The Rake

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In a poker game, the rake is the cut that the casino dealer takes out of every pot. It’s usually a couple of dollars per hand … barely noticeable, certainly not noticeable to a casual poker player like me.

But what if the dealer started taking 18-25% out of every pot as his rake? Would you notice then?

That’s what JP Morgan management does with its “return of shareholder capital” through stock buybacks.


Cramer: Jamie Dimon, when questioned about $31 million pay, should have said he’s worth it   [CNBC]

“I would’ve said, ’Look I know you think that I may be overpaid but I do point out that others have shared in the wealth,” the “Mad Money” host says.


In 2018, JP Morgan bought back 181.5 million shares of stock for $20 billion. Also in 2018, JP Morgan issued 32 million new shares to management (18% of buyback). Those newly issued shares were worth $3.5 billion then, and are worth $4.2 billion today.

In 2017, JP Morgan bought back 166.6 million shares of stock for $15.4 billion. Also in 2017, JP Morgan issued 31 million new shares to management (18% of buyback). Those newly issued shares were worth $2.9 billion then, and are worth $4.03 billion today.

In 2016, JP Morgan bought back 140.4 million shares of stock for $9.1 billion. Also in 2016, JP Morgan issued 38 million new shares to management (27% of buyback). Those newly issued shares were worth $2.5 billion then, and are worth $4.94 billion today.

Were these newly issued shares spread evenly throughout the company, perhaps as part of an employee stock ownership program (ESOP)?

No. In each year, there were fewer than 1 million shares issued for the JP Morgan ESOP program, less than 3% of the dilutive issuance. Senior management received more than 97% of the newly issued shares.

Today, Jamie Dimon owns more than 7.8 million shares of JP Morgan, worth more than $1 billion. Some of these shares were purchased by Dimon on the open market. Most of them were not.

There are 12 other JP Morgan senior executives listed on Form 4 who are centimillionaires from their stock holdings. Many more than that are decamillionaires.

One day we will recognize the defining Zeitgeist of the Obama/Trump years for what it is: an unparalleled transfer of wealth to the managerial class.

Not founders. Not entrepreneurs. Not visionaries.

Nope … managers.

Fee-takers.

Asset-gatherers.

Rent-seekers.

Rakes.

Here’s JP Morgan’s stock performance over these three years.

Not bad. Up 48% over the three years versus the S&P 500 up 23%. On a total return basis – which includes dividends (a true return of capital to investors IMO) reinvested in JPM – it looks even better … up 59% versus the S&P 500 up 30%.

Are Jamie Dimon and team good managers?

I think you’d have to say yes, although it’s also … difficult … to overlook the various felony charges and billions in civil settlements that have been assessed against JP Morgan during Dimon’s long tenure.

Did you know that Jamie Dimon and team are taking an 18-27% rake from the multi-billion dollar stock buybacks that JP Morgan announces every year?

I bet you didn’t. And no, it wasn’t always this way.

Are Jamie Dimon and team worth the 18-27% rake they take from the multi-billion dollar stock buybacks that JP Morgan announces every year?

I don’t think so. I think it’s obscene.

I think the way in which corporate management teams like JP Morgan’s have captured their compensation plans to enrich themselves at the expense of shareholders is a micro-version of the way in which Oligarchs have captured monetary policy and tax policy and trade policy and antitrust policy and securities policy to enrich themselves at the expense of citizens.

What is rent-seeking?

It’s setting the RULES – in big ways like tax policy and in small ways like compensation policy – to benefit the rule-setters over the people the rules are supposed to benefit.

And because it’s the RULES … well, you don’t even notice it.

Particularly if it’s masked by a compelling narrative like “Yay, Stock Buybacks!”.

What is rent-seeking?

It’s the rake.

I think these obscene rakes should be stopped and rolled back. Sadly, I think these obscene rakes are so ingrained in our economy and our politics that they are immune to incremental policy measures. Sadly, I think we have to take a flamethrower to these rakes to change any of this.

But that’s just me.

I understand and appreciate that you may feel differently about both the appropriate level of compensation for corporate management and – even if you agree with me about its obscenity – you may disagree with me about what actions should be taken to address this, and by whom. For example, Rusty and I disagree about a LOT of this on the policy/regulatory intervention side. Amazingly enough, we can disagree on this without accusing the other of lacking basic math skills. Yes, this is a subtweet.

Recognizing that well-meaning people can disagree on the urgency of the problem and how to redress it, I want to suggest three non-flamethrower policies that I think (hope) can get wide agreement. They all stem from this quote by Jamie Dimon in last Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview, when Leslie Stahl asked him if he thought his compensation was “appropriate”:

The Board sets my pay. I have nothing to do with it.

The Chairman of the JP Morgan board of directors is … Jamie Dimon.

And don’t @ me about independent directors and compensation sub-committees and all that. Just don’t. Don’t even start. Because you KNOW that’s bullshit. And so does Jamie Dimon.

So here are my three non-flamethrower policy proposals. These can all be legislated or regulated into existence tomorrow if there were political will to do so.

1) Require by law that the board Chair of publicly traded companies may not also be the CEO. [and if you really want to get serious about this, require that the board Chair be an independent director]

2) Require by law that board directors may only receive cash compensation for their services and are not eligible for any form of stock-based compensation.

3) Require by law that board directors may not exercise any form of previously granted stock-based compensation while they serve on the board.

Do these proposals go far enough? I don’t think so.

But they’re a start.


Bye, Alexa…


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Leave aside the question of whether you care about wealth concentration or believe in any socially deleterious effects it might have. Ignore whether you believe that Amazon or any other Big Tech company is really an anti-competitive monopoly. Do you disagree with Ben about wealth taxes? Hold that in abeyance, too.

Why? Because what we personally believe about each of these things isn’t the same thing as what we all believe we all believe, or what we all know that we all know – a thing which we call Common Knowledge. And it is Common Knowledge, rather than the sum total of all of our deeply held personal beliefs, which usually shapes our culture and our politics.

The more we glance at the top of the Zeitgeist, our daily collection of the most linguistically connected articles in financial news, the more often we see common threads with our Election Index. In many ways, the framing of all news through the lens of income inequality, monopoly power and the influence of Big Tech IS the zeitgeist.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that this article about the apparent attempts by Amazon and Bezos to steer the outcome of a local city council election ranks so highly.

Amazon’s $1.5 million political gambit backfires in Seattle City Council election [Reuters]

To date – and it’s true with this article and its neighbors, too – the most powerful connections between finance and markets articles have been phrases like ‘socialist’, ‘billionaire class’ and ‘unprecedented spending’. Still, it’s hard not to observe a subtle transition happening here. Here the main event isn’t just income inequality or power and influence per se, but the framing of Amazon’s use of wealth to generate political power as ‘backfiring‘ and ‘repudiated.’ I think that similar language in coverage of Bloomberg’s primary bid and the related Howard Schultz retrospectives probably contributed to that. So maybe this is anecdotal.

But if we’re not looking ahead to consider what else we might all know that we all know through these lenses, that’s a failure of imagination on our part.

The Age of the High-Functioning Sociopath


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I’m old enough to remember when Donald Trump, the President-elect of the United States, and Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank, had an impromptu press conference in the Trump Tower lobby to trumpet the FIFTY THOUSAND JOBS and FIFTY BILLION DOLLAR INVESTMENT that Softbank would be bringing to the US.

As the articles covering this “incredible and historic” meeting pointed out, “Mr. Trump took credit for the investment, saying his November victory spurred SoftBank’s decision.”


When Billionaires Meet: $50 Billion Pledge From SoftBank to Trump   [Wall Street Journal]

Masayoshi Son, the brash billionaire who controls Sprint Corp., said Tuesday he would invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create 50,000 new jobs, following a 45-minute private meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.

The telecom mogul, who made his fortune in Japan with SoftBank GroupCorp., announced his investment plans in the lobby of Trump Tower, though he didn’t provide details. Mr. Trump took credit for the investment, saying his November victory spurred SoftBank’s decision.


The focal point of Son’s meeting with Trump was a three or four slide powerpoint deck that they both initialed. I have no idea what it means to say “$50bn + $7bn” and “50k + 50k new jobs”, but what the hell.

I thought about that Trump Tower deck when I saw the most recent Softbank and Vision Fund investor deck, presented in the aftermath of the WeWork IPO debacle and Softbank’s subsequent refinancing of the company.

That deck, apparently meant to “reassure” investors, was chock-full of slides like the ones I’m going to present without comment below. Honestly, when I first saw these slides on social media, I was certain that they were photoshopped. I was certain they were a put-on.

They’re not.

