Looking for Laffer-Likes

Ed Meese jumped in, as he usually did when he saw that his boss was discomfited and at a loss.

“What about the revenue feedback from the tax bill” he asked. “You haven’t taken account of that in these scary numbers.” His tone was slightly annoyed.

Meese was referring, of course, to the Laffer curve. The whole California gang had taken it literally (and primitively). The way they talked, they seemed to expect that once the supply-side tax cut was in effect, additional revenue would start to fall, manna-like, from the heavens.

The Triumph of Politics, by David Stockman

Some years ago, back when Republican, conservative and Reaganite were circles in a Venn diagram that actually overlapped, I considered myself all three. And so, the chart above is familiar to me. It probably is to you, too.

Now, I’ve never cared all that much about tax receipts. I am almost always in favor of lower taxes because I believe that the freedom to decide what we do with our money is among our most powerful and important freedoms. I also believe that the more money the state has, the stronger its belief that it has a mandate to control and direct economic activity, things at which it is especially lousy.

But there really was a cadre of politicians and thinkers who believed in the Laffer Curve. Like, really believed. Literally believed. It was still fondly preached in some business school courses into the 2000s, I can attest, and maybe still is today. Its adherents believed – very much in earnest – that if we reduced tax rates, not only would it lead to greater economic activity, but to higher tax revenue as a result of that activity. This is…well, it’s not true. I believe that the first derivative of it is true, especially at higher marginal rates like we experienced prior to 1981, and certainly prior to 1964. And for freedom- and efficiency-minded people, that’s what probably matters anyway. But that wasn’t the argument. There were people for whom the expectation of increased receipts was a legitimate belief and a reason for lowering taxes.

Why? Because it was a story they wanted to believe anyway? Yes, yes, sure.

But more importantly, because it provided what looked like the safe harbor of fact within a foggy sea of complexity.

Predicting how changes to tax policy will influence economic activity and tax receipts is extremely messy work. For better or worse, the Laffer curve gives us an anchor. We know that a 0% tax rate will not yield tax revenue. We also know that a 100% tax rate – barring enslavement, corruption or criminality – will yield effectively zero revenue. Our instinct when we lack a good prediction framework (whether a systematic or discretionary mental model) will be to lean on the rare bits we do understand, like tax behaviors at extreme levels, to help us make predictions about what happens at the margin.

And in all sorts of cases like this, this temptation to head in the direction of our safe harbors leads us astray. These are the Laffer-Likes.

Some may immediately spring to your mind. But as we turn the page on 2018, there are two Laffer-Likes that are front-and-center in a lot of investors’ minds and in the narratives of the media, the sell side and the buy side: (1) the increasing passive share of financial markets and (2) the prevalence of algorithmic trading.

We’ve waded into the debate on active vs. passive investment management before, mostly by calling it a stupid debate that isn’t really about the thing that people say it’s about. Our view hasn’t changed, so I won’t add any wood to that fire. No, the Laffer-Like here is about what happens to financial markets and asset prices when the market becomes increasingly passive. How is this changing price discovery? Does it change how active strategies will work? Does it break traditional mean-reverting patterns in the dominance of traditional styles like value and growth? Will it create long periods of low volatility followed by bouts of extreme volatility? Will it create bad behaviors by management teams?

These are all fair questions. Good questions. Questions investors ought to be asking.

They are also nearly impossible questions to answer definitively. We will be tempted – and it will feel very reasonable to us – to consider what we can know. One of the few things we can truly know is that a market that is fully passive is not a market in any sense. It isn’t active in setting prices, testing prices or responding to information. When the market becomes more passive, it should be no surprise, then, that we see these descriptions in active fund manager quarterly newsletters or annual outlook pieces: “Passive investing is creating a pro-momentum market that doesn’t process information about companies!”

It is a statement of indisputable fact when uttered about a market of extremes in passive management. It is also a statement of very limited utility when applied to most other circumstances. The truth? Despite the increase in passive management, I would very comfortably contending that the amount of information influencing asset prices is still as broad and deep as it has ever been. That information may not all be the company-level fundamental information self-designated ‘real’ investors would prefer, but for better or worse, we are a world awash in information that influences the brains and behaviors of active investment decision-makers. Said another way, we are a long way off from passive extremes and the broken dynamics they would bring about in markets.  

What should we be thinking about instead? Think about what classes of investors have been more or less likely to move to passive strategies. Think about how that may have influenced the incentives, objectives and behavioral makeup of both of those universes, and the behaviors you would expect to be more or less prevalent among active investors as a result. Think about how that might influence broad market shifting behaviors (e.g. moving to cash) in certain market events. In other words, stop with the “passive investing means that information isn’t what moves asset prices” copouts, and start thinking about why the information that moves asset prices is different, and why the composition of the people responding to that information is different.

