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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.)


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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.


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The Right Price of Money

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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.


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.


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Politics Trump Economics Redux

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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?”

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As Good Once As It Ever Was

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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.

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Narrative is not a Disease. Narrative is Us.

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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.


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Sparks, Arcs and Trademarks

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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.

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When Meta-Analysis Goes Meta

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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.

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I’ve Got a Secret

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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.


I’ve Got a Secret was a TV game show that aired from 1952 to 1967, where debonair white people would smoke cigarettes, sport bow ties and ermine stoles, and crack wise as they quizzed “contestants” about their secret pastime or accomplishment. My god, how I miss Kitty Carlisle.

Anyway, I thought a lot about I’ve Got a Secret when I saw the recent financial media brouhaha over Michael Burry and passive investing. But probably not for the reasons you think.


The Big Short’s Michael Burry Sees a Bubble in Passive Investing  [Bloomberg]

“The bubble in passive investing through ETFs and index funds as well as the trend to very large size among asset managers has orphaned smaller value-type securities globally,”

The Big Short’s Michael Burry Explains Why Index Funds Are Like Subprime CDOs  [Bloomberg]

“Central banks and Basel III have more or less removed price discovery from the credit markets, meaning risk does not have an accurate pricing mechanism in interest rates anymore. And now passive investing has removed price discovery from the equity markets. The simple theses and the models that get people into sectors, factors, indexes, or ETFs and mutual funds mimicking those strategies — these do not require the security-level analysis that is required for true price discovery.”


Okay. Whatever. The whole index-funds-are-like-subprime-CDOs thing is silly, but that’s the headline writer setting this article up for clicks. Burry – like every small cap value investor since the dawn of time – is saying that the market doesn’t appreciate the information he’s uncovered about his small cap value stocks, and that there are structural reasons why the market doesn’t appreciate that information. Not exactly fighting words.

But judging from the reaction on Fintwit and elsewhere in the financial blogosphere, you would have thought that Michael Burry had run over someone’s dog.

It’s the reaction to the Michael-Burry-says-passive-investing-is-a-bubble stories that made me think of I’ve Got a Secret.

I mean, you had celebrated former-alpha-guy-turned-asset-gatherer Cliff Asness leap to Twitter to call Burry a “monkey who typed Hamlet” (but don’t worry, it’s okay to say this because it was done in a self-deprecating way), “histrionic”, and full of “inarticulate nonsense.” I lost count of all of the urgent “debunking” blog posts to the Michael-Burry-says-passive-investing-is-a-bubble story.

It’s just weird.

To be fair, it’s also weird how passive investing becomes the scaffolding for any number of Grumpy Grandpa strawman positions, most notably the “this will blow up ANY DAY NOW” argument, the “those darn computers!” argument, and the “in praise of index-hugging active managers and their … [checks notes] … price discovery” argument. I claim zero association with those positions in what I’m about to say, so don’t @ me.

There IS a bubble here. It’s a behavioral bubble I’ll call ABB.

Always. Be. Buying.

And the Common Knowledge surrounding passive investing – what everyone knows that everyone knows about passive investing – is what blows this bubble.

Everyone knows that everyone knows that passive investing beats active investing.

Everyone knows that everyone knows that stocks as an asset class ALWAYS go up over time.

And if that’s the case, then why in the world would you pay more for someone to use their discretion in picking this stock or that stock? No, no … just harvest the inevitable returns that stocks in a general sense ALWAYS provide by putting your money in an inexpensive, systematic buying program. If you think yourself particularly clever, then by all means express this systematic buying program in terms of “factors” or “betas” instead of this index or that index, but the important thing is to ABB.

Always. Be. Buying.

Index funds and any other passive investment vehicles are really important, excellent things for investors. I get that. I am not railing against their existence.

But you cannot separate the Always. Be. Buying. impulse from index vehicles and pretend that they are just the intellectually simple, straightforward expression of market exposure that they are in theory.  They are loaded with “be long” MEANING for everyone.

THAT’S THE BUBBLE.

Now I know this will come to a shock for many, but there was a time when this was not the accepted faith of markets.

Gerald Loeb, co-founder of E.F. Hutton, happily immersed in the tape.

This is a picture of Gerald Loeb, who co-founded E.F. Hutton and was Warren Buffett-level famous back in the 1950s and 1960s … back when I’ve Got a Secret was in its heyday. And this was The Secret about markets that Gerald Loeb thought he knew:

Buy and hold is for chumps.

In the 1950s and 1960s, everyone knew that everyone knew that Gerald Loeb was right. This was the investment Common Knowledge of the day. This was the gospel and the MEANING of the business of Wall Street.

No one remembers Gerald Loeb today.

Which is a shame. But not surprising.

Did Gerald Loeb know The Secret to markets? Of course not. But did Gerald Loeb know A Secret to markets? Yes, he did. And did his secret WORK for the markets of his day? Absolutely. Would his secret work TODAY in a different Common Knowledge environment? Not a chance.

Do YOU know The Secret to markets, that stocks as an asset class ALWAYS go up over time?

Or do you know A Secret to markets, one that works because it is the Common Knowledge of the day?

I think it’s the latter. Which means it will work until it doesn’t. Which means it will work until the Common Knowledge changes.

That’s my Secret about markets. It’s far from Common Knowledge. But pass it along and let’s see what happens.


PS – We’ve written a lot about passive investing and indexing. And by we, I mostly mean Rusty, who has some great notes on the subject. Like these:


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The Industrially Necessary Egg

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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.



Indonesia Says Throw Eggs Away to Support Chicken Meat Prices  [Bloomberg]

“In Indonesia, the chicken comes before the egg.

At least in the sense that the government is asking poultry breeders to throw away 10 million eggs or give them away for free in an attempt to support slumping chicken prices. It’s hoping that a reduction in the number of eggs that may hatch will shrink chicken supplies and prop up retail prices that are near a three-year low.”


No idea why a Bloomberg piece about the collapse in Indonesian poultry prices was one of the day’s most interconnected financial media articles in narrative-world … probably just the sheer absurdity of a world where destroying 10 MILLION eggs is a reasonable policy for propping up the fortunes of industrial protein farmers.

But I’ll take any opportunity to reprint the very first Note from the Field, the very first note to link my experience as a dilettante farmer with my experience as a professional investor.

Here’s a section of that note in the clear, originally titled “Fingernail Clean”, but better titled:

The Industrially Necessary Egg


In modern farming and in modern investing, we have become prisoners of the monoculture. It’s efficient. It’s necessary for a mass society of ever-increasing Desire.

But here’s the thing …

In the investment monoculture, you’re not the farmer.

Fresh eggs are, in fact, one of the best things in life, and they (almost) make up for the necessity of dealing with the evil reptilian brain of the modern-day chicken. A fresh egg is notable for both its yolk (an orange-yellow that seems to glow, not the flat yellow-yellow you get in a store-bought egg) and its white (the fresher the albumen, the greater its coherence, so that you can, for example, poach a very fresh egg without putting vinegar in the water). A fresh egg is also notable for the fact that, depending on where it was laid and when it was collected, it may have dried chicken poop on the shell.

Now an eggshell is semi-permeable, and a fresh eggshell has a thin anti-bacterial protective layer called the “bloom”, so you don’t want to soak it in soapy water, or really any water at all. You can use an enzymatic egg wash to loosen the “dirt”, but really all you need to do is moisten the spot and scrape it with your fingernail until it’s clean. Not scrubbed. Not pristinely clean. Just fingernail clean. That’s really the optimal outcome.

Here’s another truth about fresh eggs: you don’t need to refrigerate them. They’ll keep for a month just sitting out on your kitchen counter. They don’t rot. They don’t start to smell. They don’t serve as a Petri dish for salmonella or some other dread bacterium. Seriously.

So you don’t have to refrigerate your fresh eggs. But if you scrub your eggs all nice and perfectly clean, removing the anti-bacterial bloom layer in the process, then you have to refrigerate them. Similarly, if you start refrigerating an egg, then you have to keep refrigerating it. You can’t go back and forth.

