Investing with Icarus

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes.

The Bible, John 3:8

As Narrative abstractions — cartoons — become our short-hand for things that used to have meaning, our models become more and more untethered from the reality they seek to reproduce. When wind becomes the thing-that-makes-the-leaves-move, then wind becomes a bear rubbing his back on the bark.

He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Pursuing better returns by uncovering absolute truths about the companies and governments we invest in is not a serious enterprise in the face of markets rife with Narrative abstractions. It is a smiley-faced lie, a right-sounding idea that doesn’t work, and which we know doesn’t work. Selling the idea that it does to clients is the territory of the raccoon and the coyote. We can pursue it, or we can do the right things for ourselves and our clients. But not both.

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real…

Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard (1981)

How does Wall Street maintain the respectability of dishonest businesses? By declaring victory over straw men — active management is dead! Hedge funds lost the Buffett bet, beta won! Risk parity / vol-targeting / AI funds / quant funds are to blame! If you must sell that L.A. is real, you must create Disneyland.

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGELS MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET — Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

Hogfather, Terry Pratchett (1997)

So long as the government requires financial markets to act as a utility, and so long as it makes more sense for big tech companies to hire evangelists than CEOs — until the farmer comes out with his gun – we have only a few choices:

  1. We can be raccoons: We can recognize the overwhelming influence of abstractions and continue to sell products and ideas that don’t.
  2. We can be coyotes: We can recognize the overwhelming influence of abstractions and DESIGN new products and ideas that don’t.
  3. We can be victims: We can let the raccoons and coyotes run rampant over the farm.
  4. We can insulate: We can push back from the table and try to do the things that aren’t abstractions. Real things. Physical things. Things that put spendable currency in our accounts.
  5. We can engage: We can do our best to think about how to change our investment strategies and processes to respond to abstraction-driven markets.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, although only two are worthwhile. Ben’s DNA is long vol, so he wrote about how to insulate. My DNA is short vol. This note is first in a series on how to engage.

Speaking of DNA, there are few fields of study I find as thrilling as the intersection of anthropology and genetic geneaology. What I mean by that is how people lived, died and moved, and how their cultures and lineages moved with them. Yes, if kicking off notes with the old King James didn’t give you enough of a hint, I’m a big hit at parties.

Some of the appeal of genetic anthropology comes from the simple pleasures it offers, like the satisfaction of watching white supremacist idiots discover that they are mutts just like the rest of us.

The second appeal is the grand scale of ancestry and human movement, even over cosmologically infintestimal periods of time. This appeal is timeless. For example, in a legend common to three of the world’s great religions, God promises to multiply Abraham’s descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand on the seashore. It’s a pretty attractive promise, but temper your excitement — it was a reward for being a hair’s breadth away from murdering his son. The promises are poetic, of course, but the scope of the two is surprisingly different.

There are somewhere around 100 billion to one trillion stars in the Milky Way, an estimate which would vary based on how you estimated the galaxy’s total mass through the gravity it exerted and based on what you assumed was the average type of star. We’ve discovered a Wolf-Rayet star in the Magellanic Cloud with mass perhaps 300 times that of our sun, for example. It is so much larger than our sun that its surface would reach almost a third of the current distance to Mercury. Icarus wouldn’t stand a chance. On the other hand, we’ve discovered a red dwarf only 19 light-years away with less than 10% of the mass of the sun. But the 100 billion to one trillion range is a fair estimate. Earth has already seen 100 billion human lives. It will (hopefully) see its trillionth at some point between the year 2500 and 3000, if y’all could stop killing each other. Still, if you’re willing to ignore that we can see stars from other galaxies, too, I think we can prematurely give this one to Abraham.

As for the sand, there are about seven or eight quintillion grains on the earth. There’s just no way, even if Elon manages to get us off this planet before the next mass extinction event.

Interestingly, if you look backward, that isn’t quite true. When it comes to lineage, exponential math doesn’t always work going forward. One couple dies without any offspring, while another has a dozen children. But it always works going backward. Everyone has two parents and four grandparents. Based on most of those traditions holding that Abraham lived around 2,000 BC, we can estimate that the average living person has about 1.5 quindecillion ancestors from that time. Given that there were only about 72 million people alive at the time, that means that each of those individuals, on average, shows up in your family tree about 20 duodecillion times. That’s a 20 with 39 zeros. Congratulations! Math is amazing, and you are inbred.

The third appeal is that the really interesting findings are new. Very new. Anthropologists, of course, have theorized about the propagation and spread of cultures through comparative review of ancient art, tools, jewelry, burial sites and artifacts for centuries. Linguists can lean on anthropological techniques, but can also compare similar or derived grammar, vocabulary, and the like to identify how languages originated and spread. Maybe even some sense of where they came from. DNA has been used to develop and cultivate theories about human migrations and the spread of cultures for a shorter time, but in earnest starting in the late 1990s into the early 2000s. These studies have principally relied on the DNA of living individuals. Scientists examine current populations and theorize how ancient populations would have had to migrate to create the current distribution of various genetic admixtures — archetypes of varying compositions that can be generalized, like “Near Eastern Farmers.”

But in the last five years, the real excitement has been in the enrichment and analysis of ancient DNA. That means that, instead of just looking at modern populations and developing models to predict how they may have gotten there, we instead may look at the actual DNA of people who lived and died in some place in the distant past. We don’t have to guess how people moved and where they came from based on second-hand sources, like the DNA of people living in the same place thousands of years later, or on the pottery that they left behind.

We can know the truth.

Desperate for Wind

The allure of a fundamental truth is powerful. It’s the draw of science, and it’s a good thing. Understanding the true physical properties of materials and substances, for example, is the foundation of just about every good thing in our world. I mean, except for justice, mercy, duty, that sort of thing. We have the food we eat because those who went before discovered human chemical and enzymatic processes for digestion, and learned the mineral, chemical, water and solar needs for the plants that would be digestible. We have the devices we carry in our pockets because many thousands of researchers, designers and other scientists discovered the electrical conductivity of copper, the thermal conductivity of aluminum, the fracture toughness of various types of glass and a million other things.

I grew up around this kind of thinking. My dad worked for the Dow Chemical Company for some 40 years. Most of that time he spent as a maintenance engineer, an expert in predicting and accounting for the potential failure of devices and equipment used in the production (mostly) of polyethylene. His professional life’s work was perfecting the process of root-cause analysis. There may not be anyone in the world who knows more about how and why a furnace in a light hydrocarbons facility might fail. It may sound hyperspecialized, but that kind of laser-focused search for truth is something I took and take a lot of pride in.

Investors are hungry for that kind of clarity about markets. But it doesn’t exist. In The Myth of Market In-Itself, I wrote about investors’ vain obsession with finding root causes in media, economic news and Ks and Qs. Ben recently wrote about it pseudo-pseudonymously as Neb Tnuh, mourning the conversion of Real Things into cartoons, crude abstractions that investors are forced to treat like the authentic article:

Do I invest on the basis of reality, meaning the fact that wage inflation is, in fact, picking up in a remarkably steady fashion in the real economy? Or do I invest on the basis of Narrative abstractions that I can anticipate being presented and represented to markets at regularly scheduled moments of theater? Because the investment strategy for the one is almost diametrically opposed to the investment strategy for the other.

Like many Epsilon Theory readers, I am Neb Tnuh. Like Neb, I want to evaluate businesses and governments again. I want to understand their business models, evaluate their prospects against their competitors and subtitutes, quantify the return I can expect and the return I ought to demand for the risk, and seek out investment opportunities where the former exceeds the latter. I want this. But like everything else in life, wanting something to be possible doesn’t make it so.

It also doesn’t make it noble. Arch-raccoon James Altucher fancies himself Neb Tnuh, too:

“But business is just a vehicle for transforming the ideas in your head into something real, something tangible, that actually improves the lives of others. To create something unique and beautiful and valuable is very hard. It’s very special to do. It doesn’t happen fast.”
― James Altucher

And sure, there are ways to pull away from the table. There are ways to be short abstractions, like Neb recommends. Before he wrote The Icarus Moment, he wrote Hobson’s Choice, which described some of the few ways that all the Neb Tnuhs out there can reject the false choice between investing on the basis of a reality that is decoupled from risk and return, or not investing at all. These are strategies to insulate against Narrative abstractions, and I think they should be larger parts of almost every investor’s portfolio. Am I being explicit and actionable enough here? I’m talking about more real assets.

But a strategy which only insulates isn’t practical. It’s not practical for asset owners with boards, or actuarial returns, or a need to hit traditional benchmarks. It’s not practical for individuals who may not have the luxury, wealth or flexibility to, oh, I don’t know, buy an airport or 3,000 acres of northern red oak forests in Georgia. It probably isn’t desirable either. First, that level of underdiversification implies an extreme difference in return expectation, and I’m not going to leave that free lunch on the table. Neither should you. Second, the raison d’etre of turning the market into a utility, of propagating central bank missionaries and evangelist CEOs is the belief that those behaviors are at least somewhat predictable. If we’re not applying that in some measure to the rest of our portfolios, we’ve probably left something else on the table.

And so, unless we would be victims of the coyotes and raccoons who would sell us their own panaceas to this investing environment, we must engage with Narrative-driven markets. But it is hard. It is hard because the nature of abstractions is to require far more information — which usually means more time, too — to change their state. Think about when you’re explaining some complicated analogy to someone and they get confused (did you like my meta joke?). How much longer does it take you to get your conversation back on track? Think about the Keynsian Newspaper Beauty Contest. When you’re playing at the third or fourth level, how much more difficult is it to hold the pattern of what you’re evaluating in your mind, and how much more difficult is it to change that pattern to respond to new information once you’ve approximated it with some other thing, some heuristic or placeholder?

When an asset’s price, volatility behavior or direction is being driven by agreed-upon abstractions, so too is the required information to change its state far greater than usual. Missionaries explain away bad news, or create a new pro forma metric. Media members promote the new spin on the story. Supplicants call on confirmation bias to interpret it based on their existing thesis. And the contrarians who could move the price have all gone to the Hamptons for the decade. Notice how volatility spikes briefly and then disappears?

The question on whether to engage, or to try your luck with strategies that presume a strong, efficient link between economic facts and asset prices, is a question of timing. Unless your investment horizon — by which I mean the horizon over which your trade can go profoundly against you without your getting fired (if you’re a professional) or changing your mind (whether or not you’re a professional) — is more than 10 years, I simply don’t think you can have any confidence that your fundamental analysis has anything more than even odds. Sorry. And in case you were wondering, the answer is no. I don’t care who you are. You do not have a 10+ year horizon to survive being told by Mr. Market you were wrong without being fired or putting yourself under extreme pressure to change your mind.

Investing in a Time of Icarus

But we have already written about a lot of this. You know that Ben and I have said that many of these strategies just aren’t going to work the way that they used to, or when we’re looking for low-hanging fruit, that they haven’t worked the way that we all expected them to. You know that we think this is largely the result of markets and economies becoming utilities, Narrative replacing economic sensibility, and governments and oligarchs stepping into their own as missionaries for that utility and the Narratives that support it.

But what do we do? What do we do differently?

I’ve written about part of the answer fairly plainly in the Things that Matter and the Things that Don’t Matter series from 2017. There is a finite, definable list of investment principles which matter all the time, even in an Icarus Moment. Ben has written about the second element, which is to insulate.

For those who want to engage and continue the search for alpha, the answer depends.

First, it depends on the definition of alpha. When I say alpha, I mean any asset class-level decision that causes a portfolio to deviate from either the most diversified possible portfolio or a market cap-weighted portfolio of all global financial assets. I also mean any security-level decision that causes a portfolio to deviate from the broadest possible market-cap weighted benchmark for that asset class. It’s a simple definition that doesn’t get pedantic about whether a systematic active strategy is really a kind of “beta.” Sure it is. Or no, it’s not. It’s a stupid debate. I don’t care.

Second, it depends on the type of investment strategy you are using. It also depends on your methodology for implementing that strategy. Incorporating both of these requires some kind of framework to discuss.

Here’s what we’ll do: the dimensions I will use for the framework will be different from style boxes, and they’ll be different from categories used by many hedge fund index providers or asset allocators. I will define the categories instead by how I think they interact with an Icarus Moment, or a Three-Body Market — with a market in which asset price movements are heavily influenced by Narratives over an extended period of time.

The first dimension of those categories is what basis on which the strategy seeks to predict future asset prices (by which I include relative future asset prices). I roughly split strategy types into three categories: Economic Models, Behavioral Models and Idiosyncratic Models. Economic Models, in my definition, seek to predict future asset prices principally on the basis of actual and projected economic data about an economy, a financial market or an issuer, whether it’s a company or a government. Behavioral Models may incorporate some elements of Economic Models, but are principally driven by suppositions and beliefs about the behaviors of other market participants rather than the underlying companies. Idiosyncratic Models include various strategies which may even seek to exert direct influence on the future price of an asset.

For the second dimension of the framework, I think it is useful to separate investment strategies which are Systematic from those which are Discretionary. By Systematic Strategies, I refer to alpha-seeking strategies that reflect more-or-less static, if potentially emergent, beliefs about how prices are determined by certain characteristics or states, and whether those characteristics or states are directly related to economic data or more clearly influenced by observable investor behaviors.  The second category, Discretionary Strategies, refers to those in which there may be a process associated with similar beliefs, but in which the decision is made based on the judgment of a human portfolio manager. There are frequently observer effects in any investment strategy (i.e. where the act of observing something changes it), but particularly so in Narrative-driven markets. The systematic/discretionary dimension is important to understanding how this can manifest.

Those two dimensions give us six broad categories, which I have filled in with general descriptions of strategies that I think fall into each. There are things I haven’t captured here, but not many. Of active traditional and non-traditional investment strategies in public markets, I’m comfortable that this captures more than 80%. Close enough for government work.

Over the next few months, I will write a piece covering each of these six categories. My aim with this exercise is three-fold. For those who elect to both insulate and engage:

  • I want to tell you the strategies that I don’t think will work.
  • I want to tell allocators / asset owners how I think the evaluation of the strategies that may work should change.
  • I want to tell asset managers how I think they should consider adapting their strategies so that they still work in this environment.