Much of the same could be said for the other Laffer-Like bogeyman of the day, the dreaded algorithm, which in modern usage is just a fancy word for, “anything that causes price activity that isn’t what I think it should be based on the finite number of things I care about and monitor in my own investment activities.” We know a lot about the effects of the extreme straw men for “algos” that we create, and extrapolate that to represent behaviors at the margins. It is perilous, but also deserves more than an In Brief mention. We will be talking much more about this one in 2019.

In the meantime, as we go through our end-of-year / beginning-of-year thought experiments and considerations, we might spare a moment to think about our own Laffer-Likes – the complex systems about which our jobs require us to develop a view, and about which our only firm foundations live in the extremes, and not at the margin of our work.

It is among the most common ways that we delude ourselves by draping our predispositions in non-explanatory facts. It is also among the ways in which we make ourselves vulnerable to right-sounding stories and narratives.

To learn more about Epsilon Theory and be notified when we release new content sign up here. You’ll receive an email every week and your information will never be shared with anyone else.


  1. Great perspective, we get caught up in the minutia too much sometime…made me think of another recent good read!

    Of Dollars and Data Blog…

    "In Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz illustrates how the news media doesn’t influence peoples’ beliefs, but rather, the audience determines what kinds of stories news agencies cover and publish. He states:

    Many people, particularly Marxists, have viewed American journalism as controlled by rich people or corporations with the goal of influencing the masses, perhaps to push people toward their political views. Gentzkow and Shapiro’s paper suggests, however, that this is not the predominant motivation owners. The owners of the American press, instead, are primarily giving the masses what they want so that the owners can become even richer…There is no grand conspiracy. There is just capitalism.

    Stephens-Davidowitz’s conclusion suggests that you are the gatekeeper to your own mind. You decide what comes in. You decide what sticks. So whether you see the universe as kind or hostile, this belief will flow through your entire belief system and affect all the others. When you choose between kindness and hostility, choose wisely."

    Situational Awareness! Reset, look again, look at what’s not said, move upstream, get to high ground! Get a different look! High Risk Decisions for Low Risk Outcomes or vice versa…

  2. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yes, I agree that at times it can be difficult to differentiate between giving people “what they want” and exploiting the vulnerability we have to narratives that seem convenient to our own perspective!

  3. This is kind of a reverse reductio-ad-absurdum argument where the premise is true at the extremes, but is not a continuum in the middle. That said, IMHO, it probably is a continuum, i.e., tax rates and revenues are inversely related, although with varying first derivative rates along its continuum. However, in a real economy, the impact of small changes to tax rates on government revenue can easily be overwhelmed by all the other variables at play.

    An example that fits Rusty’s point even better might be government debt and interest rates - away from the extremes, there appears to be no consistent correlation. And Japan is, at minimum, proving that the extreme of one end of the relationship is farther out than previously believed.

  4. Avatar for Paul_B Paul_B says:

    My take is that it is the simplicity of the two-variables model that is core to the flaw in “laffer-like” beliefs. Rarely in any system are two and only two variables the factors which determine outcomes. We live in a complex inter-related world and do ourselves a disservice believing we can distill the complexities into a 2-dimensional model. This flaw is repeated in every aspect of our lives. Here are two examples outside of Politics and markets: physical fitness: how much you workout vs what you eat = weight gain/loss or school: how much you study vs raw intellect = academic success. each of these are equally flawed as the laffer-likes…

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum


The Latest From Epsilon Theory


This commentary is being provided to you as general information only and should not be taken as investment advice. The opinions expressed in these materials represent the personal views of the author(s). It is not investment research or a research recommendation, as it does not constitute substantive research or analysis. Any action that you take as a result of information contained in this document is ultimately your responsibility. Epsilon Theory will not accept liability for any loss or damage, including without limitation to any loss of profit, which may arise directly or indirectly from use of or reliance on such information. Consult your investment advisor before making any investment decisions. It must be noted, that no one can accurately predict the future of the market with certainty or guarantee future investment performance. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Statements in this communication are forward-looking statements. The forward-looking statements and other views expressed herein are as of the date of this publication. Actual future results or occurrences may differ significantly from those anticipated in any forward-looking statements, and there is no guarantee that any predictions will come to pass. The views expressed herein are subject to change at any time, due to numerous market and other factors. Epsilon Theory disclaims any obligation to update publicly or revise any forward-looking statements or views expressed herein. This information is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation of any offer to buy any securities. This commentary has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. Epsilon Theory recommends that investors independently evaluate particular investments and strategies, and encourages investors to seek the advice of a financial advisor. The appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives.