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Enemies Real and Imagined

By Rusty Guinn | July 21, 2021 | 10 Comments

I think there’s a non-zero chance that the delta-variant becomes something that markets really are focused on. Maybe that happens months from now. Maybe days.

But until that happens, the delta-variant narrative explaining markets is a wall of worry, an artificially easy hurdle to climb for a market that only really cares about a dovish Fed sticking to its transitory inflation story.

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“Yay, Stock Buybacks!”

h/t @SouthernValue95 for the brilliant memework!

I saw this work of art on Twitter today, referring to Dropbox management using stock buybacks to sterilize their outrageous stock-based comp, and it made my day.

The Epsilon Theory notes I wrote about stock buybacks in 2019 are the most controversial thing we have ever published. They generated more anger, more arguments and more cold shoulders from the mainstream finance community than anything else we’ve done. Here’s my position:

When stock buybacks are used to sterilize stock-based comp (i.e., a company gives managers stock with one hand and buys it back from them with the other hand), no money is “returned to shareholders”. This is true whether or not management actually sells its shares into the buyback program.

Stock buybacks only “return cash to shareholders” to the degree that the buyback program reduces the sharecount. To the degree the buyback program does not reduce the sharecount, but simply sterilizes new issuance to management, it is purely a transfer of wealth from shareholders to management.

As the kids would say, it’s just math.

I think you would be AMAZED at the proportion of stock buyback programs that go towards sterilizing stock-based comp. I certainly was. I think it’s the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.

Not to founders. Not to entrepreneurs. Not to risk-takers.

Nope … to managers. To asset-gatherers. To fee-takers. To rent-seekers. To rakes.

Yep, Jamie Dimon is the rake. But then so is every S&P 500 management team. So is every Wall Street management team. That I’m aware of, at least. It’s the water in which we swim.

“Yay, Stock Buybacks!”

It’s amazing how many people get very angry at me when I say this.

Anyhoo … in addition to The Rake, here are the notes that started all the fuss.

— Ben Hunt | June 15, 2021 | 4:04 pm

“Yay, Environment!”

In Epsilon Theory-speak, we use “Yay, Good-Thing!” as shorthand for a narrative that takes a linguistic construction that we all agree is a Good Thing (something like “capitalism” or “freedom” or “democracy”) and turns it into a behaviorally powerfully argument for something that is decidedly not that Good Thing, but can be painted with other behaviorally powerful words into something that sorta kinda looks like that Good Thing if you squint really hard and you say the behaviorally powerful words loudly enough.

In rhetorical construction, “Yay, Good Thing!” is a variation on begging the question (in the correct way of understanding that phrase, where the conclusion is assumed in the proposition), or if you’re in marketing or sales you would recognize this as a variation of the assumptive close. The typically-but-not-always unspoken corollary to the “Yay, Good Thing!” narrative construction is “You’re not against Good Thing, are you?”, which is the linguistic stick to the “Yay, Good Thing!” carrot.

Socrates would call “Yay, Good Thing!” sophistry, and he hated the Sophists with a deep and abiding passion. Same. In the modern world, the Sophists are powerful government and corporate interests (aka the Nudging State or the Nudging Oligarchy if we’re going to continue in Epsilon Theory-speak), and the “Yay, Good Thing!” construction is their go-to narrative weapon in the Forever War of stripping away our autonomy of mind.

If you want to read more about our take on “Yay, Good Thing!” narratives, here’s the Epsilon Theory note that started all that.

Anyhoo … I was thinking about “Yay, Good Thing!” today because of how the “Yay, Environment!” implementation of this narrative device is being used to shape the politics of two issues that we’ve been writing a lot about recently: work and crypto.

“Yay, Environment!” is now one of the primary threads in the narrative-world battle over the future of work.

It’s a very powerful narrative thread. It’s a big reason why “Remote work is here to stay!” is winning this narrative war, and you are going to see a lot more “Yay, Environment!” rationalizations for remote work policies in the future.

Similarly, “Yay, Environment!” is now one of the primary narrative threads in the narrative-world battle over the future of Bitcoin.

Here’s the latest, from Elizabeth Warren, but you’re no doubt familiar with Elon Musk’s oeuvre here, as well.

And yes, this construction of “Yay, Environment!” does indeed speak the usually silent part – “You’re not against the Environment, are you?” – out loud. And yes, you’re going to be seeing A LOT more of this narrative. Not because it’s right. Not because it’s wrong. But because it WORKS.

It’s all just another weapon in the ongoing narrative war for Wall Street control and US Treasury visibility over Bitcoin.

— Ben Hunt | June 10, 2021 | 9:24 am

Fiat News in Action

It wasn’t enough for ProPublica to do actual news reporting by publishing these tax records.