If you think that I have bad news for the strategies on the left third of the table, thank you for paying attention. If you’re looking for a prize at the bottom, there is none.

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What is it, really?

Hygiene Inspector: If I may begin at the beginning? First, there is the cherry fondue. Now this…is extremely nasty. But we can’t prosecute you for that.
Mister Milton, Owner and Proprietor of Whizzo Chocolate Company: Agreed.
Inspector: Next, we have Number 4: Crunchy Frog. Am I right in thinking there’s a real frog in ‘ere?
Milton: Yes, a little one.
Inspector: Is it cooked?
Milton (confused): …No?
Milton: We use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in the finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and sealed in a succulent Swiss, quintuple smooth, full cream, treble milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose.
Inspector: That’s as may be, but it’s still a frog!
Milton: What else would it be?
Inspector: Well don’t you even take the bones out?
Milton: If we took the bones out, it wouldn’t be crunchy, would it?
Inspector: Constable Parrot ‘et one of those!
Milton: It says “Crunchy Frog” quite clearly.
Inspector: Well, never mind that. We have to protect the public. People aren’t going to think there’s a real frog in chocolate. The superintendent thought it was an almond whirl! They’re bound to think it’s some kind of mock frog.
Milton (offended): Mock frog? We use no artificial preservatives or additives of any kind!
Inspector: Nevertheless, I advise you in the future to replace the words “Crunchy Frog” with the legend “Crunchy Raw Unboned Real Dead Frog” if you want to avoid prosecution.
Milton: What about our sales?
— Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, “Crunchy Frog” sketch (1982)

It has been pointed out to us that we write rather a lot about philosophy and psychology for a website/blog/newsletter about investing.

Is this surprising? This should not be surprising. All of us are in the business of prediction. Thankfully, not all of it is explicit prediction, like saying that we think that the price of Walmart stock will be $120 in three years, or that Tesla will be bankrupt in four years. Most of it is implicit prediction, like the way that investing money in something risky implies all sorts of things about the returns we expect from it. Predictions all the same. And any activity like this relies on developing confidence in some basis for creating (or assuming) those predictions.

Philosophy, and specifically epistemology, asks how we can know the things we need to make those predictions. Are conditions, traits, features of the thing we’re predicting observable? Are their responses observable? With what confidence may we infer traits from similar things we have observed? Further, may we reason how those traits might interact with other things to allow prediction? Psychology asks how accurate those human observations might be. It asks what evolutionary processes may have colored or influenced what we know, and what we think we know. It posits heuristics that might substitute for empirically-driven reasoning, whether helpfully or harmfully. Furthermore, in a field like investing that is responsible for making predictions about human behavior itself, psychology is recursively relevant, in that it studies both the tool of the observer and the observed.

Psychology and philosophy are critical tools for the investor. But in addition to being particularly ripe fields for bullshit, they also suffer from one of the same tendencies that plagues investors: people get so hung up on terminology and conventions that they start saying and doing dumb things. As always, the shrewd investor avoids that behavior himself and for his clients and capitalizes on it in others.

The Tyranny of Terminology

Of course, that gasbag introduction was just a way to tell you that I got into a little debate about Jordan Peterson.

If you don’t know much about him, Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, a cultural commentator and a bit of a rabble-rouser. As a psychologist and academic, he is heavily cited and as far as I can tell (which is not very far, but judging by citations alone), well-thought-of in his field. As a cultural commentator, he is thoughtful and incisive as a proponent of self-control, advocate of free speech, and opponent of what he characterizes as Neo-Marxism and Postmodernism, especially in the American university. As a scientific historian of philosophy? Well, this is where things get a little more controversial.

You see, the piece I was discussing with a very thoughtful senior staffer at a large U.S. university endowment (don’t tell my salespeople I’m getting into philosophical debates with clients and prospects, please and thank you) made the argument that Peterson was the wrong choice for a public conservative intellectual. The argument, if I may summarize, finds fault with him because (1) he attracts an audience of mostly young white males, (2) the traits he ascribes to Postmodernism are cherry-picked and not entirely correctly as derived from the history of the movement, and (3) he uses the terms “Neo-Marxist” and “Postmodern” seemingly interchangeably despite the different heritage and intellectual evolution of the terms and associated philosophical movements. The piece is a rousing little number, and almost enough to make you want to sit through that whole documentary on Jacques Derrida. (No, not really. Good Lord.)

Guess what? All the claims are pretty much true. Guess what else? None of them matter. I’ll get back to why, but first, I want to talk about another very current example.

You may have seen that Steven Pinker, cognitive pyschologist scientist at Harvard, published a new book called Enlightenment Now. Now, the reality is that the book doesn’t really undertake much discussion of the specifics of schools of enlightenment thought per se, but rather tells the story of human progress over the last 200 years. It makes the argument that these improvements are vastly underestimated and underappreciated. It also connects those achievements to specific influences of science and reason, sometimes very compellingly and sometimes somewhat less so. It is an encouraging and energizing read, even where its contentions are less well supported. I, for one, think there’s rather a lot in the 20th century alone that a purely scientific approach to curing society’s ills has to answer for. But much of the criticism has little to say about that, instead grousing that the science and reason the book discusses aren’t really about THE Enlightenment, but about principles of the Scottish Enlightenment specifically, and even then only about a subset of principles that Pinker particularly likes. After all, Marx was just a natural extension of the French Enlightenment!

Are you detecting a pattern here?

There are a lot of different kinds of talk about Enlightenment Principles right now. Ben and I write about them a lot. Ben wrote about them back in 2016 in Magical Thinking, and later in Virtue Signaling, or…why Clinton is in Trouble. I wrote about them in short last year in Gandalf, GZA and Granovetter. The remarkable new web publication Quillette provides a platform for writers who are thinking about them. The Heterodox Academy is building a strong core of support for them in universities. Pinker is talking about them. Chomsky has been speaking about them for decades. Hitchens, too, before he passed. In his own way, Taleb is talking about them (although he’d dislike the company I’ve chosen for him thus far). Peterson won’t shut up about them. Many of these same people — and some others — are simultaneously issuing criticisms of what is purported to be a diametrically opposed philosophy. In the early 2000s, the scandalous moniker applied was “Cultural Marxism.” Today this opposition is usually generalized into references to “Neo-Marxism” and “Postmodernism.”

But here’s the biggest shocker. Get out the fainting couch: they’re not all saying the exact same thing.

These are thinkers focused on many different areas, and so there are all sorts of topics where they disagree, sometimes vehemently. All would say that they believe in logic, truth and rationality, I think, but would define those things very differently. Most of the folks in the list above, for example, believe in a rationalism that inherently excludes faith. They are among the most prominent atheists of our time. They typically adhere to empiricism and the scientific method as the primary — even sole — method for transforming observations about the world into predictions. For two of them, Taleb and Peterson, rational thought means also incorporating evolved heuristics, intuition, instinct and long-surviving human traditions. This is not fringe stuff, but the logical conclusion of any serious consideration of Hayek and spontaneous order. It also means particular sensitivity to scientific techniques that end up equating absence of evidence with evidence of absence. All this means when you see many of the above names together, it’s…not always friendly. Like, stuff you can’t really walk back. Even among the two primary authors of this blog there are differences in how we see these things. I haven’t talked to Ben about it, but if I gave him the list of the above, I’d guess he’d hitch his wagon to Hitchens. Me? I’m probably closer to Taleb or Peterson.

What I doubt you’d find much of from this group is navel-gazing about terminology on the issue of postmodernism. While Voxsplainers and science historians quibble (very justifiably in the latter case) about whether there is a “discrete, well-defined thing called the Enlightenment” or whether it is fair to use “Postmodernism” in reference to a movement to esteem individual experience as peer or superior to free inquiry and free expression, the rest of us know exactly what people are talking about when they talk about this issue.

Don’t believe me? Fine. Go Full Cosmo and ask people you know these four questions:

Should governments and other important institutions abridge or allow (e.g., through Heckler’s Veto) the abridgement of some speech to protect people from speech which we think may be harmful to society, especially to historically oppressed groups?

Should we restrict the examination or evaluation of certain topics, especially when allowing them would prop up harmful social structures (especially power and class structures)?

Should we be skeptical that certain features and traits of the material, cosmological and biological world can ever be objectively true or important, considering the biased social lenses through which they are observed?

When making predictions about the world, should we consider personal experience and truths as equal or superior to whatever is uncovered through rational evaluation of the empirical merit or survival of a fact, idea or principle?

If you don’t think there’s a real thing happening in academia, in the public sphere, in politics and in creative media between those with three or four responses on opposite ends of the spectrum, I don’t know what to tell you. But I do know that this intuitive, arbitrary, subjective scale that I made up right just now is going to do a lot better job telling you about what people are referring to as a conflict between “Enlightenment” and “Postmodernism” than any etymologically thorough review of the terms themselves. How do I know this? Because it asks the question we should all ask any time that we see prediction or analysis oriented around terminology, categories, benchmarks, titles and jargon:

“Yes, but what is it, really?”

What is it, really?

There isn’t a question I can think of that an investor ought to ask more often, especially when it comes to any interaction they have with a representative of a financial services company trying to sell them something. And as Ben has written, all financial innovation is either finding a new way to sell something (securitization) or a new way to borrow money on things (leverage). The name of the thing being sold isn’t always a very good representation of what the thing is, sometimes for innocent reasons, and sometimes because crunchy, raw, unboned, real, dead frog doesn’t sound very appetizing.

Now, obviously the origin of most investment terminology, conventions, and even jargon IS innocent. Usually their purpose is to reduce complicated or large sets of data or principles to like dimensions. This is pretty helpful for communication and analysis. If we were constantly redefining the generally accepted conventions for a concept like “U.S. Large Cap Stocks”, for example, we would find it difficult to do a great many things with much efficiency. Economic constructs like sectors and common investment styles also have their appeal for this reason.

The problems, however, come in one of two flavors: first, as terminology becomes convention within an industry, we get further and further removed from a fundamental understanding of what the thing actually is. When we talk about U.S. Large Cap Stocks as a sort of monolithic entity unto itself, we forget that there is a lot going on underneath the hood. Sectors are changing. Companies, even entire industries are born and dying. New IPOs, companies slipping out into small cap land, companies bought out by private equity. We forget the nature of our fractional ownership, and the limited mechanical reasons why a stock’s price might rise and fall. The nature of what you own at any given time and the underlying risks attached to it really does change rather a lot, and that’s without getting into the massive sentiment-driven influences on price variation.

One of my favorite analogues to this is the ubiquitous reference to the “Top 1%” of wage earners. The concept is interesting and useful as a simplifying term, but like an asset class, it is by no means a static construction. Consider, for example, that more than 10% of wage-earners will, at some point in their lives, be among the Top 1%! Perhaps more impressively, more than 50% of Americans will at some point be in the Top 10%. Consider the impact that this has on a wide range of policies considered and rhetoric used — not invalidating, to be sure, but relevant.

The second class of problems stemming from the long-term path from terminology into convention is the inevitable realization by market participants that they can — and once enough people do, that they must — game the system. That’s where the coyotes and raccoons come in, but also your garden-variety professionals justifiably worried about career risk. But all of these folks hope you’re hungry for some delicious Crunchy Frog.

Fight Fiercely, Harvard!

What do I mean? Well, sometimes it’s obvious. Let’s consider the curious case of the Harvard Endowment.

A week ago, multiple media outlets reported that alumni from the Class of 1969 (“an artist, a clergyman, and two professors” one article reports, but disappointingly does not finish the joke) wrote incoming Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow to encourage him to force HMC to move half of the $37.1 billion endowment out of “hedge funds” and into ETFs tracking the S&P 500. The reason? This passive management strategy would have worked better over the last several years, and would have saved a bunch of money in fees.

It goes without saying that the alumni recommendation is just really, really terrible. Like, Fergie-singing-the-anthem terrible. It’s terrible because it would arbitrarily change the risk posture of the endowment by a massive amount. It’s terrible because it would shift what has historically been a well-diversified portfolio into a woefully underdiversified portfolio with extraordinarily concentrated exposure to the performance of common stock in large U.S. companies. It’s terrible because the confluence of those two changes would massively increase the drawdowns of the endowment, its risk of ruin, and potentially impact the long-term strategic planning and aims of the greatest research university on the planet.

But mostly, it’s terrible because the proposal isn’t passive at all. Not even a little bit. It’s a massively active roll of the dice on a single market! While alumni, executives and investors bicker over whether the portfolio ought to be “passively managed”, the origin of the term and the nonsense they’re proposing couldn’t be more at odds.

Now, you may be saying, “It’s a silly alumni letter. Most people get this.” No, they really don’t. Remember, the goofy letter was covered throughout the financial media, and they are the same media who triumphantly report the annual difference in return between literally anything and the S&P 500, regardless whether it is the return on a completely different type of security or vehicle with vastly different risk and diversification characteristics. This is how most of the world thinks about investing. This is how the damned Center for Economic Policy and Research thinks about investing, for God’s sake. People who are otherwise very smart think they’re making an intelligent point about fees when they’re really making a dumb point about asset allocation — about quantity and sources of risk. Even the aforementioned Steven Pinker contracted Gell-Mann Amnesia and retweeted an article attributing the Buffett bet between S&P 500 and hedge funds to a question of cost rather than the dominating risk differences between the two.

How do we cut through terminology confusion on an issue like this?

We ask: “What is it, really?”

If you’re being sold a portfolio based on principles of “passive management”, does your advisor or manager mean “low-cost”, does he mean “not making active bets against a global market portfolio”, or both (or, y’know, neither)? If it’s a low-cost story, what is it, really? Does it have a low headline fee, but with expensive underlying implementation using swaps or external funds that don’t get included in the stated fee?  Does it have a low headline fee that your advisor is layering high additional costs on top of? What is the asset allocation you’re being sold on? Is it implicitly making an active bet against a global portfolio of financial assets? Is it the right amount of risk? Is it taking sufficient advantage of the benefits of diversification?

If you’re being asked by a client or prospect about “passive management” or “indexing”, are you sure they’re asking you about low-cost investing? Are you sure they care whether the portfolio is avoiding making bets against market cap-weighted indices? Are you sure they care whether you’re in-line with some measure of a global market portfolio? Or are they asking you why you weren’t invested 100% in the S&P 500?