At some point, I expect this deck will be lost to the sands of time, so to preserve it for posterity I’ve saved a copy on our servers. You can download the Softbank Investor Deck here, if you like.

In the immortal words of transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman,

You just can’t make this shit up.

Haha, JK. Walt Whitman never said that.

But then again … maybe he did! How do you know for sure he didn’t? Maybe he muttered it to himself after a series of fishing mishaps out there on Walden Pond.

What’s that you say? … it was Thoreau who lived on Walden Pond, not Whitman? Are you sure about that, friend? Are you sure that Walt Whitman never visited Henry Thoreau and went fishing and lost a couple of hooks and said this?

Because lots of people are saying that it’s possible he did.

Because apparently I can say ANYTHING in an SEC-compliant investor presentation if I just put some 3-point font disclaimers at the bottom of a slide and say it’s possible.

Why should we play by the rules when raccoons like Donald Trump and Masayoshi Son not only break them with impunity and ludicrous intent, but are celebrated and made rich for breaking them?

Why should we care about anything when nothing matters?

Because you’re not a sociopath.

Because you care about your Pack.

Yes, this is the Age of the High-Functioning Sociopath. Yes, this is the Age of Sheep Logic. Yes, this the age where scale and mass distribution are ends in themselves, where the supercilious State knows what’s best for you and your family, where communication policy and fiat news shout down authenticity, where rapacious, know-nothing narcissism is celebrated as leadership even as civility, expertise, and service are mocked as cuckery.

Stipulated. What, did you think this was going to be easy?

These clowns don’t deserve us. And it will take decades of a persistent, bottom-up social movement that rejects and negs and ridicules them … ALL OF THEM … before we have the opportunity to reclaim our world.

The Age of the High-Functioning Sociopath will never change on a single point of failure like an election. Or a “suicide”. Or an impeachment. Or a busted IPO.

But a MILLION points of failure? A MILLION points of rejection and negging and ridicule?

Yeah, that can work.

So let’s get started.


When Was I Radicalized? (Boeing edition)


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Dick Fuld

That’s Dick “Gorilla” Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, who oversaw a criminal fraud conspiracy that went by the name of Repo 105.

Dick Fuld never saw a courtroom, much less a jail cell.

When was I radicalized?

When Dick Fuld walked away scot-free from Lehman with half a billion dollars in cash comp and stock sales during his tenure.

I thought of Dick Fuld today when I saw this picture and read this article.


Prosecutors Face Complex Path to Charging Boeing Over 737 MAX   [Wall Street Journal]

To bring a successful criminal case against Boeing itself, prosecutors would have to show that executives repeatedly concealed or ignored the 737 MAX’s engineering problems, experts said.

And there is a larger economic and political component: A corporate indictment and potentially huge sanctions must be balanced against the economic and national-security risks of incapacitating the country’s second-biggest defense contractor.


That’s Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, about to testify before Congress about the 737 MAX.

The article is correct, of course. There’s no way that the Justice Dept. will ever bring a criminal case against Boeing, not one that hits top management or really shackles the company.

And I know that Boeing said today that Muilenburg won’t get a bonus or (more) stock grants until the 737 MAX is flying again, but this article got Radical Me thinking …

I wonder how much money Muilenburg and his management team and his board of directors have pocketed since he took over as CEO in 2015 and Chairman in 2016?

I wonder if executive compensation practices have changed over that span since … you know … Boeing started buying back nine billion dollars of stock every year?

Tell you what, I’ll make it easy and I won’t even count the cash compensation of Boeing management since 2016. I’ll just stick to the direct value of the sterilized stock options they exercised and the restricted stock units they were vested. And I won’t count any compensation of any sort here in 2019.

Over the 3-year period 2016 through 2018, Boeing management and directors pocketed $5.4 billion in exercised stock options and restricted stock units.

And by pocketed, I mean that $5.4 billion of the $25.2 billion in stock buybacks that you thought was a “return of capital” over that span was actually a USE OF CASH to either buy shares directly from management or mask the dilution of non-management shareholders.

In 2017 alone, the one good stock-performance year Boeing has had in a decade, $3.8 billion went to Boeing management and directors. That’s 29% of cashflow from operations for the year. The board totally reconfigured their stock compensation system to accomplish that. You know, the board that Muilenburg took over the year before.

And as they say on Wheel of Fortune, once you buy a prize, it’s yours to keep. There’s no clawback here. There’s no repercussion over the 737 MAX, either civil or criminal, for Muilenburg and crew. The only thing the 737 MAX debacle is going to make more difficult is for these same guys to pocket ANOTHER $5 billion.

And yes, some portion of this stock-based comp went to rank-and-file Boeing employees … I figure 5-10% is a good rule of thumb for most S&P 500 companies. But remember, I’m not even counting cash comp here. This is three years of stock comp for the management of an American icon of a company that had two so-so years and one really good year.

Is Muilenburg a billionaire from being a Boeing management lifer?

A guy who says his top management “insights” are:

“React quickly. Events can change everything. So must you.”

“Know your team. What really matters to them, on every scale?”

“Chart the course. What should the next 100 years look like?”

I dunno if he’s a billionaire yet. But he’s gotta be close.

LOL.

Yeah, It’s Still Water.

It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in 100 years. Not to founders. Not to visionaries. Not to inventors. Not to entrepreneurs. Nope … to managers.

This is the story of every S&P 500 company over the past five years.

Oh yeah, one more thing for the “Yay, Stock Buybacks!” crowd.

Over the past 20 years, Boeing has NOT bought back stock in two of those years. That was way back in 2002 and 2003, back when the top management and board jobs were just a twinkle in Dennis Muilenburg’s eyes.

Wanna guess what the total value of exercised stock options by Boeing management was in the years where they did NOT have stock buybacks to sterilize the issuance and so had straight shareholder dilution?

In 2002, with zero stock buybacks, the total value of exercised stock options was $31 million.

In 2003, with zero stock buybacks, the total value of exercised stock options was $19 million.

It was hundreds of millions in the years before that, when they had stock buybacks.

It was hundreds of millions in the years after that, when they had stock buybacks.

It is BILLIONS of dollars today, as Dennis Muilenburg cranks up the buyback machine to its current record levels.

I believe it is impossible to separate the modern management practice of self-enrichment through massive levels of stock-based comp from the modern management practice of investor placation through massive levels of stock buybacks … without regulating one or the other practice.

But I’m all ears for any ideas.


The Return of the Rotation Missionaries


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One of the things we will be highlighting in our November Epsilon Theory Professional monitors is the emergence of two narratives that have finally managed to marginally peck away at the attention on China Trade War narratives – at least in the short run. One of them is the “Rotation from Profitless Growth” narrative. The other is the “What Would Impeachment (or President Warren) Do to Markets” narrative.

We will have a lot more to say about the growing commentary and missionary behavior here, but if you feel like WeWork’s IPO failure, some disappointments at Amazon and execution successes from the likes of Apple and Microsoft are being sold as a package story about quality, value and cash flow mattering again, you aren’t imagining it. We think a rotation trade IS being promoted by market missionaries, which is not exactly the same thing as the rotation actually happening, and neither of which is necessarily the same thing as trading on that observation being a good idea.

Of course, what people mean by quality and value varies wildly. The only universally accurate definition is “things with traits I like more than other investors do.” Still, when you walk through the zeitgeist, you start to get the picture of what a change in vernacular looks like. For example:

Articles about brands and competitive advantage in grocery store chains rank among the top 5 most linguistically connected articles today.

Kroger memo touts a ‘new brand’ and says ‘all will be revealed soon’ — here’s the full message [BI]

Articles with a lot of value investor-triggering language covering the energy sector do too.

Marathon Petroleum Provides Update On Strategic Review To Enhance Shareholder Value [BI]

What else is in the zeitgeist? Quoting “path to profitability” language anywhere and everywhere as the panacea for anyone who might think your favorite profitless revenue growth company might end up like…well, those other ones.

Looking to Shake Those WeWork-Induced IPO Doldrums? Look Up—Into the Cloud [Forbes]

The missionaries are out there – the missionaries who benefit from your trading activity, in particular – and they are officially pounding the table for rotation.

As always, we’re better at observing than predicting, so if it isn’t obvious exactly what to do with this information, know that it isn’t exactly obvious to us, either. Still, our counsel is Clear Eyes: be especially aware right now that you’re being told how to think about what WeWork and the death of profitless revenue growth as the engine for valuation means. That doesn’t mean that won’t manifest in reality – after all, that’s exactly what other investors are being told, too. But we are creatures with a tendency to auto-tune to common knowledge. Knowing that it’s happening is something, at the very least.

The Road to Reykjavík


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Image result for aluminum production iceland

It took me four meetings to realize what was happening.

Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake. But I get there eventually.

You see, that fourth meeting was the very moment that I converted to the church of Epsilon Theory. It took place a good four years before the first words Ben ever published under that label and put to words what I had felt for quite a while. But on a dime, it changed my questions, my due diligence process and my concept of the set of behaviors which could even conceivably produce true idiosyncratic alpha.

My conversion on the Road to Reykjavík, if you will, took place during my time covering external equity and macro managers for a large public pension. I was in New York, as I often was, making the rounds with existing, prospective and emerging investment managers, both long-only and long-short. Five meetings a day for five days. At least a few dinners. When I referred to the fourth meeting, what I meant was the fourth meeting out of ten or so in which precisely the same observation was presented to me in almost precisely the same language:

“The right way to think about aluminum is as a mechanism for storing and profiting from access to low-cost energy.”

The logic here obviously isn’t earth-shattering. Aluminum production is notoriously energy-intensive. You haul in bauxite from Australia, crush it, and throw it in the industrial equivalent of a pressure cooker with lye at around 350 degrees. You filter it and seed it with aluminum hydroxide crystals so that larger crystals can form as the disgusting aluminum oxide slurry cools. The real problem comes when you have to turn that aluminum oxide into aluminum. The former’s melting point is prohibitively high – think like 3,700 degrees, about twice as hot as the actual flame in your average charcoal grill – but there are some fancy workarounds that permit electrolytic extraction at a much more reasonable 1,700 degrees. Still, when the process is considered as a whole, aluminum remains very energy intensive to produce. That’s one of the reasons aluminum production has so often been attached to hydroelectric and geothermal energy sources.

It is an interesting factoid, and it is fun to learn how much of Iceland’s power production, for example, has historically been devoted to refining aluminum. Look it up. It’s an insane amount. But this didn’t stick in my head because these four people had the same perfunctory observation to make about the components of margins for a metal refiner. It stuck in my head because they used the exact same, odd linguistic construction for characterizing and describing it at roughly the same time. All of this was brought to my mind, as it happens, by one of the stories that rose to the top of today’s Zeitgeist.

Green Aluminum, Coming Soon to a Metals-Trading Desk Near You [Bloomberg]

Now, when I got back home, I searched through recent sell-side research for this language. Nothing. Maybe there’s a relationship between these individuals? Maybe it’s just the usual idea circuit? But I couldn’t find any connections between the PM’s backgrounds. What’s more, three of these meetings were with equity managers. One was with a discretionary global macro fund. The context of the observation related to different securities in each case. I’d characterize three as treating the observation as a novel research-based driver of a long thesis, and one as a novel research-based driver of a short thesis. This wasn’t your classic case of the emergence of a crowded trade.

Instead, what turned up was a series of three related articles from major financial publications in the month prior, each of which conjured some variant of the above language.

I came away with three strong, if loosely held, beliefs. Each forms a part of our current views on the proper use of natural language processing in investment applications, and a big part of what we think most shops are getting wrong as they explore these questions:

  1. Narrative is not (just) sentiment. Nearly all present applications of NLP to investment management treat sentiment detection as a primary – if not exclusive – aim. Narrative has explanatory structure independent of the affect of language used in it.
  2. Narrative is not (just) crowded ideas. Decision-making happens at the margin, and common knowledge drives second- and third-order decisions. Conflating narrative with an expectation of lockstep first-degree thinking from those who hear its associated missionary statements is wrong.
  3. Narrative is not (just) idea propagation. Most scraping, data-driven, NLP and sentiment-based models in the investment world have become heavily tilted toward a belief that social media’s reach has long since eclipsed that of traditional media. We agree. The demons agree (and tremble). Everyone agrees. But here’s the problem: reach isn’t the same as common knowledge. Except perhaps for the tweeter-in-chief, there is still no social media account in the world which everyone can assume that everyone else has seen. In politics and finance, we think many of you are discounting the power of missionaries far too much.

Of course, Ben had made all these leaps in the political world years before. It formed the core of his dissertation and the book that followed it. We all have our personal Road to Reykjavík. I’m sure there are more than a few members of the pack with a similar story, too.

Was That Wrong?


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Mr. Lippman: It’s come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?

George Costanza: Who said that?

Mr. Lippman: She did.

[pause]

George Costanza: Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I tell you, I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing is frowned upon … you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices, and I tell you, people do that all the time.


“THERE IS DEFINITE HANKY-PANKY GOING ON”: THE FANTASTICALLY PROFITABLE MYSTERY OF THE TRUMP CHAOS TRADES  [Vanity Fair]

Three days earlier, in the last 10 minutes of trading, someone bought 82,000 S&P e-minis when the index was trading at 2969. That was nearly 4 a.m. on September 11 in Beijing, where a few hours later, the Chinese government announced that it would lift tariffs on a range of American-made products. As has been the typical reaction in the U.S. stock markets as the trade war with China chugs on without any perceptible logic, when the news about a potential resolution of it seems positive, stock markets go up, and when the news about the trade war appears negative, they go down.

The news was viewed positively. The S&P index moved swiftly on September 11 to 2996, up nearly 30 points. That same day, President Donald Trump said he would postpone tariffs on some Chinese goods, and the S&P index moved to 3016, or up 47 points since the fortunate person bought the 82,000 e-minis just before the market closed on September 10. Since a one-point movement, up or down, in an e-mini contract is worth $50, a 47-point movement up in a day was worth $2,350 per contract. If you were the lucky one who bought the 82,000 e-mini contracts, well, then you were sitting on a one-day profit of roughly $190 million.


This Vanity Fair feature article is as badly sourced and as poorly vetted and as ridiculously misleading an article about markets as I’ve ever read. It’s an embarrassment to the author and the editors and everyone associated with the piece.

And yet I still think there’s a non-trivial chance the Carl Icahns and Steve Schwarzmans of the world are, in fact, being tipped by the White House.


Do I think Carl and Steve, both of whom talk directly with Trump and Mnuchin all the time, are buying 400,000 e-minis on Friday afternoon?

Of course not.


Do I think Carl and Steve are told exactly what’s happening in the China talks as soon as it happens?

Yes, I do.


Is it illegal for Carl and Steve to make trades based on that information, particularly in the swaps, futures and commodities markets?

No, it is not.


Are S&P 500 e-mini contracts part of that more lightly-regulated swaps, futures and commodities market?

Yes, they are.


To be clear, the restrictions on how and what market-impacting information can be legally shared from government sources has gotten a lot tougher over the past 10 years.

First, under the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, it is now illegal for members of Congress (and the Executive and Judiciary!) to trade their personal accounts based on non-public information acquired under their official business, and they are held to the same standards on tipping insider information as the SEC applies to everyone else. There are also beefed up reporting requirements for their personal trades, including in commodity markets, and clear language that government employees and appointees owe a “duty of care” to the US government.

Second, Dodd-Frank contained language that gave the CFTC more leeway in bringing insider trading cases against participants in commodity markets, which includes traders in derivative instruments like the S&P 500 e-mini contract. The CFTC still can’t bring cases based on a traditional insider information basis, because the idea of an inside track on material, non-public corporate information (“Blue Horseshoe loves Anacott Steel!”) makes no sense when you’re talking about commodities. What the CFTC can do, however, is bring an insider trading case based on a “misappropriation” theory of non-public information, which they’ve done in a couple of cases since 2016. Basically, if you “steal” non-public information from your employer or client and use that to your advantage in a CFTC-regulated market, they can now go after you.

But here’s what hasn’t changed:

Reg-FD does not apply to the President of the United States.

If Carl Icahn calls up the CEO of GM and asks her how the UAW talks are going, it is illegal for Mary Barra to tell him anything that she does not also tell everyone else.


If Carl Icahn calls up the President of the United States and asks him how the China talks are going, it is perfectly legal for Donald Trump to tell him anything without obligation to tell anyone else.

You don’t think Trump knows this? You think Trump believes he owes some sort of “duty of care” to anyone beyond his family and circle of fellow oligarchs? You think Trump lies awake at night asking himself “was that wrong?”

LOL.


To My Fellow Billionaires …


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That’s Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff chatting with his buddy Jim Cramer in the top photo, and on the bottom that’s Benioff and his fellow multi-billionaire Ray Dalio from their perch at Davos, where they appeared to tsk-tsk us about populism and wealth inequality.

More recently, both Benioff and Dalio have been making a full-scale media blitz calling for the “reform of capitalism”, with appearances on 60 Minutes (Dalio) and appearances on … well, anyplace with a microphone or a website (Benioff).