Of course, you can’t scrape eggs fingernail clean on an industrial scale, and there really are dread diseases running rampant in every industrial protein monoculture facility, whether it’s for eggs or chickens or cows or pigs or whatever, which is why antibiotics are constantly fed to these animals. You can’t be certain that industrially produced eggs will get to a buyer within a month, and you certainly can’t be certain they’ll be kept at room temperature over that span. So you wash the hell out of the industrially produced egg, and you introduce it to refrigeration as soon as you can for storage and transport. That’s why the spotless, refrigerated egg is all we know. It’s necessary for effective and profitable industrial production.

But because the spotless, refrigerated egg is all we know, we believe anything to the contrary must be a defective and potentially diseased egg. Not a better egg, which is the truth, but a worse egg. A bad egg. You see this all the time when you give people fresh eggs. They’re disturbed if the eggs aren’t housed in an egg carton and cool to the touch. They get freaked out if the eggs aren’t perfectly, and I mean perfectly, clean.

We have been well and truly trained to accept the Industrially Necessary Egg as the Good Egg.

It’s the same with all dairy products. It’s the same with all industrially produced proteins. It’s the same with all industrially produced anything.

So many ideas that we take as immutable truths of safety or goodness, whether those truths concern the food we eat or the stocks we buy, are not truths at all. They are conveniences, and not conveniences for us, but for the sellers of the food we eat or the stocks we buy.

Do you really think that an ETF (and let’s recall what those letters stand for — an Exchange Traded Fund) was designed for your benefit? I wrote the following in September, 2015 in an Epsilon Theory note called “Season of the Glitch”. It bears repeating.

The key letter in an ETF is the F. It’s a Fund, with exactly the same meaning of the word as applied to a mutual fund. It’s an allocation to a basket of securities with some sort of common attribute or factor that you want represented in your overall portfolio, not a fractional piece of an asset that you want to directly own. Yes, unlike a mutual fund you CAN buy and sell an ETF just like a single name stock, but that doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Like so many things in our modern world, the exchange traded nature of the ETF is a benefit for the few (Market Makers and The Sell Side) that has been sold falsely as a benefit for the many (Investors). It’s not a benefit for Investors. On the contrary, it’s a detriment. Investors who would never in a million years consider trading in and out of a mutual fund do it all the time with an exchange traded fund, and as a result their thoughtful ETF allocation becomes just another chip in the stock market casino. This isn’t a feature. It’s a bug.

More recently, both Rusty Guinn and I have been hammering on this point in Epsilon Theory notes: ETFs are the epitome of active trading. They exist because we can’t help ourselves. We demand the ability to actively manage our portfolio on a minute-by-minute, second-by-second basis. We’re addicted to the “news” on CNBC and the rush we get from playing the hand and the false sense of security we derive from the immediate liquidity and the false satisfaction we derive from making the decision ourselves. We fancy ourself to be a macro investor — able to select this sector or that sector, this geography or that geography, this theme or that theme, this asset class or that asset class — and that’s why ETFs exist. We’ve been sold the idea that we’re excellent macro investors, just as smart and observant and on top of things as all those fat cats we read about. We’ve been sold the idea that it’s a Good Thing for us to “take control” of our portfolio and give the boot to all of those “so-called experts” with their “out of control fees”.

It’s a powerful idea because, like all powerful ideas, there’s more than a little truth to it. Fees are often too high. Experts and advisors are often just marketing shills. That’s all true. But what’s also true is that you are not an excellent macro investor. Sorry. And more to the point, there’s no need for you to be an excellent macro investor and still achieve your investment goals. But so long as we allow ourselves to be well and truly trained into believing that the Industrially Necessary Financial Innovation is the Good Financial Innovation, it’s harder to achieve those goals. Like a store-bought egg, ETFs are occasionally necessary, and always convenient. But they can’t hold a candle to a fingernail clean fresh egg.


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Gell-Mann Gravity

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

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



There are three topics which, despite being wonkish or technical subjects pertinent to specific industries or social fields, seem to always manage a connection to all the narratives floating around in global financial news:

  • New Hampshire and Iowa electoral caucuses
  • Companies buying back their own stock (don’t worry, I’m not going there)
  • Rare earth metals

Welcome back, old friend.

