essentially the payoff that Europe and Japan got in 2015 by seeing the euro and the yen depreciate against the dollar, and it’s the payoff that China hopes it can get through yuan devaluation in 2016. Ultimately, every country sees where this is going, and so every country stops cooperating and starts defecting, even though every country is worse off in the end, as no one gets the +3 payoff once everyone starts defecting. To make matters worse, the “everyone defect” outcome of the bottom right quadrant is a Nash equilibrium – the only Nash equilibrium in a Competition Game like the Prisoner’s Dilemma – meaning that once you get to this point you are well and truly stuck until you have another crisis that forces you back into the survival mode of a Coordination Game. Sigh.
Look, I understand why the Fed (and for that matter, important constituencies in the PBOC and ECB) want to keep playing the Coordination Game even when the writing is on the wall for a change in the game payoffs. It’s a much “nicer” game, where you’re baking a larger economic pie and everyone can be better off than they were before. Also (not to get too tinfoil hat-ish about all this), it’s the sort of game that academics and the Davos crowd love to play, as it allows them to gather in tony enclaves, congratulate each other on their intellectual prowess and service to mankind, and tut-tut about those pesky elections and benighted masses. Put in a less snarky way, the IMF and similar entities have an existential stake in promoting the Coordination Game. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But it’s no accident that everything, from exchange rates to commodity prices to global trade volumes, started to go off the rails in Q3 of 2014. That was the start of monetary policy divergence – a $10 word that means competition – as Yellen’s Fed announced an outright tightening bias and Draghi’s ECB went in the polar opposite direction with balance sheet expansion and negative rates. And I’m sorry to say it, but once you leave the cozy confines of the mutual coordination Nash equilibrium, you can never go back. Instead, it’s an inexorable one-way street to the other Nash equilibrium, mutual defection. It’s just math. And human nature. I wouldn’t want to bet against that combination.
The Golden Age, per the original Greek myth, was an era of unblemished cooperation and great deeds. The Silver Age, on the other hand, was a pretty miserable time to be alive. Not as warlike as the Bronze Age, and not the war of all against all as in the Iron Age, but the spirit of the age was one of strife and competition. It ends badly. But it’s not a hopeless time. It’s a time to protect oneself and one’s family for the harder times to come, and it’s also a time to plant the seeds that will flourish when this cycle ends. What’s required is seeing the world for what it is, not what we might wish it to be. That’s not easy, whether you’re a central banker or a small investor, but it’s never been more important.
Then farewell! But if I should return, think better of me.
That depends on the manner of your return.
– J.R.R. Tolkien “The Lord of the Rings” (1954)
I’m going full-nerd with the “Lord of the Rings” introduction to today’s Epsilon Theory note, but I think this scene — where Denethor, the mad Steward of Gondor, orders his son Faramir to take on a suicide mission against Sauron’s overwhelming forces — is the perfect way to describe what the Bank of Japan did last Thursday with their announcement of negative interest rates. The BOJ (and the ECB, and … trust me … the Fed soon enough) is the insane Denethor. The banks are Faramir. The suicide mission is making loans into a corporate sector levered to global trade as the forces of global deflation rage uncontrollably.
Negative rates are an intentional effort to weaken your own country’s banks. Negative rates are a punitive command: go out there and make more bad loans where risk is entirely uncompensated, or we will, in effect, fine you. The more bad loans you don’t make, the bigger the fine. Negative rates are only a bit worrying in today’s sputtering economies of Europe, Japan, and the US because the credit cycle has yet to completely roll over. But it is rolling over (read anything by Jeff Gundlach if you don’t believe me), it is rolling over everywhere, and when it really starts rolling over, any country with negative rates will find it to be significantly destabilizing for their banking sector.
There’s a reason that the Fed kept paying interest on bank reserves even in the darkest, most deflationary days of the Great Recession. Yes, it’s the Fed’s job to support full employment. Yes it’s the Fed’s job to maintain price stability. But the Fed’s job #1 — the reason the Federal Reserve was created in the first place — is to maintain the stability of the banking system. Go ask a US moneycenter bank how things would have turned out in 2008 if the positive interest coming in on their reserves had been flipped to negative interest going out on their reserves. Go ask a US regional bank how things would have turned out if they had made even more rewardless risk loans in 2006 and 2007 under the pressure of negative rates.