And then yesterday there was this:


Marc Benioff: We Need a New Capitalism [New York Times]

To my fellow business leaders and billionaires, I say that we can no longer wash our hands of our responsibility for what people do with our products. Yes, profits are important, but so is society. And if our quest for greater profits leaves our world worse off than before, all we will have taught our children is the power of greed.

It’s time for a new capitalism — a more fair, equal and sustainable capitalism that actually works for everyone and where businesses, including tech companies, don’t just take from society but truly give back and have a positive impact.


“To my fellow billionaires …”

I mean, that’s an all-time cringey line, and the rest of this piece is just as drecky and anodyne. If Benioff had concluded with something like “I believe that children are our future”, it would not have surprised me one whit.

But all snark aside, what did surprise me was my strong negative reaction to all this.

How is this being full-hearted of you, Neb, to react so negatively to a guy who I have every reason to believe is sincerely interested in doing good?

Now, to be fair, Marc Benioff has never been my favorite guy, as he epitomizes (IMO) the robber baron financialization ethos of the past 20 years in capital markets. Last year I wrote an entire note on the subject:

Since Salesforce became a public company, its revenues have grown at a wonderful clip. It’s EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) and net income available to common shareholders… not so much.

Where have all the revenues gone, if not into earnings and net income? Well, if you read the Wall Street analyst reports about Salesforce “beating its earnings estimates” every quarter, you’d think that this chart above must be wrong. Why, Salesforce has lots of profits! Sure, it trades at a high P/E multiple, as befits a company with such great revenue growth, but the consensus Wall Street earnings estimate for this quarter is $0.50 per share. With 756 million shares outstanding, that’s about $375 million in earnings this quarter alone. What gives?

What gives (among other things) is stock-based compensation. The earnings estimates that you’ll hear the CNBC analysts talking about Salesforce “beating” or “missing” are pro-forma earnings. They do not include stock-based compensation. Actual money paid to employees? Yes, that’s included. Stock paid to employees in lieu of actual money? No, that’s not included. If you included stock-based compensation (and all the other pro forma adjustments) as actual expenses, which of course they are, then the consensus Wall Street earnings estimate for this quarter is not 50 cents per share. It’s 2 cents per share.

Since it became a public company in 2004, Salesforce.com has paid its employees $4.8 billion in stock-based compensation. That’s above and beyond actual cash compensation. For tax purposes, it’s actually expensed quite a bit more than that, namely $5.2 billion. The total amount of net income available for common shareholders? $360 million. On total revenue of $52 billion.

Note that none of this includes the money that Benioff himself made in stock sales from 2004 through 2010, where he sold between 10,000 and 20,000 shares of stock in the open market PER DAY, EVERY DAY, for SIX YEARS.

In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, I’m not even angry. It’s AMAZING what Benioff has been able to pull off for himself and his people. Nor am I suggesting in the least possible way that any of this is illegal or immoral or ethically suspect.

What I am saying is that you can sell a lot of software if you pay your sales team handsomely and investors don’t care about the expense or the profitability of those sales.

What I am saying is that this is only possible within a vast Wall Street and media ecosystem that tells investors not to care about the expense or the profitability of those sales.


So sure, Marc, tell me again how your recipe for the “reform” of capitalism does ANYTHING to change that Wall Street and media ecosystem that allowed YOU to achieve an almost unimaginable inequality of wealth.

I say ‘almost unimaginable’ because Ray Dalio’s wealth is even less imaginable.

And while I have less of a problem with how Dalio made his (truly) unimaginable fortune, I have exactly the same mistrust for Dalio as I do for Benioff and all the other “fellow billionaires” who now scold us on “solutions” for ain’t-it-awful wealth inequality.

My mistrust is not because they are rich.

My mistrust is because Marc Benioff and Ray Dalio spent their adult lives becoming as unequally wealthy as humanly possible. It wasn’t an afterthought. It wasn’t a side effect of noble deeds. It wasn’t luck. They succeeded in their direct, lifelong goal. And good for them!

But now they have to own it.

Was SOCIETY wrong to have allowed you to achieve mind-bogglingly unequal wealth? Or is society just wrong now … going forward, as it were.

Were YOU wrong to have made the accumulation of mind-bogglingly unequal wealth your life’s work? Or are others just wrong now … going forward, as it were.

Unless Marc Benioff and Ray Dalio are able to say YES to either of those questions … that either the world was wrong to allow these great fortunes or they were wrong to seek those great fortunes … then you’ll pardon me if I think they should STFU on the wrongness of great fortune-building.

You know, a really smart guy once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Not because the rich man is a bad man. The rich man hearing this lesson followed all the Commandments diligently. He was not a bad man, and neither are Benioff or Dalio.

It’s hard for a rich man to get into heaven because the Money gets in the way of the Good. It’s hard because his Love of Money – the devotion of an adult life to making lots and lots of money, and the self-imposition of an Identity based on making lots and lots of money – crowds out his Doing of Good, and you can’t change that life and Identity without repentance.

Repentance. Such an old-fashioned word, like honor or shame. Words that are in really short supply these days, especially among Benioff and his fellow billionaires.

Everything has a price. Including the creation of great wealth.

Especially the creation of great wealth.

Avoid those who search for your soul in a moneybag. For when they find a penny in the purse, it is dearer to them than any soul whatsoever.

That’s from Martin Luther, writing in 1517. He was in a bit of a tizzy about the sale of indulgences, where rich people could buy a dispensation from the Pope so that they could get into heaven.

Same.


The Common Knowledge of Inflation


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Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.

That’s my fave Arthur Miller quote, from The Crucible.

Our Devil is inflation, and today we think him beautiful in Heaven.


Low consumer inflation opens the door for Fed to cut interest rates further   [MarketWatch]

The low rate of inflation, reflected in the CPI and other price barometers, may allow the Fed more leeway to trim rates if growth in the economy continues to slow. Wall Street puts a high chance the central bank will reduce rates again at the end of the month.

With inflation largely under wraps, the Fed has said it would be prepared to cut interest rates again if the outlook for the U.S. economy worsens. 


Common Knowledge is what everyone knows that everyone knows.

The strategic interaction (a “game” in the technical sense) by which Common Knowledge is created is, at its core, the process by which the crowd evaluates the crowd, and it is the primary driver of our lives as social animals, both in politics and in markets. It’s also the theoretical sun of the Epsilon Theory solar system.

For a crash course, here are some of the ET notes that have focused on the Common Knowledge Game, going all the way back to original Manifesto.


One of the most powerful and pervasive strands of Common Knowledge today is that inflation is practically non-existent.

Everyone knows that everyone knows that inflation is low.

We know this because we are told by our betters – by Missionaries in the game theoretic parlance – that inflation is low, and so it is … not in reality, but in the Common Knowledge. And that’s what counts.

It doesn’t matter if you personally believe that inflation is not-low. It doesn’t matter if there’s obvious data that inflation is not-low. It doesn’t matter because if you act publicly in opposition to the Common Knowledge … if you say that the Missionaries are wrong … then you will be punished for your public action so long as the Common Knowledge persists.

If you rely on the Missionaries for your bread and butter, then you can’t cross the Missionaries.

This is why the author of this MarketWatch article yesterday takes the most recent inflation data – some of which shows headline inflation rising less than expectations, but NONE of which shows core inflation falling – and frames it in a way that communicates “ho-hum, more low inflation just as far as the eye can see … green light for stimulus!”

Let me put it a different way.

Core inflation in the US is now at a 10-year high.

But we are told – in this ARTICLE ABOUT INFLATION – that precisely the opposite is true.

Is this “runaway inflation”? Of course not. But c’mon, man.

I’m really not trying to pick on this guy … I could pick 1,000 articles and 1,000 authors who do this, and we’re all just trying to make a living here. That’s my point, in fact. It’s not evil to write the article this way; it’s entirely rational.

This is also why “Don’t fight the Fed!” is not just a truism … it’s actually true.

But here’s the thing.

At some point a new Missionary will rise. One always does. And that new Missionary will change what everyone knows that everyone knows about inflation.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts on all this.

Sometimes Mr. Market is a Missionary.

The Fed has zero ability – ZERO – to combat that Missionary by raising interest rates and squelching the inflation narrative.

You saw what happened in December of last year. You saw how Jay Powell was taken out into the public square and politically emasculated for raising rates. You think that’s ever happening again? LOL. Sorry, market peeps, but the Fed does NOT have your back on this one.

Inflation is the Devil. Inflation is the Fourth Horseman.

And you’re not ready for the Fall.


In Chinese, the Emphasis is on the Second Syllable


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To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.

That’s the Starbucks corporate mission statement. LOL.


Starbucks Faces An Escalating Crisis In Hong Kong  [International Business Times]

Starbucks’ stores in Hong Kong were recently burned and vandalized amid the escalating protests and riots across the city. The protesters justified the attacks by claiming that Maxim’s Group, which owns Starbucks’ licenses in Hong Kong and Macao, supports Beijing and opposes the protests.

The attacks started after Annie Wu, the daughter of Maxim’s founder, spoke out against the protests during the UN Human Rights Council meeting in mid-September. Speaking to CGTN (the overseas arm of China’s state-backed CCTV), Wu called the protests “riots” and expressed hope that the Hong Kong police force would “maintain law and order.”


The point of this article is that Starbucks is “between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to Hong Kong, as the franchisee who owns the HK stores – Maxim’s Group – is kissing Xi’s ring, which has resulted in some store damage from protesters, plus something of a Starbucks boycott in the city.

This is a bad take.

The truth is that there’s no rock and no hard place in the store damage or the HK semi-boycott.

The lost sales on 174 HK-based Starbucks are the cheapest insurance policy the company could possibly buy against an NBA-like disruption on its 3,748 other Chinese stores.

Even better, because the Starbucks stores are franchised to Maxim’s Group, who is more than happy to do the dirty work here, Starbucks itself can remain pleasantly anodyne.

Starbucks itself can wallow publicly in its mission statement of “inspiring and nurturing the human spirit” … everywhere except Hong Kong, that is.

Don’t get me wrong … it’s a very clever strategy. Very coyote-ish.

But ultimately, I think this strategy will prove to be too clever by half.

Why?

Because when you’re dealing with a government that says this …

We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.

… then ultimately you’re going to be forced to make a choice.

Do you want to preserve your authenticity and your brand, or do you want to preserve your earnings guidance and share price?

Choose one. You can’t have both.

THIS is the rock and the hard place that Starbucks and the NBA and Activision and Disney and GM and every other US corporation with consumer-facing products in China now find themselves between.

No one will believe me when I say this, but it’s the truth:

This is bigger than tariffs.


Imagine That.


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I wrote this blurb about Imagination one year ago, in Things Fall Apart (Part 3) – Markets. I’m leading with it in this note because I want to show you the power of framing.


In the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman, Dream of the Endless must play the Oldest Game with a demon Archduke of Hell to recover some items that were stolen from him. What is the Oldest Game? It’s a battle of wits and words. You see it all the time in mythology as a challenge of riddles; Gaiman depicts it as a battle of verbal imagery and metaphors.

Here’s the money quote from Gaiman:

“There are many ways to lose the Oldest Game. Failure of nerve, hesitation, being unable to shift into a defensive shape. Lack of imagination.”

I love this. It is exactly how one loses ANY game, including the games of politics and the games of investing … including the metagames of life. This isn’t just a partial list of how you lose any truly important game, it is a complete and exhaustive list. This is the full set of game-losing flaws.

  • Failure of nerve.
  • Hesitation.
  • Being unable to shift into a defensive shape.
  • Lack of imagination.

Of these four, lack of imagination is the most damaging. And the most common.

In the comic, Dream and the demon Choronzon go through an escalating series of metaphors for physically powerful entities, culminating with Choronzon’s verbal imagery of all-encompassing entropy and Anti-life. Dream counters by imagining a totally different dimension to the contest thus far, by making the identity statement, “I am hope.” Choronzon lacks the imagination to shift over to this new dimension and loses the game, at which point he’s wrapped up in barbed wire for an eternity of torment.


It’s true, you know. A failure to imagine a new game is the surest way to lose the old game.

And we ARE losing.


In the Land of Self-Defeat  [New York Times]

What a fight over the local library in my hometown in rural Arkansas taught me about my neighbors’ go-it-alone mythology — and Donald Trump’s unbeatable appeal.


In the few days since this article was published, it has more than 2,500 comments from NYT readers, almost all of them tsk-tsk’ng the locals in one way or another. Some of them are much harsher than a tsk-tsk.

I get it. I feel the same way. It makes me ANGRY and SAD that this rural county does not support the local library.

Then again, this library is a freakin’ Taj Mahal that cost millions of dollars in what is a really poor county. And now the locals are ANGRY and SAD that they must pay MOAR to keep it. I get that, too.

We’re ALL angry and sad, Arkansas locals and NYT readers alike, and we are ALL convinced that we are entirely justified in our very strong angry and sad feelings about this issue.

And then it hit me.

We are ALL being played.

These emotions are done TO us. Intentionally.

Here’s the game …

None of us – not the Arkansas locals, not the author of the article, not the readers of the article – can IMAGINE a local library that is not built by government and maintained by taxes.

It’s not that we can’t execute on a plan or that we don’t have the resources to build a library separate from gov’t. Those things may be true, but that’s not the game. That’s not how we’re played.

The game is to prevent us from IMAGINING a library separate from government.

Should governments build libraries? Of course!

AND.

And WE should build libraries. And WE should maintain them.

Does this Arkansas community have a WE with the desire to maintain their library? It sure doesn’t seem that way, does it?

But that’s okay. We got this.

By ‘we’ I may not mean you. You may not want to be part of this ‘we’. And that’s okay, too.

But there IS a ‘we’ for this. It just needs organizing. It just needs a Pack.

By the way, I’d bet my life that there are Pack members for this project in Van Buren County, Arkansas, too.

A $1 million endowment with a 5% real return can fund the librarian this county needs. Not just for a year or two. Forever. $100 million can fund 100 librarians. $1 billion can fund 1,000 librarians. Forever.

Imagine the good that 1,000 librarians across the country could achieve, year in and year out. Imagine THAT.

Who prevents us from imagining this?

Americans gave $6.5 billion to national political candidates in 2016.

That’s who.

We are TOLD that the “real” story of this Arkansas county library is something-something about Trump. That’s it’s something-something about Republicans and Democrats.

The citizens of Van Buren County believe this. The readers of the New York Times believe this. The author of the article surely believes this.

I tell you this is NOT the real story of this rural county library. I tell you this framing is a Lie.

This framing is designed to make us angry and sad. This framing is designed to make us give national political candidates our $6.5 billion. Most damaging of all, this framing is designed to make us give national political candidates our IMAGINATION, so that we cannot even conceive of an alternative to political life that does not depend utterly and completely on their verbal imagery and metaphors, on their internecine battle of wits where WE are their fodder and feed.

They keep us sick, you know.

They keep us hooked on this framing, in a political version of Munchausen-by-proxy.

The cure? Take back your distance.

You’ll find your local library to be the perfect place to start.

Make. Protect. Teach.

It’s a reframing of our political lives, without the … you know … politics.

Imagine that.


Fear Factor

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Yeah, yeah … I know that the Deep State is a powerful adversary. Or at least that’s what my MAGA buddies on twitter keep shouting at me.

But I’ll take the Deep State as an enemy any day compared to Steve Schwarzman and the rest of the Private Equity Tong looking to keep their carried interest tax treatment.


Wall Street is starting to take the possibility of an Elizabeth Warren presidency seriously — and strategists warn a victory could crush certain parts of the market  [Business Insider]

President Trump is still likely to win reelection “by a hair,” they added, but “investors are not appropriately weighting the likelihood of a Warren presidency.”

They may want to start paying attention, because a Warren victory — and an overall Democratic takeover of the Senate and White House — could hit the financial, health care, and energy sectors as progressive regulation hits bottom lines, the strategists said.

Apax Partners Says Warren, Ocasio-Cortez Shouldn’t Target Firm  [Bloomberg]

A spokesman for Apax Partners LLP says the private equity firm doesn’t have the kinds of investments in prison services that three progressive lawmakers are targeting in a letter they sent the company.

Wall Street Democratic donors warn the party: We’ll sit out, or back Trump, if you nominate Elizabeth Warren  [CNBC]

“You’re in a box because you’re a Democrat and you’re thinking, ‘I want to help the party, but she’s going to hurt me, so I’m going to help President Trump,’” said a senior private equity executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of retribution by party leaders.

Cramer: Wall Street executives are saying Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 bid has ‘got to be stopped’  [CNBC]

Leaders in the financial industry are really worried about the possibility of Sen. Elizabeth Warren becoming president, CNBC’s Jim Cramer said Tuesday.

CNBC’s David Faber tells Cramer that he’s hearing the same rumblings about Wall Street being fearful of a Warren presidency.


My favorite part of that last CNBC article is the bit where David Faber chirps in to say that he’s hearing the same thing.

I’ll just leave this here.

“Hey, Spike!”

In the immortal words of Bulldog Jim, “There’s always a bull market somewhere!”, and right now we are in a roaring bull market for unflattering Elizabeth Warren photos.