I had honestly forgotten about this story, but extra kudos to the writer here for the very appropriate scare-quotes around “liquidity.” The world just wasn’t ready for crowd-sourced terbium oxide markets, y’all. All the same, the story is worth reading just to remember how wacky the world of finance, real assets and commodities can be.

Yet I’m far more interested in why rare earth metals stories tend to be so front-of-mind for so many news outlets. Yes, I think it has something to do with discussions of commodities, trade and China to which some language here is connected. Yes, rare earth metals actually are specifically important to some industries and not as broadly distributed in current production as we might like.

AND another thing. I think there is a special class of topics which are simultaneously (1) widely believed to be a powerful catalyst for future events and (2) really complicated. They are ripe with potential to make us victims of Gell-Mann Amnesia. They are also ripe with potential to exert disproportionate influence on the attention paid to these topics. People and outlets want to cover topics which everyone knows that everyone knows will be a catalyst for future events. In media, as in politics, as in financial markets, people make their name on these kinds of predictions. For better or worse.

That is Gell-Mann Gravity.

I am not saying that I have insight into whether control of rare earth metal deposits is or isn’t (or won’t be) a catalyst for some Big Thing. For all I know, I will have grandsons fighting for the New England Confederation in both the Greenland and Chinese theaters in the Great Neodymium War. I’m also not saying this particular article has anything wrong with it. But I think I do have some insight into how common knowledge about catalysts shapes the way that we talk about them – and read about them.

My humble suggestion: consider adding “Does this topic exert Gell-Mann Gravity?” to your tool kit of Fiat News tells and “Why I am reading this now” heuristics.

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LEEROY JENKINS!!!

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

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



The Fed Shouldn’t Enable Donald Trump  [Bloomberg]

I understand and support Fed officials’ desire to remain apolitical. But Trump’s ongoing attacks on Powell and on the institution have made that untenable. Central bank officials face a choice: enable the Trump administration to continue down a disastrous path of trade war escalation, or send a clear signal that if the administration does so, the president, not the Fed, will bear the risks — including the risk of losing the next election.

There’s even an argument that the election itself falls within the Fed’s purview. After all, Trump’s reelection arguably presents a threat to the U.S. and global economy, to the Fed’s independence and its ability to achieve its employment and inflation objectives. If the goal of monetary policy is to achieve the best long-term economic outcome, then Fed officials should consider how their decisions will affect the political outcome in 2020.

Bill Dudley, former President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank

No there’s not.

An argument that the presidential election falls within the Fed’s purview, I mean.

There’s no argument at all. Not unless you’re a … you know … technocratic fascist who believes that hedonic adjustments to iPad prices offset real world increases in food prices.

And that’s certainly one plausible explanation for Bill Dudley’s now infamous opinion piece in Bloomberg Opinion this week, where he says that the Fed should explicitly use monetary policy as a weapon against Donald Trump’s presidency.

There are four such plausible Occam’s-razorish explanations for this article, IMO:

A) Bill Dudley is a technocratic fascist.

B) Bill Dudley has lost his mind. In a sad clinical sense.

C) Bill Dudley is a MAGA sleeper agent.

D) Bill Dudley is Leeroy Jenkins.

Now I realize that these options are by no means mutually exclusive, and I have zero interest in plumbing the depths of Bill Dudley’s mind if not soul to ascribe relative attributions, but for you non-gamers out there I’ll explain the Leeroy Jenkins option.

In 2005, a home video of a group of World of Warcraft players went ‘viral’, as the kids would say. While one of their members – the aforementioned Leeroy Jenkins – is in the kitchen making a plate of food, the rest of the group engages in an exhaustive planning session for making an assault on a near-impregnable fortress of evil monsters. They solidify the plan and are confident in its success, but Jenkins walks back from the kitchen and – without any consultation with his partners – attacks the evil fortress head-on and berzerker style, yelling out his battle cry, “LEEEEEROY JENKINS!!!”.

The entire party is slaughtered by the horde of evil monsters that Jenkins triggers.

And that’s going to be the outcome here, too.

Because now when Trump tweets that the Fed is his political enemy … it’s no longer a joke.

Because now if the Fed does NOT cut 50 bps in the September meeting, they will face a withering political attack … and they will lose that fight.

Because Bill Dudley just widened the widening gyre by a country mile.