Because whatever the “real” definition of passive management, we all know that we all know that this is almost always what people mean.

Deeper down the Rabbit Hole

The fact that people really mean, “why don’t you just buy the S&P 500” when they say, “why don’t you just invest passively” tells us something else about most investors. When it comes to what they buy and what they own, and especially when it comes to conventions that manifest in indexes and benchmarks, they frequently haven’t given much thought to what it really is.

Try this yourself, with your boards, your financial advisor, or with your clients. Ask them, “What is it, really, that you invest in when you buy a stock?”

I’ve done it, so I’ll give you a preview: you’ll get a huge range of answers, usually relating to “ownership” of companies or businesses. So what is an investment in a stock, really? It is a fractional, juniormost claim on the cash flow of a company, usually denominated in the currency of the country where it has its headquarters, the price of which at any given moment is determined by the investor out there who is willing to pay you the most for it — and nothing else. It has no “intrinsic value”, no “fundamental” characteristic that can be evaluated without knowing how a hundred million others will value and perceive it. It is a risky and inherently speculative investment.

In my experience, this is not what most investors mean when they say to their advisor, “just buy me a portfolio of stocks.” What they really mean is “I want to own things I understand.” They believe that investments in businesses are simple and straightforward. Unfortunately, while the businesses and how they make money may seem perfectly sensible on the surface, the forces influencing the returns from ownership of a common stock are anything but simple and straightforward. Sure, diversification helps a lot, and there are decades of relevant data to help us build some confidence about some range of likely outcomes. There are also theories of varying quality about rational behavior in that spontaneous order we call a market. But what you really own is something whose value may confound any attempt at analysis or linkage to economic fundamentals over your entire investment horizon.

Think this is just a misunderstanding of individual investors? Think again. This is a systematic problem. Consider, for example, that every Series 7-trained professional — by which I mean most of your brokers and financial advisors — is told that alternative investments tend to be “riskier” than traditional investments. In isolated cases this is true, and it’s certainly true that there are strategies by which the complexity of so-called alternative strategies introduces new dimensions of risk — usually as a way for financial intermediaries to confuse people into paying them more. But by and large, it’s an unequivocally false statement. Still, the dimension of complexity vs. perceived simplicity dominates how investors think about risk, even though the relationship is rarely strong. Don’t believe me? Ask a client, or better yet, your financial advisor to rank the following in terms of their riskiness: (1) $100 invested in an S&P 500 index fund, (2) $100 invested in centrally cleared financial futures contracts on German bunds, (3) $100 invested in fully collateralized, centrally cleared credit default swaps on U.S. IG credit. My guess is that nearly all individual investors, a majority of financial media members and a plurality of financial professionals would put #1 somewhere other than the top of the risk list. And it’s Not. Even. Close.

As it intersects with familiarity bias/availability heuristics (i.e., we are biased in our analysis toward things that we think that we know), the tyranny of terminology becomes less insidious and more obvious in its influence. Terms like stocks, bonds, commodities or real estate have readily ascertainable meanings and definitions but mean something very different when they come out of the mouths of most investors. They mean familiarity or foreignness.  Whether we are individuals working with advisors or advisors ourselves, we must understand that when most investors say risk, they mean complexity. When most investors say simple — or something they think of as simple — they mean “low risk.” These are dangerous misconceptions.

Crunchy Frogs

And friends, any time there’s a dangerous misconception, there’s someone in the financial services industry poised to weaponize it. Plenty of Crunchy Frogs to go around, you see.

In every sub-field of money management, the name of the game is benchmark arbitrage. It’s a game played in three parts: risk layering, benchmark selection and multi-benchmarking.  In each case, the affinity investors have for the comfort of indices makes them susceptible to marketing and fee schemes that have the potential to cause them harm.

Risk layering is the oldest of the three games. I wrote about it last year in I am Spartacus. The basic premise here is to select a benchmark that will feel attractive, familiar and conventional, and then to take additional risk on top of it to either (1) earn a better fee for the return generated by that risk or (2) generate better-looking performance to improve marketing potential. This IS the business model of private equity buyout funds, who since the massive fund raises and valuation increases of the mid-2000s, now take your cash, buy a company at a premium, layer on debt and sell it a few years down the line without having really done much of anything else. They’re not alone. Keying on the intellectual attraction of an “absolute return hurdle”, many so-called hedged and market neutral funds take on credit, equity and other risks beyond what exists in the benchmark, happily collecting incentive fees on garden-variety sources of return. Long-only funds do this too, of course. Most actively managed funds tend to buy higher beta, higher volatility stocks, and nearly all are smaller capitalization than the benchmark they are measured against.

Benchmark selection is often just a variant of risk-layering, but where the fund manager tries to control both the measurement and the measuring stick. Think of this like “venue-shopping” in the criminal justice world. Have you hired an international manager benchmarked to the MSCI EAFE Index? They do this. I don’t know who you hired, but they do this. They always have 5-10% in emerging markets stocks, don’t they?  There’s a reason they didn’t select the MSCI World ex-US benchmark, folks.

As for multi-benchmarking, well…I hate to tell you, but if you have ever hired a money manager, a financial advisor or even an in-house investment team, you’ve seen this one, even if you didn’t notice it. It’s very simple: you pick two benchmarks, and then you make sure you’re always positioned between them. And that’s it. Sometimes one of the benchmarks is a peer benchmark (e.g., Morningstar, Lipper, eVestment peer group, Wilshire TUCS, Cambridge for the alts folks), or sometimes it’s a “style” benchmark (e.g., Value, Growth, High Dividend, Quality, Low Vol, etc.). But the objective is to always be able to point to something that you’re outperforming. A lot of this is well-intentioned and human, and there’s often a good reason to do it. But if you’re not looking out for it, it can confound.

And that’s kinda the point.

We can’t avoid convention, or the taxonomy that emerges naturally from an industry like ours. Nor should we want to. It helps us have conversations with each other. It helps us focus on Things that Matter instead of getting bogged down in details. But if we are to be successful, we must recognize the influence it has on us, our clients, our advisors and other investors. My advice?

Try to understand what your clients really think their investments are. Know what they really mean when they ask why you are or aren’t doing something.

Know what your advisors and managers think something is. Ask questions. Don’t assume based on terminology, and don’t be steamrolled by jargon.

Know what the things you own actually are, and build a risk management program to ensure that the baser temptations of people in this industry don’t cost you or your clients money.

As we delve further into alpha in a “Three-Body Market”, this last point will come up a lot. You can’t seek alpha if you don’t really know how to measure it. Except for the Postmodernists. Y’all can still tell us how it makes you feel.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/15730/

Year In Review

We’ve had a heckuva busy year at Epsilon Theory, so to ring out 2017 I thought it might be helpful to distribute a master list of our publications over the past 12 months. We’re long essay writers trying to make our way in a TLDR world, so even the most avid follower may well need a map!

It’s also a good opportunity to give thanks where thanks are due.

First, a heartfelt thank you to my partners at Salient for contributing a ton of resources to make Epsilon Theory happen, never once asking me to sell product, and allowing me the leeway to speak my mind with a strong voice that would make a less courageous firm blanch. Epsilon Theory isn’t charity, and it’s the smart move for a firm playing the long game, but no less rare for all that.

Second, an equally heartfelt thank you to the hundreds of thousands of readers who have contributed their most precious resource – their time and attention – to the Epsilon Theory effort. We live in a world that is simultaneously shattered and connected, where we are relentlessly encouraged to mistrust our fellow citizens IRL but to engage with complete strangers on social media. It’s an atomized and polarized existence, which works really well for the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy, less well for everyone else. The lasting impact of Epsilon Theory won’t be in what we publish, but in how we’re able to bring together truth-seekers of all stripes and persuasions, because it’s your engagement with the ideas presented here that will change the world. I know that sounds corny, but it’s happening.

Now on to the 2017 publishing map.

Our big initiative for this year was to publish two coherent sets of long-form notes, one by yours truly and one by my partner Rusty Guinn.

My series of essays is called Notes From the Field. As many long-time readers know, I’m originally from Alabama but now live out in the wilds of Fairfield County, Connecticut, on a “farm” of 44 acres. I put that word in quotations because although we have horses and sheep and goats and chickens and bees, my grandfather – who owned a pre-electrification, pre-refrigeration, pre-pasteurization dairy farm in the 1930s – would surely enjoy a good belly laugh at my calling this a farm. Still, I’ve learned a few things over the years from the farm and its animals, and they’ve helped me to become a better investor.

  1. Notes From the Field: The eponymous note has two essays: “Fingernail Clean”, introducing the concept of the Industrially Necessary Egg – something we take for granted as proper and “natural” when it’s anything but, and “Structure is a Cruel Master”, introducing the genius of both humans and bees – our ability to build complex societies with simple algorithms.
  2. The Goldfinch in Winter: What can a bird teach us about value investing? To everything there is a season.
  3. Horsepower: The horse and horse collar revolutionized European agriculture in the 10th and 11th centuries, a revolution that lives on in words like “horsepower” and changed the course of human civilization. Today we are struggling with a productivity devolution, not revolution, and there is nothing more important for our investments and our politics and our future than understanding its causes and remedies.
  4. The Arborist: We are overrun with Oriental Bittersweet, privet, and kudzu — or as I like to call them, monetary policy, the regulatory state, and fiat news — invasive species that crowd out the small-l liberal virtues of free markets and free elections. What to do about it? Well, that’s citizenship, and I’ve got some ideas.
  5. Always Go To the Funeral: Going to the funeral is part of the personal obligation that we have to others, obligation that doesn’t fit neatly or at all into our bizarro world of crystalized self-interest, where scale and mass distribution are ends in themselves, where the supercilious State knows what’s best for you and your family, where communication policy and fiat news shout down authenticity, where rapacious, know-nothing narcissism is celebrated as leadership even as civility, expertise, and service are mocked as cuckery. Going to the funeral is at the heart of playing the meta-game – the game behind the game – of social systems like markets and elections, and it’s something we all need to understand so that we’re not played for fools.
  6. Sheep Logic: We think we are wolves, living by the logic of the pack. In truth we are sheep, living by the logic of the flock. In both markets and politics, our human intelligences are being trained to be sheep intelligences. Why? Because that’s how you transform capital markets into a political utility, which is just about the greatest gift status quo political institutions can imagine.
  7. Clever Hans: You don’t break a wild horse by crushing its spirit. You nudge it into willingly surrendering its autonomy. Because once you’re trained to welcome the saddle, you’re going to take the bit. We are Clever Hans, dutifully hanging on every word or signal from the Nudging Fed and the Nudging Street as we stomp out our investment behavior.
  8. Pecking Order: The pecking order is a social system designed to preserve economic inequality: inequality of food for chickens, inequality of wealth for humans. We are trained and told by Team Elite that the pecking order is not a real and brutal thing in the human species, but this is a lie. It is an intentional lie, formed by two powerful Narratives: trickle-down monetary policy and massive consumer debt financing.

The Three-Body Problem: What if I told you that the dominant strategies for human investing are, without exception, algorithms and derivatives? I don’t mean computer-driven investing, I mean good old-fashioned human investing … stock-picking and the like. And what if I told you that these algorithms and derivatives might all be broken today?

Rusty’s series of essays, Things that Matter (and Things that Don’t), connects to mine with his just published The Three-Body Portfolio. It’s a wonderful piece on its own (I can’t believe I didn’t think of the Soylent Green reference – Epsilon is people!) and is a great segue to his 2017 serial opus. In chronological order:

  1. With A Man Must Have a Code, Rusty begins the conversation about why we think that all investors ought to have a consistent way of approaching their major investment decisions.
  2. In I am Spartacus, Rusty writes that the passive-active debate doesn’t matter, and that the premise itself is fraudulent.
  3. In What a Good-Looking Question, Rusty writes that trying to pick stocks doesn’t matter, and is largely a waste of time for the majority of investors.
  4. In Break the Wheel, Rusty argues that fund picking doesn’t matter either, and he takes on the cyclical, mean-reverting patterns by which we evaluate fund managers.
  5. In And they Did Live by Watchfires, Rusty highlights how whatever skill we think we have in timing and trading (which is probably none) doesn’t matter anyway.
  6. In Chili P is My Signature, Rusty writes that the typical half-hearted tilts, even to legitimate factors like value and momentum, don’t matter either.
  7. In Whom Fortune Favors (Part 2 here), Rusty writes that quantity of risk matters more than anything else (and that most investors probably aren’t taking enough).
  8. In You Still Have Made a Choice, Rusty writes that maximizing the benefits of diversification matters more than the vast majority of views we may have on one market over another.
  9. In The Myth of Market In-Itself (Part 2 here), Rusty writes that investor behavior matters, and he spends a lot of electrons on the idea that returns are always a reflection of human behavior and emotion.
  10. In Wall Street’s Merry Pranks, Rusty acknowledges that costs matter, but he emphasizes that trading costs, taxes and indirect costs from bad buy/sell behaviors nearly always matter more than the far more frequently maligned advisory and fund management expenses.

But wait, there’s more!

You’ve got two more essays from Rusty:

  1. Before and After the Storm
  2. Gandalf, GZA and Granovetter

You’ve got 10 more essays from me:

  1. Harvey Weinstein and the Common Knowledge Game
  2. Mailbag! Fall 2017 Edition
  3. Mailbag! Midsummer 2017 Edition
  4. Gradually and Then Suddenly
  5. Tell My Horse
  6. Westworld
  7. The Horse in Motion
  8. Mailbag! Life in Trumpland
  9. The Evolution of Competition
  10. Fiat Money, Fiat News

Oh yeah, and you’ve got eleven 2017 podcasts here.

So there’s your 2017 Epsilon Theory map. 2018 will be even better.

Break the Wheel: Things that Don’t Matter #3

Daenerys and Tyrion

King George III:

They say George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away
Is that true?
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
I’m perplexed.
Are they gonna keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?
If so, who’s next?
There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large…

― “Who’s Next”, Hamilton (2015)

Sean Maguire: Hey, Gerry, In the 1960s there was a young man that graduated from the University of Michigan. Did some brilliant work in mathematics. Specifically bounded harmonic functions. Then he went on to Berkeley. He was assistant professor. Showed amazing potential. Then he moved to Montana, and blew the competition away.
Gerry Lambeau: Yeah, so who was he?
Sean: Ted Kaczynski.
Gerry: Haven’t heard of him.
Sean: [yelling to the bartender] Hey, Timmy!
Timmy: Yo.
Sean: Who’s Ted Kaczynski?
Timmy: Unabomber.
 Good Will Hunting (1997)

Chef: Oh Lord have mercy. Children, children! No no, you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t you see, children? You have the heart, but you don’t have the soul. No, no. Wait. You have the soul, but you don’t have the heart. No, no. Scratch that. You have the heart and the soul, but you don’t have the talent.

South Park, Season 8, Episode 4

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
 Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5    

Daenerys Targaryen: Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell — they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top and on and on it spins crushing those on the ground.
Tyrion Lannister: It’s a beautiful dream, stopping the wheel. You’re not the first person who’s ever dreamt it.
Daenerys: I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.
 Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 8 (2015)

The King is Dead

Some six centuries ago, European monarchies adopted the practice of declaring, “The King is dead! Long live the King!” upon the death of a monarch. In films and other adaptations, we usually get only the latter half of the expression, but there is clever intent buried in the repetition: there is to be no interregnum. When the old king dies, the new king immediately ascends with all his power and majesty, and probably most of his enemies as well. It is an instantaneous change not only in the power structure of a nation, but also in the mindset of any number of subjects, who have little time to lament the amount of time and effort they had spent fawning over and currying favor with the old king. They have to reset immediately: I’m sure this king will be better, much wiser, much less murderry. That sort of thing.

Our human nature helps us adapt. As Ben has pointed out numerous times, we want to believe.

We want to believe that this king will be different, and we’re usually instantly willing to reup on our social contract with him, giving up inalienable rights for the benefit of his wisdom and authority (or something). We want to believe that President Trump will be different, that he will finally turn over the tables in the Capitol and chase corrupt, conflicted, five-term congressmen into the reflecting pool with a whip. We want to believe that this time a friend/partner/spouse is done lying/cheating/hurting us. We do all this despite every bit of evidence telling us that what we believe is so unlikely as to be unworthy of mention.

And my goodness, we want to believe that the guy running this fund is going to be loads better than that idiot we just fired.

Sure, we’ve read Murder on the Orient Express, Charlie Ellis’s brilliant 2012 FAJ submission highlighting just how badly institutions pick funds and how badly they time it. We’ve seen the statistics. We’ve seen our own P&L and those of people we think highly of. More often than not, it doesn’t matter because we want to believe. In many cases because picking these funds is our job, we have to believe.

Epsilon Theory readers, my kids eat because I’m a fund manager. Mostly hot dogs and Kraft macaroni & cheese, but they eat. So it pains me to tell you that the amount of time, personnel and attention we all spend picking, talking to, debating and stressing over fund managers is ridiculous. This is why picking fund managers comes in at #3 on our list of Things that Don’t Matter.

So why doesn’t it matter?

Because just about all of us suck at it.

I’m being a bit hyperbolic. But only a little bit.

Earlier this month, Cliff Asness from AQR wrote a beautiful rant directed mostly at Rob Arnott from Research Affiliates and maybe a bit at the fine folks over at Bloomberg. No, it wasn’t a charming comparison of their luxuriant grey beards, but a debate about claims of data mining. Arnott and the story maybe not-so-indirectly imply that Cliff and AQR are insufficiently critical of data mining techniques among fund managers, to which Cliff offered his…uh…rather pointed rejoinder.

For the record, Cliff’s right on this one. I have either been a client or competitor of AQR/AMG in every year of my career, and there’s not a firm in the world that more rigorously — maybe even rigidly, at times — applies the scientific method to investing. (Hell, if I’m telling you to stop focusing on picking fund managers, I might as well pitch you on a competitor while I’m at it.)

So what’s Arnott’s beef? A legitimate one, even if AQR is about as far as you can get from being guilty of it. The idea is that a lot of fund managers out there, especially some of those of the quantitative or quantamental (ugh) persuasion, are engaging in shoddy, non-scientific research.

Properly implemented, the scientific method is a deductive process in which a researcher starts from a question he wishes to answer, forms a hypothesis around that question and then deductively produces predictions that he tests in order to validate (fine, “not reject”) the hypothesis and its related or subsequent predictions.

The very fair criticism of data mining is that it works in reverse, and in doing so, doesn’t work at all: it starts with the testing and ends with the hypothesis and predictions. This practice, whether consciously or unconsciously applied, is a big part of the replication crisis in academia and the poor performance of investment strategies that don’t bear out their backtests.

Data mining was one of the earliest forms of scientification — putting scientific terms, a systematic-seeming process and a presentation with a bunch of PhDs around a framework that is… well… bullshit. This trend is something we have talked about a lot on Epsilon Theory podcasts. From “Fact Checking”, to dumb ideas from brilliant men like Tyson’s “Rationalia”, to the fallacy-laden idea that opposition to specific policies directed at climate change as ineffectual constitutes disbelief in the fundamental science, scientification is on the rise. We are right to worry about this with our fund managers.

But here’s the real problem: as allocators, we are way, way worse. Just about every manager selection process I’ve ever seen, and some that I have even designed, are plagued by data mining and non-deductive reasoning.

The examples are many, and in almost every case they demonstrate explicit data mining. Now, usually they do so with some small modification to make it look less blatant — you know, since we’ve all read enough to at least want to not look like we’re just hiring the manager with the best performance. I’ve seen all sorts of these kinds of second-derivative screens, which are the allocator’s version of the payday lender setting rates by zip code and pretending they’re not preying on a particular demographic (zip codes are just numbers!). Instead of looking for top quartile managers, we’re looking for the ones with the best downside capture ratios. The best batting average. The best Sortino. The best Jensen’s alpha. The best residual alpha from our proprietary multi-factor model. Or my favorite, looking for good long-term performance and patting ourselves on the back about ignoring poor short-term alpha. Unfortunately, manager alpha — like many sources of returns — tends to mean-revert over longer periods (>3 years) and continues to trend over shorter ones (<1 year).

It isn’t that I’m taking special issue with any one of these metrics or the many tools allocators use to build portfolios. In fact, many of these are exactly the type of tools that I have used and continue to use in portfolio construction, since the general character and correlations of excess returns can be persistent over time. But I am taking issue with their use in selecting and predicting ex ante the existence of some quantity of alpha, for which they are all mostly useless. As an industry we embrace this pretense that “Manager A has alpha” is a valid hypothesis, and that by pursuing various types of analysis of returns we are somehow scientifically testing that hypothesis.

No, no, no! That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

Source: xkcd.com.

To start with a hypothesis that Manager A has alpha is begging the question in the extreme. This is equally true if we’re approaching it from the more strictly scientific “null hypothesis” construction. There is no economic or market-related intuition underlying the theory. If we start with the same premise for every manager (i.e., whether he has alpha) and analyze the returns, whether quantitatively or qualitatively, to reject or not reject the hypothesis, we are not doing scientific research. We are data mining and putting a scientific dress on it. And when our experience doesn’t match the research, we almost always come up with the same reason for firing them: they deviated from their process.

It’s a self-preservation thing, of course. We weren’t wrong. The manager just changed! He deviated from his process! Firm disruption! How could I have known?

In most cases, we probably couldn’t. We have a lot of fun on the Epsilon Theory podcast at the expense of the low replication rates of much of the research that happens across many fields right now, but those rates have nothing on the horror show that is financial markets research. (I say that, but the University of Wisconsin did accept a dissertation that was “an autoethnographic study of used-kimono-wearing as experienced by a folklorist… after inheriting a piece that had belonged to her grandmother.” Replicate that!)

Even well-defended factors and return drivers are often not robust to modest changes in methodology, shifts in in-sample vs. out-of-sample periods and the like. If those findings, which can be tested across millions of data points across companies, markets and decades, lack robustness, how much more challenged are we in trying to scientifically and mathematically uncover who is a good manager and who is a bad one?

It’s no wonder that this process finds so many of us — financial advisors, institutional allocators and individual investors alike — repeating that old refrain again. My process was good. This manager deviated from their process. This new one will be better. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Spokes on a wheel, friends. Kings that are on top until they’re not. We’ve all tried to stop the wheel. How do we break the wheel?

A Return to Real Deduction

The first step is recognizing that a deductive process must start from real economic intuition. What does real economic intuition look like?

A theoretical belief about why you should be paid for investing in something.

This is true and rather well-accepted with respect to market exposure. Most of us have a pretty good idea why we get paid for owning stocks. We’re exposing ourselves to economic uncertainty, political systems and credit markets, inflation and all sorts of other subsidiary risks. Concluding that accepting these risks ought to earn a return is something I think most investors understand fairly intuitively. Most of us — although clearly fewer than with stocks — have a good sense of why we ought to be paid for holding bonds. Commodities? Less clear. (Something-something-backwardation, something-something-storage-premium.)

Rather than starting from returns and working backward, our goal should be to develop this kind of intuition for why we ought to get paid for the active risk our fund managers are taking. In a perfect world, before we ran a single screen, before we looked at a single slide deck, before we looked at a single performance number, we would sit down — like we’re doing here with this Code — and map out the things we believe we will or might be paid for.

Where do we start? Let’s walk down a simplified road from economic intuition through deductive reasoning to a familiar hypothesis in the illustration below.

Deductive Process for Identifying a Potentially Valid Strategy

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 04/21/17. For illustrative purposes only.

The economic intuition on the right should be familiar if you’re an Epsilon Theory reader. The deductions on each of the left and right side should look familiar if you’re a rabid Epsilon Theory reader, since they showed up as the two basic ways in which a stock-picker could outperform in “What a Good-Looking Question.” The hypothesis on the bottom right should be the most familiar of all: we’re basically conjecturing that buying cheap stuff works. Not our bit, but a good one!

Inserting economic intuition into those two deductions alone should get us a few dozen hypotheses. There truly are more things in heaven and earth that most of us are willing to dream in our returns analysis-oriented philosophy. Some of those should be well-worn and familiar, like value. Some may be more unique. Many will be flawed and — hopefully — dismissed before we do anything stupid with them.

Frankly and rather unfortunately, your only ability to test many of your hypotheses about fund managers is often going to be through qualitative mechanisms and through live experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t be scientific in your approach. In a perfect world you’d be able to approach a manager without knowing a lick about their performance, have an intellectual conversation about what it is that they do to make money, determine whether it lines up with one of the theoretical ways you think it may be possible to do so, and then evaluate their performance to see if it corroborates that. That’s in a perfect world.

But in an imperfect world, one of the main reasons obsessing over fund managers is one of the Things that Don’t Matter is that almost all practitioners shuffle through dozens of approaches to selecting funds. And almost all those approaches are variants of historical return analysis, or represent historical returns analysis in guise. There’s only one way out of this, and it may be an uncomfortable one:

We’ve got to stop using historical returns analysis for anything other than portfolio fit. Not use it less. Not use it smarter. Those are attempts to stop the wheel. We’ve got to break the wheel.

If we’re going to break the wheel, we must have a robust concept of the sources of return we’re willing to believe in, that we’re willing to develop a hypothesis around. We’ve also got to develop comfort with interview and evaluation techniques that go beyond asking about stocks. If our diligence process is not capable of identifying whether the manager can access that source of return that we believe in, then we have to change our process. We must change the questions we ask.

It’s easier to understand this for systematic managers because they fit neatly into a more behaviorally driven, scientific mindset. Figuring out that we believe in value and that a manager is accessing value credibly isn’t exactly rocket science. So let’s instead consider what is probably the most ubiquitous, hardest-to-crack example: the fundamental long/short equity manager. The stock picker. Assume you haven’t seen their returns (hah!). You’ve got an hour to figure out if they’re going to fit into a working archetype, if there’s a hypothesis to be drawn here. What do you do?

Here’s what you don’t do: you don’t let them walk through their deck. You don’t quiz them about their companies to see how intelligent or knowledgeable they are. They’re all going to be smart. The Unabomber was smart. In most cases, you probably don’t even let them talk about their overall investment philosophy, because they’re going to do it on their terms. Don’t look them in the eyes and pretend you’re going to be able to out them as someone who’s going to screw you over. It’s not possible. Instead, ask three questions:

  • How do you make money? Why should you outperform the market?
  • Ignore the first part of their response. Feel free to hum your favorite song from the Hamilton soundtrack in your head (Cabinet Battle #2, obviously), and when they finally get to the part where they say “mumble… mumble… rigorous bottom-up research…”, you’re back on! Interrupt them and say, “Yes, but why? Why are you and your team better at spotting things that the market misses?”
  • Let’s assume you’re right about all that. How do you get comfortable that it will work for the stock?

Then, and only then can we violate Things that Don’t Matter #2 and dive into a case study. Don’t let them tell you a stock story. Don’t let them give you the thesis. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a thesis (They should! They must!), but that’s the language of their process. Instead, take a position in the portfolio, and ask them how the position fits with their answers. How did you think you would make money on the stock? Was that a differentiated view? Why are you confident that your team is better at analyzing that characteristic of this company than the other 1,000,000 investors covering it? And how did you get comfortable that this thing you found would actually make the stock work, that it would influence the people who actually have to change the price of the stock by buying and selling?

And all this is not to prove a hypothesis, but to arrive at one in the first place. You see, none of this solves the problem that we all face as allocators to funds: there is almost never enough data to come to a firm statistical conclusion about whether a strategy is likely to outperform. For those of you — financial advisors and individuals, in particular — who must select funds without the benefit of meeting the people managing the funds, you are often even more hamstrung, since you are constrained to whatever information they are willing to provide you about their process and strategy. Sometimes it is possible to glean from the marketing materials whether there may be an alpha generative process buried in there, and sometimes it is not.

If we approach investing deductively, however, we at least have a chance of focusing on the few things that do matter, like whether the fund manager is doing any of the things that even have a chance of outperforming. Is this more deductive approach to fund selection enough? Is it worth it?

Sometimes. But in most cases, sadly, probably not.

I still need to buy 16 years’ worth of hot dogs and Kraft dinner, but I’ll level with you. In most cases, whether you pick this fund or that fund is not even going to register in comparison to the decisions you make about risk, asset allocation and diversification.

The stock example from “What a Good-Looking Question” is instructive here as well, and in an even more exaggerated way than for stocks themselves. While a 5% tracking error stock portfolio is not rare, a portfolio of multiple actively managed funds with that level of tracking error is exceedingly rare. If you are hiring three, four or more mutual funds, ETFs or other portfolios within an asset class like, say, U.S. stocks or emerging markets stocks, the odds in my experience are very strong that your tracking error is probably closer to 2-3%. The amount of risk coming from your managers’ active bets is probably less than 5%.

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 04/21/17. For illustrative purposes only.

In all fairness, some of this is the point of active management. Part of the reason that these numbers are so low in this hypothetical example is that “alpha” in this example is, by definition, uncorrelated to the market exposure. But remember our other lesson from “I Am Spartacus” — the tracking error of our fund managers is rarely dominated by uncorrelated sources of alpha, but comes more typically from the static biases managers have toward structural sources of risk and return.

You could make the argument that the incremental return is worth the effort, especially in an environment where returns to capital markets are likely to be muted. And that’s a reasonable argument. But it’s all a question of degree. Is that source of return, challenging as it is to find, elusive as it has proven, worth the resources, time and focus it receives in our conversations with our constituents? Our investment committees? Our boards? Our clients?

So why bother at all? This is just an argument to go passive, right?

Oh, God, no!

First, as you all know by now, we are all active investors because we all make active decisions on the most important dimensions of portfolio construction: risk, asset class composition and secondary objectives like income. But more importantly, this is a universal issue. Those of us who use passive strategies for some of our portfolios — which is probably all of us at this point — have as much to gain from this advice as any other. Just two weeks ago, I made a minor point at a dinner about how S&P futures exposure was actually cheaper than ETFs and ended up getting bogged down in a serious 10-15 minute discussion on the topic. You’ve probably observed similar discussions over which low-cost ETF or passive mutual fund is the best way to access this market or that. This obsession really does transcend party lines on the ridiculous active vs. passive bike shed debate.

Neither should this be seen as a repudiation of active management at all. Again, investors should often be working with fund managers and advisors that do things that fall under the umbrella of active management. It does make sense to exploit behavioral sources of return. It does make sense to identify the very rare examples of information asymmetry. It does make sense to pursue active strategies in markets where the passive alternatives are poor or structurally biased themselves. It does make sense to consider market structure and the extent to which forced buyers and sellers create long-term pricing opportunities. It does make sense to pursue cost-effective active approaches that deliver characteristics (risk, yield, tax benefits) that would otherwise be part of the asset allocation process.

But in pursuing those, this code would advise you of the following:

  • Be judicious in the time and resources devoted to this exercise vs. the big questions, the Things that Matter.
  • Eschew the use of backward-looking return analysis. Really avoid it as much as humanly possible until you are testing a legitimate, deductive hypothesis about why you think a fund manager might be able to add value.
  • Apply a deductive process to everything you do.

After all, a code would not be a code at all unless we intended to pursue it with intellectual honesty. Most of the industry’s experience selecting fund managers has relied on rather less rigorous standards. And so it goes that Picking Funds is #3 on our list of Things that Don’t Matter.

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What a Good-Looking Question: Things that Don’t Matter #2

Peter Griffin buys a tank.

Peter Griffin: What can you tell me about this one?

Car Salesman: Oh, that’s just an old tank I use for those commercials where I declare war on high prices. Now about that sedan…

Peter Griffin: Hang on there, slick. Now I see your game. We come in here wanting a practical car, but then you dangle this tank in front of me and expect me to walk away. Now, I may be an idiot, but there is one thing I am not, sir, and that, sir, is an idiot. Now, I demand you tell me more about this tank!

Car Salesman: Well, if you’re looking for quality, then look no further.

Peter: That’s more like it! Tell me, what are the tank’s safety features?

Car Salesman: What a good-looking question. Three inches of reinforced steel protects your daughter from short-range missile attacks.

Peter: I see. And does the sedan protect against missiles?

Car Salesman: It does not.

Family Guy, Season 5, Episode 3, “Hell Comes to Quahog”

There was an unclouded fountain, with silver-bright water, which neither shepherds nor goats grazing the hills, nor other flocks, touched, that no animal or bird disturbed not even a branch falling from a tree. Grass was around it, fed by the moisture nearby, and a grove of trees that prevented the sun from warming the place. Here, the boy, tired by the heat and his enthusiasm for the chase, lies down, drawn to it by its look and by the fountain. While he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created. While he drinks he is seized by the vision of his reflected form. He loves a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, that is only a shadow. He is astonished by himself, and hangs there motionless, with a fixed expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.

Flat on the ground, he contemplates two stars, his eyes, and his hair, fit for Bacchus, fit for Apollo, his youthful cheeks and ivory neck, the beauty of his face, the rose-flush mingled in the whiteness of snow, admiring everything for which he is himself admired. Unknowingly he desires himself, and the one who praises is himself praised, and, while he courts, is courted, so that, equally, he inflames and burns. How often he gave his lips in vain to the deceptive pool, how often, trying to embrace the neck he could see, he plunged his arms into the water, but could not catch himself within them! What he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for, and the same error both seduces and deceives his eyes.
― Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me. You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!

Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

Crowd: Yes! We’re all different!

Man: I’m not.

Crowd: Shhh!

Life of Brian (1979)

There may be members of the committee who might fail to distinguish between asbestos and galvanized iron, but every man there knows about coffee — what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought — and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter, and they will end by asking the Secretary to procure further information, leaving the matter to be decided at the next meeting.

― C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law: Or the Pursuit of Progress

One of our portfolio managers at Salient started his career working the desk at a retail branch of a large financial services firm in Braintree, Massachusetts. He likes to tell the story of “Danny from Quincy” (pronounced Qwin’-zee). Danny is a rabid Boston sports fan who frequently called in to a local sports talk radio show. Your mind may have already conjured an image of our protagonist, but for the uninitiated, American sports talk radio is community theatre at its most bizarre (and entertaining), its callers a parade of exaggerated regional accents shouting really awful things at no one in particular. Local sports talk radio is even more of an oddity, since on the clear fundamental question, that is, which team everyone supports, practically all parties involved agree.

Lest Bostonians feel singled out, this phenomenon is infinitely transferable. In Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Kansas City and Oakland, it is much the same. In each, the listener can expect the same level of anger, whether it is shouting about things everyone listening agrees on, like the ‘fact’ that the NFL has always preferred Peyton Manning to Tom Brady and that Deflategate just boiled down to jealousy, or relatively petty items of disagreement, like the ‘fact’ that Belichick reached on a player in the draft who would have been available in the 4th or 5th rounds when what they really needed was help at defensive back.

When Danny from Quincy wandered into our colleague’s Braintree branch, Danny’s voice was distinctive enough that he was immediately recognized. From their conversation, it was clear that this happened to Danny all the time. Here was a local celebrity minted by nothing other than the fact that he could shout agreed-upon concepts at the loudest possible volume and with proper non-rhotic diction.

It is hardly a novel observation that disputes among those who agree on the most critical questions and disagree on details are often among the most violent. After all, more died in the disputes between French Catholics and Huguenots alone than in all three of the Crusades. And it took twice as long for John Lennon and Paul McCartney to get in a recording studio together after the Yoko Ono Experience than it took for King George III to receive John Adams as ambassador after the Treaty of Paris. As investors, however, we have turned this seemingly normal human behavior into an art form.

There are all sorts of social and psychological reasons why we so enjoy wallowing in issues of lesser import with those with whom we otherwise largely agree. One of the main reasons is that big, important issues — the ones that divide us into broad groups — tend to be either issues outside of our control, or complex and more difficult to understand. By contrast, the smaller, less important issues are more likely to be understood by a wider range of people. Or at least they are more familiar.

In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson’s eponymously titled book Parkinson’s Law: Or the Pursuit of Progress dubbed this phenomenon the Law of Triviality. In referencing the work of a finance committee, it concluded that “…the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” In other words, the more trivial something is, the more time we are likely to spend discussing it.

In his book, Parkinson dramatically reenacts the three agenda items before a finance committee: a $10 million nuclear reactor, a $2,350 bicycle shed and a $57 annual committee meeting refreshment budget. As you might expect, the details of a plan to build a nuclear reactor would fall well outside the abilities of even sophisticated committees, and even for those members with some sophistication, the task of bringing legitimate concerns or questions before an otherwise unknowledgeable group is daunting. In Parkinson’s example, the knowledgeable Mr. Brickworth considers commenting on the item but “…does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know.” He concludes that it is “better to say nothing.”

The item passes after two and a half minutes of discussion.

The next item before the committee is the discussion of a committee to build a bicycle shed for clerical staff. The discussion includes a range of topics, from cost to necessity to the choice of construction materials. As Parkinson puts it, “A sum of $2,350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for 45 minutes, with the possible result of saving some $300. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.” It is not difficult to guess where the meeting goes from there. It becomes a multi-hour marathon discussion of the $57 coffee budget, which leads to a demand for additional research and a subsequent meeting.

This dynamic should be familiar to almost anyone in the investment industry. Whether you are a financial advisor, institutional allocator, professional investor or just an individual trying to navigate the waters of an industry seemingly designed with the purpose of confusing investors, you’re at risk of more than a few Bike Shed discussions.

The code-driven investor doesn’t waste his time on the Things that Don’t Matter.

The Biggest Bike Shed of them All

Problematically, the biggest, most egregious Bike Shed probably dominates more discussions between asset owners (individuals, institutional investors) and asset managers than anything else: talking stocks.

Stop for a moment and take an inventory. If you’re an individual investor, think about your last meeting with your financial advisor. Financial advisors, pension fund execs, endowment managers, think about your last meeting with your fund managers. How much of the meeting did you spend talking about or listening to them talk about stocks and companies? A third of the meeting? Half? More? Maybe you were well-behaved and focused on things that matter, but let’s be honest with each other. We all talk about stocks way too much and we know it.

It makes me think a bit about doctors in the post-WebMD era. Once upon a time, an experienced and well-trained physician could practice medicine with deference — almost a sort of detached awe — from the patient. That is, until the internet convinced every one of us who ran in sheer terror from the syllabus for organic chemistry that we have every bit as much skill as a doctor in diagnosing ourselves with every kind of malady. For the professional investor — especially the professional investor in common stocks — this has been the case for centuries. There is no profession for which the lay person considers himself so prepared to succeed as in the management of stock portfolios.

Lest you feel any empathy for the professional in this case, our layperson isn’t entirely wrong. Not because he has some latent talent but because the average stock portfolio manager probably doesn’t. This shouldn’t be provocative. It also isn’t an opinion, as Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama famously said, and as I rather less famously agreed in I Am Spartacus. It’s math. To pick winners and losers in the stock market is a zero-sum game, which means that for every winner who is overweight a good stock, there is a loser who is underweight. And both of them are paying fees.

As I wrote previously, it is true that this notion is driven by a narrow capitalization-weighted view of the world. It also doesn’t take into account that investors with different utility functions may differ in what they consider a win. Yet the point remains: so long as math is still a thing, on average, active managers won’t outperform because they can’t. This is a big reason why over long periods only 3% of mutual fund managers demonstrate the skill to do so after fees (Fama & French, 2010).

But the question of whether we ought to hire active stock managers isn’t even the Bike Shed discussion — after all, the phony active vs. passive debate took the top spot on this ignominious list. Instead, the mistake is the obscene amount of time we as investors spend thinking about, discussing and debating our views on individual stocks.

So why do we spend so much time doing this?

Well, for one, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Whether we are investors on our own behalf or professionals in the industry, dealing with financial lives and investments can be drudgery. As individuals, it’s taxes and household budgets and 401(k) deferral percentages and paying people fees. As professionals, it’s due diligence and sales meetings and prospectuses and post-Christmas-party trips to HR training. Daydreaming about a stock where you really feel like you have a unique view that you haven’t heard from someone else is a blast by comparison.

Fun aside, familiarity plays an even more significant role. Each investor encounters companies with public stocks as a consumer and citizen on a daily basis. We are familiar with Apple because we buy their phones and tablet devices. We know Exxon because we have a friend or family member who works there. We work at another pharmaceuticals company and we think that gives us an edge in understanding Merck.

It is so important to recognize that these things give you an edge in talking about a stock, but absolutely zero advantage in investing in one. Lest we think that something is better than nothing, in this case, that is decidedly not so. When we know nothing, and know that we know nothing (h/t Socrates) about a company that will matter to its stock, we are far more likely to make sensible decisions concerning it, which typically means making no decision at all. When we know nothing and think we know something valuable, we are more likely to take actions for which we have no realistic expectation of a positive payoff. But it’s worse than taking a random uncompensated risk, because this kind of false-knowledge-driven investing also engenders all sorts of emotional and behavioral biases. These biases will drive you to hold positions longer than you should, ignore negative information and all other sorts of things that emotionally compromised humans do.

We also spend time doing this because talking about companies and stocks gives us a sort of feeling of parity that we usually don’t feel when we’re talking to our fund managers and financial advisors. These guys are often some of the smartest people we get to talk to. It can be intimidating. We look for any common ground we can find. We love being told we asked a very good or smart question. Strangely, my questions were much smarter when I worked at a $120 billion fund than since that time. I must have gotten stupider.

In case this is hitting a bit too close to home, let me assure you that you are not alone.

Before I was an asset manager — when I represented an asset owner — I was occasionally invited to speak at conferences. One such conference was in Monaco. Now, our fund had an investment with a hedge fund based there and given the travel expenses associated with conducting diligence meetings in Europe, combining the two made good fiscal sense. It also meant that our usual practice of conducting diligence in pairs wasn’t really feasible. So, I was running solo.

On Tuesday, I attended the conference, giving speeches to other asset owners about what effective diversification in a hedge fund portfolio looks like, and then speaking later on a panel to an audience of hedge funds on how to present effectively to pension fund prospects. I could barely leave the room without a mob of people looking for a minute of my time or a business card, and friends, I’m not a particularly interesting public speaker. I felt like a big shot.

On Wednesday, I met our fund manager for lunch. I don’t remember the name of the venue, but it was attached to some Belle Époque hotel with a patio overlooking the Mediterranean. From the front of the hotel, we were ushered through a sort of secret passageway by a tuxedoed man who, when we arrived at the patio, was joined by three similarly attired partners who proceeded to lift and move a 400-some-odd-pound concrete planter that isolated the table we would be sitting at from the rest of the patrons. When we had passed by and sat down — not without a Monsieur-so-and-so greeting and obsequious bow of the head to my host — they then lifted and returned the planter to its place and disappeared.

The gentleman welcomed me to his city graciously in Oxbridge English, but I knew from my notes that he spoke Italian, German and French as a native as well. I think he was conversant in Dutch and several other languages besides. He was an activist investor, and had such a penetrating understanding of the companies in which he invested (usually no more than 5 or 6 at any time) that I could tell immediately I was several leagues out of my depth. He was so intimately familiar with the tax loss carryforward implications of eight potential cross-border merger partners for a portfolio financial services holding that I deemed it impossible he didn’t sport an eidetic memory.

By the time I had finished a cup of bisque and he had finished (food untouched) passionately discussing solutions to flawed regulator-driven capital adequacy measures, I was so thoroughly terrified of this brilliant and just disgustingly knowledgeable man that I couldn’t help but grasp at the thing I knew I could hang with him on. I wasn’t going to be the sucker at this table!

“So, what about your position in this British consumer electronics retailer?”

And down we go into the rabbit hole, Alice. Ugh.

Look, we’ve all been there. Or maybe it’s just me and none of you have ever felt intimidated and stupid and reached out for something, anything. Either way, it’s so critical that you know that your fund manager, even your financial advisor, loves it when you want to talk stocks. Loves. It. He loves it because he knows his client will have some knowledge of them, which gives him a chance to establish common ground and develop rapport with you. It keeps the meeting going without forcing him to talk about the things he doesn’t want to talk about, namely his performance, his fees and how he actually makes money for his clients.

It’s a great use of time for him — he’s selling! — and an absolutely terrible use of time and attention for you, the investor. If they drive the conversation in that direction, stop them. If you commit an unforced error and try to get them to sell you the tank instead of the sedan, stop yourself.

Why It Doesn’t Matter

But is thinking about your individual stock investments and those made on your behalf really always such a terrible use of time? Even though I asked the question I just answered in a rhetorical way that might have indicated I was going to change my mind and go a different direction here, yeah, no, seriously, it’s a ridiculously bad use of time. Let me be specific:

If you are spending more than a miniscule fraction of your day (say, 5% of whatever time you spend working on or talking to people about investments) trying to pick or talk about individual stocks, and you are not (1) an equity portfolio manager or (2) managing a portfolio with multiple individual stock positions that are more than 5% of total capital each, this is absolutely one of the Five Things that Don’t Matter.

Why? The answer has more to do with the nature of stock picking than anything else, but in short:

  1. You probably don’t have an edge.
  2. Even if you do, being right about it won’t necessarily make the stock go up.
  3. And even if it sometimes did, it wouldn’t matter to your portfolio.

There are empirical ways to tell you how hard it is to have an edge. Academics and asset managers alike have published innumerable studies highlighting the poor performance of active equity managers against broad benchmarks and pointing out the statistical inevitability of outliers like Buffett or Miller. But you’ve probably already read those, and if you’re like me you want to know why. So here’s why it’s so damned hard.

There are only two possible ways to outperform as a stock-picker:

Method 1: Having a different view about a company’s fundamental characteristics than the market expects, being right, and the market recognizing that you are right.

Method 2: Having a view that market perception about a company will change or is changing, estimating how that will impact buying and selling behaviors, and being right.

That’s it. Any investment strategy that works must by definition do one of these things, whether consciously or subconsciously. Deep value investors, quality investors, Holt and CFROI and CROCE aficionados, DDM wonks, intrinsic value guys, “intuitive” guys, day traders, the San Diego Momentum Mafia, quants — whatever. It’s all packaging for different ways of systematically or intuitively cracking one of these two components in a repeatable way.

The problem for almost all of us — individuals, FAs, fund managers, asset owners — is that we want to think that doing truly excellent fundamental analysis guided by a rigorous process and well-constructed models is enough. Friends, this is the fundamental message of Epsilon Theory, so I hope this doesn’t offend, but fundamental analysis alone is never enough to generate alpha.

This is what leads us to focus our efforts vainly on trying to find the most blindingly intelligent people we can find to build the best models and find that one-off balance sheet detail in the 10-K notes that no one else has found. We’re then disappointed after three straight years of underperformance, and then we fire them and hire the next rising star. It is what leads us to spending time researching companies ourselves, evaluating their new products, comparing their profitability ratios to those of other companies, and the like.

This isn’t to say that fundamental analysis doesn’t have value to a valid equity investment strategy. It certainly can and may, but as a necessary but insufficient component of Method 1 described above. The missing and absolutely indispensable piece is an accurate picture of what the market actually knows and is expecting for the stock, and how participants will react to your fundamental thesis being correct.

This is where (probably) you, I and the overwhelming majority of fund managers and financial professionals sit. We may have the capacity to understand what makes a company tick, how it works. We may even be able to identify the key variables that will determine its success. But when it comes to really assessing what the next $500 million of marginal buyers and sellers — you know, the people who determine what the price of the thing actually is — really think about this stock and how they would respond to our thesis being right, I believe we are typically lost. We’ve built a Ferrari with no tires to grip the road. A beautiful, perfectly engineered, useless masterpiece of an engine.

This is one of the reasons I think that platforms that canvass the views of the people that mostly closely influence the decision-making framework of buy-side investors (i.e., sell-side research) are one of the rare forms of true and defensible edge in our industry. It’s also why I think highly of quantitative investors who systematically exploit behavioral biases that continuously creep into both Methods above over time. It’s why statistical arbitrage and high-speed trading methods work by focusing on nothing other than how the marginal buyer or seller will implement a change in their views. It’s why I think you can make an argument for activist investing on the basis that it takes direct control of both a key fundamental factor and how it is being messaged to market participants. It’s also why we’re so excited about the Narrative Machine.

But it’s also why — despite my biases toward all things technological — I also retain respect for the rare instances of accumulated knowledge and intuition about the drivers of investor behavior. I can add no thoughts or added value concerning the most recent allegations against him, but Lee Cooperman is the best case study I can think of for an investor who gets Method 1. This is a man who defines old school in terms of fundamental analysis. He sits at a marble desk, shelves behind him bedecked with binders of his team’s research and Value Line books flanking a recording studio-style window looking out on his trading floor. His process leverages a large team of hungry young analysts in a classic you-propose-I-dispose model. So yes, the fundamental analysis is the centerpiece. But in my opinion what set him and his returns apart was his ability from 50 years in this city, training or working with half of his competitors, to understand how his peers — the marginal buyer and seller — would be thinking about and would respond to what he discovered in his team’s fundamental analysis.

Ladies and gents, if you think the savvy kid from the Bronx who gets people in an intuitive sense doesn’t occupy a prominent seat at this table, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

But even so, let’s daydream. Let’s imagine that you are, in fact, Leon-effing-Cooperman in the flesh, with all his skills and experience. But instead of holding his relatively concentrated book, you’re holding what you and I probably own or advise for our clients or constituents (or at least should): some form of a balanced and diversified portfolio. Even if you knew that you were good at this one part of the game, would it even matter?

Sadly, not really.

You see, in a typical diversified investor’s portfolio, the idiosyncratic characteristics of individual securities — the ones driven by the factors truly unique to that company — are unlikely to represent even a fraction of a fraction of the risk an investor takes.

Consider for example a generalized case where an investor built a portfolio from an index portfolio — say US stocks — and a separate “tracking error” portfolio. This is kind of what we’re doing when we select an active manager. Even with relatively robust expectations for tracking error and the unrealistic assumption that all of the tracking error came from idiosyncratic (those unique to that security) sources with no correlation to our equity portfolio, the bets made on individual stocks account for less than 10% of total risk.

Percent of Portfolio Risk from Active Risk

Source: Salient Partners, L.P., as of 03/31/2017

Now think about this in context of our larger portfolio! In practice, most stock discussions take place in context of multi-manager structures or portfolios, in which case the number of stocks will rise and the level of tracking error will fall even further than the above. To take that even further, the majority of the sources of that tracking error will often not be related so much to the individual securities selected by the underlying managers, but a small number of systematic factors that end up looking like equity risk, namely (1) a bias to small cap stocks and (2) a bias toward or away from market volatility.

In the context of any adequately diversified portfolio, stock picks are a Bike Shed. If it is your job in the context of a very large organization to evaluate the impact of active management, you may bristle a bit at this. I remember how I justified it to myself by saying, “Well, I’m only talking about stocks this much because I want to get a picture of how she thinks about investing, and what her process is.” That’s all well and good, if true. Even so, consider whether the discussion is really allowing you to fully determine whether the advisor or fund manager has an edge under the Methods described above.

For the rest of us, spending time thinking about, discussing and debating your stock picks or those of your advisors is almost certainly a bad use of time, no matter how enjoyable. That’s why it sits at #2 on our Code’s list of Things that Don’t Matter. And if you still think we’ve given fund managers too much of a pass here, you’ll find more to like at #3.

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I Am Spartacus: Things that Don’t Matter #1

I am Spartacus!

Herald: I bring a message from your master, Marcus Licinius Crassus, commander of Italy. By common of His Most Merciful Excellency, your lives are to be spared! Slaves you were, and slaves you remain. But the terrible penalty of crucifixion has been set aside on the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.

Antoninus (Tony Curtis): I am Spartacus!

Other Slaves: I’m Spartacus!

— Spartacus (1960)

We are all active managers, friends. The sooner the better that we realize this and start focusing on the when and why it makes sense for investors, instead of wishcasting “good environments for active management” that don’t exist. While we may not be obscuring each other’s identities, it’s probably time for more of us to stand up and say, “I am an active manager!” Although, I suppose it is worth mentioning that shortly after this scene, Spartacus is forced to kill his best friend before being crucified.

“Active management is a zero-sum game before cost, and the winners have to win at the expense of the losers.”

— Eugene Fama, Ph.D., Investment News, October 7, 2013

Walter Sobchak: Am I wrong?

The Dude: No, you’re not wrong.

Walter: Am I wrong?

The Dude: You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.

Walter: All right then.

— The Big Lebowski (1998)

“You heard about it? Yeah you had to.

Mm hmm I know you changed your mind,

You ain’t the only one with bad news.

I know that it made you feel strange, huh?

You was right in the middle complainin’

and forgot what you was cryin’ about.”

— Mystikal, “Bouncin’ Back” (2001)

Ahchoo: Look, Robin, you don’t have to do this. I mean, this ain’t exactly the Mississippi. I’m on one side. I’m on the other side. I’m on the east bank, I’m on the west bank. It’s not that critical.

Robin: It’s the principle of the thing.

— Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

It seems like every few years the debate on active vs. passive management comes back in full force — not that any of this is new, of course. DFA, Vanguard, and brilliant investors and writers like Charlie Ellis have been shouting from the mountaintop about what a waste of time active management is for decades now. So why the breathless excitement from the financial press on the topic this time? Mostly because they haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about.

Don’t mistake me: Charlie Ellis isn’t wrong. Jack Bogle isn’t wrong. Gene Fama isn’t wrong. But the basis for the broader active vs. passive debate is misleading at best, and outright fraud at worst. Let’s get a few objective, unequivocal facts out of the way about active management:

  1. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” environment for active management.
  2. Everyone — including you, dear reader — is an active investor.
  3. Costs matter. The rest of this debate is a waste of time.

This is why the debate over active vs. passive is #1 on my list of Things that Don’t Matter.

The myth of the good or bad environment for active management

Most investors have at least a passing familiarity with the notion of the zero-sum game. It is an academic and logically sound construct which says that if one investor is overweight or long a particular security relative to its market capitalization weighted share of that market, it stands to reason that another investor must necessarily be underweight or short.

This is true to the point of tautology, and there’s no disputing it. It’s true, and it’s used as the fundamental, deterministic argument for why active management can never  work. If every winner is offset with a loser and everyone is paying fees, over time the house is going to win. It’s also why Dr. Fama has famously and accurately said that if the data shows that active management is working, then the data is wrong.

But if this is the case, how it is possible that there are “good” or “bad” environments for active managers or stock pickers? Wouldn’t every environment just be equally bad to the tune of the drag from fees and expenses? If so, why are we talking about this historically bad period for fund managers?

The reason we are talking about it is that practically every study, allocator, advisor, researcher and article covering this topic considers passive management in context of a particular benchmark or index. However, not every pool of assets benchmarked against an index is necessarily seeking to outperform that index on an absolute basis. Even more to the point, these pools certainly don’t confine their investments to constituents of that index.

If you weighted each of the benchmarks used by investors, funds and institutions by the value of each of those pools of capital, you would end up with something that looked very different from the market capitalization of the world’s financial assets. By way of the most obvious example, I suspect that the total value of pools of capital that benchmark themselves formally against the S&P 500 Index (“S&P 500”) vastly exceeds the market capitalization of the S&P 500 itself. The value that does so informally is probably many multiples of that.

The way that this plays out in practice is surprisingly consistent. Consider a U.S. large-cap strategy. There are four biases that are ubiquitous — uniform might be nearer the mark — among both actively managed mutual funds and institutional separate accounts:

  • investments in small- and mid-cap stocks
  • investments in higher volatility / higher beta stocks
  • investments in international stocks
  • cash holdings

In other words, there is no good or bad environment for active management. There are good or bad environments for the relatively static biases that are almost universal among the pools of capital that benchmark themselves to various indices.

If you are an allocator, financial advisor or individual investor, you may have heard from your large-cap fund managers during the first half of 2016 how bad an environment it was for active management. Maybe they said that the market is ignoring fundamentals or that everything is moving together or that the market is adopting a short-term view.

That’s about 50% story-telling and 50% confirmation bias. It’s also 0% useful.

In an overwhelming majority of cases, that environment is simply one in which either small-caps underperformed or high beta / high-risk stocks did.

From the same investor vantage point, the second half of 2016 probably looked different. We often say that we don’t have a crystal ball, but I have a very reliable prediction about your annual reviews with your U.S. large-cap managers. They may inform you that “fundamentals started mattering again” in the second half of the year. The market started paying attention to earnings quality and management decisions and [insert generalization that will fill up the allotted time for the meeting here].

No they didn’t.

Small-cap and high-beta or high volatility stocks bounced back really hard. When you do your review with your active small-cap managers, you may be surprised when they, on the other hand, are doing so poorly relative to their benchmarks. Why? Because small-cap managers manage portfolios that are typically above the market cap of the Russell 2000 Index (“Russell 2000”) and nearly uniformly underperform when small-cap is trouncing large-cap.

Let’s take a look at how and why this is. The chart below splits up every month from January 2001 through January 2017 by the spread between the return of the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500. The chart plots the average excess return of each of the funds in the Morningstar Large Blend category against the S&P 500 by how pronounced the difference between small- and large-caps was for the period. In other words, what we’re looking at is whether large-cap funds have done better or worse vs. the S&P when large-caps are outperforming small-caps in general.

The results are stark. In the bottom decile of months for the large vs. small spread (i.e., the 10% of months where small-caps do the BEST), large-cap blend managers outperform the S&P by an annualized rate of just over 4%. By contrast, in the top decile for large-cap vs. small-cap, they underperform by an annualized rate of nearly 5%!

Those bad environments for stock picking your fund managers are so fond of telling you about? They’re only bad because almost all of your active managers are picking riskier stocks and putting small- and mid-caps in your large-cap fund.

Sources: Bloomberg, Ken French U.S. Research Returns, Morningstar as of 01/31/17. For illustrative purposes only. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Unfortunately for those of you who breathed a sigh of relief in August and September of 2016 because your active managers were ‘working’ again, this doesn’t necessarily mean your fund manager had a flash of brilliance from the patio of his Southampton rental. Low beta just spat up all the excess returns it generated in the first half of the year.

These kinds of biases are not confined to large-cap U.S. equity managers, of course. As mentioned, your small-cap managers are usually going to get smoked when small-caps are roaring. Your international equity managers are all buying emerging markets stocks around the edges of their portfolios (that’s why they were geniuses until the last three years or so, and now we think they’re stupid). Your fixed income guys are often just about all doing “core plus” even if they don’t say so on the wrapper. Your long/short equity and event funds have persistent sectoral biases.

Every category of active management has its own peculiar but fairly persistent bias against its benchmark.

OK, so active managers have consistent biases. So what? It still rolls up to the same zero-sum game, right? Yes, but it’s useful to think about and understand what’s going on underneath the hood. Namely, since we know that actively managed large-cap mutual funds and institutional separate accounts are usually underweight mega-caps, large-caps and lower risk stocks relative to the passive universe, we must fill in the gap: who is overweight these stocks to offset?

The answer is, well, strategies other than large-cap strategies, or ones that are not benchmarked to the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 Index (“Russell 1000”). That can include a wide variety of vehicles, but at the margin it includes (1) hedge funds, (2) individual or corporate holders of ‘un-benchmarked’ securities portfolios and (3) portfolios that are targeting a sub-set or variant of the large-cap universe. Clearly it also includes all sorts of strategies benchmarked to other markets entirely, one of the most common examples being multi-asset portfolios. As illustrated in the exhibit below, the S&P 500 is very obviously not completely owned by pools of capital that are benchmarked to the S&P 500.

For illustrative purposes only.

Hedge funds provide us with the most exaggerated example of one of the ways this happens. Let’s presume that large-cap mutual funds are underweight low volatility mega-cap stocks to the tune of $50 billion.

Now let’s examine two cases — in the first case, $25 billion in hedge fund capital is deployed to buy all $50 billion of that on a levered long basis. In the second case, $100 billion of hedge fund capital is used, meaning that the funds chose to hold 50% cash and spent the remaining 50% on the mega-cap stocks.

If the S&P 500 is up and a particular publication wants to talk about hedge fund returns, they’re going to talk about the first scenario as a heroic period of returns for hedge funds. In the second scenario, hedge funds are a scam run to prop up the richest 1%. Neither is true, of course — well, not on this basis alone, at least — because the benchmark isn’t capturing the risk posture that an investor is using as part of its asset allocation scheme to select that investment — in this case a long/short hedge fund.

Consider as well that many of the strategies that are ‘filling in’ for active large-cap managers’ underweights to Johnson & Johnson and ExxonMobil do so in tactical or multi-asset portfolios, many of which are going to be compared against different benchmarks entirely. Still, others may be executed under minimum volatility or income equity mandates. When you consider that the utility functions of investors in these strategies may be different, and that one investor may reasonably emphasize risk-adjusted returns rather than total returns, or that two investors might have meaningfully different needs for income in context of their overall financial situation, the argument starts to get very cloudy indeed.

There is no such thing as a passive investor

So when faced with an income objective like the example above, the response of many in the passive management camp is typically some form of, “Well, just buy more of a passive income equity fund, or move more money to bonds.”

It is this kind of argument that exemplifies why this active vs. passive debate feels so phony, so contrived. As it is too often applied, the mantra of passive management emphasizes avoiding funds that make decisions that many those allocators/advisors/investors will then make themselves and charge/pay for under the guise of asset allocation.

If a fund manager rotates between diversified portfolios of stocks, bonds, credit and other assets based on changing risks or income characteristics, he gets a Scarlet A for the vile, dastardly active manager he is. If an investor or allocator does the same thing by allocating between passively managed funds in each of those categories, he posts about it on Reddit and gets 200 up-votes.

If a fund manager invests in a portfolio of futures (lower cost passive exposure than ETFs, by the way) to reach a target level of risk and diversification without trying to pick individual securities at all, just go ahead and tattoo the “A” on their deserving forehead in permanent ink. If an investor or allocator does the same thing to build a portfolio that is equally or more distinct from a global cap-weighted benchmark using more expensive ETFs, we can only celebrate them and hope they pen a scathing white paper on the systemic risks embedded in risk-targeted investment strategies.

Everyone is often doing the same things — and usually paying for it — in different ways. To paraphrase Ahchoo (bless you), some of you are on the east bank and some of you are on the west bank. But this ain’t exactly the Mississippi. It’s not. That. Critical.

What IS critical is understanding why this debate occupies such an august (notorious?) spot on this list of Things that Don’t Matter. And here it is: I am fully confident that not a single passive investor owns a portfolio of global financial assets in the respective weights of their total value or market capitalization. Instead, they allocate away from the cap-weighted global financial assets standard based on (1) their risk appetite, (2) in order to better diversify and (3) to satisfy certain personal goals around income and taxes.

Let’s put some figures on this. Using a basic methodology from public sources (while acknowledging without having access to his letters that Paul Singer has adopted a similar approach) as of the end of 2015 or 2016 — we’re talking big numbers here, so the timeliness isn’t that important — global investable assets look something like the pie chart below.

Sources: BIS, Savillis, World Bank. For illustrative purposes only.

Yes, there’s overlap here. Yes, if you added in capital raised to invest in private companies it would add another 1.2% to equities, and including insider holdings in private companies would expand this more (although debatably). It also doesn’t include a range of commodities or commodities reserves because of the (generally) transitive nature of the former and indeterminate nature of the latter. But it’s good enough for our purposes. So does your portfolio look like this? If not, let me be the first to initiate you into the club of active managers.

Every investor is an active investor when it comes down to the major dimensions of asset allocation: risk, diversification, income and liquidity. Eliminating strategies as “Active” because they seek to manage risk, improve diversification, increase income or take advantage of greater (or lesser) liquidity is wrong-headed at best and hypocritical at worst. Most of all, it harms investors.

The S&P 500 example is not universally applicable, of course. Public large capitalization stocks are well-covered by indices, and so index funds that track the S&P 500 or Russell 1000 are generally sound examples of vehicles seeking to avoid the pitfalls of the zero-sum game. That is not always the case, however.

One example of this I like to use is the Alerian MLP Index. It is a perfectly acceptable representation of the energy MLP market, and deserves credit for being the first to track this growing asset class. It tracks 50 key constituents with around $300 billion in total market cap. The overall universe of listed midstream energy companies, however, is closer to 140-150 and sports a market cap of nearly $750 billion. There are several index funds and ETFs that track the index, and dozens of so-called actively managed funds that include a higher number of securities that look rather more like the cap-weighted market for energy infrastructure!

A more mainstream example of this might be the Dow Jones Industrial Index, famous for being used by CNBC every day and by a professional investor for the last time in the mid-1950s. This index of 30 stocks covers only a fraction of the breadth of listed stocks in the U.S. with meaningfully different characteristics on a dozen dimensions, and is tracked by a “passive” ETF with roughly $12 billion in assets. Meanwhile, lower cost large-cap mutual funds and accounts with 120 holdings built to deliver higher than typical income at a lower volatility than the market are “actively managed.” To make matters more complicated, many asset classes that are a meaningful — and diversifying — part of the cap-weighted global market simply do not have passive alternatives.

There is a wonderful local convenience store chain called Wawa where I went to college. I had a…uh…friend whose laziness was so well-developed that his diet was entirely driven by what was available at Wawa. If they didn’t have it, he didn’t eat it. Now, there are all sorts of delightful things to be had there, so don’t get me wrong. But if you’ve got something other than hot dogs, ham sandwiches or Tastykake Krimpets on your mind, you’re out of luck.

I’m sorry to say that the Index Fund Wawa is fresh out of vehicles owning securities issued by private companies, listed securities in certain niches of the markets (e.g., preferred securities in real estate) with meaningful diversification and income benefits, less liquid instruments and others unable to be held in daily or continuous liquidity vehicles. Many of these strategies have significant diversification potential and roles within portfolios. Many are often highly effective tools for adding income, efficient risk mitigation or other characteristics to portfolios. Many may even have higher expected returns or risk-adjusted returns. But you’ll have to leave the Wawa to get them.

None of this even begins to venture into hedge funds and other alternative strategies, and how they ought to be considered in context of the overall debate. To be sure, the answer is probably to observe that the same criticisms and defenses that can be brought to bear against (or on behalf of) active management apply to strategies like this as well.

But to a great extent for hedge funds (and to a lesser one for traditional strategies), there are potential sources of return that may be consistently exploited that have nearly the same empirical and fundamental underpinnings of market exposure as a source of potential return. At their core — and consistent with how we discuss them in Epsilon Theory — they are almost universally an expression of human behavior. Whether expressed through premia to value, momentum or carry premia, or else biases investors have toward quality, lottery payoffs, liquidity and the like, the great irony is that the most successful actively managed strategies are those that exploit the fact that many investors are often drawn to the appeal of active management under the guise of ‘beating the market.’

For this reason, it is somewhat baffling to see the disdain with which passionate passive investors treat many alternative strategies. If we believe that active management can persistently lead investors to predictable bad outcomes driven by understandable behavioral biases and responses to information, why would we be averse to approaches that seek to exploit this? Most investors can, however, see the forest for the trees on this issue. That is the reason why, despite the contraction in actively managed strategies more broadly, most projections for the market for liquid alternatives posit a doubling of assets in the space between 2015 and 20201.

1Both PWC and McKinsey’s work on this topic comes highly recommended.

Costs matter (and the rest of this debate is a waste of time)

Now admittedly, I have waited quite a long time to talk about one of the principal concerns around many actively managed strategies: cost.

In coming around to this critical consideration, it is worth circling back to the indisputable fact that Bogle, Fama and Ellis are right. Trying to beat the market in most markets by being overweight the right stocks and underweight the right stocks is a loser’s game. Doing that and paying fees for it makes it an expensive loser’s game. The reality is that investors need to put the pitchforks away and ask themselves a set of simple questions when considering actively managed funds:

  • Portfolio Outcomes: For a fund that is making active decisions that I would be responsible for in my asset allocation, like risk targeting, biasing toward income and yield or improving portfolio diversification, do the benefits justify the cost?
  • Incomplete or Non-Existent Indexes: When an active fund provides better diversification or coverage of an opportunity set, or covers an investment universe that is not investable through passive solutions, do the benefits justify the cost?
  • Exploiting Bad Behaviors: When investing to exploit the behaviors of other investors who are trying to beat the market to increase returns or improve risk-adjusted returns of my portfolio, do the benefits justify the cost?

It shouldn’t be any surprise that this will often lead you to the same conclusion as a passive management zealot, because adding value that justifies the cost on the above dimensions is still really hard. Active management should be evaluated with the same critical eye and cost/benefit analysis every one of us use when we make active decisions in our portfolio design and asset allocation. But because it won’t always be the case, the process matters, and the code you follow to draw your investment conclusions matters.

The active vs. passive debate, on the other hand, does not. Enough.

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The Art of the Probe

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-cincinnati-kid

Slade: How the hell did you know I didn’t have the king or the ace?
Lancey Howard: I recollect a young man putting the same question to Eddie the Dude. “Son,” Eddie told him, “all you paid was the looking price. Lessons are extra.”
― “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-lancey

There are only two great movies about poker — Rounders, which everyone knows, and The Cincinnati Kid, which no one knows. Steve McQueen is the Kid and Edward G. Robinson is the Old Pro, Lancey. When I was a younger man, I rooted for the Kid. Today … I’m pulling for Lancey all the way.

Slade: Six stacks, is that right, Shooter?
Shooter: Six.
Slade: Well, we’ve been playing 30 hours… uh, that rate, six thousand, that makes roughly, uh, $200 an hour. Thank you for the entertainment, gentlemen. I am particularly grateful to Lancey, here; it’s been a rewarding experience to watch a great artist at work. Thank you for the privilege, sir.
Lancey Howard: Well now, you’re quite welcome, son. It’s a pleasure to meet someone who understands that to the true gambler, money is never an end in itself, it’s simply a tool, as a language is to thought.
“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-lardner

Money is to gambling as a language is to thought. What a line!

Screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr., one of the Hollywood 10 who refused to be rats for the House Un-American Activities Committee in McCarthy days. Lardner was blacklisted and sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress.

True courage comes at a heavy price. Some will be willing to pay that price over the next four years.

And some won’t.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-melba

[Shooter’s wife Melba is altering a jigsaw puzzle piece with a nail file]
Shooter: Melba, why do you do that?
Melba: So it’ll fit, stupid.
Shooter: No, I’m not talking about that. What I’m asking is … do you, uh, have to cheat at everything?
Melba: At everything?
Shooter: Yes. At … solitaire. I’ve yet to see you play one game of solitaire without cheating.
Melba: So what?
Shooter: Look, you’re just cheating yourself, don’t you understand? You’ll be the loser, no one else but yourself! … You’ve ruined the puzzle, now, that doesn’t go in there.
[She forces the altered piece into place]
Melba: Does now.
“The Cincinnati Kid” (1965)

I’ve known more than a few economists who had more than a little Melba in them. Quants, too. That’s Ann-Margret as Bad Girl Melba, by the way, and Karl Malden as the cuckolded Shooter. ‘Nuff said.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-goethe

Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

A gambit risks a pawn for advantage later in the game. The word is derived from the Italian gamba (leg), from a wrestling move with a similar sacrifice.

In chess as in life — the only way to defeat a gambit is to accept it.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-kennedy

Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.

Nikita Khrushchev, 1963

Without wishing to trade hyperbole with the Chairman, I do suggest that he reminds me of the tiger hunter who has picked a place on the wall to hang the tiger’s skin long before he has caught the tiger. This tiger has other ideas.

John F. Kennedy, 1961

Sieges and blockades are game theory in practice, on both sides of the wall.

epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-general-giap epsilon-theory-the-art-of-the-probe-december-8-2016-general-siege

Photo of North Vietnamese General Giap, taken during the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In anticipation of a full-scale assault, the French took up positions (marked in green on the map) on a series of fortified hills. Rather than attack en masse, however, Giap set up artillery positions east and north of the French fortifications and wore the French down with artillery fire combined with constant probing skirmishes. In investing, I always try to think: WWGGD?

I’ve written a lot about The Common Knowledge Gamehere, here, and here – because it’s the game of markets, i.e., it’s the central contribution of game theory to understanding how markets work. I’ve also written a lot about new technologies and new perspectives – here, here, and here – that help us see The Common Knowledge Game in action. Today I want to take a different cut at this topic: how can you be a better game-player? What are some specific strategies one can adopt to play the game of markets more effectively?

There’s a concept in poker that’s a useful introduction to what I want to talk about. It goes by lots of different names, but I’ll call it The Probing Bet. The idea is that you make a raise or otherwise take the initiative in a signaling interaction because, as you’ll hear time after time if you talk to good poker players, you need to find out “where you stand” in that particular hand. The betting behavior of the other poker players sitting around the table from you is like the betting behavior of the other investors sitting around the market from you: it’s over-determined, which is a $10 word that means there are far more possible explanations of what actual cards might be driving that betting behavior than are required to explain the behavior fully (see “The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil” for an investment example).

In other words, there might be six different basic card combination categories that an opponent might hold, each of which — if you were playing that hand — has some percentage likelihood of prompting you to duplicate that opponent’s betting behavior. But if you add up those percentage likelihoods across the six different categories, you get a number way higher than 100%. As a result, if you’re trying to reverse engineer in your mind what cards your opponent might be holding, it’s really difficult to come up with anything interesting or informative. It’s difficult and not terribly fun, so most poker players don’t even try. Most poker players only play their own hand. Period. They know their own hand’s strength in an absolute or non-strategic sense, and they know what cards need to show up for them to have a really killer hand. But that’s all they really know, so their betting behavior is directly connected to the non-strategic strength of their hand, coupled with some loose sense of whether they want to play “tight” (bet per the book odds of hitting that killer hand) or “loose” (bet more than the cards justify in an absolute sense in order to set up a bluff or maybe just get lucky).

The average poker player is fascinated by his own cards. Every deal unlocks a world of seemingly endless potential, and almost all of the mental energy at a typical poker game is consumed by thoughts of “how am I going to represent my hand to my opponent?” In sharp contrast, precious little mental energy is spent asking “how can I learn more about how my opponent is representing his hand?”, even though the latter question is FAR more useful to answer. Why more useful? Because just as you are fascinated by your cards, so is your opponent fascinated by his cards. In a game of ubiquitous self-absorption, even a little bit of other-awareness goes a really long way.

What you need to whittle down an over-determined behavior is The Probing Bet, something out of the ordinary that intentionally puts capital at risk in order to narrow down the likely range of hands your opponent might hold. The Probing Bet isn’t designed to represent or signal anything about your hand (which right there makes it a foreign concept to the vast majority of players). It’s a bet designed to get more information about your opponent’s hand and the way he plays it, and it’s something you might do regardless of what cards you have in your hand. Importantly, The Probing Bet in and of itself has a negative expected return. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that’s as true in poker as anywhere else. If you want more information, you have to pay for it, and the cost is the potential loss of The Probing Bet. You should gladly pay that cost, however, if the additional information garnered from The Probing Bet increases the expected return of the entire deal (or future deals!) by an even greater amount.

You can find the concept of The Probing Bet in every classic game. In chess, it’s the gambit, the intentional risking of a pawn that accepts a limited loss in the short term to win a more valuable positional advantage over the entire course of the game. When offered a gambit, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t accept the offered pawn, you don’t get the piece and you lose the positional advantage anyway. But if you do accept the pawn, your degrees of freedom going forward are sorely limited. On balance, when offered a gambit you have to take it. Chess is a game of informational initiative, and playing a gambit grabs that initiative with both hands. At a cost.

You similarly find the concept of The Probing Bet in every game of nations, and it’s here that we can start making the connection (please!) to the game of markets. I know this sounds weird, but I’ve always found international maritime law to be a place where the game of nations gets crystalized in really interesting ways. Why? Because international law in general is just a short cut to equilibrium outcomes that you’d otherwise need to fight a war to arrive at — which is to say that international law is, in a very real way, MADE of game theory — and maritime law in particular has seen thousands of years of every imaginable strategic interaction in a clean and ordered way. So bear with me as I shift the metaphor from poker to naval blockades and the role of non-belligerent neutral parties. Trust me, there’s a decent payoff here.

Let’s say you’re Neutral Nation and you want to send a ship full of wheat across the ocean to Market Nation and sell it there. You’re one of many neutral nations and you don’t have a huge combatant navy, just lots of cargo ships and lots of wheat to sell. Unfortunately, Market Nation is at war with Banker Nation. Now you don’t have a dog in that fight; all you want to do is make money. But before you send your ship on its merry way, you are informed by Banker Nation’s ambassador that they have declared a blockade on Market Nation, that the list of contraband materials includes wheat, and that they are asserting the right to stop, search, and seize any neutral ships headed for Market Nation carrying such contraband. What do you do?

For a blockade to be valid under international law, two conditions must be fulfilled. First, it must be communicated to you, which in this case it clearly was (interestingly, it doesn’t have to be communicated directly, but can be understood to have been communicated “through the notoriety of the fact”, which is a fancy way of saying Common Knowledge). Second — and this is the important part — it must be an effective blockade for it to be legally binding on you, the neutral party. In other words, Croatia can’t declare a neutral party-binding blockade on Italy because it doesn’t have enough warships to cover all of the Italian ports and make that blockade effective. So if Banker Nation is some weakling, you have every right to say that you don’t recognize their blockade as effective, and any action they might take against your ships will be treated as an illegal seizure and a potential act of war. In game theory we would call this a trivial case, in that the game play is obvious — you and every other neutral country ignore the “blockade” and it collapses immediately.

But let’s say that Banker Nation has a decent-sized navy, maybe even a large navy. Let’s say that Banker Nation is able to put a warship or two around most of Market Nation’s ports most of the time. Is that an effective blockade? Banker Nation will represent that it is. Banker Nation and its ambassadors will tell you that they have an impenetrable wall of warships covering every square inch of Market Nation’s coastline. You know that this isn’t true, but you don’t know how true it is. When they say that they have an effective blockade, are they covering 100% of the ports 80% of the time? 60% of the ports 60% of the time? Does their coverage ratio go up over time? Down? Whatever the port coverage ratio might be, is that enough for you to consider the blockade “effective” and keep your cargo ships at home? The problem you face as Neutral Nation is the same problem faced by The Cincinnati Kid: the statement “my blockade is effective” is as over-determined as an opening bet in a game of Five Card Stud. You don’t know what cards Banker Nation is really holding.

So here’s what you don’t do as Neutral Nation. You don’t send cargo ship after cargo ship sailing blindly to Market Nation in the hopes that a few of them will slip through. You don’t fight the Fed Banker Nation! But what’s also a mistake is to accept the efficacy of Banker Nation’s blockade as a permanent state of the world or just on their word, even though that’s what most neutral countries will do.

So what DO you do? Let’s put this (finally!) in the context of an actual investment scenario. The ECB has famously said that they will do “whatever it takes” to keep the euro system intact. They have proclaimed unlimited resolve to purchase government and corporate debt to accomplish their goals. They have, to stick with the naval warfare metaphor, announced an effective blockade of fundamental market pressures associated with the common currency and the sovereign debt of currency bloc members. Would the Spanish 10-year bond trade 90 basis points tighter than the U.S. 10-year bond if the ECB weren’t patrolling the waters of sovereign rates markets? Please.

But at the same time, the ECB is facing extraordinary and escalating pressure on the home front — the politics of member states and their willingness to participate in a common currency system that clearly has big winners (Germany) and big losers (Italy). 2016 was rocky enough from a political perspective, but 2017 shapes up to be a real doozy, with elections in France and Germany and probably Italy … the three sine qua non countries of the eurozone. As the home front deteriorates, the ECB is going to be hard-pressed to maintain its fleet of announced balance sheet expansion programs, much less the mythical dreadnaughts of the OMT program and other super-warships that are supposedly waiting in the wings should the blockade start to fail. Draghi and the rest of Banker Nation will never admit the deterioration in the cards that they hold, but we know it’s happening. What we don’t know is how bad the deterioration actually is. What we don’t know is what has to happen before Common Knowledge shifts from “yes, the blockade is effective so don’t even try to act against the ECB” to “no, the blockade is no longer effective so let’s go do what we’ve gotta do to protect our capital and make some money if the euro isn’t going to make it.”

What we do know, however, is how the Common Knowledge Game works. We know that we need to watch for a Missionary statement — typically from a status quo-breaking politician — that creates new Common Knowledge in opposition to the old Common Knowledge. We know that we need to watch for how this Missionary statement is repeated and amplified (or not) by other Missionaries — other politicians, famous investors, prominent journalists, etc. We know that this war of beliefs and memes is every bit as fierce as a war of bullets, and that it isn’t just difficult, but is impossible to predict the winning belief through traditional econometric analysis (in the lingo, it’s a multiple-equilibrium game).

Since we can’t predict where we’re going to end up in the Common Knowledge Game (and I really can’t emphasize this point strongly enough … the past is a terrible predictor of the future when it comes to multiple-equilibrium games), we have to constantly assess where we are as the game unfolds. How do we do that? By making occasional Probing Bets. By placing capital at risk to see “where we stand” in the strategic dynamic of the game of markets. By experiencing the reaction of the ECB and other investors, large and small, to a potential volatility catalyst like an Italian election.

Some investors make big Probing Bets. They’re called Bond Vigilantes, and they’ve been cowering in the tall grass since 2012 when Draghi proclaimed “whatever it takes”. But they’re still there, biding their time. Just wait. In 2017 they’ll be back. Many of these game players are Missionaries themselves, and they pack an extra punch in the game-playing as a result.

But you don’t need to be a hedge fund Master of the Universe to make a Probing Bet, although maybe we should take the capitalization off and call these probing bets. You just need to get in the game. I’d like to tell you that you can figure out where we are in the euro game by watching from the sidelines and letting others place Probing Bets, but I can’t. My strong belief is that you have to live an investment before you can gain useful information from the experience. And it’s got to be a high enough cost so that you pay attention. As Old Pro Lancey would say, you can’t just pay the looking price. Does it have to be a cost in actual dollars and cents? No, although that’s a really good attention-grabber. The real price you must pay for a probing bet is even more precious than money — time. That’s the price that most of us find hardest to pay, which is why I think it makes all the behavioral sense in the world to couple it with real money. No one uses the free gym in an apartment complex.

And now for the big finish. I’ve used a macro trade (the ECB and what’s in store for the euro) as my example of the useful role of probing bets and the investment managers who play those cards, because that’s the investment arena that I play in. The exact same logic applies to ALL investment arenas and ALL active managers. What’s the big mistake that investors are making with their single-minded and headlong pursuit of passive investment strategies in the form of ETFs, index funds, and the like? Passive strategies give you ZERO information about the strategic gameplay of markets. Passive strategies, by definition, cannot make a Probing Bet. Passive strategies, by definition, will be the last to know when the state of the world has changed and will be the slowest to adapt. A portfolio composed of passive strategies is like the average poker player who just plays his own hand in a strategic vacuum. That can work out fine if you’re dealt nothing but great cards, a lot less well if you’re not.

That’s not to say that all active managers are effective information-seekers or strategic game-players. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, active managers and active investors are so-so game-players because they confuse caution with wisdom. It’s one thing — a perfectly reasonable thing — to create a cautious portfolio through low gross exposure or high levels of cash if your belief is that markets are more likely to go down than up AND you are placing probing bets to see if the market dynamic is somewhere other than where you think it is, i.e., more positive than you believe. And it’s also a perfectly reasonable thing to be all-in with your portfolio if your belief is that markets are likely to keep rocking AND you are placing probing bets to see if the market dynamic is somewhere other than where you think it is, i.e., more negative than you believe. What’s not so reasonable, I think, but I see every day (and I recognize from time to time when I look in the mirror!) is to take a big risk with a portfolio (and a high level of cash IS a big risk for a portfolio), without allocating a commensurate portion of my risk budget towards going the other way, towards gaining more information about how competing players are playing their hand, towards challenging my beliefs with real dollars and precious time.

And that, in a nutshell, is the best advice I’ve got for any game, whether it’s the game of poker, the game of chess, the game of nations, or the game of markets: act strongly on your beliefs, but don’t hold your beliefs strongly. That’s the cornerstone of Adaptive Investing.

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