It’s the key to critical thought in a Fiat News world …

Why am I reading this NOW?

Welcome to The Long Now, where we must endure the constant stimulus that Management applies to our economy and the constant fear that Management applies to our politics.

Hey, we’ve only got FOUR MONTHS before the first actual vote is cast in the Democratic primary.

This is going to get SO much worse before it gets ANY better.


When the Product is Free, You’re the Product

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This isn’t a note about Facebook. It’s a note about online brokerage fees.

And it’s a note about Facebook.


Schwab Cuts Fees on Online Stock Trades to Zero, Rattling Rivals   [Wall Street Journal]

Charles Schwab Corp. said it would eliminate commissions on online stock trades, one of the most dramatic moves yet in a broad-based price war that is crimping profitability across the financial sector.

“There are certain parts of finance that have become commoditized,” said Devin Ryan, an analyst at JMP Securities LLC. “Trading is one of them.”

The end of commissions for trading is near as TD Ameritrade cuts to zero, matching Schwab   [CNBC]

TD Ameritrade said late Tuesday that the company will eliminate all commission fees for online U.S. stock, exchange-traded fund and option trades .

“We expect Fidelity and E*TRADE to react next and announce cuts to their own commission rates over the short-term, with both likely matching SCHW’s/AMTD’s zero rate,” said Credit Suisse research analyst Craig Siegenthaler in a note to clients titled “Finishing the Race to Zero.”

The match by TD Ameritrade failed to shore up its crashing stock. Shares of TD fell 2.5% on Wednesday following a 25% plunge on Tuesday, its worst day in 20 years. Analysts cited a higher reliance on commission revenue as a reason for its outsized decline.


Six months ago, I wrote the following about TD Ameritrade in a note called Pricing Power Part III: Government Collaboration. Here’s the money quote:

The most amazing thing to me about Vanguard’s advertising strategy is that sometimes I don’t think there is a strategy. Does Vanguard even have a TV ad budget? My best guess on Vanguard’s annual advertising budget is $100 million, twice what they’ve said they spent a few years back. And yet the AUM just comes rolling in, billion after billion after billion … trillion after trillion after trillion.

THIS is the power of a business model that fits the Zeitgeist of capital markets transformed into political utility.

You don’t have to convince people to give you money. You don’t have to construct a winning brand or marketing alpha. The secret of Vanguard is not only that they’re not wasting resources on unrewarded active investment management (in 2017, 45 employees managed $2 trillion in AUM in Vanguard’s equity indexing group … that’s $44 billion per employee!), but also that their cost of customer and asset acquisition is so low.

I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. Financial services companies live and die on distribution. Clients come and clients go. But if you can keep your customer acquisition costs low, you will ALWAYS live to fight another day. No matter what happens to performance.

On the other side of that spectrum, you’ve got TD Ameritrade and their incessant advertising campaign for all active management, all of the time. My god, but I weary of the smarmy dude with the beard, telling me that trading options is “just like playing pool”. And yeah, go ring that 24/5 bell, Lionel. All night long. Haha. How droll.

In 2018, TD Ameritrade spent $293 million in direct advertising expenses, three times my estimate of Vanguard’s spend for one-twelfth the net asset increase. Forget about all the employee comp associated with sales and marketing, I’m just talking about direct advertising costs. For this money, the company gained 510,000 net new accounts in the year, meaning that each net new account cost $586 in direct expenses. Now is there churn on accounts, so that gross new accounts are more than 510k and customer acquisition costs are proportionally less? Yes. But I can’t see any way it costs less than $500 for TD Ameritrade to get a new client, before you even start considering employee comp. And these costs are going up. TD Ameritrade is guiding to $320 million in advertising expenses this year. Lionel doesn’t ring that bell for free, you know.

I’m not trying to make a direct comparison between TD Ameritrade and Vanguard. They play in different ballparks. I’m also not trying to say that one is a better managed company than the other. What I AM saying is that Vanguard has taken an easy business path and a robust business path, and TD Ameritrade has not.

Vanguard fits the financial services Zeitgeist perfectly, and TD Ameritrade fits not at all.

Not. At. All.

So I’m not going to belabor this point, because you can read the original notes for the full scoop.

But if you want to skip all that Monty Python exposition and get straight to the Meaning of Life, here are my two takeaways from this latest news.

As a consumer … don’t cry for Argentina, and don’t cry for the online brokerages who are taking their commission fees down to zero.

As the old saying goes (apparently it goes back to a 1973 exhibit by the artist Richard Serra) … when the product is free, YOU are the product.

It’s the same with these guys, who have the requisite scale to make a pretty penny from selling YOU (in this case your order flow) to the execution shops who are in the sausage-making business of grinding buyers and sellers together. Plus, and I know this is hard to imagine, but the execution of your trades is about to get even crappier than it was before. Still, free is a pretty hard thing to pass up. Works for me.

As an investor in or an employee of ANY financial services company, on the other hand … maybe it’s time for a good cry and a hard look at your future prospects.

As the Epsilon Theory saying goes … capital markets are being transformed into political utilities.

If you don’t see that every facet of the financial services world is being transformed into a collection of two or three massively scaled and massively regulated behemoth corporations – into ACTUAL utilities – then you’re just not paying attention. The common denominator of each of these winning behemoths is that they have a narrative that fits the modern Zeitgeist – a profoundly status quo spirit of the age, dominated by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

“Yay, free!”

Except it’s not really free.

And it’s no place I’d want to work.

(See, I told you this was also a note about Facebook.)


The Emerging Market Zeitgeist is Broken

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Yes, Deadwood is the greatest HBO series ever. Don’t @ me. I’m not having it. David Milch is MY President.

And while Al Swearengen is the greatest character of that greatest show, the fact is that it’s another character – George Hearst – who drives the narrative arc for the entire series (and movie). Distant oligarch George wants the gold. He wants the timber. He wants the land. He goes to great lengths and great expense over a period of several years to acquire those assets, and then, by God, he is prepared to go to even greater lengths and greater expense to keep those assets. Because once acquired, by hook or by crook, those assets are HIS.

You see, Deadwood is a show about property rights.

So is the Argentina – IMF show.


IMF not saying when Argentina could get last disbursement  [Associated Press]

The International Monetary Fund refused to say Thursday when it will disburse the last $5.4 billion of a massive loan to Argentina that was originally planned for mid-September.

IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice said at a news conference that he didn’t “have specific information on timing.”

Reporters had asked him whether the organization will wait for the winner of the October presidential elections to take office on December 10 before releasing the funds.


Over the years, I’ve written a lot about Emerging Markets (EM) and the narrative here in the US and other developed markets about EM Investing ™. Here’s the note from six years ago that started this thread, “It Was Barzini All Along“.

Six years later, and I wouldn’t change a word. What is the core narrative for thinking of emerging markets as an asset class? What is the line you hear over and over and over again?

“EM is where the growth is.”

Or in the Epsilon Theory lingo, Yay, EM growth!

Except it’s not working. Or at least it’s not the emerging market-ness of a country that has driven its economic growth (or lack thereof) over the past decade, but rather that country’s sensitivity and vulnerability to DM monetary policy in general and US monetary policy in particular.

Is there a meaningful secular growth reality in emerging markets? Of course there is. But that and $2.75 will get you a subway token. It’s not that the secular growth story in emerging markets is a lie or doesn’t exist. It’s that it hasn’t mattered. In the same way that value and quality and smarts and careful fundamental analysis haven’t mattered. For a decade now. You know … Three-Body Problem and all that.

But the growth narrative for EM as an asset class is just the public core narrative for EM Investing ™. There’s a non-public core narrative, too. A much more foundational narrative.

“Your property rights as a foreign investor will be preserved.”

Or in the Epsilon Theory lingo, Yay, EM property rights!

Christine Lagarde and Mauricio Macri in happier days

This is why the IMF exists. This is what the IMF does. This is what the IMF means.

To protect the property rights of foreign investors in emerging markets.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that the property rights of foreign investors SHOULD be protected. I believe that everyone – but most of all the citizens of emerging markets – benefit from the free flow of global capital, and global capital ain’t gonna flow freely to you if there’s a risk it gets stolen.

But I also believe that the local returns on global capital access are almost always hijacked by the local oligarchs, and even if they’re not hijacked completely, it is entirely appropriate for local governments to negotiate and renegotiate those returns on capital. I also believe that there’s nothing sacred about foreign investor property rights, as those rights are not at all the same as the rights of citizens. I also believe that a nation should be free to burn itself on the hot stove of nationalizing assets or defaulting on debt or otherwise choosing an antagonistic stance towards global capital.