The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax

No, they had to tell you how to think about their news reporting.

They had to turn news into Fiat News by constructing a metric of “true tax rate” based on unrealized capital gains, because … you know … the actual true tax rate just wasn’t damning enough for ProPublica’s purposes.

To capture the financial reality of the richest Americans, ProPublica undertook an analysis that has never been done before. We compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid each year to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in that same time period.

We’re going to call this their true tax rate.

What is Fiat News? It’s the presentation of opinion as fact. It’s an interpretation of factual events projected with the same authority as the factual events themselves.

Fiat News (in this case the opinion that wealth in the form of unrealized capital gains should be taxed) is to hard news (in this case the tax filings of the very wealthy) what fiat currencies are to hard currencies.

We write a lot about Fiat News. Here’s the money quote from the note that started it all, Fiat Money, Fiat News:

There’s really no such thing as “real money”, i.e., gold and silver as a medium for exchange or a store of value, in existence in the world today. That used to be the meaning of gold, but those days are long gone. Today fiat money completely and utterly dominates all global commerce and exchange. Why? Because it supports the existential aims of government: taxation (sovereignty), price control (stability), and liquidity provision (growth). Without the invention of fiat money, global GDP today would be at … I dunno, maybe mid-18th century levels? Something around there, I’d guess.

Fiat news serves exactly the same existential aims of government, just in a less overt (but more powerful for being hidden) fashion. There’s just too much at stake for status quo regimes, what with modern referenda like Brexit and national elections like we just experienced in the U.S. and are forthcoming this year throughout Europe, for regime institutions to do anything other than double-down in their embrace and promulgation of fiat news.

Ten years from now we will be awash in “news” to a degree that we can hardly imagine today. That’s what happened with fiat money, and that’s what I think happens with fiat news.

The exponential growth in fiat news is still ahead of us, not behind us.

Gresham’s Law: bad money drives good money out of circulation.

Hunt’s Law: fiat news drives hard news out of circulation.

— Ben Hunt | June 8, 2021 | 9:42 am

A Disturbance in the Force

Yesterday, one of Softbank’s largest portfolio companies – Katerra – filed for bankruptcy.

Katerra was at the heart of the relationship between Softbank and Greensill, and I think it’s the most viable path by which the Greensill fraud and financial crimes can be shown to be Softbank fraud and financial crimes.

You can read our full take on Greensill and Softbank here …

… but the skinny is this:

in 2019, Softbank put ~$3 billion into Greensill, turning it into the Vision Fund’s private bank. In 2020, Greensill lent Softbank portfolio company Katerra $435 million. When Katerra ran into trouble, Greensill wrote off the $435 million loan in exchange for 5% of common equity. LOL. A $435 million senior secured loan – which had been packaged and sold to Credit Suisse – was exchanged for a 5% equity position in a bankrupt company.

Credit Suisse has announced that they are filing suit against Softbank over this and all of the other Softbank/Greensill shenanigans. And in the WSJ article describing the Katerra bankruptcy filing, you can see how Softbank is going to try and spin this (all caps mine).

When Katerra ran into financial difficulties last year, Greensill forgave the loan. 

SoftBank, in turn, invested $440 million into Greensill, EXPECTING THE MONEY TO GO TO CREDIT SUISSE’S INVESTORS.

Instead, Greensill put the proceeds of the SoftBank investment in a bank it owned in Bremen, Germany, according to a bankruptcy administrator’s report. The report said Greensill had used money it received from SoftBank, including the $440 million, to boost its bank’s capital position and fund Greensill’s overall operations.

The Softbank defense is going to be that their back door pay-off to Greensill for forgiving the Katerra loan was really intended to be a back door pay-off for Credit Suisse, but that rascal Lex just kept the money. Who knew!

As always, the best way to rob a bank is to own a bank.

— Ben Hunt | June 7, 2021 | 11:41 am

Deadly Theatre

The Deadly Theatre of corporate signaling on Pride Month continues to run rampant, with feel-good rebranding pop-ups in all the geographies where this is a marketing advantage … and nothing in geographies where it isn’t.

What is Deadly Theatre? It’s a performance that is so deeply abstracted from its source material that it has become painfully, obviously artificial to anyone who is paying attention.

And yes, there’s an Epsilon Theory note on that.

— Rusty Guinn | June 4, 2021 | 10:34 am

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Low Demand, Low Supply, High Price Expectations

From the ET Forum …

So that’s where we are in our local real estate market – low demand, low supply, high price expectations – and my sense is that this is where we are in lots of markets … not just CT residential real estate. Maybe it’s just the summer doldrums, I dunno. Maybe I’m just taking my local experience as more meaningful than it is. I’d be really interested to hear if anyone is seeing or experiencing the same, either in RE or anywhere else.

Because this is how stagflation happens.

Seasonality is so tough to parse, especially against pandemic-affected seasonality, but it sure seems like inventory got legitimately bought down in Q4/Q1, after which brokers sold that experience and y-o-y % changes to drive a corresponding increase in supply.

Also no idea wtf is going on in multi-family / condo land around here, but definitely seems distinct from the single-family experience.

— Ben Hunt | July 28, 2021|

Let Me Make the Songs

Epsilon Theory may have gotten its formal start in 2013, but the soft launch took place in 1991. That’s when my partner Ben finished his doctoral work at <lifts nose slightly> a school up in Cambridge. His work there (and his 1997 book, Getting to War) focused on how news could be used to predict the likelihood of war. It also analyzed how news was used by institutions and individuals to foment an appetite for and belief in the necessity of war, which is related to but not the same as the ability to use that news for predictions.

So yes, we were interested to read about Project Cassandra, a collaboration between German academics and military leaders to quantify the risk of conflicts using…literature. The Guardian covers it here in what I think is a very worthwhile read.

Jürgen Wertheimer, who set up Project Cassandra, standing in front of a green chalkboard
Jürgen Wertheimer, head of the Cassandra Project (Source: The Guardian, Dominik Gigler)

The project is really interesting. It confirms, or at least shares, many of the core principles of our Narrative Machine project. Not least among them is the recognition that oft-mined sentiment possesses a fraction of the influence of memes with subjective power that can only be identified objectively through words and phrases of meaning. Or the observation of identifiable, recurring story archetypes.

Leaving aside that we focus on different universes of creative output, our projects DO differ in one respect. The Cassandra Project appears to place great emphasis on the ability to quantify the popular and critical acclaim of a fictional literary work. For example, more popular, more viral, more well-regarded work would have different influence, which is a perfectly sensible hypothesis.

Because we focus on a larger and more frequent dataset of news, blogs, press releases and transcripts, we get to do two different things: first, instead of estimating how much of an audience has heard an idea and how much that idea has changed their minds, we can more easily observe how much a specific memetic idea has reproduced within the dataset over time.

Second, because our dataset includes items which are nominally news / non-fiction content, we can observe the extent to which explicit and implicit opinion language is being deployed, which also provides a window into the narrative-shaping efforts of common knowledge missionaries.

Two different approaches to a similar problem. I prefer ours, because I feel more confident saying that an idea has reproductive legs by observing how it changes the language other people use to discuss it, and because knowing some of the intentions of powerful institutions and influential individuals is an indispensable part of any effort to quantify the potential effects of narrative.

But there are absolutely features of the zeitgeist which will only manifest in the arts, in literature, and in the groanings and yearnings of those who make the songs. For that reason alone, we think the Germans have the right of it here in the way that the Scots did before. It’s a very cool project.

Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.

Andrew Fletcher, Commissioner of the Old Parliament of Scotland (1703)

— Rusty Guinn | July 8, 2021 | 12:32 pm

Proof of Plant: A New Vision for Crypto, Part 1

By Ben Hunt | June 23, 2021 | 35 Comments

I want to change the language of crypto from mining to growing. I do not mean this in a metaphorical sense. I mean a proof-of-plant method for literally growing cryptocurrency tokens as a representation of the value stored in the human cultivation of plants.

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Reinventing the Financial System

By Marc Rubinstein | June 15, 2021 | 4 Comments

If you’re like me, you’ve been put off from digging deeper into DeFi by the terrible signal-to-noise ratio of anything crypto-related on the interwebs. That’s why I found this DeFi primer (using Maker DAO as a specific example) by ET contributor and banking analyst Marc Rubinstein to be so fantastic.

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Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

By Ben Hunt | May 22, 2015 | 0 Comments

More on Information Theory.

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Recent Notes

Cursed Knowledge #3: The Molassacre

By Harper Hunt | July 26, 2021

The Boston Molassacre was one of the great tragedies of the early 20th century. So why isn’t it treated like one?

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Ever Grande

By Marc Rubinstein | July 26, 2021

The Chinese real estate developer Evergrande is the epitome of Too Big To Fail. It is truly Ever Grande.

So what happens if it does, in fact, fail?

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Enemies Real and Imagined

By Rusty Guinn | July 21, 2021

I think there’s a non-zero chance that the delta-variant becomes something that markets really are focused on. Maybe that happens months from now. Maybe days.

But until that happens, the delta-variant narrative explaining markets is a wall of worry, an artificially easy hurdle to climb for a market that only really cares about a dovish Fed sticking to its transitory inflation story.

Read more

Welcome to Metaworld

By Rusty Guinn | July 16, 2021

The language of practically every topic of any social importance is now defined by people discussing how other people are discussing it. It’s true for the environment, race, politics and now – violent crime.

Welcome to Metaworld.

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ET Podcast #12 – Proof of Plant

By Ben Hunt | July 16, 2021

I think this is how crypto can change the world. Not as “money” and not as Bitcoin! TM and not as a security and not as this speculative coin versus that speculative coin. Not by facilitating a market of goods, but by facilitating a market of GOOD.

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What is Robinhood?

By Marc Rubinstein | July 12, 2021

What is Robinhood? It’s the conflation of gambling and investing. Which is … fine. I guess. But spare me the “we’re democratizing finance” BS.

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Cursed Knowledge #2: Weinstein and the Oscars

By Harper Hunt | July 5, 2021

Harvey Weinstein is a terrible person who did terrible things. But he doesn’t get nearly enough credit, or more accurately blame, for his role in destroying the integrity of the Academy Awards and fundamentally altering how Hollywood makes movies.

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I’m So Tired of the Transitory Inflation “Debate”

By Ben Hunt | July 1, 2021

When a famous person shakes his or her finger at you, they’re not telling you a fact.

They’re telling you how to think about a fact.

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Litigation Finance

By Bruce Packard | June 28, 2021

The formation of new “asset classes” and their associated narratives is a fascinating sight.

Using Burford Capital as a case study, new ET contributor Bruce Packard gives us a great primer on litigation-finance-as-an-asset-class.

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Day-One Advice for New Hedge Fund Portfolio Managers

By Brent Donnelly | June 25, 2021

Over the last 6 months, there’s been a mass influx of new hedge fund PMs, many from bank trading seats leaving for greener (?) pastures. I’ve been in both seats. I’ve had good years and disappointing years. So I present this advice with the utmost humility …

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Proof of Plant: A New Vision for Crypto, Part 1

By Ben Hunt | June 23, 2021

I want to change the language of crypto from mining to growing. I do not mean this in a metaphorical sense. I mean a proof-of-plant method for literally growing cryptocurrency tokens as a representation of the value stored in the human cultivation of plants.

Read more

Cursed Knowledge #1: The Fast Saga

By Harper Hunt | June 21, 2021

The Fast and Furious movies are famous for intense action and ridiculous plots. But the truth about how these stories get made has more to do with the drama happening behind the camera than in front of it.

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ET Podcast #11 – A Working Narrative

By Ben Hunt | June 16, 2021

We write a LOT about work. And the responses we get are … weird.

Once again, the most important narratives are the ones we tell ourselves.

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Reinventing the Financial System

By Marc Rubinstein | June 15, 2021

If you’re like me, you’ve been put off from digging deeper into DeFi by the terrible signal-to-noise ratio of anything crypto-related on the interwebs. That’s why I found this DeFi primer (using Maker DAO as a specific example) by ET contributor and banking analyst Marc Rubinstein to be so fantastic.

Read more

A Working Narrative

By Rusty Guinn | June 7, 2021

The future of remote work after the pandemic ends has been a part of the zeitgeist for more than a year.

Now it IS the zeitgeist. It is also a narrative battlefield being actively conflated with a half dozen other major social and policy topics.

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ET Zeitgeist: Deadly Theatre

By Ben Hunt | June 4, 2021

What is Deadly Theatre?

It’s corporate logos for Pride Month. It’s speaking gigs for Deborah Birx. It’s the cover up for Leon Black.

#BITFD

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ET Zeitgeist: Raccoons Never Sleep

By Ben Hunt | May 28, 2021

Lemonade (LMND) isn’t just an insurance company. No, no … they’re an AI Company! ™.

Plus Chamath is up to his old tricks.

I hate raccoons.

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ET Zeitgeist: With Enemies Like This

By Ben Hunt | May 21, 2021

This has been a bad week for Bitcoin and Bitcoin! TM alike. There’s no getting around that.

But whenever Paul Krugman and the Wall Street Journal agree on something … I want to be on the other side of that trade!

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Mortgage Mayhem

By Marc Rubinstein | May 18, 2021

Mortgages are pretty standard fare in the world of finance, but the American version is special: it grants its user a free option to refinance if they can get a cheaper rate elsewhere.

Every lender thinks they can thrive in this market. But every lender can’t be right.

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Financing the American Home

By Marc Rubinstein | May 18, 2021

As a non-American there are many things I don’t understand about America.

Most of all though, I don’t understand the most American of products: the 30-year fixed-rate fully prepayable mortgage.

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