Look, I get the “theory”. I understand that weakening the yen is an existential domestic political issue for Kuroda and Abe, just as weakening the euro is an existential domestic political issue for Draghi and Merkel, just as weakening the yuan is an existential domestic political issue for Zhou and Xi. And I understand that policy-addicted markets will respond exuberantly to anything that can be described as central bank support for financial asset price inflation. Hey, I’m an addict, too.
But what I’m concerned about is not the theory but the practice. What I’m concerned about is the intentional destabilization of the global financial system for domestic political purposes. What I’m concerned about is the Fed’s inevitable adoption of negative rates, something Alan Blinder pushed for in 2008 and Ben Bernanke is pushing for now.
When the ECB instituted negative rates, that was just a point. The BOJ’s move last Thursday makes a line. Now we have a pattern. Now we have a market that expects MOAR! Now we have a Fed that will undoubtedly implement negative rates when things get squirrely again, even if there are some in the Fed who I’m sure are shaking their heads at all this.
I’ve come to expect every elected politician or politician wannabe to rail against “the bankers” and the terrible mess they’ve made of the world with their “predatory lending” and “easy credit”, even though this is exactly what every politician in the world desires. But I didn’t expect central bankers to betray their own charges. I didn’t expect central bankers to throw their own domestic banks into a battle they can’t win.
You know what negative rates are? They are the final stripping away of the illusion that central bankers somehow exist above and separately from domestic politics, that they are wise and able stewards of financial stability. Nope. They’re Denethors.
Unfortunately for mariners, the total amount of wave energy in a storm does not rise linearly with wind speed, but to its fourth power. The seas generated by a forty-knot wind aren’t twice as violent as those from a twenty-knot wind, they are seventeen times as violent. A ship’s crew watching the anemometer climb even ten-knots could well be watching their death sentence.
– Sebastian Junger, “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea” (2009)
[the crew watch emergency surgery performed on the ship’s deck]
Is them ‘is brains, doctor?
Dr. Stephen Maturin:
No, that’s just dried blood. THOSE are his brains.
– “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)
[the Konovalov’s own torpedo is about to strike the Konovalov]
Andrei Bonovia: You arrogant ass. You’ve killed *us*! – “The Hunt for Red October” (1990)
Can everyone saying “a 25 bps rate hike doesn’t change anything” or “manufacturing is a small part of the US economy today, so the ISM number doesn’t mean much” or “trade with China is only a few percent of US GDP, so their currency devaluation isn’t important” just stop? Seriously. Can you just stop? Maybe if you were making these statements back in the ‘80s – and by that I mean the 1880s, back when the US was effectively a huge island in the global economy – it would make some sense, but today it’s just embarrassing.
There is a Category 5 deflationary hurricane forming off the Chinese coast as Beijing accelerates the devaluation of the yuan against the dollar under the guise of “reform”. I say forming … the truth is that this deflationary storm has already laid waste to the global commodity complex, doing trillions of dollars in damage. I say forming … the truth is that this deflationary storm has driven inflation expectations down to levels last seen when the world was coming to an end in the Lehman aftermath. And now the Fed is going to tighten? Are you kidding me?
Look, I’m personally no fan of ZIRP and QE and “communication policy”, certainly not the insatiable market devourers they’ve become over the past few years. But you can’t just wish away the Brave New World of globally interlocked, policy-driven, machine-dominated capital markets in some wave of nostalgia and regret for “normalized” days. In an existential financial crisis, emergency government action always becomes permanent government policy, reshaping markets in similarly permanent ways. This was true in the 1930s and it’s true today. It’s neither good nor bad. It just IS. Did QE1 save the market? Yes. Did QE2 and QE3 and all the misbegotten QE children in Europe and Asia break the market? Yes. And in the immortal words of shopkeepers everywhere: you break it, you bought it. The Fed owns capital markets today, like it or not, and raising rates now, as opposed to a year ago when there was a glimmer of a chance to walk back the Narrative of central bank omnipotence, isn’t “brave” or “prudent” or “necessary” or any of the other laudatory adjectives you’ll hear from Fed media apologists after they raise. It’s simply buyer’s remorse. The Fed is sick and tired of owning the market, sick and tired of giving interviews to CNBC every time some jobs report hits the wires, sick and tired of this Frankenstein’s monster called communication policy. So they’re going to raise rates, declare victory, and hope that things go their way.
Three or four years ago, one of THE dominant market narratives, particularly in the value investment crowd, was the “renaissance of American manufacturing”. Not only was the manufacturing sector going to be the engine of job growth in this country (remember “good jobs with good wages”? me, neither), but this was going to be the engine of economic growth, period (remember the National Export Initiative and “doubling exports in five years”? me, neither). Now we are told that we’re just old fogies to worry about a contracting US manufacturing sector. Now we are told that a global recession in the industrial and commodity complex is well contained here in our vibrant services-led economy. Right. You want some fries with that?
So what’s to be done? You do what you always do in a deflationary, risk-off world – you buy long-dated US Treasuries. Stocks down, USTs up. Of course, if you think that the yield curve is going to steepen after the Fed does whatever it’s going to do this week … you know, because the Fed rate hike is obviously an all-clear sign that we have a robust self-sustaining economic recovery and we’re off to the races … then you want to do the exact opposite, which is to buy stocks and sell the 10-year UST. Yep, time to load up on some bank stocks if that’s your view.
What else can you do? You can read the Epsilon Theory note “I Know It Was You, Fredo” and consider ways to make your portfolio more convex, i.e., more resilient and responsive to both upside and downside surprises in these policy-driven markets. The big institutional allocators use derivative portfolio overlays to inject convexity into their portfolio, and that’s all well and good. But there are steps the rest of us can take, whether that’s adopting strategies that can short markets and asset classes (like some tactical strategies and most trend-following strategies) or whether that’s investing in niche companies and niche strategies that are designed to outperform in either a surprisingly deflationary or a surprisingly inflationary world. The trick really isn’t to choose this fund or that fund. The trick is to broaden your perception of portfolio outcomes so that you don’t have a misplaced faith in either the Fed or econometric models.
I suppose there’s one more thing we should all do. We should all prepare ourselves to perform some emergency surgery on the deck of whatever portfolio ship we’re sailing in 2016. Because with a Fed hike the currency wars will begin in earnest, magnifying the deflationary storm already wreaking havoc in industrials, energy, and materials. No sector or strategy is going to be immune, and we’re all going to suffer some casualties.
A quick Epsilon Theory email and a quick announcement. Announcement first. I’ll be giving a 1-hour webcast on Risk Premia strategies next Tuesday, August 4th, along with Salient President Jeremy Radcliffe and Salient Portfolio Manager Rob Croce, who knows more about the guts of these strategies than anyone should. The webcast qualifies for CE credit if you care about such things (and who doesn’t!) and is hosted by our friends at RIA Database. The catch … you have to be a professional investor / financial advisor to sign up. Sorry. For more information or to register for the webcast, check out: “Alternative Return Streams in Challenging Markets”
Mrs. Venable, loving your niece as you do, you must know there’s great risk in this operation. Whenever you enter the brain with a foreign object …
Even a needle thin knife.
In the hands of the most skilled surgeon …
There is a great deal of risk.
But it does pacify them. I’ve read that … it quiets them down. It suddenly makes them peaceful.
Yes, that it does do, but …
Well, it will be years before we know if the immediate benefits of the operation are lasting or maybe just passing or perhaps … there’s a strong possibility that the patient will always be limited. Relieved of acute anxiety, yes, but limited.
But what a blessing, Doctor, to be just peaceful. To be just suddenly peaceful. After all that horror. After those nightmares. Just to be able to lift up their eyes to a sky not black with savage devouring birds.
– “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)
I figure not one Epsilon Theory reader in a thousand has seen “Suddenly, Last Summer”, but let me tell you … it’s got everything. Katherine Hepburn in a phenomenal performance as bizarro Aunt Vi. Elizabeth Taylor cavorting in the surf. Montgomery Clift. Lobotomies. Pedophilia. Cannibalism. Honestly, it’s kind of what you would expect if Gore Vidal took a Tennessee Williams script and just went gonzo with it. Which, in fact, is exactly what happened.
The subtext, as with so much of Southern Gothic in general and Tennessee Williams in particular, is mendacity and its crushing psychological damage. I found this quote, where Katherine Hepburn is trying to convince Montgomery Clift to lobotomize Elizabeth Taylor so that she’d forget her former life and be less fearful and anxious … less volatile, in other words … to be an eerily apt description of what Central Bankers have tried to do with markets.
We endured an event last summer that, just as in the movie, ultimately brings all the mendacity out of the shadows and into the open. When Yellen declared last summer that the Fed had now firmly embraced a tightening bias, followed by the rest of the world declaring that they were doubling down on extraordinary monetary policy easing, the entire world was set on a path where all of the political fragmentation – all of the deep fissures within and between countries – would be inexorably revealed. Suddenly last summer, the mask of global monetary policy cooperation was ripped away, and the investment world will never be the same.
Monetary policy divergence manifests itself first in currencies, because currencies aren’t an asset class at all, but a political construction that represents and symbolizes monetary policy. Then the divergence manifests itself in those asset classes, like commodities, that have no internal dynamics or cash flows and are thus only slightly removed in their construction and meaning from however they’re priced in this currency or that. From there the divergence spreads like a cancer (or like a cure for cancer, depending on your perspective) into commodity-sensitive real-world companies and national economies. Eventually – and this is the Big Point – the divergence spreads into everything, everywhere. Some things will go up, and some things will go down. But the days of ALL financial assets inflating in lock-step … the days of everything, everywhere going up together … that’s over.
For a lot of active investment managers, this is great news. For a lot of politicians and central bankers – particularly the weaker ones, either in resources or in willpower (yes, I’m looking at you, Alexis Tsipras) – this is terrible news. For investors? Well, it’s a mixed bag. Certainly it’s a more difficult bag, where so many of the learned behaviors of the past five years that worked so well in an environment of monetary policy coordination will fail miserably in an environment of monetary policy competition. But it beats getting a lobotomy. I think. We’ll see.
He won’t talk. Stone is a good kid. Stand-up guy, just like his old man. That’s the way I see it.
I agree. He’s solid. An effin’ Marine.
He’s okay. He always was. Remo, what do you think?
Look… why take a chance? At least, that’s the way I feel about it.
— “Casino” (1995)
Four reels, sevens across on three $15,000 jackpots. Do you have any idea what the odds are?
Shoot, it’s gotta be in the millions, maybe more.
Three effin’ jackpots in 20 minutes? Why didn’t you pull the machines? Why didn’t you call me?
Well, it happened so quick, 3 guys won; I didn’t have a chance …
[interrupts] You didn’t see the scam? You didn’t see what was going on?
Well, there’s no way to determine that …
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.
Four times during the first six days they were assembled and briefed and then sent back. Once, they took off and were flying in formation when the control tower summoned them down. The more it rained, the worse they suffered. The worse they suffered, the more they prayed that it would continue raining. All through the night, men looked at the sky and were saddened by the stars. All through the day, they looked at the bomb line on the big, wobbling easel map of Italy that blew over in the wind and was dragged in under the awning of the intelligence tent every time the rain began. The bomb line was a scarlet band of narrow satin ribbon that delineated the forward most position of the Allied ground forces in every sector of the Italian mainland.
For hours they stared relentlessly at the scarlet ribbon on the map and hated it because it would not move up high enough to encompass the city.
When night fell, they congregated in the darkness with flashlights, continuing their macabre vigil at the bomb line in brooding entreaty as though hoping to move the ribbon up by the collective weight of their sullen prayers. “I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”
In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna. – Joseph Heller, “Catch – 22” (1961)
A visitor to Niels Bohr’s country cottage, noticing a horseshoe hanging on the wall, teased the eminent scientist about this ancient superstition. “Can it be true that you, of all people, believe it will bring you luck?”
“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe it or not.”
― Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962)
Here’s an easy way to figure out if you’re in a cult: If you’re wondering whether you’re in a cult, the answer is yes. – Stephen Colbert, “I am America (And So Can You!)” (2007)
I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said. – William F. Buckley Jr. (1925 – 2008)
A new type of superstition has got hold of people’s minds, the worship of the state. – Ludwig von Mises (1881 – 1973)
The cult is not merely a system of signs by which the faith is outwardly expressed; it is the sum total of means by which that faith is created and recreated periodically. Whether the cult consists of physical operations or mental ones, it is always the cult that is efficacious. – Emile Durkheim, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912)
At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. – Flannery O’Connor (1925 – 1964)
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens. – Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)
Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with miracles of his own making. He will believe in witchcraft and sorcery, even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880)
One Ring to rule them all; one Ring to find them.
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. – J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” (1954)
I still love you, oh, I still love you.
Only slightly, only slightly less
Than I used to. – The Smiths, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” (1987)
So much of education, I think, relies on reading the right book at the right time. My first attempt at Catch-22 was in high school, and I was way too young to get much out of it. But fortunately I picked it up again in my late 20’s, after a few experiences with The World As It is, and it’s stuck with me ever since. The power of the novel is first in the recognition of how often we are stymied by Catch-22’s – problems that can’t be solved because the answer violates a condition of the problem. The Army will grant your release request if you’re insane, but to ask for your release proves that you’re not insane. If X and Y, then Z. But X implies not-Y. That’s a Catch-22.
Here’s the Fed’s Catch-22. If the Fed can use extraordinary monetary policy measures to force market risk-taking (the avowed intention of both Zero Interest Rate Policy and Large Scale Asset Purchases) AND the real economy engages in productive risk-taking (small business loan demand, wage increases, business investment for growth, etc.), THEN we have a self-sustaining and robust economic recovery underway. But the Fed’s extraordinary efforts to force market risk-taking and inflate financial assets discourage productive risk-taking in the real economy, both because the Fed’s easy money is used by corporations for non-productive uses (stock buy-backs, anyone?) and because no one is willing to invest ahead of global growth when no one believes that the leading indicator of that growth – the stock market – means what it used to mean.
If X and Y, then Z. But X denies Y. Catch-22.
There’s a Catch-22 for pretty much everyone in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. Are you a Keynesian? Your Y to go along with the Central Bank X is expansionary fiscal policy and deficit spending. Good luck getting that through your polarized Congress or Parliament or whatever if your Central Bank is carrying the anti-deflation water and providing enough accommodation to keep your economy from tanking. Are you a structural reformer? Your Y to go along with the Central Bank X is elimination of bureaucratic red tape and a shrinking of the public sector. Again, good luck with that as extraordinary monetary policy prevents the economic trauma that might give you a chance of passing those reforms through your legislative process.
Here’s the thing. A Catch-22 world is a frustrating, absurd world, a world where we domesticate despair and learn to live with it happily. It’s also a very stable world. And that’s the real message of Heller’s book, as Yossarian gradually recognizes what Catch-22 really IS. There is no Catch-22. It doesn’t exist, at least not in the sense of the bureaucratic regulation that it purports to be. But because everyone believes that it exists, then an entire world of self-regulated pseudo-religious behavior exists around Catch-22. Sound familiar?
We’ve entered a new phase in the Golden Age of the Central Banker – the cult phase, to use the anthropological lingo. We pray for extraordinary monetary policy accommodation as a sign of our Central Bankers’ love, not because we think the policy will do much of anything to solve our real-world economic problems, but because their favor gives us confidence to stay in the market. I mean … does anyone really think that the problem with the Italian economy is that interest rates aren’t low enough? Gosh, if only ECB intervention could get the Italian 10-yr bond down to 1.75% from the current 1.85%, why then we’d be off to the races! Really? But God forbid that Mario Draghi doesn’t (finally) put his money where his mouth is and announce a trillion euro sovereign debt purchase plan. That would be a disaster, says Mr. Market. Why? Not because the absence of a debt purchase plan would be terrible for the real economy. That’s not a big deal one way or another. It would be a disaster because it would mean that the Central Bank gods are no longer responding to our prayers. The faith-based system that underpins current financial asset price levels would take a body blow. And that would indeed be a disaster.
Monetary policy has become a pure signifier – a totem. It’s useful only in so far as it indicates that the entire edifice of Central Bank faith, both its mental and physical constructs, remains “efficacious”, to use Emile Durkheim’s path-breaking sociological analysis of a cult. All of us are Yossarian today, far too rational to think that the totem of a red line on a map actually makes a difference in whether we have to fly a dangerous mission. And yet here we are sneaking out at night to move that line on the map. All of us are Niels Bohr today, way too smart to believe that the totem of a horseshoe actually bring us good luck. And yet here we are keeping that horseshoe up on our wall, because … well … you know.
The notion of saying our little market prayers and bowing to our little market talismans is nothing new. “Hey, is that a reverse pennant pattern I see in this stock chart?” “You know, the third year of a Presidential Administration is really good for stocks.” “I thought the CFO’s body language at the investor conference was very encouraging.” “Well, with the stock trading at less than 10 times cash flow I’m getting paid to wait.” Please. I recognize aspects of myself in all four of these cult statements, and if you’re being honest with yourself I bet you do, too. No, what’s new today is that all of our little faiths have now converged on the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. It’s the One Ring that binds us all.
I loved this headline article in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal – “Eurozone Consumer Prices Fall for First Time in Five Years” – a typically breathless piece trumpeting the “specter of deflation” racing across Europe as … oh-my-god … December consumer prices were 0.2% lower than they were last December. Buried at the end of paragraph six, though, was this jewel: “Excluding food, energy, and other volatile items, core inflation rose to 0.8%, up a notch from November.” Say what? You mean that if you measure inflation as the US measures inflation, then European consumer prices aren’t going down at all, but are increasing at an accelerating pace? You mean that the dreadful “specter of deflation” that is “cementing” expectations of massive ECB action is entirely caused by the decline in oil prices, something that from the consumer’s perspective acts like an inflationary tax cut? Ummm … yep. That’s exactly what I mean. The entire article is an exercise in Narrative creation, facts be damned. The entire article is a wail from a minaret, a paean to the ECB gods, a calling of the faithful to prayer. An entirely successful calling, I might add, as both European and US markets turned after the article appeared, followed by Thursday’s huge move up in both markets.
When I say that a Catch-22 world is a stable world, or that the cult phase of a human society is a stable phase, here’s what I mean: change can happen, but it will not happen from within. For everyone out there waiting for some Minsky Moment, where a debt bubble of some sort ultimately pops from some unexpected internal cause like a massive corporate default, leading to systemic fear and pain in capital markets … I think you’re going to be waiting for a loooong time. Are there debt bubbles to be popped? Absolutely. The energy sector, particularly its high yield debt, is Exhibit #1, and I think this could be a monster trade. But is this something that can take down the market? I don’t see it. There is such an unwavering faith in Central Bank control over market outcomes, such a universal assumption of god-like omnipotence within this realm, that any internal market shock is going to be willed away.
So is that it? Is this a brave new world of BTFD market stability? Should we double down on our whack-a-mole volatility strategies? For internal market risks like leverage and debt bubble scares … yes, I think so. But while the internal market risk factors that I monitor are quite benign, mostly green lights with a little yellow/caution peeking through, the external market risk factors that I monitor are all screaming red. These are Epsilon Theory risk factors – political shocks, trade/forex shocks, supply shocks, etc. – and they’ve got my risk antennae quivering like crazy. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can’t remember a time when there was such a gulf between the environmental or exogenous risks to the market and the internal or behavioral dynamics of the market. The market today is Wile E. Coyote wearing his latest purchase from the Acme Company – a miraculous bat-wing costume that prevents the usual plunge into the canyon below by sheer dint of will. There’s absolutely nothing internal to Coyote or his bat suit that prevents him from flying around happily forever. It’s only that rock wall that’s about to come into the frame that will change Coyote’s world.
My last three big Epsilon Theory notes – “The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil”, “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey”, and “The Clash of Civilizations” – have delved into what I think are the most pressing of these environmental or exogenous risks to the market: the “supply shock” of collapsing oil prices, a realigning Greek election, and the realpolitik dynamics of the West vs. Islam and the West vs. Russia. I gotta say, it’s been weird to write about these topics a few weeks before ALL of them come to pass. Call me Cassandra. I stand by everything I wrote in those notes, so no need to repeat all that here, but a short update paragraph on each.
First, Greece. And I’ll keep it very short. Greece is on. This will not be pretty and this will not be easy. Existential Euro doubt will raise its ugly head once again, particularly when Italy imports the Greek political experience.