And to be sure, it’s not like the IMF rides into town like George Hearst rides into Deadwood, surrounded by Pinkertons and committed to preserving his “rights” through the barrel of a gun.

But it’s not that different, either.

I know, I know … here I go getting all political again.

Look, you don’t have to agree with me about whether the subordination of foreign investor property rights is a good thing or a bad thing to agree with me that this subordination IS … that foreign investor property rights are, in fact, under a withering political assault in Argentina today, and that this isn’t just an idiosyncratic Argentina thing.

Why am I so down on investing in emerging markets AS AN ASSET CLASS?

Because I think you need two functioning narratives for EM Investing ™ to work.

  • Yay, EM growth!
  • Yay, EM property rights!

Today those narratives are broken. And until they’re somehow patched together again, I don’t think it’s possible to have the systemic narrative support required for institutional capital flows into emerging markets as an asset class.

It’s not just the Argentina narrative that’s broken. It’s not just the IMF narrative that’s broken.

It’s the entire EM Zeitgeist that’s broken.

What’s a Zeitgeist? It’s the water in which we swim.

Can idiosyncratic investments in emerging market opportunities work while the EM Zeitgeist is broken? Sure!

But can the business of EM Investing ™ work while the EM Zeitgeist is broken? I don’t think so.


The Right Price of Money

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Everyone knows The Price is Right rules … closest bid, without going over.

It’s the same with overnight repo.


The Fed pumps another $75 billion into financial markets, continuing capital-injection plan   [Business Insider]

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday sold another $75 billion in market repurchase agreements, or repos, in a continued effort to calm money markets and bring interest rates within its intended range.

The round was oversubscribed, as banks requested nearly $92 billion in overnight repos, signaling strong demand for the asset.

The bank began a streak of repo offerings last week, marking the first time such assets were sold since the 2008 financial crisis. The central bank said the offerings would continue through early October.


Well, everyone else has given their take on the recent dislocations in overnight repo markets, so here’s mine.

Overnight repo is where the interest rates that central banks SET meet the interest rates that real economic actors USE.

And when the setting of those interest rates is no longer connected to ANYTHING about the real economy …

When central bankers are cutting interest rates even as growth is robust, unemployment is at 50-year lows, and the stock market is near all-time highs …

When, to coin a phrase, They’re. Not. Even. Pretending. Anymore. …

I think this spike in demand for overnight and short-term financing is a direct result of real economic actors trying to figure out what it MEANS when interest rates are a symbolic communication to markets rather than a clearing price of money in the real world.

I know what it would mean to me.

It would mean that I want the cash, not the securities, and I’d be willing to pay up to get it.

But if the real world price of overnight money is higher than what central bankers SAY is the real world price of overnight money … well, that breaks the world.

So it can’t happen. So no matter how much demand there is for the cash instead of the securities, the Fed will provide as much cash is necessary – truly, as much cash is necessary – to satisfy that demand at the price that the Fed SAYS is the right price of overnight money.

It’s not a crisis per se. There is literally no limit to the liquidity – i.e. cash – that the Fed can and will provide. But it is absolutely indicative of a profound shift in the common knowledge – what everyone knows that everyone knows – regarding the Fed and monetary policy.

And that shift will change everything. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. Not in the form of a market “crash”. But it will change everything.

See, it’s not just Powell and Draghi and the rest of the mandarin crew who are no longer pretending that monetary policy has any impact on the real economy.

It’s us, too.

Everyone now knows that everyone now knows that central banks are powerless to impact the real economy, but are the only thing that matters in the market economy. Everyone now knows that everyone now knows that the setting of the price of money is now a disembodied symbol of governmental will, all-important to the market economy and utterly … utterly! … ignored and immaterial to the real economy.

This is the new common knowledge about central banks and monetary policy … omnipotent in market-world, powerless in real-world.

Dislocations in the overnight repo market are the first place this new common knowledge is shaking the foundations of our political/economic world. It won’t be the last.

With the 2020 election – no matter who sits in the White House – the Fourth Horseman rides into town. And there won’t be a damn thing the Fed or the ECB can do about it.

The Long Now is going to get a LOT worse before it gets ANY better.


Politics Trump Economics Redux

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

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


We took the title of this Zeitgeist from a tagline we used to lead with on Epsilon Theory. And instead of giving you a single article today, we are going to include each of the top six without exception. I think you will quickly see why – on both counts.

Danish pensions to put $50 billion into green investments [Reuters]

Gender diversity pays off: A new Stanford study finds equitable hiring boosts companies’ stock prices [Business Insider]

Aluminium industry must commit to carbon reductions [Business Insider]

Daughter of Ebony founder resigns from spot on magazine’s board [Chicago Tribune]

At Amazon, workers push climate policy; Bezos sets net-zero carbon emission goals, but employees want more urgent action. [Vox]

General Motors Shares Extend Declines As Nationwide UAW Strike Hits Day Five [The Street]

Recall that the query we use for the daily Zeitgeist is constructed only from news that specifically refers to equity markets and stocks.

We have commented before that ESG specifically tends to follow the fortunes of the market. It usually becomes a cohesive, high attention narrative when times are good and investors feel confident. When markets decline and perceived risk rises, ESG issues tend to fade from investors’ attention. Independent of ESG investing as a topic in itself, however, the politics of climate, inequality and identity that we have shown to be dominant in electoral coverage are becoming similarly prominent in financial markets coverage.

As long-time readers will know, any time coverage of politics and markets intersect so plainly, we strongly recommend taking a step back to ask, “Why am I reading this now?”

As Good Once As It Ever Was


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

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


One of the observations we made in our most recent video was that “Broken IPOs have broken growth and momentum!” has become a part of the narrative surrounding the factor rotation of the last several weeks. I don’t know how true it is. But it has emerged from a common, if slightly out of the mainstream, theory into something that everybody knows that everybody knows.

Now, you won’t hear us say that IPOs are unaffected by narratives, in part because that would be a very stupid thing to say. I mean, it’s literally the most important opportunity most companies have to tell everyone how to think about how to value their company. Still, a private company coming to public markets presents an interesting case study for us. It is an opportunity to analyze common knowledge about both individual companies and risk appetites / preferences at large. It tests whether the narratives which served to produce private valuations are robust to a conversion of some portion of the underlying investor base. In a sense, it is one of those very few opportunities we get to peek behind the curtain of abstractions to see, just maybe, some measure of reality.

So was the We Company’s IPO disaster an isolated bridge too far? Was it, alongside various nightmares lurking within SoftBank pools, part of a series of related bridges-too-far? Will their breaking of profitless-growth-forever narratives become a broader phenomenon that investors need to account for in the rest of their portfolios? Is that what we have seen in the fits and starts of value kinda-sorta working these last several weeks?

I’m not sure. One of the problems (and beauties!) of focusing on observing instead of predicting is that it’s a lot harder to pin down causal relationships. I can see the connections people are making between the momentum/growth-to-value rotation on the one hand and SoftBank and WeWork on the other. I can see the sentiment of language used in reference to top-line growth stories veering more negative. I can see cohesion of narrative structure for consumer tech stories breaking down.

I can’t tell you whether fear of SoftBank and its funders’ ability to continue to backstop aggressive private valuations had a meaningful influence on the (very) recently disappointing relative returns of more expensive stocks and sectors. I can’t tell you whether or how much a sudden willingness of investors to question pursuing greater fool strategies on the WeWorks of the world contributed. I can’t tell you whether all of this worked in the other direction, with a range of trade, central bank, idiosyncratic and other concerns pushing risk postures at the margin in a direction that caught public and private high-flying growth stories in the wash.

What I can tell you is that we can observe the ideas being connected. This is the story we are all watching the crowd tell the crowd about growth, momentum, value and tech stories.

What I can also tell you is what would come next if you were someone with a mind to maintain and extend the Long Now: you’d want a good IPO. A consumer tech unicorn, sure, but a real one. One that would allow us to act like we were not in the heady excesses of the late 90s, but the practiced adolescence of the late teens. A company that would say “growth” but also “hey, I can actually see how this business model might make money!” A reset button.

And we would need it now.

$31 billion Airbnb announces plan to go public in 2020 [Business Insider]

I can’t tell you why they decided to announce this now. Maybe – probably – coincidence.

What I can tell you is why this sits atop the Zeitgeist, as one of the five most linguistically connected articles in all of financial media today. Because financial media, investors (no, not you, seven remaining value investors), execs, asset owners – all the benefactors and beneficiaries of capital markets as a public utility, need this.

Will the IPO market be as good as it once was? Probably not. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people will be working overtime to make it as good once as it ever was.

Narrative is not a Disease. Narrative is Us.

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

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



Wall Street Used to Crunch Numbers. They’ve Moved On to Stories.   [Bloomberg]

U.S. business may have been talking itself into a slowdown.

That’s one way of reading a study by the Carlyle Group, using techniques from narrative economics –- an emerging field set to gain momentum with the publication of Nobel prize-winner Robert Shiller’s much-anticipated book on the topic.


So this article is part of the publicity effort behind Robert Shiller’s forthcoming book, Narrative Economics. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book after it’s formally released, and I’m glad that narratives are getting more mainstream attention, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Robert Shiller is a really smart guy. Yep, I think I’ll leave it there for now.

Ah, who am I kidding?

The central metaphor for Shiller’s book is that narrative = disease, that (some) narratives are “contagious”, and that the spread of an “infectious” narrative “virus” can best be understood through the toolkit of epidemiology.

I think this is … wrong … not just in its conception, but even more so in how Shiller’s book will be USED.

Narrative is NOT a virus. Narrative is not something that exists outside of us. Narrative is not something that infects us or just happens to us if we are unlucky enough to catch it.

NO.

Narrative is intentional. Narrative is motivated. Narrative is done TO us. Narrative is – quite rationally – embraced BY us.

Narrative is entirely human, entirely part and parcel of what it MEANS to be the human animal … a social animal.

I can’t express strongly enough how dangerous I think it is to conceptualize narrative as a contagious disease, rather than as the medium of a social game – the Common Knowledge Game.

Why?

Because a contagious disease is something to be CURED.

And that’s exactly how Shiller’s book is going to be used.

Here are some more quotes from the Bloomberg article above:

Central bankers can’t just watch. They need to promote their own narratives, too –- and it’s getting harder.

“I’m a shaman,” said Stefan Ingves, governor of Sweden’s Riksbank. “I’m a weatherman, I’m a showman, and I’m an economist.’’ But above all: “I’m expected to be, and I am, a storyteller. I tell stories about the future.”

“And if I’m successful in my storytelling,” he added, “people say: ‘Hmm, that’s reasonable.’’’

That’s Stefan Ingves, storyteller and central banker, shaking his finger at us and telling us HOW TO THINK about economic news and economic facts. Thank goodness!

Because in the Shiller universe of narrative = disease, it is the “reasonable” narratives of experts and academics that serve as the medicine for narrative epidemics like Bitcoin or market panics or gold buggishness or real estate booms or “talking ourselves into a recession”.

Just like these guys. They’re all doing EXACTLY the same thing that Ingves is doing.

Although I’d wager a lot of money that only 70% of these guys would be seen by Shiller or Ingves as promoting a “reasonable” narrative.

I think it’s a cop-out to think of narrative as disease, as something that just happens to us from time to time, as if it were some act of god.

Because if that’s how you think of it, then obviously that’s something that an “advanced” society should want to FIX. And how does an advanced society “fix” this?

Through the Nudge.

There is another way.

The other way is the anti-nudge. The other way is the encouragement of an individual autonomy of mind.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.

Not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up. Not from a political party, but from a social movement.

This is Make/Protect/Teach.


Sparks, Arcs and Trademarks

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

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


We are on record saying that the thing we’d watch out for to spot a change in the nature of the the ongoing US/China trade and tariffs saga is the escalation of rhetoric into ‘national security’ language. There have been flashes of such language at critical points in the negotiation – points in time where, say, a lack of progress on agricultural product purchases leads to someone bringing up Taiwanese sovereignty or the national security implications of IP theft or, uh, hypersonic missiles. But in general, these escalations, which we think have the potential to change the character of the game into a political game in which scorched earth on trade is the optimal strategy, have stayed outside of the core of the trade and tariffs narrative structure.

Today, however, we spotted this near the top of the Zeitgeist.

Federal funding for Chinese buses risks our national security [The Hill]

It’s a guest opinion piece from a few (seemingly esteemed, as far as I can tell) former military and intelligence officers.

The switch from a petroleum past to an electrified future is handing the United States an opportunity to own its transportation future. However, we will only have one attempt to realize this chance. If we do not counter China’s EV ambitions now, we risk losing this golden opportunity to bolster our energy security — and place our transportation needs for the foreseeable future into the hands of our greatest strategic rivals.

Now, I’m not sure if one year’s federal funding for Chinese-made EV buses and the resultant battery infrastructure reliance rises to the level of a national security risk. I don’t say that snarkily or doubtfully – I honestly don’t know. My instinct is to say that of all the threats to the independence of US energy sources (and energy-adjacent tech like this), this struck me as being a not especially terrifying one. There are some serious “why am I reading this now?” qualities to this piece that I hope should jump out to any regular Epsilon Theory reader.

But let’s take it at face value anyway.

Because even if we do, the fact that this rose to the top of the Zeitgeist is probably related, in part, to its linguistic connectedness to popular pop culture debates about Tesla’s new competition in the EV space, to heightened financial markets attention to energy narratives in September, and to broader political discussion of climate change in connection with recent town halls and primary debates. And so I am not convinced that this is the “National Security Escalation” we are looking for.

But that’s my story, not a fact.

Clear eyes on this one, and open.

When Meta-Analysis Goes Meta

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

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


A JPMorgan bot analyzed 14,000 Trump tweets and found they’re having an increasingly sharp impact on markets [Business Insider]

I don’t think it is really a secret to anyone who spends much of their day monitoring financial markets that President Trump’s social media habits have a, well, habit of creating bouts of volatility. So when JPMorgan created their Volfefe Index (cute, guys), I don’t think anyone was really surprised at what they discovered.

As a result, JPMorgan said: “A broad swath of assets from single-name stocks to macro products have found their price dynamics increasingly beholden to a handful of tweets from the commander in chief.

It also shouldn’t be surprising to anyone – especially anyone who has been reading our ET Pro monitors that have been making this point since December 2018 – that no narrative has captured the market’s attention quite like the ping-ponging of China and trade war narratives.

JPMorgan also noted that his “market-moving” tweets were less popular in terms of likes or retweets, but also they tended to contain the same keywords: China, billions, dollar, tariffs and trade. The bank also said that tweets containing Mueller were categorized as market moving.  

What is surprising to me – or at least interesting – is the fact that this analysis is at the top of the Zeitgeist. It isn’t that China, or trade, or even Trump tweeting about these things is connected to everything else being written about in financial media. It is that the analysis of the influence of missionary behaviors is itself part of the Zeitgeist.

Welcome to the party, folks.

There’ll be a lot of introductions to make now that you’re all here, but first, I want to warn you about those guys in the corner. They’re the “it’s just short-term volatility – no one really takes any of this seriously” crew. After they tell you their names, they’ll let you know that these silly things don’t matter to their process because they’re very long term, and have absolutely done enough education with their clients to keep them from hitting the eject button after a historically minuscule drawdown, you see. You could tell them et in Arcadia ego, but I’m not sure it would do any good.

This group is also prone to seeing the emergence of this kind of analysis into the foreground as a destructive force to its influence, like pulling the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, or shining a bright light into a dark room. Once everyone knows that everyone else, along with a bogeyman we call ‘The Algos’, are establishing their positions based on how they think everyone else will respond to Trump tweets, that should break the illusion and make people realize that it’s time to focus on things that matter again, like their five-year drop-down model and commodity price scenario analysis for that sweet MLP GP. Right?

Unfortunately, the effect is usually the opposite. If you’re playing the Keynesian Beauty Contest or Dick Thaler’s Dinner Party Game, common knowledge about the game itself affects the winning strategy. Our collective awareness of second- and third-degree gameplay by other participants accelerates our perception of the need to shift to deeper levels ourselves. As I wrote back in 2008:

Playing a third-degree game is too daunting a task to consider for most, and so curiously, even in the mathematically deterministic version of the game that has a Nash equilibrial ‘correct’ answer, the takeaway is the same as in the beauty contest: you usually win by guessing that others are playing a mix of one to two degrees of the Common Knowledge Game. Some people buy and sell on fundamentals, and some on how they think people will react to them.

But as Ben discussed in The Three-Body Problem, we think that this is changing. We think it has changed. We think that the violent expansion of communications policy by global central banks and the accompanying expansion of always-on media has meant more participants shifting to third-degree thinking. The reason we talk about Narrative so much is that we find it a useful meta-expression of and proxy for exactly the kind of mental model a third-degree participant must construct. When we refer to Narrative, we mean it as an expression of what everyone knows that everyone knows.

The Fundamentals are Sound (February 8, 2018)

Why does this matter? What should it mean to us that investing based on common knowledge is…common knowledge? I think it means that awareness of and sensitivity to narratives will necessarily be part of the professional investor’s playbook for the foreseeable future.

After all, that’s what we mean by the Zeitgeist.