My prediction:

Within six years, regardless of who is elected in 2020, the Fed as we know it will no longer exist.

It will be explicitly brought within Executive control, no different than, say, the Department of Homeland Security.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m saying that’s what I think will be.

And the evolution of capital markets into a political utility will be complete.


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When Non-News Becomes Fiat News

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

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


Image result for hong kong residential real estate

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

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

The headline is ominous.

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

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

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

It’s happening, people!

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

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

Wait, what?

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

This…this is a story about canceled open houses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You Can’t Take It Back

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

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



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

This was a strange thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Dinner with Neel

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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.


My Dinner With Andre (1981)

“They’ve built their own prison, so they exist in a state of schizophrenia. They’re both guards and prisoners, and as a result they no longer have – having been lobotomized – the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison.”

My Dinner With Andre (1981)

The US Federal Reserve should use forward guidance now [FT]

The global economy is slowing, US business investment has stalled and the yield curve, which reflects market expectations of future interest rates, has inverted — a quirk that preceded previous recessions. How should monetary policy respond?

The Federal Open Market Committee, of which I am a participant, will consider this question at our September meeting. Absent some surprise reversal in these economic developments, I will argue that we should not only cut the federal funds rate, but that we should also use forward guidance to provide even more of a boost to the economy than a rate cut alone can deliver.

Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank

I haven’t been very nice to Neel Kashkari.

He is my poster child for the concept of the stalking horse, and here’s a sample of what I’ve written about him in the past.

And okay, I’ll admit it. This FT opinion piece that he wrote the other day absolutely triggered me. It’s just so … Neelish … with rare gems like this:

“If the Fed had made a firm commitment to keep overnight rates at zero for the next 10 years, the 10-year treasury rate would likely have been close to zero.”

This is what passes for deep thought on the pages of the FT these days.

As the kids would say, I can’t even.

How does the Fed of today bind the Fed of ten years from now, Neel? How does that work, when it won’t be the same people and you meet every six weeks or so to set new policy on a purely discretionary basis?

FFS.

So triggered as I was, I leapt to Twitter to register my displeasure and begin a rage engagement.

I know, I know … not very nice. Maybe even “nasty” as our President would put it if I were the Danish prime minister.

But then the weirdest thing happened. No, @neelkashkari did not reply to my mean tweet. But he DID reply to one of the people who replied to my tweet. So I replied to that.

Now I figured that would be the end of that. In fact, I took this screenshot and tweeted:

“I mean, there’s not a chance in hell that Kashkari engages with this seriously, but since he asked …”

And then a miracle happened. We started a conversation.

You’ll notice that Neel is a fan of the strawman argument, where he will say that you are arguing for something (higher rates) that you aren’t. More on this later.

And here I thought we were done for sure. BTW, here’s the link to my note on risk-taking by corporations and why zero or near-zero interest rates kill that:

But no! We had one more strawman question.

NARRATOR: Neel was not genuinely interested.

There I go, being mean again. But I say that he wasn’t genuinely interested because these are the stock questions that Kashkari asks to intimidate people into submission: how do you get stronger labor results with higher rates and what specific announcement would you have made in year xxxx? Every town hall and every twitter exchange … these are the questions he asks to demonstrate some form of dominance over puzzled questioners.

So I said my piece and got it out there. But it wasn’t a real conversation. It was me talking to a wall.

And who knows, maybe one day I’ll get to have a genuine conversation with Neel or Jim or Jay or Lael or Richard or one of the gang. But I doubt it.

We can’t have a real conversation with central bankers because they are both guards and prisoners of the island of policy and thought that they’ve created.

They are Number Two in the classic TV series The Prisoner.

Yes, they are there to maintain order on the island and break the spirit of Number Six, but it’s not an accident that pretty much every episode has a new Number Two “in charge” of the island. Number Two answers to Number One. They are ALL stalking horses. They are ALL prisoners.

And sure, I’m a prisoner, too.

And sure, they’ve got that giant white ball following me everywhere in the form of their stock questions and press conferences and fake dialogues.

But I’d rather be in my shoes than Neel’s shoes.

Because I am not a number. I am a free man.

Be seeing you.


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