Second, oil. I get a lot of questions about why oil can’t catch a break, about why it’s stuck down here with a 40 handle as the absurd media Narrative of “global supply glut forever and ever, amen” whacks it on the head day after day after day. And it is an absurd Narrative … very Heller-esque, in fact … about as realistic as “Peak Oil” has been over the past decade or two. Here’s the answer: oil is trapped in a positive Narrative feedback loop. Not positive in the sense of it being “good”, whatever that means, but positive in the sense of the dominant oil Narrative amplifying the uber-dominant Central Bank Narrative, and vice versa. The most common prayer to the Central Banking gods is to save us from deflation, and if oil prices were not falling there would be no deflation anywhere in the world, making the prayer moot. God forbid that oil prices go up and, among other things, push European consumer prices higher. Can’t have that! Otherwise we’d need to find another prayer for the ECB to answer. By finding a role in service to the One Ring of Central Bank Omnipotence, the dominant supply-glut oil Narrative has a new lease on life, and until the One Ring is destroyed I don’t see what makes the oil Narrative shift.
Third, the Islamist attack in Paris. Look … I’ve got a LOT to say about “je suis Charlie”, both the stupefying hypocrisy of how that slogan is being used by a lot of people who should really know better, as well as the central truth of what that slogan says about the Us vs. Them nature of The World As It Is, but both are topics for another day. What I’ll mention here are the direct political repercussions in France. The National Front, which promotes a policy platform that would make Benito Mussolini beam with pride, would probably have gotten the most votes of any political party in France before the attack. Today I think they’re a shoo-in to have first crack at forming a government whenever new Parliamentary elections are held, and if you don’t recognize that this is100 times more threatening to the entire European project than the prospects of Syriza forming a government in Greece … well, I just don’t know what to say.
There’s another thing to keep in mind here in 2015, another reason why selling volatility whenever it spikes up and buying the dip are now, to my way of thinking, picking up pennies in front of a steam roller: the gods always end up disappointing us mere mortals. The cult phase is a stable system on its own terms (a social equilibrium, in the parlance), but it’s rarely what an outsider would consider to be a particularly happy or vibrant system. There’s no way that Draghi can possibly announce a bond-buying program that lives up to the hype, not with peripheral sovereign debt trading inside US debt. There’s no way that the Fed can reverse course and start loosening again, not if forward guidance is to have any meaning (and even the gods have rules they must obey). Yes, I expect our prayers will still be answered, but each time I expect we will ask in louder and louder voices, “Is that all there is?” Yes, we will still love our gods, even as they disappoint us, but we will love them a little less each time they do.
And that’s when the rock wall enters the cartoon frame.
Earlier today I tweeted that “I should write a note on Draghi today, but after 2.5 yrs of reviewing the same song and dance I’d rather put out my eye with a rusty spoon.” I feel the same way about writing a note on Jon Hilsenrath’s Missionary statements on monetary policy, but the potential ramifications of today’s jobs report and how the Narrative is being shaped around that report are just too important – particularly for the price of oil and the energy complex – to leave it alone. Over the past two weeks I’ve tried to provide an Epsilon Theory perspective on both the price of oil (“The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil”) and the signaling role of the price of oil on energy stocks (“Signs and Portents”), and here’s the skinny: so long as the dominant Narrative around oil prices is based on global supply/demand fundamentals – even if those fundamentals are somewhat negative – that is far more constructive for oil prices and energy stocks than if the dominant Narrative around oil prices is based on monetary policy. When Saudi Arabia said, “we’re happy with oil in the 60’s”, here’s what value investors heard: “we’re not happy with oil in the 50’s”. So long as there is a perception of a floor … so long as value investors do not fear catching a free-falling knife … they will buy stuff that looks cheap. That’s what value investors DO.
The dominance of the OPEC meeting-inspired supply/demand Narrative is, I fear, short-lived, as we appear today to be returning to the regularly scheduled programming of all central banks, all the time. The dollar is starkly higher today, as the yen and euro plumb new depths. That’s on the back of the much stronger than expected jobs report today, which – as Fed amanuensis Hilsenrath “reports” – means that the Fed will be still more resolute in tightening even as the BOJ and ECB double-down on extraordinary liquidity operations. Oil is down a bit … less than I’d expect from a currency move of this magnitude … which I think is indicative that the fundamentals-driven Narrative still narrowly holds sway. How narrow? Can’t tell yet. I’ll be watching Narrative development closely next week, but there’s a non-trivial chance that the monetary policy “explanation” for oil prices will resume its pole position, and that’s problematic for the energy sector. Sorry, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.